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[Page 105]

Workers' Organizations in Grayeve

(Since the First World War)

Sh. Y. Fishbeyn

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Some attempts to organize the working class, the poor, and the youth of Grayeve were made as early as the first years of this century.

The revolutionary storm that surged through the Russian Empire after the Tsarist defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 also engulfed Jewish workers and youth in the cities and shtetlakh [small villages] of Poland, touching down in Grayeve as well. A number of strikes occurred in the town's factories and workshops. Organizers from the Bund[1] began to be active, chiefly among the youth. The Poaleii Tsion[2] as well as the General Zionists, siphoned off the young people into their ranks, turning them away from the revolutionary organizations and struggle.

The Tsarist reaction, which so bloodily repressed the revolution of 1905, did not spare Grayeve. The first sprouts of the workers' movement were suppressed before they had a chance to take root and grow. The reaction reached its highest expression with the outbreak of the First World War. In the economic and social upheaval of the war it was clearly impossible for the working class of the small towns to organize. Only after the war, when Poland formally gained its independence, did the workers' parties throughout the country begin to develop their activities, and Grayeve also began to stir.

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A group of workers making cement bricks (in 1918)
From right to left: Eli Sosno, Mayer Levit, Avreml Levit, Matke Levit, Fridman, Kats, and Fishbeyn

 

The revolution in Russia and the uprisings in Germany and other countries resonated in Poland; a new kind of language began to be heard, new terms about social justice, workers' power, socialism, Bolsheviks, Spartacists. What meaning could this have for Grayeve, for Jews, for the youth? These questions had to be answered and made clear –but who would do that, and how?

In 1918, Grayeve had an energetic group of young people. In addition to the young people who were employed in the small workshops, there were those who were employed in public works projects. Jewish men and women worked on the building of the Ruder road and many Jewish workers were employed in the Belder Forest, in the building of a light rail train (kolayke), and in the barracks.

With the revival of the workers' movement in the land, the larger parties began to strengthen their position through the expansion of their activity and influence in the provincial towns. Party representatives and speakers from Warsaw began to appear in Grayeve. Speakers came from the Bund and from Poaleii Tsion.

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seeking to organize separate sections for their parties though lectures, debates and agitation. At that time, the Bundist activist Lurie came from Warsaw. A gifted speaker, in the course of several weeks he gave a number of lectures on the questions of Socialism and the workers' parties. Under his influence, a non-partisan workers' club began to be organized.Among the leading activists of the club were: Yankl Margolis, Berl Sutker, Avrutin, Kaptshavski and others.

The club set itself the task of conducting general cultural activities. It did not have any defined program and did not follow a specific ideology. Nor was the leadership clear about its goals. The members of the workers' club were seeking an answer to their societal problems and they had a great thirst for learning and for knowledge. Hundreds of people frequented the club premises, but no systematic educational program was ever established. Nothing at all was done in the area of trade unionism and social action.

In the winter of 1918-1919, commerce between Grayeve and Germany was re-established. Wagonloads of salt, herring and gasoline began to come into Grayeve for distribution to other towns. But this did not greatly affect the general economic conditions of the town. There was great poverty among the Jewish masses; the shortage of shoes, clothing, heating fuel and food was unbearable. In the face of this need, the leaders of the worker' club began to agitate for the creation of a cooperative to provide the needy with bread and heating fuel.

 

A Cooperative for Relief for the Poor

They adopted a plan, in which the well-to-do and the merchants of the town would finance a workers' relief cooperative. The executive board of the club contacted individual rich men and leaders of the town's public institutions about this matter but nothing resulted from this.

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The executive board then decided to bring together all the people of substance in the town in a meeting at the old besmedresh [prayer house] on shabes [Sabbath] during the day to discuss with them helping the poor people of the town. The meeting was a failure, because the people of means simply didn't show up to pray that shabes.

For the next shabes, the club leadership mobilized the membership and decided to shut all of the houses of worship, with the exception of the old besmedresh, and in that way to force the wealthy to come together in one place. When it came time to pray and the wealthy didn't arrive at the besmedresh, the executive board sent committees of envoys to the homes of the rich, to bring them to the besmedresh. Many incidents occurred in the attempt to assemble the wealthy. Some were comical, but there were also serious incidents and fights. At the Kapitser on Raigroder Street, there was even a shooting.

The town became very agitated as a result of the shabes demonstration. The wealthy were convinced that they would not be able to completely escape responsibility for the poor and agreed to contribute a significant sum of money. The club leadership then rented a store to serve as a warehouse for the purchase of food and distributed the food among the poor.

This continued until certain of the wealthy denounced the leaders of the club to the Polish authorities. They were accused of Bolshevism. As a result of the denunciations some of the leaders had to leave Grayeve and the club fell apart.

 

The Bund and the Poaleii Tsion Organizations

In the spring of 1919, two separate groups began to form – a Bundist one, and a Poaleii Tsionist. Each group brought in speakers from Warsaw. Lurie returned, but was met with a tepid response. Lurie did, however, organize an official Bund organization. The leaders were the Segalovitshes, Bogush and others. The Bundist organization devoted itself primarily to educational work.

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The Executive Board of the Bund and Tsukunft in 1920

 

They frequently organized recreational events. Their drama circle mounted a series of theatrical performances. The recreational programs attracted young people who had no party affiliation.

The Poaleii Tsion brought in a speaker from Warsaw named Krol, who held a series of lectures and assisted them in the formation of their organization. Their leaders were: Striev, Krinski, Sosno, and others.

At that time, the reaction [to the revolutionary movement] was growing stronger in Poland, and the Polish government, supported by the allies, went to war against the Soviet Union. Some of the young people were drafted into the army; some emigrated. The Bundist and Poalei Tsion organizations fell apart.

The only young people remaining in the town were those who were too young for military service. Although the organized groups no longer existed, the young people continued to hold meetings and discussions, according to the traditions and programs of both parties.

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Grayeve Workers Organization

 

Debates were held between the two sides in the same manner as the central organizations. It was principally the national question that divided the two groups. But despite their differences, the personal relationships between the members of the two groups were very friendly.

 

Arrests and Clandestine Activities

A gathering of a Jewish sports organization was attacked on the field and several of the athletes were arrested. A shabes excursion of Hechalutz [a Zionist youth organization] outside the town, on the Shtutziner Road, was attacked and about 40 young people were arrested. It became impossible for Jewish youth to engage in any kind of activity.

After the disintegration of the Bundist organization, a youth group was organized, called “Tsukunft” [The Future], which would come together

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in secret, to distribute leaflets and subscribe to Bundist publications. The leaders of the group were Fishbeyn, Kravtshinski and Baykovski, under the supervision of the Segalovitshes, and with the support of Dr. Elihu Vaser, the dentist, Peshe Vodovski, Ruven Bogush, and others.

In April, 1919, the Tsukunft organization in Warsaw sent a charter to the writer of these lines. This meant that, based upon the existing organization in Warsaw, it was now possible to establish branches of the organization in the provinces. Dr. Elihu Vaser, Peshe Vodovski, and Sh.Y.Fishbeyn signed on the responsible parties for the new, legal organization.

At that time, a delegation from Poalei Tsion approached the young Bundists with a proposal to form a non-partisan workers' club to carry out educational activities. The question was to have been considered at a session of Tsukunft, but just at that moment, there arrived from the government in Warsaw an inquiry as to the names and addresses of the Tsukunft leadership, which signified that the club had been legalized. The Bundists were overjoyed. They immediately rented an abandoned house near the train station. They renovated it themselves, and the workers made tables and chairs.

For the grand opening, they organized a concert and dance. Hundreds of workers and sympathizers came to the celebration. The Tsukunft group no longer wanted to consider the proposed non-partisan club. The “victory” of their party precluded a joint effort by the two groups.

The Tsukunft leadership consisted entirely of young people, and so the quest for education and self-development was always on the agenda. The executive board began to organize evening courses. Active in the work of self-education were Peshe Vodovski, Yehudis Shtroysberg, Kravtshinski and others. The courses were poorly attended. It was simply physically impossible for the young workers to attend, because they worked from 12 to 14 hours a day! Agitation therefore began, to organize a trade union to fight for a shorter work day.

In the meantime, the club continued with the usual recreational activities, readings, and the distribution of brochures and newspapers.

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programs of both parties.


Grayeve Workers Organization

 

In May, 1919, a regional conference of Tsukunft representatives was hold in Lomzhe [Łomża]. Representatives came from Ostrova [Ostrów Mazowiecka], Zaromb [Zaręby Kościelne],

Vizhna [Wizna], Lomzhe and Grayeve. The young Muzhinski presided over the conference. Grayeve was represented by Ben-Tsion Kolko and Fishbeyn. It turned out that there were no clubs in any towns other than Lomzhe and Grayeve.

In the spring of 1920, a youthful trade union was functioning at the Tsukunft club. They began agitating for strikes, and a special organizational apparatus was installed for that purpose.

 

A May First Celebration

At this time, an office of the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S.) was operating in Grayeve, with a large membership. The leader was a worker from the former suspender factory, named Galetski. The executive board of the Tsukunft club decided to join with the Polish union to celebrate the First of May together [Labor Day -International Workers' Day].

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Our delegation was not cordially received. They rejected the request for a united demonstration, and would permit us to attend only as onlookers.

The Tsukunft club thus decided to hold their May First celebration at their own premises. On the eve of May First, some of the young people put up proclamations around town, explaining the significance of May First. No other organization in town did this.

In the post-war years, the Grayeve kehile [organized Jewish community] received aid from various organizations overseas, to be distributed among the poor. The Tsukunft club became interested in the manner in which the distribution was made; facts regarding irregularities became known. It was therefore decided to demand representation in the kehile, and two representatives were delegated to state our demands.

At the time, the kehile met at the home of Reb Amiel on Raigrader Street. They permitted us to state our grievances, and promised a response, which they did not hasten to provide.

 

A Strike for an 8-Hour Work Day

At the beginning of June, 1920, a strike of Jewish workers was declared in Grayeve, demanding an 8-hour work day. The strike received a broad response, despite the difficult material conditions of the young people. Besides hunger and want, the young had to contend with opposition from their parents. All the tailors, cobblers, carpenters and hat makers stopped work. There were cases of great suffering and need, especially among those workers who took their meals with their employers.

In July, 1920, Soviet forces occupied Grayeve. Widespread social activism developed among the Jewish masses. Leaders of cultural and economic action were: Shimen Kolko, Dr. Elihu Vaser, Peshe Vodovski, a teacher from the town, and others. A public kitchen was organized at the home of Etl Mishkovske in the large apartment building. The kitchen provided the poor with a meal and with bread.

At the end of September, the Soviet forces retreated, and the Polish army returned to Grayeve.

Persecution and pogroms poured down on the population. Eighteen young Grayevers were murdered in cold blood by Polish soldiers. All political work was halted, and it became impossible to conduct any kind of educational work among the Jewish masses

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Radical Activities by the I.L. Perets Library

Not until 1926 did the radical youth succeed in organizing the founding of a library named in honor of I.L. Perets,[3] with its own premises for meetings, and for general recreational and educational activities. A number of Grayever youth in America took an interest in the library's activities, and sent large sums of money, which they raised through direct contributions and fundraising events.

The I.L.Perets library succeeded in buying 1,400


The leadership of the I.L. Perets Library in 1927

 

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books, from fiction to works on social and economic matters. The leadership of the library organized a self-education group for young workers. They ran evening courses in reading and writing. They organized lectures on literature and political questions, with speakers from the larger cities.

The Perets library had over 150 subscribers and hundreds of young people visited every week. It was an intellectual home for the young workers. The library's existence as a legal entity made it possible to carry on radical enlightenment among the working class. The administration ran into the same kinds of difficulties as the Tsukunft club 6 years earlier: the issue of the long working day, which made it impossible for the young people to continue with their self-education. The library thus established a trade union. After sound preparation, a strike was declared in 1927, in the needle trade. The chief demand was once again an 8-hour work day.

 

Arrests and Denunciations Regarding “Money from Moscow”

In connection with the tailors' strike, there occurred an incident involving the workshop of Yankl Yudke, who brought in strikebreakers from another town. The trade union sent pickets to stop the strikebreakers. The owner brought in the police, who arrested the pickets.

The enemies of the Perets library exploited the strike to denounce the leadership. They spread a rumor, that the money to establish the library had not come from America, but that the leadership had obtained money from Russia in order to “make the revolution” in Grayeve.

The Pisuldski regime in Poland generally took a dim view of the independent activities by workers, whether in the cultural or political realms. Many difficulties were placed in the way of our organization. And when

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the restrictions and oppression didn't scare away the library activists from continuing their work, the government switched to open persecution and arrests.

In 1927, a group of young people were arrested, including the foremost, most capable activist, Khaim Arye Bartshevski, who was the intellectual leader and moving force for all radical activities in Grayeve at the time. The arrests placed the library's existence in jeopardy. In the fear that the books would be confiscated, they were hidden away in private homes. When the strike was over and the arrests had abated, the books were returned to the library, which resumed its program of wide ranging educational and cultural activities.

The whole area surrounding Grayeve marveled at the activity of Grayeve's Marxist youth, and the Grayevers had a significant influence on the nearby shtetlakh.

The trial of Khaim Arye and the others was held in Lomzhe.


A group of Left Poaleii Tsionists, in 1922

 

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The young Grayevers in America raised over $1000, and sent it to their defense committee. The trial of Khaim Arye and the others was held in Lomzhe. Khaim Arye was convicted and served several years in the Lomzhe prison. After his release he once again exercised an influence over the activities of the Perets Library. Cultural and educational activities were again carried out in the radical Socialist spirit. The young workers were encouraged to study, to read, and to understand that it is always necessary to organize and fight for the liberation of the working class.

In 1932 a joint committee was organized to distribute relief funds sent by the Grayever landslayt [fellow Jews, specifically those from the same town or village] in America. The Perets library (or, as it was now designated in official documents, the “Left Workers”) was among the organizations that constituted the committee. The Poalei Tsion was also represented by Motl Striev, who was a prominent activist and was popular among the Jewish population of the town. In the late 1930's, Striev was elected a town councilman.


Motl Striev as a soldier, in 1924

 

A Communist Party Organization

At the end of the 1920's, a group of Communist-leaning workers were active in the needle trades union. In the 1930's, until the eve of the Second World War, there functioned in Grayeve a Communist party organization, illegal or semi-legal, to which a sizeable number of workers and intellectuals belonged.

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The activity among the Jewish workers and common people was conducted through a Jewish division of the party, but it was connected organizationally to the Polish party.

The Communist organization carried out relief efforts on behalf of political arrestees through the “Mop'r”, (the fund for political arrestees). The party had quite a broad circle of contributors to the fund, including some bourgeois elements. In addition, it distributed leaflets about various political and social issues, and carried out educational work in various ways.

In 1935 the Communist party organized a semi-legal bakers' union, to which Polish and Jewish workers belonged. In the course of its existence, until 1938, the bakers' union carried out several successful strikes.

The various workers' organizations operated in Grayeve until the Hitler invasion. Many Grayeve workers and progressive people who are living today in various countries have to thank for their development, the early education that they received through the workers' organizations in their hometown.

Among our martyrs, two well known Grayever activists fell as heroes in the struggle against Hitler's beasts: Khaim Arye Bartshevski died fighting the fascists with weapons in his hands in the Byalistoker [Białystoker] Ghetto and Motl Striev fell during the first days of the Hitler regime in Grayeve. As for the others, we know little about their final resistance to the persecutors.

Honor to the holy memory of the Jewish worker-heroes and martyrs!

 

Footnotes
  1. Jewish Labor Bund: a secular socialist organization in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century who was opposed to Zionism. They focused primarily on furthering the rights and status of the Jewish proletariat. Return
  2. Poaleii Tsion Movement of Marxist Zionist Jewish workers in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century Return
  3. Itsik Leyb Perets: The author, (1852-1915) was one of the most influential figures of Yiddish literature. His work often expressed protest against social injustice, and he championed workers' rights and the expression of Jewish ideals through secular culture. Return


[Page 119]

An Encounter Between Grayevers in Siberia

Abutsh Kolko

How a Young Pole[1] from Grayeve Became a Socialist

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

From the Editors: This memoir was published under the title, “the Grayevers” in a program distributed at a ball of the “Grayever Young Men's Benevolent Association” on January 25, 1913, edited by H. Blum. The author of the memoir, Abutsh Kolko, from the distinguished Kolko family of Grayeve, fled to America to escape Tsarist persecution, and stayed there until 1917. Right after the October Revolution, he left for the Soviet Union, where he remained. [Note in the original text.]

Grayeve! My hometown! How distant and how dear you were to me during all the long days and years of my exile. In the dimness of the dark prison for those sentenced to penal servitude, the memories of my childhood and youth, so closely connected to you, awoke in me dreams of life and happiness.

Infrequent letters from friends would bring me news of Grayeve, of its small town life, of its joys and travails, of its sorrow and unrest. Days and years sped by, but throughout all that time in prison, I never met a townsman from Grayeve, with whom I could share my memories of the town and our dreams of freedom and happiness. I had already lost hope of such an encounter.

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I had already begun to think of myself as the “sole representative” of Grayeve in cold, faraway Siberia, until one day…

This happened in the Aleksandrov prison (Irkutsk province). I had completed my period of forced labor and was waiting for the Lena River to be opened for ships after the long winter freeze, when I would be sent with the first convoy of convicts to the farthest corner of Siberia. The prison was overcrowded. New groups of political exiles came and went every day. Rooms that were meant to hold 100 people were packed with 200, 300, and more. There was no place to breathe or rest one's head. Curses and screams in various languages and dialects rang out and reverberated.

One day, as I was sitting as usual on a cot, and for the thousandth time counting and calculating how many days and nights I would still have to languish there, a young man approached me. He looked like a Pole, and asked me, in broken Russian:

“Is it true you are Kolko from Grayeve?”

“Yes, I'm Kolko.”

The young man was delighted, and warmly clasped my hand, while explaining that he was also from Grayeve, and knew me. I was happy and surprised to meet a townsman, but, no matter how much I wracked my memory, I could not remember ever having seen him. The young man noticed my perplexity:

“Yes, I know you don't recognize me, but I know you – it's because of you that I became a Socialist!”

“How so?”

I expressed my confusion. And the young man explained:

“It was in 1905. I was then only 16. I was an apprentice to the cobbler Kh[2] …, who lived on the corner of Shul Street, not far from your house. Once on a winter night, going out into the street to take a little walk after a hard 16-hour workday, I saw the police taking you out of the house, in a convoy of prisoners. I was astonished: What? Pan [formal term of address in Polish]

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Kolko's son under arrest by the police? What kind of crime did he commit? He couldn't be a thief or a murderer! Perhaps he smuggled contraband? Amazed, I ran home and told my employer, Pan Kh..., and he told me: 'Those Socialists got what they deserved!'”

“That was the first time I had heard the word 'Socialists.' Not knowing its meaning, I asked my boss to explain it. Pan Kh…'s reply was brief and blunt: 'Socialists are bandits who don't want to work, who run around the streets singing songs.' This explanation didn't satisfy me. Aside from the fact that in general I didn't accept everything the boss told me as the truth, the tone of his explanation was suspicious. I began to inquire among my friends, the older workers, about the meaning of the word. The little that I learned from them made more sense to me, and my interest was aroused.”

“Life then took me to Warsaw, and there I had the opportunity to become acquainted with the Socialist movement and with Socialists, and I, too, became a Socialist. That's how, after a couple of years, I wound up in prison and followed you to Siberia, and here we encountered each other. Permit me, Comrade Kolko, to shake your hand and to express my recognition that you, even if indirectly, were my teacher and my guide.”

With tears of joy I clasped the hand extended to me by my new comrade, my townsman, the only other Grayever whom I ever encountered in Siberia.

[Page 122]


The approach to the train station

 


The market-square in 1916

 


Max M. Vaks and Gushe Antman, photographed
in 1903, when they were serving in the musical
group of the second Finlandish Regiment

 

Footnotes
  1. Young Pole: Note from translator: The expression “young Pole” could also be rendered “Polish youth.” In either case, the author means a Pole who is not Jewish. Return
  2. Kh: Author wrote the letter “ח” [khet] referring to the cobbler's given name. Return

 

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