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[Pages 475-487]

Between the Two World Wars

 

Under German Occupation
During the First World War

by Meir Ejdelbaum

Translated by Jerrold Landau


The outbreak of the First World War shocked Mezritsh. Industries and businesses in the city were cut off overnight from the world market upon which they depended for their livelihood. Mezritsh was left without a source of income. Cultural and social events came to a standstill. Daily life was literally paralyzed.

A profound sadness overtook the city. Recruitment for the Czar's army began in earnest. Weeping and wailing, desperate parents, wives, children, sisters and brothers accompanied their loved ones to the train station as they prepared to serve the Czar and fatherland. The entire city seemed to be crying. Even today, with the passing of so many years, I can still hear the dreadful lament of the city: people implored at family graves, threw open the Holy arks, and wept in the streets. The entire city assembled to send off their mobilized soldiers, bringing them drinks, bread and cigarettes. Many Jews were among them.

Shortly thereafter, we saw the first “beshszentzes” [refugees], Jews driven out from the border cities. The Czarist commander-in-chief Nikolay Nikolayevich, an anti-Semite, expelled the Jews who lived close to the German and Austrian borders. He accused the Jews of espionage for the enemy.

The sight of so many refugees increased the anxiety of the Jews of Mezritsh, who were always known for their charity and kindness to wayfarers. They did what they could to alleviate the need and offer assistance to the refugees who wished to settle in Mezritsh and rebuild their lives there.

Mezritsh lived on in fear and terror for an entire year. As the front drew closer to the city, rumors spread indicating that the Jews were to be expelled.

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When the dreaded Kuban Cossacks[1] appeared in the city with earrings in their ears, fears of a pogrom ran high. We were not only afraid of the Cossacks, but also of the Poles and Ukrainians who lived on the periphery of the city and had always been anti-Semites. We were afraid that they would take advantage of the Cossacks' presence to bring misfortune upon the Jews. There was a scheme to cut the field telephone which was attached to various houses (including mine), and claim that the Jews had done this. In order to prevent this, Jewish volunteers guarded the streets to ensure that the telephone lines would not, Heaven forbid, be cut. The Jewish volunteers carefully followed the movements of troops passing through Mezritsh, which is situated on the Warsaw-Moscow railway line, to ensure that they would not start trouble with Jews or Jewish property. The city was lawless. Even the protection that parents customarily gave to their children could not be counted on. The rule of law fell apart almost completely.

The Kibbutz [learning group] of Mezritsh – a Yeshiva for adults who studied without a Rosh Yeshiva [Yeshiva headmaster] – was disbanded. As a place for study of Torah which attracted students from near and far, the Kibbutz had great influence on the local youth. Now the Beis Midrash [study hall] in which the Kibbutz was situated stood vacant. The students left Mezritsh for home: everyone wanted to be with their relatives during such difficult times. The cheders[2] and Talmud Torahs[3]also ceased activity.

After fierce battles, the city was finally occupied, first by the Austrians and then by the Germans. Parents had concerns far greater than the social needs of the town's youth. The German occupiers were cruel toward the residents. Hunger was a frequent visitor in almost every house. The hunger led to epidemics: typhus, dysentery and other diseases wreaked havoc with the population. At that time, who could think about spiritual matters?

Despite the hardships, the population slowly found its way to a curtailed normalcy under the occupation. The city began to return to order, and restarted some of its cultural life, opening its religious and modern schools [4]. Once again, the city began to concern itself with communal affairs, with education, and with those who were in need of assistance – of whom there were very many. A kitchen was opened for the poor. When Passover

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approached, matzos were baked for the needy. The women who served in the kitchen did so as volunteers, and they worked diligently. A special committee was formed to help with the sick. Even during the epidemics, these women were not afraid to treat their fellow citizens.

Mezritsh was situated in the war zone. The German occupiers cut Mezritsh off from the entire region. Nobody could leave the city without a special permit, a situation which lasted for almost the entire duration of the war, until the defeat of Germany when the revolution overthrew the German Kaiser.

Under these siege-like circumstances, Mezritshers knew very little about what was going on in the country at large, and even less about what was going on in the rest of the world. Though the Warsaw newspapers were available in Mezritsh, they were heavily censored. The German press was also censored. In this closed environment, readers gleaned only small nuggets of information about the world at large.

Jewish life and politics in Mezritsh stagnated. The only exception was our community's cultural life, which will be discussed later.

Prior to the war, there had been a great deal of political activity in Mezritsh. In truth, that activity did not always bear fruit because the Czarist Russian regime kept its sights trained on Mezritsh. The town's large work force had strong revolutionary leanings. In fact, the Czarists kept a watchful eye on the Jewish population at large for a number of reasons. Firstly, there were many among the unemployed who sympathized with the Bund [5], to which almost the entire working class in Mezritsh belonged. Secondly, Zionism was forbidden in Czarist Russia, and Zionists were well-represented in Mezritsh; in fact, regional Zionist conventions were held in Mezritsh from time to time, with the participation of international Zionist leaders. Russian authorities were vigilant of such elements, but this did not deter either the Bund or the Zionists from continuing with their activities.

All this changed at the outset of the German occupation. Political life initially was nearly paralyzed. As the occupation wore on, life slowly stabilized and the population became active again, dreaming of

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the new day that would dawn after the war. Bundists dreamed that the revolution would bring about the fall of the Czarist regime. At the very least they hoped it would become democratic and humane. In Zionist circles, they dreamed of Zionist salvations. Nobody knew what activities the Zionist leaders had undertaken outside of Poland. There was hope that Zionist goals were being advanced in England.

The German occupiers did not tolerate open Zionist or Socialist activity. Both were forbidden. The Zionists were suspected of being sympathetic to the Allies, especially to England. The Socialists were banned because the Junker [6] regime was anti-Socialist. Nevertheless, under the guise of general cultural activity, people were still able to gather, speak, and debate.

Near the end of the war, the Zionists operated more freely and opened a club on the first floor of Nete Bursztejn's house on Floimen-Gasse (Lubelska). The Bund opened a club in the name of Ber Grosser in the home of Yosel Sobelman (Konjak). Apparently, Poale Zion[7] also had a location on a floor in the house of Mejer Rozal.

I used to purchase newspapers in the military Kantina [canteen]. The newspapers that I used to read included: Berliner Tagblatt, Die Vossische Zeitung, and Lokal Antzayger. Lokal Antzayger carried very detailed reports about the progress of the war. I would search for any hints of Jewish news. Once, in 1917, I purchased Lokal Antzayger and carefully read the reports from the war front. I could not believe my eyes: “Turkish Troops Repel Attack by Jewish Legion Assault Troops” (I do not now recall the exact wording but, this was, more or less, the lead sentence of the article.) This was our first inkling that there were Jewish troops, fighting as Jews, against the Turks, in and for the Land of Israel. I was so excited that I felt as though I had sprouted wings. Though I lived, with Baruch Zelner, quite far from the Kantina, I felt as though I could fly home in seconds. (The Kantina, which had previously been on Kolja Street, was located on the bridges opposite the Uniaten [Eastern Orthodox] Church). From my house, I went directly to the home of Gedalja Sztejn. He was an observant Jew, a Maskil [enlightenend one][8], a great Hebraist and a Zionist. I had become friendly with his younger children, especially with his son Mordechai Sztejn, may G-d avenge his death, who later became a leader among Beitar[9] activists in Poland. There I spread out the newspaper and read

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the article over and over again. The news spread like lightning throughout Zionist circles. Even though we did not know the details, we understood that a great and historic event was taking place. We spoke about the reports using hints and allusions, quietly, so as not to arouse the suspicions of the German occupiers. Given the news, Germans would have good reason to suspect that Zionists were sympathetic to their English enemy. The fear was real, and danger was all around. In Poland, the German “Rabbiners” were anti-Zionist, and conducted anti-Zionist propaganda. In some places, Zionists were arrested. A coalition of Orthodox anti-Zionist elements created the Agudas ha-Ortodoksim. After the war, this became the Agudas Shlomei Emunei Yisroel, or Agudas Yisroel.[10]

In the autumn of 1917, in November or December, the astounding news arrived that England had issued a declaration of intention to create a Jewish National Home in the Land of Israel. I do not remember exactly when the news reached Mezritsh[11]. Today we know that there was an office of the Zionist Organization in Copenhagen, Denmark, under the direction of Meir Grossman, which informed the Jewish world about what was transpiring in the Zionist movement and in the Jewish world in general. Because Denmark was neutral, The Zionist Organization there was able to maintain connections with all sides during the war.

I will never forget the day the news arrived announcing the Jewish national redemption. We were told of it in secret meetings. The news had such a tremendous effect on me that I became pro-Russian. Until that time we had hoped that the Germans would be victorious, because of our hatred of the Czarist regime. Now we felt we were “partners” with the British. We hoped and prayed for England's victory believing that this would hasten our emancipation. This of course affected our attitude toward Russia, which was an ally of England and France.

Shortly thereafter, news arrived that caused widespread joy, especially among the workers' circles. One Sabbath, a report spread that Czar Nikolay had abdicated. Rumors flew but no official news of the abdication had appeared in the newspapers. Surely, we felt, if the rumors were true, the newspapers would have carried the story. I recall setting out for the Kantina with several friends to try to find more information. A brief notice had been posted there confirming the rumors – Czar Nikolay had abdicated!

We discussed the latest turn of events in our homes. What effect would the abdication have

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on the war? Would the Russians make peace? Mezritsh was weary of the war. Thousands of Jews had died from hunger and epidemics. Almost everyone was unemployed and did not have enough to eat. My family did not have enough bread to eat, and we had to make arrangements for other sources of food. The news from Russia encouraged and strengthened us. The revolution in Russia and the fall of the Czarist regime gave us the hope that peace lay just ahead, that a new light of justice and fairness would shine on us, and that the redemption was coming… Both the Zionists and the Socialists heard the footsteps of our longed-for deliverance.

 

Culture and Educational Activity

For years before the outbreak of the First World War, alongside the institutions of religious education – cheders, Talmud Torahs, and Yeshivas – there existed modern educational institutions. The Jewish intelligentsia, which tended toward the Bund or other Socialist movements, established evening courses for the workers and poor people of the town who otherwise had limited access to education. Yiddish language, literature and history were taught. Well-known writers, including Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and others, were invited to give readings. Yiddish theater was very popular in Mezritsh. The best troupes, including the Kompanyetzes troupe, visited our city often and performed with great success.

Wolf Grynberg headed the first school that was taught completely in Hebrew. The school was co-educational, with boys and girls learning together, even before the so-called cheder metukan [reformed school][12] came into being. This was a revolutionary step. Yosef Fiszer also directed a Hebrew school for children. Hirsch Chaim Grynberg (the father of the aforementioned Yosef Fiszer) and Baruch Glusznajder were the principals of the two girls' schools, where the children studied Yiddish, Hebrew, arithmetic, Russian, etc. Anuszka Adler opened the first Russian-Hebrew pro-gymnazjum [pre high-school] for girls. Mezritsh had a large number of teachers, both Jewish and gentile, who would give private lessons or teach larger groups in their own homes or in students' homes. All of this was destroyed at the outbreak of the war. Having endured the difficulties of life under German occupation, the city leaders, communal leaders and ordinary members of the intelligentsia began to seriously think about reviving the cultural institutions that had been part of life in Mezritsh before the outbreak of war.

During that time, the two well-known Hebrew teachers, Moshe Reuven Slodki and Yosef Fiszer (both of whom died in Israel) jointly created and launched

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mie481a.jpg Hebrew school in the time of the German occupation [25 KB]
Hebrew school in the time of the German occupation

 

mie481b,jpg The Slodki-Fiszer Hebrew private school [35 KB]
The Slodki-Fiszer Hebrew private school
In the photo: the teachers Slodki and Fiszer. The students, Reuven Orzy,
Yitzhak Slodki, Yitzhak and Natan Finkelsztejn, Simcha Birsztejn, and others

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evening courses in Hebrew language for adults, at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Amazingly, it seemed (at least to my eyes – I was barely Bar Mitzvah) that all the youth of the city registered for these courses. Mezritsh youth studied Hebrew with great diligence. The courses took place in Reb Moshe Maller's house, which also housed the Illusion movie theater. The Illusion belonged to Yankele Risze (Yaakov Grynberg) and was a central element of life in Mezritsh until the outbreak of the war.

The evening courses were very successful, and led to the creation of a new Hebrew Day School run by the same teachers, Moshe Reuven Slodki and Yosef Fiszer. As a result, Slodki and Fiszer no longer had time to offer the evening courses. The new Hebrew Day School was in the house of Chaim Rojtenberg (Beker) and quickly became successful. As fine pedagogues and excellent teachers, they gave their students a broad Jewish and secular education. The school continued until after the war, when it merged with the Hebrew-Polish gymnazjum [high school].

It is worthwhile mentioning that the desire to study Hebrew was not limited to the balebotishe [middle class][13] or Zionists. Even great Bundists studied and mastered Hebrew. They took part in the weekly debates held by the Chovevei Sfat Ever [Lovers of the Hebrew Language] club, which was founded after the war in Mezritsh. (I had the honor of being one of the founders, along with Shmuel Wysznja, and Moshe Zauberman – both murdered in the Holocaust, and - may they live long – Reuven Cederbaum, Chawa Cukierman, and Akiva Asz). The club was located for some time in the container factory of the brothers-in-law Reb Mordechai Berman and Reb Yehoshua Manperl, of blessed memory, on Arkes Platz. (However, this already belongs to the immediate post war years). People did not only study Hebrew. The Bund and Poale Zion organized courses in Yiddish, and laid the foundation for the Jewish People's School, which was later founded by Anuszka Adler, Fajnberg, and others.

Hope was on the rise at that time. Secret information reached us from abroad indicating that England had promised the Land of Israel to the Jews. The Zionist Organization in Poland quietly began to reorganize and became active in the area of education, which was permitted by the occupiers. Within the walls of the school we could

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speak about Zionism. Since we had Zionist leaders in the city, and with the direct help of the Zionist Youth, the Tarbut Hebrew Day School was established in 1917. It was a coeducational school for girls and boys. It was popular and accessible to people of all economic means.

Religious education in those years forms a separate chapter. Religious education prior to the war was available only at the Talmud Torah which did not have the resources to include middle class children. During the years I attended the Talmud Torah, the teachers were Reb Meir Furman and Reb Rubele Groman. The upper two grades formed an elementary Yeshiva, and did include some middle-class children. The Talmud Torah, the aforementioned Kibbutz and private cheders were all part of the educational system for Jewish children, available equally to everyone.

The war brought about spiritual changes in the Jewish community of Mezritsh, which led to the definitive end of the Talmud Torah. Religious householders worried that their children were wandering about idly. Cheders almost ceased to exist, and the doors to the Yeshivas were locked. The Talmud Torah was not able to fulfill its role after years under poor leaders who did not understand what education was all about. It became the place for poor mothers to leave their children so that they would not roam the streets aimlessly. Study and education became secondary objectives.

The middle class then began to take interest in the Talmud Torah. Initially, older children, who were already able to study Gemara[14] with its commentaries, were enrolled by their fathers in the upper classes, especially the highest class where Reb Reuven was the teacher. Reb Reuven was a fine pedagogue, a quiet man who exuded respect. He had the ability to teach the lessons clearly, and the students liked him. The renewed interest of the parents in the neglected Talmud Torah had a positive effect on other constructive elements in the community. To the good fortune of the Talmud Torah and its students, the rabbi and Gaon[15] Yaakov Wachtfogel lived in Mezritsh. Rabbi Yaakov (also known as Reb Yankel) had been living in Jerusalem. He had come to Mezritsh on the eve of the war to visit his parents, and was trapped by the conflict. Incidentally, even if he had been able to leave Mezritsh and start his journey home to Jerusalem, Reb Yankel would certainly have had to leave as a Russian citizen. Crossing Turkey on his homeward journey would have been impossible as Turkey was at war with Russia.

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Reb Yankel was a genius. He had been one of the most important students at the Slobodka Yeshiva [16]. He was one of the ten superior students who traveled with Rabbi Eliezer Gordon to open the famous Telz Yeshiva [17]. In those days, the renowned Rabbi Zerach Braverman, the founder of the Meah Shearim Yeshiva in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, traveled to Europe for various matters. [Braverman] travelled to Telz, where he became acquainted with the Mezritsh Illuy [genius], whose scholarship was known in the Jewish world. Reb Yankel became his son-in-law and settled in Jerusalem, where he became famous both for his scholarship as well as for his cautious manner and moderate outlook. He became a dayan [religious judge] in Jerusalem.

Reb Yankel accepted a request to take interest in the Talmud Torah. He utilized a teaching method prevalent in Lithuanian yeshivas: its goal was to enable a student to think through and analyze a halachic [Jewish religious legal] issue independently. Reb Yankel dedicated himself especially to the students in the most advanced class. Reb Yehoshua, who was Reb Yisrael Baruch's son-in-law and a great scholar, became involved with Reb Meir Furman's students. His second achievement was to instill in all his pupils – starting from the aleph-beis class [the first class] - the desire to learn at school rather than idly wander the streets. For the first time, teachers found themselves under strict supervision, and were made responsible for the progress of their students.

With the full support of influential parents and new associates such as Reb Baruch Meir Rozenblum, Reb Vove Perelman who was later a rabbi in Motol and Iwye [18], Reb Yankel created an admired institution instead of a holding pen for troubled youngsters. The Talmud Torah became noted for the orderliness and cleanliness of its classrooms. Not only did students and parents love Reb Yankel, but they made sure that he would be pleased with them. Unfortunately, a few of the former school leaders felt that Reb Yankel's methods were tainted with modernism.

Reb Yankel and his associates were Mizrachists[19] in heart and soul. The leader of this movement in Mezritsh was Reb Baruch Mejer, a wonderful personality. They believed that studies at the Talmud Torah should be conducted using the “Hebrew-in-Hebrew” methodology [20], with the obvious exception of Gemara and similar subjects. Reb Yankel and his associates were dismissed from the Talmud Torah. His supporters raised an outcry and insisted that, for the first time in Mezritsh,

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there should be a vote to determine who would lead the Talmud Torah. This author, (I was a student of Reb Yankel of blessed memory) a mature 17 year old lad, along with my friends who were also Reb Yankel's students, threw ourselves into the fray. Mezritsh was not enveloped in blind fanaticism. Rather, Jewish Mezritsh was inspired by world Jewry, especially German Jewry, where secular and religious education went hand in hand. Our victory was almost complete. Reb Yankel's approach to teaching was supported not only by the intelligentsia and Zionist circles, but also by the local Hassidim. The Talmud Torah became perhaps the first in Poland to adopt the “Hebrew-in-Hebrew” methodology (with the exception of Gemara classes). General elementary studies were also included. Later, under the Poles, when compulsory education was introduced, the Talmud Torah was recognized as an elementary school. It is interesting that our Talmud Torah students excelled wherever they went on to learn, whether in the famous Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw, or in various yeshivas. Students from Mezritsh made a name for themselves.

 

Mezritsh young men who were students of the Tachkemoni in Warsaw
mie485,jpg Mezritsh young men who were students of the Tachkemoni in Warsaw [25 KB]
First row, standing from right: Natan Asz, Akiva Asz, Moshe Ejdelbaum.
Second row, sitting: Moshe Zauberman, Meir Ejdelbaum, David Goldsztejn

 

This was the great accomplishment of Reb Yankel Wachtfogel of blessed memory, a gift he gave to his hometown before returning to his family in Jerusalem. Reb Yankel

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went on to become the rabbi in Neve Yaakov [Israel]. Later in Jerusalem's Meah Shearim neighborhood, he became the head of the Meah Shearim Yeshiva. This was not his only accomplishment, but we will speak more of that in another place.

When the older students graduated from Reb Reuven's class, almost all of them were good students. After finishing their studies, they formed a kibbutz in Mezritsh with the help of well-known scholars such as Reb Vove Perelman, Reb Shlomo (who was Reb Yerachmiel Cukierman's son-in-law), and Reb Avraham Leib (who was Certal's son-in-law). The aforementioned gave classes. The kibbutz met for studies in Reb Itshe Leib's Beis Midrash. The group met for several years until the students went on to learn in other places, especially in the aforementioned Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, where the Mezritshers earned a place of honor.

I have omitted the Jewish People's School, which was established during the time of the occupation because I do not have sufficient information about that school. Former students of the Jewish People's School have written about it elsewhere in this book. They are more competent than I to write about their school with warmth and love.

 

Other Cultural Activities

Mezritsh, as we have already noted, had a special love of theater and music. The Firefighter's Orchestra existed in Mezritsh before the war. The orchestra was the “cosseted child” of Reb Mendel “Klezmer” (his family name was Szpilman)[21], a great musical connoisseur and a first class conductor.

Mezritsh also loved the cantorial arts, and maintained an official yar chazan[22] with a choir. Bogomolni our last cantor, left Mezritsh a short time after the outbreak of the First World War. However, Mezritsh did not lose its love of music and song. Around 1916/1917, the Ha-Zamir [Nightingale] Troupe was organized. This organization consisted of two parts, a music section and a drama section.

Naturally, the musical section only accepted people who could demonstrate musical ability. The choir was composed of members who had sung with the last cantor. Choir members included Yitzhak Rozencwejg (the Shostak), a tenor; Simcha Berzon (later a cantor in Svislach[23]), a baritone; Moshe Obersztern of blessed memory (who died in Israel), a soprano; Shlomole Goldman (son of Chaim Shia Beker); and this author, as well as Alta and Rivce Grossberg as mezzo sopranos. The choir was accompanied by an orchestra. The conductor of both

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was Yentce Klezmer, a skillful violinist who played first violin. Hersz Fajnaberja also played violin, and Noach Podoljak played the clarinet and flute. There were other musicians whose names I unfortunately no longer remember. We practiced several times a week. The choir and orchestra were very accomplished. Guests often came to watch the rehearsals. The conductor of the German military orchestra once gave us a great complement after watching our rehearsal for a charity performance.

The drama section was conducted by Gabriel Szapira. The performers included Josef Rajnwajn, Herszel Lederman, Bakshe Himelszajn, and others. Ha-Zamir had its headquarters in Moshe Maller's house during the period when the Illusion Theater operated in our town.

Ha-Zamir's first touring company was founded during the German occupation. The organization was located on the Warsaw highway, in Rogozyk's house.

Anuszka Adler, of blessed memory, was a keen promoter of sports in Mezritsh. He established a public venue for sports called Plosztszodka for the orphans and school children of Mezritsh.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Kuban Cossacks – Cossacks from the Kuban region of Southern Russia on both sides of the Kuban River and bounded by the Black Sea, the Don steppe, the Volga delta and the Caucasus Mountains. return
  2. cheder – Literal translation: room. A traditional elementary school or class teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language, usually financed by private tuition and donations. return
  3. Talmud Torah – A public primary school for boys of modest backgrounds. Students were taught Hebrew, Torah and Talmud. Similar to a cheder (see footnote 2) except for its financing. return
  4. Modern school – A modern school in the context of Jewish society at that time would be a school which followed a religious curriculum, but used modern teaching methodologies. Hebrew language was taught in addition to the religious subjects. Secular subjects were also included in the curriculum. return
  5. Bund – From the German word Bund meaning federation or union. Also known as the Jewish Labor Bund, it was a Jewish political party founded in Vilnius in 1897, and operated predominantly in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Its ideology was non-Zionist (sometimes even anti-Zionist), socialist and secular. Its goal was to unite all Jewish workers in the Russian Empire into a united socialist party return
  6. Junker – from the German meaning, “young lord”, and understood as “country squire”. The Junkers were the landed families of Prussia and eastern Germany. The term is probably derived from the German Junger Herr. These wealthy, landed Prussian gentry were leaders in the German army. For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junker. return
  7. Poalei Zion – [Workers of Zion]. A movement of the Marxist Zionist Jewish workers' circles, founded after the Bund rejected Zionism. It was formally launched in 1906, in Ukraine, under the leadership of Ber Borochov. return
  8. Maskil – An enlightened one, a thinker. An adherent of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) Movement. This was a faction among European Jews in the late 18th century that advocated adopting Enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language and Jewish history. return
  9. Beitar (בית”ר) - The Beitar Movement (also spelled Betar) is the Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia, by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The acronym Beitar stands for “ Brit Yosef Trumpeldor”. Beitar members played important roles in the fight against the British during the Mandate, and in the creation of Israel. Joseph Trumpeldor was a Jewish fighter who fell in the battle of Tel Hai, Israel (1920) and comforted his fellow fighters as he lay dying with the phrase: “Never mind, it is good to die for our country”. return
  10. Agudas Yisroel (also spelled Agudat Israel) – Founded about 1912. Its aim was to perpetuate what they believed to be authentic Judaism by promoting the supremacy of Torah in all issues facing Jews as individuals and as a nation. They also believed that the Torah emanated directly from God as revealed at Mount Sinai. return
  11. The author probably is referring to the exact date – in the preceding sentence he estimates the arrival of the news to be in the November/December timeframe. return
  12. Cheder metukan – a modernized cheder where the goal was to provide a national and universal education to the students. return
  13. Balebotishe – In this context the word refers to middle class householders – generally, the petite-bourgeoisiereturn
  14. Gemara – is the part of the Talmud that contains rabbinical commentaries and analysis of the Mishnah. The Mishnahis the code of Jewish oral law edited by Rabbi Judah HaNasi about 200 CE. The Mishnah and Gemara together make up the Talmud return
  15. Gaon – A genius. This title would be used for a very learned and highly respected rabbi. return
  16. Slobodka Yeshiva, also known as Knesses Yisroel, and later as Hebron Yeshiva or Yeshivas Hevron, was known colloquially as the “mother of yeshivas ” and was devoted to high level study of the Talmud. return
  17. Telz Yeshiva – a famous yeshivafounded in the city of Telsiai, Lithuania (Telz in Yiddish) in 1875. The founding rabbis were Rabbi Meir Atlas, Rabbi Zvi Yaakov Oppenheim, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Abel. All were thought to be important Orthodox rabbis and Talmudists. After World War II, the yeshiva relocated to Wickliffe, Ohio, where it became known as the Rabbinical College of Telshe. return
  18. Motol and Iwye are both towns in today's Belarus. Motol is at 52° 19'/25° 36', 195 km E of Mezritsh. Iwye is at 53° 56'/25° 46', 294 km NE of Mezritsh. Both distances are “as the crow flies”. Locations of towns derived from: G. Mokotoff, S. Sack and A. Sharon, Where Once we Walked (New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2002). Distances calculated by Steven Morse (http://stevemorse.org/nearest/distance.php). return
  19. Mizrachist – An adherent of the Mizrachi Movement. The Mizrachi Movement (Mizrachi (מזרחי) is an acronym for Merkaz Ruchani [Spiritual Center]) is a religious Zionist movement founded in 1902 in Vilnius, by Rav Yitzchak Yaacov Reines. It is an ideological and educational movement based on the belief that Torah should be at the centre of Zionism. The ideology of Mizrachi is based on the motto “Am Yisrael B'Eretz Israel al pi Torat Israel” – the Jewish people in the Land of Israel living according to the Torah of Israel. Bnei Akiva is the youth movement associated with Mizrachi. return
  20. Hebrew-in-Hebrew methodology – Refers to a pedagogical methodology where the Hebrew language and all other subjects were taught in Hebrew.  Hebrew was to be used as the language of instruction and freely spoken throughout the day.  Teaching Hebrew in this way was new and controversial.  The more traditional method was to translate the Hebrew in sacred texts on a word-by-word basis. return
  21. The name “Szpilman” means “player” (i.e. musical player). Klezmer is a Yiddishized term for the Hebrew word for “musical instrument”. return
  22. Yar Chazan – literally a “Yearly Cantor”. The use of this term in this context is not clear. return
  23. Svislach, Belarus – 53° 02'/24° 06', 147 km ENE of Mezritsh “as the crow flies”. Locations of towns derived from: G. Mokotoff, S. Sack and A. Sharon, Where Once we Walked (New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2002). Distances calculated by Steven Morse (http://stevemorse.org/nearest/distance.php). return



[Pages 488-490]

The Bloody Sabbath

by Simcha Birstejn of Toronto

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In November 1918, rumors started spreading about a revolution in Germany, an armistice, etc. Nobody knew for sure whether or not the rumors were true. Something could be sensed in the air. German soldiers left Mezritsh in disarray, running to the station and filling up the trains within a short time.

After four years of German occupation, the Poles were overflowing with hatred against the Germans. The Germans had forbidden them from teaching the Polish language and culture to their children. They stole land, took all that was left behind and transported it to Germany. In agricultural Poland there was nothing to eat. The population of Poland was literally starving.

When the German soldiers and civilians began to leave the land, young Poles, filled with hatred toward their oppressors, saw an opportunity for revenge. They quickly gathered whatever weapons they could find –– an old gun, a rusty sword, and the like – and, with faded uniforms, they formed the first Polish detachments. They went out into the streets and attacked the remaining German soldiers, took their horses, guns and ammunition, and confiscated their uniforms.

The Germans sent a horseman to the nearby town of Biala, where there was a division of the “Toitn Kep” [Dead Heads]. The “Toitn Kep” decided to take revenge against the Mezritsh Poles for degrading the honor of the German soldiers.

A few days later, a division of the “Toitn Kep” marched into Mezritsh. In a brief speech, the captain declared to the soldiers that their violated honor could be redeemed only by blood and death. The German soldiers were given a free hand.

That dark day, which fell on the Sabbath, is known in the history of liberated Poland as the Bloody Sabbath of Mezritsh.

It began in the morning. A deathly pall pervaded in the streets and alleyways of the city. The doors of the houses were locked, and the shutters were closed shut. People were afraid to stick their heads outside.

[Page 489]

From time to time, the sound of a gunshot could be heard, accompanied by the sharp hissing of a bullet ripping through the air. At that time, I was with a friend who lived in the market place, not too far away from us. Through the windows, I could see what was happening in the streets and alleyways. German soldiers were everywhere. They stopped every passerby and asked him a question. As soon as they discovered that the person was a Pole, they would shoot him on the spot.

Through the glass door, I could clearly see the corpses lying in puddles of blood. Not far away, a grey haired Pole was hurrying home. A German soldier holding a gun in his hand stopped him and asked him, “Where are you going?” The elderly gentile fell to his knees before him begging for mercy – “I am an old man going to visit a sick grandchild. What do you want from a grandfather?” He kissed the soldier's shining boots. “Go where you have to,” the soldier said to him. The old man got up, looked at him suspiciously in the eyes, and started to go. The soldier took out his gun and pulled the trigger. A shot rang out – and a fresh victim lay on the street.

A soldier stopped a wealthy Polish merchant at the corner of an alleyway. The Pole, realizing what was happening, took out a bundle of banknotes from his pocket, removed his gold ring from his finger, added his gold watch, and begged him, “Grant me my life. Allow me to go home to my wife and children.” In response, the soldier spit on the money, took his bayonet and angrily stabbed the Pole in the heart. He then kicked the victim with his boots, and went away.

Approximately 200 civilians were killed. From among the Jews, only Hertzke, the doctor's son, fell. A stray bullet penetrated the wooden wall and went through his heart. Later, the Germans were accused by the family. They paid for the funeral and declared to the weeping mother that this was an accident. A Jewish woman was wounded. The Germans took her to the hospital and saved her life. Their orders had been to kill Poles – not Jews.

This was not yet the end of the murders. The Germans searched through every house, captured the legionnaires and brought them to the gorgeous

[Page 490]

palace of Count Potocki. They gathered together tens of young legionnaires in the large guest hall, set the palace on fire and burnt the legionnaires alive.

 

mie490.jpg
The monument to the fallen legionnaires

 


[Pages 491-493]

Eight Days with the Bolsheviks

by Y. Horn

Translated by Jerrold Landau


When the Polish Army fled the town in 1920, hundreds of Jews went out to the fields of the city. The need in the city was great, and young and old ran to the fields, which had already been harvested, to search for bits of left over ears of corn or wheat. Everyone brought along a sack to fill with stalks… If anyone found even a bit of ripe “red potatoes”, they would not be left behind. Nobody imagined that the Poles would leave the city so calmly, without putting up a fight.

When we returned from the field one night, two Russian elders were standing with a white flag in their hands at the very end of the marketplace, on a makeshift podium near Moshe Chava's. They were talking to the crowd, stating that they were coming to take part in a peace delegation that was going to take place in the town. From afar, we could see the last units of the Polish Army leaving, as if nothing had happened. In the end, the Polish side did not send a peace delegation, and the Red Army entered a few hours later.

Jews quickly went out to the streets to joyously welcome the Red Army. The soldiers who marched into the city were tired and ragged, and appeared as they were portrayed in Y. Y. Singer's account “Lyuk.”

They sang revolutionary songs, and at every moment it seemed another soldier asked: “How far is it to Warsaw?”

We were told that after the fall of Warsaw, Karel Radek, a Bolshevik, born and raised in Poland and living in Siedlce, had been promoted to lead the Bolshevik leadership of Poland.

The Bolsheviks were in the town for a total of eight days. Those eight days form an important page in the history of Mezritsh.

The Revolutionary Committee [“Revcom”] was quickly created in the city, and set up their headquarters in the “Large Bank” that was near the small park in the marketplace. Orders emanated from there every few hours. The military leadership, along with young people and one woman from the town, began to seek out people to fill various offices. First, they looked

[Pages 492]

for those who knew Russian, and second, for those who were close to the workers. There were not very many Communists in the town at that time. There were no activists among the workers nor leaders of the professional unions: the Poles had sent them to the Dambier Camp near Krakow some time earlier. The day after the Red Army entered the city, they convened a meeting of the brush workers in the large club.

“Black Lyuba,” wearing military fatigues, spoke to the brush workers and invited the most active among them to take various offices, while a revolver lay on the table. The meeting lasted for a few hours. At the end of the meetings, a row of workers was sent to the leadership office.

Every few hours, mass meetings took place under the open skies, where the orators spoke with great fervor. After every speaker, the Jewish firefighters' orchestra played The Internationale or La Marseillaise.

On the third day, the young people of the town began to speak. Chaim “Gitele's”[1] – a “Prikaszik”, and an employee in a manufacturing workshop, was a young man with a sharp tongue. When the Bolsheviks entered town, he replaced the grey brim of his old hat, with a red one.

There was also Moshele “Zwodner”, a small, thin man, a Jewish Communist. He delivered a speech in the market, and said only the following, “I can tell you, I want to tell you, and I must tell you that Trotsky is a fine man. Music, start playing!”

Those few works almost cost Moshele “Zwodner” his life, for when the Bolsheviks left, the Poles arrested him and put him on trial.

“It was certainly worthwhile,” the people in the town joked.

During the eight days under the Bolsheviks, Mezritsh also had its own aid commissar. This was Shaya Chasid's son, who was given the name “Zawilow.”

“Who would have known,” wondered and thought the Polish commissar of the city, “that the son of Shaya the gaiter-stuffer would become commissar of the city”?! The Jews shrugged their shoulders regarding the entire Zawilow situation, wondering how he had come to attain this position. In the houses, people said that Zawilow had come from Russia with a party card sewn in his shoes, and was therefore considered a trustworthy person by the Bolsheviks, though he did not know Russian so well; that was the job of Mania the Feldscher's[2]. This Mania, who had been

[Pages 493]

seen about town for many years wearing wooden shoes and a hat with red ribbons (which clearly identified her as a student), was the best in Russian, and she transcribed all the commands.

When the Red Army fled, the “Warsawer Feldscher” and his wife made the rounds and scratched out their daughter's name from all the orders of the “Revcom.”…

When the Bolshevik assault on the front was suddenly broken, and the army retreated to Brisk in great haste on its way back to Russia, a large number of the youth of the city went along with the Bolsheviks to Russia.

The youths born in 1902, who were 18 years old , were the first to flee, for they were to be called up to the army. Following them were the workers and ordinary Jews. The Jewish people in the city were very afraid of the return of the Polish Army. Indeed, there was reason to be afraid.

The first days following the Poles' recapture of the town dragged on and seemed like years. The Poles accused all the Jews of Bolshevism, and they called every Jew “Trotsky”. The young people who had filled most of the offices of the Bolsheviks were terribly afraid. The Poles beat any Jew that they found. The Poles forced the firefighters' orchestra, which by that point included only a bass, a clarinet and a drum, to play “Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginê³a”[3] all night long in the city marketplace.

The returning Polish police headed by the commissar were unable to instill calm and order. The Poles, together with spies, stuck their noses into everything. The city was surrounded by police chains.

The people paid dearly for the eight days the Bolsheviks occupied the city: a great deal of blood was shed and very many arrests followed. Cumulatively, hundreds of years of harsh prison labor were handed down.

(From “My Destroyed Home”)


Translator's Footnotes

  1. In Yiddish, the possessive ending 's is a common form of nickname, meaning “the son of”. It is often in the form of a matrynomic. This type of appellation was common in Eastern Europe of that time. return
  2. A feldscher is a barber/surgeon. The possessive means that Mania was the daughter of the Feldscher. return
  3. The Polish national anthem: “Poland Is Not Yet Lost”, or “Poland Has Not Yet Perished.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poland_Is_Not_Yet_Lost return


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