Politico-communal life in Novogrudok
by Shmuel Openheim
Translated from Yiddish by
Shortly after the first world war the Jewish population of Novogrudok began to develop a broad, multifaceted political and communal life. Old institutions were renewed and reorganised, among them the Jewish hospital, the old people's home as well as other bodies. New organisations, institutions, associations and political parties were created. New talents were discovered, people became devoted to the communal work heart and sole.
As a result of the war there were many orphans in town. An orphanage was created. This meant that the children were not left in the streets. The orphanage accepted all orphans, as well as children of impoverished parents. The children had to be of school age. The orphans were provided in the orphanage with all needs for their development and it was made possible for them to become worthwhile human beings. The atmosphere created in the orphanage was such that the children felt that they had become part of an ordinary household. They attended a school [Tarbut]. There were several volunteers who devoted all their efforts to the orphanage. It was due to them that the orphanage continued to exist until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. When the Soviet Government occupied the town, they took over the running of the orphanage, because in the Soviet system the government was running such institutions. They amalgamated all orphanages in town and the Jewish orphanage ceased to exist, it was transformed into a different institution. The person who was the most outstanding participant in the development and running of the orphanage was Chana Bloch.
As mentioned above, the orphanage accepted only children of school age. There were, however, orphans and children of impoverished parents who exceeded the school age, and could not be accepted in the orphanage. There were also children who finished their schooling whilst they were in the orphanage and required further education. Shogdey Melocho was created to meet that demand. The institution taught the children to be tradesmen. A boarding house was created to provide accommodation for the orphans where they were given the same care as in the orphanage. Children with parents, who were not in a position to look after them, were given help in various forms such as part time work, clothing etc. The institution took total care of its pupils. The pupils were sent to Jewish tradesmen to learn specific trades. Shogdey Melocho signed contracts with the tradesmen, they supervised the progress of the pupils as well as and the attitude of the masters to the pupils. A few years later, the institution created its own furniture workshop. A good instructor was found. The workshop produced good quality furniture. It had become a habit in town that when a young couple got married or decided to buy new furniture it was they purchased it from Shogdey Melocho. They made it their task to satisfy the customers. Most pupils in the workshops were boys. The workshop did not send out work to outside carpenters.
Prior to the Second World War a small subsidy was extracted from the city council, which, though unwilling, could not refuse some help. Shogdey Melocho was also supported by the Vilno district committee of YEKAPA. Shogdey Melocho existed until the Soviet occupation in 1939.
There are several people in Israel who were brought up in the orphanage and they learned a trade in Shogdey Melocho after they had left the orphanage. They are now independent and work in the trade they learned in Novogrudok.
Most of the expenses of the institutions were met by membership fees. Each institution had its volunteer collectors who would visit every month the members i.e. practically all Jews in Novogrudok, and collect the membership dues. Nobody refused unless they were not in a position to pay. Thus all Jews in Novogrudok were members of all Jewish institutions in town and had the right to vote at all meetings.
Jews from the nearby villages were also supporting the Jewish institutions. One of the big supporters was the owner of a flourmill in Slobodke Itzchak Izik Kagan. He was supporting not only institutions, but also needy people in town. Itzchak Izik would never refuse help to anyone, be it an institution, a needy person or a Zionist cause. He gave generously. When the war started and the Nazi beasts arrived, there was hunger in town. Itzchak Izik was still in his mill at the time and he helped many Jews. He was providing flour and other produce. Everyone knew him and some made use of his generosity.
Schools in Novogrudok
At the same time a modern school, which was called Beit Seifer, was established,. The name gave a good indication of the type of school it was. Later, when the Tarbut movement was created in Poland, Beit Seifer became one of the Tarbut schools. The school existed until 1939. When the soviets came they converted Tarbut to a Yiddish school, but retained Moshe Steinberg, as the school principal.
For a time, there was also a Yiddish school of CISA headed by the teacher Solomon. After a few years the school was closed.
There was also a Mizrachi school in town. It was a private school which belonged to Shloyme Wolfovich. In time the school was modernised, it joined the Mizrachi tushia and employed a few teachers. But the school still belonged to Wolfovich and was commonly called the Wolfovich school.
A melamed [old fashioned teacher of religious texts] was still available to teach junior students this was the Menaker school in Rachelo.
After the first world war professional associations were created in Novogrudok.
All the unions were located in one building. There was a great deal of functional and cultural activity. There were meetings, lectures mostly of an anti-Zionist nature. A number of young activists created a group of Zionist metal workers. The other associations have allowed us the use of their premises. They were also helping us. But when it came to legalising the metal workers union it was refused because I, the secretary of the union, was a member of Poalei Zion and the other members on the committee were our supporters. The head office in Warsaw was Bundist. They rejected our application to join the union, though formally we were eligible to do so, since we fulfilled all of their requirements. Many letters of support were of no use, nor were my two trips to the head office in Warsaw. They did not reject us, they just told us that they were looking into it. But in the end we were never made official members. The union could not exist without legalisation. Thus a metal workers union was never formed in our town. Some of our members created a provisional group in the professional union. This group created a worker's library. We collected money for its creation. We catered at all festivities and weddings. We were organising entertainment parties. The library was growing well. It was located in the building of the unions. As long as there were three unions of three different kinds, the few Zionist youths who created and ran the library were not rejected, though we did not trust each other. The tobacco union was abolished when the production and retail of tobacco was monopolised by the Polish government. Some of the leaders of the leather workers union have become independent manufacturers and suppliers of leather goods. This left only the Bundist needle union. They decided to close us down. They locked the premises, and as the library was in the premises it was also closed. After a time they found new premises and the library remained in their possession.
- Needle workers. The head office in Warsaw was connected with the Bund.
- Leather workers. The head office was communist.
- Tobacco workers. The head office was connected with PPS [Polska Partja Socialistyczna the Polish Socialist Party].
Workers union and workers bank
The Jewish workers began to join associations. The guiding spirit of the movement was Jankel Lubchanski, who owned a shop selling sewing machines. All Jewish independent workers joined the union. They set up nice premises, where the comrades would gather every evening. Newspapers, checkers etc were available. There were also cultural events, for example readings of Professor Graetz's History of the Jews from Oldest Times to the Present. The largest effort of the administration was in the area of interceding with various institutions, first among them was the taxation office, and others were the city hall, sub-district office, district office, and the workers division. There was never a shortage of cases of mistreatment of Jews. There was need for registering tradesman, obtaining of diplomas, examinations etc. Jankel Lubchanski and his cossacks, as the followers of Lubchanski were called in town, have occupied an important place in the Jewish society of Novogrudok. The delegates of the tradesmen's union were represented in all organisations in town. Some were deputies in the city council. The union also helped poorer members. They were providing flour for Passover matzoth and organized the baking of matzoth. The profit was used to provide matzoth and other foods for poor workers. Help was given to the needy before all holidays.
At the same time as they created the tradesmen's union, they also opened a cooperative tradesmen's bank. It was called The Tradesmen's and Small Business Bank. The director of the bank was the same Jankel Lubchanski. For a considerable time the bank was the only financial institution in town. Later a commercial bank was created. The value of the tradesmen's bank to the customers need not be described. One could always obtain a loan on favourable conditions. In time the bank developed well. It existed until the war of 1939. But the tradesmen's union and bank were troubled over the years by perpetual quarrelling. Among the tradesmen were members of the Bund, of the Peoples party (folkistn), and just anti-Zionists. They knew that as long as Jankel Lubchanski, who was a Zionist, was the leader, they would not have any influence among the tradesmen. They directed, therefore, all their efforts to combat Lubchanski, until they won and he left the union and the bank. Only then did the winners elect a management team consisting of their insiders. For chairman they elected the photographer Yankef Vinnick, who was a Zionist. They had two reasons for this: firstly he was well known, accepted in the government offices and secondly he served as a paravane. But their domination did not last long. The Poalei Zion party had increased its strength and influence. They managed to put into the management team two members of the party: one was the treasurer [the author of this article Openhim] and Alter Chesly was the secretary. The presidium consisted of the chairman Vinnick, a Zionist, Openhim and Chesly, Poalei Zion, were treasurer and secretary. Only the vice-president Mojshe Fajwelevich was not a Zionist. The tradesmen's union existed until 1938, when the Polish government closed the central office in Warsaw and all branches.
Many years ago two young men were on holidays in Slonim. They came back very impressed by the Hashomer Hatzair in Slonim. They soon gathered a group and now we had the Hashomer Hatzair in Novogrudok. They brought with them the statute of the organization which I copied on my typewriter. In those days a typewriter was a rarity. I was repairing typewriters and there was always a spare one in my workshop. Hashomer Hatzair had developed greatly since its inception. The organisers of Hashomer Hatzair in our town were all my school friends and were close friends at that. That is why I took part in the organization of the Party. Later I was told that in a closed meeting my problem was discussed: could I remain as a member of Hashomer Hatzair since I was a worker? According to its statute, Hashomer Hatzair could not accept workers. Questions were asked in the higher echelons of the party. As an exception, I was allowed to stay. When I found out about it I withdrew from the Party. Hashomer Hatzair went through the entire evolution and developed well. It conducted an extensive education program among the youth. It was one of the strongest youth organisations in town. They participated actively in all Zionist actions. Later, when the league of workers for Eretz Israel was formed, they participated actively in the sale of shekels [bonds for Israel] and in the elections. They existed in our town until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
Hachalutz and Hachalutz Hatzair
The first cell of Hachalutz was formed at the end of 1920. The movement was not big, but it continued to grow. The meetings were conducted in the women's section of the Shloss Gass Synagogue. The Hachalutz existed as long as there was an alliya [emigration to Eretz Israel]. When restrictions on alliya were eased, the recruitment to Hachalutz grew. After the disturbances in Jaffa in 1921 alliya was stopped and Hachalutz stopped its activities. When in 1923 hope had arisen of the resumption of alliya, Hachalutz renewed its activities. At that time Chatskel Rabinovich came from Slonim (he lives at present in the kibutz Lochame haghettaot). He renewed the activities of the Poalei Zion Party by drawing on the membership of Hachalutz. At the same time a committee was elected for the purpose of organising the political party activities in town. It would appear that the persons who were the leaders in Hachalutz had to lead the party. As they had no experience in party work, they neglected the task. The activities of the Hachalutz were not legalized in our town. As long as the membership was small it was possible to meet occasionally in the women's section of a synagogue, at other times in a private home. But when the membership increased another solution had to be found. There was a sudden increase in engagements, weddings and other functions. Members would report to the police, as the law required, an engagement party or a wedding. Tables were covered with drinks and food and the meeting would proceed. When the movement grew still further, the membership was divided into cells of 5-6 members and they continued with the cultural work. Newspapers such as Haolam and Hapoel hatzair from Israel were read. The leaders of the Vilno district of Hachalutz were at the time Josef Bankaver and Biber. The work was illegal. It was not easy. People were frightened, because the events in Pinsk were fresh in minds of many. When the Polish army occupied Pinsk, they found a number of Zionist youths in a hall. They took 40 of them outside and shot them. Hachalutz decided to organize Hachalutz Hatzair in town. Later, after the event of 1926 in Israel, Hachalutz ceased to exist. Only Hachalutz Hatzair continued its work. It grew well, conducted extensive cultural activities and sent many young members on hachshara [work experience preliminary to alliya to Eretz Israel]. Hachalutz hatzair continued its work until 1935, when it amalgamated with Freihit [Freedom].
In 1925 Hachalutz established in town two harshara facilities, one for forest work near Selub the other in town at Berek Chiz in Sieniezyc street making concrete products. Hachalutz participated in all Zionist work. In 1925 the first blue boxes appeared in Jewish homes. The first collection of money from the blue boxes occurred at Purim. All the known Zionist activists including the senior members of Hachalutz participated. This was a big event. A blue/white box was to be seen in almost every Jewish home. The first collection from the blue boxes brought in nearly 1000 zloty. Another event was the opening of the university at Har Hatzofim on the 1 April 1925. A march through the streets of Novogrudok was organised to celebrate the occasion. In 1929 the league of the workers for Israel put up their own list for election to the city council. The candidate was Pilecki [S. Prisitzki?] a teacher in Tarbut and a leader in Hashomer Hatzair. He missed being elected by a narrow margin.
Frihit was established in 1933 and it developed well. It was legalised from the beginning. Accommodation was obtained and an active educational and cultural program was conducted. To maintain a venue, to heat it and conduct cultural work was not easy for the working youth. In winter a time table was established and every day an appointed member had to find the timber for heating the premises. Some members could not afford to supply timber. But no one failed to heat the offices on the appointed day and the daily scheduled meetings and education programs could be maintained. Each week cultural meetings were conducted. A large gathering of youth would be present, including some who were not active in the Zionist movement, such as the communists. Each summer Frihit organised accommodation and seminars in Novoyelnia. As mentioned above, Hachalutz ceased to exist. At that time Haoved was created. Its membership consisted mainly of adults, some with families. The membership was not able to participate in harshara. Young Zionists had to work in harshara before they could emigrate.
The general Zionists had created a similar organization, which was called Chaluts ba mlocha. It was possible to cooperate with the general Zionist movements. Firstly the general Zionists in Novogrudok were of the Al Hamishmar [on watch] kind, which was Grinbaum's variety. Bet lebanot [Time to build] practically did not exist in Novogrudok. Secondly, our general Zionists were liberals, their head was the Deputy Mayor of the town, Abram Ostashinski. He was the chairman of all shekel [Zionist bonds sold in support of Eretz Israel] and election commissions and a Deputy Chairman of the League (workers for Eretz Israel). We established good relationships with them, particularly with Avrom Ostashinski.
In 1934 a few members of Poalei Zion together with a few members of Frihit had renewed the existence of Poalei Zion and elected a committee that began to conduct extensive activities. Representatives of the new party were placed on the committee of the league of workers for Eretz Israel. They immediately occupied their proper place on the committee and in time they had practically taken over the running and influence of the committee. Previously the league was run mainly by members of Hashomer Hatzair. Representatives were also placed in Vaad Haoved. The influence of the party had become apparent. The party distributed the paper Dos Wort and increased its circulation. It became apparent in town that Poalei Zion was reborn. In 1935 on the eve of the 19th Zionist congress the party put in an extra effort in distributing shekels and later in preparing for and conducting the elections. In the elections to the congress, the league gained about 55% of the votes. In the elections to the institutions in town, some members of the party were elected. Two members of the party, Jakov Rabinovich and I, were elected to the parent's committee of the Tarbut school. In the elections to Shogdey Melocho [board of management?] members of the party were also elected, namely I, Chaim Noyach Leibovich and others. In the elections to the Kehila [Jewish city council] in 1937 the party presented its own list. We were short of two votes to have our representative elected.
At this time came the end of the bubbly political and social life in Novogrudok, which started after the First World War. In 1939 the Second World War started. The Soviets came and after 22 months of a relatively peaceful life time the Germans attacked on the 22 June 1941 and brought total devastation to Novogrudok.
[It would be remiss not to mention that the above article does not list all, or perhaps even most, organizations in Novogrudok of the 1920's and 30's. There must have been several religious parties apart of Mizrachi, such as Aguda (two varieties?). Among the Zionist parties the right wing party of Jabotinsky's Revisionists must be mentioned. Jabotinsky visited Novogrudok in the early 1930's to a tumultuous reception. Many wore Betar uniforms. There were Communists in Novogrudok, though the party was illegal. The Friland movement (Freeland league) headed by the lawyer Gumener was small but significant. Bund is mentioned above in passing. There must have been a party in town. The Musar movement had for a time its headquarters in Novogrudok. Though it was on the decline in the 1930's there must have been followers who were still active. I am certain that the list is incomplete. The Jews of Novogrudok, many of them poor, were looking feverously for a solution to their many problems, but not the one which meant extermination.]
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