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[Page 369]

Our People in the Land of Israel

Elazar Prashker – Jerusalem

The yearning for the land of Israel was deeply rooted in the hearts of the Jews of Piotrkow as it was since time immemorial in the hearts of all Jews everywhere, who would daily recite before their Maker with great fervor and devotion: “Blow the great shofar for our deliverance, and raise the banner for the ingathering of our exiles, and bring us speedily from the four corners of the earth to our land.”

This yearning of the Jews of Piotrkow was first given a practical expression during the spread of the Hibat Zion (love of Zion) movement. Rabbi Haim Elazar Wax, the author of the Nefesh Haya, the rabbi of Piotrkow during 1884-1889, was the president of the Warsaw Kolel in the land of Israel, and in this capacity did a great deal for the Jewish community in the holy land. In 1886 he traveled to Eretz Israel to exhort the members of the Warsaw Kolel to dedicate themselves to agriculture. He planted an etrog orchard and conducted intensive propaganda among the Jews of Europe to use etrogs from the land of Israel instead of the Korfu etrogs. He considered it the first blossoming of the revival of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel. On his journey he was accompanied by the well-known leader of the Piotrkow community, Pinhas Horowicz, and the shamash of the Piotrkow rabbinical court, Moshe Wald. When Rabbi Wax passed away, Motl Tzvi Halevi Horowicz, also of Piotrkow, known for his learning and wealth, was chosen president of the Warsaw-Poland Kolel. He continued the life's work of the author of the Nefesh Haya, by settling in the land of Israel. In 1891 he sent his confidant, Moshe Yaakov Mortfeld to buy land and plant orchards. The latter was extremely successful in his mission, and the idea that it was a great mitzvah to use etrogs from the land of Israel (at first rabbinical and conservative circles opposed the idea, since they were used to etrogs from Korfu, which were considered of high quality), penetrated ever growing circles in the Diaspora which gave a push to settlement of Jews in their land.

Several natives of Piotrkow settled in the land of Israel at the beginning of the century, including Dov Berish Cohen, Yehoshua Korman, Berl Butkovsky, and Dov Ber Hato.

Following the Balfour Declaration at the close of World War I, the first five pioneers from Piotrkow settled in Eretz Israel, having joined the renowned 105 Group. They were: Two Blumstein brothers, Herman Yarost, Haim Elazar Korman, and Yaakov Witorz.

The massive immigration of Piotrkow Jews to their land began after World War I. Between the wars, some 500 families of Piotrkow Jews settled there. Some arrived legally, carrying certificates, but most came with the illegal Aliyah Bet. Piotrkow Jews became well integrated in all walks of the new Jewish community, in towns, in moshavim, and kibbutzim, and made a significant contribution to the upbuilding and defense of the country. Pioneers from Piotrkow took part in the founding of many moshavim and kibbutzim. They paved roads, built housing projects, helped establish industrial and cultural enterprises, organized cooperatives, and played a major part in the character of the new Jewish society. They also distinguished themselves in defending the Yishuv. Eliyahu Blumstein of the 105 Group fought at Tel Hai alongside Yosef Trumpeldor. In the 1921 riots, Mordecai Finkelstein was killed by Arab marauders while defending the immigrant house in Jaffa. A Christian Pole from Piotrkow, Stanislaw Sluga, was killed by the Arabs in the riots of 1937. He was a member of the Histadrut and urged his Jewish friends to organize a defense against the Arab rioters. In the 1939 riots, during an Arab attack, a guard named Yaakov Yosef Milioner, of the religious Kibbutz of Tirat Tzvi, was killed.

Members of the first council in Israel
Members of the first council in Israel

 

During World War II, many Piotrkow Jews in Palestine joined the British Army's Jewish Brigade. This brigade distinguished itself in the battles against the Germans and the Italians, and its first members were decorated for their bravery on the battlefield. In May 1945 the members of the Jewish Brigade met for the first time the Holocaust survivors in Italy. Now the Brigade became a magnet for concentration camp and ghetto survivors. In addition to their military missions, the members of the Brigade started helping survivors throughout Europe, providing clothing, teaching children, and smuggling people across borders to the land of Israel. Members of our town who took part in those activities were Aryeh and Natan Sandowski, Efraim Klein, and Yosef Katz.

In the Israeli War of Independence and during the following wars – the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon War, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Piotrkow Jewry wrote some glorious pages.

More than half of Piotrkow's Jewish survivors arrived in Israel after the war by unimaginable routes, and their number is now estimated in over one thousand families. This constitutes close to a third of the Jews who lived in Piotrkow before the Catastrophe.

At first, when the number of Piotrkow immigrants in Israel was still small, they were all close to one another, having known one another from the old country, and they helped one another during the period of absorption in the new land. They would take care of a friend who was sick or out of work. The togetherness of our town's people was natural, without any organizational structure. Ties were close. On Sabbaths and holidays people would gather in the home of one of the families. Passover Seders brought us together. Yet in wishing to become integrated in the new Jewish society, people refused almost instinctively to form the familiar organizational group known as Landsmanschaft.

Committee and council members of Irgun Yotzei Piotrkow in Israel since inception. I
Committee and council members of Irgun Yotzei Piotrkow in Israel since inception. I

 

Committee and council members of Irgun Yotzei Piotrkow in Israel since inception. II
Committee and council members of Irgun Yotzei Piotrkow in Israel since inception. II

 

But as immigration increased, new problems rose which could only be solved through an organization. Thus in 1924 a mutual fund was started to help new immigrants from our town, headed by Haim Elazar Korman and Levi Hertzkowicz. But the attempts at that time to form an organization of Piotrkow Jews in Eretz Israel did not succeed. It appears that the idea of a Landsmanschaft raised the specter of ghettoization, of which people were deeply afraid. During that time Michael Szydlowski was the “institution” of our compatriots in the land of Israel. He was the address for both the old-timers and the newcomers. He kept in touch with Piotrkow before the war, as well as Piotrkowers around the world. Every new immigrant from Piotrkow first turned to him, to be registered, to receive advice, guidance and help as needed. Our town's people referred to him fondly as the “consul.”

 

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