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[Pages 221-226]

Vishkov Association of New York

by Yekhiel Burshteyn

Translated by David Goldman


1

Our Vishkov Association in New York is now sixty years old – a rather respectable age. Our members have given their time, health and labor for our organization, and have maintained and cared for their beloved memories. When we get together, we talk about Vishkov of former times and its Jews, community, Jewish institutions, large and small streets, and houses were once our cradles stood. We think of our Vishkov Association as a living monument that we have created on free American soil in honor of our former town that no longer exists. We want to care for this monument and constantly give it new life, similar to the way we constructed a living memorial for Vishkov in the free Jewish State with the aid we provided Israel through the building we established in our names. Now we have created a special unified Vishkov Aid Committee for Israel, about which I will write later in this survey.


2

Over the more than sixty years of the existence and work of our association we have had great and important times. The association's establishment itself was an important event that took place in times totally different from those we are in today when there is highly developed and vibrant Jewish life here in America. In this book, it is worthwhile to reconstruct a picture of life in that former period, when our compatriot [landsmanshaft] association in New York was founded, alongside an array of other ethnic organizations.

The immigrant Jew from the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe felt lonely on New York's East Side in those days. The leading activists in the Jewish neighborhoods were called Yehudim, and were primarily concerned with philanthropy. They didn't take into consideration the feelings and opinions of the new immigrants about how to build their various institutions. The attitude of the radicals toward the common immigrant in Jewish New York was no better: as far as they were concerned the poor peddler would never turn into a bourgeois who ought to disappear, and the immigrants' religious needs were certainly of no concern whatsoever.

The immigrants started to become organized; their longing for the customs and traditions of the old country, as well as their loneliness, created the need for compatriot organizations. Helping each other in times of trouble and assisting new immigrants to get settled and then bring over their family therefore played a very large role. This was how in a rather short time hundreds of compatriot organizations with hundreds of thousands of members developed at that time. In addition, the more the new immigrant became more Americanized and accustomed to his new environment, the more proud and confident he felt. His low self-esteem and inferiority complex disappeared, and the compatriot organization to which he belonged assisted him immensely.

The significance of the compatriot organizations in Jewish life in America at that time began to grow, and their influence continued to spread. It should be noted that the trade union campaign in America on behalf of the Histadrut in Israel deserves a lot of credit for increasing the importance of our compatriot organizations. The trade union campaign on behalf of the Histadrut was the first event that attracted compatriot organizations to become involved, and to this very day our organizations have a respectable place in Israel. For many years there has existed a special department in the United Jewish Appeal for our organizations. In addition, large Jewish educational institutions, such as Yeshiva University in New York, have appreciated the importance of attracting the compatriot organizations to become involved in financially assisting their institutions.

This was how our Vishkov Association was established in 1896 in New York in the same way as other associations were founded. In the beginning the Vishkov compatriots used to get together over a glass of beer every Sabbath evening to share memories of the old country and to provide the new immigrant with lodging and pay the "Shop" to teach the new immigrant a trade. Hirsh-Meir Kotlowitz, one of our compatriots, was one of the greatest people involved in communal hospitality. Many of us still remember him today. Although he was himself a poor laborer, his modest apartment was always open to newly arrived immigrants; he assisted them with his advice and with his actions.

Due to the constant influx of new immigrants, the compatriot groups multiplied and grew larger. Soon they had to rent special halls for their weekly meetings. Their expenses also grew. Instead of relying constantly on contributions, they established membership dues. Eventually we came to the conclusion that it was appropriate for our association to have a managing committee. In December 1904 we established what was then known as the Independent Vishkov Immigration Support Association.

The following individuals were chosen for the managing committee: Avraham Mittelsberg, president; Yechezkel Parover, vice president; Shmuel Gemara, financial secretary; Morris Topfel, recording secretary and Shmuel Wideletz, cashier.

The most important goal of the new Vishkov organization was to assist the recent "green" compatriots, both financially and emotionally. Over time, the members became settled in their new country and brought over their families. However, soon new problems arose, such as the need to be able to provide medical assistance, build a cemetery, etc. At that time we had a doctor, the well-known community activist, Dr. Nathan Rotnov, who was hired annually and provided free medical assistance to members. Later on he played an important role at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Rotnov was an active member in the Vishkov Association for a long time.

The old Vishkov Assistance Association, which was founded in 1896, had its own cemetery; its financial situation improved as well. The very first immigrants of our shtetl belonged to the old association. One of those members was the late David Feingold, who some of us remember to this very day. According to our late compatriot, Chaim Aharon Yoskovich, even before the old association, there was a first Vishkov society under the name Ezrat Achim [Fraternal Assistance]. Yoskovich was a vice-president of the society, which only existed for a short time.

The new task was to merge the two organizations: the old 1896 Vishkov association and the new 1904 association; the merger was accomplished in 1906. The total financial assets of the new unified organization amounted to four hundred and eight dollars and 31 cents, and the association had a total membership of 142. The unified organization started providing material for its members; it offered financial assistance in the sum of six dollars a week in the event of illness of any of its members. This was in addition to the assistance provided to the newcomers.

Our Vishkov Association was one of the first compatriot organizations that became concerned with the cultural situation of its members. The association fought against the germanization of Yiddish that at that time was occurring in the Jewish associations, both in the management of the organization and in the spoken language used in the meetings. We were virtually the only ones who were concerned, therefore, that the bylaws of the association were written in good, clean Yiddish. To achieve that purpose, we hired the well-known Yiddish journalist Yaakov Pfeffer, who wrote our bylaws, which are the same as the ones we use today (with some minor changes). This contrasted with the way other associations' bylaws were written in a mixture of Yiddish and German. The leaders of our association also fought against the heretical movements and disgusting practices that could be seen in the Jewish neighborhoods in New York. We didn't allow our members to participate in the open revelry that took place on sad Jewish occasions such as the Ninth of Av [commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem], and prohibited the repugnant tradition of holding a communal meal after the death of a member, etc.


3

When World War I broke out, the Vishkov Association became heavily involved in all aspects of the war effort: it invested in Liberty Bonds, in savings plans, and donated significant sums of money to the Red Cross and other aid organizations on behalf of those suffering in Europe because of the war. The association also assisted its members who had gone off to war. Because of the war it was decided to disband the youth organization called The Vishkov Young Men that had been established earlier, and it merged with the Vishkov Association. Aside from the members of the former Vishkov Young Men, the association took in other new members. Our association needed a large hall where it could hold its meetings. At that time, the Vishkov Association also began to become involved in general Jewish community life in the United States. To the extent that we were financially able we supported an array of important institutions and activities. In one case, we also provided assistance to the shirt-workers' union that had gone out on strike.

Apart from the above activities, our association distinguished itself in its work on behalf of those suffering in Vishkov because of the war, and collected thousands of dollars from among our members. Right after the war our compatriot Benny Dovriss traveled as our special emissary to bring aid to the impoverished Jewish population of Vishkov. During the First World War we also participated in establishing the American Jewish Congress, which supported the historical resolution that called for the rebirth of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel [this would have been the Balfour Declaration]. Our delegates to the American Jewish Congress were our compatriots Benny Dovriss and Paul Kramer. Morris Topfel, who became our president in 1914, deserves a lot of credit for the Vishkov Association's expanded activity in those days.


4

One of the things that stimulated the desire to establish compatriots' associations in New York – as mentioned earlier – was the problem of cemeteries. Although in the old country it was possible to have a single cemetery for the entire community, this was not possible in New York because of the diversity of the Jewish population. In the early years, our Vishkov Association owned a small cemetery, part of the Mt. Zion Cemetery near New York. In 1911 the Association purchased a larger property at the Mt. Hebron Cemetery, but due to a shortage of funds, we were unable to construct a fence around the cemetery until 1923. The president at the time, Max Baslav, energetically took on the mission to build one. In 1923 a special fence committee that was set up executed the project. The issue was so important that to this day the Vishkov members are grateful to that committee for their work to set up the fence and at the same time increased the Association's assets by six hundred dollars.

The success in carrying out the work on the fence led not only to concern on behalf of the dead, but also provided important work for the living. There was an initiative to build our own building, a Vishkov center in New York, where all the compatriots could get together and engage in social activities. This impulse was a common one in Jewish life in those days because of good economic times and growing employment. Our association became very active in order to carry out the plan for the Vishkov center. It was the finest and most interesting period in the lives of Vishkov compatriots.


5

There were, however, internal disputes. Some of the large contributors quietly agitated against the plan. A proposal to dissolve the building fund that we had already put together was accepted in May, 1925, and the money was returned to the contributors. Nevertheless, because of our various undertakings that were part of the building fund several thousand dollars remained in the Association's funds.

At the time of the depression in the United States after 1929 our association did not give up its work in providing assistance for Vishkov compatriots, including for Vishkov itself. The Association provided financial assistance to its members and arranged free Chanukah concerts and other kinds of entertainment for members and their families.

Our association was intensively involved in activities during the Second World War. We bought thirty thousand dollars of government bonds, and hundreds of our young men served in the army. We participated in the United Jewish Appeal and in efforts on behalf of the Histadrut in Palestine, HIAS, yeshivas etc.

We still feel strongly about our responsibilities as a compatriots' organization. The truth is that we share our fate with the other compatriots' organizations in which the older members are the majority and the young people haven't become involved. We made valiant attempts and spent quite a bit of money to get the youth involved, but without success. We can only say that in our Vishkov Association we are emphasizing those things which are strongly rooted in Jewish nationalism and an attachment to Jewish traditions which we brought with us from the old country.

We are as involved as we ever were in campaigns on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal campaigns, the Histadrut, HIAS, yeshivas in New York, etc., and we are proud of the fact that our compatriots' association, to the extent possible, has contributed a brick to the building of the Jewish state. In this way we are striving with all our strength to maintain the beautiful traditions of our Vishkov Association in New York, from its establishment until this very day.


6

We should take this opportunity to make special mention in this survey of the activities of the General United Vishkov Aid Committee which was founded at the end of the First World War in 1918, and was an initiative of our Vishkov Association in New York. As with all of our work, in our United Vishkov Aid Committee we were concerned with all of the beautiful old traditions we were raised with. We did our aid work quietly, without any fanfare, and thereby always remembered what we learned in cheder, that 'man does not live by bread alone.' We provided assistance to the needy residents of our hometown Vishkov, and supported the Beis Yosef yeshiva and other institutions in Vishkov when they still existed.

[Photo page 223: Vishkov Ladies' Organization in New York]

As soon as our United Aid Committee was founded, we began an energetic and aggressive campaign, and collected thousands of dollars. In 1920, as mentioned earlier, we sent our compatriot Benny Dovris as our special delegate to bring and distribute aid among the needy Jews in Vishkov. We continued with our assistance work until the situation stabilized in Poland and the wounds of the First World War were healed somewhat. The Vishkov Aid Committee's activity subsided, but not for long.

In 1927-28 we again began to receive appeals for assistance from Vishkov. Our committee received a number of tearful letters for the Vishkov community, from the various institutions as well as from ordinary Jews in town, who complained about their situation. They wrote that poverty had spread again among the Jews in town. The economic and political situation of the Jews in Poland was becoming critical, and there was mass unrest against Jews. The livelihood of the Jews was badly affected.

The leaders and activists of the United Vishkov Aid Committee went to work to respond to the calls for help from our hometown. The heads of the Committee included the following activists: Morris Topfel, chairman; Mrs. Chekhanov, vice-chairman; Shmuel Videletz, cashier; Leo Chernin, finance secretary and Benny Zimmerman, recording secretary. The following served on the executive committee: Jake Zilberstein, Max Holland, William Radziminsky, Isaac Bengal, Rachel Radziminsky, Paul Kramer, Mrs. Molly Paraver, Morris Bernstein, Avraham Goldstein, Moshe Bornstein, Jacob Chelonko, Morris Levy, Avraham Aldak, Chaim-Aharon Jacobovich, Avraham Goldman and Sam Yagoda. They organized a theater event and undertook an energetic campaign. In a short time they collected a larger sum of money with which we assisted the charity fund, yeshiva, Talmud Torah, sick fund and hundreds of families in Vishkov.


7

Our United Vishkov Aid Committee asked the Vishkov community to set up their own committee representing all sections of the Jewish community, so that the collected monies could be distributed for the various needs in a democratic manner. The Vishkov community organized a united committee, and our Vishkov Aid Committee in New York received official notification about this. In Vishkov, the members were: Moshe Ostry, Moshe Pshemyarover, Yaakov Gemara (who is now in New York), Yosef Bindusky, Moshe Stern, Yehuda-Yosef Maltchik, Hershel Borstein, Nissan Bsheshinsky, Yitzchak Ber Rosenberg, Baruch Stollik and Mordechai Mendel Allenberg. They sent us a group photo of the committee which we published in our Association's newsletter.

Among the aid we provided for our hometown, we strongly supported the traditional ma'os chittim campaign (financial assistance for Passover). Our Vishkov compatriots in New York arranged all sorts of events such as Purim meals and Purim concerts, to which the activists William and Rachel Radziminsky devoted themselves and made a great contribution. Those events brought in a large amount of money, and because of it the Aid Committee was able to send contributions for Passover every year for the poor Jews in Vishkov. Of course, we didn't limit ourselves to such activities. We looked for constructive ways to assist the needy in our hometown throughout the entire year.

In 1937-1938, we received a letter from the community in Vishkov that reported that assistance was not only needed for the poor of Vishkov but also for Jews expelled from nearby villages such as Shchanka, who had arrived in Vishkov. We therefore had to expand our work, and the Aid Committee was reorganized for that purpose. Yechiel Borstein was selected as finance secretary and Rachel Radziminsky as vice-chairman. We began a new energetic campaign, and the response of the compatriots was a warm one. This encouraged us to then hold a theater performance in Maurice Schwartz's Art Theater which presented I. J. Singer's Brothers Ashkenazi. The event yielded around three thousand dollars for our aid work.

Over the years, we regularly (three times, often more – four times a year) sent assistance to the above-mentioned institutions in Vishkov. In the winter we sent money for heating for poor Jews. Several hundred families benefited from the Passover Ma'os Chittim campaign. The sum of two hundred dollars was sent to repair the fence at the cemetery in Vishkov. Besides our yearly donations for the charity fund in Vishkov, we gave money to the American Joint Distribution Committee who also contributed thousands of dollars. Thanks to this effort, the Vishkov Fund received a special sum of two thousand dollars.

The important aid work that the Vishkov charity fund provided with the money we sent in those years has been extensively described in the publication, Folks Hilf [People's Aid] which was published by the leadership of the charity movement in Poland. In the account, special mention was made of the fact that money was being provided to Jews expelled from neighboring villages of Shchanka, Brianchik, Poremba and Divky. This money assisted people with their livelihoods. This was how we helped out the poor Jews in our hometown and in the nearby areas as long as it was possible to send help. With the outbreak of World War Two, the activity of our United Vishkov Aid Committee was suspended temporarily.


8

At the end of 1944 we started to resuscitate the Aid Committee. We understood that we had to be prepared extend assistance to the hapless remnant of the Vishkov community after the war ended. Right after the end of the war, we established contact with some of our compatriots who at that time were located in Silesia and in the refugee internment camps in Germany. Our first act was to provide food packages to some individual compatriots whose addresses we had obtained. At that time we found out that there were survivors also in Sweden and Italy, and we immediately send food packages and other forms of assistance. There was an urgent need for prayer shawls and prayer books when survivors from Vishkov asked us for them. It gave us tremendous satisfaction to meet such requests. Meanwhile, when the survivors of the Vishkov community left Silesia and, together with other Vishkov survivors, started to move to Israel, we quickly sent off needed assistance to them in the Jewish homeland.

With even greater sums we helped out a number of new Vishkov arrivals in New York, and for some of them we were able to obtain housing and furniture. Our United Aid Committee continues to provide annual contributions to the United Jewish Appeal. During the Arab invasion of Israel in 1948 we made a special contribution of $ 1,500, and between 1919 and 1948 our United Vishkover Aid Committee collected and distributed sixty thousand dollars. In recent years we have been concentrating on providing assistance to the survivors from Vishkov who live in Israel.


9

It is worth mentioning our Vishkov Tehillim [Psalms] Society that is actually quite a bit older than our association. Being traditional Jews, our compatriots continued their traditional life-style and established a Vishkov Tehillim Society in New York, which also owns a synagogue on the Old East Side of New York.

The New York Vishkov Tehillim Society has a beautiful and long-standing history. Documents that have been preserved till today show that the Society was founded in a hundred years ago in 1864. The synagogue, which still stands today on the East Side, was built by the Society sixty years ago, in 1904. It was built by our compatriot, the late Moshe Fleischman, and his son-in-law, Yehudah Ratkovsky. The synagogue's founder, Moshe Fleischman, was president of the Vishkov Tehillim Society for many years. The synagogue also established its own chevra kaddisha [burial society] over ninety years ago, when the Society did not yet have its own building for its synagogue. For many many years one of our members was the Shepser Rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua, the son of Rabbi Moshe Yosef, and when he passed away, we suffered a great loss; we continue to maintain his memory.

The synagogue of the Vishkov Tehillim Society carried a good reputation on the East Side, and we still have loyal congregants who are businessmen and devoted activists. Our Society has always felt an important responsibility for keeping our compatriots and friends together who celebrate weddings and other events in our synagogue, and who feel as if the synagogue is the same as the one in the old country. Our compatriots also gather together in the synagogue for traditional celebrations at Chanukah, Purim and Simchat Torah. To this day, if someone is looking for one of our compatriots, all they have to do is ask for him in the synagogue and someone will be able to help.

Over the years our Vishkov Tehillim Society always supported various charitable organizations and yeshivas in New York. A large share in this important work was our Vishkov Ladies' Auxiliary, which was always involved in our United Vishkov Aid Committee. The Vishkov Ladies' Auxiliary can take pride in its important work which is imbued with the finest Jewish traditions.


10

I would like to end with a brief look at the new institution we have established – the United Vishkov Aid Committee for Israel – through which we are centralizing our work for our surviving compatriots in the Jewish State. The United Vishkov Aid Committee for Israel was organized in 1957, with Mrs. Rachel Radziminsky as its chairman; Mrs. Radziminsky had been involved with our Aid activities for many years. W. Radziminsky is the cashier and Charles Applebaum is the executive secretary. The following Vishkov organizations are included in this committee:

  1. Vishkov Tehillim Society;
  2. Vishkov Association, with Morris Topfel as its president and G. Zeidenberg as its vice-president.
  3. The Vishkov branch of the Workmen's Circle.
  4. The first Vishkov Ladies' Auxiliary, with Mrs. Molly Parover as its president and Mrs. Enny Fein as its secretary.
  5. The Ladies' Auxiliary of the Vishkov Tehillim Society, with Rachel Radziminsky as chairman.
  6. The Vishkov Building Club, founded four years ago by our compatriots Rabbi Zvi Bronstein, Rabbi Silver, Saul and Mindel Steinmark, Lilly Yoskovitch and Charles Applebaum.

We fervently hope that the United Vishkov Aid Committee for Israel will be able to rise to its calling and carry out great work which is needed to help our compatriots in the Jewish State to get settled and build their homes in their own land. Through this effort, we will eternalize the holy names of our destroyed hometown of Vishkov and build a memorial to it in the reborn Jewish State.

We also expect that the unified effort on behalf of Israel will be beneficial to our various Vishkov organizations that have been established in New York. The idea that we and Israel will help each other is a general principle applicable to our Vishkov compatriots as well. We know that the work for Israel can keep us together so that our organizations can continue to exist and that we can continued to maintain the traditions and memory of our hometown.


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