The name of our Society in North America is Hevra Bnei Ya'acov David of Vishogrod. Its Hebrew name indicates an inner yearning for Jewishness. It has always been so, in every country, when assimilation threatened the Yiddish, and there was danger of the language of the country taking over for everyday use, for convenience's sake and as means of communication with the local inhabitants, the Jews have fallen back upon Hebrew, their national holy language, to maintain their community life according to the eternal Jewish spirit.
The Hevra was founded the 11th of November 1881. The founders were: Wolf Rosin, Israel Wolman, Noah Seiman, Hirsch Lovinsky, Max Kon and David Nuss.
Their purpose was to help the Vishogrod Jewish newcomers to America, to make it easier for them in their loneliness in society in the strange country, to aid them morally and assist them, in the first place, materially.
Until 10 years back they had a Gmilus-Hesed Fund.
The old comers are all dead.
At the present time the Hevra is managed by the brothers Avraham and Moshe Sheet, the former the President and the latter his deputy and Vice-President. The Secretary is Aharon Salzman from Suchachev (Sochaczew). Sam Borenshtein is the cashier.
Some years ago the eighteenth anniversary was celebrated.
The Vishogrod union (Society) is one of the oldest in the United States, and its age is like this of positive Zionism; the year of its founding coincides nearly exactly with the beginning of the Hovevei Zion. So you might say that in the American Society Jews of Vishogrod have expressed intuitively a sense of brotherly responsibility, and thus have sustained a Jewish way of life and Jewish community life in America, where Jews on one hand have aspired, once-for-all, to go to Eretz-Israel, and, on the other hand, until Eretz-Israel, they were obliged to look meanwhile for another Golus (Diaspora) stopover.
If we see now Jewish grandchildren going from America to Israel, and if Jewishness still is holding its own in the golden alluring country, this is so, perhaps, thanks to the then Jewish intuition, in which our Vishogrod people have their share, too.
It started about the year 1915. Our small town was then under German occupation. Several young people joined and founded a library under he name Zionist Library. This was the commencement of general Zionism in town.
Of the founders I remember: Yoske Levin, Ichl Gersht, Yuda-Leizer Klein, Yeheil-Moshe Kohn, Meir Con, and myself, the youngest among them.
The library was at Shmuel Lichtenshtein's. The first money came from various donors. In addition to it we collected books from house to house and we also bought every now and them new books in Warsaw.
This activity made itself well felt in town and it had an invigorating influence on society.
Every now and then young people were added, as Moshe Michal Zhichlin, Henich Kohn and Marcus Gemach, Shimon-David Kon, Yidl Deutsch, Simcha Gedalis and Gershon Epshtein. The latter one started giving Hebrew lessons.
There were many girls, too, who helped with distributing the books to the lenders. I do not remember their names, but I can think of Malka Shoichez, Golda Kon, Golda Eizenberg, and others.
Afterwards a Dramatic Section was created under the direction of a Jew from Lodz, by the name of Peies. He had come to work as a carpenter at the bridge on the Vistula. He was a fine singer. His sister too, acted at our Section. I remember her especially in her roles as Dina'le in Bar-Kochba and Goldfaden's Shulamith.
There was also conducted enlightening ideological work. We held frequent meetings, with Yoske Levin in the chair and me keeping the records.
We had also dancing parties in the evenings. The town was in an uproar when it became known that boys and girls danced together.
There were fine and lively activities.
But the library was the focus. It numbered some hundreds of books, in Yiddish, in Hebrew and a few in Polish.
Later on new groups came into being, new names Zeirei-Zion, Poalei-Zion, and others. Everybody wanted to achieve something after his own fashion. The means and ways were dreamy and dreams are individual; but all the roads were leading towards on goal: to reclaim Eretz-Israel and be a people on its own.
Until the end of the 19th and the commencement of the 20th century there were with is a few Hoveve-Zion, among them the late President of the Zionist Organization, Nahum Sokolov born in Vishogrod; and Pinhas Levine of blessed memory. We cherish especially the memory of the late Pinhas Levine. He was an exclusively fervent and sincere Hoveve-Zion and he harbored in his heart a flaming feeling for everything concerned with the Zionist redemption. I remember him very well. When I used to talk with him about Eretz-Israel, his face was glowing and out of it shone the vision of the Jewish State. His only desire was to live to see the Jewish state. Unfortunately, he did not achieve his desire.
Nevertheless, he was the vessel of Zionist vision and flag bearer of the Zionist dream, without leaving after him a successor and bearer of ideas.
The Jewish youth of Vishogrod of those times had no modern aspirations. It was brought up by tradition-abiding parents, who did not let enter any new ideas into their souls; so naturally they followed into the footsteps of their parents. The child in the small town was from earliest youth harnessed in the old way. At the age of three the boy entered the Heder. At the age of seven, he already knew his prayers and Humash with Rashi and had already made his start in Gemarah until bar-mizva. Then part of the youth passed over to study at the beis-midrash, and part of them went to other towns, to the Yeshivos, eating days in rotation at rich Jewish homes in those towns.
Other young people were workmen: cobblers, tailors, gaiter makers, watch menders; or they assisted their parents making a living for their family, in most cases numbering 8-10. They worked in the business of their father, a food store, dry-goods store, hardware and others. After having grown up and married, the children joined their father's business, living and working together...
Most of the newly-founded families, if they wanted a life on their own, found no room for themselves in the parents' shops and could not have another business, not having any money, any courage and any training for it. The rest was the work of the Polish anti-Semitism, which restricted Jewish initiative and energy.
In the twenties of the twentieth century, the Jewish Polish youth, and so did in Vishogrod as well began thinking about their future and about the situation they found themselves in. The young people woke up, saw their parents had not prepared them in any way. They started organizing, founding libraries, let their eyes roam and opinions progress, and with the aid of culture and organization try and solve their own problems.
The library, which was founded, contained books, donated by everyone for the use of society.
The lending library opened with 50 books in Yiddish. A few years later it numbered already 1000 books, in Yiddish and in Hebrew. All that with the help of membership fees, enthusiasm and dedication to the case, given to it by the Vishogrod youth, out of their knowledge that the library conveyed to broadening the horizon and opinions of the people in the town.
The founders of the library, who dedicated to it their abilities and their ardent will, were Pinhas Levine, Yoske Levine, David Lipman, Yuda Eliezer Klein, Hanoch Kon, Yehiel and Meir Kon, Feivel Meir Lichtenshtein, Ichl Gersht and Tova Goldman.
The Zionist Center was the name given to it, and indeed, it was the center, the focus and heart of Zionist activity. Young people began reading the books; meetings were taking place, lectures, and gatherings for discussion on various themes of interest to youth. The library was the driving power.
The discussions were deep probing, lively and stormy. Guest speakers came from the neighborhood, and delegates of the Warsaw Zionist organization as well, bent on instructing the youth and getting them to think and modernize their views of life generally, and Jewish life and lot in particular.
The youth drank in the novelty and were agitated. They started taking part in all life-important events, in town and in Poland, and to give expression, in word and deed, in any local and world-wide sphere, as problems were coming up and asking for solution.
Soon institutions were founded in Vishogrod, committees of Keren-Kayemet and Keren-Hayessod were created, a Jewish Bank with a Gmilus-Hassidim Fund to help Jewish businessmen and workmen in their existence under the heavy pressure of increasing anti-Semitism in Poland.
During elections for Sejm and Senate the Vishogrod youth played an important part, in explaining facts that ought to be known, ad-becoming members of the election committees, with all their full-blooded temper.
During those years there came also into being in town a leftist youth movement that seized upon the attention of young people and brought about a political rift in their midst.
The Zionist Center became the battleground of the wrestling's; both parties wanting to dominate in it and in other institutions as well; but it was the Zionism only that was meant to be undermined, for it had revealed the abyss laying in wait for the Jews there, be it in under allegedly fair regime of Gentiles or in a chauvinistic Old regime.
After a long time of quarrel and arguments, the Zionistic-minded youth won, and the Leftists were obliged to leave the Zionist Center and formed a library of their own under the name of Workers Library. As a matter of fact, this was the center of Communist activity of the entire neighborhood and as it was asserted then, it was supported by the Russian Communist Party. They considered the Vishogrod leftist readers efficient people who would be able to conduct the work in the whole vicinity, and so they cultivated them and looked after them.
The struggle between the two extreme tendencies was aggravated in the Jewish public life. There were important matters at stake, especially concerning the solution of Jewish existence and the future of Jewish youth.
Once the leftist elements forced upon us a public dispute and challenged the Zionists to a debate on the theme: Zionism reality or utopia.
There was no way out for us, we were obliged to take up the challenge. We had joint meetings, in which an agenda was laid down and the succession of speakers for both sides was fixed. For ourselves, we decided to stick closely to the rules agreed upo9n, while having doubts as to the other party: they were candid about their motto that the end justifies the means. It was difficult for us to compete with suchlike fairness.
The dispute took place in the biggest hall in town, at the firemen's.
For the Zionist side appeared Hanoch Kon and Yuda Eliezer Lichtenshtein and Tova Yudith Goldmann.
The hall was crammed full; over 150 people came to be present at the word-combat, in order to sort out some worked problems. Everything was ready for openhearted exchange of opinions about whose points were for the best of us Jews. But as foreseen, the leftists did not fulfill the agreement, and in order to suppress results which were unfavorable for them, they did not allow our first speaker to finish his 30-minute speech, as agreed upon; within the first 10 minutes they burst into song of the International, and disturbed and broke up the meeting.
The victory was ours, nevertheless. The town was left with the impression that we defended our standpoint well and logically, whereas the left party took recourse to demagogy and used arguments that were often far from truth.
From then on the town divided up into adherents of both sides and two extremist directions were formed, though not similar in size and numbers. The struggle continued until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Since this dispute society in town came to life. The Zionist Organization was held in high esteem in Vishogrod and its influence was felt in all spheres, endeavoring to guide the results to Zionism and Zionist aims.
Our representatives were in the town council, in the bank and in the Jewish community council. Zionist activity widened, Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayessod were widely accepted institutions, bringing in each year more money. And people began thinking correctly about emigrating to Israel, either by means of the allotted certificates or even illegally.
The relation of the Hassidic-orthodox population to us was a complicated phenomenon. The urge for knowledge and the way to it, which we had opened in the circles of Jewish youth, earned us the hate of the religious classes of the people, of the Agudas-Israel especially. They simply hated us, whereas the leaders of the Agudas-Israel acknowledged us as equals as spokesmen on all questions of Jewish life.
The Zionist Organization introduced 4 representatives in the Town Council, out of 8 Jews in it, and all of them were elected into the town administration. The leadership of the Jewish part in the town council passed into our hands, and our group was dominant in all important questions in town administration. It should be noted that we succeeded to come to an understanding with the Aguda, and with their help we carried through, for the first time in history of town councils, the vote for a yearly sum from the town budget for the Bnot-Ya'akov school. This was in 1933. This is, perhaps, also the only instance in history of Agudas-Israel town council members voting a subsidy for Keren-Kayemet.
In the thirties Sklodowski released the slogan: To beat he Jews no; to boycott them yes. This meant extermination of Jews but with elegant means. It was an anti-Semitic aim, to be obtained in European-democratic ways. The danger was very severe, for it lent legalization to the Endek part of the population, to cool their claims that the government was not sufficiently Polish-nationalistic. We were aware of the danger and were standing by, should it happen with us.
And it did happen: Soon after Sklodowski's appeal the district governor of Plock issued an order to pull down within 4 weeks an entire Jewish quarter in town in which for generations had lived about 100 Jewish families. These were housed passed on from father to son; there lived the children, as the self-evident heirs, in a number of double families of 5-6 in a single room, and their workshops, being their livelihood, in the same.
The alleged motive was to beautify the looks of the town, but the aim was to take away from the Jews the land and the basis of their existence. Now the Zionist town councilors took a stand, and with their presence and energy they cancelled the cruel edict. The Zionist councilors really and truly saved Jewish life and property from ruin and kept Jews from despairing.
We succeeded in coming to an understanding with the town councilors of the Government Party: we had to vote their other bills against the Endeks, and they to annual with their votes the order against the Jews. Before that we caused the execution to be delayed for a year, allegedly in order to build the Jews other apartments; but the anti-Semitic intention of the Endek-minded district governor never was realized.
When relating all this and recalling to mind all our deeds, there turns up a new before our eyes the Zionist Center as a party or movement of immense value and power.
This was a human elite, who with deep national intuition led their adherents towards a Jewish nationally secure life, for where they were, there was no longer any room and future for Jews. But at the same time they did not neglect the Jews in town until the time of their emigration, and defended their community, existence and safety, with energy and courage.
The General Zionist Party in Vishogrod was a movement of the ideas of the future and of the politics of the present, which, perhaps, in the course of years, would have saved also its opponents in Vishogrod if the years had been in its hands, at its disposal. It is deeply regretted that the will of fate was different.
In remembering and mourning our leaders, our youth and comrades, let us all recall friendly our opponents, too.
They were precious men, acting according to their lights and their opinions. Let us mourn them and keep the memory of all precious Jews of Vishogrod may the Lord revenge their blood.
The beginning of the thirties was marked with growing indifference and lack of action. It seemed that the pioneering ideal had reached its climax; the Zionist movement was declining and facing a fall. It was to be feared that the whole idea was a result of momentary enthusiasm, fading before its being brought into reality, and that it had come to an end.
At this point, the Revisionist movement was established. It was led by Z. Jabotinsky and Meir Grossman, and brought about a change in the situation.
Vishogrod was not left outside the sphere of the new movement. It developed quickly, and included all the ramifications: Beithar, Hatzohar and Beith-Hachayal. It attracted youth of diverse backgrounds, especially Zionist youth, whose thirst for action made them give up principles and political platform, in order to be part of the new movement.
Most of the youth gathered in Beithar. The Zionists in town approved of it and let them use their big hall and library. The heads of the movement in town were Moshe-Leib Dymant and Mendel Greenboim, whose influence and blessed activity was well felt everywhere.
There were fundamental educational activities, including various fields of interest. The local cell consisted of youth between the ages of 14-18, who were divided into groups. The meetings were conducted by group leaders elected by the cell leaders. On Saturdays the whole cell assembled, and after roll call they heard news concerning Zionist world activities. The outstanding figure in these meetings was Moshe-Leib Dymant. His lectures and explanations impressed us all and are still remembered.
In addition to Zionist activities, the new movement also renewed the library and hold meetings of questions an answers, which everybody could attend. Another thing they did was to form a dramatic circle, directed by Mendel Greenboim. IT was the only group in town whose theatrical performances were all conducted with the revival of Jewish heroism. The plays had nothing to do with the traditional Jewish themes, as martyrdom. Instead, the heroes of the contemporary period appeared on the stage, Trumpeldor, Meir Chazanovitz and others, and they served as models to the youth.
The Beithar cell in Vishogrod was considered one of the best and accomplished in Poland. I remember an anecdote from that time. I was 13 years old. A group of children of my age asked to be accepted as members in the movement. We were rejected because of our young age. At that time the ceremony of raising the Beithar flag took place in Vishogrod. Mr. Aharon Props, the representative of Beithar in Poland, came to town to honor the celebration with his presence. We used the occasion to realize our desire. In the midst of the ceremony, the three of us (Meir Baum, Him Lichtenstein and myself) climbed the platform and complained to the guest about the injustice being done to us. He ordered to accept us, though we were too young. That was due to the good renown of our cell; it was trusted to be capable to manage youngsters like us.
On the same day, after the ceremony, all our members paraded the streets. The parade was so exciting that the leaders of the Left feared it might attract their own people. In order to prevent it, they rudely assaulted the quiet marching people.
The results of the enthusiastic activity were soon to appear. Three of us Mendel Greenboim, Haim Bilgoray and Tevia Rosenfeld went to the Hachshara to prepare themselves for later emigration to Israel.
But things were peaceful for a shirt time only. Soon there emerged some people who did not agree with Beithar, for ideological and other reasons. They separated and established Hechalutz. It was the declaration of qualifying for and limiting oneself to emigration to Israel and realization of the ideals. They regarded the current activity of the movement as a waste of the potentialities of youth in too many directions. The main figure in the Chalutz was Moses Zhichlin (Man), together with Wolf Schladov, who is living now in Australia.
After a time, the General Zionists found that the Revisionist Movement platform was not actually acceptable to them. They renewed their activity in the General Zionist movement in town. The leaders of this movement were Henich Cohen, Feivl-Meir Lichtenstein, Baruch Shpigel, Moshe Cohen, Eliezer Rotbart, and also Menahem Silberstein, who is living nowadays in the U.S.A. They too, established a youth cell, and called it The Zionist Youth; it was led by Avraham Rotbart, now living in Israel. Some of the best youth in Vishogrod were part of this movement. Their activities included summer camps, whose main subject was preparing for Israel.
We are now approaching dark days in the history of the whole Zionist movement. I am referring to the eighteenth Congress, in which the Revisionist movement seeded from the Zionist movement, and established their own movement under the leadership of Z. Jabotinsky. The crisis made itself felt in Vishogrod too. Part of the Revisionists in town including people who did not agree with the separation, decided to stay within the Zionist movement. Among them was the leader Meir Grossman, Lezier Klein, Avraham Wolman, Hanania Lewin, Meir Baum, and myself.
At the same period there was in Vishogrod a religious Zionist movement Mizrachi. It was moderate and avoided extremes. Its people were realistic as saw in the Zionist movement a heaven-sent sign, which should be followed. At the head of the movement in Vishogrod were Ickle Gersht, the bank manager, Haim, Meir Cohen and others. They, too, had their own club and prayer congregation. This movement founded the Yavne school, which was the first in town to teach spoken Hebrew. The lessons took place at the club of the movement, and its main figure was Haim Tyk. The first teacher was Mr. Chaleb, brought over from Plock. Mr. Chaleb's influential activity brought with it a development of Hebraic values and a revival of the Hebrew language. Both his cultural activity outside the school and his son Moses' activity in Hechalutz, added a special flavor to Zionist activity in our town. When the family left Vishogrod and emigrated to Israel, the place was taken by the teacher Nissenboim from Brisk. Who continued in the same line. Savage anti-Semitic feeling was growing in Poland in the middle thirties, and we began to talk about preparing bodily. The Maccabee club was established for that purpose. It was a lively club, very active, and we supported it with our savings. We could expect help from nobody, and our independence was a source of satisfaction to us.
We concentrated mainly on athletics, but we also had a football team and others. Luckily, we had a good athletics teacher in our elementary school. I mean Frenkel from Plock. Thanks to him, our athletic team was successful. He also trained some of us to be sports instructors. I, too, went through such a training course, and became a girl's instructor.
For a short time we thought the ground was safe under our feet. But money difficulties were increasing; the leaders of the Zionist movement in town made efforts to win back their youth from Maccabee. To be able to continue its existence, Maccabee had to accept anyone, even Communist youth. But the leaders of the other Zionist movements accused Maccabee of giving legal covering to the Communist activity which was at that time an underground movement. We justified ourselves by claiming that it was the only possible way to continue our existence. After a prolonged discussion we won, and continued to provide physical training to any Jew. We continued till the Second World War. Among the persons outstanding in their activity were Alter Layoutz, Dvora Gmach, Tevia Apelboim, and (may they live long) Itche Kaizman and Joseph Levin, living in the U.S.A.
We shall not exaggerate saying that all Zionist youth movements in Vishogrod were leading a fruitful activity in the town's social life, as well as imparting the youth Zionist ideals. But the stimulus to all this activity was Beithar's. It armed the Jewish people and started a new period in Zionist social and educational activity.
My report is dedicated to the memory of those who worked and gave their time and abilities to educate a generation of Zionist consciousness. I hope my words will serve as a memorial to the blessed activity of those who did not live to see the realization and fruit of their ideals and work.
The older ones were not very happy about it. They called the books in Yiddish an abomination and did not want, that little books keep away their children from weighty and earnest volumes; they did not want the Yiddish language to tear them away from the Holy Language.
The book buyer was Yoske Levin of blessed memory. He used to go every week to Warsaw to buy goods for the shopkeepers of the town, so he bought also the books for the library.
There was no accommodation for the library and readers, so every few weeks another boy kept the library with him and distributed the books.
The money to buy books came from the few cents paid everybody lending a book.
One of the subscribers was Jacob Biderman, a grandson of the Rabbi's. Once a relative of his, a deeply religious man, caught him reading a Yiddish book. He snatched it from him, started turning its small leaves, smaller than those of the Gmara, casting here and there a glance into it, knit his brows, and took him to task: where from, you young card, have you got such books?
I remember, it was one of Baruch Spinoza's works. Both the author and the work were forbidden and dangerous even with simple Jews.
Yankale told him the truth: Gabriel the Rembovian's son gives such books and others, and whoever wants, comes and reads. The Jew of blessed memory listened to him and continued inquiring: "and where do you get the money to buy books"
"Each boy must pay a certain amount, and this money goes into buying", answered him Yankale. The man stood deliberating for a moment, put his hand slowly into his pocket, took out a ruble and said to Yankale: "g, give this money to Gabriel and tell him to send me". Here the books were enumerated which the Jew ordered to be sent to him. The list is not important; important is the fact in itself that the well-known man would read books in Yiddish.
The town would not have believed it, and who knows... perhaps they would have appraised him differently.
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