Translated from the Yiddish by Martin Bornstein After a passage of time of 50 years it is difficult to depict for our generation, what a strain and considerable work was achieved through a small bunch of Belchatower youth in the struggle against the aggression of clericalism and Hasidism. They (the Hasidim) had in that time reigned in Belchatow against Jews or small groups (this coming) from the cursed (cholera d) Hasidim: Ger(er) (Gur(er)), Alexander(er), Walborsz(er), and Ruspsz(er). In their hands was the rule over the Jewish community and its institutions, and they were against culture, knowledge, progress, and freedom for Jews woe was to anyone who did not follow in their path.
Belchatower from the older generation certainly remember those times, when the economic situation of the Belchatow Jews was not looked upon as a shining one (most being weavers, village wanderers (peddlers), and small peddlers). They always waged a holy war of hegemony above the holy instrument, above (over) the community. Hatred reigned, as well as controversy, fights and Jewish arguments transpired among the Hasidim. This would take place between one rabbi and with the Hasidim of another rabbi. In one thing they were united, in the fight against knowledge, against a newspaper or book, against striving to learn, against culture and schooling, and against the revolutionary youth who wanted to work, study, gain knowledge and fight for a free life. The war between the parents and children began, it took on all types of middles, almost to block (foil), to hold back or be harmful to the new stream (movement). Those who were on the side of said holy war, even used reports that denounced others to the Czarist rulers.
One must however notice, that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, newspapers began to arrive to the Jews of Belchatow, and among them also Ha Tzefirah (The Herald), which was hidden and even willingly read by Hasidim. It was quietly being sold shekels (money) from the world zionist organization. In the years 1905 1906 the Poalei Tzion party was organized in Belchatow, and its delegate participated in the world congress of Poalei Tzion in Cracow in the year 1908.
Through the influence of several friends of the Lodz Tzareh Tzion, who from time to time came to Belchatow, a Tzareh Tzion group of Belchatow youth was established. Almost so that they should not be arrested and sent off to Siberia, on account of Tzareh Tzion being illegal in Russia, a lot of the friends of Tzareh Tzion registered themselves as members of the Odessa Committee (the Hovevi Tzion). The Hovevi Tzion (Lovers of Zion) being a group whose activity was permitted under Czarist rule in Russia and who had as an aim the creation and running of bath houses in Israel.
A legal group was established for (the creation of) a library and reading room, that stood under the influence of Tzareh Tzion. Several hundred books were collected and a library and reading room were opened on the spot. Evening courses were organized, lectures and evenings were arranged, they were called assemblies, that dealt with all Jewish matters and (where) one learned the geography of the land of Israel.
About 50 subscribers were generated for The Jewish People, a zionist weekly, that was published in Warsaw, under the editor Yitzchak Greenbaum.
When a world war broke out in 1914, the activities of the Tzareh Tzion in Belchatow were strengthened.
A). By organizing a Jewish self defense against Polish ruffians (pogroms).
B). By organizing constructive and social help for the needy.
C). By opening a union of the Tzareh Tzion organization in the surrounding towns and organizing a collection for Keren Kayemit LYisrael and for transferring it to Vienna (the zionist congress).
D). By cultural activities among the youth, the opening of a school for children and evening courses for adults.
E). Speakers were invited from the larger towns/cities to gatherings of national celebration.
F). At every opportunity evenings of a cultural character (nature) were arranged.
G). A union was established with the name Redemption of the Land (Geh-ulot Ha-aretz), for (the purpose of) creating baths (bathhouses) and for sewer systems.
The Belchatower young men and women worked energetically and industriously during the times of the world war from 1914 1918, and for whom it was loose (easy), for (the sake of) their townspeople and for their people. Immediately after the first World War 10 score young men and women were among the first that left for the land of Israel as pioneers, workers, and constructors. The mass (majority) of them participated in agriculture, industry, and trade (professions). They also maintained a live contact with their town, (and) as a result you can find now several hundred Belchatower in our land in Israel, where they are active activists in the upbuilding work of the Jewish state.
It is difficult to create a concept of the social and cultural life in the little shtetls of pre-war Poland, if one does not first of all become familiar with the activities of the various political and religious groups, because the whole social life of the little shtetls in Poland was concentrated around the parties.
(Tseirei Zion): Meir Warszawski, Berl Waldman,
Yechiel Meir Krawiczki [Kravitzky],
Meir Jakubowicz, Yishayah Langnas,
and David Lusczanowski [Lustshanovski]
One can assert with full certainty that 95% of the youth of Belchatow were organized in parties. Also the older generation was for the most part organized in parties or religious groups.
I will attempt here to give a picture of the activity of the Zionist groups in Belchatow, whose activity is well known to me.
The founders and first party workers of Mizrachi were Yechiel Borochowicz, Yosef Lejb Gelbard, Avraham Ber Zilbersztejn, and Yitzhak Goldminc. It is worthwhile, in a few lines, to give a few biographical details about just the first four Mizrachi elders in Belchatow.
Yechiel Borochowicz a Chasidic young man with a small amount of secular education, he gave himself over with Chasidic ecstasy to the Zionist activity in the religious circles. He created a meeting hall, founded a prayer house [bet tefilah] and held fiery lectures, intertwined with the Words of our Sages [in the Talmud], about colonization of Eretz Israel. He literally gave away his life for the Belchatow Jewish population. In 1919, during the typhus epidemic that had raged in the shtetl, he created a provisional hospital for typhus victims (in the building of the former Czarist Peace Court).
While working in the hospital as a volunteer nurse, he caught the disease from a typhus patient and died. The Belchatow Jewish population mourned for him for a long time. Incidentally, the Mizrachi library in Belchatow carried the name of Yechiel Borochowicz.
Among the leaders are found Kalman Gelbard and Mendel Lipman
[the sign in Hebrew says Kibbutz Yechiel of the
Mizrachi pioneers Belchatow]
Yosef Lejb Gelbard a traditional adherent of the Haskalah [the secular Jewish Enlightenment movement], he was at the same time a Gerer Chasid. In his private library, which was incidentally the biggest in the city, he collected Shas [the Talmud] and poskim [post-Talmudic commentaries], together with Professor Gretz and I. L. Peretz. Next to the Zohar [the holiest mystical book of the Kabbala], were found the works of Mitzkevitch, Shiller, Tolstoy, and others, in the original. Only selected individuals had access to his library. Only rarely would he lend secular intellectual [maskilishe] books to someone. He did not want unexpectedly to be a promoter of the Haskalah.
He made a living from a little grocery shop [speiz-kremel], in which his wife was employed, and from teaching. In the czarist period he taught Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and German; after the independence of Poland Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish. He also supplemented his income by writing requests to the court and to other government offices. He also gave legal advice, using the legal codes which were found in his library.
Yosef Lejb Gelbard was one of the founders of Mizrachi back when he prayed in a Gerer stibl [small Chasidic house of prayer]. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, he was among the most active of the party workers of Mizrachi. He was a delegate from Mizrachi to various institutions: chairman of the Jewish community, councilman in the city council, etc. Because of his honesty and decency, he was loved by the Jewish and also the Christian population.
Abraham Ber Zilbersztejn Among the Belchatow Jewish population, his name was not well known, although he was among the most active of the party workers of Mizrachi, where he held the most responsible offices. He was a very modest, unassuming man, who never pushed himself ahead and hated every koyfets berosh [someone who is the first to jump out and the first to speak]. Abraham Ber did his work in the party without noise and clamor, but constantly energetically and successfully.
[right to left]
Abraham Ber Zilbersztejn was the founder and leader of the Yavneh school in Belchatow, where a whole generation was educated in the spirit of Eretz Israel and became skilled readers of Hebrew in the Sephardic dialect. He had categorically declined the director's office [minahel amt] in the school, although he found himself at that time in extremely bad financial condition. He displayed a very earnest interest in working for the good of society. He always came to the meetings of Keren Kayemet [JNF the Jewish National Fund], Keren Hayesod [the Palestine Foundation Fund], etc., five minutes before the designated time, although he knew that the meeting would first start an hour or even two later. Eventually he brought it about, furthermore, that all the others started coming punctually to meetings.
Even on his death bed, he did not give up his party work. The entire shtetl came to his funeral. But a strange thing happened there. At the funeral of Abraham Ber Zilbersztejn, who all his life managed to get along avoiding every conflict, an extremely big feud occurred. The Burial Society, which was ruled by the Agudah [a non-Zionist religious party], wanted to take revenge on the deceased person for his sharp anti-Agudah position. Because of that, they allotted him a plot in the cemetery which did not do honor to someone learned in the Torah [ben Torah], an Alexander Chasid, and a strongly pious Jew. If only the deceased's Chasidic party and friends had carried out the burial in another distinguished place.
Yitzhak Goldminc came from a worker family. Only a weaver, he was a knower and a lover of books. He spent every free hour with a book. A man with a hot temperament, he reacted to every injustice. Because of that, he had many opponents, even in his own Mizrachi circles. He was the last Mizrachi chairman in Belchatow. He was also on the managing committee of the kehila [the Jewish community] in the years 1935-1939, when the kehila was dominated by the Agudah on the basis of the notorious paragraph 20 [which allowed them to strike from the voting list every Jew who was according to their understanding not religious enough]. Belchatow Jews would go to the meetings of the kehila administration just to hear Yitzhak's angry attacks on the Agudah.
Also during the years of the Nazi occupation, when distinguished Mizrachi party workers took leading positions in the Judenrat [Jewish Council] (Yankel Ehrlich, Mendel Feld, Sholem Feder, Mendel Lipman and Meir Szukowski), Yitzhak Goldminc always criticized them publicly and categorically spoke out against all who worked with the Nazis.
Mizrachi was the strongest Zionist group in Belchatow and had a strong influence on the whole community life in the shtetl. It always had a majority in the Folksbank [People's Bank] (which was directed by Yankel Ehrlich) and in the span of several years also in the kehila (with Yosef Leyb Gelbard as chairman). In those years, the kehila had started to subsidize the Jewish library and sport clubs. The kehila budget had at that time also foreseen subsidies for Keren Hayesod [Palestine Foundation Fund] and KKL [Jewish National Fund], but the allotment was repeatedly annulled by the city-governor after intervention by the Agudah.
There existed also in Mizrachi a Yavneh school [Zionist religious school sponsored by Mizrachi], in which in which a large part of the youth of Belchatow received a national [Zionist] education. The language of study was Hebrew. The teachers had certificates from the Mizrachi teacher seminar.
In the last years before World War II, a large group of young Mizrachi elders settled in Belchatow. The most important among them were Mendel Lipman and Kalman Gelbard.
Mendel Lipman, a son of [the] Zdunska Wola dayan [morah horah = a rabbinical judge], a learned man, well versed in the Bible, spoke a beautiful Hebrew, and was gifted with a fine talent for public speaking. During his lectures, the school was always filled to capacity. He built his speeches on the Words of our Sages [in the Talmud], midrashim [Talmudic commentaries], and verses from the Bible. Mendel Lipman had a great influence on the internal life of Mizrachi. He was a member of the party council of the Mizrachi in Poland. In Belchatow, for a period of many years, he held the post of party secretary.
During the Nazi occupation, Mendel Lipman was a member of the Judenrat. Although no concrete complaint can be made against him, the office brought him no honor. It should also be mentioned that, when a relief committee for people from Belchatow was formed in the Lodz ghetto, he worked in it actively.
Kalman Gelbard, a son of observant, comfortable [balebatishe] parents, [he was] educated in cheder [Jewish religious elementary school] and later in the bet hamidrash [religious school of higher learning]. He distinguished himself everywhere with his quick intellect. He would understand the most difficult Talmud topic on the first reading. He solved the most complicated mathematical problems literally in seconds. He read a lot, had worldly knowledge, knew Yiddish and world history, learned book keeping, and finally also earned a diploma in teaching.
In the years 1922-1923, he was active in Tseirei Agudat Israel [the youth division of the non-Zionist Agudah] and was co-founder of their library. But when he came to the conclusion that the work of the Agudat Israel for Eretz Israel was not serious together with a group of his comrades he came over to Mizrachi, where he quickly became very active and later became the de-facto leader of Mizrachi.
Kalman tried to avoid all publicity and honors. He seldom appeared in public, but if he did, people listened carefully to his words.
He was also the leader and mentor for the Mizrachi youth. During the occupation, he was in contrast to other party members strongly opposed working with the Judenrat. In 1941 Kalman Gelbard was in the first transport that the Germans sent from Belchatow to the infamous Poznan camps. Thanks to his knowledge of the German language, he got work in the camp office, where he was much favored and was appointed second-in-command of the camp [unter-lager-fuhrer], i.e., ruler over life and death for all the camp inmates.
But even in that office, Kalman set an example as a mensch [human being] and a Jew. He used all his influence on behalf of the camp population. He tried with all means to improve the food supply (in this regard, he came across the infamous Rosensztok brothers, the young sons of Reb Yosef, the scribe).
He obtained permission that, of the food packages that had arrived from Belchatow, twenty percent should be taken out for the poor [literally, not well-to-do] Belchatowers who did not receive any packages. He cheered up the camp residents, urged them to maintain hygienic conditions, smoothed over for the S.S. camp commander the sins of the inmates, and thereby put his own life in danger. In the end, he was exposed for concealing offences, and he was removed from his office. In his place was put the Belchatower Tamir Wisniewski, and soon the tragic significance of the change was seen. Already in the first days of Wisniewski's rule, the Belchatower Jew Moshe Yosef Feld was hung for leaving the camp and seeking bread from the local farmers. Moshe Yosef had previously left the camp, but Kalman used to conceal this. Wisniewski, however, did not want to place himself in danger and sent Moshe Yosef to the gallows.
My words should serve as a gravestone for my friend Kalman Gelbard, who was killed in the camps.
The Mizrachi party worker Ben-tzion Berkowicz should also be mentioned. He totally devoted himself to the KKL [JNF]. That for him was a holy work, and to that work, he gave his time, energy and effort.
The General Zionist movement did not play a big role in the public social life of Belchatow. The entire work for the Fund for Eretz Israel was done by none other than the Organization.
There existed within the General Zionist Organization, a Pioneer Craftsman [Halutz Bal Meloche] [group] made up of artisans with a Zionist viewpoint who were preparing themselves to emigrate to Eretz Israel. They were directed by Eliezer Wengliszewski.
Already, the first administration of the General Zionist Organization created the Hanoar Hatzioni a Zionist youth group, which with time occupied a thoroughly respectable place in the Belchatow youth movement.
The last administration of the General Zionist Organization consisted of: Pinchas Szeslawski (chairman), Leybish Zuchowski, Hannah Haft, Baruch Rozencwejg, and Melech Pudlowski. In the People's Court Yehiel Meir Ferszter, Feige Pudlowska-Ajzen, and Eliezr Wengliszewski. In the Audit Committee Aharon Feiner and Meir Jakubowicz.
The first management of Hanoar Hatzioni consisted of attorney F. Regirer (rosh haken [head of the youth branch]), Hannah Haft, Yidel Altman, Bronke Drezner, and Ruchel Lejb.
In Hanoar Hatzioni comrades from all strata of the Jewish population in Belchatow came together. The majority got their education in the public schools and had no Jewish knowledge whatsoever. A small percentage came from Hashomer Hadas [Religious Guardian] and B'not Agudat Israel [Sons of Agudat Israel] and already had received a national-religious education.
Almost every day in Hanoar Hatzioni, Circles took place where information was given to the comrades about Jewish literature and history, Eretz Israel, etc. Also, from time to time, social themes were dealt with. The circles were led by Faiwel Regirer, S.H. Topolewicz, Zalman Feiner, Melech Pudlowski, and, from the youth themselves Meir Borochowicz and Aryeh Shatan.
The top management of Warsaw also would send instructors. Evening courses run by Aharon Pinchas Borensztejn were given in reading Hebrew.
Before the Second World War Hanoar Hatzioni in Belchatow was one of the largest youth groups, with almost one hundred members, their own library, football [soccer] team, and the best ping pong group. When, in the winter of 1938-1939, there was a ping-pong competition in Belchatow among all the local ping-pong clubs (Jewish, Polish, and German), Hanoar Hatzioni won the championship (thanks to the comrades Yankel Zilbergold and Aryeh Shatan).
The last management of Hanoar Hatzioni of Belchatow consisted of: Zalman Feiner (rosh haken), Bronke Drezner, Meir Borochowicz, Aryeh Shatan, Sime Wieszbitski, and Shmuel Nachtigal. When an underground movement was organized in the Lodz ghetto with the name, Chazit [Front], led by Aharon Jakobson, the Belchatower comrades took an active part in it.
On the picture: [right to left] Henech Szukowski, Leibel Feder,
Moshe Klub [sic], and Yossel Nus
There also existed in Belchatow a Revisionist Organization with all its branches, like Betar, Brit HaChayal and others. The Revisionist Organization did not play an important role in Belchatow Jewish communal life. An exception was the Sports Movement, in which Betar was well established.
Among the most active Revisionist leaders in Belchatow were: Gedalia Sztatlender, Moshe Klug, Abraham Nowak, and Henech Szukowski.
Also the Poalei Zion (Right) had a well organized movement with a leadership which existed on a high cultural plane, like: Aharon Pinchas Borenshteyn, Shmuel Chaim Kelman, Chaitshe Zigmuntowicz, Abraham Minc, Mosheh Binem Farber (now in Israel), Abraham Litzanowski, and Yidell Lejb.
The Rightist Poalei Zion had the largest library in the city.
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