by Aharon Gorelik
Translated by Odelia Alroy
My father was one of the best teachers in Bobruisk, but I didn't have the opportunity to go to Cheder, and I didn't go to school: firstly, because I was always poor and didn't have clothes, secondly, because father was always teaching the older children.
At home, I had to do all the work: carrying water and wood, helping mother grind the kernels of oats, to help my father, who didn't earn enough from his teaching. Grinding grain was a livelihood for many families in the outskirts of Bobruisk.
My mother used to argue that father didn't earn enough to live. But we children loved our father anyway, and everyone in the town had great respect for his proficiency in Kabbalah and for his writings from time to time in the Ha-Tzfirah [The Epoch, a Hebrew-language newspaper published in Poland]. True he had a great flaw—he was not a social climber, he was unable to get many pupils and he also didn't have a suitable cheder, where he could teach the children. Father should have taught me after cheder, in the evening, or Shabbos after the lunch. But he had a habit of getting up at dawn, awakening me and taking me to the morning prayers, to catch a bit of Torah there. The result was, that in the evening I would fall on my face—asleep—and therefore I could not listen to the discussion of the Gemara. And early in the morning, when father would study Kabbalah with the drivers and other neighbors from the surrounding villages, I looked in the book blankly.
Our house consisted of one room in which the oven was the center. It was big, in the style of the time, and everyone in the family would during the day climb on it to warm their bones. In winter it was very cold in the house. The floor was made of limestone, and absorbed the cold. We took turns climbing on the ledge to get warm. One would go up, the other would come down. Put on father's wool jacket to bring in wood, water or to run to the store to get kerosene. The worst thing was to stay in one spot in a corner near the door. There stood the millstone to grind the oats, in order to earn bread, of which there was only enough at home to smear one's lips. We would see how the bread disappeared while it was still fresh, almost live. At night we would turn up the oven, close the shutters and make the house like a sweat bath. We placed boards on the stools, and on the boards a mattress and that was a bed. We put a mattress on the table as well—another bed, on the floor quilts, pillows, stuffed with straw—also beds. We covered ourselves with clothes, furs, whatever was at hand, the more to keep warmer. In the midst of it all, the hens would enter under the oven, and the air would get so thick you could cut it with a knife.
The long winter nights in our house I remember well, while the summer nights would fly like birds.
When I became 11 our family began to get smaller. My older brother, Reuven, a 17 year old diligent young man with an excellent mind, went off to the Yeshiva, in Paritchi, to study and he would eat at people's homes there on assigned days. He became ill (his lungs) and he came home and lay on mother's and father's only bed and suffered until Erev Pesach when he died with everyone watching. During this time, mother and father slept on a board spread over stools.
Directly after Pesach, at my bar mitzvah, I went to work at a workshop making overshoes. I was a student for only three years. The first year I received a pair of overshoes, the second year 10 ruble and a pair of overshoes, and the third year—50 ruble—that is a ruble a week. I was supposed to earn a ruble a week the third year. I was salivating about my anticipated fortune. My parents were not pleased that I went to the shoemakers' street, it disappointed them that I became a tradesman. But I did as I saw fit.
In the shoemakers' workshop it was warm, there was a white coal stove, the windows were padded, like the rich people. Before, when I would go past Goldzin the boot maker with his leather business, I would think, that that must be good work, when I can learn that trade!
The workday was long, the boss, his wife, the children and the workers all bothered me: the boss's screaming and stamping with his feet was like the sky was falling. Goldzin, the boss, had a habit of taking care of his health. He pitied himself that he was too busy with his business. He was quite chubby, with a fat ruddy face, and a blond beard and a healthy appearance. After a hearty supper he would lie down and take a nap. Afterward, in the evening, after his nap, he would come into the workshop and yell that the workers are too slow, and he would direct his anger at me, as if I were responsible for the workers who were laughing quietly and whispering. He would squeeze my ear and I would feel the blood rushing to my face. I would vow that even if he were to collapse I would not have pity on him.
In town it was considered that Goldzin was a rich Jew. The soldiers from the post would come to buy boots as well as people from the neighboring towns. On a Sunday or Monday, everyone would come to urge us to hurry and finish their boots and overshoes, leggings and everyone was screaming, faster, faster—the carriages have to leave.
On the table were pots of glue. We spread the glue with our fingers, hands, and clamp the boot legs and lay them near the heaters so they will dry faster. I'm anxious to sew a pair of boots because before they leave, the soldiers will toss me a few kopeks. But Shmuel Pearls, the sewer, doesn't allow me to learn the trade. And Chaim Kalb, the older one, is even worse than he. He pushes and shoves for them to hand it to him. His machine is going and he works and eats. And he eats like there's no tomorrow. He grabs things from everyone and continues to promise me that he'll teach me how to sew. In the meanwhile, I smear the glue on the boots, I wipe my hand on my apron, and with my apron I wipe my nose and brow, which sweats from heavy work. Late at night, I still have to clean the workshop, gather up the trash, sort the larger pieces of leather and prepare myself for the work of tomorrow morning.
Chaim Kalb, the older master, made my life altogether miserable. He would often call me: Bring apples! Bring cookies! Bring two kopeks of candy! In summer I didn't mind, but in the fall or when it was very muddy, in my torn shoes, I didn't like to go out in the cold. The worst of all was that Chaim Kalb liked hot blintzes. Ten blintzes was his portion. The saliva would run from my mouth, when I would imagine the taste. I'd have to wait until Dvoirah the baker would bake them and my boss doesn't want to hear about it: Where are you going? Where are you taking that sack all the time? And one isn't supposed to say. So I get the blame. And if the blintzes weren't large enough? My fault. Chaim Kalb would curse me. When I'd ask him what he wanted from me, his answer was that when he was an apprentice, they would beat him.
One time it happened that Chaim Kalb wanted his blintzes on two plates, one atop the other and quickly. It's raining very heavily outside—cold, awful. I tell him that I don't want to go but it doesn't help. I see that I am going to be beaten, so I go off with a clenched heart and sorry thoughts, but I brought the blintzes but not as he wanted in two plates. I brought them in the downpour but in the covering of my glue pot and the kerosene for the machine, that I would use daily. I'll never forget Chaim Kalb's red eyes, his angry nose and open nostrils and his two fists with which he came upon me, like a wild animal. I myself don't remember what happened. Whether from fear, or hate, and perhaps both together, I grabbed the pot with fresh glue and put it over Chaim Kalb's head. However big he was, he was covered with glue as well as the blood that ran out of his nose like from a tap. That is all I saw or heard….
In about a week, when I got out of bed with broken bones, everyone said that Chaim Kalb was lucky that he didn't lose his nose. My father, the gentle Jew, didn't approve—this was not a piece of Jewish work. It doesn't suit his teacher's status.
My New Boss
I went into Lazar Fishel's boot workshop knowing a bit about the trade. I also, suddenly, grew a bit, got taller and went around with clenched lips, probably still angry with Chaim Kalb, but happy that I got even with him for a whole year's torment.
Both the new boss and apprentices and the workers knew about the incident in Goldzin's workshop. The boss, a good, clever Jew, hired me for a year and almost jokingly said: Don't hit yourself, if it's not necessary. And a wonder happened! All the apprentices had great respect for me and even the workers understood that they should be careful in handling me.
For Lazar Fishel, the workshop was most important and his leather business a side line. The boss would also work and teach the apprentices. Everything went smoothly. He immediately saw that I was interested in cutting the leather with the knife, so little by little me got me accustomed to the board, as an assistant cutter. After Pesach, when one works only until the fire is lighted, until about Elul, so that the evenings are free, we felt as though we were working half-days. All the workers would leave to go home at the same time, and so we could talk about many things.
Lazar Fishel's workshop had a good reputation in town. We were among the first not to light a fire at night to work, with the boss in agreement. Following our example, everyone did that.
One time someone named Shmulik, a shoemaker's son, who lives on the paved road, quite a bit older than I, stopped me: Is it you who beat up Chaim Kalb? he asks. I get a bit flustered. I get the idea that perhaps he wants to get even with me. I stand still, look at him and am ready for anything. I don't say no, I don't say yes. He looks at me and smiles. I become ashamed that I'm silent and ask:
Nothing—he laughs and gives me a friendly slap on the back: You're a good kid!—and goes away.
Later, I found out that Shmulik belongs to the Pruzanisher Chevre, and he's a big leader. Chaim Kalb belongs to the Katzabisher Chevre and he wants nothing more than to get even with me. I have to be careful. I don't belong to any Chevre, but it looks like the Pruzanisher Chevre will be good for me. I always disliked the Katzabisher Chevre for their carrying on in town, for their steady fighting. Their fights were fearful, they would split heads without any reason. Fights would break out which would last all Shabbos, until late at night. The toughs and bullies would fight, children of gentle parents.
Poverty Is No Shame
On the first of May, I again met Shmulik the shoemaker. This time to my wonder with a book under his arm. I thought, he's probably reading a novel by Shmeres. We used to read Shmeres novels every Friday night after supper for many hours.
Listen—he says to me. Are you working on May 1?—
What kind of holiday is that? I asked him.
What do you mean? he laughs. It's already a workers' holiday in the big towns. He asks me to go for a walk with him. I follow him and I still think that something is going on. I'm still careful about being beaten.
Do you know—says he to me—I never spoke to you face to face, I never knew you well, I'd like to talk to you about a lot of things.
I wait impatiently as to what he wants to entrust to me.
He started to speak about our poverty, and I still don't know what he is trying to get at. I have no idea what kind of tack this is to get to know each other. Because I don't want to remain silent, I answer—Of course, I know. I'm a bit ashamed, as though I wanted to hide it, that he must know about the bitter poverty of my family. From childhood on, I was used to hiding my poverty so that no one should know because poverty was a shame….
We spoke for a few hours that evening and I learned that Shmulik is even poorer than I and that poverty is not a shame. Like a cloud had been lifted from my eyes! He told me about people, neighbors, whom I knew well, who had no food in the house. And at the same time he told me about the rich men in town, about the Rabbi, the Priest and noblemen—he didn't differentiate—and how they were all ready to draw blood from the poor workmen in town. He talked about 10,001 things in such a manner he led me to understand that I saw that this was no slander, no envy, this was but an example, like read from a book, in order to make it clear to me about what he spoke about.
When we parted, it seemed my head was enlarged, my eyes more open. I looked around on all sides and more than ever I saw the stars in the heaven. I felt a warm brotherhood to Shmulik, a gratitude, for such a hearty, truthful, humane conversation—the first time in my life.
It was late and I hurried to get home quickly with a buried treasure in my thoughts.
At home everyone was already asleep. I climbed into my bed quietly and with open eyes looked into the quiet darkness. I awaited daybreak. Quite early, as usual, my mother told me that it was already time to get up to go to work. Outside, the summer sun lovingly greeted me and I thought I entered a new world. Through Shmulik's talk it came out that it is the duty of each person, who understands life more, to bring that to others and the others to others, until all will understand about life and justice.
When I came to the workshop, I wanted to open everyone's eyes, but I became even more quiet. I felt my poverty, I simply didn't know how to tie my thoughts together, which I thought were so clear. Reading the pamphlets that Shmulik promised to give me was my eager expectation. I didn't have to wait long. Shmulik met me near the workshop and quietly gave me a well-worn pamphlet, The Long Work Day. He told me to hide it and not to show it to anyone because it was not a kosher pamphlet.
This pamphlet The Long Work Day was my first guide to a new knowledge and life. This gave me a measure and a way in my attitude toward people. I began to know who were my comrades, my friends, and who my true enemies. From this pamphlet came forth a world of things, that I hadn't known before. I began to regard business luck as a plain swindle and thievery, rich people as leeches and blood-suckers, and in the foolish poor the true people. I thought: Such a small book and it tells so much!
I Become Aware
In a few days, when Shmulik saw me again, he was in seventh heaven with my broad understanding and the impression that he made. When we reviewed the contents of the book again we got its true meaning. I wanted to yell out so that everyone would hear. Shmulik warned me that one had to know how to tell the truth, that one had to do it with a plan. First, one had to be careful and discuss it only with people who wouldn't blabber about it.
Secondly, he told me a secret, that the Minsk branch and the Vilna branch have already decided through many meetings. They are accomplishing wonders and they will win an eight-hour day. They are all good fellows, he said as though he were one of them.
I decided that it was up to the workers to improve the conditions. This secret did not enable me to rest. If they can, I thought, everyone can. I felt happy that I knew such a secret.
The second pamphlet, as I recall, was Morons on the Volga. From the Russian that my father had taught me, it wasn't easy for me to understand it all the first time. I read it a second and a third time, and this little book made a special impression. The political aspect overwhelmed me, I became frightened. I had to get used to understanding the link between politics and the battle for a better life.
This book applauded the memory of the assassins of Czar Alexander II. Sophia Perovskaya, Gesya Gelfman, Calturin and others were depicted as great heroes, people of the people and for the people, who opposed the tyrants and injustice to the people. I read this book at a time when older people confided in us, the younger people, that the heroes of this book, were taken away in black carriages and they certainly are no longer alive, and that we should beware, as of fire, the gendarmes, because they are always searching for whoever talks and thinks about such matters. This book introduced me to the crises of the heroes as though I were one of them. I wanted to repeat their deeds, but with more courage and sacrifice in order to free mankind.
To tell the truth, when I read this book quietly, I thought that the walls hear, the windows see and everyone knows my thoughts. Nevertheless, I read it again and again, so did it capture me. In the street I looked about to see if I was being followed, I imagined I ran into a policeman, and every now and then I checked my pocket to make sure I hadn't lost it. I guarded that book like a precious diamond.
Little by little I got used to the idea that no one sees or captures so quickly, that the walls don't have ears. I began to like the thought, that I know something that no one else knows, and that I know already what is better for mankind. I, Shmulik and Yosl began to meet very often. Mostly we read books at Yosl's house. His father, a night watchman, his mother—a servant in a wealthy home, we had the opportunity to be alone for many hours. We swallowed every word in the books, that were popular at that time and went from hand to hand. Mendele's Nag, Spector's writing, Dineson's work and I. L. Peretz's The Seamstress, The Sisters, and Bontshe the Silent. The last was something special, which we read to every new person whose head we wanted to open quickly. One time, I purposely left Bontshe the Silent open on our table, so my father could look into it and see that I understand what to read. This deed made me a lot of trouble. But about that later.
We looked around and the summer was gone. The days of Elul (fall) and the evenings became longer and one had to work with lamps. It became sad. We worked a lot and when one works into the evening, one doesn't know when to end. In truth, during the summer we met with many young men, at first we discussed the Minsk unions and their shorter work day and that it is no more than right for workers to have a specified time to work, but we had not yet agreed upon what that should be. Shmulik, alas, became very busy, he would be away for several days at a time, and sometimes he would arrive with a sack of books under his arms—a real intellectual. Yosl told me a secret that late at night he saw Shmulik with Bernstein the pharmacist—They both were walking like true good friends, he adds.
In town it had long been rumored that Leon Bernstein was a mystic. He was tall, had dark black curly hair, a small face, a big nose and big eyes—a strange appearance. In summer he wore a hat, in winter a big, black stove-pipe hat and a walking stick. He would often gaze out of the window through his big telescope, where there were big bottles of blue and red liquids.
Shmulik and Bernstein? I puzzled. Soon I remembered that the heroes of Damik na Volga were also from rich, intelligent families, perhaps like Bernstein. And my respect for Shmulik increased but I didn't ask him about it. It was not conspiring…Shmulik was very happy with me and Yosl. He brought us books which we read immediately. He was also happy that we were getting to know more and more young men in town.
The First Workers Circle
Not every young man understood the Long Workers Day and we only had one copy of Morons on the Volga and we didn't want each one to take it home. So we decided to gather the young men at Yosl's house in an evening and that I would read it to them. I was successful that evening with the reading. Everyone was happy. In a high spirit, we decided to meet regularly and read.
This was the first organized meeting in town. The first evening there were seven, the second evening nine came. A new member came and brought a girl with him. Soon we decided that girls are as important in the movement as boys. Galka, the girl, was outstanding in how quickly she grasped everything that we read and spoke about. She proposed to recruit seamstresses and even servants. Everyone was agreed that we need as many people as possible. Where? In the movement.
And it did indeed start to grow. It quickly became known in town. In the streets boys and girls were seen carrying books under their arms. They were running to the library. There was a run for our unkosher books, that somehow we acquired. Our hearts were happy with our great acquisition of ideas and so many friends in such a short time. Walking in the street we had to nod our heads often to our new acquaintances. Yosl's house was already too small for everyone. Galka's house was also too small for all the girls that she enlisted in her movement.
One time we make a count to find out where we stand and we see that we are growing and that we can take more people into the movement. We have to decide something. We chose the best of our young men for a private meeting. So we have a private meeting. Soon we decide to select a committee. The movement already has a head and a body as is appropriate. We have to enlist the workers. From the assorted books that we read we knew that we are the proletariat, that even only our hands and our interests—it does not matter to which trade we belong—we are of the same class.
Quietly we, I, Shmulik and Yosl, we ranked even above the committee. We decided things, made plans and brought them to the committee, to execute them. Once, Shmulik tells us a secret that since we three have to know a lot, he invites us to meet Mashke the Organizer who just came from Minsk and knows a lot about the Minsk movement. How surprised we were when we found ourselves in Mashke's room with Bernstein the pharmacist. We brought each one into the room separately, carefully, as it should be. Nevertheless, I thought to myself, that it's not quite enough, because I thought that we went off in faraway streets and it's scary but interesting.
Bernstein the pharmacist was a person who could tell you word for word what he had read in books. That evening he recited Hauptmann's The Weavers. We sat intently and visualized the poverty of the weavers in Silesia. Since we had experienced poverty in our town in Russia. Galka cried, a few other girls sobbed. Suddenly I concern myself with my own poverty, with my shabby clothes, and I feel grown up equal to others, next to a comrade and teacher like Bernstein. I feel a brightness in my soul, that will always illumine my battle for the working class, for the proletariat. A curse on the Czars, generals and bosses. I belong to the world proletariat! I became a newly titled person. From such a poor man, a lowly boy, I suddenly became a proletarian.
In addition to everything, Itzik Yoffa, a soldier in uniform, came on a leave. He belonged to the Bersht (Union) in Vilna and was a good friend of Mashke and Bernstein. He came to visit with those close to him. He took off his jacket, his soldier's cap, and greeted us happily. His smile brightened the room. We welcomed the proletariat and wished a plague on Czar Nicholas. From the small problems of our organizing; of establishing a branch in the near future, my head was now concerning itself with world problems—how to get rid of the Czar and change the world.
Bernstein starts to sing the Marseillaise in a bass voice, which I heard for the first time in my life. A bit later, Yoffa, the soldier, sings Arise, Workers. And Mashke, Bernstein, and Shmulik join. Before leaving we decide that Bernstein should teach us political economy. I was not such a good learner when I studied with my father, but in Bernstein's class I showed great ability because it made sense to me.
We were involved in getting more workers in the movement and Bernstein, on his part, tried to attract more intelligentsia, more teachers for our circles. One of the teachers, Fein, also a pharmacist, understood that we must learn grammatically correct Russian. The Jewish worker, he argued, would not be freed alone, but with the help of the Russian people. So we established a class to learn Russian grammar with the comrades of the movement and from time to time we would smuggle in a bit of agitating.
In the meantime I realized that I was getting older, and it's time for me to stand on my own feet. From childhood on I was drawn to the big city, to a lighter and brighter life. More than anything I felt my lack of education, especially in comparison with the teachers of our circles. They had studied at gymnasia, at universities. I was envious of their elegant Russian, which they spoke fluently. But it took a long time until I tore myself away into the world: meanwhile, an important event occurred in Bobruisk.
One beautiful morning we learned that not far from our house they uncovered a secret printing press and they arrested a woman, a child and a man. Later I learned that this was Mirel Sirkin. This changed all our plans. The easy path for our work disappeared. Weak, middle-class children drop out and therefore those who remain are ready to give their lives. We are getting used to the thought that there are spies who see and watch and probably over us as well. There is talk that some of our people are stopped, spies are watching day and night. So we had to call a secret meeting and work out plans how to carry on our work quietly and safely.
Our movement didn't have any books. No names were listed and marked, but everyone had a nickname. For example: Aaron, with the black hair and dark eyes was called, naturally, Aaron the thief. A second Aaron—Ara, the tailor—a third—Ara, the tall one. It was the same with those called Leib: Leib, Kolesnik, Leibe, Esther with the crooked feet, after his mother, the cripple. So also the girls: Galke—the red. A friend, somewhat tall—The Beauty. Chaya the Beauty. Everyone had their secret name.
Whatever good work one did for the cause, that is how he got his name. Many girls wanted to be known as The Beauty and many guys wanted to be as important as Leibitschke Kolesnik. The young men and women bloomed in the movement, like a beautiful garden. Most of the nicknames added charm, as though each was appraised according to his worth. People enjoyed fitting suitable names which lasted a lifetime as the person's shield.
A Young Man Among Men
Leibitschke Kolesnik was a young man who quickly became important in the movement. He had previously been a leader of the Pruzaner Group, a good fighter, a mischief maker. When he found it necessary he slipped out of the wheel repair shop, where he worked, and with a club in his hand, he split heads right and left. He'd make trouble for the Butcher's Group without mercy. He spared no blows for the Gentiles from the Minsker plan, who attacked Jewish children, when they left school. He would face down drunken soldiers, who bothered Jewish beards and payes [earlocks] in the street. He also, more than once, got even with a policeman.
It occurred to me that Kolesnik would be a good guy for our movement, but approaching him was no easy matter because you simply needed to be his equal. He'd laugh at our bourgeois youth as chumps who run when attacked. My luck was that he apparently knew about how I'd brought Chaim Kalb the blintzes and how I gave them to him with the pot of glue… Kolesnik regarded this episode favorably. He printed it in his humor piece A Young Man Among Young Men and gave me such a slap on the back that I saw my grandfather from the other world. From talking to him I understood that the young men were up to something and that they were hiding from him. But it was enough to discuss our struggle, so Kolesnik listened and thought hard as one says: I've waited a long time for this.
Leibitschke was unable to hold his whiskey and we wavered for a long time, if he'd been able to stop drinking. But it happened that the Butchers Group hired itself out to a boss, who wanted to get even with his workers, who had struck. This was almost the first strike in the town. All of us were disturbed by such an ugly piece of work. We expected that police, gendarmes would interfere but we didn't expect trouble from Jewish hoodlums. So we decided, once and for all, to make an end to it.
Leibitschke Kolesnik was an appropriate person to entrust our decision. Do you understand?—I said to him—poor workers want to improve their bitter lives and the Butchers Group stand in their way….
I had never seen Kolesnik so earnest. He heard me out and let out bitter curses. His language was such that I had never before heard from a Jewish mouth. As much as I asked him to wait, think about what to do, it didn't help. He had, it seems, immediately decided what to do. And he didn't wait long. That same evening, he attacked two of the Butcher's Group youths, Yankel Zubatin and Pinea so that Zubatin was taken to the hospital with a split head and Pinea took a long time to revive. After this there was another brawl between the Pruzanisher Group and the Butchers' Group. It became very important for Kolesnik and his group to confer about what to do. It was even more important to get someone from the Butcher's Group over to our side.
The police, it seemed, knew why the brawls were taking place and they openly rooted for the Butchers Group. Leon Bernstein, the pharmacist, undertook to talk to Kolesnik to tame him. Chaikin, a young doctor, one of Bernstein's friends, undertook to visit Yankel Zubatin in the hospital and influence him to stop the brawls.
Yankel Zubatin, a young man from the outskirts of town, was being raised by an uncle, Zelman Kobile, the richest butcher in town, who night after night would slaughter cattle. At an early age Yankel became his right hand at the slaughterhouse. He became accustomed to the smell of blood and autopsy at an early age. Whenever he fought with the young men, he, it seems, thought he had to carry on as though in the slaughterhouse. But Yankel was the child of a poor widow, whom he loved very much. She worked very hard as a maid to earn her living. One only had to remind Yankel about his life, his mother's life, how he'd been punished because she had been unable even to send him to a proper Cheder, and Yankel was roused from his stupor. Doctor Chaikin, born in Bobruisk, knew what was going on in many homes, and he reached Yankel in his weak point. Yankel listened well to Dr. Chaikin, who made him understand, that it wasn't in his interest to fight for the bosses against poor workers who are in the same situation as he is.
Leibitschke Kolesnik was certainly happy with a close conversation with Bernstein. As a guest, would Leibitschke have ever been able to speak to Bernstein, face to face? With one word, the leaders of both groups began to pull in the same direction. Bernstein and Chaikin decided to bring Kolesnik and Yankel together and straighten out their grievances. I, Shmulik, Bernstein and Chaikin witnessed the meeting. Both had bowed heads, downcast eyes, but they shook hands and Leibitschke Kolesnik was the first to call Yankel comrade. It was a holiday for us. The leaders of both groups of our movement! So we pleaded with both that they should influence their members to make peace between them.
The fighting didn't stop right away. The bosses wanted to stop the workers movement, so they called secret meetings and spread false stories about us that they said would cause pogroms and other troubles. The informants let the authorities know that we were children of the poor people and not the upper classes.
I don't know which fine Jew told the police about our secret names but we knew that the police were aware that Leibele Kolesnik fought with Yechiel Isaac the teacher's son and that indicates that he is the one in charge. Near my house we noticed that late at night a person followed me like a shadow. More than once my mother thought that robbers are approaching. I knew that no one was looking to steal our poverty. Certain people began to come into Bernstein's pharmacy and ask for remedies, that Bernstein himself didn't know about. They couldn't tail Kolesnik. He always noticed them behind him. If the person saw him, that person had lots of trouble. If a policeman blew his whistle on a dark night, we already knew that someone had a split head.
Little by little, we got used to the spies, outsmarted them, ducked into courtyards, moved to another street quicker than the spies. In need we even ducked into a shul to pray. In summer we would meet in the woods or boating on the lake to carry out our work. We had larger assemblies in the fields where young men stood watch and guarded us. But the time came when I felt that I must leave Bobruisk.
Translated by Odelia Alroy
A. through H. not translated
I. Protest Strikes Against the Slaughter in Petersburg
Bobruisk: January 17 (according to the old calendar). Yesterday all the Jewish workers struck. It was very lively the week before the strike. We had many meetings. At each one of the meetings there were between 80 and 280 men. They spoke about liberalism, about the strike in Baku, about the Petersburg events and about our demands at the present time.
The workers attended these meetings with great enthusiasm—the general storm we also felt. In the organizing circles, the work was also very lively. We didn't call the workers to strike. Because we understood that the strike could have a meaning, when all the workers—Jews as well as Christians—would join.
On the 14th we had the call up of the Central Committee of the Bund and we decided to strike. It is understood that we decided on a general strike. At once, we proposed to the local group of the Russian Socialist Democratic Workers' Party that they assist us and help organize the strike. The Jewish workers wanted to begin the strike Sunday and the Christians Monday. We came to this arrangement because the Russian workers weren't organized. There was a great doubt whether we could organize the strike, that it would begin all over at once and that it's useless to delay the start.
On Saturday there was a mass meeting of 650 men—Jewish workers. The workers assembled quickly—in half an hour everyone was in one spot. At the meeting, a red flag was unfurled on which were written two demands: end the war and declare a constitution. The speakers stressed the importance of the moment and the great importance of the declared demands. The workers hung on every word. The crowd behaved very well, even though it was very large. There were only shouts of hurrah from time to time when the crowd was aroused by speeches and the strike was to begin the next day: when voices were heard. The Revolution Lives! The enthusiasm was so great that they couldn't quiet the workers. The crowd dispersed with shouts of Hurrah.
On the next morning, groups of our workers went to the workshops asking them to strike. The whole business agrees with us, even the bourgeoisie. Everything went smoothly. Only the shop clerks didn't strike. The Poale-Zion decided to support the strike but they were angry that the Bund didn't invite them to join, so the shop clerks (the majority of them are influenced by the Zionists) who supported the strike returned to the stockrooms. The city was seething: military patrol, Cossacks and police were riding around. Several people were arrested.
Bobruisk: The General Strike, which included all of Russia, took place in our city: unfortunately it left us in not such a good light. Our Bundist organization, which had just begun to revitalize after a long pause, didn't have enough time to explain to the workers who were involved in the organization the importance of the present action. It didn't have time to exert an influence over the entire working class. The masses were worked up and they came to our meetings. All kinds of people came who one would not have expected. A week before the strike, there were four meetings at which there were about 650 men. We thought of holding many more meetings, but because of the events in Petersburg, we had to shorten our program. We waited for a call-up by the Central Committee of the Bund. We called for a general meeting in the synagogue on Shabbos. On Friday we awaited the call-up by the Central Committee and on Sunday we decided to strike. The Russian workers were not organized and we didn't want to delay the strike until Monday, because we understood that the Russian workers would be bystanders in the beginning of the strike.
Our decision was given to the larger group of the Russian party and we proposed to send out a unified call to strike. The group supported us. The meeting on Shabbos took place. The workers quickly assembled, and in a half hour the synagogue was filled. There were 700 men.
The assembly started with the singing of revolutionary songs. There was also a red flag with revolutionary writing. The chairman told the people that if the police attack, we have to fight back. The speakers talked about the events in Petersburg and about our demands. There was great enthusiasm: the workers greeted the call of the Central Committee for a strike with great joy and we decided to declare a strike. The Revolution Lives was called out to shouts of Hurrah.
The strike began. But from the first day, it was possible to see that it wasn't going smoothly. In the morning, groups of our workers went from workshop to workshop, inviting people to leave work. They passed out leaflets with our demands. On the leaflets were written our organization and the group of our party. They received a friendly greeting, work stopped in very few places, although many people had not come to work anyway. The bosses were not antagonistic; many expressed their solidarity. The salesclerks left their work in the morning but returned to the shops after lunch. Most of them were Zionists and former members of Legalization. In the beginning they said they had nothing against the strike, but nevertheless, they would work because the Bund didn't invite their organization.
The first day 1,000 men struck. They wandered about the city in groups. Everywhere they talked about the strike. The workers came to the schools asking to stop the studying but they were not obeyed. Only the trade school was closed for a few days.
At the same time, we later learned, groups of workers who belong to the Russian party went to the other workshops. The workers were quick to stop work—they only had to be asked—they waited for that.
The intelligentsia also wanted to support the strike. Monday there was a meeting of 60 intellectuals with a deputy of the striking workers. A member of our organization delivered a speech. There were hot debates and at the end, a resolution in which the intelligentsia expounds her solidarity with the battling proletariat, which is the only one who will free Russia from czarism. The revolution demands that the intelligentsia support the strike.
By Monday it was clear that it would be difficult to draw the Russian worker into the strike. We saw that the group had no tie to the factory workers. The United Commission decided to go to the factories Sunday night. But instead [of] Russian workers only Jewish workers (men and women) came from that group. The best time was lost and the next day the police were there. They went to the factory (35 men) and convinced the workers to leave their work, but at the gate they met the soldiers which the administration of the factory had sent for. On the next day there were two work stoppages for economic demands but they lie near the factory and the police forced them back to work. By the time the soldiers came, three Jewish workers were arrested; one was hit on the head. On the same day, five Christian workers stopped work—that was the entire following of the Christian workers.
The Jewish workers were less interested and less organized—since we were unsuccessful in carrying out the strike among the Christian workers made a bad impression on them. Our connection with the masses was not very strong. The strikers were given money, but not at the right time and the mood fell from day to day and the payment for the strikers was less and less. We [started] sent out bulletins where there was news of other cities. We spread the proclamations of the Central Committee, organized three assemblies for 250 men. The mood was still low and on Thursday, there were no more than 500 strikers.
As the strike weakened, the influence of the [ ] on business and the intelligentsia became less and less. The last was never too strong, and when the assemblies tried to lead a revolution, only 5 pupils and 3 principals supported the action (the private teachers all struck).
On Friday it was clear as day that the strike had lost its revolutionary meaning, that it is impossible to take it any further. We decided to hold a meeting on Saturday.
There were two meetings (300 men) where the meaning of the strike was explained and the reason for stopping it. The workers felt that it was impossible to strike any more. The organized workers returned to work disappointed.
A few words about the Zionists. On the third day of the strike, a pamphlet under the auspices of the Zionist-Socialists appeared which urged the Jewish workers to join the strike, listing throughout Social)Democratic demands. In this pamphlet it is explained that we must battle where we live now. The Zionists also organized several meetings. As an opponent there was someone from Poale-Zion who said that Jewish workers don't have to suffer because they decided to strike. During the entire strike, 10 men were arrested.
J. and K. not here ?
L. Summer 1905—The Highpoint of the Bund's Influence
Bobruisk: June 1. On May 9th they passed out leaflets saying, Beat the Jews. Soon people appeared in town who were unknown and aroused suspicion. We started to prepare to defend ourselves and to collect money for armaments. We collected all of 300 rubles even though self-defense was important to the inhabitants and their only hope lay with our organization. The rumor went about that our organization had united with the local Combined Committee of self-defense, which had been formed by the Poale-Zion, Zionist Socialists and the Jewish Bund. We published a leaflet where we explained that that wasn't so. The Committee had asked us to send representatives, but since we regarded self-defense at this time as an act of political battle, we declined to unite with the bourgeois organizations.
Overlooking the fact that our organization was larger and had a wider representation of the population or because of that, we had many enemies who were ready at every chance to defame us. One of the liberals spoke at a meeting of many people and said that the Bund youth had spread anti-Semitic leaflets in order to create a disturbance. After he was sorry that he said a foolishness and took back what he said.
On May 28 there was a service in one of the shuls to commemorate those killed in Zhitomir pogrom. Aside from the usual orators, there was a Zionist-Socialist. Instead of speaking about the pogrom from his standpoint, he began to talk about his party and to take against the Bund. Soon he became inflammatory. From all sides came screams of Down with Zionism. The speaker was disappointed and one of the other Zionists led him down from the platform.
A few words about the practical matters of the Zionist-Socialists. It was more than a month that they were involved with the strike of the small butchers and their workers. The aim of the strike was to oust the rich butchers and make an arrangement with small ones. The end was that meat became expensive for a worker to eat.
Aside from this, the Jewish Bund on the same May 28 had a meeting, with police permission, at the cemetery. We told the workers and sent our speakers. At 5 o'clock there were 3000 people there. Our speakers opened the meeting and three of them spoke one after the other about pogroms, which we are living through and the comrades who fell in Zhitomir. Their speeches made a big impression on all the listeners. A Zionist also spoke. Our speaker closed the program and proposed to everyone in the name of our organization that we demonstrate in the streets of the town. The proposal was joyfully accepted. On leaving the cemetery a group of Cossacks led by the police master blocked the way. The police master called out for us to disperse, but the group didn't move. He said to shoot and Cossacks took their rifles. Then two comrades went over to the police master and told him about the decision to demonstrate and asked for permission to pass. The Cossacks left. The demonstration was a success. Three thousand people marched through the streets in lines one after the other. People watched from windows and balconies at this unusual picture and many waved at the crowd. There were Cossacks at every street but they didn't bother anyone. On Muriaviaver Street (the main street of the city) the chief official, an anti-Semite, screamed at us to disperse. The Cossacks immediately began to hit us with whips. With calls of Down with the autocracy! Down with the police! the crowd went off to side streets and continued to demonstrate. Others threw stones at the Cossacks. One of the oldest Cossacks got his share. Many of the demonstrators were beaten with whips: one girl was trampled by a Cossack's horse and she is still sick. Three people were arrested. The meaning of the demonstration was apparent. The police master found it necessary to answer us and said it was all a mistake. On that same evening, the arrested were let go.
Like the other cities, we also had a small Bund into which 12-14 year olds entered. They had meetings at which there were speeches and they put out leaflets. Their demonstrations don't let our guards rest. Pesach time they had a demonstration with many red flags. They were shooting and calling out revolutionary slogans on Shosi Street. Some weeks back they were driven out of the poor section—Slobodke. The police brought in Cossacks.
M. A Declaration by the Socialists About the Clashes with the Bundists
Shabbos, the second day of Shavuos in the morning there was a memorial service for the heroes of Zhitomir and Traianov. One of the speakers was a young man from our organization who didn't want to discuss the great meaning of the tragic moment, but use for polemic ends. Soon we heard: Down with Zionism. Wild instincts broke out and the beast in people was aroused and they attacked the speaker and fighting broke out between my people and the Bundists who were nearby.
Because of this awful development there was a general meeting of the members of the local organization of the Zionist-Socialists where it was resolved 1) we express our strong disapproval with our comrades' behavior 2) we protest the wild barbaric behavior of the members of the local Bund who are a terrible example of the wildness to the Jewish working masses and throw shame on the honor of the organized Proletariat, playing into the hands of our worst enemies.
Bobruisk Organization of the Zionist-Socialists
Bobruisk 29 May 1905
O. The Social-Democrats on the Strike of July 7, 1905
Bobruisk, July 1. As soon as we received the news about the uprisings, in Lodz and Odessa, we decided to protest against the wild acts of the Czar's officials, and thereby show our solidarity with our comrades from Lodz and Odessa.
On Shabbos, July 2, we organized a mass meeting at which there were over 1200 workers. The shul was packed with people. Many people couldn't enter because there was no room for them. The meeting was conducted with great ceremony. There were two flags unfurled on the bimah: one—red—with revolutionary slogans and the second one—black—with pictures of the comrades who had fallen in battle with the words: in memory of our fallen comrades. It got quiet and the speeches began. In a deeply passionate speech, the first speaker said that the picture of the fighters who fell for the proletarian freedom should not evoke dejection and disappointment, but just the opposite: it must arouse a hatred for the order by which such crimes are possible. We should not cry for the comrades, but learn from their dying, better to die in battle rather than live like a downtrodden slave who knows not about joy and happiness. He finished his speech with a heated call for battle for a better future for socialism. After his speech the choir sang a revolutionary song. Then there were more speeches, and the meeting ended with the singing of revolutionary songs, which made a strong impression on the workers.
For solidarity, we went into a union with a group from the Russian party. We formed a united committee which delayed the strike until Thursday, the 7th. On the evening of the 6th, a meeting was scheduled under the open sky of Christian and Jewish workers. But it rained and meeting was called off. Thursday morning, the proclamation was distributed in Russian and Yiddish which we sponsored with the Russian party and which we called for a strike. The police, the Cossacks and the army, who had made the town its military camp, were a strong deterrent in spreading the proclamations. Nonetheless, we managed so that all the stores were shut and al the workshops and factories (except for two unimportant ones) stopped work, all banks were closed and the police were beside themselves.
Because of the strong tactics, which the police used that day, the strike ended early. We were unable to make any demonstrations because there was no opportunity to gather even 10 people. The town was like dead. In the street only the sound of tramping horses and cracking whips were heard. The Cossacks were beating the horses and some workers. People were beaten indiscriminately and without provocation. The bottom line was that many were beaten and five were arrested, three of whom were released.
On the next day the organizations gave out notices in which they advised stopping the strike and proposed a boycott on the Turkish bakery—the only big business that was open on the day of the strike.
P. The Funeral of Berl Genkin
Monday the 11th, two Christian thieves fought at the market with two Jewish thieves: both Jews were wounded by thieves. Our defense leader thinking that a pogrom was beginning quickly came to the market. But as soon as he saw what was happening he simply separated the thieves and things quieted down. Apparently the police didn't like that. It was not what they had wanted. It disappointed them that they were unlike their brothers in other cities where people were wounded and even killed and they had just used whips. So they sent out some drunken Cossacks who came to the market like wild animals and began to work in the Cossack style, not only with whips, but also with swords. One worker, an innocent Jew had his head split. In town the talk was that the police were getting ready for a pogrom and the trouble at the marketplace was only an excuse to beat the democratic' Jews whether that was right or not. Our defense group was ready. The workers very agitated, stopped work. When they took the wounded worker to the hospital many workers accompanied him and returning they made a demonstration. The revolutionary shouts, the calls of hurrah and the shooting were heard throughout the city. The police and the patrols (The Cossacks were not around as rumored. They thought they had been summoned to stir things up and they would take revenge without them, so they were not around). Police ran around from one place to another but couldn't catch the demonstrators. When they came to one street they were heard on another street shooting their revolvers and singing revolutionary songs. The police ran around enough that day. The inhabitants were sympathetic to our protests and many of them would open their gates and doors of their houses and would invite the demonstrators to hide from the police.
During the night from Monday to Tuesday, the wounded worker Berl Genkin died. Our organization decided to declare another strike and to arrange a big funeral. On the 12th everything was closed from early in the morning. There was no work anywhere (even the owner of the Turkish bakery let his workers go and shut the bakery). The post office was closed that day. Our organization together with the Party group decided to demonstrate at the funeral of the slain worker. The Zionist-socialist agreed. A large crowd gathered around the hospital. A company of soldiers stood at a distance. There were several speeches and afterward they carried out the bed with the slain man. The procession was led like a big parade. At the head was the armed defense leader surrounded by a chain through which no one could pass. Directly behind Jewish and Christian workers carried the dead man; behind them was a crowd of 15 thousand people with all sorts of connections. Whoever was seen standing at the door or on the balcony was asked to join us or leave and the crowd agreed. Most joined us. There were no police around They must have hidden somewhere. The dead man was carried over the main streets of the city near the police station. The funeral lasted more than two hours. The cemetery was packed with people. The speakers spoke from a platform draped with flags. First our speaker spoke, in all there were a speakers in both Yiddish and Russian. The spirit was high. Each speech was greeted with revolutionary shouts and thundering hurrahs. They sang revolutionary songs. We returned together demonstrating until we reached the main street where we decided to disperse. The police didn't bother us. There were enough soldiers. In the evening as the night before there were manifestos in the whole town. The police and the patrols kept away and there were no Cossacks.
Q. The Murder of a Baker in the Time of the 1906 Strike
Such a sad thing happened in those days in our town, an event which caused a great uproar among all the inhabitants and even more bitterly among our friends. A local baker unexpectedly fell, as a sacrifice, in a fight with our friends. For all our enemies now, it is understood [that it] is a good time to throw dirt at our organization, relating the facts in wild colors.… They don't want to respond, nor do we want to get away with this announcement. We ourselves feel a debt to honesty for everyone the fact of how it really happened.
There is now a strike going on in the city of the bagel bakers. The conditions of the work were terrible. At night it seemed like day in front of the fire. The salary was very small. It is difficult, in a word, to imagine the bitter plight of the workers. They had suffered long and now they decided to demand better conditions through a strike. The professional union therefore sent several people to take care of the strikebreakers. How these things happen is the long history of our economic organization and this time it was ordered that no arms should be carried and in no instance should actions be taken which could lead to tragic ends.
With an uplifted mood, the young men went to accomplish their task. One baker and his sons and acquaintances met our comrades armed with hatchets, picks, clubs, and other tools, and didn't let them into the house. Unexpectedly, a great commotion happened. Our comrades asked the baker to calm down, but it didn't help. The wild feelings flamed more strongly, one stamped on the other and there was a big fight. For our comrades at that time, it is understood, there was no possibility of talking over what should be done. To our great sorrow, one comrade had a revolver which he first shot in the air. The fight got hotter and heavier and the comrade, unthinking, shot a second time. The shot this time hit the baker…and that was the story.
It is understood that we very much regret this which in no way is our tactic. We don't want to shed blood.
We think that this comrade exceeded the situation. He had no right to take arms and this led to the incident. Our organization will certainly investigate this matter as usual and will certainly take needed action against this comrade. We regard as a debt to honest that the young man who was arrested had no connection with this incident and is not a member of our organization.
by Aharon Gorelik
Translated by Odelia Alroy
The October Strike
…And so as the trains began to run, the agitation among the railroad workers increased as well as among the workers in the depot.
In order to support the general strike, a citywide three-day strike was declared in Bobruisk. Without regard to the warnings of the police, businesses were closed. The enterprises stopped working. When the stores opened on the third day, something happened which forced the stores to close. In a big wholesale business, behind closed doors, some employees were working. A portion of them left work, broke the lights and the business closed. The other stores momentarily closed. On returning, this group of workers met a group of police. One of the last policemen was badly beaten and his revolver was taken away. A second fled.
On Muriaviover Street, Cossacks attacked the workers. They resisted and there was a big fight. Some workers were badly beaten.
On the second day, the strike was called off. Three people were arrested: Pashkovsky, Wolfson and Zlotnick, who was caught throwing proclamations in the fort. They were jailed for several months.
The Freedom Days in October
The news of the October 17th manifest first reached Bobruisk on the 19th. The town was stirred up. The streets were full of people. Police and Cossacks appeared. In the evening there was a meeting and demonstration on Shosi Street. The speakers urged us not to believe the freedom which was declared from those above and to lead further the battle to overthrow Czarism.
All night people went around the town, singing and listening to speakers. The revolutionary songs, shouting hoorah were mixed with the dry sounds of gunshots. Members of the fighting unit were shooting their guns in joy.
On the third day, Shabbos, there was a big meeting in the theatre garden. The garden was packed with people. Some covered the fences and trees, others climbed on the roofs. There was a heated discussion. The Zionist speakers were greeted with protest. They had to stop. There were very few of their supporters there. The meeting passed with great enthusiasm. The united committee of the representatives of the revolutionary parties in the city ran away. Only the representatives of the Bund and Iskra remained.
That same day, in the evening, in the town hall where a big portrait of Karl Marx was displayed, there was a big meeting of the Bund which lasted until one at night. The meeting decided unanimously to occupy the hall and begin a workers club there. They began to leave when the news came about the bloody shooting which had been ordered by the Minsk governor Kurlov.
The joy dissolved into a deep sorrow. Those assembled went home in a gloomy mood. For a whole month the town celebrated the freedom. The police were exceptionally passive. All the parties used the opportunity and held meetings and assemblies. A large number of proclamations were spread over the town and barracks.
These undertakings were only party successful because most of the workers were in the streets. The bosses didn't deduct for the days that they didn't work.
Meanwhile news came from other Russian towns, one worse than the next.
The Czarist power ordered pogroms which spread in waves over many cities in Russia. In Bobruisk a strong self-defense was organized.
Preparing for Self-Defense
All the Jewish organizations strengthened their battle groups and armed themselves with guns and bullets.
In the forest, not far from the town, the fighters learned to shoot. The smiths prepared bayonets, spears and sharp tips, which were attached to sticks and which served as arms to attack and defend oneself. We also prepared arrows with lead and iron tips. The fire brigade was on watch the whole time. They had barrels of water ready.
A united illegal Red Cross was prepared into which those physically weak members of the organization went. The Red Cross had assorted medicines and bandages and they prepared cots. Doctors were in charge of the Red Cross. They instructed the members on how to give first aid to the wounded and how to get along with them.
There was no shortage of money. The people taxed themselves for the defense organizations. The Jewish bourgeoisie was afraid for their lives and property, so they opened their pockets and gave as much money as was needed.
The self-defense groups didn't have a specific meeting place. Each day they changed the places. It was enough to tell whichever rich Jew, that that day there would be a meeting of so many people and that one would prepare food and a place to sleep. Four-five groups would be stationed in the town each day. In order to avoid unrest, which could break out suddenly, spies and patrols would go about. These spies would enter secretly into the meetings at the Union of the Russian People which was then organized in Bobruisk.
There was no pogrom in Bobruisk. Those in power, who usually initiated and allowed the pogroms, were afraid, taking into account the strength of the revolutionary organizations.
In the year 1906 a chapter of expropriations started: The Bobruisk chapter of the Bund led an expropriation in Shchedrin. The group that was sent there included: Nacke, Hessel Wolfson, Bendat, Abraham Ashkenazi, Lina Krock, Ephraim-Itche Gorelick and Itche Helfand. They invaded a liquor store and post-telegraph office and took 3600 rubles, 360 rubles in the post office, 3 guns and a sword. Afterward, Nacke went to Vilna and gave the money to T.K. T.K. was very unhappy with the expropriation and refused to take the money. It came as far as wanting to expel the Bobruisk organization from the Bund. At the end they took the money. But the Bobruisk organization got strong instructions not to expropriate any more.
The draft, which was supposed to take place in the Fall of 1905, was delayed because of the unrest, until January 1906. In January recruits from the entire district began to gather. The stormy atmosphere hadn't passed and the influence of the revolutionary organizations was again felt in the town. Many revolutionaries were called for the draft: The majority, members of the Bobruisk Bund committee, from the union, the defense group and other activists. All came to the draft hall.
The officer who sat on the Commission went out to the recruits and proposed selecting representatives, who would keep order. They chose three people: Nacke Yochvid, Ashkenazi, and Hessel Wolfson.
All the recruits—members of the organizations—received instructions on how to act. Each was to say that he is healthy and to the question, What religion to answer, Social Democrat and to declare that he doesn't support militarism.
At the recruiting hall there were two meetings: one for the local recruits and a second for those from the district.
After the induction, they had to send off the soldiers and half of them ran away. Many went to America, two to Odessa and some to Vilna.
They were wary of stationing Nacke in Bobruisk so they sent him to a commission in Minsk.
In Minsk he was known as an active revolutionary and they overlooked his illness, accepted him and sent him to the Vilna military post. After being there for four weeks, he fled to Odessa, where he lived illegally, on a false passport, as the son of a water-carrier from Bobruisk who had gone to America.
The Aftermath of Policeman Karpienka
In 1906 Policeman Karpienka was murdered in Bobruisk. Everyone disliked him, as one of the worst policemen in town.
Late one evening Karpienka was walking in the direction of Shosi Street, toward the yeast factory, not far from where he lived. On the way, he went into an inn to have a drink. When Karpienka left the inn, one of our members of the Bund, who had waited for him for a long time, came close to him, and with three gun shots, cut him down on the spot.
The comrade who shot Karpienka was not found. On the following day, Karpienka's funeral was supposed to take place. The police were very agitated and we awaited all sorts of violence from the bad elements.
The defense groups had fallen apart by then. The majority of the members had gone away. Only a small number remained in the town. Because of fear of probable attacks, they assembled weapons and armed groups. Armed groups were found not far from the main street and followed the funeral procession. The funeral passed quietly. On the return the wicked attacked Weitzman's bakery, knocked out the windows and began robbing. There was a panic. The armed groups ran over, beat up several robbers and the rest were driven away. The police who came quickly, quickly restored order.
The Economic Struggle after 1905
The economic struggle of the Bobruisk workers didn't stop, overlooking the pressure of the reaction after 1905.
In November 1905 they tried to organize the builders union of all trades.
When they received permission from the police master, they called a general workers meeting. Present at the meeting were a police sergeant and two policemen. They allowed the meeting on the condition that they speak Russian and not touch political issues. But they didn't meet the conditions: They spoke about political topics, and in Yiddish.
The official was led into a second room, where he was honored with a good shot of whiskey and something to eat. The policeman stood near the door.
The meeting selected delegates to negotiate with the governor about allowing the union. But they were denied.
At the end of 1906 the owners of the carpenters factories declared a lockout. It began because of a strike in a small establishment, where the boss had laid off a worker, who did not want to be let go. The union had declared a strike and demanded that he take back the worker. Then the bosses got together, formed their own bureau and demanded that the workers run their negotiations with the bureau. When the bosses were refused, they declared a lockout, from which 200 carpenters suffered.
The struggle was stubborn. The bosses proposed an eleven-hour workday and the same wages as before. The workers demanded a nine-hour workday and didn't want to acknowledge the bosses' bureau.
The strike lasted 2½ months and ended with a settlement. The workers acknowledged the bureau and the bosses went along with a nine-hour workday and a big higher wages.
In the same year the bosses declared a boycott of all the activists of the section of the painters, and refused to hire them.
Then the painters had a meeting and distributed the work among the workers. The bosses refused to take them on.
They declared a strike. But at the meeting the strike fell through.
In 1906 they formed a new chapter of the tailors union. There were nine people in the chapter: five men and four women. They were led by a representative of the Bund. At the first meeting the entire chapter was arrested. Those arrested were in jail for two weeks and paid a 20 ruble fine. After leaving jail they led a strike of tailors and furriers. Thanks to the strike they went from piece work to piece work to weekly wages.
In 1907 the bosses used the weakness of the union and again went back to piece work.
In 1908 the tailors put forth the following demands: yearly work from August to August, and a working day of 8½ hours. The bosses replied with a lockout. Then the workers organized a cooperative where they employed some workers and supported the others from the treasury. The lockout failed and the workers won.
In 1907 there was a strike by the carpenters who worked in the craftsmen's shul. The bosses demanded that the workers do piece work, but the workers declined. The workers won the strike.
In 1906 the bakers declared a strike in which more than 200 people took part. The demands were the following: a ten-hour workday, starting work on Shabbos, not in the evening but at one in the morning. The bosses did not agree to the demands and began to prepare strikebreakers. Then the Bund sent out a fighting group to remove the strikebreakers. When they came to take away the workers from the Koroviev Brothers bakery, one of them (fighting group) caught one of Bernstein's men, and started to choke him. Bernstein took out a revolver and shot him. There was a panic and the fighting group disappeared. At first Bernstein hid, and then he left for America.
The incident with Koroviev frightened the bosses who were afraid of Bernstein's strikebreakers, and the bakers were afraid of the incidents with the police. Both sides went into negotiations. The bosses agreed to a ten-hour day and the bakers were forced to agree to smaller wages.
In 1907, the bread bakers demanded increased wages and direct payment to the apprentices and pupils by the boss. (Before, they would pay the master who hired him.) The bosses declined and there was a strike.
The strike lasted an entire month and broke because the member of the bakers' committee, Leibitshke, disclosed all the plans of the workers to the bosses. Leibitshke was badly beaten up and told to leave in 24 hours, which he had to do.
In April 1908, there was a strike by the bread bakers, who demanded higher wages. The strike lasted a week and they won. The same thing happened with the roll bakers.
There were small economic struggles in the other trades: the locksmiths, tinsmiths, leather workers and others.
In 1908 the economic struggle quieted down and it died down altogether at the end of that same year.
(A Chapter of Remembrances)
by Mendel Elkin
Translated by Odelia Alroy
In the anthology 1905 in White Russia which was published in Minsk in 1925 under the editorship of S. Ogurski, there is a chapter under the heading Bobruisk in the Year 1905. The author of the chapter is someone named Gorelik. In this chapter there are noted several events of this revolutionary movement in 1905. Amongst them—two instances in which I myself participated. That is: 1) the demonstration and connection with Henkin's murder and 2) the history of the two who ran away. In Gorelik's account of the two happenings the dates which he gives and the direct causes, there are quite a few inaccuracies which it is appropriate to correct.
By the way, my participation in the protest demonstration because of Henkin's murder, is for me connected to a political experience, which included occurred in Petersburg. Running away from that experience, I landed in the Henke tragedy in Bobruisk.
So, let's go in order, beginning with the Petersburg experience.
1. Henkin's Funeral
In 1905 I lived in Bobruisk and practiced dentistry. In the beginning of July of that year there was the Fourth Russian Dental Conference in Petersburg to which I was sent as a delegate by a group of dentists in the Bobruisk society. I went to a friend, a colleague from Bobruisk, named Abraham Fishman. He told me that the city was stirred up by this conference, that delegates had come from all corners of the land, that police were ready for such assemblies.
It was a restless time then: the defeats on the battlefields in the Japanese war, the eternal petitions and resolutions, which the farmers and municipalities presented to the Czarist government—make for a turbulent atmosphere in the land. The agitators worked on all sides…therefore the atmosphere at the assembly was strained.
The fiery opening of the conference and the other sessions took place in the rich Club of the Nobles. In the sessions of the first two days they were concerned with specific dental problems. Everything was as planned, academic. On the first session of the third day, I delivered a lecture. The theme was The Social and Economic Situation of Dentists in White Russia. I referred to the known patients who get dental treatment and from what classes they come. I touched the question about the condition of dental care in the educational institutions: Gymnasia, middle class schools, and so forth.
Suddenly the chairman of the session came over to me, Dr. Ribakov from Kherson and asked me to stop the lecture. The hall was full of janitors in white aprons…. In a moment he signaled that he is closing the meeting , because the hall is full of spies and the reading of colleague Elkin's paper will take place tomorrow at 9 in the morning. The meeting was adjourned. In a somber mood, the crowd left the hall.
At 9:00 the next morning, I came to the Club of Nobles where two policemen greeted me with the famous welcome Where are you going? Are you literate? Read! And I read an announcement that hung on the entrance door, that by order of General Trepov the fourth dental conference is closed. I went away from this surprise disturbed to look for other delegates and I found out that they had all left the holy Trepov territory and went off to Finland. Without a long delay, I grabbed my package and left for Finland. There I found the delegates from the conference that was closed by the police, working on a text of protest resolution against the lawlessness of power. It took several hours until an appropriate text was put together. Colleagues from Petersburg took it upon themselves to attend to the publication of the resolution, and all the delegates from outside of Petersburg, and I among them, left for home. I left in the evening , and after a 36 hour ride, I came to Bobruisk.
Upon entering my home, I was greeted by my wife Rivka (may she rest in peace) and my small daughter Esia who she carried, and from greeting her I understood that something is not in order. To my question what happened, she answered in a broken voice, The city is restless; yesterday Cossacks killed an innocent Jew and they are afraid of demonstrations and bloodshed.
After my experience in Petersburg this news made a strong impression on me. It was, as the Russian proverb—-from a fire comes a blaze.
I still wanted to know what happened and the terrible murder happened.
This is what happened:
The day before (as I remember, it was Between the 8th and 10th of July, and not the 20th, and not because of general battle reasons, as the author Gorelik recounts) there was a confrontation at the marketplace between some farmers and a Jewish woman shopkeeper. The shopkeeper insulted a farmer by accusing him of haven stolen something in her store. The farmers protested against this accusation and a fight broke out. The policeman on duty told the police about the tumult and the police master called up the officer of the company of Cossacks, who were quartered there ( in the name of peace…) that he should go there with the Cossacks immediately where the disturbance is taking place. The officer left immediately for the market with his company of Cossacks, but until they came to the place, everything was quiet—-the farmers had left and the shopkeeper and other shopkeepers were standing by the doors of their shops and waited for customers…The Cossacks went back, not having done a stitch of work…But then something happened, which gave rise to this terrible murder. It turned out, that at the time the officer called up his company, one Cossack was missing. When he came back, the officer found him and slapped him for being AWOL. The Cossack, ashamed and disturbed, jumped on his horse and at full speed left for the marketplace. But to his great disappointment, he found no disturbance. That, surely, bothered him more, and he raced back to his quarters. In his hurry, he saw a man on Muriavsker Street, a stonecutter at work, and perhaps, in order to soothe his seething rage, he pulled out his sword and without any reason, split his head and ran away. It became tumultuous; people gather, and blood-covered, they took him—his name was Henkin—to the hospital, where he soon died.
This episode stirred up the city. The party organizations began to have consultations about how to react to this terrible event. And it was decided to conduct a demonstrative, fiery funeral for Henkin. At night, proclamations were posted all over the city with a call to the people to close their businesses and participate in the funeral of the martyr, Henkin.
A few hours later, after I learned the particulars of this tragic event, a policeman came and delivered a request from the police master, that I come to his chancellery. To my question, Why does the police master need me? I received the classic answer, I don't know.
I understood that the visit to the police master probably had a connection to the Henkin story. But why does he need me, I couldn't understand. But when Authority calls, one can't be rude, and it's necessary to go….a bit frightened, I went to the police master. He received me very politely; he asked me to be seated and said: I know that you just came from Petersburg today. I understand that you are probably aware of the sad Henkin story, and that is why I asked you to come to talk to me. We know that the city is agitated and is preparing for a big demonstration tomorrow, a funeral with red flags, with songs of revolution, and with shooting. You understand that we, government representatives, can't be passive to this. But we are afraid of bloodshed, and we'd like to prevent it. We know that you know the people who are busy organizing the demonstration. We are asking you to do something so that it won't come to a confrontation. We are not giving you advice as to what to do. Do what you will. I will wait for your reply, as quickly as possible.
He got up from his seat—a sign that the conversation was over, not allowing me to say a single word. This was no conversation, but a categorical warning which promised no good. I bowed and left for home, even more frightened. I immediately met with Nacke Yochvid, the then leader of the Bund in Bobruisk, and told him about my visit to the police master. Nacke soon called a meeting of the leaders of the party organizations who were participating in organizing the Henkin funeral; and in a few hours he let me know the conditions which the organizers of the funeral can agree to, namely: all businesses in the city and all banks must be closed until after the funeral. Instead of red flags, they would carry the bloody clothes of the murdered Henkin. There will be no song; that will be exchanged for the demonstration's silence. A chain of people holding hands will march around the coffin. Through the streets through which the funeral procession will go (the route was shown) there should be no police, soldier, or Cossack. At the time of passing the police station, the shutters of the windows should be closed. Speeches will take place only on the cemetery. Those are the conditions which were arrived at after a meeting that lasted for 2-3 hours. With this answer, I returned to the police master and gave the reply.
He again let me know that he is not in charge of the issue because this was assigned to the military power of the city, and the boss is the commandant of the fortress. But he will immediately get in touch with commandant, and will give me his answer. He asked me to wait awhile, and left the room. In 15-20 minutes, he returned with the following reply: The commandant agrees to the proposal that I will be responsible for the funeral, and I should go ahead 10-15 steps, with a black band on my left hand. If I don't agree to the conditions, he, the commandant is free to do whatever he wants. This meant that the responsibility for the result of this tragic event was placed upon me.
I met with Nacke again, and after a short meeting, with my consent, accepted the commandant's condition.
The beginning of the funeral was scheduled for 8 o'clock on the next morning. As the main speaker at the cemetery, Kolya Tepper was decided up. Through a special proclamation, the people of the town were made aware that the funeral would begin at the hospital at 8 the next morning.
That night was restless in town, and I didn't sleep. My wife had prepared a black band, and at 7:30 in the morning I parted with my wife and child, and left for the hospital. I found a mass of people. As soon as I came, Nacke announced to the assembled how we must act at the funeral, and a chain of people who encircle the coffin was organized, but we couldn't move because a horde of people were in the streets, and we couldn't budge. It was estimated that 30,000 people took part in the funeral. Only at about 10 o'clock, after much exertion, were the streets through which the funeral needed to pass cleared, and the procession began.
I was the first in the procession, with the mark on my hand. After we went, the organizing committee. After them, the bearers of the coffin, with the bloody clothes of the murdered Henkin instead of a flag, encircled with a living chain, woven with tens and tens of resolute proletarian hands. Behind them were a well-organized group of workers who monitored the order of the march, and at the end the town of Bobruisk. All businesses were closed. In the streets reigned a dead quiet, and after the hard rhythmic tread of the great afternoon funeral were heard in the dreadful quiet. From time to time, the procession would stop because the bearers of the coffin would change. Not one soldier, Cossack, or policeman was on the streets of the procession. When we passed the police station, the shutters of the windows were closed, as agreed upon. It was evident that the local Czarist officials felt very guilty for events, and therefore they followed the conditions that the leaders of the demonstration set.
The procession lasted over three hours—we got to the cemetery only at one. At the open grave, a few people from the organizing committee held short speeches, and the word was told that the main speaker was Kolya Tepper. He began to speak, as was his custom, about issues which have no connection with the tragic event of Henkin's death. It took quite a bit of time until he got to the point of Henkin. He handled it with revolutionary pathos, and the crowd listened intently to his speech. That they didn't even notice that it was getting late, already after 5 when the caretaker of the cemetery let me know that the Authorities want to see me.
The commandant of the fortress was waiting for me on the street in his carriage, and he turned to me with a request to end the speeches as quickly as possible, and to return the procession in the same order as before because there is a strained atmosphere in town, and anyway he thinks that talking for four hours is enough.
I promised him I would try to end it soon. He bowed in a military fashion and left.
I returned to the cemetery and Tepper was still talking. Wanting to prevent possible complications, I asked him to finish his talk quickly. He obliged me, and dead tired, he ended his speech.
There were many fewer people at the cemetery now than had come, but there were still about 10,000 people. I asked the crowd to return in the same order as before, not going through different streets, because that could be disastrous.
Therefore, let's get into rows, and I'll again go first, as before. The crowd obeyed, and arranged themselves into rows of 8-10 people, and at about 6:30 in the evening, in a strained silence, we went home.
At first, everything went properly, but when we came to Pushkin Street, which we had to cross, I saw a crew of soldiers and policemen, with an officer and a police commissioner at the head, marching in military style to block our way. I immediately halted the procession, and faced the military commander with a shout—Out of our way! They moved. I went over to the leader of the command, and with an angry voice said: Liar, you are! We have an agreement! Where are you taking your crew? Do you want a bloodbath? I won't move from this spot with this procession until you leave, at your leisure, to where you came from.
The police commissioner came over to me quite close, and quietly, perhaps so that the officer wouldn't hear, and said: Calm yourself; nothing bad will happen. We had to do it; at least make a show that we are dispersing the demonstration. We're going away from here, but we ask you to end the demonstration as soon as possible, and for the crowd to disperse quietly and go home. Right after that, he turned around his crew, and disappeared from Pushkin Street.
In order to be sure that that was not a provocation, I waited quite a while, and left with my procession in the direction of Muriavsker Street. We stopped at the open library, and from the library balcony I thanked the crowd for its disciplined behavior, which helped prevent bloodshed, and asked everyone to go home quickly. The demonstration was over. The crowd quickly dispersed.
Only late in the evening did the energy which had built up in the course of two days of tragic experiences, and there was shooting in the air, in the forest, but no harm was done, and it only marked the end of the tragic demonstration.
2. The Twelve Fugitives
The history of the 12 fugitives is, in short, the following: In the Bobruisk fortress, there was a big and stern military prison, which was called Disciplinary Battalion (several people called it stone sack). For the slightest infraction of ordinary military discipline, the offenders were sent to this jail, where they were disciplined in an exceptional way, even whipping.
In the time of which we speak (this was the end of 1905), there were in this disciplinary battalion about 1,000 arrestees. Every morning, after a poor breakfast, which consisted of a piece of bread and water, this arrested crew, under the watch of armed soldiers, would be led to assorted labor.
One morning, the inmates arranged not to obey the order of the authorities, and instead of going out to work, they improvised a meeting, and demanded an improved situation, better food, an end to beating, and so forth. That was an unheard of Bund, an uprising.
So that the Bund would not be known openly, the authorities in the uproar tried to still the inmates with amicable measures—with good talk, with fine assurances—but it didn't help; the arrested did not leave their barracks, and demanded what they wanted.
This wrangling lasted for several days, and in the end, from the high authorities came an order to put down the uprising with force. The local authority took to its work, and with the help of the military, the Bund was liquidated. Those more active in the uprising—there were about 30-40 people—were isolated and court-martialed.
In a few weeks, there was a sentence. Ten were sentenced to death, several to hard labor, and others to assorted prison duties. Those sentenced to death and those to hard labor were separated, until the judgment would be carried out.
This episode made an enormous impression in the city because the circle of the revolutionary parties decided to save those sentenced to death.
This begins my participation in the process of saving those sentenced to death—a participation that was a conspiracy, even to the active participants. This is what happened.
One evening, Nacke Yachvid came to see me (He was mentioned previously as the Bobruisker leader of the Bund), and let me know about the decision to save those soldiers sentenced to death. How to carry that out, there were many plans . But first of all, they have to be taken from their isolated place, and that can happen only when there is a reason, because of which they have to be taken for medical help. Concretely, they all have to be made sick at the same time, so they would have to be taken to the infirmary. There, in the infirmary, are our people, and through them, we can do something. The question is, how do we get to that. Therefore, Nacke came to me; perhaps I could help him.
It was clear to both of us, that in order to do this, we had to have a person who had free access to those sentenced, and I had an idea that the most appropriate, and perhaps the only, person for this was Dr. Alexander Abramovitch Paperno (the younger brother of the renowned Petersburg oculist Dr. Grigory Paperno, both sons of the writer Abraham Yakov Paperno).
Dr. Alexander Paperno was a close friend of mine. In 1904, soon after Russia declared war on Japan, and the famous General Kuropatkin tried to conquer the Japanese, Dr. Alexander Paperno was mobilized, and outfitted in a military uniform. He was sent to the Manchurian battlefield to help the wounded soldiers. Now he is at home, but he is in the military service, serving as a doctor in that garrison. Therefore, I think he has access to the sentences, and he can take them to the infirmary. I gave this advice to Nacke, and he immediately agreed that it was a good thought. He would soon discuss it with whoever was necessary, and would let me know what was decided.
On the next day, they told me that my plan was approved, and that I have full authority to see Dr. Paperno, as soon as possible. And although the thought was mine, carrying it out was not very appealing. In a heavy mood, I went to see Dr. Paperno. I knew very well that it was a heavy piece of work to persuade him, that he should undertake what I proposed. And that is truly how it was. After he heard why I had come, he jumped up from his comfortable chair, and running around the room, in a disturbed voice, he asked, What do you want from me? You want me to be hanged together with those sentenced?
After a small pause, smiling, I answered that was not our aim. We don't see any danger in that a doctor requests an emergency, if a whole group of people, even sentences, suddenly becomes sick with the same sickness, that the sick be transported to a hospital to prevent an epidemic from spreading. Quite the opposite, according to us, it should be the responsibility of a doctor. What will happen to the sick in the hospital has no connection to the doctor. That falls under the general power of the hospital. Aside from that, you, Alexander Abramovitch, bear in mind that this is the decision of a central committee of revolutionary parties, and I don't have to tell you that refusing to do something, in such an occasion, could sometimes bring unpleasant consequences….
Slowly, my talk calmed Paperno; our talk turned to other topics. By the time I prepared to leave, he told me that, the next day at his general medical call, he would visit the group of sentences, and see what he could do to get them to the hospital.
Gorelik tells, in his article of remembrances, that, The arrested ones got a mixture, which had an after effect of sickness. After taking the mixture, they were recognized as sick, and taken to the hospital.
What kind of mixture was it? Who gave the mixture to them, and who recognized them as sick, and transferred them to the hospital? The author doesn't tell us anything about it. The truth is that this work was done by Dr. Alexander Paperno. He gave the sentences a mixture from which they got diarrhea and light intestinal cramps. They were not forced to obey. In a few days, all of them, except Paperno, were brought to the hospital, and put in one place—officially, not to risk the spread of an epidemic.
The next step in freeing them was to escape through a window, which overlooked the Berezina. For that, the necessary instruments were prepared in order to cut the iron bars, which block the bright world…. The hardest problem was how to get rid of the watchmen, even for a short time, who surrounded the ward.
The barber who was responsible for this group of patients was on our side. Aside from whiskey, he asked for whatever we needed, in order to give the night watchmen, when the action needed to be carried out, special cigarettes to make them sleepy.
Nacke Yochvid came to me again with this cigarette problem. After a short conversation with him, I again assumed the responsibility, with the help of one of my pharmacist acquaintances.
I went, when I could, to my friend, the pharmacist Constantin Roginski, a person with revolutionary leanings (a brother of the renowned lawyer Roginski, assistant mayor of Vinover). He had a big pharmacy business on Muriavsker Street. I told him what I want to buy from him, and the reason. He looked at me with an ironic smile, and said that he doesn't sell those kind of cigarettes.
I didn't expect such an answer from him. On a rainy day, I let him know that by not giving me the cigarettes, he is playing with fire: that this is an action of the Revolutionary parties, who don't keep such things quiet, and lots of people are involved whose lives are hanging by a thread.
My stronger tone worked, and Roginski agreed to prepare a dozen good cigarettes. In a few hours, I gave the cigarettes to Nacke.
With that, my direct and conspiratorial part of this action ended.
Through extraordinary hard conditions, the 12 Fugitives were saved from the claws of death, and spread over the world: Two came to America, others remained hidden in Russia, only a few were caught and shot.
I also want to remark that it is absolutely not correct that the entire action was carried out by the group of Bolsheviks, Iskra, as the author Gorelik relates. The Bund participated in this action—Nacke Yochvid, Isak (Lazar Epstein), V. Narkin, Ephraim Itche Gorelik—and indirectly, Dr. Alexander Paperno and Pharmacist Constantine Roginski helped.
by Lazar Epshtein
Translated by Odelia Alroy
Nacke Bobruisker, or Nacke the Police Master, as he was known in the entire Bundist world in the first two decades of this century….
The famous Russian-Jewish novelist Tan-Bogoraz traveled in that time to all the Jewish cities and towns and described them in a series of tales. One of them is called Natke, Police Master and is under that name, depicted Nacke Bobruisker. That's how he was known to the Jews in Russia, but he was also popular in the entire Russian liberal and progressive population.
Nacke Yochvid was born in Bobruisk on August 11, 1884 into a middle-class family. His father, Zalman Yochvid, had a wine business. He gave Nacke, like his other children, a traditional Jewish upbringing in cheder and yeshiva. But even as a youth, Nacke showed an inclination to ordinary affairs and dreamed dreams about the Jew, people, and the world.
After his bar mitzvah he began to show interest in the Zionist movement. Nacke was not only a dreamer, he had a dynamic nature. The surrounding desolation, the Jewish workers' street, affected him. When he sought a direction for his turbulent nature, he was able to find it in the revolt of suffering, the revolt of the Jewish worker.
In order to better understand the makeup of the workers and to connect more strongly with their lives, this child of the middle class became an apprentice to a shoemaker and later in other workshops [sic]. Barely 16, he was already in the Bund movement. There he was noted for his boldness. Hard problems were easy for him and his sharp intelligence pushed him quickly to the Bund activists. In a few years, he was seen in a series of cities where there were Jewish workers and Bund organizations. He worked in Pinsk, in Mogilev, Bialystok, Brisk, Homel, Minsk, a certain time in Odessa and Peodosie. But the greatest part of his active years he spent in the city of his birth: Bobruisk.
Already in 1904-1905 he was not only the leader of the Bund and not only a leading personality of Jewish life in Bobruisk, but in a certain sense also the boss of the city. In that time, the police master of Bobruisk was Gelbach. When there was grievance in town and justice was sought, one went complaining not to the czarist power, but to Nacke. When there was a riot in town and all the Jews closed their stores, they didn't open them again until Nacke gave the order. And when some of them went to ask the police master if they could open their businesses, he answered, Ask Nacke.
Nacke made a strong impression on me at the time of our first meeting. It was in mid-1905, after January 9 and after the bloody July days. I came to Bobruisk for my presentation and I stayed with Yosef and Rachel Frankel. It was Shabbos. We were sitting and talking. The door opened and in came a slender young man in shiny boots with a friendly face, a childlike mouth, big, earnest, almost wondrous eyes. A real stir. There was a confidence in his manner and genial manner. When I went out with him to several meetings, I saw how influential he was and why. He was a common man. Each and every person, vendor, tradesman, and every poor man greeted him as an acquaintance. Everyone told him his troubles. Not only the workers in the markets; among them, he was one of their own.
It may seem curious but just his appearance in the city influenced his relationship with his family. His father jokingly called him Reb Nachman and he called his father Reb Zalman. Their relations were friendly but the class-distance was observed. That was also the case between him and the middle-class customs of the Jewish population with whom he mingled to resolve various issues.
In the stormy days of the revolution in 1905, Nacke was the established leader in the city. The police and the police master hid. The revolutionary atmosphere pervaded the military garrison of the fort. Some of the officers and some of the soldiers were drawn into the revolutionary movement. The atmosphere in the city was tense. Every clang brought unrest and fright. The Jews were afraid of pogroms and closed their shutters and barred the doors of their businesses. But it was enough for Nacke to go through the street and the crowd would calm down.
In November 1905, the czarist reaction became apparent. In nearby Minsk, the local governor, General Kurlov, met a demonstration with military force and there was a bloodbath. Many of the demonstrators died. In many cities of Russia and the Ukraine, the Black Hundred was organized and made pogroms on the intelligentsia and separately on the Jewish population.
There was a pogrom at that time in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The Bobruisk committee of the Bund received a telegram that a ship left Kiev with stolen items belonging to the Jews and the perpetrators of the pogrom.
Nacke was the President of the Bobruisker Bund self-defense force. In the middle of the night, a portion of the self-defense group went to the shore of the Berezina and awaited the ship, which was manned by Jews because the ship belonged to Jews (the Sklovskys). Nacke and the self-defense force met the perpetrators, greeted them, and confiscated everything with they had robbed.
In the November days of 1905, Nacke and a group of comrades faced the draft. They came to the draft registry office and openly declared, We will use our guns to shoot, not our own people or others, but against the enemies of freedom and the enemies of the people. And since there were signs of reaction, they weren't arrested. They were taken into the army. Nacke and several of his friends decided that they would be more useful in the Bundist cause and they ran away.
Nacke hid for more than two years and worked in various cities, illegally. In 1908 he was arrested and he was put into military service in Vilna where he was for two years.
After his military service he came back to Bobruisk. The revolutionary movement was weakened. Nacke devoted himself in his home town to cultural work. He became active in the peoples library. He continues to infuse all his legal activities with Bundist ideas.
The first world war came. There were edicts issued about the Jews in the surrounding areas of Russia. Tens of thousands are displaced from their homes in the border cities. The Czarist army is surely the leader headed by Nikolai Nikolavitch and the chief of staff, General Janushkevitch, led an anti-Semitic political campaign. Help came from the Jewish population in Russia. In 1915, Nacke became especially active in the Jewish Help Committee for captives.
The revolution came in 1917. Nacke again became the head of the city of Bobruisk. He inspired the masses with his speeches. He organized the workers and soldiers companies and they selected him as president. He became chief of the new power organs in the town. Later in communal elections, he was chosen in the town council where he gave a talk in Yiddish about the position of the Bund on the national question. He became vice-president of the community. Even though he was very sick then, he did not spare himself. He went from one meeting to another participating in all the institutions and conferences and was a patron in all the works of the Bobruisk Bund organization where he was President. Often the meetings took place at his sick bed. How that was is told by Okun:
Nacke was lying in bed with terrible stomach pains and leads the meeting of the portion of the committee. I remember the picture that I saw, Nacke is speaking heatedly about the tragic issues of the day, he berates the outsiders and talks about the inner unity. Suddenly Nacke became still, cutting short his speech. His eyes closed, his face pales and tightens. Nacke is having terrible pains. All his friends are frozen, a pallor reigns over the room and we think here comes the bitter end. (Nacke had long been sentenced to death by the doctor). In a moment he revives, the danger is past. Nacke opens his eyes and again takes up his fiery speech as though nothing happened. (Life-issues, number 254, Nov. 21, 1919 Warsaw).
When we would tell him that he should rest because of his grave illness he would laugh and compare himself to a cavalry horse who runs right into battle, as soon as he heard the trumpet and doesn't look at the disturbances.
The direction of the Russian Revolution after 1917 did not go the way that all freedom loving socialists had dreamed and awaited. Communist terror took the place of the Czarist terror. The Communists placed all the blame on the Socialists. Like the Jewish workers' movement where brother betrayed brother, the Communists arrested and tortured their former friends. It had a terrible effect on Nacke. His health grew worse from day to day. A short time before his death he was told that the Communists shot one of his close friends, the devoted Socialist and Bundist Katz nelson. Friends who had come to visit him told me how he cried like a child when he heard the dreadful news.
Nacke was a wonderful friend. Everywhere that he went that he felt he could bring encouragement, friendship, comradeship he did so, so it was no wonder that his friends showed the same warmth and love to him.
On August 4, 1919 Nacke in great pain died at the age of 35.
The Bobruisk committee of the Bund issued this obituary after his death:
Monday, August 4, 1919, after a long and difficult illness, Nacke Yochvid, President of the Bobruisk Committee of the Bund, died. He was President of the socialist faction of the former city-Duma; Vice President of the Jewish Community; member of the committee to help the Jewish war refugees; executive member of the folk library; committee member of ORT; executive member of the A.N. Bronislav Circle. His death brought a deep sadness to the Bobruisk population and the great number of Bundists who knew him.
by I.S. Hertz
Translated by Odelia Alroy
Israel Okun, son of Shimon and Bat Sheva, was born January 10, 1897 in Bobruisk and died on October 22, 1941 in Montreal. His father was a religious Jew, a lumber dealer. In his younger years Israel studied in a cheder and was tortured privately.
I Okun began his Bund activities in his home town at the end of 1898 and was later active in a number of cities and countries. In Bobruisk where he was a member of the local committee at various times, he played an important role in the revolution of 1905. In 1906 he went to study in the technical school in Dessau. But he remained active in the Bund and for a time he led the Bund's student group in Leipzig. In August, 1907 he was one of the Bund's delegates to the Congress of International Socialists in Stuttgart. He went by the pseudonym Dag.
In 1908, after finishing his studies with a diploma as an engineer he went to Russia where he worked with the Bund. He settled in St. Petersburg. There he was active in the Bund in the various Jewish cultural organizations and he showed great intelligence and loyalty. Okun was the leader of the Jewish Literary Society in Russia, secretary of the Jewish Musical Society and the History-Ethnography Society.
He was also active in the enlightenment group and helped publish a history journal. He was a central figure in the Jewish cultural work in this leading Russian city. From 1912 he was the Petersburg correspondent of the Bobruisk Weekly where he usually had a series of letters. When the revolution broke out in 1917 he went as a messenger of the Bund to a series of cities to help organize the first open Bund conference (April, 1917). Later Okun became active in his old hometown Bobruisk where he was a councilman both in the town and the Jewish community. In 1918 he was the vice-president of the city council. In the days from March 6-20, 1919 he participated in the eleventh conference of the Bund, that was held in Minsk. In the same year he settled in Vilna and worked with the Bund press in charge of production where he accomplished many excellent developments. For a time he was also director of the Vilna Jewish Technical Journal. His articles from that period were published under his own name or under the pseudonym A. Doginski. In 1922 the ORT in Vilna published the book, Electricity and Its Practical Uses by Dr. L. Gretz, translated from the German by engineer I. Okun. He also worked with the ORT Journal, Economics and Life (Berlin).
In 1924 Okun emigrated to Argentina. He was active in the Bund there too. With others he began to publish a Bundist journal, Argentine Alarms. Because of illness he left Buenos Aires and in 1930 settled in Toronto, Canada.
In his new and last home he again threw himself into his work with full enthusiasm. He was active in the socialist movement and the Workmen's Circle. In 1931 he helped to form a United Jewish Socialist Organization and became secretary of the All Canada Jewish Socialist Farrand. He was also active in the Canadian Socialist Party, CCF. Together with other friends he published a Yiddish socialist periodical, The Socialist Word.
Israel Okun died suddenly when he was on a short visit to Montreal on a mission from the Workmen's Circle, at the celebration of the donating an ambulance to the Canadian army at the time of the second world war.
by N. Khonin
Translated by Odelia Alroy
The Bundists in Minsk, in Vilna, and other cities were sure that Bobruisk is the fortress of the Russian revolution, and that each Bundist who comes to Bobruisk is a hero in a heroic land. So every Bundist who didn't live in Bobruisk wanted to be there to see it with his own eyes, how the city appears and its heroic people who live there. I wanted to also, and dreamed of going to Bobruisk. And the opportunity came. I was riding back from Yekaterinoslav. I decided not to go by train, but with a ship. It was a beautiful summer day. I went over the entire Dneiper and I was sitting on this poor little ship that belongs to a pair of wealthy Jews. The ship glides over the still waters of the Lake Berioza. And already I'm in Bobruisk. My heart was beating with joy. The shipped stopped at the shore of the city. I took my package on my shoulders for Grisha. Grisha wasn't from Bobruisk. He was sent by the Bund as a professional revolutionary to lead Bundist activities in the city. I came to the house to which the address directed me and I inquired after Grisha. The lady of the house told me that he had moved a long while ago and that she did not know where he was now living. I asked her if she would allow me to leave my package until I would find an acquaintance in the city. And I went away to look. Who—I alone didn't know. I wandered the streets until evening. At evening I went to the Bundist neighborhood, which in that time was on the main street of the city—on Nievsk. Several days before, it had rained in Bobruisk and there were still puddles on the street. But the boardwalk was filled with people. I imagined that every man carried a big stick and was ready at any time to have a fight. I walked around and looked at the faces. I hoped that I would find someone I knew. But the more I looked at the groups, all the more they looked at me. And I felt instinctively that the people looked at me as a stranger and perhaps as a spy. My skin got goose bumps, and the easiest thing would have been for me to go up to one of the strollers and tell them the truth. But I lost my reasoning powers and decided to go away. I remember I went over to the corner of Pushkin Street and started to walk quickly. That prompted some of the Bundists to think I was a spy, and a group of three with fat sticks in their hands went after me. I saw the town library and I ran to the library with the hope that there I would be saved. And as I walked fast—not walked, ran—the three ran after me. And then, to my luck, I saw Grisha leaving the library. The one for whom I'd been looking. I ran up to him, hugged him and when the three workers came up to me and to Grisha and Grisha knew them well, they yelled out, But we were sure, Comrade, that you are a spy! If you were not now standing next to Grisha, you would not leave here without broken bones. I told Grisha where I was coming from and that I needed a place to stay to live. One of the workers, who was a tinsmith, said, Comrade, come to me. I have room for you. And on the spot, instead of getting a beating as a spy, I became a comrade with whom they spent several days.
When I think of Bobruisk, I remember that incident. I see the city, the boardwalk, the three workers, who wanted to break my bones, and the library where Grisha, the three workers and I are standing like close comrades.
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