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[Page 441]

“Youth of Zion” and “Pioneers” in Bobruisk

by H. Frumkin

Translation donated by Dan Cavalier

At the time I studied with Rabbi Shmaryahu Schnierson in Bobruisk in 1912, a few of us found out about the existence of a Zionist youth group. We decided to join. Most of the members came from wealthy families and we didn't feel like we belonged. Since months later the group fell apart. The Tsar in Russia was Nikolai and his regime was against the Socialist movements. Holding meeting and carrying out activities became illegal.

A few loyal Zionists in every town kept the groups going, meeting in hiding every Saturday. They were called “minyan.” The ones that attended those secretive meetings were from the middle class: merchants, clerical workers and students. We decided to join and felt at home right away. At those meetings we learned about the political events in Russia and the rest of the world. We met influential people from the Zionist movement. Among them was Y.L. Dubrov. He encouraged us to read the Hebrew literature and learn about the struggles and difficulties concerning the settlement of Israel. We started dreaming about our own journey to join the Jews in Israel. The activities of the Zionist youth movement widened and we grew in numbers. Our main agendas were:

  1. The Zionist movement has to act vigorously in purchasing land in Israel and support settlement of the Land.
  2. We saw the Hebrew workers in Israel as the real enforcers of Zionism.
  3. We felt that farmers and blue-collar workers are to be brought into the Zionist youth group since they have the needed assets for the building of a new land.
  4. We got stronger with the belief that our destination in Israel.
We were well aware of the ongoing argument concerning languages. There were those who refused to use Yiddish and spoke only Hebrew and Russian. We as a group refused to join the battle against Yiddish and its literature. There was a fear that those taking Socialism to its extreme were heading towards assimilation into the socialist Russian groups. Our goal was to educate people to want to better the social condition of the working class in the Diaspora. Those were the general lines the Zionist youth group followed in 1912-1914.

August 1914 was the beginning of the First World War. Our situation, as well as all the Jews in Russia, changed drastically for the worse. anti-Semitism increased and the Jews were chased away from their homes. The Zionist youth group joined in the efforts to relocate and resettle the refugees. More young Jews started joining the ZYG with the hope that they would be able to go to Israel at the war's end.

In 1916 the ZYG resumed their activities with great enthusiasm. Their numbers increased. A co-group named “Hekhaluts” decided to start active planning of their move to Israel.

At the beginning of 1917, there was unrest in Russia among the army and the working class. The loss of life and the corruption of the ruling class and the Tsar caused a lot of bitterness. There was a shortage of food. The poverty of the masses was very obvious in contrast to the rich life of the merchants who were part of the ruling class leadership. Later that year, the Romanov monarchy was overthrown and a temporary government was appointed. The restrictions against the Jews were removed. The Revolution brought the Jews joy and new hope. All the parties let their activists out of hiding, as did the ZYG who were reaching out to other Jews all over Russia. After hundreds of years of persecution, the Jews felt like citizens with equal rights. Many held the opinion that after the fall of the monarchy, most Jews would neglect Zionist ideas and follow the parties that supported the needs of the local Jews. They were proven wrong. The majority stayed faithful to the movement, which now started to express its demands for a Jewish homeland. Dr. Chaim Weitzmann joined the struggle as a negotiator.

It was decided to have a national meeting of the Zionist Youth Group in Moscow. It took place May 18-24, 1917. The discussions brought up the work of the Zionist movements, Israel and the fate of the Jews in Russia. The decisions that came out of that meeting were according to the “Basel Plan” in which the Zionist movement sees itself as a worker's movement regardless of class with one joint target, to see the Jews free politically and nationally, creating a life in the Land of Israel based on a healthy social foundation. It wasn't very clear nor deep outcome, however we were all elated and united. The meeting's outcome energized us all and strengthened the beginning of the Hekhaluts activities throughout Russia. It was important to be united in times of extreme turmoil. The ZYG was to become a special body within the large movement to help spreading the ideas and decisions made by the central body.

Our next event was a general meeting of all the different movements in Russia. That took place on May 24th through the 31st. The Zionist Youth Group were 30% of all the delegates and so se had an important influence on the outcome of the decisions, which stressed again the importance of full support for the creation of a homeland for the Jews and strengthening the financial base which would help carry it out. Not all the Jews supported the new developments. Many thought that we were counter-revolutionists. Among them were the Bund. Their focus was more cosmopolitan. They didn't appreciate us concerning ourselves mainly with the Jewish problem. Our numbers kept increasing, and we became a sizeable force with influence on public opinion. Other Jewish communities outside of Bobruisk asked for our help with literature and speakers.

These developments had a huge influence on the struggle of the Jews in Russia. If not for the Bolshevik power, which robbed the individual especially the Jews of their freedom, our efforts and achievements would have been a major historical factor in rescuing the Jews out of Russia. After the Revolution in Petrograd in October, 1917, the Bolsheviks seized the central power. Soon after our town was ruled by delegates of their party.

The first few months didn't create any changes in our activities. They denounced us as counter-revolutionists but left us alone. They were too busy seeking the approval of the masses and securing their position politically and economically. About the same time we were told about the unveiling of the Balfour Declaration. We were ecstatic, every day we got additional messages, one of them was that the British Consul in Petrograd announced to the Central Zionist Office that a decision was made to establish a Jewish State, and that steps were already taken to create a Jewish Parliament. The Bolsheviks didn't interfere with the celebration all over Russia when the news reached the Jews. Our sentiments were that now is the time to bear down with extra effort, purchase land, and create agricultural settlements. However, it was easier said than done. In Russia the Civil War was raging and the borders were closed. The economic burdens the government imposed made it difficult for the Jews to find extra money to donate for the Zionist cause. The banks were taken over and with them, money and property. The Bolsheviks also started to enlist "volunteers” into the Red Army.

After several months, the Bolsheviks' power became uncertain. The heads of the party offered a peace agreement to the Germans. They refused to accept. The Russian front suffered losses and started to disintegrate. Soldiers left their posts. The German troops charged ahead and took over Russian land amongst which was White Russia, including Minsk and Bobruisk. The three months of Bolshevik occupation was over in February 1918. In the years 1917-20, the the ruling power in Bobruisk changed four times.

The overtaking by the Germans was met with no resistance. They established a "Stadthauptman” who was in charge of reviewing and allowing any movements in and out of the city, or any gatherings. We were left alone to continue our lives. The Germans were preoccupied with bettering their situation and very open to bribes. The public life suffered setbacks. We were disconnected from the communities in Russia. The general thought was that the presence of the Germans was temporary. Many of the local Russians dreamed of becoming a country independent of Russia and now they were cooperating with the Germans, hoping to reach their dream.

We started getting news about the British occupation of Israel. We got hold of a publication by Martin Buber dealing with Zionist issues. In it we read an article by Berel Katzenelson, which excited and united us. Most of the Hekhaluts members agreed that they wanted to stay as a group and form and agricultural settlement in Israel. Meanwhile, we continued our meetings and discussions and worked on improving our skills in the Hebrew language. In November, 1918, following the revolution in Germany, the army left White Russia and the Bolsheviks returned and settled in Bobruisk as their headquarters. The new threat became the Polish Army. Their aim was to get part of the Ukraine and White Russia. The new pressure on the Bolshevik Army caused a lot of stress for the Jews. The small storekeepers and merchants were constantly robbed of their supplies to be given to the army and Russian farmers, whose support the Bolsheviks wanted. The public functions slowed down. Our group met less and less. We were afraid to attract too much attention. A few of us were employed by the local authorities as experts on local economic matters. They decided to trust us on the merit of our honesty, even though our political views were known to be different. Part of our task was to spy and check activities of the train personnel. They suspected food theft by some of the Polish workers. We were threatened with death if we strayed from the task. There were rumors that the Polish Army was about to invade, and we knew that we couldn't stay if that happened.

In July, 1919, after bitter fighting, the Red Army retreated and the Polish Army conquered Bobruisk.

The newcomers to our town created fear in the hearts of the Jews. The Polish Army was known to be very cruel to the Jews. The Jews were told not to leave their homes for three days. In a secret meeting we discussed ways to avoid a pogrom by the Polish soldiers. We heard that a delegate from the “Joint” in America was present at the meetings in Minsk. We also knew that the Polish authorities appreciated American public opinion, and therefore the American delegate's presence helped in keeping down the destructive activities of the soldiers. I was sent to Minsk to meet with the “Joint" representative. I was promised that due pressure would be put on the Polish authorities to ensure the safety of the Jews. The Polish Army kept hitting on Jews but the big pogrom didn't happen. Things improved when the Polish Army changed their soldiers. The new troops were from Warsaw, and were more obedient to their superiors' orders.

Life moved on. We created strong contacts with the Zionist groups in Warsaw. Our activities increased again and the plans to actualize our dream and settle in Israel became active again.

At the end of December 1919 we held a convention in Minsk which included delegates from all the groups: General Zionists, The Youth of Zion, Hamizrakhi, Hekhaver, and Hekhaluts. They came from all over White Russia, which was occupied by the Polish Army. The most influential speech was by the economist H.D. Horovits. He claimed that the Russian Jews were in a state of depression and despair since there was no real movement toward actualizing the Zionists' dream. He claimed that the Jews have no economic future in Russia and the only way out was a mass move to Israel. At the beginning of January, 1920, there was another convention in Minsk which included delegates from all the Jewish communities from the White Russia region which was under Polish occupation. The only Jewish organizations which didn't participate were the Bund and the S.S. which were quickly assimilating into the Bolshevik party. A great impression was made upon us by one rabbi who traveled from a small town. His beard was cut and face bandaged, the results of an encounter with Polish soldiers. The outcome of the convention was to submit a demand to the Polish headquarters in Minsk to stop the mistreatment of the Jewish population and step up the plans for settlements in Israel.

Prague, March 26, 1920 - delegates from the different groups met again to discuss progress and plans for the the Zionist movement. The main importance of the meeting was the coming together of delegates from the Diaspora and Israel. They impressed us with their sure, simple ways, their strong belief in their objective and the strong demands that each of us should carry out the ultimate objective - the settlement of Israel. The Israeli delegates felt that the way to come closer to our goal was to train the youth in agricultural life and to encourage them to make the actual move. Some of the Zionist youth in Poland felt that it is as important to support and encourage the social, economic, and cultural development of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

I was appointed to bring together all the Jews in White Russia under the Polish occupation who were ready to create a new life in Israel. Everyone was energized by the addition of the Israeli delegates to our efforts. We started a constant activity day and night to create visas and other documents, some by negotiating with the Polish authorities or any other way we had.

In May and June 1920, the fighting between the Red Army and the Polish Army became fierce. The Red Army took back parts of White Russia and Ukraine and advanced toward Warsaw. We became concerned with the possibility of the Bolsheviks coming back and closing all the possibilities of getting out of the country. We urged everyone to try to reach Warsaw or find a way through Czechoslovakia or Austria. The tension was high. We couldn't supply enough British visas. We were trying to get as many Polish passports as possible to enable us to get out of Poland into Czechoslovakia or Austria. I stayed in Warsaw a while longer, but as the Red Army approached I left with a group 150 people to Krakow where through contacts, an English diplomat in spite of his country's orders supplied us with British visas to Israel.

In October, 1920, I reached Israel with other Bobruiskers. We settled in Kiriat Anavim to start a new life.

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