The speaker suddenly became quiet, interrupting his speech. A dead silence reigned in the hall. The several hundred people, who had come to the International Socialist meeting of the English Labor Party, earnest and moved, were listening to the Jewish representative of the Polish National Council, the leader of the Bund, Shmuel (Arthur) Zigelboim. He described the gruesome deeds that the Germans were doing in Poland, read reports from the underground in Warsaw, told about the revolts in the ghetto about the heroic struggle and tragic death of the remnant of Jews. He had already been speaking for two hours to the non-Jews about the tragedy of a people who were being murdered systematically. Was he finished? The quiet lasted a minute. Zigelboim heard the quiet. He knew that he must speak further. He had lost the bond with those who were listening to him for only one minute, carried away by thoughts of the way people were living and seeing everything he was talking about and describing. He felt a meaninglessness in his speech, in searching for words, in giving speeches and making appearances in the light of the savage realities. This only lasted for a minute. He immediately brought himself back into the room; this was his duty, the only remedy to speak to them, to make them believe what was happening there, being struck by fear and calling forth a response of protest in the world. He started speaking again: Today, you have heard the frightening news from Poland; these are facts that make blood curdle in the veins. I have in my hand an excerpt from a letter that a Jewish woman in one ghetto wrote to her sister in another ghetto in Poland. The letter is a shocking call to the world. The woman writes:
My hand shakes. I cannot write, our minutes are numbered; only God knows if we will see each other again. I write and I cry; my children lament. They want so much to live We all say goodbye to you. [Zigelboim continues,] Thus is the atmosphere in which the Jews live in the ghetto of Poland. Try to imagine the people who see their nearest being dragged away to their death every day and each one knows that their turn must come. Imagine the thousands of Jewish mothers, the mothers who look at their children and know that their
death is inevitable. Imagine the mothers from whom the children are torn from their hands with one smash into the wall. The little head of the child spatters in small pieces in front of the mothers. Imagine the great crime of methodically massacring an entire people. Each of us who understands the cruelty of the crime must be grabbed by the feeling of shame that we find ourselves among the living, to belong to the human genus, if means are not found to stop the greatest crime in human history. The conscience of everyone must be shaken; the serenity must be exploded for those who ignore the facts, with their self-deception that makes them skeptical. Each of us who does not do everything possible to stop the mass slaughter will take upon themselves moral co-responsibility for [the dead]. In the name of the hopeless innocent people sentenced to death in the ghettos of Poland, whose hands stretched out to the world cannot be seen, I call to all people, to all nations, whose conscience is still weak, wipe off the burning shame that is thrown on the human race, force the Nazi murderers to stop the systematic massacre of a people.
Zigelboim left the hall alone; the people who congratulated him disturbed him, shaking his hand for his beautiful speech. He ran from them. He again had the feeling of despair and helplessness. It was a year's time that he was the representative of Polish Jewry in the Polish Government in Exile. He wrote, spoke, warned, pressed, did not let pass any opportunities to enlighten, to persuade, to call and to beg for help and everything struck a deaf wall of disbelief and indifference. He was the representative of a people that was being killed cold-bloodedly. If only he was seen to save one single soul. Yes, people come to hear him. What he has to say affects the people. However, it is a superficial effect; afterward they return to their daily lives. A few do not believe him. It is said that this is characteristic Jewish hysteria and, if there is a little truth, it is far away and, meanwhile we are alive. Yes, he knows that many of his Jewish and non-Jewish friends have begun to avoid him. He poisons their lives; they feel uncomfortable in his company. He knows what they think: How can such a person always and constantly live only with one thought; he takes this too seriously, this Zigelboim. Well, yes, of course, one can be a representative, give public speeches, send telegrams of alarm to the world and then sit at home or in the company of friends, moaning, crying and have a little joy from life, do what everyone else does. His eyes flashed with anger. He
pressed his hands into a fist and with anger, even a little brutally pushed through strolling Sunday crowds, almost running. He saw an empty spot on a bench in the square and suddenly felt so tired that he could not take another step; he sat down heavily. It was a beautiful spring day, one of the rare sunny days in foggy London. Here the trees were in bloom and spread an intoxicating aroma. Everything here was so normal.
True, London was living through difficult days, was being bombed by German airplanes. And then such calmness, security. Between one bombardment and the second, one went out into the street, strolled. Zigelboim watched two children playing in the square: a young boy of seven and a young girl of the same age. He looked at their radiant little faces; looked at the two mothers who looked at them with such pride. He was transported by the sunshine and bright joy of the children and a smile, such a rare guest in recent times, played on his face. The ball with which the children played rolled over to his feet. He took it in his hand, wanting to throw it back. The children stood waiting with little outstretched hands and bright open eyes. Zigelboim looked at them for a time; his hand remained hanging in the air. He face twisted in a grimace and his eyes became bloodshot. He saw the last report from Poland; saw the outstretched little hands and the eyes of thousands and thousands of children open in childish astonishment and fear, in wagons, autos and on foot driven to their death, to the ovens. He tore himself from the spot and again began going fast, running. He again stopped at a square and here again heard the sound of childish laughter. How would it be, he thought, if these mothers of the beloved children were taken and they were sent there to look and see what the Germans are doing to the children of his people. How would they react? Would they shudder, scream, hit the murderers with their fist; or perhaps they would watch nonchalantly, and perhaps help. This is what the greatest number of the Polish people is doing. Throughout his life, he believed deeply in the people. With optimism, he went step by step in the strength of this belief. And what is socialism, if not the deep belief in the ascent of man. At age twelve, he left his poor home full of hungry children in Chelm, to go to the large strange city, full of belief in people, and saw for himself socialism, the Jewish workers' movement, the Bund, sensed in them the beauty, the exaltation of throwing oneself into the stormy, salty sea of human suffering and tears, fighting for justice and nobility. He walked with the masses and moved ahead; he became their leader. His optimism and belief in people helped him persuade them. They listened to him; the Jewish workers believed him. He was always ready for them, during the weekdays of communal work and on holi-
days, in struggle, in danger. Ready for the highest sacrifice for them, for the Jewish workers' movement, for the Jewish people. And now, when his people were perishing in blood, they presented him as their messenger to the world, a messenger to the world from a people who are being murdered and he cannot help. He cannot break down the wall of indifference and near-sightedness.
Somewhere a clock chimed. Zigelboim listened to the monotone of the tick-tock that poured a coolness on his heated head. He looked around: the sun had set long ago, it was dark, the city began to be enveloped in a damp cold fog. The coolness refreshed him. His brain again began to think logically. One is not allowed to feel doubt. He must do everything possible, take advantage of every opportunity; he must fulfill his duty. He comes to his room, sits again at the writing desk. Looks again over the proposal worked out against anti-Semitism in the post-war liberated Poland. Tomorrow morning, he has to propose the draft at the session of the National Council. Yes, he is also convinced of the victory of the Allies; a liberated Poland will arise. However, will there be Jews? He hastily lays down the draft. No! He will not get tired of demanding that first of all, everything must be done so that Jews remain alive. This must be before the law against anti-Semitism. He wrote three proposals that he would bring to the session in the morning:
1) The National Council demands of the government that it ask all of the Allied nations, particularly America and England, to immediately devise a plan of special acts against Germany that will force an end to the slaughter of Jews.
2) The dropping of precise descriptions of the slaughter of Jews in the German language in large numbers from airplanes over Germany.
3) The government should take steps for a special conference of all of the Allied governments to be called quickly to publish a blazing protest and a strong warning in the name of all the fighting nations to the German people and their government.
Zigelboim stood up from his place and began walking around the room. Doubt again bored into his brain. He already had brought in proposals twice about undertaking sanctions against the Germans. He had sent the proposals to Churchill and Roosevelt. The responses were diplomatically evasive. No! I will not tire of demanding my due, he shouted. And on the same day, he sent an appeal to President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill.
As the plenipotentiary representative of the Jewish workers' movement in Poland and in the name of the Jews who are being murdered in vast numbers behind the gates of the ghetto, I turn to your governments with this last des-
perate appeal. Here is an excerpt from the last report that has again come from Warsaw: a fierce storm is raging on the heads of Polish Jewry and the terrible storm gets stronger with each day. The entire Jewish population is being exterminated, the men, the women and the children. Of the three and a half million Jews from before the war, there now remain alive no more than a few thousand and the mass murder continues further. The surviving Jews in Poland beg you to find the means to save the remnant of Polish Jews who remain alive. As a man who represents the unfortunate Jewish population of Poland, I give you their last appeal for rescue.
He ended the letter and, tired, let his hand fall on the table. His eyes looked steadily in the distance. This time, would it move them, the leaders of the civilized world?
Jan Korski, the emissary from the Polish underground movement who came to London, also had a mission for the Jewish representative. He asked Zigelboim to wait for him at 5 o'clock. He was a little late. Zigelboim was already waiting for him. They heartily greeted each other and sat down. Korski asked, What do you want to hear? About the Jews, I am a Jew; tell me what you know about the Jews in Poland.
Korski calmly and matter-of-factly began to describe everything he knew about the Jews, everything he had seen. He told about the hunting of Jews in the street, about the aktsias [round-ups] in the ghetto, about the hundreds and thousands of wagons full of Jews which go away in indefinite, but then definite directions. He told of his talk with the Jewish representative before his departure. Zigelboim sat stiffly, with his body shoved forward. He heard, absorbing the horrors, his eyes wide open, looking far behind the speaker; he did not blink, his face was frozen, just a nervous twitch went back and forth on his countenance. Korski, speaking, studied his face. He looked very tired. His eyes protruded from their sockets and the twitch on his face appeared more frequently. Zigelboim suddenly began to ask questions. Tell me exactly how the Jews in the ghetto appear? How do the children's faces you have seen look? What did the women say who watched the hunting in the ghetto with you? How do the bodies of the dead Jews on the streets of the ghetto look? Do you remember the last words of a child who you saw die on the street? Oh, I forgot, you do not understand any Yiddish. Korski began to be irritated by all of the unimportant questions and details. He was also tired of the experiences, conversations.
Herr Zigelboim, he interrupted, a bit nervously all of this is not important. In general, the conditions are terrible and savage. The pop-
ulation in the ghetto lives in a state of death, in a constant threat of death. I have delivered the instructions that the Jewish leaders in the ghetto gave me to the representatives of the English government, who answered me that this is not feasible for political and tactical reasons.
Zigelboim jumped from his place and moved nearer to Korski, his eyes flaring with anger and contempt. Listen, he screamed, I beg you not to tell me what has happened here, what is said here, what is done here This I know better than you, I want to hear what is happening there, what they want there, what they are saying there! He yelled out his words and nervously began to pace across the room. Nu, good, Korski answered with brutal simplicity and matter-of-factly. I will deliver to you what your representatives in the ghetto want from their leaders in the free nations of the world. Here, this is what they have told me to say: They [the Jewish representatives outside Poland] should go to the most important English and American offices and agents, they should not budge until they receive a guarantee that a decision has been made to do everything to save the Jews. They should not eat and not drink; they should die face to face with the world's indifference; they should die. Perhaps this will shock the conscience of the world.
Korski stopped. Zigelboim stood opposite him reconciled, with wide open eyes and looked at him. His face was a little clear and a smile had almost lightly moved his lips. But in his eyes there was something that had not been noticed earlier, such a strange fire that it frightened him a little. Zigelboim stuck out his hand, Korski gave it a firm press. Herr Korski, I will do everything I can to help them, everything! I will do everything they demand; you do not believe me? Korski left the room, closed the door behind him and remained standing. Something did not let him leave. The eyes with which Zigelboim had looked at him! And perhaps he need not have reported everything [he had seen and been told in Poland]; he turned around and knocked on the door. No one answered. From behind the door could be heard a nervous pacing across the room. Korski went down the stairs, tired and heavy.
Half the night passed. Through the open window, a thick, damp fog crept in that dissolved in the darkness of the room. Zigelboim stood near the open window, looking at the darkness. All his senses were on edge. He had already decided, finished For a long time he had felt his physical existence was immoral as death and annihilation reigned around him. Earlier, he had not permitted the thought to come to him, while they there, in whose name he spoke, needed him to remain vigilant. They believed that he could somehow help. However, now they, too, do not believe in this and ask of him to try this last thing; perhaps that would help? Perhaps the world would hear? Why is he still standing; why is he dawdling? Zigelboim, the
sober, logical idealist, had always accompanied Zigelboim the dreamer, accompanied and competed and demanded perfection. Now they both screamed at him, tore him: It is nonsense. the logical one screamed at him. You need to remain on the watch, fulfill your duty, do everything that can be done. You have become frightened, tired and this is for a showman, melodramatic. Commit suicide? Every lovesick boy, every weakling can do this. And what will be accomplished with your death? Will such a generous gesture change the course of your enemy? They will only be happy with it; they will rub their hands with joy. The opposite just one more martyr and they will be able to do everything that they wish, undisturbed. And those you will affect with your action cause to shudder nonsense, they will at most shed a tear, lay a few flowers on your grave and continue their cold diplomatic calculations. Futilely give away your life for what? Consider the logic?
Zigelboim torn himself away from the window and began pacing across the room.
Stop. Cynic, the second one shouted at him. Everything is not yet lost; the world will have to hear.
What is logic? Write an appeal to statesmen, confer with them, make the effort to be logical and to the point, persuade them, when everything tears in me and they examine everything logically, with calm faces. They diplomatically make the calculations; it does not pay; it cannot be done and, meanwhile, the people perish. No, no, perish with them; this is the only way that remains to me, the envoy of a hopeless people.
I will not accomplish anything here. I bang my head on a hard, deaf wall. Those who hear the banging have already become accustomed to this; it no longer has any effect. It is necessary to throw oneself at the wall with momentum, spray it with one's own brains. Perhaps this will have an effect? They, there, believe in the perhaps. And the perhaps began to grow with him, took on a real form.
He stopped his pacing back and forth, went to the table, sat down and began writing, stopped momentarily, reflected and again wrote. He ended; his hands remained laying on the table. He lifted his head a little, took notice of all of the small things on the writing table and his gaze stopped at the three red roses. The owner, an old working
woman who had looked after him with care, had placed the roses on the table, deeply moved by his speech at the meeting the night before. They stood, the roses, opposite him in bloom as with open mouths. Their beauty, literally, screamed; he gave one of them a caress. The velvet smoothness burned his hand. He drew it back, stood up and with quick steps went to the dark background of the room where the bed stood. The lamp on the table remained on and lit the last written words:
I cannot remain quiet, I cannot live when the remnant of the Jewish people in Poland, whose representative I am, are being killed. My comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto perished with weapons in their hands in the last heroic struggle. I was not destined to die like them, together with them. However, I belong to them and to their mass graves.
Now comes the last act of the tragedy behind the walls of the ghetto that has no equal in history. The responsibility for the crime of the annihilation of the entire Jewish population in Poland falls in the first instance on the murderers themselves. However, indirectly the responsibility also falls upon all of humanity, the people and the governments of the allied nations that have not made any effort up until now with concrete action for ending the killing. These nations became partners of the murders by passively watching the murder of unprotected millions of tortured children, women and men.
With my death I will express the strongest protest against the passivity with which the world looks at and permits the extermination of the Jewish people.
I know how little a human life is worth today. However, while I could not do anything during my life, perhaps with my death, I will help to break the indifference of they, who have the ability to save now, perhaps, at the last moment the still living Polish Jews.
My life belongs to the Jewish people in Poland and, therefore, I give it away.
Dr. Y. Sziper had already been in contact with the Chelemer group, Poalei-Zion. The Jewish officer in the Austrian army was a great historian and scientist, who later, by chance, was chosen by the Jews in the Chelemer poviat [district] as deputy in the Polish Sejm [parliament].
A mixed population of various nationalities lived in Chelm in the southeast corner of Congress Poland Ruthenians, Uniate peasants, Greek Catholics, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. A quiet, but stubborn struggle took place among the various peoples, mainly between the Ukrainians and Poles in regard to making Chelm more Polish.
The Jews were in a vice, not knowing on which side to orient themselves. They did not reveal their choice in relation to one side of the other, not being sure which of the sides would triumph in the territorial disputes. The civil Jewish parties declared their neutrality, not wanting to come out with a separate voting list for the Sejm elections in Chelm.
The Central Committee of the Bund then decided not to take part in the Sejm election throughout Poland.
The Poalei-Zion in Poland decided to take part in the election and thus the only Jewish candidate list in Chelm was for the Poalei-Zion party.
The election ordinances were then genuinely democratic. The Poalei-Zion party sent out propagandists through the province to make the population aware of the positions of P.Z. in the Sejm elections. Although a few campaigning comrades
were then beaten in several villages, they enthusiastically and energetically continued their work.
It is very interesting to highlight the following reason that brought a few hundred voters to the P.Z. list: a number of Ukrainian peasants during the Czarist regime - were in a Kiev jail with B. Borokhow. There in the jail they became familiar with the socialist ideas that the leading theoretician, Borokhow, taught them. When the Ukrainians heard that the P.Z. list had a connection with Borokhow's ideas, they all voted for the Poalei-Zionist list.
The Krakow lawyer, Dr. Max Rozenfeld, who died traveling from Vienna to Warsaw before the opening of the Polish Sejm, stood first on the P.Z. list no. 2. Since, Dr. Y. Sziper was the second candidate on the list, he automatically became the deputy from the Chelemer poviat (district) in the Polish Sejm. This was on the 19th of March 1919, when Dr. Y. Sziper became Sejm deputy.
As a deputy, Dr. Y. Sziper would come very often to Chelm to give lectures, reports and the like. He also often intervened with the authorities when a Chelemer Jew turned to him.
My young friend, Shneiur Wasserman, the well known writer and poet from Chelm, states in his memoirs about the destruction of Chelm in Morgn Freiheit [Morning Freedom] the following important episode: - During the Polish-Bolshevik War, when the Polish Halertchikes [soldiers under the command of General Jozek Haller during and after the First World War, who were widely reported to be anti-Semitic and perpetrators of violence against Jews], arrived in Chelm, they would often attack the Jews and rip their beards. A pogrom against the Jews in Chelm also broke out at that time in which approximately 100 Jews were wounded and one Jew was killed. Many houses and shops had a pogrom against them.
The Chelemer Jews, in their deadly fear, turned to Warsaw and to their deputy, Dr. Y. Sziper, who immediately came to Chelm.
All of the Chelemer city fathers and the police officials reacted indifferently to the excesses against the Jews, but in Sziper's presence they took steps to calm the infuriated crowd; perhaps, they, themselves, had incited the mob.
Dr. Y. Sziper remained in Chelm for several days and conducted a meticulous investigation of the excesses that had occurred and he put together a list of those suffering and the value of the material damages.
At the next sitting of the Sejm, Sziper gave a speech about the pogrom in Chelm and about the Polish
pogroms in general. The speech made a great impression all over Poland. He often repeated that the Polish government was responsible for all of the troubles and excesses against the Jews, that: Pogroms are swords with two edges; they harm the murderer just as much as the victim. He proclaimed: Make a clear account, my gentlemen, whose losses are greater, the material and physical damage that the Jews suffered through the pogroms, or your moral ruin that you plant among the young Polish generation through incitement and pogroms against the Jews.
Turning to the gallery of the Sejm, he asked the Polish wives, mothers and sisters, how do they react to the rowdy deeds of their sons and brothers who invade the women's mikhvah [ritual bath] (such incidents happened then in Chelm) and bully the deathly frightened, ashamed, naked women.
Although his speech did not stop the waves of pogroms in the country, there was a certain compensation for the Chelemer Jews and for the Jews in Poland in general in that there was someone to openly and loudly protest in the Sejm.
Dr. Sziper, as a Sejm deputy, was never intimidated and he did not stop protecting Jewish respect and Jewish life with pride and honor.
Arrests of communal political activists (the majority Jewish ) occurred in Poland in 1920, and in Chelm, too, the arrestees were Jewish political activists from all factions. Several arrestees were ordinary, impartial Jews, even several young students in the Chelemer Jewish gymnazie.
Among the arrestees were Dr. Mirlas (chemistry teacher in the Jewish gymnazie); Distler (from Galicia, bookkeeper of the P.Z. cooperative at the worker's
home); Moshe Larber; A.D. Hipszman (a print worker, chairman of the P.Z. org.); Haim (a water carrier, a Bundist); N. Laks, etc.
Also, Miss Bluma Loszojnsztejn (the only woman among the arrestees, she was imprisoned with the female criminals).
I received a note from Mr. Rozenblum (a tailor, he was then treasurer of the P.Z. org.) a few days after the arrest asking that I come to see him. Rozenblum was then in hiding in an attic somewhere on Lubliner Street. L. Rozenblum instructed me to go to Warsaw to Dep. Dr. Y. Sziper [to ask him] to intercede with the Polish government about freeing the arrestees.
I then (a 17-year old young man, leader of the Poalei-Zion youth organization) went to Warsaw. It was, in general, the first time that I traveled by train and suddenly I was in such a seething city as Warsaw.
I remembered the address of the P.Z. worker's house in Warsaw, Karmelicka 23. There I learned that Sziper lived with his father-in-law the Zionist leader and lawyer, Yitzhak Grynboim on Tlomackie 6, opposite the Tlomackie synagogue.
Dr. Sziper received me with great comradely friendship and he told me that he could not go to the minister to intercede on behalf of the Chelm arrestees because, Arrests took place all over Poland. His school friend, Dr. Szreiber, was arrested, too, and he could not help him because he first had to learn from the minister the reasons and intentions in general of the government toward the arrestees. He would then be able to intercede and see that the innocent Jews were released. He advised me to go home and to see that all of the arrestees' families were assured that everyone would be released quickly. Arriving home in Chelm, I calmed everyone with the certainty that now the arrestees would be released.
On the fourth day after returning to Chelm, five policemen came to our house at night for a search. The house, the books and papers were ransacked and I was taken to the police station, and after several days, to the Chelemer jail where the Polish activists were imprisoned.
My information from Warsaw and the assurances from Dr. Sziper that
(Photo, caption: Poalei-Zion group in Chelm. Dr. Yitzhak Sziper is found in the center of the photo.)
we would all be quickly freed brought great reassurance. On a dark night, three days after the arrests in Chelm, we, the great criminals, were lead out of jail and taken away under heavy guard to the train, everyone was placed in special prisoner cars and taken to the Kielcer prison.
I was among the 12 communal activists. I was the youngest of all of the arrestees in the Kielcer prison.
After three months sitting, the communal activists from Chelm were released from the Kielcer prison without a trial, thanks to the intervention of Deputy Dr. Y. Sziper. Because the formalities about me still had not been taken care of, I sat for several more days.
Three days after the Chelemer communal activists were freed, I saw my brother Nukhem walking on the other side of the fence of the prison. At my signal, he called up to me that I would soon be freed. An hour later, I was called to the prison office and given notice that I was free!
On the street, my brother informed me that Dr. Y. Sziper had specially traveled to the Lublin district for information and clarifications about my arrest; and thanks to Dr. Sziper's intervention, after four months I saw the free world.
Several days after my homecoming, Dr. Mirlas, may he rest in peace, who became sick in prison, died.
Meanwhile, during my arrest, the Poalei-Zion conference took place in Danzig and the organization spilt into the right and left. Dr. Y. Sziper remained with the right wing of the party. A few weeks later, after the split, Dr. Sziper came to Chelm for a meeting that then took place in the auditorium of the Jewish community under the chairmanship of chairman Anshel Biderman, and Dep. Dr. Y. Sziper asked those assembled if they had continued confidence in him as deputy.
Besides a group of comrades from P.Z., the assembled crowd shouted: We are devoted to Dr. Sziper as deputy! Long live Dr. Sziper! During the second Sejm elections, Dr. Sziper was chosen as the deputy of the Zionist organization in Poland.
When the writer of these lines studied in Warsaw at the Jewish teachers seminar run by TSISHO [tsentrale yidishe shul organizatsye Central Jewish School Organization; a system of schools organized by the Bund] in 1923-1925, Dr. Y. Sziper taught us the subject, Jewish History, consisting of the following cycles: a) The History of the Jews in Poland; b) The History of the Old Yiddish Literature and c) The History of Yiddish Theater Art and Drama.
Then, in 1923, Dr. Y. Sziper entrusted to me his manuscript: The History of Yiddish Theater Art and Drama, in order to transcribe it for the Cultural League publishing house. I, then, had the opportunity to see the utterly
masterful scholarly work of Dr. Y. Sziper: Tens and, perhaps, hundreds of old Purim songs, texts of various Purim plays that the historian, Dr. Sziper, had collected for his work. I tried to do the transcriptions without errors, with the greatest precision. When the book was published, I received a copy as a gift from Dr. Y. Sziper, which I safeguard with the greatest love.
While transcribing the manuscript, I had the occasion to be at Dr. Y. Sziper's house often and I also accompanied him home to Tlomackie Street, after his seminar lectures. I had the opportunity to speak with him. I was enriched with much news and profound thoughts after every conversation.
In May 1935, the day before my departure from Warsaw to South Africa, I went to say goodbye to my kindly teacher and friend, Dr. Yitzhak Sziper. After a long conversation, Dr. Y. Sziper said to me: It is already 37 years that I have been a Zionist. Nu, in around three years it will already be 40 years, just as many as the Jews were in the desert and entered Eretz-Yisroel. I hope to emigrate to Eretz-Yisroel in a few years and settle there. And I will give lectures at Jerusalem University in Yiddish about the new history of the Jews in the world, stressing that Yiddish is not an obstacle to Hebrew.
When the war broke out in 1939. Dr. Sziper was still in Warsaw and shared the savage, torturous fate of the Jewish people. He consoled and called on the Jews not to lose their courage, advising that whoever was able to should go over to the Aryan side, to do it because there were more opportunities to remain alive there. However, he, himself, remained in the ghetto. He appeared publicly with reports and lectures in the ghetto; he awakened and called for resistance.
Dr. Y. Sziper, who was devoted to his historical mission, who lived with and was energized by Polish Jewry, perished with the historic old Jewish settlement in Poland.
Dr. Sziper searched for and found the warmth of the simple Jew, from his dreary day-to-day individual and collective existence. First, he breathed a new communal, national and democratic spirit into the science of Jewish history. Dr. Yitzhak greatly modernized Jewish historiography in Poland.
The Zionistic Socialism that united both the Jewish national ideal and the general progressive thought; the struggle for worker rights and social justice on one side and the awakening Yiddish cultural renaissance; the deep love of the Yiddish popular language and
popular literature, were the chief basis of Sziper's synthesis and harmonious world view. Dr. Y. Sziper gave his time, his erudition, his great knowledge, energy and his life for his wonderful and important ideas.
Y. Sziper takes a primary place in Jewish historiography along with the great historical and famous personalities such as: Prof. Sz. Dubnow, Prof. M. Schor, Prof. M. Balaban. These Jewish people, the Polish Jews will never forget Sziper, one of the most outstanding sons of Polish Jewry in the last decade.
The Hazan [cantor] Yakov Likhterman (former hazan of the Noyzk synagogue in Warsaw), who now lives in Capetown, wrote in the Rosh Hashanah edition of the Africaner Yidishe Zeitung [African Jewish Newspaper] dated, Friday, the 12th of September 1947 in an article entitled, How Dr. Yitzhak Sziper Perished: That when he, Likhterman arrived with the last transport of Jews that were sent out from the Warsaw Ghetto to Majdanek on the 5th of October 1943, he met Dr. Yitzhak Sziper, sitting hunchbacked in a corner near the wall holding a little knife in his hand and peeling potatoes in the large hall among the 300 male potato peelers.
During a check, there was an S.S. member who controlled a number of prisoners, making sure that their identification numbers were hung in the correct place and Dr. Y. Sziper had just then worn the tin number a little lower on his chest; the S.S. bandit harshly beat him over the head with a rubber stick until Sziper fainted to the ground, unconscious. He lay this way until noon; then he was carried into the camp.
From then on, Sziper's feet became swollen, so that every day, the Hazan, Y. Likhterman, along with Sziper's son-in-law, had to carry him to work to peel potatoes.
On a certain day, in July 1943, the great Jewish historian breathed out his soul.
Unable to endure the hardship, hunger, blows, illnesses, the exhausted detained refugee, Dr. Y. Sziper, died in the extermination camp, in the historic, mournful place in Majdanek, Chelemer poviat [district].
He always lived and struggled for the Jewish masses; even in death he was the great Jewish tribune among the Jewish masses who he comforted and loved.
The Chelemer malamed [religious teacher] unfurls his handkerchief with a trembling hand
Takes out a small tobacco box and takes a sniff
Then he wipes his spectacles and strides
Off the ship to the Haifa shore.
The cat comes and among Jewish sacks and packs
The Chelemer malamed lays down on his bundle:
It is said, a Jewish lord comes to the shore
To look through the packs of sisters and brothers
Well, it probably has to be like this, probably.
And here indeed, the Jewish lord approaches:
Nu, Reb Yid, what kinds of things do you have in your sack
He asks with a gemara melody.
Plenty of good things, says the Chelemer with quiet joy,
His eyes dropped modestly:
I carry, carry a humble cage,
A humble cage, with humble birds.
It must be, laughs the lord, a bird with a piercing whistle.
He unties the sack with damaged eyes,
In the sack a cage, and in it festive whistling,
Birds hop as on branches of trees
Now, the lord opens his eyes in amazement:
Uncle, what can we learn from the birds?
I, says the Chelemer, brought them from Chelm.
The birds are really Chelemer [from Chelm].
The story is simple, do you want to listen?
(Wonder of wonder, the creation )
A day before I left for Palestine
It was Shabbos Shire.
I stand on my stoop in the middle of the market
(the Jewish market, but without Jews ) Father!
Suddenly I see from the white mountain
A flock of birds flying
Oy father, birds, birds
And raboysay [gentleman] I ask you a question:
As Jewish children no longer share the snow
On Shabbos Shire there is no cereal for birds,
That Jewish children are in Chelm no longer,
What will the birds do without Jewish children?...
Nu, I did what I did nu,
Ha, now you understand?...
The Jewish lord opens his eyes, like a common Jew,
And the Chelemer opens the cages:
Fly birds, fly to Jewish children
And the birds obeyed and flew
And the Chelemer malamed saw through his spectacles
The way in which the lord wiped his eyes
These were my feelings when I arrived at YIVO. I need not say that my new work and research spot did not create a remedy for my wound, at first The leaders of the Institute Z. Kalmanovitch, M. Weinreich, Z. Reizen as well as the research students, were all pronounced Lithuanian types, who with their expression and clear scholarly bearing, simply threw a fear into my Polish Jewish sentimental soul. On the first day I wandered around the building on Vivulska Street 18 as if stupefied by the splendor of the treasures that opened before my eyes, and I continuously thought, what do I have to do to fit into the surrounding order of authority, erudition and industry?
During one of those days, a person who I met working in the YIVO library and to whom I turned for several books helped me make sense of my confusion. He looked at me with a sharp, inquisitive, pointed look and said to me in my own Lublin accent:
I think you are from my regionAt that moment, these few words sounded like music Is it possible? In the distant and strange Vilna, a Jew was talking to me in my familiar manner and with tenderness and feeling that only my manner of speech could generate.
Who are you? Where are your from? I murmured, delighted.This is how I made my acquaintance with Lerer. I had no inkling then that fate would later often bring me together with him and I would
Moshe Lerer from Chelm
need to be a witness to his enormous suffering and torments. For the present, however, it was as if a burden was removed from me, that is, there was a close neighbor here in YIVO, not just pure Litvaks and there would be someone to speak to in my own Lublin dialect
Lerer also diverged from the YIVO representatives on the question of language. In this sense, he considered himself a student of Noakh Prilucki, who did not have any fear of making certain old Deitchmerizmen more Yiddish. [Translator's note: Deitchmerizmen are words and phrases that cultivated Yiddish speakers considered too much like German and frowned upon their use.] Such words as: alzo [therefore/then], gelungen [succeed], farzictik [assured], endgiltik [final/definite/ultimate], etc, were rejected by Kalmanovitch, Weinreich and Reizen and they suggested that bekheyn, geratn opgehitn letstgiltik be substituted However, Noakh Prilicki and his follower, M. Lerer, said: What? You want, alzo [therefore], to make our Yiddish bloodless? You will not gelungen [succeed] in this. Be farzictik [assured] with your surgical knife; the endgiltiker [final] judgment will belong to the people!
Both the teacher and his student derived their vocabulary and concepts from the original sources of the common folk. However, each of them gave a different, a separate meaning to the concept of folk. Noakh Prilicki the community leader and communal man considered himself an heir of Dubnow's scholarship about Jewish universality and striving for full cultural autonomy. [Translator's note: Simon Dubnow, the author of History of the Jews in Poland and Russia, stressed that the survival of the Jewish people depended on spiritual and cultural strength and their autonomy.] Moshe Lerer, on the contrary, spiritedly defended the Soviet-Jewish theory about separate Jewish territories that have only weak common bonds. Each regional group yearned for its designated area for their own specific cultural expression. Lerer's assigned task
in his narrow field at YIVO was to continue to fully understand the peculiarities of the Jews of Congress Poland. Only in this way can we partially explain the friction between him and the YIVO leadership. And the bitterness of M. Lerer now becomes entirely understandable to me. He was convinced that I his landsman and neighbor did not share his view on a series of questions. He always helped me find the necessary materials for my research theme, Yiddish Prose in Poland. Therefore, he would very often reproach me and even be angry:
You have almost become a Litvak with your speech. This is the way a Jew from Rabiechow speaks?
How is it possible? How is it possible? He pleaded with a shaking voice.Little by little, Lerer became accustomed to the dark truth of that slaughter. However, there remained a constant mark on his soul from then on. This mark was not washed away by all of the later encouraging events in his life from 1940 to 1941: not the fact that Noakh Prilicki became an official professor at the Lithuanian University in Vilna and lecturer of Yiddish philology; and not even the fact that the Soviets chose him as the responsible caretaker and conserver of the YIVO treasures. On this historical day, when the fate of Vilna weighed on the scale, Lerer, it seems, had taken spiritual stock of himself, once and for all. In his quiet, self searching glance, a penetrating eye could read the difficult, unstated question:
What kind of significance does this all have compared to the slaughter of so many thousands of innocent people from my hometown?
looked like an old man who was already critically ill, with his bent body, extinguished eyes and deep, sunken cheeks. His resignation, it seems, was noticed by the rowdy element in the camp and they bullied him. Tears get stuck in my throat when I remember the heavy work that was intentionally placed on his bent shoulders. We all tried to make it easier for him and to take upon ourselves some of his duties; if this work was with peat or in unloading goods the younger ones among us tried to make it easier for him everywhere and to take his place. He appreciated this very much and a sort of tender feeling to all of us was planted in him along with his resignation and he wanted to comfort and cheer us up.
This love for us caused a series of changes in him and his character and ideology. A communist according to belief, he became tolerant of belief and
took part in all religious meetings in the camp. As if by a magic wand, his former nervousness vanished and there appeared in him instead distinct signs of understanding, of fatherly devotion to his camp comrades and even hope. I still remember his enthusiasm when, due to my endeavors, Tiszka, the Troker priest, (later shot by the Germans) became a friend of the camp workers, warned about the dangers that threatened us and came to us in his free moments to study Hebrew. At first he [Lerer] was afraid that here the priest was somewhat of an outsider. Later, when everyone became convinced of Tiszka's pure, humanitarian intentions, Lerer seemed to have been revived. There are still, it seems, he said, virtuous non-Jews here in the land. If this is so, everything is not yet lost!!..
and with his beloved work, he felt stronger and exhilarated. He began to take an interest in cultural work in the ghetto and took part in communal life. Just before the liquidation of the ghetto, he took an active part in the initiative of several groupings to expand the activities of the United Partisan Organization (P.P.O.) and to place it on a wider popular footing.
This initiative did not succeed. Lerer, the office man, ignoring his weak health, wanted to serve the underground structure in some way. He withdrew into himself immediately after this and again returned to his same quiet cultural service.
Several months later after the attempted expansion of the resistance, the liquidation of the ghetto began and the transportation of the Vilna Jews to the Estonian camps. Moshe Lerer was in one of the transports. Z. Kalmanovitch was sent away almost immediately after him. Both YIVO co-workers met in the same concentration camp, Kivioli. Their joint suffering and the dreadful fate of the people united these former opponents who were now in the same boat. Face to face with death, they helped and supported one another. Lerer died, weary, his life sucked out by the difficult camp torture rack, in Zelig Kalmanovitch's arms.
From Zalman Reizner's Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, Second volume, Vilna, 1927
Born in Chelm, Lubin area, in family of rabbis. Until age 14, he studied in khederim [religious schools] and shtiblekh [small houses of study]. Then devoted himself to self education. Went to Warsaw in 1912, where he gave lectures. 1913-1916 lived in Odessa, worked in an office, later returned to Chelm and became active as a teacher in a P.Z. [Poalei-Zion] Jewish public school; was engaged in collecting Yiddish folklore of all kinds, published several philological-folkloric articles and notes in Moment, Literarishe Bleter, (For example: about Peretz's Yiddish in no. 101) Yidish Filololgie, Landoy Bukh (Material for an Idiotikon (regionalisms) of Chelm). Lately in Warsaw, as the regular correspondent for the Yidishe Vishshaflekhn Institut.
From the YIVO Bleter, Volume 26, num. 1, September-October, 1945, from the article, Yiskor [prayer for the dead].
From Sz. Kaczergyynski's book: Khorban Vilna, from the article, Life and Death of Z. Kalmanovitch in Estonian concentration camp Narva, pages 109, 110. (The book Khorban Vilna was published by the United Vilner Aid Committee by the CIKO publishing house, New York, 1947).Zelig Kalmanovitch slept with Moshe Lerer on plank cot num. 17, on the third level of the third barracks. They would talk to each other, write and Lerer would tell me they had already written down a great deal. Lerer became sick with the widespread stomach illness [dysentery] before Chanukah. Kalmanovitch would watch over him, would take care of him. Lerer died at Chanukah time and Kalmanovitch said kaddish [the prayer for the dead] for him. Lerer's death greatly affected Kalmanovitch. He walked around sick, ate little and once, when I came from work (a few weeks after Lerer's death), I was told that Kalmanovitch had died in an ambulance. Their bodies, like the bodies of others who died and were murdered, were burned in a heating boiler at the manufacturing factory where our barracks were.
Told by Meir Slivkin, Vilna, lived on Vilner Street, no. 21. Received and recorded by Sz. Kaczergyynski, Vilna, 1 May, 1945.
We publish Moshe Lerer's philological work that was published in the periodical publication, Jewish Philology bi-monthly pages of linguistics, literary research and ethnography, under the editorship of Max Weinreich, Noakh Prilucki and Zalman Reizen. Volume 1, 1249, Publisher Culture League, Warsaw.
The groom was called up (to read from the Torah) on the last Shabbos before the wedding and the mothers-in-law and closely related women in the women's section would shower him with nuts, candies and raisins.
During the day, there were refreshments at the groom's home. In the evening, there was a prelude a feast with klezmorim [musicians].
Again in the evening, there was a wedding reception on the eve of the wedding at the bride's home; the klezmorim would play all kinds of dances, and the bride's friends would dance and receive refreshments.
After, the klezmorim would go to play for the in-laws, relatives and good friends separately to each one's home.
The night before the wedding day, the relatives, friends and acquaintances would be invited to a party that was called a khosn-mol [pre-wedding feast]. The majority also then made a feast for the poor (for the poor people) with a beautifully covered table with many good things, after which they were given money.
If the groom needed to travel to the bride's residence for the wedding, there was a doubling of the rejoicing in taking leave of him. There was also a daytime celebration, if there was a rush to depart and accompaniment by klezmer out of the city.
The night before the wedding, when the bride would be taken for the emersion for purification, in addition to sharing cake at the bathhouse with the bathhouse attendants, the ritual bathhouse attendants she was accompanied by klezmer, playing in the street and a celebration began in the house, during which the bodkin [jester who created humorous rhyming improvisations at a wedding] made the bride tender with his moralizing rhymes.
There was a klezmer accompaniment for the groom's arrival at the bride's residence and they made a ceremonial procession around the city hall, the market ring seven times. They stopped about a few verst [Russian measurement equaling .66 miles] from the city and gave a forewarning by way of a herald, a rider, to the bride's side. Thus, no step was made without music almost from the call for an aleiyah, until the last of the seven benedictions during the party at the home of the newly married couple on the Shabbos after their wedding. The noisy music was proudly played the entire time.
In general, the wedding began 12 to 1 during the day.
The reception of the groom at his lodgings on the main night before the veiling of the bride is called kaboles-ponem [welcome]. Then, the groom also had the ability to show his learning and originality with a hair-splitting argument before the invited relatives, associates and friends good students of the Talmud.
The visit to the bride with presents most of them rings by the mother-in-law for the veiling of the bride [prior to the marriage ceremony] was called, s'ketzl kumt [the kitten comes] (s'ketzl kumt!, mother-in-law; she would be accompanied with great joy).
The next morning after the khupah [ceremony], when the sheitl [wig] had already been sent to the bride at home, the regal siddur [prayer book] in the golden cloth with a lock, a shkot (a mirror in a [wooden] frame), etc, according to one's financial ability, the groom's mother, often with all of the relatives went to see the nakhas [proud enjoyment], that is, if the mitzvah was done in the true Jewish way, and the bride was lifted from the bed. After undressing her, her hair was cut, during which the young, often 14 or 15 year old bride heartbreakingly would cry over her beautiful cut locks and braids. After the cutting, the bride would be veiled. Afterwards, as a dairy meal was eaten, such as coffee with butter cakes, etc., a joyous musical march was led, that is, the groom's mother invited the bride and all on her [side] to the station, accompanied the entire way by klezmer. The refreshments here were: beverages, fruit layered cakes, preserves and the like. Here the mother-in-law also gave the young wife a present a bracelet, brooch, rings and the like that was called shein-gelt [literally, beautiful money] (inspection money for looking at the bride in her veil for the first time in the groom's house). Everyone who wanted to be treated to the honor of looking at the bride, who the excited in-laws were allegedly hiding, disguised had to pay a fee.
For the feast, one would return to the bride's side: for lunch.
During the sheva yemei hamishte [seven days of celebration], a feast was made almost every day, often with klezmer. A sheva bruchos [seven blessings recited under the wedding canopy] was made on the shabbos after the wedding and the young couple was taken to shul to pray. The bridesmaids invited the bride with each of those close to her.
A very proud and lively feast was made on the last day of the sheva-bruchos with celebrating late into the night.
The week up until the [groom was called up to the Torah] was called the silver week; the week after his being called up to the Torah until the wedding was the golden week (stemming from the golden broth that was given to the fasting groom and bride after the wedding; the crowd would grab the leftovers).
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