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[Page 253]

The Zionist Movement,
Youth Movements and Parties

The Beginning of Zionism in Our Shtetl

by Yitzhak Steinberg z”l

Ciechanowiec was the first town in the entire area to have a modern Zionist movement. The man responsible was R' Surawitch. He became active from the very beginning of Theodore Herzl's call for a Jewish nation. He had known Dr. Herzl and had great respect for him. If Dr. Herzl committed himself to such a cause, it must have merit. Surawitch knew that the 2000 year old dream would be difficult to achieve, but he believed that Herzl would make it a reality. Herzl would not waste time on quixotic tasks. With such a leader, Surawitch believed that it was incumbent on all the Jewish people to support the Zionist movement.

The next person to get involved was Yitzhak Hoffman, also known as Yitzhak Chaim Faivelis. He had been a yeshiva student and had mastered many languages. After his marriage, he lived in Africa for ten years where he perfected his French and English. Upon his return to Ciechanowiec, he befriended Surawitch and took up the cause of Jewish nationalism. He devoted his whole being to Zionism. Many young people followed in his footsteps including Itche Reuven London and Chaim Meisler. Only the Hasidim rebuked the efforts of the Zionists. They believed, “If G-d does not build the house, those who build will build in vain.” These Hasidim were fervently opposed to Zionism.

Two delegates from Ciechanowiec attended the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. They were, of course, Surawitch and Hoffman. Both traveled at their own expense. When they returned, a mass meeting was held at Hoffman's house. The delegates had taken meticulous notes of the Congress, and they relayed this information to their landsmen. Most of the men of Ciechanowiec were very impressed, but there were skeptics. They questioned where all this would lead. Surawitch responded, “First you must think and plan and then put the plans into action.”

At the beginning there was only one Zionist party in town, but with the passing of time various factions sprung up. There was Mizrachi (Religious Zionists), Poalei Tzion (Labor Zionists), and Hitachdot (Union). There was no special Zionist hall, so we all met at Chaim Meisler's store. Meisler had a large business purveying Russian tobacco. He was a devoted Zionist. His wife Rivka was an intelligent woman who supported his cause with her complete heart and soul. She always took part in the discussions and often contributed serious insights to the problems that arose.

This was the birth of Zionism in Ciechanowiec.


[Page 261]

Collections for the Jewish National Fund in 1913

(List of Donors)

by Issur Smoliar, United States

Yom Kippur Pledges

Every year, the Odessa Committee [Odessa Association for Aiding the Jewish Colonists in Palestine], of which Menachem Ussishkin was the representative, printed a book listing contributors to the Jewish National Fund living in different cities all over Russia. The names of participating cities were listed alphabetically at the beginning of the book. The total amount of contributions from each city was listed next to its name. After this initial list, more detailed information followed. For each city, the managing collecting agent was identified. Individual congregations and minions were named along with donors from these local organizations. The donors were listed by first name only and separated in two lists; one showing contributions of 20 kopeks or more and the other donations of less than 20 kopeks.         

About 1200 cities and towns throughout Russian controlled territory participated in the holy work of the Fund. In that year, Ciechanowiec Jews' donations to the Fund amounted to 32 Rubles and 14 kopeks. The total sum for all Russia was 25,064 rubles and 33 kopeks. The Odessa Committee sent around list of donations to every individual who participated. Even I received a copy each year. That was why by the eve of World War I in 1914, I had accumulated several such books. During the War, the Odessa Committee seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. But at the War's conclusion it was known that Menachem Ussishkin had gone to Jerusalem and in 1919 the Fund's headquarters was established there.

I left Poland in 1927. After a few years I brought my family to the United States. They brought my books and papers with them. Between the pages I found two of the Fund books with the donation records. One was severely damaged and hard to decipher. The second was the complete record for 1913.

Purim Collection for the Restoration of Jerusalem

In contrast to previous years when contributions were pledged on Erev Yom Kippur, in 1913 Menachem Ussishkin announced a Purim Collection for the Restoration of Jerusalem. The purpose was to give impetus to the redemption of Jerusalem, to preserve its very soil and its holiness and to provide work and sustenance to its inhabitants. The Sons of Israel, dispersed from Eretz Yisrael, answered Ussishkin's call and raised funds. Throughout Russia 1100 towns and 150,000 donors raised an additional 22,695 rubles and 90 kopeks.

Ciechanowiec77.80RublesSiemiatycze15.00
Lomza76.43Zambrow19.95
Bialystok35.13   

Collections for the Jewish National Fund in 1913 (List of Donors)

SurnameFirst nameKopeksRublesComments
     
BaraksNissan20  
BatshkiYaacov501 
BatshkiS.A. 1 
BatshkiM50  
BernsteinMoshe50  
BialystotzkyM.A. 2 
BiderGershon30  
BlatmanYehezkiel20  
BlumEliyahu20  
BlumbergEphriam20  
BlumbergEliyahiu50  
BlumrosenY.30  
BrainskyM.25  
BramsonRaizel20  
BranskiA.25  
BranskiDov20  
BranskiD.20  
BursteinAlter20  
BursteinDov20  
ChaitMoshe20  
CohenYitzhak30  
CohenLeib20  
CohenZ.20  
CohenLeib 50 with Moshe David Heller in honor of the New Year
CohenYitzhak20  
CohenYisrael30  
DanovskyLeib20  
DanowitzLeib20  
DeutschA.M.20  
DinesonM.M.25  
DinkinGershon 2 
DinkinYitzhak 2 
DinkinGershon30  
DovzhinskyMoshe20  
DubnerYosef25  
FeinsteinB.20  
FinkelsteinYitzhak 3 
FinkelsteinYaacov 1 
FinkelsteinAbraham50  
FinkelsteinShlomo50  
FinkelsteinAvraham50  
GellerM.50  
Goldbergno first name25  
GoldsteinFishel25  
GoldsteinFishel20  
GolombBenZion 1 
GolombBenZion20  
GolombMichtze27  
GrodkyYitzhak20  
HellerMoshe David 1 
HellerMoshe Falik50  
HellerDov25  
HellerGetzel25  
HellerYonah20  
HellerMoshe David50 with Leib Cohen in honor of the New Year
IsraelitYsrael David20  
IsraelitT.20  
JanowskiLeib501 
KalamarzMichel 2 
KalamarzY.50  
KalamarzS.20  
KalamarzYudel30  
KalinaYosef50  
KalinaTzippa20  
KalishtzilskyDr. A. 1 
KaminDavid50  
KaplanZvi 1 
KaplanZe'ev20  
KaplanskiS.50  
KaplanskyShabtai40  
KaplanskyB20  
KaplanskyH.20  
KaplanskyN.F.20  
KatzDov20  
KazanM.D.20  
KeshemianNissan25  
KeshemianNissan25  
KokusLeibel20  
KokusZvi25  
KonopiatySimcha 3 
KonopiatyYoel 2 
KonopiatyA. 2 
KonopiatyFeivel50  
KonopiatyEliyahiu20  
KonopiatyEliezer25  
KorachShalom25  
KotikMoshe20  
KozakM.Y.50  
LeibowitzReuven25  
LewinDr. B.50  
LewinYaacov20  
LichtenbergYoel20  
LondonBeinisch25  
MadovnikH. 20  
MalovskyM.D.25  
MalovskyLeib20  
MalovskyZ.20  
MeislerMoshe20  
MidlerZelig 2 
MigdalPinchas30  
MigdalZe'ev20  
MilsteinYitzhak 2 
MilsteinLeib 2 
NabozkyBenZion25  
no surnameSender25  
OrlinskyZeena50  
PakciarzAbraham20  
PasternakYosef20  
PelchowitzA.20  
PlonskySender20  
PolikYosef20  
PomerantzA. 1 
PrinskiA.50  
PrinskiEliezer40 in honor of Weinstock
PrinskyFeivel20  
PtashnikYisrael20  
RatnerGenendel20  
RibakNetta25  
RidelewitzDavid20  
RogozikF.30  
RosenMoshe 1 
RosenLeib50  
RosenFishel27  
RosenbaumZelig20  
RosenbergH.Z. 1 
RosenbloomYosef25  
RosenbloomLiza25  
RosenbloomS.Z.20  
RosenbloomMichel20  
RosenbloomShlomo20  
RosochatzkyDov25  
RubensteinChaim50  
RubinsNetta20  
SacknoAlter40  
SacknoAvraham20  
SaltzSender20  
SapersteinChaikel20  
SchlechterYosef20  
SchusterMoshe20  
SchweiderYosef25  
SemiatiskyYosef30  
SemiatiskyFrieda20  
ShapiroYitzhak20  
ShapiroB.27  
ShepesShlomo20  
ShitzeigelMatityahu20  
ShitzeigelShlomo20  
ShorSamuel20  
ShorB.20  
ShotlenderLeib 3 
ShotlenderZelig 1 
ShulmanSamuel20  
SkornikMoshe20  
SkrandaIssachar20  
SmoliarYaacov50  
SobowitzA.20  
SolomonowitzMoshe20  
SoloveitchikIssur30  
SteinY.Z.40  
SteinbergMoshe20  
SteinbergPinchas50  
SternDov20  
SternAlter25  
TabakS.S. 2 
TabakDvora20  
TabakGedaliah50  
TabakS.S.50  
Talmidi (pupils)M.D. Heller70  
TeitlShaul20  
TikotskiM.20  
TikotskyAvraham20  
VoinowitzPinchas20  
VoinowitzAlter20  
WeinbaumYosef25  
WeinbergMoshe20  
WeinbergMoshe20  
WeinsteinYaacov50  
WerbelnikN.F.20  
WiadroNapthali20  
WiadroA.20  
WilkanskiChaim20  
WinerYaacov20  
WinerYitzhak20  
WisotskyF.20  
WolfYosef50  
WolfMoshe20  
WolfShmuel25  
WolfYosef25  
WronaChaya20  
YarmusYaacov25  
YaskolkaZvi20  
YaskolkaShmuel20  
YatomMichel20  
YavkovskyNapthali25  
YellinYoel20  
YellinYitzhak20  
YeshonskyM. 2 
YitomYitzhak30  
YitomMichel20  
ZabielaAbraham20  
ZablodowskyD.20  
ZagodnyMoshe20  
ZilberbergYaacov50  
ZilberbergYaacov50  
ZilberbergZvi20  
ZindelsonDavid25  
ZlotoguraYoel20  


[Page 269]

The Start of the Hechalutz Movement in Ciechanowiec

by Menachem Lewin, Tel Aviv, Israel

The Hechalutz movement in our town began with a small number of eager men and women who met on a regular basis to study and learn. The core, consisting of about ten youths, formed an “Organization for Self Improvement.” Among the members were: Shlomo Stein, Berl Wilkanski, Feivel Pakciarz, Chana Zilberberg, Rachel Rosen, Chava Ukrainczyk, and the writer of these lines. Our constitution stipulated that we would be self-sufficient and that no lecturers would be brought in from outside the group. Tasks were allocated among the members. Each member received a topic to research and then would give a lecture at the meetings. Shlomo Stein talked on astronomy and political economics. I lectured on human cultural development. And, of course, topics concerned with Eretz Yisrael occupied most of our attention.

The Organization's reputation spread through Ciechanowiec and beyond. Word reached the Jewish Cultural Organization (Tarbut) in Warsaw. We were swamped with young people who were seeking a place to learn. We barely had room for those who were interested. But after a while the serious purpose was lost in youth's desire for having good times and the content of our meetings became shallow. We continued to gather, as before, but we were not geared for study and spiritual things; our hearts were oriented towards entertainment and fun.

It became apparent that a youth group that focused on cultural activities was prone to corruption and might go astray. We realized that we had to have more - an ideology to inspire people. We had to create the tools for that purpose. That is how we arrived at the idea to form Hechalutz in our town.

The initial meeting of Hechalutz was held in mid 1924. We gathered at the house of Rashka Nabozny. Charter members were: Shalom Pelchowitz, Batya Leibowitz, Yosef Zabiela, Menachem Lewin, Eliezer Turinsky, Pinchas Abramson, Shamai Kalamarz, and Feivel Rogovsky. We were concerned with professional and cultural training as our ultimate goal was aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. It was then that we decided to form Hechalutz.

A revolutionary decision was passed that every member must be involved in athletics. This was in sharp contrast with the attitudes of our parents. The older outlook was based in the blessing that Isaac gave Jacob, “Nations shall worship you.” They took that to mean that physical work was for non-Jews; Gentiles were created for the purpose of doing work for the Jews. Our parents could not understand how Jewish boys would stop studying at the yeshiva to engage in hard physical tasks. How could the sons of respected people leave their jobs to chop trees and do all sorts of goyische work? The town's Hasidim were petrified and tried in many ways to obstruct the growth and development of Hechalutz. Battles between parents and children raged in many homes. The dinner table was often the scene of violent arguments. The pious grandfather would rebuke the child who sought out menial jobs. The patriarch would claim that these were fit only for goyim. Only the goyim deserve that their sons and daughters should go out in the fields, should dig along the roads, or do laundry in Jewish homes.

And so we chopped trees and worked in Motka Braude's bakery and in private homes. We worked in the matzoh bakery as well. We also performed more difficult and daring tasks. With the coming of spring, the snow melted, swelling the river. As the waters rose, they endangered the dam near the flourmill. We took it upon ourselves to block the dike near Weiner's mill. We wanted to prove our ability, show our strength, and so we worked responsibly and diligently for low pay. Many times we achieved unusual success. Once we determined to clear an old foundation of enormous rocks. One of the owners stood there making fun of us saying, “Grass will grow on your cheeks before you budge those rocks.” Then Moshe Weiner, one of our members, alone removed a rock that three Gentiles could not have moved. Jeers turned to cheers.

We had some difficulty bringing girls into the work force. Even with our revolutionary outlook, we knew that we could not burden women with backbreaking work. So most of the girls worked baking matzohs. I will never forget the looks on people's faces when Batya Leibowitz, daughter of a respected landowner, went out to work. They could not believe their eyes. I will relate another true story that exemplifies the town's shock at the sight of children of wealthy people going out to work at menial jobs. One day, I was out in the forest cutting down trees. Upon my return I heard that the woman who used to sell us our meat had taken some money from under her apron and pressed it into my mother's hand saying, “If your Mendele has to cut trees, it means your situation is very bad and you don't have enough bread at home.” When my mother explained that her Mendele was training for aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, the woman was even more shocked. “What does one have to do with the other? What does Eretz Yisrael have to do with despicable menial work? For Eretz you put coins in a Jewish National Fund box. . . or you make an aliyah to the Torah.” She just could not grasp how the new country would benefit from the fact that a Jewish boy would chop trees instead of studying Torah.

Along with the physical training, we prepared ourselves culturally. We would get together and read every word of the newspapers HeChalutz (The Pioneer) and Atid (Future) which were sent from the central office. We discussed every conceivable subject related to our goal of aliyah. We especially debated the form our settlement would take. Should it be a kibbutz, or would a moshav be more suitable? Every Friday night we heard lectures on Jewish and general history, the history of Zionism, Bible, the history of the workers' movements in Palestine, and Hebrew literature. We spent many evenings of questions and answers related to these subjects.

In April of 1925 a committee of HeChalutz approved several members of our group for aliyah and intensive training. Those included for immediate aliyah were Batya Liebowitz, Shalom Pelchowitz, and Yosef Zabiela. Those selected for training included Chana Turinsky, Menachem Lewin, and Levi Kagan. With the others, I was sent to a manor outside Szczuczyn for agricultural training. There were some 10 training camps in the area. In exchange for our work we received room and board. But the sleeping quarters were cramped and some of us slept in the stable. Guard dogs were released at night, and we had to retire early for fear of being attacked.

On the first day we used our bare hands to fertilize the fields, as there was an absence of farm machinery. The manure was saturated with ammonia, and it gave us headaches and caused dizziness. If we objected, we were admonished by the leader, “How could you work in Eretz Yisrael if you are disgusted with handling horse manure?” He was actually intent on toughening us for any future ordeals. After three days we were given shovels, and we continued working hard throughout the summer. At the end of the growing season, Mr. Funt from HeChalutz headquarters arrived to check on our progress. He questioned each of us on geography and topography of Israel and in Hebrew. He determined I was ready for aliyah. I returned home to Ciechanowiec waiting for the call. In March 1926 I made aliyah.

Initial membership in the Ciechanowiec HeChalutz Movement numbered 90. With time, the attitude of the general Jewish population of the town shifted and became more favorable. We had a diverse membership that included children of the wealthy, the laboring class, and artisans. HeChalutz broke down the barriers, and there was a total mixing of the classes. We were all unified in our efforts to return to Zion and our collegiality was an impetus to aliyah. We proved that the sons of the rich and yeshiva bochers could do hard work which, after all, is the essence of a human being.


[Page 273]

The Founding of the Pioneers in Ciechanowiec

by Bertche Shtiegal, America

Anti-Semitism was very strong at the beginning of the 20th century. The prevalent hatred was translated into economic and political moves which victimized the Jewish people. The flames of hatred spread quickly across Poland. With the establishment of an independent Poland, conditions did not improve. Indeed, the Polish government imposed strict edicts and taxes directed mostly against the Jews. What was left of their belongings was confiscated by “Grolski's Wagons.” In this atmosphere Jewish youth felt they had no future. Jewish students could not attend government schools and were constantly harassed by Polish hooligans. They would yell out to us, “You Jews go to Palestine.”

And we Jews began to take that to heart. Poverty was weighing heavily on us and we felt there was no solution other than to embrace the Zionist philosophy. The entire Jewish youth of Ciechanowiec were seized with the idea of returning to our ancient homeland. The organization HeChalutz was formed with that goal in mind. We must struggle for self-determination and ideas were not enough. They should be put into action. We issued a call to the Jewish youth to join with us in training for life on the kibbutzim. Many of the middle class as well as the poor became very active in the HeChalutz Movement. They would engage in harsh physical labor to strengthen their bodies. Jewish youth would be seen chopping wood and working in the fields.

Unfortunately, many of our parents were opposed to the thought of losing their children to a far off land. Jerusalem was a distant dream to them, not to be realized in our lifetime. They could not contemplate that we should go to Palestine and engage in a life of hard labor to build a homeland for the Jewish people. When I made aliyah, my parents refused to bid me farewell. I learned later that whenever they would be approached for a contribution for the Jewish National Fund they would respond, “We have already made our sacrifice for Eretz Yisrael!”

While I am writing about HeChalutz, I feel it is my holy duty to remember my good friend Moshe Weiner who died as a Holocaust victim. He was a most wonderful and generous person. Knowing that I did not have enough money to pay my way to Kibbutz Hachshara, he contributed his own personal funds and encouraged others to join him in sponsoring my trip. Moshe was always ready and available whenever HeChalutz found itself in financial need. He was always there with an open hand. Let us remember him with love and respect.


[Page 275]

Hechalutz During the 1930's

by Chana Ben Yosef (Ptashek), Kiryat Chaim, Israel

There was political and social ferment in our town during 1930 and 1931. In 1930 we sent Mordecai Zilberberg to the HeChalutz World Seminar that was held in Warsaw. Upon his return, he became director and led our local chapter in conjunction with Yitzhak and Naomi Rosen. By 1932 we had 80 members and rented a big room and corridor in a private home. We named our facility “Pallish” and there we used to convene and discuss the issues that were vital to us.

The executive committee consisted of Naomi Rosen, Yitzhak Rosen, Chana Ptashek, Sarah Kribonogi, and Shimon Schlechter, who was treasurer. Educational and cultural projects were carried on in groups. We deemed the study of Hebrew of prime importance. The teachers in the Tarbut School helped us choose materials to sharpen our language skills and also helped in the teaching of our revived ancestral language. Most of the Tarbut teachers supported our cause and indoctrinated their students with the pioneering spirit.

We did not rely completely on Tarbut. We had our own competent group of counselors who conducted most of the cultural activities. We read a great deal from periodicals like HeAtid, Davar, and HaMessilah. In that way we continuously kept abreast of the thinking of the leaders of the Labor Movement in Eretz Yisrael.

We absorbed the spirit of the pioneering doctrine and put it into physical reality. Knowing that, as pioneers, we would live in the land by our own labor, we were intent on preparing for that day. We organized into working groups and chopped wood for Jewish homes and businesses, such as Micheleh's Bakery. At first, the people were suspicious of us. They thought we were just acting as children, playing games with axes and saws on our shoulders. But they soon realized that we were providing a much-needed service and marveled at the miracle of Jewish youth able to perform physical labor so well. They would say, “Our students are better than the goyim who are wood-choppers from way back!”

Mutual aid was of prime importance and we honed our skills in this area. Like in all the surrounding shtetls, we had our share of poor people. There were those who couldn't finance the aliyah of their sons and daughters. On each Shabbat, when we had our general meetings, we assigned members to the task of raising funds to aid the poorer members in making aliyah. There was a great deal of generosity shown in these efforts. Yitzhak Ptashek was typical in the way he saved money, earned through his own hard work, to help friends who had received permission to leave for the Holy Land but who had insufficient funds.

In those years, HeChalutz was actively involved with the Jewish National Fund. I was our representative in the Old City of Ciechanowiec. Moshe Holtzman, who was Executive Director of the Fund, had announced that his goal was to place a “blue box” in every Jewish household. We of HeChalutz were very active in this project. And we were successful. We even got these charity boxes into the homes of those who did not believe in the Zionist philosophy. For example, there was Hersch Koloda the barber. He told us that he was not a Zionist but that he believed to “cast your bread upon the waters and perhaps your children will enjoy it some day.” Indeed his prophecy came true. His wife and children survived the war and today reside in Israel.

In 1932 we sent a large group of prospective pioneers to different locations for training. Among them were Shimon Kaplan, Yosef Zaremsky, Yaacov Mishler, Binyamin Holtzman, Pinchas Shedlitsky, Gittel Zabiela, Yosefa Pakciarz, Breindel Dreier, Eliza Dreier, Sarah Ptashek, Reuven Migdal, and Chava Plonski. They all had the privilege of making aliyah.


[Page 279]

The Courageous Journey of Ciechanowiec Pioneers Aboard the Ship Welos

by Shimon Ben Yosef (Schlechter), Kiryat Chaim, Israel

In 1934 the British Mandate government in Palestine began to restrict the number of Jewish immigrants. This put the Hechalutz Movement under a great deal of stress. We had approved increasing numbers of pioneers for aliyah but we were not in possession of sufficient certificates of entrance to our own homeland. The list waiting for permits kept increasing.

Then the directorate of HeChalutz made a daring and dangerous decision. They would send to Palestine all those who had been approved by the training committees. The new pioneers would participate in the so-called Aliyah Bet even though we had no certificates of entrance. To effect this plan required sea-worthy vessels. The 3000-ton capacity Greek ship “Welos” was rented. This ancient craft had originally been designed for transporting cattle and cargo and was not really suitable for the transport of human beings.

The prospectus sent out by HeChalutz headquarters unequivocally discussed the shortcomings of the freighter and stated that the voyage was fraught with danger from sea waves as well as from the British, who had effectively blockaded the shores of Eretz Yisrael to Jewish immigration. This warning was of little deterrence to those wishing to make aliyah. A group of 380 pioneers, including 80 women, from HeChalutz, Haoved, Hashomer Hatzair, and Gordonia were eager to start out on the perilous journey. They had gathered from various parts of Poland and the Baltic states. Together they prepared for the uncertain conditions which lay ahead and they swore a covenant of determination to reach the shores of Eretz Yisrael. Among those brave sons and daughters of Israel were five pioneers from Ciechanowiec: Reuven Migdal, Chava Plonski (Migdal), Manes Mondri, Yitzhak Burstein, and Shimon Schlechter. We described the goals and risks to our parents, telling them exactly what was involved in our mission and what we might expect. They accepted our words with aching hearts and blessed us, pleading for the help of heaven.

We left in secret in the middle of the night. No one, other than our parents, knew of our departure. We took extreme caution for we were fearful that the “birds” would inform the British of our plans. We left Ciechanowiec by carriage and arrived at the Czyzewo railroad stop. The train took us to Warsaw where we assembled in an area that looked like a concentration camp. Three days later we boarded a train destined for the Black Sea port of Varna in Bulgaria. Awaiting us was the ship Welos, a small, shabby vessel that could hardly accommodate 100 people. We had no choice, so we crammed into every space in the storage rooms and on the deck. We set off and passed through the Bosphorus. Shortly thereafter we had a taste of the vengeful forces of nature. It was autumn, and storms raged across the face of the Aegean Sea. The ship was tossed about by the huge waves, and we thought that the hull would surely break in two. At one point, the captain fell asleep at the helm and we almost crashed into a reef. Fortunately, he was roused in time to save us from drowning. These conditions prevailed for several days - storm after storm on the open sea with no land in sight. We all feared that the end was near. The Welos simply could not withstand the force of such storms.

On the eighth day we reached the shores of Eretz Yisrael. We anchored off the coast near Netanya. No British were in sight, and we managed to unload 60 pioneers. But the storm resumed its ferocity, and we were forced to postpone the operation until the sea would calm. Conditions in the Mediterranean were no better than the Aegean. We fought the gales in vain and were finally forced to turn around and leave that area.

The following day we spotted a small boat approaching. They identified themselves as members of Hagana. The ten Israeli fighters encouraged us, but conditions were not right for continuing our mission. We were directed to the Greek island of Syros Although the storms had abated, we stayed on those shores until the moonless nights returned. Again, we set off for Eretz Yisrael. The hope that we would soon be “home” was the drug that kept us alive. The sea was calm, but the ship was in terrible condition. Food and water were scarce. We sat on the deck, listened to the wind and quietly watched the sky.

While we were thus dreaming, the ship approached Haifa in the evening. We could see the lights of the city shining from afar. All of us got excited. We yearned to set foot in Eretz Yisrael. We divided into groups as we prepared for disembarkation. The ship dropped anchor but a boat approached with a warning that we had better turn back. The British had discovered our whereabouts and had planned an ambush once we were ashore. Luck again had prevented us from reaching our beloved Zion. Discouraged, we felt we would never see her beloved landscape again. The lights of Haifa faded into the distance and disappeared from our eyes.

We seemed to wandering the sea without direction or goal. Once more the storms whipped up the waves, and we were being tossed about in the agitated waters. Our minds were tortured with questions. “How long will we be chased like wild animals?” “Until when will the British chase us as though we were pirates?” “How long can we survive one stormy sea after another?” We had almost given up hope that any help would ever arrive. Suddenly a boat approached and asked if we were ready to disembark. We answered yes, but our suspicions were aroused because they had not identified themselves nor had they used the pre-arranged code. We had reason to be suspicious. The sky lit up with rockets, and we saw the boat was loaded with armed British soldiers. We all hit the deck and lay silently in the darkness. The lack of a moon and the stormy conditions allowed us to slip away. We went deeper into the blackness which mirrored the mood of our souls. The confrontation with the British extinguished our hopes for ever landing in Eretz Yisrael. They had a large navy and immense resources. All gates were locked and guarded by this massive power. We were miserable, neglected people wandering the surface of the deep. We were in terrible physical condition with almost no food or water. Our energies were drained.

During our journey, a rumor had circulated in Ciechanowiec that one of the launches used in the disembarkation had overturned with eight people drowned. Our poor parents cried in anguish, each thinking it was their child who had been lost. They besieged the HeChalutz headquarters but received little comfort. Their broken hearts could not be soothed by empty words from the representatives.

Meanwhile, we had returned as far as Salonika. Upon docking we were boarded by comrade Sordlov whose first question was, “Are there any missing people?” One of the newspapers had published a story that 12 people had drowned and 90 had been jailed. Relieved that this was not true, he encouraged us not to give up. We had survived stormy seas and we would yet reach Eretz Yisrael. Yet, we continued to worry that our bad luck would not cease.

We were docked in Salonika for one month and then we sailed to Piraeus. We left the Welos and boarded another ship. It took us from Greece back into the Black Sea and then docked at the Roumanian port of Constanta. The Roumanian authorities refused to let us off the ship unless we agreed to board a sealed train bound for Poland. But the Poles refused to accept us. Finally it was agreed that we would stay in the village of Zalshitzki on the border between the two countries. On one side of the bridge stood Polish guards and on the other was a Roumanian garrison.

It was the beginning of December 1934, after three and a half months of wandering, that we arrived in Zalshitzki. We were still wearing our tattered summer clothes but the fierce winter had already settled in upon that remote town. We were comforted by the reception of the local Jewish community. They warmly greeted us and helped in every way possible. After one and a half months, we all made legal aliyah. It should be mentioned that our difficulties and suffering did not deter the youth of Ciechanowiec from making illegal aliyah. That is the path followed in 1939 by Reuven Ptashek, Tuvia Peretz, Shlomo Zlotolow z”l, and Michel Kolsky.

The story of the ship Welos and its passengers is a tale in the book of HeChalutz in Poland and Ciechanowiec in particular. It was one way in which our shtetl took part in the daring and heroic actions of Aliyah Bet, as it is called.


[Page 283]

Hechalutz Junior in our Town

by Zvi Elyashar (Kamenkowsky), Bnai Brak, Israel

HeChalutz Junior originated in the Tarbut School of Ciechanowiec. The class of 1925 in this Hebrew cultural academy were the first members. Impetus for starting a junior version of HeChalutz resulted from the following factors: 1) The excellent background in Zionism that Tarbut provided, 2) The youthful exuberance of the teenagers which needed a social outlet with meaning, 3) The exemplary model of the older members of HeChalutz, an organization which was now established and doing fine work. All of these promoted a desire among us, the young, to participate in the Movement.

From the start, HeChalutz's philosophy was that physical training in sports and hard labor was necessary to prepare us for aliyah and the building of Eretz Yisrael. We would watch in awe as the prospective pioneers would march with saws and axes on their shoulders as they sought wood-chopping jobs. After their positive attitudes succeeded in getting the orders for wood, we would follow them and gather to watch as they performed the hard service with a verve and with much happiness.

I especially recall one job that a group of young men and women accomplished. It was the rainy season and the river was running very high. The tide rose rapidly and was about to overcome the dam. HeChalutz was determined to stop the deluge of water by preventing the dam from breaking. They worked feverishly carrying loads of earth to fill in the gaps, hoping to avert nature's impending disaster. The efficiency and rapidity of their efforts stemmed the tide to the amazement of those who watched, including the goyim, who were not used to see Jews do menial work. We were very proud of them and knew that they would never let us down. They would make aliyah, work the land, and become rooted in Eretz Yisrael. Our Zionist consciousness was roused to follow in their path.

So when Batya Lubowitz and Menachem Lewin called a meeting of graduates of Tarbut, we all came. They were representing HeChalutz and proposed to set up a junior chapter. All who came to that meeting immediately signed up. The meeting was conducted according to parliamentary procedure, to which we were introduced for the first time. All decisions were arrived at in a democratic manner. This served as a model for us on how to conduct future meetings without the presence of an adult HeChalutz member.

Our teachers in the Tarbut School were very supportive of our efforts and responded favorably to our requests for instruction. They gave of their time and effort, with no pay, to lecture us on a variety of subjects. R' Moshe David Heller taught us about the foundations of Zionism. That is how we were introduced to Moshe Hess, Pinsker, et al. Our horizons continually expanded. We heard in the lectures and read in the publications many concepts that we did not fully comprehend. Nevertheless, we avidly sought still more information and held group discussions to deepen our understanding.

Of course, the new concepts we studied included Socialism. The poor economic conditions pushed us towards that philosophy. We were convinced that every great Torah scholar and, indeed, the heroes of the Torah, followed the socialistic precepts. HeChalutz lecturer Pinchas Abramson introduced us to world literature. Once we were reading DeMaupassant's story The Necklace. We were sure the author had meant to portray the unjust division of property among people in French Society. That was the underlying cause for the suffering of the story's characters. We argued vehemently with Pinchas who tried to show us our faulty interpretation of the theme.

When we first organized, we would meet in a room at the Tarbut School. It was small and we were limited in what we could do. Later we rented a special place (we called it the “locale”) in the house of the Kotik family on Melitz Street. New lecturers were heard and the variety of topics discussed was expanded. One of these topics was the Geography of the Land of Israel, which we called Palestinography. The lecturer was HeChalutz member Shlomo Stein. Until then, this was not a subject taught in schools, with a well-documented list of sources. Most of our knowledge had been acquired from biblical stories and literature, supplemented by fragments of articles that appeared in periodicals. There were also the fascinating stories told by delegates who had returned from Eretz Yisrael as recruiters. The land was envisioned as a “county of Heaven,” as was defined by Mendele Mocher Seforim. Now we were studying the real Eretz Yisrael, the topography, its boundaries, the climate, the new settlements, and the variety of inhabitants. It was all brought to life on a huge wall map drawn by Dr. Klein and printed in Vienna.

Among our lecturers during that first summer was Dov Kaplansky z”l, a graduate of the teachers seminary. He was not a regular teacher in Ciechanowiec, but he devoted his summer vacation to our chapter so that we might learn about the environment of Eretz Yisrael. He introduced us to the study of botany, something that had been totally absent from our education. We learned about the stages of a plant's growth for the first time. We studied seed germination, plant structure, propagation, etc. This introduction to nature and its secrets was an important contribution to our education as pioneers.

Shlomo Stein and Dov Kaplansky introduced another important innovation to our education - Sephardic pronunciation. Until now, we had been raised in the Ashkenazic dialect. Speaking like Sephardim, with the rolling “r” and soft “l” and with emphasis on the proper syllable gave us a feeling of singularity. We possessed a special charm in our speech, and it was certain we were preparing for the pioneer goal of aliyah.

In addition to lectures, discussions, and classes, our chapter was involved in evenings of entertainment and community and cultural tasks. We formed a drama group and staged a few plays in Hebrew. Our members were active in fund raising for the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist causes. We worked for the election of Zionist sympathizers to the Polish parliament.

A vegetable garden was started to promote physical and agricultural training. In the spring of 1925 we selected a neglected piece of land near the Nurzec River. We turned the soil, planted seeds, hoed the weeds, and watered with pails of water taken from the river. A great deal of work went into that garden. We also put in many hours guarding the crop from thieves who would periodically appear. We planned to sell the harvest and use the profits to cover the chapter's expenses. There wasn't much in the way of profit, but the actual work was a source of great satisfaction. The physical work of toiling in the soil, enhancing nature, and producing healthful food was done with love and the notion that it was training for our future life as pioneers.

From the start, I was Secretary of the Ciechanowiec chapter of HeChalutz Junior. I corresponded regularly with our sister organization in Warsaw. They were much larger and we received direction from them. Then came the summer of 1926. Most of the students graduated from Tarbut and went off in different directions to study at secondary schools in Vilna, Grodno, Warsaw, and elsewhere. The chapter disintegrated. But this was a temporary phenomenon and the chapter was revived with a new crop of maturing youngsters, mostly from the Tarbut School.

HeChalutz Junior made a significant contribution to the Zionist education of the youth in Ciechanowiec. Many of its members went on to join HeChalutz. Even those who continued their education elsewhere remained faithful to the nationalistic and social principles of the Movement and to the idea of labor in Eretz Yisrael.


[Page 287]

The Freiheit in Ciechanowiec

by Yaacov Lew, Tel Aviv, Israel

An uproar was created in Ciechanowiec by the right wing of the Zionist Labor Movement when they broke off and established Freiheit. The new organization ignored differences between the social classes and the sons and daughters of landholders mixed with those of menial artisans. It had never happened before in our town, and people could not believe their eyes. Freiheit emptied Jewish National Fund boxes and distributed the contents so as to attend the Congress. Members raised money for Kapai, The Fund of Jewish Workers in Eretz Yisrael.

Freiheit fought for a new political and communal agenda in the Diaspora and campaigned in the town elections. They even succeeded in electing a delegate from the Old City to the Ciechanowiec Council. His name was Leibel Bloom. During the elections to the Polish parliament, Freiheit campaigned against the left wing of Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion). Our platform was based on right wing elements in Zionism and Jewish Socialism - Herzl, Hess, Witkin, Syrkin, Borochov. And we were blessed with dedicated counselors, among them Feivel Pakciarz, Dov Wilkanski, Bertche Shtiegel, and Pinchas Abramson (who was not a party member). We remember fondly two teachers from the Tarbut School, Yaacov Golomb and Mordecai Arkeder. They were active among the right wing from Poalei Zion and gave a great deal of their time to lead groups in Freiheit.

Because of this dedication and hard work, Freiheit was successful and came to occupy an important place in the lives of the young people of Ciechanowiec. Membership swelled to over one hundred. But in 1926 events caught up with the Zionist fervor and we feared that our movement might collapse. A year earlier a group from HeChalutz had made aliyah. Among them were Shalom Yitzhak Pelchowitz, Yitzhak Zelizah, Kagan, Yosef Zabiela, Batya Lubowitz, Menachem Lewin, Moshe Shpitalny, Alter Eliyahu Feldman, Alter Braude, and Shlomo Stein. Moshe Shpitalny died in Eretz Yisrael, but other than Menachem Lewin and Batya Lubowitz, the rest all left the pioneering venture. Feldman was an immigrant to the United States and Yosef Zabiela went to Argentina. The rest returned to Ciechanowiec in despair. Their appearance in town had a devastating effect on those other pioneering youth who were contemplating aliyah. But Freiheit members, and some other pioneering groups, were not as affected by this setback. Eretz Yisrael was embedded deep in our hearts and no wind of despair could pull it out. We survived this defeat and our Zionist determination only increased.

A major event in Freiheit's history occurred in 1928. A district convention was held in our town. Six hundred young men and women from Czyzewo, Zambrow, Bransk, Wysokie Mazowieckie, Bialystok, Siemiatycze, and Boczki converged on Ciechanowiec. A special event of the convention was to be a public gathering in the central marketplace on Saturday afternoon. All Freiheit members were to show up carrying white and blue flags and red banners. Leibel Shpizman was scheduled to make a rousing speech. But then something interfered which could have led to bloodshed. Although we had received a permit from the police for a legal gathering, they changed their mind when they saw the crowds who had come to watch the spectacle. They cancelled the permit and began to disperse the crowd. Though we were forced away from the marketplace, we zealously guarded our flags so they would not be desecrated by the Polish police. We reconvened in our hall and concluded our meeting on Saturday night. The convention made a lasting impression on Ciechanowiec and the surrounding area. Never before had the population witnessed such a spectacle - proud Zionist youth, well organized and confident, marching under our own flags.

From the time of our establishment until 1930, Freiheit's executive committee consisted of Asher Ratzimora, Rachel Rosen, Yaacov Lew, Simcha Schwartz, and Yoel Viltchik. All made aliyah except Yoel, who stayed in Ciechanowiec and perished in the Holocaust. Simcha Schwartz was killed in a work-related accident in Eretz Yisrael.

In 1929 Arab rioters engaged in a pogrom against the Jewish settlers of Zion. Members of Freiheit displayed their intense attachment to the land. When HeChalutz headquarters issued a call to send young Jewish people to help the settlers fend off the Arab mobs, tens of Freiheit members volunteered. Their willingness to face danger to help their fellow Jews in Eretz Yisrael was indicative of the new Zionist spirit.

Even though Ciechanowiec was not a major city and was 18 kilometers from the nearest railroad station, important figures from the headquarters of Freiheit and Poalei Zion visited. Among those who came were Leibel Shpizman, Aaron Berditchevsky, Taiger, Polyuska, Rittov, Reiss the engineer, and D. B. Malkin. They spoke before public assemblies which always attracted large crowds.

Freiheit organized a Young Scout movement for young teenagers. From age 13 to 14, they would engage mostly in athletic activities. Upon maturing they were to join Freiheit. This promising organization lasted about two years but did not continue. We also established a soccer team named Kraft (Force). Many boys were attracted and among the best players was Yeshayahu Gazyewitz. We played other teams from Ciechanowiec and surrounding towns and were quite successful.

Freiheit members were active in the drama studio of our town and excelled in many performances. Among the aspiring actors were Yitzhak Pearlstein, Yitzhak Rosen, Reuven Migdal, Asher Ratzimora, Simcha Schwartz, Etel Feinstein, Shlomo Kagan, Moshe Kagan, and Brucha Kafka.

The fact that so many descendants of Freiheit are Israeli citizens shows the depth of Zionist commitment by the membership.

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