If the various Zionist youth organizations could be likened to our string of pearls, then Betar was dazzling in its singularity. In the spring of 1927a group of youngsters from nearby Siemiatycze approached us with the idea of organizing a branch of Brit Trumpledor-Hashachar in Ciechanowiec. The news spread like lightning among the local youth, especially those from the Tarbut School. They began to come in large numbers to join Hashachar. Later this organization merged into the Betar movement. The Zionist flame, the desire for Eretz Yisrael, the longing to revive our ancient nation, the communiqués from the new enterprises in Israel, the rejuvenation of fertile land in the desert, and most of all the Zionist education provided to the students of the Tarbut School, prepared the ground and paved the way for the establishment of Betar.
Behind the strivings for Zion was another force which gave strength to Betar. There was our constant awareness that life in the Diaspora was a weak and temporary shelter that could be destroyed by the slightest wind. We knew that we were strangers and would always be viewed as such. We knew deep in our sub-conscious that sooner or later we would face destruction. Only a state of our own - a solid, independent state could avert that eventuality. The feeling that the end of days was closing in on us electrified us with a high-voltage Zionism.
Betar members in Ciechanowiec included Shimon Yaskolka, Monya Yavkovsky, Avraham Cohen, Shlomo Zlotolow zl (killed in the War of Liberation in the battle of Falogyah), Yishai Tuchman, Yaacov Kotik, Alexander Arvovski, Chaim Kamenkowsky, and Fischel Shapiro. Most of them were students of the Tarbut School. They were the first, the planners and founders of Betar in Ciechanowiec. Later they were joined by Mordecai Heller, Ephraim Weiner, Chaim Etkes, Nachum Yitom and others.
The Tarbut School was the principal source for youthful membership in Betar. The reason was the inspiration of the teacher Ben Zion Cohen who was to die in Israel. During his geography classes, he instilled his students with Zionist spirit and love of our fatherland. His lectures were inevitably saturated with faithfulness to Zionism and longing for Eretz Yisrael. Other teachers in the school joined him in inspiring the students. These included R' Golomb who was active in HeChalutz and M.D. Heller, a veteran Zionist. We students were thirsty for every drop of knowledge about the history of the Land and absorbed into our very essence the love of everything pertaining to our historic home. All of our youthful dreams were about Eretz Yisrael.
Betar was organized in a gradual manner and the idea became a reality. Various other Zionist sectors joined the Betar organization and it became a symbol of dedication. It set the standards for educational diligence, physical training, and the social revival of our youth. Premises were acquired for a clubhouse. There the training in Zionism was advanced in anticipation of fulfilling the dream of aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. We were still young but we trained with fervor for the time when we could join in building the Land. And many of us trained in the use of arms, preparing for the time when we would be called to defend our reclaimed home.
In 1929, as the bloody anti-Jewish riots raged in Israel, a Betar compound was founded in Kenri village, approximately 10 kilometers from Ciechanowiec. Strong young men, healthy in body and soul, with burning faith in their hearts, enlisted for training. They engaged in backbreaking agricultural work preparing themselves for their new life in Eretz Yisrael. It attracted many more of our youth who came to witness the phenomenon of Jewish youth turning their backs on any future in the Diaspora, who voluntarily gave up the careers that were waiting for them and came to learn skills for the hard task of building a homeland. The idea captivated the youth and won over their hearts. The tens of young men in the training company were viewed as pioneers and heroes by the Jews of Ciechanowiec. They received love and admiration from the townsfolk who saw them as those who were paving the way to Eretz Yisrael. And, indeed, from this agricultural training group, many heroes and fighters arose. They were the Hebrew underground commanders who shed their blood in the battle to liberate Jaffa and in other activities of the Irgun Zvai Leumi. Their leadership set the example and their influence spawned new training groups among the youth of Ciechanowiec. The creation of these groups swelled the ranks of Betar which was growing in a widening area of greater Poland. In 1930 a camp was established at Zelva near Volkovisk. Participants included Monya Yavkovsky, Yaacov Kotik, Yishai Tuchman, Nachum Yitom, Herschel Dinenson, Yosef Soloveitchik, Chaim Grodzinsky, Esther Rosen, Menucha Tzipaleh and others.
In addition to agricultural training, cultural activities were an important part of the preparation for aliyah. An orchestra composed of 50 youngsters and featuring mandolins was organized by Chaim Kamenkowsky, who was its conductor. The music added beauty and happiness within the Betar movement and its reputation spread throughout the villages of the surrounding countryside. In addition, an Israeli and Jewish cultural program was developed which helped spread a spirit of love and faith among the members. Most of Betar's youngsters spoke Hebrew and all instructions and commands were given in our revived language. The cultural program provided instruction in the Hebrew language and in Jewish history. Lessons were conducted by the teacher Cohen zl, may he forever have his portion. The camp housed a substantial library which provided excellent books to enrich our cultural background. Every Friday night we held a question and answer session in which all the young men and women took a keen interest. These meetings sharpened our understanding and helped develop independent thinking.
Betar members who trained at Zelva returned to Ciechanowiec and became skilled leaders in the local Betar camps. They were accomplished in cultural studies as well as athletics and defensive skills. At that time, the Przysposobienie Wojskowe was created within Betar. It was a military organization associated with the Polish Army. The latter provided training in the use of various types of light arms. The same personnel who led the Polish Shteshelez guided this new unit of Betar. The appearance of strong young Betar members armed and in uniform with official Polish insignia encouraged the Zionists. Jews were being equipped for their future date with destiny - the fight for an independent Jewish state. But certain groups initially reacted negatively to the rising militarism among young Jews. G-d forbid that Jews should become killers. In time, most of these objections faded as news came from Eretz Yisrael of the murderous attacks by Arabs against Jewish settlements. The importance of military training was reinforced in the consciousness of the entire Jewish community.
In 1930 the First Regional Assembly of Betar was held in Ciechanowiec. Thousands of Betar members from neighboring villages - Bransk, Bielsk, Orla, Siemiatycze, Czyzewo, etc. - gathered in our town. They paraded proudly in their smart uniforms and were accompanied by richly decorated bicycles and horses. The Fire Department's band played rousing marches for the gala.
As we moved into the 1930s and the young men grew older, the romantic period drew to a close. Now came the time of realization. The men aspired to emigrate, to reach Israel and work the land, to build and protect it. To their bitter disappointment, the gates had been closed by the British authorities. However their faith was undiminished. The harder it was to realize the dream, the greater the impediments, the stronger their faith became.
Then Ciechanowiec Betar members went for further training at an agricultural facility near Klosowo. This was a training camp for those about to make aliyah. Among them was Yaacov Kotik, who was the only one from our town who had received an official certificate of immigration to Palestine. The others from Ciechanowiec made it with great difficulty and through their own valiant efforts.
Yaacov Kotik made aliyah in 1933, at a time when Arabs were rioting and massacring Jews. Yaacov took up arms against the murderers. But the British viewed the Jewish underground as bad as the Arabs, if not worse. During one of Yaacov's underground missions he was caught with a cache of arms and was sentenced to death by a British military court. Later, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. He sat five full years in a Jerusalem prison before he was freed. He immediately resumed his underground activities. The news of his arrest and death sentence was received with shock in Ciechanowiec. Ambivalent feelings of fear and pride filled our hearts. Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote a letter to the Kotik family praising the heroism of Yaacov. We were all relieved when the sentence was changed.
In 1935 a youth group named Masada was formed as part of Betar. Then an athletic group called Nordiah was established. They trained in water sports along the river and in other athletic activities. These young Jews appeared publicly displaying their prowess. The elders of the community were astounded to see that their own children had become so muscular and agile.
The Zionist Revisionist movement also organized a group of women. They called themselves Veref and were led by Sima Gittel Pasternak, a noble and intellectual woman.
The head of the Zionist Revisionists was Bertche Peretz, a wonderfully warm man. He was aided by Sima Gittel Pasternak and Dr. Avraham Spielman. Each Friday night they would gather and large numbers of people would convene to hear discussions on Zionism and Jewish world problems. The house was always packed to hear lectures by Dr. Spielman, Malka Weiner, Mrs. Pasternak, Shalom Cohen, and others.
In 1937 the movement began to decline in Ciechanowiec. Anti-Semitism had reached a feverish pitch and culminated in pogroms in Przytyk and Wysokie Mazowieckie. Young people fled to other countries. And some tried to reach Israel during the so-called Aliyah Bet.
By 1939 the anti-Semitic riots in our region had abated somewhat. War was approaching and the economy was revived because of the need to supply the military. Young Jewish groups, such as Betar, once again were awakened. But this did not last long. The great catastrophe was about to overcome us. Everything ended in Treblinka.
I am from Ciechanowiec and am a member of the Betar movement. Since my childhood, I have been attracted to the philosophy of Jabotinsky and Begin. Betar was always a place where my soul would find solace and I draw strength from the movement even until this current day. I loved the camping trips, the outdoor activities, and the love of nature. I also enjoyed hearing tales of Jewish heroes like the one-armed Yosef Trumpeldor. But slowly, slowly, everything changed.
From the day when I lay unconscious on the road near the Church, with the words Dirty Jew ringing in my ears, the childhood games lost their magic. Ciechanowiec was no longer a serene town of youthful joy. It is hard for me to isolate the exact chain of events which shaped my thinking. Did it start when I saw the Polish brute standing in front of the Jewish stores, haranguing his countrymen to cease purchasing from the accursed Jews? Or did I become aware when Polish--owned shops suddenly cropped up to steal away the business from the Jews? Or was it the names, always said derisively, Palestinian and of course, Dirty Jew. Whatever the beginning, I began to feel the bitter taste of not belonging. I actually felt it on my lips, and it parched my mouth. The moral climate degenerated and the environment became more and more hostile.
Even the brave actions of my father's Polish soul mate Jishtzimaski, may he rest in peace, could not expunge the bad feelings. This gallant friend would not heed the warnings of the Polish guards who were effecting the boycott of Jewish businesses. Ignoring them, he entered my father's iron storehouse. When he emerged, no Pole would speak with him. He was an outcast. As I watched him walk to his wagon with measured steps, he seemed to me a man who had the dignity and strength to rescue an entire nation. But that was a singular event and was not typical of Polish attitudes. Indeed, it had a negative effect and engendered even more hatred of us Jews.
More and more, we became aware that we had no place in a Polish country. This sense was felt not only among Betar members but also among all the young people of Ciechanowiec. And the feeling was intensified after the announcement of the Prime Minister Slowo Skladkowski that the government's policy was to make outcasts of the Jews without resorting to pogroms. Of course there were pogroms, but the government turned a blind eye towards them. They acted as though they held the high moral ground and the self-righteousness of Skladkowski's proclamation was a signal that we must be aware of the anti-Semitism endemic in the Polish people.
Then we heard of Jews making aliyah, leaving Poland without any possessions. We knew that the left-wing movements were handing out certificates of aliyah from the Jewish Agency. Betar established the Tel Hai Foundation with its slogan, We will make aliyah in any way and at any cost. Despite the rhetoric, the majority of Jews in town refused to recognize the facts. They were comfortable, even in the face of the trouble, and though they analyzed the situation with precision, they could not accept the rational conclusions.
Those years were torn with ambivalence; I had many discussions with my Zionist instructors and harsh arguments with my parents. Our party published a newspaper and placed posters everywhere. Every subject was turned towards one message, When and how do we make aliyah? A committee made up of members of the Betar newspaper Our World was handling this question. They changed the thrust of their energy from convincing people about the Zionist cause to one of practical action - to expedite aliyah. This committee raised funds for those too poor to obtain tickets. Money was also allocated for equipment to send to Eretz Yisrael. Finally, they arranged the details of embarkation.
When I read the articles and posters, I knew there was only one course for me. I became determined to make aliyah. Luckily, another factor emerged which helped convince my parents that it was necessary for me to leave. It was 1938 and I was scheduled to be conscripted into the army. I had only a few months. I explained to my parents that going into the military would delay my plans for a minimum of two years. They weighed the alternatives and began to waver in their objections. Their hearts softened enough to give their half-hearted approval. The very next day, frightened and excited, I sent 2,000 gold coins to the Committee in Warsaw. That would be enough to pay for the trip. And so, a short time later on one bright day, I received a letter from Warsaw saying that I should prepare for the journey. I will skip many of the details and go on to a very special night.
Yes, one night I left with my father zl and his friend Chaim Shia for the train station in Czyzewo. From there, it was on to Warsaw. The expectation of the last days was etched onto my physiognomy and my whole body was coursed with a super-tired feeling. I remember every sound and sight: the close train compartment, the shaded window, the rhythm of the wheels clacking over the tracks, and the faces of my father and Chaim Shia. I imagined they were fusing into one and fading into the distance, though they were sitting right next to me. These impressions lulled me into calmness, and I fell into a deep sleep.
I dreamt of my mother. I was only a small tot of one when she passed away. I knew her good face only from some photos and the stories I had heard. Sometimes when I was punished or scolded and needed encouragement or advice, I would turn to her. On the eve of holidays and on Erev Yom Kippur, my two sisters and I would go and visit her grave. Overwhelmed, I would stand by the tall monument erected over the place where she slept. The stone and the words inscribed on it seemed foreign and strange to me, The honorable and charitable Mrs. Tziporah . . . We would collect small stones and place them on the monument. Then, right there in the train, my mother appeared to me as I always wished she would be. She spoke to me softly and in a comforting manner. Yet, I felt a certain disappointment in her voice. There was a far-off quality and sadness as she said, Tuvia, Tuvia, your journey is a good thing. But you did not say farewell to me. Don't leave without coming to me for my blessing. It occurred to me that in the excitement of preparing for aliyah, I had totally forgotten my mother's grave. I awakened in a sad and depressed state. My earlier calmness had vanished, and I could not feel happiness about my journey.
Noticing that my former ebullient spirit was no longer there, my father inquired as to my feelings. In just a few words I told him how my mother's spirit had appeared and that she asked me to visit her grave before I left. My father did not answer, but his eyes darkened. I realized at that moment how heavy was his heart that his son was leaving. The rest of the journey to Warsaw was spent in silence, and the ambivalence returned to my heart.
My married sister Dvora lived in Warsaw and we celebrated Shabbat with her and her family. There was much talk about my journey on Friday night and through Saturday. My father and sister were unhappy to see me leave, but they would not voice any objections. They would leave the decision in my hands. My mother's apparition had made that decision a difficult one. Father suggested that we visit the Rabbi and it was as if a stone was lifted from my heart. He said, Let us ask the Rabbi. We will tell him what is in our hearts, and he will provide wise judgment. After Havdalah, we visited the Rabbi's house. I cannot remember his name, but he was a venerated Hasid. The big yard and the house itself were filled with Hasidim. The sexton went through the throng collecting notes with questions for the Rabbi. The picture of this night is clear in my mind after all these years. I was not among the very religious but the Rabbi left a deep impression upon me. He seemed to have a holy aura and was a man of great serenity.
When we were able to approach him, the Rabbi looked at me and said, Talk my son. He spoke with me without first addressing my father. I felt I could tell him everything. I could let the whole story pour out and lessen my doubts and pain. My mixed emotions were given full expression. The Rabbi was an excellent listener. His decisions were not orders. Rather they were given as insightful advice. You are correct, he told me in a thoughtful manner. Your journey is necessary but it is not the right time as yet, and you must prepare for the future. Your journey will be a great success at another time. Now you must go to your mother's grave to say goodbye. I was very relieved to hear these words. I felt that I was, once again, walking on solid earth. Everything was simple and I made ready to leave in the year 1939. Later, I learned that the Rabbi had probably saved my life. The boat I was to leave on had sunk. Of those aboard only two or three survived. Perhaps, his advice was a prophecy.
I returned with my father to Ciechanowiec. It was a year of anticipation, tension, and excitement. I could not fit in anywhere. Yet, in every place I worked, the people were amazed at my energy. I was elected Vice Chairman of Betar. I organized meetings and devoted myself to our educational program. I also took part in my father's business. I became an agent for a Warsaw building supplies company. I traveled a great deal, met many people, negotiated with factory representatives - but I couldn't find a place to hang my hat, to sink new roots. I was living in an agitated state, filled with faraway thoughts totally alien to the world that confined me.
It did not take long before I enrolled on the list of those who were to make aliyah. This time, four members of the Ciechanowiec Betar enrolled with me: Reuven Ptashek, Michel Kolsky, Nevenshtern (Chaya Matl's fiancé), and last but not least, Shlomo Zlotolow zl, who was a few years older than me. In the hours of our journey, Shlomo showed a responsibility to me as an older brother and in hard times he buoyed my spirit. And he did a lot to calm my father's apprehensions. They spoke often and Shlomo convinced Father of the urgency and righteousness of my journey. And he calmed him about everything concerning my welfare and destiny. He promised Father that he would continue to look after me.
There was still one obstacle which I had to overcome. The year that had passed had made my conscription more probable. It was imperative that I receive permission to leave from the army. It was a difficult hurdle because the army wanted every able-bodied man. I used my friendship with the Village Secretary, a decent intelligent Polish man, who used to consult with me about my father's factory. He had been promoted and was in charge of an area consisting of thirty towns and had connections with powerful political figures. One Sunday, I drove to his house in Bielsk-Podlaski. I spoke with him as a friend but withheld some of the truth so he would not be a partner in crime. I asked for a postponement of my conscription because I had a one month long trip to Eretz Yisrael. I told him I had a great desire to make this trip, but I omitted that I planned to stay there. He looked at me as if he really understood what I meant. I shall help you, he said and he gave me some key words to use. He also told me that by mentioning his name, doors would be opened. Though many years have passed, I remember him as a very fine human being who acted on my behalf though he was of a different people and had different interests from mine.
After a few weeks, I was invited to the offices of the D.O.K. in Brisk. A lieutenant shouted at me, Jew, you want to run away from Poland without serving in the army! We'll show you! I employed the key words and mentioned my contact's name, but that only made the lieutenant more furious and he scoffed at me. I decided to leave that office before it was too late. I took my papers and went into the first office I saw. I found myself standing before a Polish captain. I was now frightened because I was an embarrassed Jew who had entered a Polish military office without permission. I again invoked the name of my friend and stated the key words. To my amazement, the captain's face lit up and he offered me a chair and calmed me with encouraging words. He promised that everything would be fine. Buttressed by these comments, I complained about the lieutenant's rudeness. To make a long story short, my papers were approved and the last obstacle was overcome.
With an eased heart I returned to Ciechanowiec. I sent my papers to Warsaw and after one month received an answer from Our World. It said, We are leaving on July 14, 1939. Once again, there was the pre-journey excitement. As in the previous year, people looked at me, some with envy, others with admiration. Old friends patted my shoulder in the street as they said goodbye. Some did so in sadness, some in joy. It seemed that everyone was wishing me all the joy in the world. My family was more accepting than before and the bitter criticism of the past was gone. From then on, Dad would speak and guide me about conditions in Eretz Yisrael - whom I should visit, what type of enterprise I should engage in, how to earn a living, and to always maintain my integrity. At the time, I was more concerned with other issues and did not pay heed to my father's advice.
I was worried about obtaining high boots which everyone needed in the swamps of Eretz Yisrael. I was filled with joy and a pride that was fueled by the admiration of other people. They viewed me as a hero marching off to an unknown future. This time I did not forget to say goodbye to my mother. I approached her grave with my heart pounding with emotion. I told her I was off to fulfill my dream and was not sure that I would ever return. Because of that I asked her to provide guidance and help as I embarked on my long unknown road.
July 7, 1939 had arrived. As in the previous year, I left for Czyzewo. My step-mother, whom we called Aunt, fainted. Everyone knew that this time it was for good. I would not return. I arrived in Warsaw and went to 5 Havatzimska Street. That was the Emigrants Hotel, the meeting place for Polish Jews going to the Holy Land. There were about 500 of us and 300 more from Roumania and France were to join us soon. We waited four long days in anxious anticipation. Most of us had been accompanied by parents, relatives, or friends who would be left behind. They were all concerned for us and increased the tension and excitement. Then the order came to get ready to leave. We were to meet at a specified time at the railroad station. We were to leave for Shniatim, a border town between Poland and Roumania. That was the place where we would be joined by 300 other pioneers. We were told that from Shniatim we would proceed to Constanta, a port on the Black Sea. It would then be a two-week sea voyage to Israel. There is no way to express the excitement we felt. There were heart-rending scenes at the railroad station. Fathers and mothers flung themselves around the necks of their sons, not wanting to face the moment of departure. But we were not affected with such emotions; we were filled with expectations for the future. My father zl sensed that. He held me firmly in his arms for a long time but did not get over emotional. He told me, Remember and preserve that which is real. Back then, I did not realize the depth of meaning in what he said. Years later his words reverberate in my ears as his words come back to me, and I always knew he was right.
The train started to move and all the fuss was behind us. We were now as orphans among strangers, each with his own baggage. We left Poland as heroes. We left our safe homes and went forth to conquer the unknown. Many of those left behind wondered about us. Others pitied us. But we were convinced of the righteousness of our cause and we felt only relief to be leaving behind the nest of haters of Israel. Yet we were also leaving our dearest and kindest people, family and friends whom we loved, and none of us contemplated that we would ever see them again.
The ice melted among the traveling strangers. We knew that the shared experience would forge a friendship among us. Before long we felt as if we had known each other for years. After a few hours, we arrived in Shniatim. The train was moved to another track and a new Roumanian locomotive was attached. Doors were closed to prevent anyone from leaving. Repeated commands told us to remain in our seats, Don't move! Prepare for inspection. Poland was behind us and it seemed to me that half the journey was over. The train was delayed for a few hours, and we anxiously awaited the signal to move. We were tired and stressed. We had been told that the Roumanian government was aware of our destination and that no impediments would be put in our way. Even so, we were fearful that would not be the case. Then I tried to send word home. I quickly wrote a letter saying that everything was proceeding according to plan. I sealed the letter and asked one of the Roumanian soldiers to buy stamps and post it for me. I gave him international money and a thermos. Perhaps he could fill it with water for me. The soldier understood my request and promised to help me. But he took everything and vanished. I realized that in my naiveté, I had been duped. It was only the first problem during my journey and was enough to make me depressed. It was an omen of bad things to come.
Then the signal was sounded,and we proceeded to Constanta. The order came, Everyone carry your own baggage. We are walking to the port area. We were in a surging crowd walking to the dock. Among us were 300 Jews from France and Roumania. Far off, we could see the Prita, the ship that awaited us. It was not an encouraging vista. Ordinarily, I would never board such a vessel. But despite my anxious heart, the journey was becoming more and more real. We would soon be on the open sea! One big family, together for good or bad. Another inspection began a few minutes later. Passports were collected and stamped, and then we boarded the ship. We were each allotted a small space. Conditions were terrible. Two passengers shared a cot that was barely one meter wide. Our quarters were in the bowels of the ship, and we were denied access to the deck. It was so crowded that it was difficult to breathe, and there was absolutely no room to move around. We five Ciechanowiec boys stuck together. Shlomo Zlotolow zl, with his wonderful personality, cheered and comforted us. He encouraged us to adapt to the conditions; we would not have to endure them for more than a couple of weeks. But Shlomo had a difficult time cheering us as the commands came down, Don't leave your room. Don't be seen on the deck. Don't light any matches. . . and many other don't's.
So the first two weeks of our voyage passed by. We tried to follow Shlomo's advice and go on as if everything was normal. And the other passengers did the same. We dressed properly, spoke pleasantly, played social games, and argued over politics. The food was tasteless and barely edible. We sipped watery tea and pale soup into which we softened our hard bread. Fortunately, many of us had brought some food from home. I had plenty of biscuits and sugar for myself and was able to share this treasure with my companions. As the days went by, it seemed everything was on schedule. But inside, I was anything but calm. I was indifferent to my surroundings and found it difficult to participate in the social interaction. I could not wait for this phase to pass. I counted 14 days and still there was no end to the trip. We knew that up on the deck was a commander from Eretz Yisrael. When depression would threaten our spirits, we would start rumors, We'll soon arrive. The commander from Eretz Yisrael speaks Hebrew. He has already brought four other ships filled with settlers to our beloved Zion. Hearing such statements buoyed our spirits and alleviated the worries. Yet, we had never met this commander whose name was Irving. After two weeks, our personal food had been consumed and we had to make do with the regular ship's rations. Worry continued to gnaw at our hearts.
Then one evening a command was given by Commander Irving to come up to the deck. We eagerly scrambled up into the fresh air. He was a young, slim, blonde fellow who appeared too serious for his age. His speech was short but impressive. He told of our difficult situation and then tried to assuage our fears. He didn't detail what the difficulties were but in a strong command, he told the officers to proceed and announced, We will arrive. Later we learned that he was trying to avoid the British blockade of Jewish arrivals to Palestine. Irving, with his simple, direct, and sincere manner, won over our hearts. We felt we could count on him.
We resumed our daily routine; eating the bad food, thirsting for fresh water, and suffering from the heat. During these days, I would walk around the ship full of indifference, caring for nothing. Bad thoughts plagued my mind. In longing, I recalled Ciechanowiec, those dear people I had left behind, my beloved parents who by now would assume I was safely in Eretz Yisrael. I was tired of rumors and unfulfilled promises. I was tired of the people around me. I was tired of the miserable tea and soup, the hard cot, and the ever-present thirst. We had gone three days with a minimum of water. We bathed in sea water and we stood on line for our miserable ration of food. Life did not seem worth living. My friends from Ciechanowiec tried to cheer me. Shlomo would offer me some of his portion of food to strengthen me, but most of the time I would not take it.
One day I awoke at six in the morning and couldn't stand the hunger any longer. I sneaked into the crew's galley and looked everywhere for food. But I couldn't find any. They must have locked up all the supplies for safe keeping from intruders like me. I did find some rice seeds scattered on the dirty floor. I scooped them up into my bowl and returned to my berth. I had a small amount of sugar left and sprinkled it on the rice. Then I filled the bowl with sea water and put the unclean mixture on the stove. Once the water boiled and the rice puffed up, I took it off the heat and set about to savor a hot meal. That was the best dining I had on the entire journey. My spirits were renewed. I knew that as long as I could eat, I could survive and the ending looked brighter.
Yet, the overall situation worsened. My fellow passengers wandered around the ship without purpose. The intellectual discussions ceased and there was no pleasant discourse. There was only repetition, repetition of the same emptiness. Nobody cared for his personal appearance. People failed to dress properly. Even the women no longer appeared human. They were totally sexless. The Commander's pep talks had no effect on us. Sanitary conditions were worsening and the stench was horrible. We were heading towards a breaking point. Once in a while a rumor might engender a little animation but that was quickly extinguished. Nothing could bring life to our dead eyes.
We heard that the British were chasing us. They had issued orders to all ports not to supply us nor take us in. There was desperation as we were running out of fuel. At one point we tried to dock at a Turkish port, but a motor launch approached and told us to leave. At the end of the fifth week of our voyage, we were told that the Commander was about to address us. We knew that a crisis was at hand, and we were not about to hear words of cheer. Irving did not hold back from us. He reported our perilous position and said we were going to try to penetrate the port of Alexandria. Until then we were to remain hidden below deck. There we were to await orders to emerge. The mood changed and excitement gripped us. The atmosphere was electrified, and we did not sleep that night. We believed that a little airplane from Poland was circling around and providing us with information. At dawn, we peered through the portholes and spotted land. We were ordered to appear on deck. I noticed that one of our masts was flying a Swedish flag. We breathed the fresh morning air and were happy that we were still alive. I felt a necessity to write my family. I wrote, Dear Parents, I am still alive and yes I exist. Your loving son, Tuvia Peretz. On the other side of the paper I wrote, To whomever finds this note, please forward it to the accompanying address. I placed the note in a bottle, sealed it with a cork, and tossed it into the sea.
Meanwhile, a lot was happening on deck. Commander Irving asked that we give him any spare cloth we might have. We could not understand the reason for this unusual command but believed it to be important. We assumed that something big was about to happen. Soon, a big mound of cloth was heaped in front of Irving's office. An hour later, the cloth was flying as a big banner declaring SOS and the Turkish words calling for bread, coal, and water. We could see people swimming towards us and right in front was a Turkish police launch. We insisted on receiving supplies according to the international law of the sea. Without them we were doomed. Later, we learned that talks had been held between the authorities and the leaders of the Turkish Jewish community. From the police launch we received word that supplies would be provided to the Prita if we were to leave Alexandria within one hour. Our reply was silence. We knew we could not obey and that we would have to stay. At the end of an hour, a warship came alongside and blared out, You have two hours to leave. If you don't we will blow you away. Despite the threat, we were totally unified behind Commander Irving. We were determined to stay. We did not believe their threats and were convinced we would ultimately receive supplies.
A short time elapsed and Irving asked for ten volunteers who were good swimmers. Among the ten were three from Ciechanowiec, Shlomo Zlotolow zl, Michel, and me. We had all learned to swim in the Nurzec River which split Ciechanowiec in two. We stood on the gunwales waiting for the signal to jump. I took off my sandals and gave them to a girl, telling her to keep them for me until I returned. I was sure I would return. But the Turks had other ideas. The swim would be a challenge to them. It indicated our willingness to wait until we received supplies. But the swim was dangerous. We were 500 meters from shore and it was a high dive into the water. In our weakened condition, it was doubtful we could make it. But our resolve was never tested. As we stood there on the gunwales, the warship informed us, We'll give you what you want. We came back to the safety of the deck. We were so enervated that it was difficult to comprehend the change in our fortune. We fell onto the deck, and I heard the joy of the other passengers as they cheered for us.
We looked at the distant shore and noticed that crowds had gathered. They were peering at us through binoculars and waving to us. Within a couple of hours, two ships pulled alongside, and we were asked to help load the supplies aboard the Prita. Our exhaustion was gone. We were aroused to action. The Turks mingled with us and together we loaded water, coal, cigarettes, and food. With the supplies safely stacked in the holds of our ship, we felt our achievement was a harbinger of the successful conclusion that was sure to follow. All became silent as we set out to the open sea.
We were no longer depressed and were looking forward to journey's end. We knew that each moment could be eventful. Indeed, something did happen quite quickly. But we were stuck in the lower sections of the ship and didn't know about it until later. Commander Irving, who until now had worked cooperatively with the Captain and his crew, gave an order that they didn't like at all. He planned to penetrate the British blockade and land on the shores of Eretz Yisrael. The crew interpreted that act as breaking international law. Not wanting to endanger themselves, with the exception of two officers, they refused to follow the command. Irving acted as if he gave in to the crew's wishes. However, he told his own men to arrest them, shackle them and lock them in the brig. That is, all except the two officers who agreed with him. This was all accomplished within one hour. That night, the prisoners were put into the safety rowboats and Irving and his men steered them towards the Syrian coast. At 50 meters from shore the prisoners were noticed by the French and English patrols and were taken into custody. Meanwhile, Irving and his men had made it to the shore undetected. This plan did not leave the Prita stranded. Before leaving, Irving had left commands to steer the ship towards the Tel Aviv beachfront. Once there, they should foul the running gear by inserting steel tools in the engine. Thus, the ship could not be forced to retrace its journey. That was going to be our last seagoing operation. We were about to reach our goal, see the land of our dreams.
With great willpower we reached the Tel Aviv beach. We wrecked the machinery according to orders. At sunrise, the hulk of the ship was lilting in the surf with engines silent. We signaled to the beach for help but some of us could not wait and leaped into the water, starting to swim to the shore of the Holy Land. The two foreign officers were in this group. They had forged a warm bond with the Jewish people and to this day their home is in Israel. But most of us stayed aboard the wrecked ship. We five Ciechanowiec boys were still together. Whatever fate had in store for us, we wanted to face it as one. This proved to be our last night at sea. English patrol boats surrounded us and boarded the ship. They began negotiations with us and even provided us with fresh bread. That was our first dinner in Eretz Yisrael and we gave forth with the Shechechayanu blessing. That simple bread was like a gala feast. The British searched the ship for the crew that had taken us through their blockade. They could not believe we had made it on our own. After several hours of investigation, the British ordered us to pack our gear and disembark. We clambered into the police boats that were waiting for us. We were brought ashore and were unable to express the happiness we felt. We were to be confined in a holding area opposite the Ritz Hotel. A long row of cars waited to transport us. The decent Jewish citizens of Tel Aviv looked upon us with sympathy. They could see how worn out we were, and they managed to sneak cigarettes and snacks to us. Our journey may not have ended but no power on earth could now remove us from our beloved Eretz Yisrael. I found time to write a note to landsmen living in Israel. To Yaffa and Sneh Piuro, I have arrived in Eretz Yisrael. I gave the note to one of the people crowding about us. The note arrived at its destination and the Piuro family quickly sent word to my father that I had arrived and that upon my release they would care for me as if I were their son. We got into the cars and were still happy. We knew that we were being interned, but nevertheless, we were in Eretz Yisrael! As we drove through the town, our eyes feasted on the new sights. It was not a long trip. Soon we were in the internment camp called Serpanad, surrounded by tall barbed wire fences.
We were in the camp a few days and already we were planning an escape. It was never to be executed. Influential Israeli friends had arranged for our release. We left the camp with the big iron gate clanging as it closed behind us. We walked out free to a new life.
We rented some space in Kotik's house, which in time became almost a second home to our members. Even though they were married and worked long hours to eke out a living, these workers somehow managed to find some time to spend at the clubhouse. There they would read Zionist newspapers and learn of the latest news from Eretz Yisrael.
A guiding principle of the Zionist Worker was that one realized his full potential by making aliyah. But how? Unlike the members of HeChalutz, we could not go through training to prove we were capable of the Zionist enterprise. We simply did not have the time because most of our waking hours were spent in our labors. Most of us were supporting families. Yet, we knew that our skills were needed in Eretz Yisrael. So we began our preparation for aliyah by learning Hebrew. We invited HeChalutz member Esther Tuchman (now living in Israel) to be our teacher. She rigorously covered every phase of the language and overcame every obstacle to hold our Hebrew classes. She taught us the Sephardic pronunciation, and we were proud to speak in this modern dialect. Each time Esther would enter our classroom, we would say, Shalom Morah. And, from that time on, we would always greet each other with the same Shalom.
The founding committee of the Zionist Worker consisted of Yitzhak Soloveitchik, President; Feivel Mendelsberg, Secretary; Yosef Holtzman, Treasurer; Chaim Kraivonogy; Avraham Gevronyetz; and Abba Goldstein of Wysokie Mazowieckie. The Committee's work was so effective that news of its success reached as far as Warsaw and many influential people were drawn to Ciechanowiec. We were visited by Eliezer(Lazer) Shtupokowitz and Yehezkiel (Haskel) Rabinowitz. They gave public speeches on issues of importance to workers and their messages were of immense interest to the throngs who gathered to hear them. In 1935 when Rashish (today the Mayor of Petah Tikvah) visited Poland, he was convinced that the honorable thing was to visit Ciechanowiec and speak before the Zionist Workers. To show appreciation of our achievements, Haskel Rabinowitz informed us by letter that a certificate of aliyah was budgeted to the Zionist Worker of Ciechanowiec. We were told to hold a public meeting at which time the recipient would be chosen for aliyah.
That first convention was held on a Saturday evening in 1934. A representative from the headquarters in Warsaw was present. As President, it was suggested that I receive the certificate. However, many objected, saying that it was necessary for me to remain and lead the group in Ciechanowiec. So instead of me, Feivel Mendelsberg was given permission to make aliyah. Other local Zionist organizations claimed that the Zionist Worker was a charade and it was politics that Mendelsberg was chosen over me. They claimed that would dissuade others from making commitments to the Zionist cause. But the opposite occurred. We were besieged by many people from different classes, rich and poor, who now wanted to join the Zionist Worker.
Each certificate could be used for a couple if they were married. To make aliyah, men and women held fictitious marriages. Such partners were known as Fiktizia. In that way, Feivel Mendelsberg took Miriam Shpitalny, who is still living in Israel. Later, Mendelsberg sent a boy to bring back Esther Kraivonogy, with whom he was wed. Later in 1934 we received a second certificate and I was finally selected to make aliyah. I had taken the place of Yosef Holtzman who, for some reason, was unable to go. He perished in the Holocaust.
The Zionist Worker was a very popular organization in pre-war Ciechanowiec. That a Jewish shop owner or tradesman should speak modern Hebrew and tie his future to Israel was of major importance. Unfortunately, only three of our members had the opportunity of fulfilling their dreams before the darkness descended upon our town.
Scores of people crowded into Yishlach's house. Among them were Moshe Zlotolow, Mordecai Shmekowsky, Eliezer Rosen, Aharon Kashtan, and some representatives of a budding Mizrachi Pioneer kibbutz in Ciechanowiec. The leading speaker was Gorzeletzni from Czyzewo. The enthusiasm was translated into a decision to formally establish a branch of the Mizrachi party.
We chose an executive committee composed of Mordecai Shmekowsky, Chairman; Eliezer Rosen, Vice-Chairman; and Zvi Pasternak, Secretary. Other active members were Kashtan, Zagodny, Holtzman, et al. One of our first decisions was to print flyers for distribution to religious youth, urging them to join Mizrachi. Many hearkened to the call. But my enlisting in the Zionist cause enraged the Hasidic shtiebel. The next Friday evening I approached the synagogue. A large poster was tacked on the door. It stated that all those who had joined with the Zionists had no place in the Gerer Shul and should leave. I understood that the sign was aimed at me, however my father advised me to ignore it and stay in the synagogue. On Saturday morning, before the Torah reading, Yoel Sackno (grandson of Alter Yoelkes) mounted the bima and announced that they would not commence reading the Torah until those who had joined the Zionists would leave. Therefore, with no other choice, my father and I left the building.
Now I would have more time to work for Mizrachi. The party expanded, and we managed to establish a youth arm named HaShomer HaDati. Its outstanding members included Moshe Kaplan, Eliezer Goldstein, Malka Sokolowsky, and others. HaShomer HaDati became an important movement among the youth of Ciechanowiec. Young men and women from the right and left joined together without rancor. Differences in politics and religious attitudes gave way to the common cause of working for Eretz Yisrael.
With time, we received important support from unlikely sources. Bais Yaacov was an all girls school attended by the daughters of Hasidim. The school was known for its opposition to Zionism. Then the spirit of Jewish nationalism started to infuse the school. The entire Jewish community was slowly but surely accepting the Zionist cause. At the same time, anti-Semitism was getting more virulent in Poland. Many Jews were forced to leave the country. Ciechanowiec was not spared. A wave of bigotry swept through the town and the community sought some sort of defense or rescue. Zionism seemed to offer an answer and its tenets were beginning to change the attitudes of the very religious. The girls of Bais Yaacov got hooked on the concept of aliyah.
One evening, a large group of girls from the upper classes of Bais Yaacov came to our meeting and asked to join HaShomer HaDati. Of course we accepted. It represented the ultimate success of our movement. Most of the religious had accepted Mizrachi. We organized the girls in a campaign which sent them out as fund raisers with JNF charity boxes. The girls worked vigorously to advance the Mizrachi cause.
Unfortunately, not many members of Mizrachi and HaShomer HaDati were able to make aliyah. They were massacred in the killing wave that overtook the Jewish community of our town.
The lion of the group, that is the outstanding personality of all, was Shraga Abramson, who is now Professor of Talmud at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Previously, he was a Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City where he earned a reputation as a great scholar and philosopher. One of his important accomplishments was the translation of the tractate Baba Basra with an additional explanation which made it easier to understand.
The youth of Ciechanowiec, through the Torah V'Avoda Organization , were determined to return to their roots and acquire the necessary knowledge from our heritage. Torah, Tanach, and Talmud were the sources which would provide that knowledge. It was not necessary to seek spiritual and idealistic inspiration from other movements. The Jews of our town were zealous to their ideals and from this dedication emerged the Poalei Hamizrachi and HaShomer HaDati organizations. Torah V'Avoda was derived from these two groups.
The members of Torah V'Avoda were very sincere in wanting Judaism to be central to their lives. They were true to their religion, were loyal members of the organization and were true also to the pioneering spirit of Zionism. Their influence spread to other cultural circles and Zionist movements in Ciechanowiec. Together with these organizations they worked in unity for the Jewish National Fund. In appreciation of their achievements, they received special recognition from Mr. Leibel Malawski of that organization. Poalei Hamizrachi, HaShomer HaDati, and Torah V'Avoda were in conflict with the Zionist parties of the left. But the conflict involved the place of religion in the Zionist cause. There was no hatred between the various movements. They all knew what their purpose was - to build our nation and develop Eretz Yisrael.
The movement was led by Moshe Yelin, Lazer (Laitsche) Kaplan, David Kotik, Rafael Pomerantz, Yoel and Leib Deutsch, Zagodny, Asher Hoffman, Shlomo Novomodny, and others. Sometime later Yaacov Yossel Yarmus and Nechama Kaplan joined the organization. Two members with much knowledge and high intelligence, they contributed to the social development of our youth.
Poalei Zion had a widely branched social and cultural program. A school was even started in the building where the meetings were held. The school operated for a year and a half under the leadership of Yaacov Yossel Yarmus, until he left for America. We also worked to organize a professional union for tailors. It is of note that when there were negotiations for a wage increase, the fight was with the bosses; when the negotiations were about shorter work days, the argument was more with the workers than the employers.
The organization also set up a division for night courses for the workers. It was registered with the government and got the rights for access to educational facilities, libraries, and other cultural institutions. The members of Poalei Zion who were involved with the night school worked diligently to advance the cultural life of the community. Almost every Saturday they held meetings where speakers drawn from their own organization and from other towns. Among Poalei's speakers were Zerubavel, Bucksbaum, Eisenstat, Yaacov Peterzeil, Yitzhak Lew, and the writers Zelig Segalowitz, Yoel Mastbaum, Melech Ravitz, etc. The night courses continued until the Shoah.
In the beginning, David Neiman was chairman of the organization. After he left for America, Yoel Treibatsh, the writer of this article, took over the leadership. He was chairman until his departure for Argentina when Pinya Lipschitz assumed the leadership.
The organization also spawned a dramatic circle that would stage plays quite often. At times, outside people would be invited to act or direct, but more often we would do the thespian work ourselves. At the start David Kotik was the dramatic manager and the casts included Chaya Yehudis Wiadro, Moshele Yelin, Leibtche Deutsch. Later, Manes Okun managed the group. More than once, representatives of the government interrupted the plays. One time we put on The Giant in Chains by Victor Hugo. At the point in the play that we were singing the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, a policeman stormed in and shouted, You must stop! That is criminal! Another time the police forbade us to stage The Jealous G-d by Sholem Asch. The police, suddenly very considerate of Jewish sensibilities, said it was blasphemous to throw the Torah to the ground. It did not help to show the police that the play had already passed the censorship of the Ministry of Education.
In the year 1928, the organization had a representative in Town Hall for the first time. That was Pinya Lipschitz. I heard that the party grew in membership and influence in later years but the details are not familiar to me. I was already in Argentina.
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