Professional Activity, Cultural Work, Personalities
by Moshe Wasserman, Tel Aviv
In my recollections I would like to discuss the youth activity of my dear,
beloved and beautiful town. I want to bring out the suffering and pain of
Demblin's Jews, workers and menial laborers, the bitter struggle that Demblin
Jews had throughout the year to make a living.
It is with trembling that I write these lines. My heart bleeds, the tears run,
when one remembers that once upon a time, a lovely blossoming Jewish town lived
with warm hearted mothers, fathers, and little children who filled the streets
with joy. In my Demblin there was a flowering, strong, conscious youth who
wanted to take advantage of culture and knowledge, who struggled and went a
long way to carry the burden of new ideas. These ideas from the broader world
which promised a new era to come.
The youth of Demblin, deep in their heart and soul, carried these new ideas of
justice. They didn't get scared off by any difficulties which were placed in
their paths. With great, youthful ardor they believed that time would come when
hatred would be replaced by love between peoples, when hunger, need and wars
would be replaced by friendship among peoples. They carried around these
beautiful ideas of national and socialist liberation, with great affection, and
in all of the most difficult times. The whole of Demblin youth was like one
organism ready to fight back against the attacks of the Endex and other
anti-Semitic organizations, who wanted to trample on the rights of the Jewish
inhabitants until the blackest clouds spread and a murderous hand with a sharp
ax came down over our beautiful and beloved own and exterminated almost all of
the Jews of Demblin. All of our families were annihilated and the little
handful of survivors will with reverence remember the destroyed Demblin
community and their families, and will forever carry great sorrow in their
In the First World War
The year 1914. Like lightning the news traveled through the town that the War
had started. Mothers run around ringing their hands because children and
husbands are being called to the front and they walk weeping spasmodically over
the narrow streets of the town. There was hardly one house that they didn't
take away a father or a son.
Suddenly an order arrives that all Jews must get out of town. It was a Sunday.
And all Jews evacuated. A horrible hardship prevailed among the Jews of
Modzjitz, who were uprooted from their homes and sent wandering without any
means of making a living. We longed for our old home, Modzjitz. Or at least
some place to lay our head down. A year later the Austrians took our town.
Demblin was unrecognizable. A great section of the town lay in ruins as a
result of the retreat of the Russian army. The people too, were hardly
recognizable. There was a stamp of wandering and homelessness on their faces.
And the old life in which almost the entire population made their living from
the Russian soldiers stationed at Ivangorod, was gone.
The Austrian army, by contrast, bought absolutely nothing. Terrible poverty
reigned in the town. The young people didn't have any work, and living
conditions were truly miserable as a result of the lack of dwellings. Several
families were forced to share a single room. In the midst of the greatest
desperation, they began to enlist workers to build the bridge over the Vistula.
A large number of adult and young Jews went to work on the Vistula bridge, and
from that were able to make a little money to survive on. Also smuggling became
a means of making a living. As soon as it got dark, Jews would slip out of town
loaded with containers of kerosene, as well as with other kinds of goods. The
leader of each group was somebody who knew the roads and byways that led to
Ryki and he was called the engineer. He had to have very finely tuned senses
and be able to sense in the depths of the Ryki forest where the German border
police lay in wait, hidden. When he sensed danger, he would steer the whole
group onto anther path. One of the leaders had a reputation for moving his
group around with great success. This was Avram Greenberg, a shoemaker. When
the group safely got to the other side of the border, there was waiting for
them in Ryki, merchants, and they made their exchanges of merchandise. In this
way the smuggling continued during practically the whole Austrian occupation.
In the same epic, cultural activity began in Demblin. The first culture circle
opened up where the first library was located as well as the first drama
circle. The culture union was located in the house of Itche Handelsman. Almost
all of the Demblin youth would make their way there. You could read newspapers,
hear lectures by one of our own friends, as well as by speakers who came from
Warsaw and there were also question evenings and you could take books home to
read them. The first posters began to appear in town which invited the
population of Demblin to musical and vocal evenings. These evenings I'll never
forget. It was in the middle of summer and there was a big crowd and commotion
in Kalman Zucker's courtyard. I went there myself, of course. At the door
tickets were sold by Hindela Berentzweig. There was quite a commotion. It
didn't take long for all of the tickets to be sold out. A big part of the
audience had to go home because they couldn't get in. Darkness fell. The doors
of Kalman Zucker's shop opened up and the concert began. In the street you
could hear little bits of the song in the streets. One song I remember until
today, it's branded in my memory, although I was only 9 years old at the time:
Great God, we sing songs / an you alone are our help /
I wanted to hear more, but they didn't let the little kids hang around because
they were making too much commotion.
Gather us the sheaves, brothers / until the sun goes down
A little later I remember, a Sunday morning, a little boy and girl carried
collection cans which were inscribed, For poor children. The same
thing repeated itself a second time, this time it was to raise money for the
Jewish library. The culture center was very, very popular. It was greatly
respected by the youth. You could find books that had been out of the library
in many, many homes. The first book of my life I opened up and read, it was
called. The Shtetl, by Sholom Asch. My father fiercely criticized
my sister, Hannah-Gitel, because of her trayf [he considered the books
garbage]. In this realm, in the same way, there were plenty of conflicts
between adults and parents and children, the parents feeling the children were
going down a very slippery road.
As long as I'm at it, I'll remember and give great tribute and honor to the
creator and the founders of the first culture center in Demblin, Yarmeyohu
Vanapol, Alter Rubenstein, Laibel Bubis, the Rozenfeld brothers, the Heldman
brothers, Shmuel Fang, Chaskel Lozeres' father, Eliya Tzirklevitch, Hindele
Berentzweig, David Kestenberg, Nechemiah Erlich, Chana Gitel Wasserman, Rafael
Baigelman, Dinah Baigelman, Yankel Bubis, Samson Zyman, the Apelhot brothers
and others whose names I can't remember.
With the installation of the culture center, the youth began to conduct
themselves with a little bit more freedom. Because, until then, the religious
fanaticism had its influence not only on the older Jews but also on the youth.
For the first time Jewish girls would show up in pony tails. Boys would
exchange their Jewish hats for caps. Every evening when the culture center
closed own you could see couples walking together on the Demblin road and
conducting heated discussions into late at night. By day, the youth would go in
and exchange books, and there were lots and lots of young people who would go
in and out of that library.
The town began to normalize and get back to itself and the ruins were swept
aside and in the empty lots, modest houses were built and the tradesmen were
able to repair their workshops. You could feel a change. Posters announced that
the drama circle at the culture center would perform Sholom Asch's God of
Poland becomes independent
After the installation of the Polish state in 1918, the workers and journeymen
and professional labor movements got started again in Demblin. A union of
leather and needle workers was founded which began to conduct many activities.
To the founders and activists of the union and to the establishment of the
professional and cultural movement in Demblin, many of the previously mentioned
young people belonged and a number of them had come from very religious
backgrounds: Motel Botner and Alter Rubenstein; the well-known writer in
America, B. Demblin, Binyomen Taitelboim is his real name; my sister
Chana-Gitel Wasserman, today in Moscow; Eliya Tzirkelevitch; Yichiel Sharfhartz
(killed by the Nazis); David Kestenberg (today in Israel). The first one, Alter
Rubenstein, has passed away. All of them, with their knowledge, energy and
talent brought a great renewal of life and light to the town. They did a
tremendous amount in the whole realm of enlightenment and culture.
The union center began to organize in its ranks the workshops in Demblin on
behalf of better living conditions. A strike was carried out on a very broad
scope for an 8 hour day and for salary increases.
The employers, of course, didn't want to yield to any of the demands. The
strike took on a very stormy character and its scope was so great that even the
sons of the employers, the business owners, their children took part in it.
It's enough to bring forth as an example the fact the young Shmuel, son of the
master tailor Katskka, was one of the organizers of the strike.
Thanks to the decisive and uncompromising conduct of the workers, all the
demands were won.
The needle workers conducted a very bitter struggle which lasted 2 months, but
they won. However, the Polish authorities weren't about to grant this victory
to the Demblin needle workers. The union was very popular among the needle
workers who were proud of their organization and its leaders, but at this time
reprisals began against left activists and sympathizers in the professional
unions. On a certain evening, just as it was getting dark, the police showed up
at the needle workers union and arrested its leader, the chairman.
The carpenter's section of the union, as well, found itself in the same
circumstances. The wood worker, Laibel Radovsky, was arrested along with
Yisrael Zalthendler and other young people. The police accused them of being
leaders of the communist party in Demblin. Although no real evidence was
produced, there was no documentation for the charges, they were still judged
guilty. The chairman Avram Avramovitz was sent to prison for 5 years, Laibel
Radovsky and Shmuel Zaltzhendler for 2 years each. The Demblin needle workers,
however, were not intimidated and they continued their activity in the street.
The brother Mechel Avramovitz, Hersh-Nachum Nachtailer and others made
continuing efforts to open the union.
One could feel in town the activity of a certain group of young people who felt
the Jewish life in Poland was a dead end. They felt that one had to turn
instead towards the ancient home which hadn't been home to the Jewish people
for 2,000 years. That's where the youth should be turning their glances and
that should be where they devoted their energy, in that direction. The Demblin
airport, which was a source of employment and livelihood for many Polish
workers and clerks, didn't allow any Jewish workers, from Demblin to be
employed there. For a big section of the youth, the thought of wondering away
and getting out of town and going into the big, broader world, became very
meaningful. Because at home and fell in with the Zionist movement and repaired
themselves to travel to the land of their dreams.
The Wood Workers Union
In the middle of the 1920's, the carpenters union was a very, very important
factor in the whole craft union movement in our town. There wasn't one
carpenter who wasn't outside of the union. This section used to set an example
and great encouragement for all of the workers in Demblin. The 8 hour work day
was strictly observed. The way work was apportioned was admirable. In the
leadership in the carpenter section there were experienced, trusted and very
dedicated unionists like Chaim Meir Goldberg (today in Israel), Hershel
Nisenboim (in Paris), Yisrael Yom-Tov (in Canada), Shmuel Zalthendler (in
Paris), Laibel Radovsky (in Israel), Moshe Apelhot (Brazil), Moshe Baigelman,
Each action which the carpentry workers undertook seemed to be successful. It
was crowned with success. The carpenter's section was the largest division of
the professional union in Demblin. The employers had to take them seriously.
When on occasion there was an attempt to take action against the carpenters'
union by these employers, they had to give it up very, very quickly, because it
was clear that they were trying to push against a solid wall of cement, which
was absolutely unbreakable.
In the cultural realm, as well, the carpenters never took a back seat. Many of
those who survived remember very well the part that Moshe Apelhot and Moshe
Baigelman took in the drama circle. They really elevated the level of the
performance with their own contributions and hoped to create great respect for
the accomplishments of the drama group.
In this way the carpenters of our town sustained the struggle which Jewish
workers conducted in that time. By far the greatest percentage of them were
murdered by Nazis.
Struggle with anti-Semitism
The first time that the local Demblin anti-Semites went into action, they sent
a group of carriage wagons with Polish drivers. On their hats they wore an
insignia which said in big letters, Polish Wagon. All of the
officers who used to ride in a carriage driven by a Jew to the train (most of
the wagons were driven by Jewish drivers), decided when they saw this change
that they would only patronize the Polish drivers. This created a condition in
which Demblin's Jewish drivers, who in normal circumstances were extremely
poor, started to literally die from hunger.
Each Wednesday when the market opened up in town, anti-Semitic hooligans
stopped the Jewish tailors and shoemakers from selling their wares. Other
groups gathered in front of Jewish stores and wouldn't let the peasants in to
buy stuff. True, not all of the peasants followed the advice of these
hooligans, but the livelihood of the Jews shrank and poverty was felt much more
intensely in the town. It seemed that the Demblin anti-Semites inspired and
were given hope and direction by the activities if their neighbors in Germany.
The followers of Hitler, ruled the street.
That moment, a spontaneous kind of reaction began in the organizations of
Demblin's Jewish youth and workers as well as the membership of the political
parties. Every Wednesday when the anti-Semitic hooligans showed up at the
stalls in the market and in front of the shops, they'd really get punished.
They got it so bad that they'd run. They ran so fast that they forgot to take
their hats. A second time when they came back with increased strength, more
people, they got beat up so bad that hey didn't come back after that to
terrorize the Jews of Demblin. That's the way the Demblin Jews wrote a heroic
page in the history of the defense of Jewish rights and honor.
[See PHOTO-A26 at the end of Section A]
It should also be remembered on this occasion that a group of Demblin youth,
with weapons in their hands, fought against the German occupiers. The leader of
the group was the heroic young man Yirchmayel Federbush. Two versions exist of
his heroic death. One says that he and his co-fighters were killed in a battle
with the Nazis in the Ryki forest, the second version says they were killed in
a battle with the A. K.
The organized Jewish workshops in Demblin together with their professional
labor related activities, began to conduct many branches of cultural work. A
library and reading hall were organized where the youth was able to take
advantage of and enjoy the best work of Jewish and European writers.
To the very, very distinguished and wonderful achievements of the union belongs
the drama circle which possessed great and very capable resources and successes
and presented plays of classical Yiddish plays as well as a repertoire of plays
from other parts of the world. The drama circle was quite well known for the
level and scope of its presentations and its reputation extended well beyond
the borders of Demblin. The drama circle gave its guest performance in many
other towns and was always received with great enthusiasm.
Among the participants in the drama circle were such people who with more
professional training could have easily become really important performers.
Among those who were associated with and performed in the drama circle were
such comrades as: Rafael Baigelman and Chemya Erlich (who is in Brazil today);
Chana Gitel Wasserman (Moscow); Velvel-Leib Ruder and David Cholevinsky (killed
by the Nazis); Efraim Zweiss and Moshe Gorfinkel (today in America); Chana
Goldberg (today in Paris); and many other comrades and workers whose names I do
When a large number of activists and people who worked in professional
associations emigrated from Demblin into the broader world, the following
people kind of took the lead in the activities of the union: Yosef-Note
Cholevinsky (chairman of the leather workers section); Avromel Avramowitz
(chairman of the needle workers section), who as a result of their activitym
their professional; labor and social activity, were not very well thought of by
the Polish authorities and were sentenced to 5 years in prison from 1928 to
1933. Yosef-Note Cholevinsky was killed, still fighting in the Bialystok ghetto
against the Germans, together with his family. Avromel Avramovitch died in Lodz
after the War.
Besides those two comrades mentioned above, those who were very active in the
union at that time included: Chaim-Meir Goldberg, Hershel Eichenbrenner and the
writer of these lines, all of who find themselves today in Israel; and Hershel
Nisenboim (today in Paris), Yaacov Fiztenboim (Paris).
The culture work in Demblin was at that time on a very, very high level. Not a
Sabbath evening went by when there wasn't some kind of cultural performance or
The culture commission turned towards the most honored inhabitants of Demblin,
for instance to Dr. Yarmeyohu Vanapol, who later was killed by the Germans. He
gave a cycle of lectures about anatomy. And for quite a bit of time he was also
a member of the drama circle and gave a lot of himself to social work.
The second person was the lawyer Kannaryenfogel (he was also killed by the
Germans), and he gave a series of lectures about the cosmos.
There were also question evenings conducted later by Yankel Bubis, who was
murdered by the Nazis, a very capable, talented person, who devoted all of his
energies to the education of the youth.
During our undertakings, the meeting hall was absolutely jammed because so many
wanted to attend. There were a lot of people who couldn't get in and they used
to stand outside, behind the doors and windows, to listen to the lectures.
Every holiday our drama circle gave a performance and everybody streamed in to
see it, young and old, free thinkers and religious people.
There were also concerts where there were solo performances by Rochtshe
Baigelman (today in Brazil). With her majestic, sweet voice she won the
sympathy of the whole audience. She use to have to sing many, many encores.
Miriam Shulman as well (who was killed in the camps) inspired the public with
her Kolorater-Soprano. One marveled at her God given voice which was able to
handle the most complicated melodies like a wonderful song bird.
In this way our culture work went forward until the conflagration of the War,
which swallowed up Poland and destroyed our dear home town Demblin with all her
population, young and old, big and little, and in this way, our wonderful,
flowering youth was destroyed. The life of our dear town which had gone on for
many generations and continued to bubble up and produce its own qualities was
cut off completely for once and for all.
Miriam Shulman May she rest in Peace
Who in Demblin didn't know or hadn't heard of Miriam Shulman. The dark,
charming young woman with the fine features. Her dreamy eyes bespoke both a
very refined personality and an artist of the highest order. But only the
greatest respect came her way when one heard her in concert. It was enough that
her name showed up on a poster and the success of the concert was assured. The
union took advantage of that fact when there was a lack of money and organized
a musical evening from the posters that in big letters shined the name
Miriam Shuman. When the poster went up all of the tickets would be
sold out a week before the concert.
She was able to sing the most beautiful compositions with a very light touch
and with great feeling of the heart and everybody who was listening to her
wanted only one thing, that was, that her majestic song should just go on and
on and not stop. She possessed the voice of the highest class, a
Kolorater-Soprano, a voice full of feeling and refinement. The movement from a
higher octave to a lower one was something she did apparently very
effortlessly. Schubbert's serenade she sang with so much charm that when asked
the question, where did this young woman come from, born in Hasidic family, how
did she come by so much musical skill. Besides that, in Demblin, there wasn't
any music school. Nevertheless, she possessed, just like the greatest musical
personalities, two superlative points. Those were a beautiful voice and a great
[See PHOTO-A27 at the end of Section A]
Miriam Shulman never showed any arrogance. She was very unpretentious and
simple. Each time when she was asked to give a concert she agreed readily. She
was one of the young women I've written about before who was very conscious,
very well known, and very loved in our town. One would never tire throughout a
whole evening of listening to her sing and speak.
There was one concert during which Miriam Shulman presented many songs and the
audience found itself in the greatest ecstasy. The friend who conducted the
evening said, let it be known that our friend Miss Shulman would end the
concert with Maurice Rozenfeld's poem As the myrtle grows green.
The audience became very restless but when her sweet voice began to float out
over the hall and from her mouth one heard the majestic silver sounds,
you don't find me there my love. And everybody felt the very strong
impression as if they were no longer there in the hall but in heaven. The
audience was struck dumb, her coloratura voice sounded into every little corner
of the hall and poured out far into the street. It liberated the hearts of
those who hadn't been able to get into the hall because of lack of space. There
were really many people who were standing with their hearts in their throat,
outside, who were just transported by her beautiful voice.
Miriam Shulman was able to reach the highest notes with her soprano, when she
sang out, I'm a slave sitting here by my sewing machine, and that's where
my resting place will be. This was really the high point of her artistic
creation when she sang these lines.
With her beautiful singing the people who were in the audience were conducted
to a better world of art and song. All those who have survived, who heard her
sing, will remember with greatest reverence the beautiful and majestic folk
singer who filled everybody's heart with joy and belief that there was beauty
in the world, that both beauty and art and creation of music existed in the
world and that in life as well. Something higher existed.
The great artist, Miriam Shulman, shared the same fate as all Demblin's Jews,
she and her husband and children went on their last road, were sent away for
the last time, and never came back.
Honored be her sacred memory!
The Demblin Sextons
Berela Shames I knew when I was 5 years old. A Jew of average height with a
heavy white beard, but with the gait of a very young person, very light footed.
When he banged on the reading desk, you could hear it throughout the whole
Sabbath after eating, the small fry used to gather in the synagogue and get
into trouble and make a big commotion. This would really get under the skin of
the people who were concentrating on praying and saying their psalms. And this
really made the gray bearded Shames furious. He took off his belt and with a
very swift stride he strode away from the reading desk. As soon as everybody
saw that he was striding around with his belt in his hand, they would stop
running around the reading desk and when a few of them started to get smacked
or as they were squeezing out the door, there was a big rush to get out, he
would smack them around with his belt. Whoever got smacked by Berela did not
show up again on the Sabbath inside the synagogue.
On Chanukah, before night fell, all of the heder children were let out of
school and went to the synagogue. Every heder had staked out a little territory
where they were going to sit on the benches by the wall, at the front of the
building. Those that came late had to stand on the other side of the benches,
by the tables. The mood was one of celebration. The synagogue was overflowing
with people. The Cantor prepared to step down from the reading platform. Berela
Shames banged the reading desk three times and then the Cantor began to walk
with very slow steps. The moment he made that bang three times, with one voice,
the little kids voices rang out, He's walking, he's walking, he's
walking, he's stepping, he's stepping, he's stepping, he's lighting, he's
lighting, he's lighting. The voices of little kids flowed together with
the blessings of the miracle of Chanukah. Children were extremely happy. You
didn't have to go to heder at night, and you got Chanukah gelt. The same thing
happened in the synagogue for all 8 nights of Chanukah.
When I came in the second class to study in the synagogue, a very serious man
stood on the reading platform davening, and his name was Reb Ahron, the son of
Chaim-Yidels. With his seriousness and very refined features, he called out
respect from people. He was tall and erect with eyes which were full of good
will. He was very pious. He used to worry about our tearing up the holy books.
More than once it happened that two yeshiva boys would get into some kind of
fight because of who was supposed to use a version of the bible, and Reb Ahron
used to go over and separate people and say something like, Look, is the
bible guilty? Why don't you leave the bible alone. You have to make up between
yourselves and don't tear the bible to pieces.
He also used to make sure there was always drinking water in the synagogue and
the poor yeshiva students would have
[meals at other people's houses]. He did whatever he could to make sure that
all if that was accomplished and people were taken care of.
Each Friday Reb Ahron would walk through the town with very slow steps and bang
on people's houses and call them to synagogue. He didn't miss one Jewish house
or business. He saw a very holy mission in doing that.
Early on the Sabbath, Reb Ahron used to go to synagogue with Reb Gershon
Rabinovitch. On the way they used to have a very pleasant chat. After they
finished praying they emerged and were chatting again. When they came to Reb
Ahron's house, they said good-bye to one another with a very hardy good Sabbath
and the Rabbi went a few further and into his own dwelling.
When, 5 years later, I began to personally get to know Reb Ahron better at his
house and to engage in conversation with him, he validated my sympathetic
feelings towards him, those that I had originally had as a child.
There was no money for him in his function as a Shames, he just did this
because he wanted to. He had to work in a little tiny bakery that he ran.
That's how he made his living. And he said, If I didn't have my children,
Rafael, Meir and Hershel, I would have given up that little bakery long ago.
But, it's ok, a lot of Jews in town are in a lot worse shape than me. I know
this town from end to end, in a lot of houses, people are dying from hunger,
not just because they never have meat and other good things to eat, but for
some people, even a dry crust of bread is something that they rarely see. It
really gets at you when you look around and you see the poverty that prevails
in the town. God should be merciful.
As he was saying these words, Reb Ahron got up and began to pace very slowly,
back and forth, in the room. I had already regretted initiating this
discussion. Maybe it was time for him to conclude it. Reb Ahron, it seemed, was
able to read my thoughts, he added:
Look, our fathers built this town. We have a cemetery already, and it's
been seeded and planted quite a bit. Here the earth has already absorbed the
blood and sweat of generations of Jews. Our children are torn away from their
homes and carried off on the wings of the wind. We go around with our heads
bent. The sun does not shine for us, from every little corner, need cries out.
You find 8 people crammed into one room. Things get worse from day to day. And
we hear taunting words to the effect that we're strangers here. Us, who have
been here and built one of the most beautiful towns in Poland, thinking that
our roots would go deep in the earth and be very firm. And in the end though,
they will be savagely torn out.
Reb Ahron was very thoughtful and said and very quietly:
Jerusalem, why have you forgotten us? His thoughts wandered far,
far away. I know that you're young, and that which I've said is not
something that goes down very well. You believe that our roots are very strong
here, and our braches blossom and leaves won't wither. For you, the young
people, the eastern storm raised dust and put a mirage in front of your eyes.
Our line hasn't really rooted itself here. Our line remains there, the place
from where we were driven from two thousand years ago. That's where our roots
will be renewed and where our branches will blossom and no storm will be able
to wipe us out.
Artisans and Merchants
by B. Zilberman, Holon
Demblin with her parties and institutions, distinguished itself with a
lot of activity. Just as with all the political parties, the artisans
also, with Shlomela Elenblum, the son of Beres Brosh [Yellow Bears], at
the helm, lead a great deal of activity which embraced a big part of the
Jewish population, without consideration to party membership. There were
Zionists, leftists as well a religious people. Shlomela got into this
work in order to find ways of doing everything that he could, to better
the condition of the artisans who were struggling to make a living.
Although it was known that most of the crafts people were able to make a
living and some of them a little bit better than that. But the greatest
part of them lived in poverty – they were able to make a living, but
they didn't live very well. They would wait for the market day, which
was Wednesday, when the peasants from the countryside came into town to
buy things. The Jewish merchants in town felt the power of the boycott
of the gentiles, because there were a lot of little shops that were not
run by Jews in the countryside. The crafts people felt it less because
there were far fewer gentile crafts people. The crafts people, just like
the merchants, groaned under the burden of taxes.
I remember a gathering of artisans which took place around 1930 or 1931.
Shlomela and others from the union management described the activity of
the directorship, which devoted time and work on behalf of the
membership, as always at war with the people in government who imposed
the taxes, and was always demanding that on a commission of people who
set the tax rates, there should be representatives of Jewish tax payers
and of the unions of merchants and crafts people. Also that on the
treasury board, which skins you alive with taxes, that they should have
to deal with the concerns of the poor crafts person, and understand that
not everybody is able to bear the terrible burden of the kinds of taxes
that were being imposed.
But, as it became apparent that not everybody there was content with
Shlomela's wonderful speech, a member named M. got up to speak. He
banged on the table. “Comrades,” he said, “I have a lot to say,
but it's better that I don't say it.” And then he went away and sat
down. All of those who opposed the management of the union applauded him
with great vigor. I don't remember, God forbid, his name, M. was known
to be a very honest and honorable crafts person, nobody every accused
him of trying to cheat anybody. He lived simply from his work as a
shoemaker, and his not having said anything to the gathering created a
much stronger impression than if he had spoken in very flowery words.
As it came out later, comrade M., with others, were not happy with the
way Shlomela was leading the union, but they didn't want to throw dirt
and insult on the management of the union and he satisfied himself with
just the few words that he said, because everybody understood their
implication, which was that, while it's true we were being skinned alive
by taxes, at the same time the directorship of the union was taking
advantage of privileges, those that only belonged to a very select group
of people. In fact, their relatives.
The person who was always in the opposition within this group,
Yisraelkela Gorfinkel, was forever going around and criticizing the
activity of the leadership, wanting all the while to take it over
himself. He wasn't able to succeed because all he had to offer was a lot
of rhetoric of his own without any actions, and the vast majority of the
crafts people in the union didn't trust him and they elected Shlomela
again with his pals to be the leadership.
Also founded were the community credit union group and the group that
helps Bikur-Cholim [sick people], these were under the leadership
of Yarmeyohu Vanapol, Shlomela Elenboim, Levy Fictenboim, Yosef Hoftman
and others. This activity was viewed with great respect and
appreciation, because of its deeds. Can you imagine a greater mitzvah
than to send somebody into a house, the house of a poor person who's
sick, and there to be able to help him, serve him and take care of him,
when the family of the sick person is all worn out and can't do anymore.
Or, to take care of getting him medicines and help his family in a time
of need, materially?
That's what the Demblin crafts people were like. They themselves lived
poorly, without very much at all, but they were always ready to help
somebody else who needed them, and often they would do that beyond their
All of the institutions worked not to be rewarded.
May their memory be blessed.
[See PHOTO-A28 at the end of Section A]
Of the Life of Workers in Demblin
Hershel Nisenboim, Paris
My recollections of the strengths of workers in Demblin is first of all
tied to personal memories. The writer of these lines has many such
memories, and a direct relationship to the events that happened 40 years
ago. It's true that in that era, there existed in Demblin other parties,
organizations and institutions. But about them, certainly others will
The first cultural Organization
I was 10 years old at the time when the culture union was founded which
was located in the last house on Dembliner Way. Although I was just a
kid, I was the only kid who had the privilege to go there, because my
older brother Chaim lived in a house neighboring the union and even
belonged to one of the commissions within it. There also used to be
little meetings in my brother's house where I stayed for a certain
amount of time after I became an orphan following the death of my
Of course, being just a kid at that time, it's hard for me to remember
the details of the union's activity. I do remember that every Friday
evening there was either a reading of some kind of question evening or a
discussion. And the same thing would happen on Saturday, during the day.
At that time the two little houses that belonged to the union, were
overflowing. The speakers disputed and each one wanted to show that they
were more right and profound than the other.
Once, at a meeting at my brother's house, people spoke openly with a
conspiratorial tone and with new images, like a red banner,
demonstrations, and a struggle, and things like that. That was in 1917.
A little time after that, they shut down the union. The people who were
running the organization at that time were, I remember: Motel Batmer,
Yichzakal Hazenfeter and others.
In the 1920's, in independent Poland, there was a new cultural
organization established in the town which had more general character,
without political affiliation. Its activity limited itself to speakers
and lectures about scientific, literary or cultural themes. There were
also question evenings. Also a drama circle was created, as well as a
library. The majority of the speakers were local Jews, like the folk
doctor Yarmeyohu Vanapol, who spoke about anatomy and hygiene, the
teacher Kannaryenfogel, who spoke about geography and astronomy. This
last person Kannaryenfogel hailed from Austria, and he got married to
somebody from Demblin. He was very well educated and knowledgeable man.
After a while they started to deal with social and political subjects as
well. About these topics people like the following spoke: Ahron Tzitron,
Yankel Sharfhartz, David Cholevinsky (who led the drama circle), Aly
Tzirkelevitch, Ben-Tzion Kaminsky, Shloma Mekler and others, whose names
I don't remember now. The majority of these people who were interested
in these topics were former students in the yeshivas, they came from
Hasidic homes. It was something to really wonder at, how quickly they
oriented themselves and became involved in the new forms of science and
The professional Union
During the same time that the culture union organization began to
conduct its activities, there was also funded not very far away, just a
few buildings away from the synagogue, the professional union of the
tailor trades. As was the practice in that era, the professional
organizations didn't simply restrict themselves to the struggle for
bettering the economic conditions of the workers and struggling for
social betterment for improvements in the society. The union established
its own library and had question evenings and they had lectures.
Clearly, the police kept an eye on this kind of activity, and they even
controlled the attendance so that only people in the tailor trades were
allowed to attend these meetings. I, being a carpenter, wasn't allowed
to visit that union headquarters, unless it was to borrow a book from
the library where I had a card. From time to time, I was able to slip in
to one of their question evenings. That was somewhere around the year of
The stormy events in Poland in the realm of social ideology began to
erupt and reverberate in the Jewish community and had a very profound
effect on the life of Demblin. Within the union, people divided
themselves into various groups according to their interpretation of what
the real task of such an organization should be. While some of the
people involved thought that the union's activities should be limited,
others thought that the emphasis should be on cultural and political
work. The radically inclined workers thought, therefore, that neither
the professional labor oriented kinds of issues nor the cultural
activity should be separated from the general political struggle that
was going on in the country. They demanded action, political struggle
and social activity. The debates on this topic were extremely bitter and
created a tremendous amount of friction. As a result a lot of people
dropped out. There was a lot of passivity and apathy among those who
The TZ. Y. Sh. A. Society
A few weeks later, a chapter of the Central Jewish School Organization
(TZ. Y. Sh. A.) was founded in Demblin. The new one was
grouped around working people without specific skills and also people
who did have skills but who's very limited income didn't permit them to
be enrolled in the professional union. To the new organization, which
was under the leadership of the TZ. Y. Sh. A., there was
also as part of that, a section of people who worked in tailor and shoe
shops as well as carpenters. A meeting building was rented beyond the
bridge, not far from Zalman Feldshers, and this place truly became a
home for the majority of the youth in Demblin. They chose a new
leadership which got down to work with great energy, with a very
different kind of basis and focus than had been the case until then.
[See PHOTO-A29 at the end of Section A]
The library was made much bigger. They installed a reading room with
Yiddish and Polish newspapers and magazines. There were often political
lecturers and literary readings, some of them by local individuals, and
others by individuals who had traveled to Demblin. The question
evenings, the drama circle and the various education circles, deepened
the political consciousness as well as the cultural level of both
Demblin's youth and adult population. The Jewish population read books
and interested itself in social problems.
The anti-Semitism in Poland spread. Jews began to suffer from economic
boycotts and anti-Jewish campaigns. And all of this strengthened the
feelings of resistance among the youth. The union had its own little
cadre of leadership, old as well as new. Yankel Bubis, Dina Tzigelman,
Godel Milgroim, Chana-Gitel Wasserman, David Cholevinsky, Yosel-Natan
Cholevinsky, Avraham Avramowitz, Yisrael Sharfhartz, Ali Tzirkelevitch,
the author of these lines and others.
The first and most important task, which the Union set for itself was to
enlarge the membership of the Union and to begin to regulate the work
day, that is, the hours of the work day. At that time, the Jewish
workers of Demblin still didn't know what it meant to have an 8 hour
work day. Most people simply worked from very early in the morning until
night. In the winter evenings, as soon as the candles were lit, the
workers used to go back to their shop and work some more hours, which
were included in the work week, but it certainly didn't earn them any
more higher pay.
The struggle to shorten the workday was a very difficult one. The
employed, the majority of them, were often family members, if not
relatives, of the employers, and try and go and start a war about an 8
hour work day with people like that. There were just 3 of the businesses
where there weren't family members involved. The leadership of the
professional union understood though that if we couldn't regulate the
question of the workday in Demblin there was no point for the union to
even exist. The struggle began. First, for a 12 hour workday, after
that, for an 11 hour work day. Of course, since the strike wasn't a
general one, that meant it didn't include all of the Jewish workshops
and factories, just certain trades, until we saw the first results.
The Strike of the Carpenters
The union of the wood workers, though it didn't have a very large
membership, was nevertheless extremely well organized and saturated with
a will to struggle and fight. When they declared a strike, it was
carried out with great stubbornness and solidarity. At that time the
carpenters worked 10 hours a day, which at that time in itself, was
something of an achievement.
I remember once, after Passover, a bitter strike broke out by the Jewish
carpenters of Demblin which lasted over 6 weeks. Neither side had any
intention of giving in. The employers were also very well organized in
their organization, and the demand for a 9 hour work day was, in their
eyes, absolutely crazy, senseless, and impermissible. How long ago was
it, they complained, that you worked a 14 hour day and then a 13 hour
day, and now you want a 9 hour day? After the first 3 weeks of the
strike, it became apparent that some of the workers were in very, very
bad shape, without even a bit of bread. There wasn't anybody even to
help the out. In a meeting of the strikers it was decided that we should
turn to those who directed the public works, which at that time, paved
the streets and roads of Demblin and that all of us, without exception,
all of us striking carpenters, should take on that work. After a short
period of negotiations, on the second day, with shovels on our
shoulders, we went off to work very early and at night we got up like in
the morning and marched back home.
The achievement of our wood workers, to which I belonged, inspired a lot
of attention and respect among Jews, and no less among the Polish
community. But the main thing was, the Jewish employers, who had
demonstrated their stubbornness to the strikers, finally got the point
that the fight was over.
Working together with the Polish Unions
The victorious strike of the carpenters was a great victory for the
Jewish unions. If you add to that the wide cultural activity that they
engaged in with which we were able to serve the surrounding towns as
well as the sympathy that we gained among the Polish workers, the labor
unions really had something to be proud of.
The Polish labor unions and the local organization of the P. P. S.,
the Polish Socialist Party, turned to us with a suggestion that we work
together. Although our political orientation was somewhat different than
theirs, nevertheless, in many respects we had a lot in common. The more
conscious, leftist and progressive elements in the P. P. S.
understood very well the specific problems and needs of the Jewish
workers. And they really made a point of having two Jewish members of
our union, Yosef-Nuach Cholevinsky and myself, attend regular meetings
of the Polish unions representing the employees of the train line from
the public works workers and others. Two other questions we were able to
deal with in common, had to do with a fund for sick people and evening
courses to study the Polish language. A course such as this did in fact
get started, but it was located at the train station, which made it hard
for our pupils to go there regularly.
At the meetings from the general counsel of the professional unions,
there were often talks on political topics by speakers from the P. P. S.
deputy from our congressional district. After a talk like that the
discussion was free, and the mood was very brotherly.
Before the first of May, the Polish workers suggested that together we
make a common demonstration, the Jewish and the Polish workers, under
the banner of the P. P. S. party. The two of us who had been
attending these meetings answered on the spot that we really couldn't
respond, we had to bring it back to our people. From one side it seemed
like simply an historical event, an opportunity for the Jewish and
Polish workers to come together and demonstrate. It was appropriate
because it was a holiday of international workers – solidarity. On the
other side though, there was fear that the leftist Jewish workers in the
town would not agree to demonstrate with the socialist party, because
according to them, the socialist party was more like a socialist fascist
party, if not a party of socialist traitors. Finally it was decided to
demonstrate together, but each separate union would march under their
own banner, so that it wouldn't appear that everybody was simply
marching under the banner of the P. P. S.
A that point a feverish activity began to prepare the banners and
everybody had to have their own banner. At that time we had wonderful
professional organizations in Demblin, but nobody had a banner. So we
bought red satin and with silk thread, we began to embroider in both
Yiddish and Polish letters, the names of the union. There were also red
ribbons for the decorations that had to be sewed on. There were placards
with various slogans, which were attached to sticks. They spelled out
the character of the workers' holiday. The work of embroidering and
sewing these banners was one in which certain sisters distinguished
themselves. For instance, the Tishelmam and Rotschild sisters, Rivka
Shlimer and others. They sat until late at night at their work.
Until today, the memory of that majestic spring day is deeply engraved
in me. We marched out from our union locals to a central gathering point
by the town hall, in the center of town, where there were lots of Polish
workers assembled. After everybody greeted each other, the train of
people started going through the town and through the five little
villages around until we got to the train station which was about 3
kilometers away. Along the whole way, Jews and Christians, together,
were kind of astonished by the nature of the demonstration, which was an
integrated one. It left an unforgettable impression on everybody.
The Demblin police also were extremely impressed by this demonstration.
But the impression that they received was a very bad one. It seemed to
them that there was a tremendous amount of danger in the commonality
with which Jewish and Polish workers had found in their solidarity. That
was very risky in a town where there was a rail head, a military
fortress and garrison, and an airfield. The police were also acquainted
with the fact that a large number of the Jewish workers were communist
or communist minded. That very night, there were searches conducted of
the houses of all the people who were the real movers and shakers in the
Union, as well as in the Union hall, where they ripped open a door, took
out all the books, all the documents, and all the placards and banners.
They also arrested people. I was one of them. The took us to the holding
cell of the police station. In the middle of the night they took us out
for an interrogation and two Demblin secret agents had arrived from
Lublin with a Jewish piece of crap, and together they tortured and beat
us. Our banners lay on the table, the interrogators asked about the
meanings of each Jewish letter and at the same time smacked people
around murderously. We understood that this was an act of revenge for
the Jewish-Polish solidarity that had been demonstrated that first day
In the morning they let some of the people go. They took some of them to
Lublin, to the infamous prison on “Zameck” street. They let me go as
well, because I was the secretary of the legal union organization, the
TZ. Y. Sh. organization.
Despite these arrests our work continued. In place of those who had been
incarcerated and were on trial, others came forward. The police
repression did not break our spirit and will and the youth continued to
fight for a better tomorrow.
I take leave of Demblin
In January of 1930 I left Demblin to emigrate to France. A hundred young
people and adults came, belonging to various groups and organizations.
They came to say good-bye to me at a special evening. I was really moved
by the gratitude and the honor from so many comrades and friends who had
shared the same road and work with me. On the other side it really hurt
to have to go away and leave behind my home, my family, my
acquaintances, and who could have imagined at that time that this was
going to be the last farewell with my brothers, Chaim, Ahron-Yitzhak,
Efraim and Moshe; with my three sisters – Pesah, Libe and Leah-Hodis;
that I would never again see my brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws with
their children, a family of over 30 people, which was murdered by
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