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[Pages 99-104 - English section]

The Activities
of the Gombiner Societies

A Sacred Task

by Sam Rafel

I left Gombin in 1913 and went to America. I was seventeen years old at the time, starting out for a strange world. In New York, I had one uncle, my mother's brother-in-law, on whom I could not depend for very much. But I was determined to leave home anyway, conditions in Gombin being unbearable.

After the brief revival that occurred during the time of the 1905 revolution, when somnolent Gombin suddenly opened its doors to worldly ideas and notions, the Czarist counterrevolution followed with its repressions, terror and police harassment. A mood of resignation set in. The flower of Gombin youth disappeared from town - some sent away to Siberia, others going to America. An oppressive silence settled over the town. The fresh breeze of ideas that briefly penetrated the town and of restlessness. What was transpiring awakened it, left behind a feeling in Gombin and in other towns and cities of the vast Russian empire was reenacted in a smaller scale in our house. My only brother, Chaim, who during the brief revolutionary flare-up joined the Socialist-Zionists movement was arrested by the police and kept in a Warsaw prison.

My father had a small tailoring business of ready-made clothes. In our household, which consisted of my parents and three sisters, beside myself, there prevailed a mood of disillusionment and emptiness.

I was seventeen at the time. The depressing atmosphere of the town was choking the breath out of me. I finally convinced my father to let me go away, promising that after a brief absence I would return to Gombin. My father, Pinhas Schacher, understood my mood of restlessness. An active person himself, involved in communal affairs, he spent a great deal of time working to improve the lot of his fellow men. He was the trustee of the Sick Society and our house was always the place where Gombin paupers and others who fell upon evil ways would come for aid. Even as a child, I helped my father on many an occasion writing slips to doctors and apothecaries on behalf of the poor, who needed medical attention. At the time I was not well myself, troubled by difficulties with my lungs. Nevertheless, my father did not place any obstacles in my path and I left by ship for New York.

It was a time when visas were not required. It was enough to show on arrival in New York that you possessed twenty-five dollars.

Disembarking, I went directly to my uncle's. I had learned a little tailoring in Gombin, but unfortunately during the time of my arrival work was not readily available. I went from one Jewish neighborhood to the next, knocking on doors of small Jewish tailor shops, but none of them hired me. In the end, I entered a store that specialized in women's wear, on Houston Street, somewhere, and told the owner I was a greenhorn who had disembarked not long ago, looking for a job. The storeowner looked me over and said: “All right, I'll give you a job.”

During the two-week period I worked for him, the owner did not pay me even once, putting me off, promising to pay me “later.” One Friday he said: “I'll pay you next Monday.” However, when next Monday I arrived, the man was gone, as were the machines and dresses. He had disappeared as though into the thin air.

Subsequently, I found work in a small trouser factory. Later, I worked in a larger one. But I did not remain long in any of the places, the owners complaining about the quality of my work. I was employed in one little shop, consisting of the owner, his wife, a presser and myself. The owner and his wife argued endlessly. One day they fired the presser and I, in a gesture of solidarity, left too.

The presser, a young man with a wife and child, and I went into a “business” of our own. But it did not work out well; we did not receive any orders.

I was forced to go back to the shops, but did not work long in any of them, finding it difficult to adjust myself to American ways. For instance, in one factory I sewed a couple of dozens sleeves which were found unacceptable and shipped back to the shop by the store. The boss took one look at the returned merchandize and fired me.

Notwithstanding all this, I was able to save one hundred and eighty dollars within the period of a year. I meant to use the money to go back to Gombin. My money was kept in Adolph Mandel's small bank. One day my little bank and scores of others - went bankrupt, taking along all my “capital.” There was no question now of going back. Then the First World War broke out and the thought of returning had to be put aside altogether.

It was during this period that I moved from New York to Newark, where several Gombiner landsleit, among them Hymie Rubin and Abraham Shtiglitz, lived in Newark, I worked at various jobs and in 1916 became recording secretary of the executive board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. My material difficulties seemed to end and I ceased being a greenhorn. I met my wife who had come from Gombin to America with her family when she was still a child, in 1910. With my financial difficulties a thing of the past, I began giving much thought to Gombin and the poverty that reigned in our little native town. Something must be done, I felt, for the needy Gombin Jews.

At the time, there began among the Jews from Gombin who lived in New York and Newark a movement to establish some sort of a systematic aid to Jewish philanthropic institutions in Gombin, to establish contact with Beth Lechem, Linas Hatzedek and other such organizations.

Thus, in 1920, there came into being the Gombin Relief Committee, drawing its membership from Gombin Jews residing in New York and Newark. Among the activists in the organization were Max Jacklin, the whole Kraut family (the father Simon and the sons, Alex and Phillip), Louis Green, Max Green, Ralph Rafel, Louis Koch, Abe Carmel, Abraham Itshe Zichlinsky, Abraham Max, Nathan Kleinet, Maitshik, Wolf Kesselman, Jack Sherman and Joseph Stern.

Five years later, after the arrival in the United States of Hersh Karo, there came into being the “Young Men's Benevolent Association.” The aim was to provide help for Gombiner Jews who migrated to America. The relief committee too was very active. One of the clauses in the constitution was that aid must be provided to Gombin Jews no matter where they were found.

I was, during that period, chairman of the relief committee. Our work consisted of raising money. We founded the Gombiner Lending Society and most of the Jews of the town, the whole middle class, made full use of it. We were aided in our work by the Joint Distribution Committee, matching every contribution we made by an equal amount of its own. During the Thirties, there came into being Gombin committees in Chicago and Detroit.

In 1930, I went on a visit to Gombin. It is difficult for me to describe with what joy and anticipation I returned to my native town after being away seventeen years. I looked forward eagerly to be reunited with my parents, my brother and sisters, my relatives, close friends and acquaintances. I did not go empty-handed. I carried with me a sizable amount of money raised by the relief committee, earmarked for the Lending Society and other Jewish institutions in Gombin.

On arriving in Gombin - in addition to the joyous reunion at home, I was given a tumultuous reception by the Lending Society. The banquet, tendered in my honor, was chaired by Itzhok Shikorsky; the secretaries were: Mayer Zeideman and Abraham Tiber. The great honor bestowed on me was, it goes without saying, a tribute not to me alone, the president of the relief committee, but to all the Gombin landsleit who actively participated in American relief work. Representatives of all Jewish organizations and shades of political opinion were present at this banquet. There was a very moving ceremony during which I was given a golden plaque with the inscription: “To our honorary president - with acknowledgement for his help.”

In the two weeks spent in Gombin, I participated in numerous meetings and acquainted myself with their needs and requirements. I solemnly promised them that our work in America would be on a larger scale not only on behalf of the Lending Society but for Bes Lechem, Linas Hatsadek, and the Children's Home, as well.

I was very enthusiastic by the manner in which the work was being carried out in Gombin. On my return to the United States, I tried to communicate my enthusiasm to the active members of the relief committee.

Seven years later, in 1937, I went again on a visit to Gombin. This time I went with my wife. As on my first trip, I did not go empty-handed. The reception tendered me was even bigger than on my first visit. The affair took place in the Firemen's Hall, in the presence of three thousand people, virtually the whole Jewish population of Gombin.

Gombin, during that period suffered of a grinding poverty and of anti-Semitism, the latter inspired by the Polish government. I made a film of what I saw and later showed it on many occasions in America and in Israel. This film, I believe, has both historical and cultural value.

As on my first visit, this time too I spent a good deal of my time at meetings whose purpose was to evolve plans to strengthen our relief work in America. Before our departure, I made an agreement with the Gombin Dr. Dzewciepolski that he minister free of charge to poor and sick Jews of the town and send us the bill.

All this transpired in 1937, when none of us even remotely suspected that in two years Gombin and the other little towns and villages of Poland would be swallowed by the flames of a cruel war.

With the outbreak of the war, our contact with Gombin was severed. It was my feeling, at the time, in spite of what happened, to continue our work, gather money and hold it in readiness to aid all the people of Gombin as soon the war ended.

Without too much difficulty, our organizations raised twenty five thousand dollars. Unfortunately, with the war's end came the dreadful news of the holocaust. During those dark and terrible days we received occasional letters from Gombiner Jews who miraculously escaped with their lives. We immediately sprang into action, sending money, clothes and medicine. We initiated a movement to bring to the United States Gombin survivors. In a short time, we obtained papers that enabled fifty families from Polish and German camps to migrate to America.

Moreover, we decided to initiate a movement to help Gombiner Jews who went to Israel. Our first move was to organize a Lending Society in that country.

At our committee meeting, suggestions were made with greater frequency that our destroyed native town should be honored with a monument. As a result, the decision was made to build a house in Tel Aviv, which would be a center for Gombiner Jews and contain under its roof town mementoes as well as a Memorial Hall. After several attempts, we succeeded in obtaining a piece of land from Keren-Kayemet and built a structure with a splendid hall, capable of accommodating 150 persons. On one of the walls are inscribed the names of Gombiner martyrs, illuminated by an Eternal Light and covered by a curtain. Every year there takes place in the hall a memorial assembly in honor of the martyred Gombiner Jews. At the entrance to the main hall, are inscribed the names of Gombiner relief organizations in the United States, the men's and women's divisions as well as the names of the officers.

The Gombiner House contains a three-room dwelling for the caretaker and his family. We took in a Gombiner couple, named Segal, and their three adopted children whom they found on the way to Russia. As I write these lines, two of the children are married.

In 1959, accompanied by my wife, I went to Israel, where the Gombiner committee met us at the airport. There took place a Yizkor evening at the Gombiner House, which was attended by virtually all the Gombiner Jews of Israel who came from the most distant Kibbutzim and settlements for the affair. As part of the memorial meeting, I showed the film, made twenty-two years ago. I will never forget the heart-breaking sobs that filled the hall when there appeared on the screen familiar faces, relatives and friends. On this journey too, I did not come empty handed, bringing along money earmarked for this purpose by our relief committee. I spent many hours at meetings where we hammered out plans for future work.

In 1962, my wife and I went back to Israel. At the splendid reception, the Gombiner Jews of Israel expressed their warm gratitude for our activities on their behalf in the United States. As on our previous visit, the memorial meeting that took place at the Gombiner House was an imposing and moving one.

At the present time, our organizations in New York and Newark are very active. We have succeeded in uniting Gombiner Jews from the world over. Through our efforts, there exists between the Jews of Gombin a feeling of warm solidarity and brotherhood. Virtually every affair given by a Gombiner Jew, includes in addition to his family the landsleit who live in that community.

Our most urgent task at the present time is to publish the Gombiner Memorial Book. This task is a sacred one and is on the conscience of each and every one of us.

 

gome104.jpg
Sam Rafel, Max Jacklin
and Jack Holtzman

 

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