Translated by Tina Lunson
In the swampy and forested region around the southwest hills near the Baltic Sea, there has lived, since time immemorial, a very ancient and pugnacious people the Lithuanians. By their origins and language they are a branch of the larger Indo-European family of peoples. The Lithuanians have zealously protected that heritage to this very day. Among the Indo-European languages, which, as is known, all have a distant relationship to the South Asian Indian language Sanskrit, Lithuanian has most strongly preserved the language of its distant language of origin, even in word construction.
Early in its beginnings the Lithuanians had divided into two tribes. One of these took the lower areas of the large, half-empty region. [This tribe] was called Žemaitis and the land Žemaitia [Lithuanian: lower land] in opposition to the tribe that took the Aukstaitia or the higher part of the land. The river Nieviėž, which runs from north to south and joins the Nemunas above Kovne, became the border between these two large tribes. On its left, lower shore were settled the Žemaitis or (in the German-Polish form of expression) the Zamuter [inhabitants of Zamut], and on the right shore, in the area that extends east to Vilne and south to Kovne the Lithuanians. The entire region where the first of these tribes lived for hundreds of years, came to be known as Zamut or (in Russian) Zhmud. The other tribes of that folk-group had regular contact with the neighboring, larger peoples such as the Russians, Poles and Germans. From them, the Lithuanian tribes took many foreign elements into their language and into their customs. But the situation with the Zamuter was different. Locked in, fenced in, almost hidden in their ancient forests, in far-flung settlements around the large lakes and on the shores of countless rivers and streams, they lived for hundreds of years almost as an independent people in their own country, with a prince and a military of their own. Long after the influence of the Christian and Roman civilization could be felt all around them, the Zamuter held stiff-neckedly onto their heidentum [German: paganism], that is, the Nature religion of their great- great-grandfathers. Only in the 16th century did the Roman Catholic Church, with help from the Jesuits, finally take root among the stubbornly conservative and peculiarly secretive Lithuanian tribe, the Zamuter.
For hundreds of years this tribe had carried on endless bloody battles with its own brothers the Lithuanians, and even more with the Teutonic attackers who were always trying to colonize the lands around the Baltic Sea. These were the Crusaders and the Knights of the Livonian Order, who finally seized East Prussia from the Slavic and Baltic tribes, and settled it. Avrom Liesin has described the long and bloody historic conflict very poetically and succinctly in four lines of his mood-poem "Between the Snows":
Wave your Germanic, thieving spear,Later, in the 16th century, the great Lithuanian princes conquered Zamut, and after the political union of Lithuania with Poland (in 1569) Zamut became one of the most northerly and remote provinces of the Great-Polish state, where the rich princes and the church held exploitive and despotic rule over the oppressed, backward masses of peasants.
Monk of the Livonian Order.
Wave your club, bitter peasant Lithuanian
Against the cross of slavery, the knight of the church.
The town of Shavl [iauliai] was the geographic center of Zamut of the strange, peculiar province of the ancient Lithuanian-Polish state. Zamut extended over an area of hundreds of square miles, within the boundaries of three counties (Shavl, Telzsh and Rosieni [iauliai, Teliai, Raseiniai]) of what was later Kovne guberniya [Russian: province]. In the last 700 years the Shavl region was the arena of many bloody civil clashes and war destruction. For two to three hundred successive years the local residents, Lithuanians and Poles, fought with the murderous German orders of knights, who easily took the neighboring provinces, Kurland and Lipland. The Germans suffered defeats in the battles with the Lithuanians. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Zamut again became a battleground in the wars that Poland conducted with the Russians and the Swedes. In the beginning of the 19th century Napolean's army marched into Zamut on the way to central Russia, and in 1831 and 1863 the Polish rebellion against tsarist rule flared up there.
Finally, during World War I 19141918, all of Lithuania sustained a four-year occupation by the Germans. Thus it was that the World War brought Lithuania a national rebirth and political autonomy. Then World War II, which broke out in September 1939, led to further political upheaval in that long-suffering corner of Eastern Europe.
That is what this quiet, remote part of Lithuania, wrapped in romantically secretive old traditions, legends and folk-customs, went through in the last 700 years of stormy events; it stood up under the influence of many religions, languages, civilizations and governments. It is for good reason that one finds in the excavations of old kurganen [Yiddishized plural of Russian kurgan: tumulus] in the old grave-mounds around Shavl, traces of many historic epochs, remains, and traces of the lifestyles of hundreds of years ago. But probably the epoch-making events that the region underwent over the generations had an even deeper effect on the psyche of the locals. The population of Zamut is much more proficient and skillful and also more interested in the political and intellectual matters of the world than the residents of many other more conspicuous and richer provinces of Lithuania and Poland. A large part of the people have, so to speak, developed a sense for history, and as a matter of course lived with intellectual curiosity and not only for everyday concerns and ordinary issues. That psychological condition is especially notable in the Jews of Zamut, in particular in the Shavl area during the 19th century.
The province of Zamut (known in Jewish history sources as medines zamut [the land of Zamut]) always played a special role in the history of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry. It had a Jewish settlement more than 400 years ago. The colonialists were from other Lithuanian provinces like Brisk and Trokai. The main livelihood for the rich Jewish families was as usual in those days collecting the state taxes. But because of the geographical situation of Zamut, bordering on Prussia, the Jews soon began to engage in other branches of business, as for example the export of lumber, grain and other raw materials to Germany. And from Germany the Zamut merchants imported to Lithuania and Poland gold and silver objects, manufactured goods, and so on.
By around 1650 the first Jewish communities had already sprung up, like Keydan [Kėdainiai] and Birzsh [Birai]. The largest Jewish community was Keydan, then a family holding of the great Polish magnates Radzivil. The rich Polish princes made very good and extensive use of the Jews there, and so strove to attract more Jewish residents to Zamut.
Around 1750 many Jewish communities sprang up, such as Palanga, Vizun [Vizuonos], Garzd [Gargdai] and others. In the next fifty to eighty years the growth of the Zamut Jewish settlement was even faster, and by the end of the 18th century there were many fresh new communities such as Plungian [Plungė], Pumpian [Pumpėnai], Yanishki [Jonikis], Kelm [Kelmė], Posval [Pasvalys], Zhager [Žagarė] and others. More than fifteen thousand Jewish souls were counted in 1766 in all of Zamut. In that time, this was no small settlement.
As everywhere in Lithuania, the Zamut Jews were always drawn to the esteem of Talmudic studies, and highly respected scholars occupied the rabbinical chairs in the oldest and largest Zamut communities, like Keydan, Telzsh and others. Traditional Jewishness had been deeply rooted there for generations. But political and intellectual shocks in the second half of the 18th century shook the peace and security of the century-old Jewish community in Zamut. A part of the old settlement was torn from Polish-Lithuanian state by Russia in 1772. The remaining parts of Lithuania and Zamut fell under despotic Russian rule in the two further partitions and liquidation of Poland in 1793 and 1795.
The political and intellectual foundations of the Jewish community and individual life that had remained unchanged for generations were then, at the end of the 18th century, destroyed overnight. A foreign, mighty and unmercifully severe power, Russia, had had fall into its hands thousands of unprotected and right-less Jewish subjects who were firmly rooted in their ancient Jewish life-ways and world-view.
But that was not all. During the same time, in the second half of the 18th century, two new intellectual movements Hasidism and Enlightenment plowed up the earth on which the Lithuanian Jewish settlement had long stood.
During the entire 19th century, especially in the second half, the intellectually-driven circles of Zamut Jews evinced an enormous amount of national-Jewish consciousness, a love for and loyalty to Jewish folk culture treasures.
In the 1880s and 1890s, among the Jewish Enlightened and radical-minded youth in Russia, an assimilationist spirit dominated, that was in theory cosmopolitan-internationalist, and in practice Russification or (in Poland) Polonization. But quite different was the situation in Zamut, where there was almost no place for Russification. The large majority of people were Lithuanian, and the largest national minority group was the Jews. Of every ten residents in the Shavl region, for example, seven were Lithuanians, two were Jews and one either a Russian or a Polack or a German. The lordly social class of the Lithuanian people, the princes, was Polonized through and through, and hated Russia. The intellectuals, further, for the most part spoke Russian and were even ashamed of the language of the common folk, that is, of Lithuanian.
The vast non-Jewish masses were in opposition to both the foreign Polish and to the dominant Russian influence, and the Lithuanian folk held fast to their own language and the old national customs. The Russian language in Zamut was simply the language of the police and other authorities. Only the few educated Jewish circles had command of the German language, but for the Jewish masses German was distant and strange. Even in the nearby Kurland, where the influence of Germany was quite a bit stronger, the Jews spoke in their own language, a kind of Kurlandish Yiddish dialect. One must not forget that the small and weak Baltic peoples the Letts, Lithuanians and others consistently had a very tolerant, friendly attitude toward Jewish nationality, more than either the Russian or the Polish nationalities who did not cease to stifle and persecute the Jewish cultural traits, so that the Jews would assimilate and be swallowed up. Rather, the Letts and Lithuanians, themselves oppressed and little developed or modernized peoples, had, through their progressive intelligence exhibited a very friendly attitude toward any Jews who tried to protect their own cultural face and did not mix in with the dominating, powerful nations like the Russians and Germans, who ruled and oppressed the small Baltic peoples. Thus a large part of the socially progressive Jews in the Baltic lands always remarked on the positive approach to their folk language and folk culture. That circumstance also explains why Vilne and Lite in general with her democratic and Jewish cultural intelligentsia played such a large role in the revival of fine and scientific literature in Yiddish in the last few decades. On the other hand, it is easy to understand why the newly rebuilt Baltic states not only promised but in the beginning even gave their Jewish minorities almost full rights as a national-cultural autonomy, as for example the right to use the Yiddish language in the schools, and so on.
So it developed until the 1920s, when the whole Baltic region, that means by the northwest border states on the Soviet-Russian border, there developed an aggressive nationalism and chauvinism fascism. It altogether put an end to the bright hopes that had arisen in the Jews after the end of the First World War. And that wildly aggressive, chauvinistic nationalist spirit in the formerly oppressed small peoples prepared the soil, as we know now, for the dreadful Jewish annihilation during the Second World War.
Translated by Tina Lunson
In hindsight little Lite served as an example for other Jewish settlements, and many revelations of her public life called up wonderment and respect far beyond her borders. The peculiar character of the Lithuanian Jews their sincerity, feeling of responsibility for the community, modest stance in a time of screaming advertisement, stubborn dedication to a goal they believed in, and also their deep roots in Jewish culture, the scholarship of many generations that had created a special atmosphere of proper and serious Jewishness around them all this together meant even more, as various accomplishments of Lithuanian Jews had taken on special gravity, and as Lithuanian Jews, not considering their small number and their remoteness from other large Jewish settlements, were seen to achieve things that other communities could not themselves succeed at.
I can offer many examples. In no other country, for instance, did Jews build such a structure of Jewish communities with a national council, such a network of credit institutions including the smallest corners of the country. In no other country did the Jewish public find the boldness to demand from the Joint [Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, relief organization after WWI] that it do its aid work through its own existing organs, and even dared to refuse that help, as did the Community Convention of Lithuanian Jews after the First World War in a time of great want, when the need for outside help was urgent for rebuilding the ruins left by the war. In no other land were there so many Hebrew schools, which established a whole generation and that speaks and writes Hebrew although, in hindsight, Hebrew cultural activists in other lands surely had the same ambitions as those in Lite.
Naturally, various outside conditions played a role in this, but the principle is in the character of the Lithuanian Jew, which means seriousness in every thing that he takes on, and not getting tired from the wearing details and tedious work, knowing that one must never lose sight of the distant goal, and equally knowing that nothing can be achieved if one does not understand how to sit on the very earth and pave the way to that distant goal.
One such achievement of the Lithuanian Jews and of the special unfolding of their particular social institution was the Lithuanian Zionist Socialist Movement. Lithuania is, as everyone knows, a small country; in total it amounts to only one percent of the world's Jews. In the world, before the inundation of the horrible Second World War, there were many Jewish settlements larger than the Lithuanian settlement and richer than it. And in the world movement Poale Tsion [Hebrew: workers of Zion] Zionist Socialists, there were larger and more pedigreed organizations than in poor Lithuania with her small shtetlekh, and nevertheless the Lithuanian Zionist Socialist movement occupied the seat of honor.
For years the Lithuanian Zionist Socialist party was, by turns, the only one besides the Workers' Party of Erets Yisroel [Ashkenazi Hebrew: land of Israel, the Biblical homeland in the centuries before the modern state of Israel was established], where the representatives of worker Zionism had the absolute majority in the elections to the Zionist Congress. After America with her union campaign for an operational erets yisroel, Lite was in leading place for revenue for the Erets Yisroel Workers' Fund, and year in and year out during her great poverty collected hundreds of pounds for the central fund of the histadrut [Hebrew: labor organization] in erets yisroel, which those larger and richer than she could not do. It was the only one among all the parties of Poale TsionZionist socialists and Hisakhdus [Hebrew: federation] in the world except the preceding effort in America and later in Poland that established and for a long time without a break supported a daily newspaper for the movement. These few examples alone demonstrate manifestly what kind of weight the Lithuanian Zionist Socialists had in the world movement.
The Lithuanian Zionist Socialists also registered great achievements at home, in several areas whose primary importance was in that place. In Zionist activity Lite stood for years at the head of the most vital nerve of work for erets yisroel, the Palestine Office, which had such significance for many Lithuanian Jews. At one time the chairman was the writer of these lines, and later, the talented, friend-loving and deeply devoted Efroym Grinberg who met his death in 1942 after suffering in prison, in refugee life and in a short service in the Red Army, in some distant place in Asiatic Russia under circumstances that are little known. At the head of the Keren haYesod [Hebrew: foundation fund, now United Israel Appeal] work for many years was the attorney Leyb Garfunkl, former deputy to the Lithuanian Parliament and general secretary of the Jewish National Council, one of the chief builders of national autonomy in Lithuania. The outbreak of the Russian-German  war landed him in jail. The Zionist Socialists and the youth groups of the Labor Erets Yisroel were the main carriers of the Jewish National Fund. For a certain time the Zionist Socialists also led that branch of Zionist work, that very folk-cultural expression of Zionist activity that also protected its character in the general culture and among the amkho [Hebrew: common people] with which Zionism was generally associated in Lite. The writer of these lines was for a long time the head of the National Fund.
Members of the Zionist Socialists were the chief builders of the Hebrew schools and many of them were counted among its most significant teachers. But more must be said, because in that area the Z. S. had not thought to realize their own school program. The party was not in agreement with the general direction of the Tarbus [Hebrew: culture; here, a Zionist school system offering secular education in Hebrew between WWI and WWII] and had, according to a decision at one of their conventions, left that organization. But they had not intended to establish their own school system that would be permeated with the spirit of the khalutsim [Hebrew: pioneers; those preparing for emigration to Palestine, especially with agricultural training] and in which the rightful place for Yiddish and Yiddish culture would be surrendered. The place was taken and in little Lite with her well-developed school system and with the ever-growing oversight by the government of the school systems of the national minorities, there was no prospect for a new effort that was based not on pedagogical motives but on social-political ones.
The League for a Working Erets Yisroel united in its ranks thousands of members, among them people who were not politically organized in the Z. S. as well as others who had belonged to other groups and had, through participating in the League, been able to express their liking for the erets yisroel work force. A special, several-branched workers' sports organization Hapoel [Hebrew: the worker] was joined with socialist sports international and with the erets yisroel workers' sports organization of the same name.
And last but not least, the Pioneer organization became literally a lighthouse for thousands of young men and women from the towns and villages who had not found at home any applications for their young energies and were dooming their youth to a void or else running around from fair to fair with their fathers. In the process of preparing for emigration to Palestine many of them, still in Lithuania, sensed the flavor of tangible work, and, strengthened and inspired by the prospect of emigrating to erets yisroel, they, still in Lithuania, found strength in themselves to leave their parents and break out a path to working on farms and in factories. The Jewish youth in Lithuania who left their fathers' homes and set out on the hard road of building the self, did so with the same zeal and persistent faithfulness to themselves that had in several areas always distinguished older generations of Lithuanian Jews. Thus it is no surprise that many, many of those who were educated as Lithuanian Pioneers now occupy an important place in the labor economy in Israel, in the settlements and agricultural cooperatives, and are distinguishing themselves here with merits that realize the content of their lives.
Let us record, though, that the Lithuanian Pioneers were the chief builders and the backbone of one of the greatest settlements in Israel, Gevat Brenner, near Rehovot. They constitute the nucleus of one of the new settlements in upper Galilee, Dafne, and in the settlement Hashomer Hatsair in Emek Hayorden, Beit Zera, of the settlement Mashmorot near Pardes Khana and others. In all these places you can still feel today the Litvak spirit, besides many other points in the land where there are working people who received the education to earn their living by labor in Lite.
All this, in the Zionist and Zionist-cultural domain.
Similarly, something can also be said about the participation of Zionist Socialists in general Jewish life in Lithuania. They were active in the construction of the Jewish national autonomy at the time of its first existence. The first general secretary was Mayer Zak (in Israel), after him the above-mentioned L. Garfunkl. They occupied visible positions in the self-administration, and in several significant places members of the Z. S. were vice mayors, like Shmuel Petukhovsky in Shavl and Mayer Varshavsky in Vilkovishk (now in Israel).
The Z. S. dedicated special energy to the credit cooperative, the many-branched network of the Jewish Folks Bank which, except for the school system, was the most significant survivor of the national autonomy as it established the backbone of economic life of Lithuanian Jewry. For a number of years the head of the Central Bank in supporting the Jewish cooperative the notable Jewish institution in Lite was one of the most esteemed Z. S. activists, Ayzik Brudny, and in the last years before the war after a long break, when the bank was headed by representatives of the commercial world the Z. S. activist Ben-Tsion Brudny. Members of the Z. S. directed the association of the Jewish Folks-Banks, first Avrom Zaborsky, and later Tsvi Fart and Shleyme Kelzon. We must note the indefatigable organizer of the Folks Bank in the Lithuanian provinces Azriel Volk, whom almost all the Folks Banks, out to the furthest corners had the opportunity to appreciate his friendly help and knowledgeable instruction.
During the short era of democratic government in Lithuania, when it was possible to freely organize the workforce, the Z. S. had a very important part in founding the professional unions, in Kovne [Kaunas], Vilkomir [Ukmerge] , Alita [Alytus] and other places, and in Kovne, during the years when worker activity was persecuted, worked together with the few parties that were left.
It must also be noted that the Z. S. in Lite, after a long period of enlightenment, established relations of mutual regard and continual contact with the Lithuanian Social Democrats. They worked together in the administration of the sickness funds, the single place in Lithuania where a clear expression of a worker democracy could come about and where workers had a little power. Shmuel Kaplan, the meritorious worker activist, now in Canada, was the representative at the central administration of the Kovne sickness fund, and later Mordkhe Fridman, now in Holon, and after him Eliahu Valdberg, one of the younger generation of Z. S. in Lite who stayed in Lithuania and who shared the fate of all the Jews. The writer of these lines was legal advisor to that great labor institution and, together with the Social Democratic activist attorney Ms. Fureniene offered legal aide for workers at the central council of the professional unions in Lite. This joint work in the two worker organizations brought about further rapprochement and mutual understanding between the Lithuanian and Jewish socialists.
As one of my own personal experiences in this area I will permit myself to mention the departure-evening that the Zionists Communists and the Zionist Socialists had organized for my departure to Palestine in the home of the leader of the Lithuanian Social Democrats Stefan Kraizis, an evening at which the warm interest of the sincere and honest Lithuanian socialists in Jewish matters came to expression; an interest that strengthened over years of joint work with Jews in these areas.
What were the main stages of the development of Lithuanian Zionist socialism? I will dwell briefly on that here.
At the close of the First World War there existed a large youth organization, Tseirei tsion [Hebrew: youth of Zion] that had not experienced the Russian Revolution and had not gone through the development of the Russian branch of the movement from youth groups through youth-Zionism to socialist Zionism. The radical elements of Lithuanian Tseirei tsion that existed in several places in the country had not then reached any proper expression. Later though, in the storm that came after Zsheligovsky-Shturts in Vilne, and even later among the returnees from Soviet Russia, could be found no small number who had belonged to the Z. S. in Russia, or in Poland to the eastern union of Tseiri tsion which was based on socialism. At first the carriers and spokesmen of Socialist Zionism in Lite were from Vilne: Efroym Bielogovski (A. Harmoni) and Yerukhim Levin. Later, the Russian group, among them Ayzik Brudny, Nosn Grinblat, Avrom Zaborsky, Azriel Volf, Mordkhe Fridman, Z. Liebovsky, the writer of these lines and others. It is interesting that this group arrived in Lite in the time that a group of distinguished cultural activists and Yiddishist intellectuals arrived: A. Gen-Adir, N. Shtif, Dr. Mukdoni, Z. Kalmanovitsh and others who brought a great deal of life to the Yiddishist camp in Lite and who were the spokesmen in the newspaper Nayes [Yiddish: news] then founded. The tide of returnees poured fresh blood into several sectors of Jewish public life.
At the conference of Tseiri tsion in December 1921 the organization proclaimed itself as a Zionist Socialist party. Two years later a split occurred between the part of Z. S. that belonged to the Z. S. world union (which two years later joined the Poale Tsion union) and the right part, which on a world scale was joined to the Hisakhdus. The differences of opinion were not only organizational but about several areas of activity. Hisakhdus (their leaders L. Garfunkl, Z. Troyb) was for a general Jewish front in political life; but the Z. S. had supported the S. D. list in the last free parliamentary election, in 1926. There were nuances in the conception of cultural issues. Despite that, the Z. S. had exhibited activity in various areas such as Jewish workers' sports, usage cooperation, professional movement, contact with the Lithuanian S. D., cultural activity in international socialist spirit in which the Hisakhdus had not shown any interest. But there were still many common points of activity between the two parties and after the unification on a world scale took place among Poale tsion, the Z. S. and Hisakhdus, Lite was one of the first to implement the unification. It was called the United Z. S. Party, the name under which it was known among the masses and in public it remained as it was: Z. S.
In the time of its separate existence the Z. S. had published for some years, between 1924 and 1926, a bi-weekly organ Unter veg [Yiddish: Under Way] that had a good distribution in various circles of Lithuanian Jews, and was also full of citations of the Zionist-Socialist press in other countries. From 1932, instead of Unter veg they published a weekly newspaper Di tsayt [Yiddish: the times] and later they borught out Dos vort [Yiddish: the word]. The first publication was edited by Sh. Fridman, with the active collaboration of Nosn Grinberg who was the first editor of Dos vort. After his leaving for erets yisroel, the daily newspaper was edited by Efroym Grinberg, who in the last years before the war was the most significant figure in Lithuanian Z. S.
In 1927, after the overthrow of Valdemaras, the movement began to be persecuted along with the persecution of other worker corporations in the country. The Z. D. youth association was closed, and all the offices of the Z. D. party. Only the central committee was left. By leaving just the local offices, the government calculated to make it forlorn. The government treated the S. D. in the same way, incidentally. The Z. S. presented their activity in various forms: through the specially founded Education Society in the Name of Nakhman Sirkin, which served as a cover for their conferences, public appearances, periodical publications and the like, as well as through the League for a Working Erets Yisroel.
Despite the efforts of the government, the movement grew strongly. During the outbreak of the war the party was strengthened by the influx of refugees from Poland, among them leading activists of the party. After Soviet Russia had established itself in Lite, the Z. S. party was shut down. Some of its leading personalities were arrested, among them, from the first, the recognized leader of the party and editor of Dos vort A. Grinberg, who was released several months later. Later L. Garfunkl was arrested, and was not released until the outbreak of the war.
Only a few people from the entire large movement managed to save themselves by [fleeing to] Soviet Russia. The overwhelming majority remained in Lite. We all know what became of them.
May these columns serve as a memorial and a gravestone not only for a particular political movement of the Jewish public in Lite, but also for the thousands of men and women who took part in the movement, who build it and gave it their best energies, and who found their bitter end in those last dark days.
Translated by Tina Lunson In order to have a clear concept and a proper evaluation of General Zionism in independent Lithuania and its activities, one must first create a picture of the surrounding circumstances in which it came about to do its work and to be effective. So I must first employ a little of the history of that time, which concerns Lite in general and Jews in particular.
As is known, the Jews went through a terrible expulsion in 1915. This happened after General Renenkamf's enterprising march on Berlin in the summer of 1915, which at first had some successes and finally ended with a huge defeat. The collapse was so ugly and catastrophic that it presented a danger not only to the prestige of the army but to the entire existence of the current tsarist regime. It set out in their murderous nakedness the corruption and decay of that regime, and threatened a revolt. A scapegoat would need to be found quickly who could take on the entire blame for what had happened.
Very suddenly, as by a magician's hand, various strange rumors, stories and legends began spreading from one end of Russia to the other, about Jewish treason and espionage for the enemy, that is, for the Germans. Cossacks quickly began to capture hundreds of Jews who were hiding telephones in their beards to give reports to the enemy, or who wanted to transfer gold and silver to the enemy in the caskets of dead bodies, or who let the enemy know about the movements of the Russian army through praying in talis un tfiln [prayer shawl and phylacteries], and the like. No few Jews fell innocent victims to the hands of the Cossacks, who did them in on the spot. Many others were killed by military courts, which were well known for their brutality.
The murdered Jewish attorneys Gruzenberg and Rozenboym can tell us much about those sentences.
But this was too little to turn the peoples' attention from the catastrophe on the front. They started on a more conspicuous treatment, which would have a stronger impact on the broad audience, that all this had happened thanks to the guilt of the cursed Jews. And that treatment soon came about: The High Commander of the army, Prince Nikolai Nikolaivitsh, and his assistant General Yanushkovitsh, issued an order that all Jews who were located in the war areas, along the entire northern front, must immediately be dispatched to the east. And so the guilt of the Jews in treason and espionage was stamped plain and clear from on high by the highest leaders. The honor of the army was thus salvaged, the regime temporarily out of danger.
The order from the High Commander was carried out with the utmost strictness. Here and there those to be driven out were given a deadline of a day's time, most of the time they were given only a couple of hours, and even just a few minutes. Of course the poor Jews left their homes empty-handed. Everything was chaotic and reckless. If only one could take along just the most necessary things, but even this was not allowed to everyone. Because the larger part of the deportees had no access to transportation, they had to go tens and tens of kilometers whole families, young and old before they reached a Jewish settlement. But very quickly the Jews of that settlement were sent away too.
And so was built up a mass of many tens of thousands of Jews, who wandered through fields and forests not knowing where to go and not having any information to prepare for what tomorrow might bring.
A few of the wanderers stopped and hid, and when the Germans came they went back to their old homes. The large majority, though, were drawn farther and farther east. Some of them went as far as the interior Russian provinces of Rostov, Tambov and others; some went off toward Ukraine and southern Russia; but the majority settled in White Russia, in Minsk, Vitebsk, Mohilev and Chernigov.
How did all these poor people feed themselves? Very simple. Anyone who could, worked as an artisan; anyone who could, served as a dealer, and the great majority ate from the rations that they received from the committees as refugees. Hard and bitter was their life. Many could not hold out and died in rage and torment. All the others stayed on their feet in the hope that the bloodbath would soon end and they could go back to their old homes, to their possessions.
The longed-for day finally arrived. With the occupation of White Russia and Ukraine by the Germans in 1918, the way was open to return to Lite, and everyone did everything possible to travel home faster. They went legally and illegally. They hurried home to more quickly reach their own corner, their own bit of bread. The return was difficult. No few had to put up with suspicions, examinations, wandering and such. Nevertheless it lasted not more than a few years, and almost all the Lithuanian Jews had returned to Lite. But
And here comes the usual sad but. The reality was not as people had dreamed. Coming home, they did not find the old homes. Many had been destroyed in the fire of the war, some were ruined by the enemy. The land was ruined. The poverty was great, everything was lacking. Commerce was dead. Livelihood was almost absent. Everything that had been left in leaving was destroyed or stolen by the enemy and good neighbors. Except for the sky and the earth nothing remained for the Jews.
They would have to start everything anew, from breyshis [Hebrew: at the beginning; Genesis]. But the Jews were not deterred. They set to with a wild enthusiasm to rebuild their homes, and in a short time Jewish life again began to pulse robustly.
The Lithuanian Jews did not demonstrate such creative will and vigor only in the areas of their personal life, but also in general affairs of the state. Coming home, the Jews did not encounter the old tsarist rule with all its decrees and afflictions. There was constant building of the Lithuanian independent democratic republic, which promised equal rights to all its citizens without differentiation. Even more, Lithuanian society needed Jewish help and collaboration to restore its independence. The Lithuanian people were too poor and too primitive then to be able, with their own energies, to conduct the great task of restoring the state. Jewish energy was very much needed. And the Jews, enchanted by the prospect of the future, threw themselves into the work for the state with the full fervor of their souls and many, very many, contributed to the building and restoration of the Lithuanian state. In those first honeymoon years the Jews really did feel like partners in the state structure and had strong spiritual pleasure from it.
In the process a historical event occurred: The Lithuanian government recognized the right of national-cultural autonomy for its citizen Jews with a Jewish Ministry at the top, with official Jewish communities [kehiles], with a national council, and so on. National autonomy that was the dream then of all nationally-disposed Jews, the Zionists included; an ideal that had its beginning in Ukraine, where it did not last for long; an ideal that had no equal in Jewish history and that probably had no example for itself. The Lithuanian Jews were, so to speak, called upon to be the architects, the pioneers, the realizers of it. That appeared to be a task too difficult and with too many responsibilities for the small and relatively power-poor Lithuanian Jewry.
But as stated, Lithuanian Jewry was then starving for activity, work; the energy that had so shrunk during the refugee years now beat and welled up from every corner of body and soul. Its courage grew along with the elevation of the task and Lithuanian Jewry began bravely to construct its autonomy.
The task would certainly have ended successfully if not for hateful forces from the outside and somewhat from the inside, that stopped the work in its rightful blossom and shine.
Who stood at the peak of that monumental labor, who was the driving force of that gigantic activity?
I believe that I will not be incorrect or not loyal enough to other directions in Lithuanian Jewry who were also very useful in that area if I propose that the main leader and driver of the work were the Zionists in general and the General Zionists in specific.
There were three main directions struggling together then in Lithuanian Jewry: the Zionist, the democratic (Yiddishistic) and the Agudas yisroel [Hebrew: Union of Israel; here, political party of Orthodox Jews].
The democrats, true, had included quite a few intellectuals but not the masses. Besides that, they did not demonstrate any particular enthusiasm for the autonomy in the form it had taken at the beginning of its construction, thanks to the preponderant influence of the Zionists. That distanced them further from the broad masses, which were enthusiastically disposed toward autonomy.
The Aguda, on the other hand, did have certain deep roots in the masses, but did not possess any modern intellectuals and its tactics and stance pushed the majority of the folk-mass out of its ranks, and all the more so the youth.
The appearance of the Zionists was completely different. One must remember that Lithuanian Jewry, by its nature, education and lifestyle, was the most natural follower of Zionism. Lite the nest of Torah and national Jewishness over many generations, had to be Zionistic according to its essence and substance. Not by chance was the first dreamer novelist A. Mapu who had so artfully depicted Jewish life in erets yisroel before the time of the Prophets published in Lite and so splendidly painted, on the hills of Aleksotas, the charming natural life of erets yisroel and the free Jewish life in the time of the Kings. Indeed it was the Jews in Lite who first joined Khibat tsion [Hebrew: Love of Zion] and afterwards moved to political Zionism.
It appears that assimilation, in that ugly form into which it developed in the other parts of Russian Jewry, never existed in Lite. In any event, in Lite even before the war a strong Zionist mood dominated. After the war, of course and of course! Because the Lithuanian Jews went through the entire epoch of the Russian Revolution in their refugee life, and experienced the powerful deep Zionist experience of all Jews in Russia. The Russian Jews were then captured by a powerful Zionist mood. That mood remained with the Lithuanian Jews even after their return home; the hope of a Jewish autonomy here had visibly strengthened them.
When I say Zionism I mean all hues of Zionism, from General Zionists, to Z. S. and Mizrakhi [Hebrew acronym for Merkaz Ruhani, religious center] because in that time, the years 1918 to 1923, the differentiations between Zionists was not so vivid. The various hues existed nominally, but in fact they initially worked together hand in hand, and were united against their opponents. Only later did that situation change.
In the Zionist ranks themselves the General Zionists had the upper hand. First, because they possessed a large and influential intelligentsia, not only tried and true Zionists and long-known local businessmen, but also some who had come from outside. So, for example, the General Zionists acquired from outside such first-class forces as Dr. Rozenboym, one of the first fighters for Lithuanian political independence; Dr. Yulius Brutskus, former chairman of the Zionist movement in Russia and a well-known Jewish community activist; and many others. Those powers were placed at the top of the general and Jewish work, for instance: Dr. Max Soloveytshik as Minister for Jewish Affairs; Dr. Rozenboyn as chairman of Vad haorets [Hebrew: council of the country] besides his many missions as government representative in Paris at the peace conference and in securing the peace treaty with Soviet Russia; Dr. M. Volf as one of the three chairmen of the Kovne city council, and so on. That is how General Zionism got a lot of glory and power of attraction at every level of the Jewish population.
During the elections the General Zionist candidates drew the greatest number of votes, and everywhere they amounted to the largest faction. That, of course, gave them opportunities for influence in the spirit of their ideas. But it was not just that. The point is in Lithuanian Jewry, and in accordance with their entire being and sort of thinking, were more inclined to the general thought process of Zionism than to the other directions.
By nature, the Lithuanian Jew was not inclined toward radicalism, neither in a general political and economic sense nor in the special Jewish sense. He is essentially more disposed to a medium level than the extreme, is measured, deliberate, coldblooded, always thinking, deeply penetrating; he does not take sentiments and revolutionary tensions seriously. In general the Lithuanian Jew was distant from rapture, from exaggeration, from extremes; he was generally thoughtful, even-handed and liberal. Hasidism, for example, did therefore not establish a large place in Lite; and the same with Enlightenment assimilation and with the revolutionary movements.
The same was so then. Neither the extreme democracy, nor the Left Zionism, nor the right wing of the Aguda, and not even the Mizrakhi had many followers. The community of Lithuanian Jews at large found its full expression in the current General Zionism, which was temperate and liberal-minded.
How did the activity of the General Zionists actually express itself and what were the founding principles of their activity?
Their activity basically reflected on the general structure of the Lithuanian Republic, on the sincerity of the Jewish autonomy and on the construction of the ruined Jewish economic life. Those were the three main areas of that Zionist activity. Their activity in the area of erets yisroel construction was limited and was expressed only in money collecting for the various funds and other Zionist undertakings, such as the education of khalutsim and their preparation for erets yisroel.
On the surface it may seem a little strange and incomprehensible that Zionists would make the activities of the golus [Hebrew: Exile] primary and the activity for erets yisroel secondary. But when one considers the Jewish situation in Europe then and in erets yisroel, the point becomes understandable.
First, the Zionists had maintained the whole time that real work for the construction of erets yisroel could only be done by a Jewry that was healthily developed both politically and economically. They always promised, since the construction of erets yisroel was a long-term process, a cause in history, and therefore in the meanwhile Jewish interests in golus should not be neglected. Rather, they must be even more secure in order that the golus could, without cease and without interruption, collect and set in place the necessary means, in people as well as money, that would be demanded for the further growth of erets yisroel; and what was just as important from that standpoint, of a Jewish national autonomy which would make possible a full Jewish education and a free Jewish national life.
Second, the situation of Jews in Eastern Europe, then the main cradle of Zionism, in the first years after the war was such that no great illusions about bringing great masses to erets yisroel could be entertained.
The Jews in Russian were atrophied regarding everything related to Zionism and erets yisroel. The Soviet regime then declared war on Jewish nationalism in general and on Zionism in particular. The Jews in Ukraine then experienced a horrible war, drowned in seas of blood, were killed by the tens of thousands, went through all seven levels of hell of course they could not do anything for erets yisroel. The Jews in Poland, Lite, and their like, who were just out of the storm of war and its ruins, had first to regain their strength a little, materially and spiritually, and establish some kind of nest for themselves. Erets yisroel could not be a question of the moment for them, for immediate decision.
Third, the situation in erets yisroel itself was then so hazy and unknown that not even by the greatest goodwill could anyone think of moving masses of people there. One could only think about erets yisroel as a point in the distant future.
Therefore the General Zionists dedicated their whole impetus into work in the present:
They accomplished a great deal in the area of general assistance to the state. Their members, such as Dr. Rozenboym, for example, Dr. Soloveytshik and others, diligently participated in Paris and in other political centers in the endeavor to recognize Lithuania as an independent state, while also utilizing the influence of Zionists in London and in America to create a good mood for Lithuania and to get help for her. Also by cementing political agreements with neighboring countries the General Zionist members played a leading role and many had an impact on Lithuania's success.
Their leader and members took a very active part in the structuring and the equipping of the state administration and performed very useful and fruitful work. They also assisted and collaborated with all other areas of the state structure.
In that work they always held to the following principle: full democracy, complete freedom and equal rights for all citizens without any differentiation, even between strata and class. Therefore the Jews had to appear everywhere as a uniform, organized and disciplined body, in order to protect the right of all Jews in general. To that end they put out to the Jewish community the demand for a unified front at all appearances and presentations in public and a unified Jewish list at various general elections. They also considered it a general duty even on the part of Jewish labor but also for artisans or small dealers against any oppression or restriction from the outside; just as the interests of Jews of means, like the large merchants or factories and other undertakings, had to be protected when danger threatened just because they were Jews. No attack must be permitted on anyone due to the fact that he stemmed from Jews, whether it came from the left or from the right. The General Zionists demanded an equal liberal approach for all and from everyone.
In the area of national autonomy the General Zionists were at the forefront. They provided the first three Jewish ministers and led with the vad-haorets. They were the first in the organized communities, they created an entire network of Hebrew schools, and so on. In Lithuania there was no far-flung corner without an organized community that included all the functions of an autonomous life in its realm of activities. No organized community was left without a Jewish school, social institutions and the like. A complete, free Jewish settlement took shape in which, regarding its inner life, was almost impossible to determine where its authority ended and where the rule of the general government began.
In this area the General Zionists ruled almost completely alone. Here they pushed through their principles almost without any compromise. In this area of work there were sharp differences of thought not only between the Zionists and their opponents, but within the ranks of the Zionists themselves. So, for example, the mizrakhistn and agudistn were against the secular community and absolutely demanded a religious community. Opposing were the Left Zionists and the Democrats, standing firm for the full secularization of the community. The General Zionists brought out their old principle adopted at the Helsinki Convention, that the community must be a secular one, but must satisfy the needs of all strata of the population, among them the religious and very pious Jews. The same happened on the topic of schools. The Left Zionists according to their golus program, as well as the Democrats, were completely for secular schools with Yiddish as the basic language where a little Hebrew would also be taught. The agudists and the mizrakhists demanded absolutely religious schools. But the General Zionists remained true to their old principle: Recognition of freedom and full rights for all directions, according to the designation of the elders goes the fate of their children. Every group of elders has the right to open schools according to their wish and the national autonomy is obliged to give them the means to do so.
The General Zionist Organization itself opened schools with Hebrew as the basic language but they were completely secular. And since the overwhelming majority of Lithuanian Jews voted General Zionist, they opened secular Hebrew schools which were attended by more than 85 to 90 percent of the Jewish school youth. Except for the folks-shuln [Yiddishist schools], which operated mostly on funds from the government, Lithuanian Jews built a whole network of kindergartens, middle schools and high schools. They opened higher classes of the folks-shul beyond the government program, which were supported by the parents and partly with the help of the General Zionist Organization.
One of the most important things that the General Zionists created in Lite was Di idishe shtime [Yiddish: the Jewish voice], the first organ in Yiddish in the new Lithuania. In its first years it was small in appearance and poor in content. But over the years it gradually developed and grew into a large daily newspaper that occupied first place even in the Lithuanian press. It was the official organ of General Zionism; but in fact in the first years it was the voice of almost all Lithuanian Jewry. For years on end it held by its desire not to be just a narrow party organ and gave everyone the opportunity to have their say in its columns. With bravery and dignity it defended Jewish honor and interests, and its word was attended in general Lithuanian circles as well as in governmental spheres. It also stood at a proper level in the sense of culture and literature, and contributed to the development of Lithuanian Jewry. It also gave its readers the opportunity obtain books that were very lacking in Lithuania due to the severance from Jewish Poland. Whole book series such as Mendele Mokher-Sforim, Sholem Aleykhem, Graetz and dozens of others were circulated in many hundreds of copies among Yiddish readers in Lithuania.
Di idishe shtime also organized excursions to erets yisroel and no few Pioneers and ordinary Jews remained there. The General Zionist center spared no trouble or money to carry all this out in life.
The General Zionists also published a weekly Hebrew paper Had lite [Echo of Jewish Lithuania] which, over the span of two years, provided its Jewish audience with no small amount of intellectual-literary sustenance from the best Hebrew poets and writers. It also made many contributions to the appearance of two other Hebrew journals, Ntibot [Hebrew: directions] and Olamnu [Hebrew: our world]. Thanks to them, a young Hebrew literary force was educated in Lithuania, some of whom took important positions in Israel and in other lands.
Besides that the General Zionists used their means to publish an illustrated weekly in Yiddish, Di velt [Yiddish: The world] and also a weekly in Lithuanian Musu Garsas [Lithuanian: Our sound ] (Undzer klang) [Yiddish: Our sound]). They all were of great service in the political and cultural growth of Lithuanian Jewry.
The General Zionists did no less in the economic area for restoring Jewish proprietorship in Lithuania. It is enough to mention the Jewish Central Bank and the relationship to a hundred folks-banks, which regulated Jewish commerce and trade entities. Those institutions were founded and sustained through the continual large credits on the part of the Jewish Bank in London and its affiliates in erets yisroel and so on. That help was closely tied to the influence of the leaders of the General Zionists in Lithuania, who occupied an important place in the world Zionist movement. Many members of the General Zionists were active in the banks in those places and were very effective in their successful development.
And now about their activity for the construction of Zionism in erets yisroel.
As concerns money-collecting we can assert that, relatively, the Lithuanian Jews excelled in comparison with Jews in other countries. Thrifty, prudent and restrained, they fulfilled their duty to erets yisroel virtuously and big-heartedly. Both the keren kayemet and the keren hayesod collected impressive sums, even more so as keren kayemet was worked mostly by the youth, while the keren hayesod was largely the General Zionists, and worked with great success. Lite took a place of honor, even one of the first, among all the other rich countries.
Furthermore, over the years the Zionist center gave stipends to students at the Hebrew technical school in Haifa, the high schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the Hebrew University. They also gave important monthly pensions to several distinguished leaders in erets yisroel.
Regarding the Pioneers, one must recall that at that time the He-khaluts movement was not yet differentiated. One Hekhaluts [group] existed, in whose education all were equally interested. But the burden of creating the means for He-khaluts lay mainly on the General Zionists. They were the ones who borrowed a great sum of money and also guaranteed the Joint for a very large sum in order to purchase a large piece of land with a certain household where khalutsim would be able to receive their training as agricultural workers. That farm later required a great sum of money for further construction, and the General Zionists consistently came up with the means. In the same way a cooperative carpentry shop was established, where khalutsim received training as furniture makers and regular carpenters. And the General Zionists always provided the necessary funds to the same cooperative for its existence and actively took part in everything possible.
But the honeymoon of Lithuanian independence did not last for long. Already in 1923 the entire matter of Jewish autonomy was wobbling badly, and along with it, the situation of Jews in Lithuania in general, and a whole new epoch began in the life of the Jews in Lite.
For five or six years, from 1918 and onward, the Lithuanian state had seemed greatly strengthened by its strong cooperation with the Jews in Lite and in other lands. It gained political recognition, it had constructed its apparatus and acquired very evident power. A Lithuanian intelligentsia arose. A younger generation matured that strove for the city, desired to occupy themselves in commerce, industry, the free professions and the like. The national egoism grew and people took on very great desires and pretensions. And the move against the foreigners began and the pushing them out of all the positions they had occupied until then, in all areas of governmental and popular life.
It is self-evident that Jews were the first to be hit. It did not take long until the little that remained of the national autonomy was the schools. The office of the Minister for Jewish Affairs was stricken down, the National Council closed, and the kehiles, banned. The Jews were bitterly opposed to it, but that was no help. By 1924 there was no remnant left of the autonomy. Even the schools began to feel more pressure of Lithuanization and began to shrink.
In the area of economy a process of cooperation began, which was in essence just a disguised monopolization of the larger branches of the economy on the part of the government in order to push the Jews out of them. There even began to be heard anti-Semitic voices that grew stronger and louder from day to day. Jews began to be insulted on the street, [people] shouting into their faces Jew, go to Palestine! and from time to time even physical attacks on Jews and blood libels.
It is easy to imagine what an effect all this had on Lithuanian Jews. Suddenly all the sweet dreams disappeared like a soap bubble. They found themselves placed face to face against a dark reality. They would have to start fighting again for the right to live and for existence. But the bitter experience of the recent past took away their heart for it. The Jewish masses were left discouraged and without will.
Then in Lithuania, as happened in Poland too at that time, a mood took shape to leave Lithuania and go someplace else. That someplace else at that time could not be any place other than erets yisroel, due to both external reasons and internal moods. Thus began an aliye to erets yisroel not only of Pioneers but also of the middle class. Many well-to-do, well thought-of businessmen, entrepreneurs and ordinary householders moved to erets yisroel. Thanks to the contemporary set of circumstances in erets yisroel, the first immigrants settled in very well, and their good greetings from the land called up simply a hypnotic mood in Lite, and many were prepared to take to the road immediately.
They were poised on the eve of a huge middle-class immigration to erets yisroel. And so voices began to be heard in the ranks of the General Zionists that not only demanded interest in and support for the middle-class but that also came out with a hateful motive vis-à-vis the Pioneers, the kept children of the Zionist movement who swallowed up the entire Zionist budget. They began to demand a revision in the Zionist position concerning the appearance of erets yisroel construction. A fight began between the two camps for general power in Zionist activity. But that did not stop it. They began to severely criticize the entire name-calling system of the Pioneers, that is: the collective settlements and tents, until they finally wandered around to them, since they were busy fighting the lefties and blaming them for grabbing the power in Zionism.
There were various causes over several years that aided the development of the new thought process among the General Zionists. First: the new movement of middle-class emigration, which ostensibly called up a resistance on the part of the left-leaning element in general and among a certain part of the chief leaders of the erets yisroel work in particular; it was a resistance against General Zionists who from the beginning stood for equal rights for all Jews in erets yisroel and for full support for everyone on the part of the Zionist movement and who became zealous supporters of that movement; and that must naturally lead to a conflict. Second, various differences between the Zionist factions began to manifest more distinctly and vividly, and the unity became ever weaker day by day. Conflicts and frictions multiplied constantly, and relations became tense and irritated. Third, at that time in the Zionist arena there began to be more and more violent appearances by the Revisionists, who grabbed up no few elements from the General Zionists, and, in as much as the whole time the struggle was going on between the Revisionists and the Leftists, it led to the growth of the number of opponents of the Left within the General Zionist ranks too.
Yet is must be equally stressed that in the ranks of the General Zionists in Lite there were many leading members who despite everything remained true heart and soul to traditional General Zionism and its principles, did not allow themselves to be led astray, and until the last remained friends of all that helped to build a Jewish erets yisroel whoever the builder was and in whatever manner it was built.
After the collapse of the autonomy the General Zionists devoted all their freed-up energy to Zionist activity. True, their powers were visibly weakened. Soloveytshik, Rozenboym and others left Lite. Still, there remained many important forces to direct Zionist activity. Mostly they began then to pursue the restoration of their organization, which was considerably neglected. However they did not have much success in it. The older elements in general did not allow themselves to be disciplined, were not pleased to be tightly organized and they did not have any young element then. So they started activities for the youth. They markedly supported the youth organizations of hashomer hatsair [Hebrew: Youth Guard], which in Lite served as a purely Zionist youth group, without which there were socialist moods. Also [they supported] the makabi [Hebrew: Maccabees] which spoke out clearly against socialist leanings.
The General Zionists also supported with significant sums the teacher schools that were headed by outspoken Zionists, who had promised to educate good, loyal General Zionists. I must add, that this was done constitutionally and without any kind of political zeal. In that time the General Zionist center had given enough support to hekhaluts, despite the fact that it had by then already shown a visible leaning to the Left. And the agitation then had a respectable face, one was restrained, one began, really, more to accentuate the General Zionism, one presented oneself with a certain criticism of the Left, but all in the appropriate measure, respectfully and in a cultured way. An evident peace still reigned between the various directions, and it was still joint work. Although beneath the surface, in the depths, it was already roiling and turbulent, on the surface everything was still quite calm.
Then the General Zionists also participated energetically in the so-called Ezra institutions, an ersatz version of the closed kehiles; supported, with subsidies and loans, the provincial Hebrew schools; vehemently fought the agudas yisroel, which continued to cozy up to the government and wanted to use the existing circumstances to the benefit of its interests and desires to be the representative of Lithuanian Jewry. In the same way they conducted a fight against the rabbis, who also wanted to utilize the given hour and tried to set up a kind of consistorium with certain rights in interior Jewish life and in the freedom of conscience. They conducted that fight bravely and vehemently, orally and in writing, mainly on the pages of Di idishe shtime whose voice reached the government. But that was little help. The Zionists were no longer in fashion, although no one tried to hinder them. The agude became the ringleader in the government, and the rabbis almost achieved that. But that idyll did not last long either, and rather quickly everything happened that the Zionists had predicted.
In the middle of all this the Lithuanian government went over to the folks-party (Liaudininkai) and the Social Democrats. A long chain of reforms began. But a very difficult time came for Jews. Jewish industry and trade began to suffer badly from the new decrees. Also Jewish spiritual life suffered a difficult experience. The decree for Sunday rest, according to which it was forbidden on Sundays and Christian holidays to do any kind of work in a shop, factory, workshop or in the street, threatened great danger to Jewish economic existence. Indeed, out of need people worked in many shops and businesses on shabes; even simple wagon-drivers were forced to drive on shabes. The education minister, a socialist, did not want to recognize the Hebrew education system, and the entire network of Hebrew schools threatened to go under. It is easy to imagine what kind of mood dominated on the Jewish street then.
But that administration did not last long. An overthrow quickly ensued, and a dictator was put in place. Wanting to win over the masses of peasants and workers, making them loyal to the new order, the dictator government developed a gigantically large support system for that population. They created cooperatives that bought from the peasant and sold to him, thus seeking to eliminate the whole middleman strata that comprised mostly Jews. Jews were not accepted into the cooperatives. They stopped the activity of the private exporters, who were also mostly Jews. The peasants themselves fought this system because they did much better business with and through the Jews. There was even a resistance on the part of the peasants because of this. The government was forced to use weapons, but in the end it did not help; the intelligentsia, the merchants, the established and their like were for it. Finally the government began to give the peasants millions in subsidies from the state treasury and it was quiet. Meanwhile quite a few Jews were ruined and pushed out. At the same time the government put in place a whole network of decrees that were aimed at protecting the interests of the workers, which simply manacled the hands of the proprietors and eventually removed their say over their own property. In such a way the government, without consulting the proprietors, arbitrarily determined the workers' wages and set and also fixed the prices for the merchants according to its own discretion. If a merchant did not want to purchase the goods at the government's price, or if an entrepreneur wanted to liquidate his enterprise, that was strictly forbidden. They had to maintain the business and to buy at the established price. What then? It could not bear any accounting, one added it up, one lost from day to day. The government had not reckoned on that and relied on threats, requisitions and the like.
That situation had its effect on the Jews. The middle class began even more to be drawn toward erets yisroel, and the middle class was increasing the ranks of the Zionists and as a result the opposition to hekhaluts in general and to the Left sector in particular, was increasing. The dictator further strengthened the inclination of the youth to the Left, the opposition between the Left wing in Zionism and General Zionism rose from day to day and took on ever sharper forms. Active in Lite at that time was the Revisionist Party, which attracted to it part of the General Zionists, ending with those parts leaving General Zionism, which became visibly weaker because of it. The Leftists found it necessary to found their own Zionist organ, Dos vort [Yiddish: The word], and that enlarged the fracture and the division. For party prestige the Revisionists opened their own newspaper, although they lacked not only the means for it, but also the energy and the readers. This created a more and more difficult atmosphere. Of all these things the Revisionists' newspaper was the worst. It stopped at nothing in its fanatic striving. But it drew a following of young people.
This situation forced General Zionism to seek new ways to secure its position. They had first of all to create a youth, their own hekhaluts, a General Zionist mass in Lite itself. Second, they had to find a reason to bond more closely with the neighboring countries, Latvia and Estonia. A bond was useful for them all. Latvia and Estonia did not possess any General Zionist press organs, a thing which Lite could help them with. In Latvia too there was an important growing General Zionist youth being educated and also a hekhaluts. In that respect the Lithuanian General Zionists hoped to rebuild through their neighboring members. And that is indeed what happened.
The Lithuanian General Zionist center did not spare any efforts or any means, first linking to the Riga Dos folk [Yiddish: the folk] (published by Eynem Eydes) and with the Frimorgn [Yiddish: Morning] (published by the Riga Sevodnia [Russian: Today] and edited by Dr. Latski and Dr. Yankev Helman) and took four pages daily for the Idishe shtime, therefore making them the official organs of Latvian General Zionism. To balance, the representatives of the General Zionist youth in Latvia devoted themselves to educating such youth in Lite as well. And truly, despite all the pessimistic voices, and against all expectations, it quickly appeared that there was fruitful ground for General Zionist youth in Lite as well. It did not take long before the General Zionists had struck strong roots among the youth. A very substantial group of General Zionist youth was brought up and right after that, a General Zionist hekhaluts as well. Both the youth in general and its hekhaluts turned out to be very good human material and many were surprised to see how even the patricians' children whom they used to mock, these General Zionists with their moldy ideology, very quickly exhibited a devotion to adapt not only to all kinds of labor such as chopping wood and such, but also to peasant life in the farming village, where many of them were put to work by the peasants in agriculture, especially in the Memel area. It went as far as peasants searching out those khalutsim for work. Life in a camp was far from easy, [it was] very poor and hard. But a good spirits reigned, with inner happiness, dedication, satisfaction and hope for a quick aliye.
This phenomenon, of course, called up much happiness in the camps of the General Zionists, and a surety took hold, and even a pride: We are now equal among people and have heirs who will take our place and further shape the General Zionist ideal. In the places with the center at the head they did everything possible to maintain and further develop their youth movement, which had begun with such success. And there is no doubt that if not for the internal wars that quickly began, the General Zionist youth and the hekhaluts would have taken one of the first positions in Lithuanian Jewry. All the signs were there, everything around spoke for that. But
It was not ordained for the General Zionists to enjoy their fruits for long. A struggle broke out between the General and their youth. The youth, unlike General Zionists, had their own perception and evaluation. They wanted to be independent to a certain degree and able to deal freely. This sparked a fear in the Right General among the General, and they began to fight this tendency fiercely, demanding perfect discipline on the part of the youth to the general organization, and its complete obedience. The youth did not bow. The General declared a bitter opposition and a split came about. The Right wing separated and created a new General Zionist youth, which remained absolutely subject to the General Zionist organization. Then began an internal dispute, a race for members, a fight for the right to carry the name General Zionist.
Such a stand did not offer any wellbeing to either of the sides. Comrades must have others. Amid this the blossoming hopes for the future were destroyed.
With the division of the youth came a split, although not an organizational split, of the older members as well. Some of them went with the oppositional youth, voted for their independence and supported them even after the organization had declared them excluded.
Then the splitting up process in the camp of the General Zionists in all of Europe neared. In the beginning of the 1930s, even during the convention in Krakow, the General Zionists split into two camps: General alef and General beys, or as they called them then, Bris hatsionim haklolim and Hasakhdus hatsionim haklolim.
General Zionists in Lite, who had only two years before been thoroughly opposed to the division, now accepted it as a completely natural necessity, and shortly after Krakow they also split into two camps. Many of the old, leading members left the organization and, together with the restive hekhaluts, built a new progressive general Zionist organization.
Obviously, after such a development the organization of General Zionism could not any longer retain her previous position. In accordance with her willing, she took one of the last positions. At the conventions she received the smallest number of delegates. The Zionist-Socialists, who had retained their unity and comprised a large multitude, took a larger place. No more the intelligence that the Generals had possessed, as the tradition of the recent past, made it possible for the General Zionists to partly retain their place and to further remain in a certain measure the spokesman and leader of Lithuanian Jewry.
I left Lite at the end of 1935 and went to erets yisroel. I no longer participated in the affairs of Litvish Zionism; from the reports that I received, I saw that the situation there became more and more unbearable. The sanctions and the provocations grew from day to day.
It went so far that we were forced to delegate a certain leading individual, necessarily from the Right, from erets yisroel in order to effect a more respectable relationship among the members and to somewhat tame the angry disposition. Unfortunately he had very little success. The members did not settle on any compromises, and everything remained as it had been.
The year 1941 and its events annihilated the entire Zionist project. Many of the members were arrested by the Soviets and deported, the others had another bitter end Hilter may his name be blotted out murdered them and there is almost no vestige of them left.
There was once a large, creative, many-hued Jewish community in Lithuania that had enormous merits for the Jewish folk in general and for Russian Jewry in particular. It is no more! Only traces of it remain, here and there. There was also a general Lithuanian General Zionism that had certain important merits, not just for the Zionist movement but for all yisroel as well. It also is no more. Of it too there remain only sad remnants. We can only remember them sadly, erect gravestones and say after them [the Kaddish]:
yisgadal v'yiskadash. . .
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Lita (Lithuania) Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 21 Sep 2010 by MGH