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[Page 438]

My First Convention

by Zalman Shazar

Translated by Jerrold Landau

From “Zion Vatzedek”, first book, published by Tarbut Vechinuch, 1971. The article was written in 5610 (1950).

This convention was regional – the first convention of “Poale Zion” Zionists 1 in Lithuania and White Russia (this was called the “North-Western region”). The convention convened clandestinely, in utmost secrecy, in June 1906 in Minsk.

This was my first year in the party. My entry to the party was also “clandestine”, not only so that the matter should not become known to the police, but also so that the “Shoafot Ziona” youth movement not be devoured. The Hebrew teacher in the town, Alter Yoselovitz, the leader of the “Bnot Zion” organization for older girls, established this as an educational branch of his group, and chose me as the “leader”. At the beginning of that year, with the outbreak of the 1905 revolution and the disturbances that took place later that year, it turned out that the chief ideologue of the general Zionists, the head of the Zionist organizations of the city, the owner of a store for medical supplies, Mordechai Maharshak, also secretly moved over to the new Poale Zion movement, that was set up secretly in Minsk by the representatives of Rubenchik.

The first activity of our young party was to organize defense (“Samoavborna”) in the town. The first task that the party placed upon me was to travel to the towns of the area, along with Pinia the baker, to establish “Samoavbornas” there as well. Already in the first year of honey, a double fear of schism fell upon the party: the schism between the territorialists and the Palestinists in the party, and the schism between those who felt duty-bound to participate in the battles of the Russian revolution and those who refused. This debate continued further in the convention of Poale Zion of Minsk in 1905, when Rubenchik was its head. Then, the theoretical teacher Zar traveled from our town to conduct the battle for Zion and for the revolution. (“At the time, they called us “Palestinches, fighters for Palestine” – Palestinists, political fighters.) On May 1st of that year, the first proclamation that I wrote was spread in our town, whose task was to “make this train of thought take root”. When the Russian language newspaper of Poale Zion “Yevreiskaya Rabotshaya Chronika” was established in Poltava, in which the long, enlightening articles of Ber Borochov, (with the pseudonym of Postoyani) appeared with long interruptions, entitled “Naasha Platforma” 2 (our suggestion); I immediately started to translate the articles into Yiddish with youthful enthusiasm and complex language. I started to send them to the central committee of the social-democratic Poale Zion in Lodz, which had just been established. Representatives then went out from this central committee to gather together the remnants of those in the movement who were faithful to Zion, and who did not follow after the territorialism of S. S. 3, did not “fall into” the apolitism of the “Minskers” (Y. T. A. P.) 4, and did not get taken with the optimism of the “Sejmists (Y. S. A. P.) 5.

[Page 439]

The first regional convention of the new Poale Zion party 6 convened in Minsk. To my great surprise, my candidacy as a delegate was suggested in our local branch, and I was accepted.

I recall my intimidation regarding the convention, and the difficulties with the task that fell onto me. In my youthful innocence, I was certain that the fate of the nation would be determined in this clandestine convention, and that only special people would be permitted to sit in council. The theoretician Zar had already left the town, but there was Maharshak, the established conceiver of ideas and veteran of the group. He should have traveled in our name and fought our battle. However, it was specifically he, Maharshak, who advanced my candidacy and defended it hotly. Now that there had already been a vote and the decision was made, it cannot be retracted. My prayer from the depth of my heart, not heard by any ear, was: “Master of the World, please let me not embarrass the convention…”

I especially remember the household detail, both complex and ludicrous: how can I tell about this decision at home given that is secret? How can I suddenly get up, take a week-long break from my cheder studies, and travel to Minsk? From where would I get a reasonable and logical explanation? The decision was made on Thursday, the convention in Minsk was to begin on Sunday, and I had to be there already in the morning. Who would take me out of these straits? I arrived home without any ideas. My “eyes” hurt all Friday and Saturday. I recall the commotion that took place at home. We did not have a doctor who is expert in eye diseases in our town. On Saturday night, I heard my worried father tell my mother: “You know, Sarahke, there is no other option, we must send the child to Dr. Kaminski in Minsk tomorrow.” Father himself wrote me the address of the doctor, gave me spending money, added an extra half-ruble to give to the doctor, and wished me a good trip. Upon the advice of my good and beneficent father, I arrived at the party convention at exactly the correct time. The convention, as has been stated, was secret, and it also did not have a set location. I recall four different buildings in which the meetings of the convention took place throughout the week. All of them were in the homes of wealthy people, whose owners went on vacation and left their beautiful halls in the hands of a faithful servant or a poor relative. They, the guards, became involved in the party, endangered the faith of their masters, and placed the large halls at the disposal of the organizers of the convention of their movement.

I recall once, as we were sitting in a large house in the “Upper Market”, a clear hint came from outside: “We are going”. We immediately turned off the lights, and the lecturer continued his presentation in the dark hall. Only one large Talmudic volume darkened the solitary candle that slightly illuminated the small table that stood in the corner of the house, around which we, the three secretaries of the convention, sat crowded together, as we recorded the words of the speaker, each in a different language, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian.

We were approximately 30-40 delegates. Aside from two or three exceptions, we were all 16-20-year-old youths. We were all from the regions of Vilna, Kovno, Grodno, and Minsk. There was not one girl among us.

The organizer of the convention who was responsible for its proceedings was Motel Bogin of Minsk. He later changed his name

[Page 440]

and was one of the chief activists of our party in America. Alongside him at the chairman's table, I recall Moshe Leib of Vilna, who later became a merchant who distanced himself from the movement; as well as Avraham Zaidshnur, who already had a small, fine beard, and later married Sara Luria, the most attractive of all our members in Vilna. Both he and she died during the days of great murder: He in Ponari near Vilna and she in exile in Uzbekistan. From the central committee – concealed in hidden beauty – came L. Berlinroit from Moscow, a student “cultivated and burdened”, bespectacled and clean shaven. He reminded me of a son of a good family who fell into a “chaliastra” 7. He lectured in clear Russian.

The three of us sat at the table of the secretaries: The first was Chaikel Mogilevitz, a young delegate from Bragin. Later, I am told, he became a member of the Zionist student corporation in Switzerland, he wore a corporant hat, wore colored ribbons in a diagonal over his chest, and fought for Hebrew against the Yiddishists of Cologne. Still later, I am told, he was a commissar of Yevsektzia 8, who persecuted Zionists as was fitting. Later, he was lost track of.

The second secretary who sat with me was a delegate who was not young from the town of Sadovy. He was a teacher in the public school, who knew plenty of Yiddish poems. He was the Yiddish secretary of the convention. I was the Hebrew secretary.

From among the delegates whom I recall very well, the image of Velvel stands out first and foremost. He was the brother of Alexander Chashin (who was then called Vitebsky, and was known as a genius in the movement). Later Velvel changed his name to Chaim, which was his name for all the years that he was faithful to the movement, until he changed his skin and became known in the east as an opponent of the movement by the name of Abu-Ziama, and afflicted the entire movement bitterly. This continued until he met the same bitter fate as his brother Alexander Chashin, who was much more talented than he and was revered by him for all his life. They both perished in the cellars of the G.P.U. 9

A non-youthful Hebrew teacher came from Smorgon, who stuttered because of the depth of his emotions, and was very upset that he did not succeed in explaining all of his opinions appropriately to the members who were short on patience. He later made aliyah and worked in Jerusalem. Shaika Tiktinsky came from my hometown of Mir. He was the son of the Rosh Yeshiva Reb Avraham Heiur, the grandson of the Rosh Yeshiva Reb Chaim Leib. He later made aliyah with the Third Aliyah, worked as an official in the aliyah division of the Jewish Agency, and died a few years ago. The adversarial eyes of his father were recognizable in him even them, when he was a young delegate to that convention. Our comrade Lipa came from Bialystock. He was later a professor of Hebrew archaeology on Mount Scopus 10. He was Lipman Suknik, the father of the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces and the professor of archaeology Yigal Yadin. Another Lipa came from Bobriusk in the middle of the convention, Lipman-Levinson, who was a delegate of the small Poale Zion group that sprouted there.

There were two central people who directed the spirit of the convention, who were the main speakers, upon whose presentations the debates of the convention were conducted, and whose personal charisma and echoes of their words forged the image of the movement for many years after the end of the convention. These were Ovadia, later Avner – that is Y. Ben Zvi, who later became the second President of Israel 11; and Yosef Eisenstat, the father of the late Dr. Shmuel Eisenstat who lived in Israel. Ovadia was then a legendary and intimidating figure in the movement. It was known that he had

[Page 441]

won in the matter of independent defense in the south, and ended up in jail. It was known that the diligent and dedicated comrade Avraham Machtai (they waited for his arrival at the convention, and he did not arrive) organized a group that freed him with force. Simply, they endangered their lives and “stole” him from under the nose of the “convoy” 12. It was further known that he was the only one in the central committee who had been in the Land of Israel, he was about to return there, and that there was none like him as expert in matters of the Land. Those who knew the secret matters 13 knew as well that the “Naasha Platforma” – at the time the main document of the written word of the movement – contains chapters that deal literally with the Land of Israel that were written primarily under his influence. It was told from mouth to ear that a committee of three people were selected in Poltava to write the “Platform”: Borochov, Vitebsky (that is Chashin), and Avner (that is Ben-Zvi). Borochov was the father of the theoretical portion of the “platform”, Vitebsky influenced the polemical chapters, and he, Ben-Zvi took care of the “realization”, that is the chapters that dealt with the actualization of the plan in the Land of Israel.

It was about the “realization” that he lectured to us then at the convention. He started with an analysis of the Arab question, and proved that there is not at all a unified Arab community in the Land of Israel. There are various roots, groups, tribes, and adversarial clans, and there is no possibility that these would even unite into a nation unless we would unite them with our own improper behavior. During this analysis, he displayed before us his bounty of knowledge that none among us had any concept of. He later proved that those who bring this matter up in the names of the Arabs are reactionaries who oppress their own people, and it forbidden for a Socialist to come in contact with them. This is not the case with the Arab workers, who will eventually organize, and with whom we could then forge a covenant. He further proved that the economy of the Land is awaiting European workers, since the Arab workers do not at all know how to fill the roles that are now required. On the other hand, there are roles in the economy of the Land of Israel that will continue to remain a monopoly in the hands of the local Arabs, since a European worker could never become accustomed to them. It is certain that the division of roles between the European workers and the Arab workers will be “natural”. If we knew how to “organize” things correctly, there would be no competition between them. He proved many other such things, and removed worries from our hearts. All of these statements were accompanied by numerous facts, with names of Turks and Arabs that we did not recognize, and with the statistics that we were waiting for. We saw clearly that the “matter” was possible, and will indeed take place in the future…

More important than anything was the dedicated faith that the man evoked from his first appearance. He was tall, thin, with a small, black beard that had recently begun to grow to the edge of his chin. His eyes exuded uprightness of heart, and his clothes exuded modesty and satisfaction with little. All legends of his great dedication were proved as true facts, as one looked at his long, pure face. I knew that he was a student at the University of Kiev. His Russian language also testified to this. However, to me he seemed like an “emissary”, like a new version of those “emissaries” who came to our home annually from Safed or Tiberias. One evening of the convention, when we urged him to sing for us “the songs of the Land”, he agreed, and he sang “Atzei Shitim Omdim” (Standing Acacia Trees) with his deep bass voice that remained with him throughout his life. He himself seemed as one of those tall, wonderful acacia trees, that “stood” on their guard from olden days 14.

If Ovadia (that is, Ben-Zvi) was the representative of the “government” of the movement, Yosef Eisenstat was completely the opposition. There was also a legend about him: they arrested him in Poltava along with B. Borochov, and the news of his liberation was printed in the “Chronika” prior to the convening of the convention.

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His political speech, that was a form of a statement of the opposition, was full of temperament, and interspersed with many popular saying and adages of the sages. It was meant to prove that there was a deep difference between our battle “here” and our battle “there”. Here in Russia, we have to struggle with the Bund until its destruction, since the downfall of Czar Nikolai would not help us at all, and would only be a waste of time for us. However, there, in the Land, we ourselves would have to be the “Bund”, no less than it but also no more. There, we would indeed have to struggle for the downfall of the Sultan, and for the democratization of Turkey 15, and no more. The rest would come of itself, and there would be no additional need for the program. Democratization would lead to immigration, immigration to colonization, colonization to the realization of territorialism, and the goal would be attained. In order to overthrow the Sultan, we would have to unite with the young Arabs, the young Turks, and all those who could help with the change of the guard in Turkey.

Thanks are due to Avraham Zaidshnur, the practical, organizational man, who advised the convention to select the R. K. (that is, the regional council) already on Thursday morning, prior to Eisenstat's speech, as the winds were not quiet in the city, and it was impossible to know if and when the convention would conclude. Indeed, that night after the speech, when the moods were quite agitated and all of the delegates entered into a debate that promised to be quite stormy, the “warners” entered and informed us that things are not quiet outside. The meeting stopped, and it was not restarted the next day. The debate over the speech of Yosef Eisenstat did not take place, and the convention did not conclude. The following day, Friday morning, I was informed in my hotel on Yurivskaya that the regional council that we had succeeded in selecting yesterday was to meet in the Hebrew bookstore of Reb Meir Halperin, and that I must appear before him, for he was about to evaluate me, and the task that was to be imposed upon me.

Indeed, only a year and something had passed since I joined the party, and I already learned to accept upon myself the decisions of the members.

As I now went to the store of Reb Meir Halperin to hear what the new regional council had determined for me, I knew from the outset: I would certainly fulfill all that would be asked of me, and I vowed in my heart: even as I would fulfill, I would set times for Torah in the midst of my factional activity.

Indeed, when I arrived at the bookstore – that is the bookstore of Rabbi Meir Halperin the author of “Sefer Hanotrikon” 16, the father-in-law of our Michel Rabinovich, who is with “Darom” in Jerusalem – I found the regional council secretly concealed in a small room hidden behind the store counter, of course due to conspiratorial reasons. Motel Bogin and Avraham Zaidshnur came out to me and informed me that the regional council decided to set up the publication of books (“Hamer”) in the near future, and to publish the party newspaper in Vilna. I should be ready to go there when I would be called to serve as a translator, for the leaders of the movement write Russian, and the newspaper must be in Yiddish.

It was not clear to me at that time how I would tell of this decision at home, how I would obtain permission from my parents, and how I would coordinate this with my decision to study. However I did know that I would fulfill it. Indeed, I fulfilled it. It was still Friday morning, and I left the store to go to the train station, so that I would get home before the Sabbath. On the way I suddenly recalled that a week had already passed, and I had not yet been to the eye doctor whose address Father had written for me in his handwriting. In my bag I still had the half-ruble that he gave me – the doctor's fee. I immediately hurried to Dr. Kaminski. He examined my eyes, and to my great surprise, he prescribed glasses for me. From that time until this day I have worn glasses.


[Page 447]

Michel Rabinovich

by Zalman Shazar

Translated by Jerrold Landau

From “Or Ishim”, published by “Am Oved”, Tel Aviv, 5716.

Reb Michel Rabinovich died! A walking encyclopedia of Torah, literature, and Jewish knowledge has passed away. A veritable treasure chest, filled with all kinds of wisdom of the nation, knowledge of current events, the pathways of the past and the secrets of literature, knowledge of books and struggles of the factions, exceptional knowledge of the lives of the prominent Jewish people of our generation and previous generations in the world of rabbis, literary circles, and the communal forum has passed away. The “Hadarom” bookstore will no longer be the gathering place for People of the Book who live in Jerusalem or who happen to be in Jerusalem. The arrow has shot at the heart of the dear ones of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has become impoverished!

It will be futile for you to search in encyclopedias or other biographic or bibliographic reference books for information on this dear late scholar. He never authored books, although he wrote a great deal during his life, and prepared to write much more. He did not write about himself at all. He knew the secret of the production of books, and the history of all of their authors very well. His great Lithuanian Jewish intelligence and sharpness in Torah and general knowledge cannot be summarized in print. He was the prince of books, so why should he have added another book to the entire vast library of books that was kept in his memory, his heart, and at the tip of his fingers. Anything he wrote, he wrote incidentally. It was if he wrote unintentionally. It was like sparks that fly out of the hearth. Why at all should one write, if one can talk? There was no Torah discussion that was comparable to a mundane discussion of Reb Michel. Who can count the number of writers and scholars who drew copious amounts from his wellsprings, tested their theories against the light of his memory, and would not have attained anything without his wondrous assistance?

Early on he was a genius. He came from Mir of Lithuania. He poured water over the hands of the greatest rabbis and rosh yeshivas in Aleksota, Shevel (Siauliai), Telz (Telsai) and Slobodka. He came out of the yeshivas filled and overflowing.

Later, he became a sharp maskil. He was the learned feuilletonist in “Hamelitz”. He signed his name as “Tzvi Rabin”. That which Sh. Y. Yatzkan was with his “Chazon Hayom” in “Hatzefira” of Sokolow, Tzvi Rabin was to Leon Rabinovich in “Hamelitz”: the combatant at the gate. According to the character and the level of these two different feuilletonists, the image of two journalists was forged at that time. Later, he became the son-in-law and disciple of Reb Meir Halperin, the author of the Book of Abbreviations, and the owner of the large bookstore in Minsk; the center for the fans of Zionism and Hebrew culture, and the distributor of the new literature in White Russia. He was also a Zionist activist at the time, and was selected to committees, conferences, and to the communal council. During the time of the First World War and the Krinsky Revolution, the abyss of communal activism commenced, for now it was the days of tribulation. He was appointed to the national council of Jews of White Russia, and he edited a Yiddish Zionist newspaper. During the first days of the Bolsheviks, he was one of the few Zionists who found common language with his students who went over to the culture of the Yevsekstsia, and he saved what was possible for him to save. He founded a committee for the research of Jewish history in White Russia. He lectured on folklore in a pedagogical institute, and he suffered plenty in the suffering of the times. At the first opportunity to make aliyah to the Land, he made aliyah and brought with him treasuries of old, precious books, storehouses of his notes, and the best of his plans. He set up his tent in the heart of new Jerusalem, placed himself behind the counter of his “Darom” bookstore, and made it into his fortress. He did not desist from Zionist activism in Jerusalem: with progressive General Zionism, Bnai Brith, loans and credit, and Yeshurun. However, his main interest was in the reading of books. His store turned into a book-publishing enterprise, and the books were of the best. Scholars would come from afar to knock on his gate, and leave

[Page 448]

their manuscripts with him. He would publish them. The meaning of the word 'publish' to him was: to fix, to correct, and to ensure that everything was exact. He himself was a type of scientific institution, a sort of private “awakener of the slumbering”.

In the meantime, sparks flew. In mundane conversations, in answers to scholars, in lectures on folklore, in lectures about the Gra 17, in letters to writers, in destructive criticism of ancient manuscripts, in incisive advice to beginners, in plans upon plans, and primarily in oral notes, that clarify, enlighten, shine, and ensure the exactness of details.

In the meantime, old age crept up, along with illness. Days of difficulty came.

That which was saved during the times of war and wandering was not saved during the days of our struggle in the land. In the bombing of
Ben Yehuda Street, the trouble did not pass over his bookstore. With the destruction of his bookstore, his life was destroyed.

His alertness, sharpness, and countenance did not change even then. However, he no longer had the forces needed to start over from scratch.

The illness became more severe, and brought him down.

It is as if an entire world has vanished, and is no longer. Do I exaggerate if I state: did he not leave an equal? Such people are not common in our day.

15th of Cheshvan, 5709


Reb Michel was only a bookseller out of necessity. One day, David Ben-Gurion entered his store, saw a booklet resting on the table, leafed through it and wanted to buy it. “How much is it, Reb Michel?” “587 mils”, answered Michel. Ben-Gurion was surprised about the exactitude of the price, to the single mil, and asked him: “How do you set the price, Reb Michel?” “Very simple. Before you came, the collector from the electric company came, and I need 587 mil in order to pay my debt. If not for this, believe me, I would not sell the booklet.”…

The Halperin-Rabinovich bookstore in Minsk served as a center of literary culture for all of the intelligentsia of the city, its scribes and readers for approximately a quarter of a century. There I met the veteran writers, who were known from the newspapers, such as: the elder Y. M. Wahlman the editor of “Hakochavim”, Yosef Brill (“Ayov of Minsk”), Yehoshua Sirkin, Ch. D. Rosenstein (Ch. D. R. Midan), Ava Sirotkin (Bar Yatman), the grammarian Avraham Abronin, Yeshayahu Nissan Goldberg (Yachnehaz), and others. There I met two writers who were just starting out: Shmuel Perlman (before he became a doctor in Berne), and David Zochovitzki (who is David Zakai). Zochovitzki had already succeeded in publishing a fine poem in the modern daily “Hatzofeh” of Warsaw. Its first line went somewhat like this: “In the battlefields, let none among us stumble.”

Daniel Persky



Translator's Footnotes:
1There is a footnote in the text here: “That remained faithful to the Land of Israel and fought against the Sejmists who were faithful to the Diaspora, and against the territorialists.” (Note from the translator: I believe that the territorialists refers to those who believed that the Jewish national homeland did not have to be specifically in the Land of Israel. See footnote 5 for definition of Sejmist.) Return
2The Hebrew is “Naasha Platforma”. I am not sure of the exact translation. “Let us make a platform” is a possibility, but the word 'naasa' should be spelled Nun Ayin Sin He. The spelling here is with an Aleph rather than an Ayin. There seems to be no such direct work in Hebrew, although the root of the word for 'fire' (eish) can be seen in the word. From a later reference to this phrase in this article, it appears that it may contain some cryptic innuendoes. Return
3There is a footnote in the text here: “S. S. (read as Es Es) – the initials of the Russian name of the Socialist Zionist party.” (Note from translator: This obviously predates the notorious later implication of the initials S. S.) Return
4There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “'Minskers', (Y. T. Ap. P) named after the city of Minsk, the capital of White Russia. At the end of the 1800s, the first center of Poale Zion in Russia was established there. From there, it spread to the Jewish communities of White Russia and Lithuania. They were faithful to the Basle plan, and strove for the democratization of the Zionist movement, the strengthening of the national feeling in the hearts of the workers, and the improvement of their physical and spiritual state. They opposed the national revolutionary struggle [note: the footnote continues on page 439] in Russia, and pushed off socialist activity until after the realization of the aim of the territorial gathering of the Jews. With the abandonment of the territorialism of the Zionist organization, they joined them and established the Y. T. A. P. (Jewish Territorialist Worker's Party). With the strengthening of the waves of revolution in Russia (1905), it disbanded. Parts of it joined to the Palestinist Poale Zion.” Return
5There is a footnote in the text here, appearing on page 439, as follows: “Sejmist – a Jewish Socialist workers' party.” Return
6There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “Faithful to Zion, founded in Poltava in 1906.” Return
7There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “Band of gangsters”. Return
8There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “A member of Yevsektzia, the Jewish section of the Russian Communist Party.”. Return
9There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “The political police of Soviet Russia, who viciously persecuted all those who did not answer amen to the deeds of the dictatorial guard.” Return
10Referring to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. Return
11Zalman Shazar, the author of this article, was the third. Return
12There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: “An army or police guard.” Return
13Literally “the Kabbalists”, evidently used euphemistically here. Return
14A reference to the type of wood that was used for the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Return
15Prior to the commencement of the British Mandate in 1917, Palestine was under Turkish (Ottoman) control. Return
16The Book of Abbreviations. Return
17The Gra is the acronym for the Gaon Rabbi Eliahu – the Vilna Gaon. Return

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