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[Page 135]

Cultural Organizations and Institutions

 

[Pages 175-178]

The “Bund” in Staszów

by Yaakov Shiloni

Translated from by Lenny Levin

It was at the end of the nineteenth century. The echoes of the French Revolution, which in its time had thrown the whole cultured world into turbulence, had not yet been silenced. The revolutionary slogans of liberty and equality were absorbed slowly into the thinking of the workers' and intellectual classes of the enlightened countries of Western Europe. The working class was not yet organized—but it arrived at self-consciousness and started to realize its strength. Socialist thought, which came to prominent expression in the Communist Manifesto that had been published at the end of 1848 by Marx and Engels, found an echo in people's hearts, and socialist parties started to organize in the industrial countries of Western Europe. At first these were mainly circles of intellectuals, but masses of workers, whose class consciousness was advancing, quickly started streaming toward them.

In Russia, by contrast, absolutism held unlimited sway. The working class, and similarly the peasant class, were oppressed and deprived of elementary civil rights. Under this regime of poverty and servitude, rage and bitterness accumulated among millions of laboring people. But Russia—the fortress of reaction in Europe—put down with a strong hand every attempt at opposition, while continuing to provoke the workers and peasants through material, social, and political deprivation. Only in 1905, with the humiliating defeat of absolutist Russia in its war against Japan, when the rottenness of the regime was made clear to all, along with the worsening of its economic crisis as a result of the war, did the Russian working class dare to appear on the public stage. From then on, the Russian workers' movement underwent various transformations, but the ferment that had been stirred as a result of these events did not go away. On the contrary, it intensified, even as it was forced, by virtue of the regime's harsh repression, to go underground.

Western civilization, which had penetrated through every hole and crevice into Russia and into Poland (which politically was a part of it), encountered special difficulties on the Jewish street, over which the Jewish “clerical class” (including rabbis and yeshiva heads, as well as the secular officials—Parnasim and Gabbaim) had unlimited rule. Aside from the Pale of Settlement—the Russian equivalent of the Ghetto—which had been imposed by the government, the Jews segregated themselves willingly into an internal spiritual ghetto. Aside from the tribulations that were visited on them continually—whether in the form of pogroms, which were directed against the Jews in order to deflect the rage of the oppressed masses into side channels, or the blood libels, or economic restrictions—the only matters that aroused the inhabitants of the Jewish shtetl were changes in the appointment of the Rabbi, the Gabbai, the ritual slaughterer, and the like. Despite this double wall, enlightened ideas slowly trickled into the towns within the Jewish Pale and with them, socialist ideas. Even our shtetl, far from the royal highway and the great Jewish centers, encircled externally by Polish cities and villages, and (as it were) hermetically sealed from within, given to the oppression of the Gabbaim, the clerics, and the wealthy citizens—did not withstand the sledgehammers of the time. The new ideas did not pass over it, but at first there were only a few individuals who were swept into the new spiritual streams of the Enlightenment movement.

This movement, bearing the idea of renewal of Jewish life on universal humanistic foundations, found a resting place in the hearts of these pioneers, who saw that the patterns of Jewish life, hardened by the dust of generations, had weighed on them, in all their spiritual, social, and economic degradation. The struggle of these people, who were not to be counted among the Jewish elite, for their material survival amid general poverty, and their dissatisfaction with the patterns of life we have mentioned—this constituted the background for these political movements in the city and, more especially, in the shtetl. It was certainly no accident that the Bund and Zionism appeared around the same time. These two were destined to answer to the various needs of the Jewish public. But the motivation was the same, namely, the despairing situation of the crowded Jewish community in Russia and Poland, which had suffered from the decrees and oppression from the Czarist regime, as well as from spiritual deterioration, which was a result of the internal relations within the ghetto.

The founding of the Bund in Staszów took place in 1905, at the height of the oppressive Czarist regime. How and by whom it was founded—I don't know. Perhaps this is not important. The determining thing is that conditions were ripe for the penetration of new ideas, for the outbreak of the spirit of the time into the realm of the town. This spirit penetrated through cracks and crevices, through desires and longings. Once the Bund was established, organized Zionism penetrated to the town later—the town shook itself from the dust of generations. The poor started to raise themselves up from the dunghill, and the nameless, lowly ones from a social perspective, arose and were drawn to light and hope. No longer did they look back to the imperial martyrs and the inspiration,that they left behind from the depths of history. New heroes were born on the Jewish street. Hirsch Lekert, the shoemaker, who fired at the general governor of Vilna in 1902 as a protest over the beating of demonstrators, and who went courageously to the gallows—breathed a new spirit into people's hearts, a spirit of revolutionary, active martyrdom. New songs were heard on the way to the Golejów woods, songs that fired people up and raised their spirits.

This was not yet a solidified party, answering to all the problems of life, to every why and wherefore. It would be correct to say that this was a mass movement of protest. Protest against whom? Against them all! Against the oppressive regime, against humiliation, against decay, against the rich men and the rabbis, against the propertied, against the exploiting factory owners, against superstition—and above all against a bitter fate with no exit.

With respect to the composition of its members, the Bund in Staszów was different from that in the large cities because of the absence of a defined class basis for class struggle, according to the classic definition. This was in essence a lumpenproletariat, which conducted its class war, as it were, against the petty craftsman, who barely eked out his own living. Despite this fact, the members of the Bund had the feeling that their “class” war combined with that of the working class as a whole and that the regime in the town was just a part of the general regime, which it was necessary to change in its entirety.

As a result of this difference, the discussions over many issues—such as the differences between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and later the question of national-cultural autonomy—were conducted only within a narrow circle, while most of the members were only passive listeners. It was questionable whether they understood the content of these debates. But being there, within this framework, they felt that they were present where history was being made. The hour of the passive members came, too. When it was announced in the major Jewish centers that the time had come for organization in self-defense, a similar organization took place in Staszów. Then came the turn of the butchers and the wagoners—the former ruffians—to give vent to their rage and their clenched fists. Indeed, Staszów never saw real pogroms. The gentile periphery was not strong enough. Nevertheless, occasionally a Jewish lad was beaten up, who dared to go out from the town limits to the suburbs. In such cases, the self-defense units of the Bund showed their strength by restraining drunken soldiers who messed with Jewish travelers.

At first the Bund in Staszów limited itself to spreading socialist propaganda in Yiddish, organizing crafts unions, and political struggle against the Czarist regime. But after some years, the Bund consolidated as a party with a defined political agenda, with national-cultural autonomy—and it then began a struggle with other public groups in the town over the shape of its cultural-spiritual life, especially among the youth.

But the principal strength of the Bund was not in its agenda and solution to the Jewish question. Its strength lay in its insistence on breaking down the walls of the ghetto. Its importance was in exorcising the demons and ghosts from the Jewish houses, streets, and synagogues; in the new songs that kindled hearts and breathed new life among the poor and oppressed in the town.

World War I and After

Thus the varied activities of the Bund carried on until 1914. Once the war broke out, all was silence. The troops of Cossacks, Kalmuks, and others struck fear in every Jewish heart. When the Russians retreated before the Austrians and Germans, the Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that it was possible to speak with the new conquerors in Yiddish was an important factor. The truth was that they were also more civilized. (It is hard today to write this, remembering how this same nation treated us in World War II!)

Then 1917 came. News of the October Revolution and the Balfour Declaration came to our town.

The hearts of the youths and the poor of the town were singing with joy. The Bund's activity was renewed with added energy. But there also arose Zionist parties, which added to the tension. With the commingling of the spirits, many imagined that Messianic times, with redemption for all humanity, were taking shape. In the shtibls[1] and besmedresh they took sides and calculated the end of days, finding support in the Zohar and Malbim[2], whereas in the Bund meeting place they discussed the changing orders of the world and society with the zeal of former yeshiva students and found support. . . in Lenin and Trotsky. Before long, these hopes were shattered. The Revolution was stopped in its tracks, in its very land of origin. It was wallowing in the blood of civil war. The end of the World War and the rebirth of Poland reawakened people's hopes. But disappointment was not long in coming. Anti-Semitism and the “Hellerchiks”[3]; raised their ugly heads and clipped our wings. Nevertheless, the Bund's activities kept on growing. A youth wing of the movement arose—“Tsukunft.” The occupational unions were reorganized. Cultural activity was conducted within the branch and outside it, in addition to the work for the library and the establishment of theater troupes. The branch was considered one of the largest in the country, and many Bundist leaders visited the town: [Henry] Erlich, Chmurner [Joseph Lestschinsky], [Jacob] Pat, [Bainish] Mikhalevich, [Samuel Mordecai] Zygelbojm, and others[4]. But the campaign against the Bund grew as well. Parties of every stripe looked at Staszów and were enraged at the stands taken by the Bund in their struggle for the souls of the youth and of people generally. The clerics tried their utmost to oppose the Bund's steps through every means at their disposal, even of the disreputable kind: threatening a poor widow who was distributing milk, to undermine her livelihood, by proclaiming a prohibition of milk if she should agree to hold in her house a lecture by Arthur, one of the members of the center. One should note that this scheme failed, thanks to the alertness and strong stance of the leaders of the Bund on the spot.

In the meantime, the policy of open anti-Semitism of the Polish government brought about a worsening of the economic crisis among the Jews. The Polish cooperative movement that was favored by the regime provided stiff competition to the small Jewish merchants, and the economic basis of the Jews tottered. In this situation, a large part of the Bund's active base understood that the solution of cultural autonomy, which the Bund had proclaimed as a radical and comprehensive solution to the Jewish problem, was unsupportable. Without a strong economic infrastructure, there was obviously no place for the superstructure of cultural autonomy. For this reason, many left the party. Some joined the Communists, some emigrated to the United States or to South America, and some tried unsuccessfully to cross the border into Russia. Another portion, especially among the youth, turned to the Zionist parties, especially to Hashomer Hatzair. Things reached the point that at the end, before I moved to the Land of Israel in 1929, the Bund was having difficulty surviving.

On the political path of the Bund during its last years and its stubborn clinging to its “solution,” Jewish history passed a tragic verdict, symbolized by this memorial book for the Jews of Staszów, who, along with thousands of other Jewish communities, went up in flames with all their constituent strata, including the Bund.

In its struggle against the Nazi beast, in the period of the Holocaust, the Bund wrote some cautionary chapters. It was one of its leaders, Zygelbojm, who tried to awaken the conscience of the world through a dramatic act—committing suicide at the gate to the English Parliament.

But this fact has no power to cover up the sin that the Bund sinned, in its war against Zionism during the last years of the Polish Diaspora. Were it not for this, it would have been likely that tens of thousands of more Jews, especially of the youth, who believed sincerely in the Bund and its “solution,” would have found their way to Zion.

 

Footnotes
  1. Shtibl: A living-room or hole-in-the-wall prayer service or study group. Return
  2. Malbim: A 19th-century rabbi and commentator on the Torah, popular among religious Jews of a Modern Orthodox orientation. Return
  3. Followers of an anti-Semitic commander named Heller. See Yerucham Ines, “Sochaczew as I Remember It,” from the Sochaczew Memorial Book, http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/sochaczew/so647.html. Return
  4. Erlich, Chmurner [Lestschinsky], Pat, Mikhalevitch, Zygelbojm: The lives of these are all documented in the Encyclopedia Judaica, and many in Nora Levin, While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements 18711917 (Schocken, New York: 1977). Return

 


 

[Pages 179-180]

“Peretz” Library

by M. Wajnbaum-Fiszof, Hadera
In memory of Golda Goldhar-Winer

Translated from by Lenny Levin

New winds were blowing in the town, universal humanistic ideas, firing the imagination and awakening hopes, that out of mighty confrontations the way to a new world was being carved out, a world that was wholly good, along with uplifting national ideals nourished by roots in the longing of many generations for redemption, ideals that had reached their climax in the mighty spotlight cast by the Balfour Declaration. All these suffused our hearts and awakened a clear expectation of a new reality that was on the way.

In the meantime, amid this heartfelt expectation, faith in the stability of the traditional lifestyle weakened and tottered in the hearts of many. The strength and power of the old spiritual treasures was steadily weakening – those treasures that for centuries had served as a solidifying and maintaining factor of the people in Diaspora. The exclusive authority of the sacred books evaporated and was undermined; many no longer saw in them the spiritual nourishment that would answer to the questions of the hour. Many people of good will saw in fact that something entirely different from the old and expected was in the process of happening. They felt the urgent need to forge new spiritual-cultural values to take the place of the old legacy, which had been pushed into the corner and had lost a vital part of its charisma and influential power.

Influenced by these winds of change, and suffused with deep faith in the destiny that the new age had laid upon them, a number of enlightened souls[1] in the town established a library worthy of the name, in order to supply to the youth in the locale – the same youth, that was shaking free of the chains of the old, and was thereby released to participate, body and soul, in shaping the new – spiritual food, in which would be found, in addition to answers for the questions that were raised by the breaking of the old vessels, also up-to-date informative material concerning all the problems of the hour.

However, in the face of this handful of people, who labored tirelessly without thought of reward, stood a major obstacle, namely, the problem of funding. Indeed, where could they get the considerable amounts necessary to establish a library that would meet the needs of the time?

They sought and found. The shortfall in financial sources would be countered by unyielding devotion to the idea. Indeed, by the power of this devotion these people started to organize evening events and theatrical presentations, whose revenues were dedicated to acquiring books. In short order, appreciable sums were accumulated from these sources, while the number of books in the library grew accordingly, until in the end it turned into the largest and most important collection of books in the town.

As long as the library was small and served a small circle of readers, a small, narrow room in Kołcielna Street sufficed for its needs. But with its development and growth, as a result of the above-mentioned efforts, the circle of readers thirsty for knowledge broadened immeasurably, and it became necessary to move the library to a roomier location on the central market square (the Rynek).

When several of the library's organizers immigrated to the Land of Israel, new workers, possessed of energy and initiative, took up the slack. Among these, we may mention especially Golda Goldhar[2]. Through her great devotion to the institution, the continual improvements that she introduced, and the exemplary order that she maintained – all on a volunteer basis – Golda made an outstanding contribution to the development and expansion of the library, bringing it forward step by step.

Under Golda's capable leadership, the library arrived at the respectable size of 10,000 volumes, including books of considerable importance and contemporary relevance, in all areas of literature, science and society.

The maintenance of this cultural-educational treasure of such great value was conditional on permission from the authorities. Indeed, more than once serious difficulties and obstructions were encountered in the course of the proper work of the library. The fact that the library served as a primary factor for disseminating enlightenment among the masses of youths and adults – this was a thorn in the flesh of the authorities, and they spared no effort to impede our progress through all sorts of decrees over time. One incident out of many will serve as an example.

As we were walking home once from a meeting that lasted until the late hours of the evening, suddenly the policeman Trepko appeared and put us in jail for 24 hours. The next day, after we were freed, we were sternly warned that if the library was not securely locked by 9:00 in the evening, permission for it would be revoked once and for all!

All this notwithstanding, the work we did in the library gave us the greatest pleasure. We were supremely aware that the labor in which we were engaged had a supreme intellectual and educational value for the youth. How great was our joy over every new book that was added to the bookshelves! This realization gave us the spiritual satisfaction, in the face of which all the annoyances that were heaped on our path, from whatever source, were insignificant to us. We passed over them to get on to the main thing, which was continuing the enterprise. When I made aliyah in 1930, the new shift continued with the sacred labor, and persevered in it until the great calamity, when the library with all its principal parties – the leaders and readers, all together – fell into the abyss!

 

Footnotes
  1. “Enlightened souls” –maskilim, adherents of the movement in Jewish life that went by the name of the Haskalah (Enlightenment). This was an autonomous tradition in Central and Eastern European Jewish thought that had its roots in Moses Mendelssohn's Berlin Enlightenment of the 1780s, with successor generations led by seminal thinkers like Nachman Krochmal in Galicia in the 1830s and Isaac Ber Levinsohn in Russia in the 1840s. The creators of the new Yiddish literature of the 1860s-1890s (Mendele, Sholom Aleichem, and Peretz) stood squarely in this tradition and adapted it to the late 19th-century situation in Jewish history. The Staszów “enlighteners” of the early 20th century fed off all these legacies. (See Eliezer Schweid, The Idea of Modern Jewish Culture (Academic Studies Press, Boston: 2008) Return
  2. Persons in the photos accompanying this article: G. Goldhar, Cymerman, S. Hajman, G. Erlichman, W. Kopel, R. Tochterman. Second photo: A. Wolbromski, S. Hajman, G. Goldhar, G. Tenenbaum, R. Tochterman. Return

 

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