by Chaim Bulwa, Uruguay
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
Our generation, which experienced truly revolutionary changes, left its mark on the way of thinking and on the development of the political and cultural life of the youth of the town.
This youth -carried away by the spirit of the times -intently followed the new ideas and trends of the period, gulping down newly published works of both a social and a nationalistic nature.
Some of them, led by Moyshe Dajtelbaum, personally participated in 1905 in the social upheavals of that stormy era, not only staging strikes in the town, but also mounting demonstrations, complete with red flags.
On the other hand, the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 inspired in everyone (excepting, of course, the Bundists) tremendous enthusiasm, reviving in young people the hope that the old-new messianic ideal of the diaspora would soon be realized.
As a result, by the end of the First World War, in 1918, we already possessed a significant town library and a widespread network of political parties. But the most important political force was the Bund, established in the town by Chaiml Pantirer.
In 1918 there arrived in Staszów a young man from the Będzin Gymanasium [academic high school], called Itsik Tenenbaum. This energetic fellow, who was originally from Staszów, established a Jewish Scout organization, Hashomer, which 20 boys and girls soon joined.
As children of an oppressed diasporic nation, painfully aware of their people's enslavement, and yearning with the fervor of youth for deliverance (which in that time of the Balfour Declaration seemed so near), the Hashomer could not be satisfied with the Ten Commandments of [Lord Robert] Baden-Powell, the credo of the international Scout organization. Thus, to justify their existence, Hashomer undertook another task, which later became its central mission: to prepare themselves, physically and mentally, to make aliyah [emigrate] to Eretz Yisroel.
Our First Outing
Sporting hockey-outfit uniforms, and holding long, thick walking sticks, we made our first outing to Szydłów, a nearby town. By 5 in the morning we had all gathered at the meeting place in the school, in Roczyński's [house] in Tume Street [the Jewish name for Kościelna, or Church, Street]. Ceaselessly singing Polish songs, we marched quickly in time while Commandant Tenebaum acted the role of a real general.
As we approached Kurozwęki, the village dogs met us with such barking that all the peasants came out to gape at the wonder. Halt! Halt! came the command. We quickly set up a tent, and asked the peasants for water to fill our canteens. We grabbed a bite to eat, and continued on our way. We had barely taken our first step when the villagers began throwing stones at us. Tenenbaum again ordered us to stop, and dispatched Moyshele Zalcman to punish the village. Moyshele, a nimble fellow, and a born comedian, ran at the village cottages waving a long stick over his head, and thoroughly cursed out the villagers - in Hebrew!then, shaking with laughter, ran back. Proud of our heroism, we marched on.
When we arrived in Szydłów, the whole town welcomed us like a victorious army. Chaim Wajnberg gave a droshe [sermon] in the shul, and we received aliyahs [were called up to read the Torah], and they couldn't do enough for us. We, who had experienced such an epic undertaking for the first time, were truly happy.
We returned to Staszów, marching to the beat of our well-trained chorus. The streets were crowded with people, mostly our own age, as well as the merely curious -Jews and Poles -interested in this new creature.
When, soon after its founding, Hashomer announced a recruitment campaign, it increased its membership many fold, despite being very selective. Among the recruits was Moyshe Dajtelbaum, who was well known in the town. He was a bachelor, an intellectual with considerable artistic talents, but he was a pedant, with a tendency to be dictatorial and juvenile. When he gave lectures, which were actually quite interesting and learned, he insisted that we listen to them standing in rows, and at any sign of restlessness, he would command, Baczność! (Attention!)
Hashomer earned an outstanding reputation in town, to the extent, that on the 20th of Tammuz, at Dr. [Theodore] Herzl's yortsayt, [anniversary of death] some of the melamdim [teachers of young children] handed over their pupils to the Shomrim [guardians, i.e. members of Hashomer Hatzair], who drilled them and marched them, holding blue and white flags, through the whole town to the shul for the memorial.
Hashomer's cultural program consisted of teaching Jewish history and Zionism. But the main emphasis was on physical exercise and outings; they even carried out military maneuvers. After a while, the enthusiasm for physical development abated. The reason was that many shomrim, as workersmostly kamashn-makers-belonged to a trade union, which actively fought for [political] principles. In the union, the shomrim encountered the Bund, which held that the Jewish question was an organic part of the general social problems of the country, and that it would automatically be resolved with the social liberation of the whole Polish proletariat. So why go to Palestine to struggle with desolate nature and the innocent Arabs?
There [in the union], we encountered Yisroel Sznifer, a short, thin boy with slightly crooked legs. Sznifer was a born idealist. He often spoke about the Messiah, and deeply deplored the gentile nations, who, for the sake of the transient and insignificant oylem haze [temporal world] destroyed the light and wisdom of the Jews.
In later years, Yisroel's optimism came to encompass the entire world. Why, he asked -in polemicizing with the Bund -fight only for Poland, when one could liberate the whole world at the same time? Basically, he remained the same naïve believer, whose childhood faith in Moshiakh Ben Dovid [Messiah] was transmuted into the Marxist messianism of his later years.
Jokers used to say that Yisroel Sznifer always assured people, with total conviction, that permitted not a shadow of a doubt, that this year at harvest time, the social revolution would inevitably take place.
The Ten Tsadikim [saintly men] of Sodom
In contrast to the wide horizons that the Bund, and, even more so, the Reds, opened up for the idealistic Jewish youth, we shomrim saw our mission as confined to the limited domain of our narrow little world. We reduced even further the limited aspirations of the Zionist movement, which focused on a small point in the Asian desert, and satisfied ourselves with a fraction of that point, where we could freely live in our own isolated community.
From the beginning of mankind, there have been sturdy, static, calm natures, who accepted reality as a given, and lived a quiet, peaceful life. There have also been people with dynamic natures, so-called dreamers, adventurists who rebelled against reality, and sought or proclaimed new paths, with the explicit intention of changing that which exists, or of creating new ways of life and conditions, as dictated by the ideas that gave them wings.
We shomrim, in our own little world, set ourselves a difficult but exalted goal: to direct the natural adventurist impulse of the few and give it an idealistic, pioneer character. True, we were well aware of the small number of pioneers whom we could gather under our flag. But we ascribed enormous importance to the pioneering example of the few, who with their personal actions, needed to serve as an example for an entire folk, yearning for its own corner of the world. Exactly as in the wonderful bible tale, in which ten tsadikim could save Sodom from destruction, so were we convinced of the moral power of a small handful of shomrim - pioneers, with their personal example of courage and dedication, to radically alter the relationship of an oppressed people to its home -Eretz Yisroel.
The principle upon which the shomrim based their entire work was: education through self-education. In practice this meant that teachers must be the same age as the students, and that the latter should actively participate in teaching, with the aid of discipline and self-discipline. With this educational system the shomrim aimed to set themselves apart from the surrounding community, and to create, in their closed group, an intimate and familial atmosphere. These family-cells were later to be transplanted, just as they were, to the soil of Eretz Yisroal, and from there to influence the people in the desired direction.
At this time, Dovid Grynberg, a boy from Warsaw and a student at Lemberg University, came to teach in our local Zionist school. His entry into the group brought a radical change, not only in organizational aspects, but also in other areas of activity. The first noticeable signs of this change were the dramatic withdrawal of Moyshe Dajtelbaum, to whom Grynberg immediately threw down the challenge: It's me or you!, and the elimination of the long sticks and, later, of the uniforms as well.
The ken [branch or cell of the organization; literally, nest] was especially well suited terrain for a new experiment. Many members carried within themselves a kernel of idealism and were disposed to fall under the influence of new principles and educational methods, principles and methods which evoked the hope of broadening our outer life and deepening our inner life.
Some of our Human Capital
A kamashn-maker by trade, Aron Rotsztajn, together with his sister Velke, toiled and sacrificed for their gifted little sister, Esther Gitl. We would often take a walk on the cement road, into the wee hours, and Aron, a cheerful, well-built fellow, never stopped singing and laughing. He remained optimistic, even when he went hungry, which often happened. When it did, he would say, Who needs to eat, when it's such a beautiful moonlit night!
Getsl Erlichman exerted great influence on the ken. Everyone loved him. Especially attached to him were the kefirim [young lions?], because of his sincerity, sensitivity and exceptional dedication.
Although he came from Szydłów, Meyer Wajl spent most of his time in Staszów. Meyer possessed the ability to dream out loud among other people, and in so doing, he influenced them to dream along with him, and to candidly reveal all that weighed on their souls.
Even as a child, Sore Smukler wrote beautiful poetry. Unfortunately, she died young from tuberculosis. During her illness she would speak of the next world, with such beautifully colorful descriptions, that it both horrified and comforted us at the same time.
A strapping boy, Melekh Rozental channeled his great energy into inexhaustible optimism, which carried everyone along with him. He was a dear personal friend, and once confided to me, Before our time to die comes, medical science will surely have found a way to let us live forever. Hurry up, Melekh, because I'm already turning grey! And you?
Moyshe Rotenberg organized a well-trained chorus for us, and was himself an outstanding violinist. There isn't anyone from Staszów who doesn't remember the glorious chorus and its performances.
Dovid Grynberg was a wellspring of energy. Moreover, he exerted a hypnotic effect on everyone. Even old women would look at him and say, A real goy, but what a head he has on his shoulders! The stones practically trembled under his step. His whole appearance instilled respect from everyone, not excepting the Poles. The mayor (in Polish, burmistrz), the pharmacist Krauze, was quite worried that Pan [Mister] Grynberg might someday replace him as mayor. No one in Staszów, before or after him, earned as much love and respect as Dovid.
As head of the branch [of Hashomer Hatsair], Dovid Grynberg did not carry out any political propaganda, but occupied himself simply with broadening and deepening our intellectual development. He decided what to do, and just did it, without further ado.
We also didn't lack for delightful and gentlemanly jokesters, such as Avigdor Erlichman, Ita Chelmer, Gershon Kriger, Yosef Winer and many others, who kept us in stitches.
I beg the podium to have pity on me
As noted above, our educational system was based on self-education. Each member received a book or brochure, and at a pre-determined time had to be ready to make a report on its content, along with his own comments.
I was assigned to give a report on Dr. Herzl. As I mounted the stage of the branch headquarters for the first time, I saw that all the seats were filled with shomrim, looking right into my eyes, waiting with anticipation to hear what I had to say. I lost control of all my senses. What had happened? The room had been so full of noise and laughter and, now, suddenly, such oppressive silence!
To give myself courage, I grasped the podium with both hands, so that it should take pity on me and keep me from falling. At the beginning, when I was just talking about facts, it was tolerable. But after that - if only someone would cough, say something, or make some movement, it would give me a chance to catch my breath. But, nothing, just total silence. Everyone was sitting and listening attentively, knowing that their turn to take the stage would soon come.
This was the method of self-education in the branch. In truth, this system caused us quite a bit of anxiety. But, in the end, it proved very successful.
The turmoil of 1920
The war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks in 1920 terrified the Jewish population in the land. For generations, a declaration of war had been considered a disaster for the Jews. In truth, for whom and for what purpose should we be killed?
The province of Upper Silesia, which was then a plebiscite territory under international rule, became a point of attraction for thousands of Jewish boys, who massed at its border in order to avoid the danger of war, and go to Eretz Yisroel. Among those who fled were a group of shomrim from Staszów, myself included. The local German Jews and the local Jewish community council did everything they could to help us. Nevertheless, living conditions were very difficult, especially when the police began their raids on foreigners, in order to send them back to Poland.
With the help of false papers, we managed to reach Vienna, along with thousands of other Halutsim [Zionist pioneers]. There, we sought aid from the local Palestine authority, hoping impatiently to obtain certification [to emigrate] from its magistrate, Herbert Samuel. After hanging around, hungry and homeless, for six months in Vienna, many lost the patience to wait for the hoped-for certificate and gave up. Some went to America, others settled or tried to find a place to settle down, in Vienna, while I and several other Staszówers decided to go home.
The power of a home town
At the foot of Griśźikamien Mountain, not far from Staszów, we got out of the wagon, not only out of compassion for the horses, who had to pull the wagon uphill, but mostly because we simply wanted to escape the crowded wagon and stretch our cramped limbs.
With deep longing I gazed from a distance at the town. How tiny -like a box of matches-it looked from here. And yet this tiny pinpoint possessed such power! When you turned your gaze to the far and widespread fields, covered, as far as the eye could see, in millions of flowers, the heart filled with joy! In Vienna, a flower was a rare thing, but here -such an abundance of wonderful, colorful flowers, that it was a real pleasure to see. And now, the pleasant, playful breeze, accompanied by the joyful, incessant chirping of masses of all kinds of birds. It seemed as if all of nature had intentionally arrayed itself with special pomp in honor of our town. Embarrassed -but what could I do?my eyes suddenly filled with tears.
The library as a mezuzah
In town, I found the shomrim deeply immersed in study. Dovid Grynberg was giving a systematic course on ethics, according to [Harald] Hoffding [Danish philosopher], who had a completely bourgeois world view. At that time, our cultural activity, as in other organizations, was generally carried out in so-called hugim or small circles, which resulted in disrupting internal harmony. The membership began, in varying degrees, to come out against the overly dictatorial policies of Grynberg, who responded to our critique of his work methods with tragic seriousness, and permanently broke off his relationship with the branch.
With Grynberg's departure, Meyer Wajl set the tone for cultural work. We enthusiastically set to work on political economy, this time according to [German Socialist Karl] Kautsky, and on literature, especially allegorical works. Discipline was completely relaxed. The main stress was on learning, and only on learning.
We also took an active role in the local labor union and founded an amateur [acting] troop, whose entire proceeds were dedicated to the purchase of books for the library. As chairman of the library, my life was made miserable at the hands of the Bundists and Communists. They tried various stratagems in order to take over the institution, which was very important to them, since it was officially legal, and so could potentially serve as a mezuzah, or protection, for their [illegal] work. Nevertheless, the library remained under our control until the very end.
Boycott and Confusion
In the second half of the 1920s, Poland began to let the Jews know who is who. The slogan Swój do swego [Buy from your own people] was carried out in tangible form. Persecution and economic discrimination against the Jews became a daily occurrence. Also, the ruling principle of the adult shomrim, personal fulfillment, was not achievable. There did not seem to be any solution in the near future. After all, aliyah was at that time a very distant prospect, if not entirely impossible, and the flames were licking at our feet.
Confusion and anxiety reigned in the movement. Prominent members became despairing and passive; others gave up and left the movement.
In all of the shomrim publications, the same baffling question was posed: What is Hashomer? - a question for which there was no satisfactory answer. We did not yet clearly know what we wanted. In the realm of ideology things were not yet defined and well-established. The redemption of the Jewish people was the ideal that hung before our eyesbut should redemption be only for the Jews? And, most important: how to achieve this in practice and how long will it take? All of these questions remained hanging in the air, unanswered.
Not until 1927, in Eretz Yisroel, was the theoretical basis of Hashomer Hatsair crystallized. The pursuit of and struggle for the redemption of the Jews in their own home was conceived of as only a halfway step in the pursuit of and struggle for the international working class and backward, oppressed nations, with the goal of establishing a world of tomorrow, a world free of national and social enslavement.
The path of the shomrim in Eretz Yisroel, including a significant group from the Staszów branch, is the best summation of this educated, idealistic generation. This was a generation which did not follow the path of least resistance, but personally and constructively worked in the most disparate areas of nation-building, such as the cultivation of the Israeli wilderness; who met all the material and moral demands of the land, before and after the establishment of nationhood, with great sacrifice; a generation which voluntarily renounced personal happiness and careers, putting all of it material, moral and creative forces into the land and its people.
p.185 The Hashomer just after its founding
p.186 The first shomrim in Staszów
p.189 The first Hashomer members in 1918. Seated, from right to left: Shaul Chelmer, Moyshe Rotenberg, Pinkhes Graubart [sp.?], Osher Szmukler, Yankev Zinger. Standing: Natan Rajch, ____, Moyshe Zalcman, Chaim Bulwa
by Ruven Blank, Haifa
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
Hashomer Hatzair, a widespread movement well known among us, was for a long time headed by Getsl Erlichman. Although Getsl was mostly concerned with internal and educational matters, and only sporadically concerned himself with intellectual matters, such as literary discussions and the like, he nevertheless exercised an enormous influence on the formation of our ken [branch or cell; literally nest].
Meyer Wajl (who at the time of this writing lives in Tel Aviv) was influential for a short time. Born in a nearby town, Szydłów, he studied in the teachers'seminary in Warsaw. He came to Staszów during the summer vacation to lead the ideological and cultural work of Hashomer Hatzair.
Every morning from 6 to 8, during the two vacation months, Meyer Wajl would hold his talks on various literary, scientific, and ideological themes, while walking in the fields on the way to the Christian cemetery and the Golejów Woods . (These roads and fields are deeply etched in the memories of the young shomrim [guardians, i.e. members of Hashomer Hatzair.])
Of course, all these talks didn't turn us into philosophers. But they did achieve the goal that Meyer Wajl set for himself: to awake in us a thirst for knowledge and to broaden our intellectual horizons, to understand the bases of the existing unjust social order and the effort to build a new, more just world. This he instilled in our hearts and minds and that was his great personal achievement.
We go to Hakhshore [Training Camp]
To be accurate, it must be said that not just Hashomer Hatzair, but also the General Zionists, the Bund, the Left Poalei Tsion (we had no Right Poalei Tsion) and the Reds conducted political and cultural activities. What distinguished Hashomer Hatzair was that it was the only organization that laid the emphasis on educational work, that sought to create harmony between the ideals it espoused and the daily conduct of those who espoused them, that was not satisfied that people belonged to a specific political group, but demanded the highest possible achievement: personal fulfillment.
As a natural outgrowth of this goal, the local branch as early as 1925 made serious efforts to send bogrim [senior membersthe oldest age group] to hakhshore. It is worth noting that at that time, the Jewish population and even the General Zionist organization, displayed no understanding of the hakhshore institutionthe institution that marked a turning point in the life of the Jewish diaspora by creating the means for Jewish youth to prepare themselves for productive labor, which, in principle and in deed, it would have to continue in Eretz Yisroel.
After a series of unsuccessful attempts, the first bogrim set out to hakhshore, on an agricultural estate near Radom. At the estate, the workers and the bosses were, of course, all Christians. It is easy to imagine what kind of welcome they gave us, a group of young boys and girls who had voluntarily renounced their easy, urban pursuits to take on difficult agricultural labor. But the mockery and jeers from the Poles did not last long. They were soon convinced that they now had before them a different kind of Jew, a Jew that they had never before known, Jews who joyously and enthusiastically took on temporary difficulties in order to consciously attain the goal they had set themselves. And that goal was to develop a new kind of Jew who would be worthy, both physically and mentally, to begin a new, normal and self-sufficient life in his own home.
The group's first hakhshore visit came off brilliantly. The members returned as if imbued by a new spirit, committed to continue on the road that they had embarked upon. In 1927, a second, larger group went on hakhshore, this time in partnership with bogrim from the Częstochowa branch. The intention was to establish contact with comrades from a different community and background, and to gain experience that would undoubtedly be very necessary in their future lives.
The experiment was not successful. Serious ideological differences between the two groups led to quarrels and made peaceful coexistence impossible. In addition to these ideological contradictions, it didn't help that there were difficult economic and sanitary conditions at the hakhshore. The bogrim returned home depressed and disappointed, their earlier enthusiasm gone. In addition to internal factors, there was added an external, objective one. On top of everything else, the possibility of hagshama atsmit (personal fulfillment) was reduced to a minimum.
The gates of Eretz Yisroel at that time were practically hermetically sealed. The branch felt confining; the town felt confining. Members couldn't and wouldn't wait any longer. A portion of them left the movement and deserted to the Reds. Another group, who remained true to the idea but didn't want to stay any longer, went overseas, mostly to South America.
The crisis that reigned over the Zionist pioneer movement in general touched our town as well. In 1928, we rejoiced over the certification of two of our members to make aliyah, and a joyful farewell celebration was held. And in 1929, on the eve of the events [Palestinian riots and massacre in Hebron] in Eretz-Yisroel, a larger group made aliyah. But the situation of the loyal remaining senior members unable to make aliyah did not improve. On the contrary, their mood grew ever more depressed.
The situation was made even more difficult by the fact that, in the meantime, the leadership of the branch had been taken over by a younger, newly grownup generation who knew not Joseph. They no longer shared a common language with the new guardians. The remaining senior members hung around like forgotten, superfluous shadows.
But the ideological and cultural program was not interrupted for even a minute. Moreover, the usual work of enlightenment of the town youth continued, and new members were recruited. In short, there was continuity, the chain was unbroken.
The existence of the ongoing branch, despite everything, served as a consolation and a source of hope that helped overcome the temporary difficulties that were mostly a result of unfavorable political circumstances.
p.194 The first group to go on hakhshore in 1926.
p.195 A group from Hashomer Hatzair on hakhshore.
by Rabbi Benyomin Groybart, Toronto
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
During the first years of the World War, which began in 1914, it was absolutely impossible to imagine any kind of Jewish organizational life. The political restrictions, as well as the economic living conditions of the Jewish community in Poland under Tsarist rule, were so difficult –often even life-threatening –that the occupiers assumed in advance that every Jewish communal activity was an attempt at espionage or counterrevolution (Heaven preserve us!).
It wasn't until 1916, when the Austrian army returned for the second time, and there was a significant overall improvement in the condition of the Jews, that there also occurred a radical change for the better in the area of organizational life. As soon as it became possible to obtain Jewish newspapers, which were published in Lodz, new, refreshing breezes began to blow through the town. Zionist thought spread ever further and deeper, penetrating into wider circles, especially among the besmedresh bokhurim [the young men who pursued their religious studies in the besmedresh, or religious house of study]. Encouraged by the resurrection of national liberation ideology, the latter began to dream out loud about the imminent fundamental change in Jewish life and its future.
Of course, the Mizrachi ideal: The land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the Torah of Israel, was made to order for the besmedresh students, or even just the religiously inclined youth. It was really no surprise that the Mizrachi movement soon spread throughout Poland. The able and energetic Rabbi Złotnik (who at the time of this writing was named Avide and lived in Israel), who at that time headed the Mizrachi organization in Poland, had enormous influence over religious Jews, including myself.
Thanks to a group of Staszówer Jews, such as Reb Benyomen Tochterman, Reb Yosele Rajch, Reb Mordkhe Zeigermacher, and others, a Mizrachi branch was established in the town, and soon began developing a lively program of activities.
In addition to the purely organizational and Zionist work, the Staszów Mizrachi gave a remarkable amount of attention to education. One of its most important achievements, and one which earned the movement great respect in the community, was the founding of a Talmud Torah [religious school for young children].
The Talmud Torah not only educated a young generation in the spirit of the Mizrachi ideal of the uniting of Zion and Torah, it also made it possible for poor parents without any resources to give their children a modern upbringing and education, which they could otherwise never have dreamed of.
When this author took on the office of Secretary, the driving force of the Talmud Torah was Rabbi Reb Pinchas , chief judge of the besdin [rabbinical court], of blessed memory. At that time, I also, along with a group of fellow scholars, became active in Tseirei-Mizrachi, and was elected chairman of the branch. Our main activity was to speak Hebrew and to learn to write grammatically. Of course,
for young people looking for ways to channel their considerable energy, this was not sufficient. One of the ways we found, in the organizational realm, was to connect with other Tseirei Mizrachi branches and organize a conference for the entire region, which took place in Opatów (Apt).
In the realm of the besmedresh, I, along with Pinchas Dombrowski and others, channeled our energy into publishing a weekly newsletter in Hebrew called Besmedresh.
Ten copies of this paper, written out in pencil, were produced for several months. If I'm not mistaken, a girl, Fraulin Khaye Globerman, also worked on the papers. In addition to news and town events, the paper had a separate section for riddles and witticisms. For example, the well known saying in Pirkei Oves [Sayings of the Fathers]: Kinas sofrim tarbe chochma [Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom] had to be deciphered with the aid of various pictures and numbers as clues. For example, for kinas – a picture of a nest (ken) plus a spade [as]. For sofrim, the number 10 [eser] and frum [religious.]
I participated in Tseirei Mizrachi activities in Staszów until 1919, when I left town to settle in Tomaszów Lubelski, where I became a Hebrew teacher in the local Mizrachi school. After a while, I moved to Mielec, where I got married. For reasons not necessary to mention here, I escaped from there to Nitra (Slovakia), with the aim of going to Toronto, Canada.
From then on, I regrettably lost all contact with my home town, Staszów. But from news I received from time to time, I learned of the happy development, that Mizrachi and Tseirei Mizrachi not only continued, but did so with increased energy and scope. It was clear that a new generation had arisen, with devoted activists who instilled the Torah Zionist ideal in the broadest segments of the town, until the tragic, unbelievable end that wiped out our old, vibrant Jewish community in Staszów along with thousands of other Jewish towns, big and small, slaughtered by the Nazi devils.
May their memory be blessed!
p.197 Mizrachi and the children of the Talmud Torah
by Yosef Blusztajn, Bnai Brak
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
The activities of the Mizrachi organization in Staszów are inextricably interwoven with the multi-faceted social, political and religious life of the town, in which the Mizrachi organization occupied an important and distinguished place. As a member of Hashomer Hadati [The Religious Guard], an off shoot [youth organization] of the Mizrachi organization, and as one of the few remaining people with deep and intimate knowledge of Mizrachi's activities and its leaders, I will try –I consider it a sacred obligationto convey my memories and impressions of my personal experiences, so as to portray, with my modest abilities, those activities, as I saw, felt and experienced them.
1. Mizrachi as a cultural and community force
I was still a small boy when my father, Reb Noyekh Blusztajn, took me to pray at the Mizrachi quarters, which at the time were still located in the market square. But even then, and even more so later on, I understood that Mizrachi was not only a house of worship; it was a gathering place where people carried out their social, political and cultural lives.
Important events in Jewish life; ideas and beliefs, both local and general, that occupied the minds of the Jews; Zionist problems, whether current and practical or related to the post-Messianic future; religion and secularism – all those questions that informed Jewish life and consciousness in the diasporawere illuminated at the frequent gatherings and meetings at the Mizrachi quarters.
Jewish holidays were very important in the town. On every face could be seen an expression of sacred solemnity. But nowhere was the mitsve [religious obligation] of rejoicing on the festivals so fulfilled as at Mizrachi. There, they not only rejoiced and sang songs over a glass of whiskey, they also paid attention to the nourishment of the soul.
In the difficult struggle to make a living, toiling away for a whole week, the Jew stood alone amid a hostile and alien environment, separated from his community, fighting for his existence. But when a holiday came, loneliness disappeared. Suddenly, the Jew felt himself to be a link in a longer, strongly-forged chain, a member of a larger, self-aware community of Jews, who, united in a common goal, would forge a common fate.
This consciousness of collective power and shared goals was enhanced even more in Mizrachi, through the explanation of and commentary on every Jewish holiday, both from a nationalist perspective, and with religious and social significance. This enormously important emotional transformation in the life of each Jewish individual became for him a critical turning point, strengthening him physically and mentally, in his struggle for life. The frequent conversations and discussions on all the contemporary issues affecting the daily communal life of the Jews, whether local matters like the town council, the Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community], or matters of a national or religious nature –these all resulted in a membership that was well-informed on all controversial questions, and ready to respond to arguments and questions with heart and conviction.
When the Mizrachi moved into its own two-story building on Ritviner (Rytwiańska) Street, it devoted even greater energy to continuing and further extending its important educational activity. The chairman of Mizrachi in our town, Reb Benyomin Tochterman, and my father, Reb Noyekh Blusztajn, set the tone for the various Mizrachi activities and were the leaders in all areas. Reb Tochterman, an expert on the Torah and a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment, held talks on various topics, including current issues, and Jewish history.
Reb Noyekh Blusztajn was the so-called tribun [orator] of Mizrachi. At important town or community events, he would appear at the big besmedresh [house of study; also used as house of worship]. Threading his speech with a sea of citations from Midrash, Talmud and Tanakh, he would clarify and defend the Mizrachi position with deep conviction and strong powers of persuasion.
Many members also participated in the internal Mizrachi meetings. Many, such as Reb Shmuel Blusztajn (may God avenge his death!]) and Reb Mates Frydman (of blessed memory) often evoked great interest and applause with their weighty and unique opinions and approach to questions in general.
I want to mention two other activists, whose enthusiasm and devotion to Mizrachi served as an example for many others. Reb Shmelke Ajzenberg and Reb Anshl Hajman (both martyrs of the Shoa) were always the first to volunteer for any action, not exempting themselves from any hardship. Incidentally, these two were also good baley-tfiles [cantors or prayer leaders], contributing a lot to the joyous atmosphere on shabes and yontev.
2. The Emphasis on the Next Generation
The Mizrachi activists understood that it wasn't sufficient to address problems and events that were of interest only to the already adult, or older generation. From the outset of their communal activities, they placed their main emphasis on the so-called Next Generation (ha-dor ha-bo), the newly adult, younger generation, undertaking energetic measures to establish an educational program worthy of the name. And, in fact, thanks to the selfless efforts, without any expectation of reward, of a series of members, who devoted themselves to this vitally important task, the goal was fully realized.
In the Mizrachi schools for boys, in the Yavne schools for girls, and in the Talmud Torah for poor children, Mizrachi succeeded in drawing in the largest number of students in the town, providing them with the best possible pedagogical resources, both from the town and brought in from outside the town. The Mizrachi activists also displayed great courage by undertaking the daring measure, unpopular at that time among conservative religious Jews, of including secular as well as religious subjects. like history, modern Hebrew and accounting, and not in a superficial manner. They also hired a special teacher of Polish language.
Mizrachi also worked tirelessly to bring sanitary and health conditions to the highest level, doing all they could to bring about additional improvements.
In this regard, I must mention that the driving force in all of this work was the above-mentioned Reb Shmelke Ajzenberg, who spared no effort or time in pursuing this goal, and we have him to thank for the high level attained by the Mizrachi schools.
Let me mention some of the teachers in these schools, who made a particular impression on us students. (All perished in the Shoamay God avenge their blood!)
An outstanding expert on modern Hebrew and Tanakh (Bible), he worked to the limits of his physical strength in his effort to instill in the hearts of his young students the love and devotion with which he taught these subjects. Many Staszówers all over the world have him to thank for their knowledge of Hebrew and Tanakh, and for their reverence for the latter, and they remember him for that.
He looked like a ne'er do well, very shabbily dressed, but he was a great Talmud expert, author of a book of commentary, and overall a kind-hearted soul who never got angry. He also possessed a wealth of medical knowledge. Many Staszówers greatly admired him.
In conclusion, The teacher Guzhanski, a son-in-law of Reb Chaim Albaum, was a young man of intellectual appearance. He often visited Tseirei Mizrachi and Hashomer Hadati (both religious Zionist organizations), where he gave serious lectures on Hebrew literature and Tanakh.
3. Zionist Activities
The great difficulties connected with making aliyah to Eretz Yisroel, including age restrictions, limited work opportunities, limits on the number of certifications [from the Palestine Authority], etc., inevitably reduced Mizrachi's activities regarding Eretz Yisroel to propaganda for the Zionist ideal as such, while practical work was focused mostly on the Funds. [Keren Kayemet -- the Jewish National Fund, and Keren Hayesod-- the Foundation Fund or United Israel Appeal].
Whenever a representative of one of the funds came to town from Eretz Yisroel or from the directorate in Warsaw, to conduct a collection, it was Mizrachi that provided for him, enabled him to appear in the large besmedresh, and zealously participated in the campaign until it reached its goal.
Mizrachi was proud of every Jew in town who had the honor of making aliyah to the land of our fathers. Who can forget the joy with which the town accompanied the Rawet family when they set off for Eretz Yisroel? The day was truly transformed into a holiday for the entire community. As did all the Staszówer supporters of Zionism, Mizrachi saw in each aliyah –even of a single family or individual -- a symbolic identification with the fate of Eretz Yisroel, at the same time hoping for the moment of redemption when there would be (in the words of Jeremiah 31:16) a massive return of the children to their own border.
The interest in and dedication to Zionism and everything connected with its problems, in theory and in practice –was for Mizrachi a first principle. The organizing of the distribution of shekels [sold to support Jewish National Fund], the collections for the funds, public meetings, joint meetings of the committees of the various Zionist groups in town –everything took place in Mizrachi's offices. That was the center where all the threads of Zionist Staszów came together.
If anyone said a bad word about Eretz Yisroel –and we didn't lack for such people in our town – it hurt us more than would a personal insult. Zionist Staszów was especially affected during the events in Israel from 1929 onward. The news about Jewish-Arab fighting and the fallen victims evoked deep pain and worry for the essential work of nation-building, the only ray of hope in the darkness of the diaspora.
I remember an incident from this time, during a meeting of all the Zionist groups, that was devoted to these events. The representative of the local Hashomer Hatsair stated that he was sorry not only for the Jewish, but also the Arab victims, as they had been unknowingly incited by the reactionary forces. The position and tone of his statement evoked many objections and dissatisfaction, and many disputes.
An incident of a different nature occurred during one of the 20th of Tammuz memorials (for Dr. Theodore Herzl) that occurred every year in the town synagogue. Just after the town khazn [cantor] concluded the Eyl mole rakhmim [memorial prayer for the dead], my father, Reb Noyekh Blusztajn, began to speak in praise of Herzl and his work. As in all his speeches, he inserted many quotations from the sayings of the rabbis, and he cited the well-known saying: Our Father Jacob is not dead. His intention was to demonstrate that the idea of the dead visionary Herzl was immortal, because Zionism is a historically inevitable process, which draws its nourishment from the deepest sources of the Jewish national soul on one hand, and from the exceptional circumstances of living in the diaspora on the other. This innocent, well-meaning comparison between Herzl and Jacob was, whether intentional or not, unfavorably received, evoking a strong polemic by the members of the local Agudas Yisroel, (an anti-Zionist Orthodox political party), who were appalled by such a comparison.
This incident was only one in the long and bitter fight which Mizrachi was forced to carry out with the Agudas Yisroel, for whom at that time Zion was a sacrilegious concept, supposedly out of bounds. Despite this stubborn opposition, Mizrachi made great advances in disseminating Zionism among religious Jews in general and yeshiva and besmedresh students in particular. Using mostly arguments taken from religious sources, Mizrachi's tireless efforts at enlightenment penetrated deep into the hearts of these groups, drawing them, as active participants or sympathizers, into the circle of builders of a strong, new foundation of life on the territory of the historical Jewish home, on the territory of our sanctified fathers.
4. Mizrachi and secularism
Although Mizrachi's flag was inscribed, A renewed Jewish home, based on traditional religious foundations, and it did everything it could, under existing circumstances, to transform this ideal into reality, it knew enough not to cut itself off from secular circles. Mizrachi was not merely interested in, but even supported, with advice and assistance, each secular cultural undertaking, imposing the sole condition that it not violate the Sabbath, or the basis of Judaism in general.
When B. Yoshon and Editor Goldberg (both of blessed memory) from Haynt [Yiddish daily newspaper published in Warsaw], and Itsik Grinberg, (may he merit long life), visited Staszów during the Sejm (Polish Parliament) elections in 1930, they stayed with Reb Avrom Nisnboim, where they received a royal welcome. Their visit made an enormous impression on the town, and was a major topic of conversation for a long time.
When the town's Zionist youth organized a bazaar to raise money for Keren Kayemet, which was very tastefully done and which deeply impressed every visitor, Mizrachi was among those who offered a hand, actively contributing to the success of this event.
Apart from the basic antagonism between Mizrachi and Agudat Yisroel in relation to the modern Return to Zion, which Mizrachi had from its founding considered, next to its religious basis, as its principle task – there existed another significant difference between the two religious parties. This was the relationship between Mizrachi and that part of the Jewish people, including young people, who had departed from the traditional, well trodden path, who wanted to, and in fact did, serve the interests of their people through other, more secular means, ignoring the religious principle or even speaking out against it.
Mizrachi did not reject these people, did not focus on insignificant differences, and asked only: Are you one of us, or are you one of our enemies?[Joshua 5:13] Love of the Jewish people was the main criterion by which Mizrachi judged its relationship to other groups with different ideologies. In this regard, they often quoted the well known saying of the sages:
A Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew. And, so long as the Jewish sinner remained true to the Jewish people, Mizrachi considered him part of the family, a member of the Jewish nation.
In this way, Mizrachi remained true to its synthetical approach, combining Torah with Zion, and in the spirit of Hold onto the one, and do not let your hand let go of the other, did not shut itself off and confine itself to its own narrow circle. In its party ideology, it did not say, I and nobody else, thereby distancing itself from potential friends and allies in its shared efforts. Mizrachi was aware of and ready to help any new endeavor that had as its goal the elevation of the intellectual-cultural status of the Jewish people, no matter which side it came from. And, on the other hand, Mizrachi was ready to work together with others with conflicting ideologies in their yearning for Zion, to the degree that it did not conflict with the laws of the Torah, which the Mizrachi world view considered to be the most important foundation for the existence of the Jewish people.
p.200 Administration, Teachers and Students of the Mizrachi Heder[religious school for young children] in Staszów. In the middle, from the right: Shmule Herszkop, Hershl Szif, Yosef Blusztajn, Shmelke Ajzenberg, Yosef Szpinrad, Yosef Kestenberg, Anshel Hajman, Chaim Szternberg
p 201 [Program for] A Khanuke Performance in the Mizrachi School
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