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[Page 19]

Our Hometown, Grayeve

By Mayer Vaser

Translated by Tina Lunson

Dedicated to my dear life companion Manye (Miriam), killed in Treblinka, in August 1942; my only child Hanushe (Hinde), killed in Treblinka in August 1942 at the age of 16; my brother Gershon, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto in August 1940, and his wife, killed in Treblinka; my sister Khave Kantorovitsh and her husband Heshl and two boys, who perished along with all the Byalistok Jews; my brother Eliahu and his wife and two boys, killed in Treblinka; my sister Tsivie, killed along with all the Grayeve Jews.

A town like any town, one of over 600 “Jewish” towns and villages in the land of Poland.

The Jewish settlement in Poland was more than 800 years old before the Second World War. The Jews in Poland live through various times, good and bad. Apparently more were bad than good, but they always moved ahead.

Polish Jewry had a reputation in the larger world, wherever a Jew was found. In old times past, it was famous for scholars, loving kindness and good works. In the last few generations modern Jewish culture and literature arose in that place. Over a period of hundreds of years, Jewish Poland influenced all the Jewish settlements in the world.

The Jewish settlement in Poland also significantly affected its non-Jewish surroundings. But it was influenced in no small part by those same surroundings. Ideas of national and social freedom struck deep roots. Jewish youth threw themselves into the struggle to realize the thousand-year dreams of Jew and human with Hasidic fervor and self-sacrifice.

Then the Second World War began. Poland was destined to be the first flooded by the German-Hitlerist wave, which continued to roll over the countries of Europe with frightening impetus. It did not take long for the Hitlerist animals to tear out by the

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roots the ebullient Jewish settlement in Poland and to annihilate all the Jews there. Of the more than six million Jews killed during the Hitler slaughter in the ghettos, death camps and gas chambers of Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) and others, approximately half of them were Jews from Poland.

The pre-war settlement of more than three and a half million Jews in Poland is no more. The great majority of towns and villages where Jews had lived for centuries were now “Judenrein” [“clean of Jews”].

Our hometown Grayeve shared that same bitter fate. Our nearest and dearest were also driven in the death march of millions of victims – our blood brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. Their huge, unknown common grave is leveled off with the ground. No kind of gravestone, no kind of marker indicates the place of their murder.

We want to recall them in the most unassuming way. We want to try to record their life, their joys and sorrows, concerns and celebrations in the times before the bloody flood.


With its own face

Although it was a small town, Grayeve distinguished itself from its surroundings. Grayeve had its peculiarities, which separated it from the other surrounding towns larger and smaller than Grayeve. The particular face of Grayeve was formed over time. But at the turn of this century the physiognomy of the town was already clear and definite. And that period until the First World War we will record here.

Two factors had a decided effect on the development of Grayeve. First, the nearness of the German border: in total about 4 viorsts (a little more than 2 American miles) separated Grayeve from the Prussian border town of Prostken [Prostki]. Second, because of the train junction with Germany, Grayeve became a transit point for lively traffic in international trade.

Grayeve was the last train station of the big southeast train line that ran from Odessa by the Black Sea, through Kiev and Ukraine, cut through Polesia (Brisk [Brest, Belarus] ) and then through Byalistok [Białystok] and ended in Grayeve.

Not one of the surrounding towns had a train junction. Not even the larger provincial capitols – Lomzhe [Łomża] on one side and Suvalk [Suwałki] on the other side – had a train junction until well into the 1890's. Thus Grayeve became the transit center for merchandise that arrived by train for all the towns and villages near and far. From there, the merchandise was distributed to the surrounding towns by large and small wagons and covered wagons.

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How did Jews make a living?


The most important thing in the life of Grayeve was the border. All kinds of grains were exported through Grayeve to Germany, from as far away as deep Russia and Ukraine. Of those Grayeve Jews who took part in the grain export, the following names remain in my memory: Shtrausberg, the Bufenshteyns, Meyshe Ayzik Vaynshteyn, and Borkovski. Lumber was exported as well, raw and finished, that came from the Polesia forests.

In general the export was diverse. So for example, mushrooms from the Belorussian forests were exported. Grayeve Jews – the brothers Ravidovitsh, Yankl Ginzburg, Nosn Frank and others made a profit from it. Kempner and his sons exported flax. Crayfish were also exported. But eggs, especially goose eggs, took the top place in exports. Horses also held an important place in export.

The geese were brought from Russia. During the summer almost everyday whole trains went by with tens of cars loaded with geese. On the German side of the border the geese had to go through quarantine. If the inspector found even a couple of sick geese in a car, the whole car was sent back to Grayeve. In such cases the merchants often tried to drive the geese along the highway through Bogushe [Bogusze] to Prostken, where the inspection was not so strict.

Among the geese dealers were Yankl Vadovski, Leyb Vanovitsh, Rinkovski, Yudeinski and others.

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The horse export developed very significantly. Grayeve horse dealers used to travel deep into Russia to buy horses raised on the broad Russian steppes. Whole trainloads, with eight horses to a car, went through Grayeve to Germany. Some of the exported horses went beyond Germany to other countries. During the English-Boer War (1899) thousands of horses that had been bought for the English Army passed through Grayeve.

The rise and development of the Grayeve horse trade was very curious. For tens of years Grayeve Jews traveled to Germany to sell grease for wagons. From one season to another, from after Peysakh until Sukes [the festival of booths] and from after Sukes until Peysakh, Grayeve dzshegtshares [tar dealers] traveled around among the villages of Prussia and other German territories in their covered wagons, in order to buy up their goods. They made their living that way. Gradually the more enterprising of the dzshegtshares went into horse dealing and worked their way up very well. Specific horse dealers were Yamshun with his partner Shimer, Bialishevski, Vayslovski, Kalinovski. One of the horse dealers, Kurlender, settled in Breslev [Braslaw] where he possessed his own large horse stable.


A large role in Grayeve's development was played by the import of foreign goods that passed the Grayeve border and through the customs house on the way to Russia. The goods were quite varied, but the majority consisted of machines and parts for machines for Russian industry. The import of herring played a specific role, being shipped to Poland, Belorussia [Belarusand even further. Over many years carloads of dynamite for the coal mines in southern Russia and for the oil wells in the Caucasus passed over the border.

A number of shipping offices sprang up around the import of foreign goods. Their work was to calculate the border tariff for the customs and to send the goods further on to their places of destination. However the Russian tariff was very complicated. It took long years until an employee could specialize as a declarer of the border tariff.

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The shipping offices were in Jewish hands. The most important of them were: N. Yezsherski, the brothers Levin, Eliahu Verzshbalovski, Alshvanger and Fayfenzilber, Yudl Bialistotski. Beynish Kolko and Mayer Zilbershteyn were partly involved. A large number of youths from among the wealthier class were employed in those offices. Verzshbalovski and Yezsherski were bankers during that same time, representatives of large banks in Warsaw.

In contrast to export, which Grayeve Jews ran with their own hands and responsibility, their role in import was a more limited one. It consisted only of the function of handling the border tariffs and sending the merchandise further on.

The Secret Border Trade

A wide-branching illegal trade went on around the border. A couple hundred people were drawn into it. Various goods were smuggled in from Germany that way, beginning with warm underwear and other merchandise up to German lottery tickets and even revolvers for the Polish and Russian revolutionaries and for Jewish self-defense against pogroms around 1905.

In the morning dozens of people – men, women and even children – would travel by train to Prussia and then return laden with illegal goods. The border patrol and the overseers at the customs house were usually bribed and they turned a blind eye. But there were also cases of failure, with arrests and prosecutions.

Besides the train, smuggling also went on through the border by the village Bogushe. A highway that started at the edge of town, at the end of Bogushe Street, led to the border point. Tens of wagons with passengers drove back and forth. It was not a secret to anyone that a large part of the passengers came back loaded with illegal goods.

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Another place was used for illegal emigration through the border. Tens of thousands of Jewish émigrés stole across the border around Grayeve on their way to America. Among the illegal immigrants were also revolutionaries, and not only Jews. So, for example, it is known that the eventual president of the Polish republic between the two world wars, Moszcicki, stole the border at Bogushe in his young revolutionary years.


Grayeve did not possess any special industry. However at times, thanks to the proximity of Grayeve to the border, efforts were made to establish factories that would be supplied with raw materials brought from Germany, and not necessarily by “kosher” means. Several such efforts succeeded. The enterprises became established and later did not need to receive raw materials smuggled over the border.

At the beginning of the 1880s a certain Aronson started a weaving factory, for silk ribbons. In the later years the factory was moved to Byalistok, where it existed for many years.

At about that same time a factory for manufacturing rubber products, like elastic bands for shoes, suspenders, and sock-bands, was created in Grayeve. The founders were Leyzer Hepner and his son Leybl Meyshe, and son-in-law Hersh Vaser. Another partner in the factory was a German Jew Zalinger from Lik (Prussia) [Ełk, Prussia]. After several years they had to give up the factory. It was taken over by a Suvalk banker, Pokroiski. Because Pokroiski got entangled in his banking business, the factory was auctioned off in 1896. Then it was bought by one of it founders, Leybl Meyshe (Volf) Hepner.

Over a period of several years Hepner was able to improve the condition of the factory. In time it became one of the most modern and largest in its field in Europe. It employed almost 300 workers. Most of the workers, weavers, spinners and so on, were not Jews. Jewish workers worked only in the ready-made department that manufactured suspenders and sock-halters. Jews also worked in the box department and in making crates.

In the 1890s Yosl Bialostotski built a chemical factory that was crowned in the mouth of the folk as the “bone mill.” The factory used bones in the manufacture of glue and also fertilizer. In hindsight, that factory was one of the first in the great land of the tsar.

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The brothers Rinkovski established an umbrella factory. That factory supported Jews. Leyble Yokhson also started a similar factory.

In 1905 Berl Gershuni founded a factory for mother-of-pearl buttons. He employed tens of workers, mostly non-Jews.

In the latter years a certain Shtaygman built a steam mill. There was also a tannery in Grayeve, which belonged to Leybl Levit and his son Tuvia.


The entire internal town trade was in Jewish hands. Of the large number of shops that filled the market square on all four sides and parts of Highway Street, Raigrod Street, Shul Street and others, only a few were not Jewish.

They were mostly small shops for the needs of the town people, the majority of them Jews, and of the surrounding village population. On market days, Tuesday and Friday, the peasants brought grain, potatoes, eggs and fowl into town to sell, and also wood and peat for heating. With the money that they earned they bought what they needed for their own households in the Jewish shops.

The fairs were very lively. Hundreds of peasant wagons filled the market, the Shul Street and all the surrounding streets. Besides the already-mentioned village products, the peasants then brought cows and horses to sell. The buyers were once again Jews. And in the Jewish shops, as in the market trade, there were good proceeds from the peasants.

Among the shops there were a row of larger ones, for example, the fabric shops of Etl Mishkovski, Zerekh Elkan, the ironmonger Avrom Yankl Zshmievski, the bakery and delicatessen of Sapirshteyn and Vigodski.

Providing products for the military took its own place – there was a troop of cavalry and a brigade of border patrol stationed nearby.

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The Grayeve Jews Leyzer Hepner and his son Leybl Meyshe and son-in-law Hersh Vaser built the barracks for the troops. Leybl Meyshe Hepner later also built the buildings for the administration of the border patrol and living quarters for the officers. Meyshe Babkovski built the barracks for the border patrol.

The largest proportion of products for the military was provided by Jewish contractors: Bernshteyn, Dorn, Kats, Epshteyn, Burshteyn, and others.

The Grayeve Jews Knarzovski, Meyshe Shaye Zshmievski and Babkovski, as building contractors, erected government buildings, bridges and roads in various towns and regions.

For many years Grayeve merchants leased ponds, both on this side of the border, like Tatshilova [Toczyłowo] and on the Prussian side. Issakar Koptshovski and Mayer Novinski – both sons-in-law of the first and oldest wealthy Grayever, Podbielski – kept ponds for fishing in the famous Prussian Mazur Lakes.


Crafts were also almost exclusively in Jewish hands. First the tailors, among them the best tradesmen in the area: Meyshe Mendl Kureyvovski and his son Yankl Yudke; Hamburg, Avrom Itsik and others. There were no non-Jewish tailors in Grayeve. The same for the shoemakers: Lozshe, Tuvia, Shepsl, Shimon, Gershon (with the exception of one Laskovski). Most of them worked to order, but there were also some who worked for the market.

Besides tailors, shoemakers and cap-makers, there were carpenters, locksmiths, tinsmiths, painters, masons, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. The latter consisted of whole “dynasties” of grandfathers, fathers and grandchildren. The bakers were also Jews, among them Moti Abramski, Peysakh Starozshinski, Rutke Bagish and her sons Gedalye and Shaye Leyzer, Langus, Efroym Zeligzon, Mikhl Tsibulski and others. There were watchmakers, Levi Tenenboym and Ziberski. Both worked together with their sons. And of course there was the goldsmith Levin. Also the butchers and fishers were Jews.

The number of wagon-drivers and porters was large. Some of the wagon-drivers distributed the goods from the train to the surrounding towns.

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Outside the town there were several Dutch windmills. The mills served mostly the peasants. They also made rye flour for the bakers. Two of the windmills belonged to the brothers Avrom-Itskhak and Khaym Katsprovski. Leybl Tutlman, Markus and others brought better wheat flour by train from Russia.

Intellectual Life

Considering it was such a small town, its intellectual life was very multi-hued. People not only prayed in the Large Shul, in the bote-medroshim [Houses of Study] and in the Hasidic shtiblekh [small house of prayer used by Hasidim], they also studied with gusto. There were a number of scholars in town, who were known far around.

The education of the younger generation was mostly observant orthodox. Besides the khedarim [Jewish religious schools] there was also a Talmud Torah and a small yeshiva.

Thanks to their connections to the larger world, Grayeve, earlier than the surrounding towns, was infected with the spirit of the haskole [Jewish enlightenment movement]. The first maskilim [proponents of the Jewish enlightenment movement] were Knarzovski, Avrom Mordkhe Piurka, Leybl Kolko, and others.

Piurka was really a great scholar and knowledgeable in all the wisdom of Judaism. He was also a Hebrew writer and master of Hebrew grammar.


A class of Jewish girl pupils before the First World War


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As a teacher of Hebrew, he planted a love for the language of the prophets in a large number of the youth. He demonstrated much knowledge and initiative in collecting and giving out Hebrew textbooks. He put his meager earnings to use in publishing the first children's journal in Hebrew, “Gan sheashuim.” Unable to obtain a permit for the journal from the tsarist government, he initially had to have it printed in Lik (Prussia). By the way, there was still no printing press in Grayeve then. Later, A. M. Piurka himself established a printing press – that was incidentally the only Jewish press in the entire region – and a Jewish book dealership.


Khibes Tsien – Zionism

The rise of khibes tsien[1] found a reverberation in Grayeve. In the 1890s there were about 80 khovevi-tsien [members of khibes tsien] in Grayeve, who paid the three rubles a year every year to the Odessa Committee[2] of the khovevi-tsien. Indeed those members built the foundation of the first Zionist organization in Grayeve, Bney tsien [Children of Zion]. Already at the First Zionist Congress[3] in Basel, the Grayeve Zionists were represented by their own delegates, Beynush Kolko and Ravidovitsh.

The orthodox Jews had, as everywhere, initially looked askance at the Zionists. There were disputes and feuds. The Rov Mileykovski (later rov in Kharkov) used to try to smooth things out, but without success.

A significant role in the development of Zionism in Grayeve was played by Yankev Olshvanger (died as a young doctor) and his brother Alek (been in Israel for many years). While they were still university students, coming home for holidays and vacations, they arranged lectures on Zionist topics. Elimelekh Pomerants also played a certain role.


The Libraries

Grayeve also had the first Yiddish-Hebrew library in the area. The foundation was laid by one Grinboym, an employee in Yezsherski's office. He contributed his own library of a few hundred books, mostly Hebrew. He also set his own residence at the library's disposal (in Yamshun's house).

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The library became the gathering place for the Zionists. Non-Zionist youths who were wearied by the difficult questions that Jewish life and life in general brought up, also came there.

In time there came a division of thinking. Some of the youth then tried to establish another library. But that was not so easy, because one had to first get a permit from the police authorities. They convinced Eliahu Vaks, who was “kosher” in the eyes of the police that the request should be made in his name. But the further development of general events in 1905, it seems, upset the realization of the plan.

As usual, there was also a shadow-side to intellectual life in Grayeve. It was the conflict around rabbis, Jewish judges and slaughterers; between misnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] and Hasidim; then between orthodox and Zionist that would from time to time overheat their dispositions. Also the standard disagreements between fathers and children; between young and old were vividly reflected in Grayeve. All that could not noticeably weaken the intensive intellectual life that, in hindsight, pushed our town forward relative to the neighboring towns.

As regards living together with the non-Jewish neighbors in that time, it was initially not bad. Active anti-Semitism only began in 1912, after the elections to the fourth Russian parliament, when Jewish voters in Warsaw elected the Polish socialist Jagelo. From then on, one could notice continually worsening relationships in Grayeve too. The whole Lomzhe region in time became – especially between the two world wars – one of the most poisonous nests of anti-Semitism in half-fascist, pre-war Poland.


Workers' Movement

The first efforts to draw the Jewish worker into community life were made in 1901-1902. This was done by several young Zionists, led by Elimelekh Pomerants.

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In those days the workers, actually the handworkers' associations – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and so on – worked from before dawn until late at night. They took short breaks to pray and to eat. On Thursdays they often worked the entire night. Also Shabes night after havdole [the end of Shabbat, separating it from regular weekdays], they went back to work until midnight.

At first the only goal was to draw the workers into the circle of the Zionist movement. An attic room was rented in Meylekh Vaks' house. Shabes and holidays they prayed there in their own minyon [prayer quorum of 10 Jewish adult men]. Discussions of Zionist themes were also held there.

At that time there was already a powerful revolutionary, socialist movement going on among the Jewish workers and the youth in almost all the towns and villages of the Pale. Individual socialists and revolutionaries showed up in Grayeve too. They were workers from other towns – carpenters, printers, who were working temporarily in Grayeve. There were a few Grayeve workers too, who had worked in larger towns like Byalistok or Warsaw, and also students. But the town as such – the workers and the youth in general – were still little touched by the revolutionary, socialistic current of that time.

A change took place by degrees. As a consequence of the defeats in the Russian-Japanese war in 1904-1905, the air in the huge land of the tsar was laden with social gunpowder. A revolutionary wave poured everywhere over the country.

Then one could notice a change in the mood among the Grayeve youth in general and the workers in particular. The leadership of the Grayeve poale-tsien[4] was taken over by the young Zionist idealist, Mordkhe Rembelinker. They began to devote more attention to the unmet needs and wants of the workers.


Strikes and Clashes

In the summer of 1905 there were strikes, the main one by the tailors' association.
During a strike in the tailoring workshop of Yankl Yudke Kureyvovski there was a sharp physical clash and the police were called in.

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The police looked on the workers with suspicion. One had to watch out for a “good eye” from every policeman and gendarme. Because of this the gatherings of the poale-tsien had to be held in the forest outside the town. [4*]


Mordkhe Rembelinker   Elimelekh Pomerants
Hebrew teacher and Zionist activist


A series of strikes by the non-Jewish workers took place in Hepner's elastic factory. And the Jewish workers – stitchers and others – went out on strike too. But an event occurred that was characteristic for many Jewish manufacturers in that time.

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Hepner had no choice but to give in to the demands of the weavers and of the other non-Jewish workers. But he stubbornly refused even to negotiate with the striking Jewish workers. The strike lasted for weeks. Recognizing that he could not break the strike, the manufacturer closed the division where the Jewish workers had worked (ready-made). He shipped the work off to Warsaw to be finished. This was a terrible blow for tens of Jewish workers and their families, who were left hungry because of the truculence and powerfulness of a Jewish manufacturer. One of the leaders of the strike was Itshe Vilenski, a quilter who died along with the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto.


Political Awakening

Within the poale-tsien itself, individual members who were not happy with the apolitical and exclusively Zionist character of the organization, began to break off. The dissatisfied members found themselves under the strong impression of the revolutionary activity of the Bund[5], which among Jews played the leading role in the struggle against tsarism in the area of the Pale of Settlement.

At the end of the summer, Abush Kolko (son of Beynish Kolko) returned to Grayeve. All of 18 years old, he already had a “history” behind him. For his sympathies to the revolutionary movement and the Bund, he had earlier been expelled from the Suvalk gimnazye [secondary school]. He then became an employee in a pharmacy in one of the weaving towns near Moscow (apparently Ivanova-Voznesensk [Ivanovo]). Kolko was arrested during a strike by the local weavers. Because he was a minor he was shipped home under police supervision.

The disaffected among the poale-tsien grouped themselves around Kolko. Along with the writer of these lines (who used to help Rembelinker in the poale-tsien), the dissatisfied youth tried to win over the entire organization to their side. However they ran into resistance from Rembelinker, Antshkovski and others.

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During Sukes 1905 proclamations from the Bund suddenly appeared on the streets, on the walls, and also in the bote-medroshim. They caused a great stir. A Bund organization was also created, which quickly won over a large part of the poale-tsien. Endless discussions went on between the two organizations. Lengthy open discussion groups were also held, with the participation of representatives of both organizations who had been brought back from outside (Byalistok).

The failure of the revolution in 1905 was accompanied by a frightful political reaction. Abush Kolko was arrested in Grayeve and taken to the Lomzhe jail. A case was made against him to include all of his “sins.” After a year in jail he was sentenced to hard labor for two years and eight months and then to deportation to Siberia. This “milder” sentence was motivated by his youth. In 1912 he escaped from the place of his deportation place in Siberia, and came to America where he remained until 1917. From then on he was in the Soviet Union.

The reaction also drove the Grayeve workers' movement underground. But the kindled flame was not entirely extinguished. Years later, at the first opportunity, the movement came to the surface again.

* * *

That is how life appeared in our hometown in those times. It was not an expansive life. It did not lack for worries and frequent trouble, but there were also joys; it was intellectually and socially on the rise.

It is hard to make peace with the thought that today there is no trace left in Grayeve, that the German Hitlerite hordes killed all the Jews in Grayeve and that the town of our childhood and youth, where a robust Jewish life pulsed, is now “Judenrein.”

We Grayever, sown all over the world, will surely hold in our hearts the memory of our dearest and nearest – fathers and mothers, sisters, and brothers, relatives and friends, of all the Grayeve Jews who were savagely annihilated by the cruel assassins.


1 khibes tsien: associations of proto-Zionist study groups formed in Europe from about 1880 until 1902-1903, after which they merged into the Zionist movement. Return
2 Odessa Committee: “The Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine,” was a pre-Zionist charitable organization which supported immigration to Eretz Israel and helped Jews engage in productive work, particularly in the field of agriculture. Return
3 First Zionist Congress: organized by Theodor Herzl and held in Basel, Switzerland on 29 Aug 1897. Its main goal was to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel. Return
4 Poale-Tsion: movement of Marxist Zionist Jewish workers in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century. Return
4* [written by author, M.V.] Of the poale-tsien of that time Heyman Blum, Sam Krinski, Rafoel Kats, Hershl Zaydenburg, Philip Buzman, Beni Bagish, Adom Taytelboym, and others are now in America. Return
5 Bund: Jewish Labor Bund was a secular anti-Zionist socialist party in the Russian empire active around the turn of the 20th century. They focused primarily on furthering the rights and status of the Jewish proletariat Return


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