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[Page 211]

Sokolov Youth

Itskhak Nahari–Mendzshitski
(Kibuts Yagur)

Translated by Tina Lunson

Sokolov – a town like all Jewish towns in Poland. There was almost no “alphabet” school in Sokolov. Boys studied in khedarim and those who were lucky, in a yeshive. Girls went to the Polish government public school (powszichne). Also, a lot of boys went to the Polish public school, especially in the higher classes. Those who had in their earlier years studied in the khedarim moved over to the public school for several reasons (one had to pay for kheyder and a Talmud Torah was not suitable).

 

sok211.jpg
A group of Poaley–tsion members (“Freedom”)

 

There was no middle school in Sokolov and only individuals broke away to the surrounding cities (Vengrov, Shedlets and also

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Bialystok or Warsaw) to attend a trade school or a gimnazye, and as many as can be counted on the fingers went to the higher schools. The overwhelming majority were not allowed for economic reasons. And so the urge for self–study and for organizing into youth groups was understandable.

The Zionist organizations occupied a very important place, and even the political parties came to be led by young activists, especially the very strong Zionist parties of all stripes.

The pioneer youth groups were Ha'khaluts, “Frayhayt”, “ Ha'khaluts–ha'tsair”, and “Ha'shomer ha'tsair”. At the end of the1920s and especially from 1930 until the outbreak of the World War, there were more than a thousand organized youth. The youth pursued an answer – not only to develop society and culture – but also purpose. In Sokolov there was no opportunity for economic facilities and Zionism, particularly Worker–Zionism, roused, encouraged, showed a way, and hundreds were fired up with belief in Zionism and left for Erets Yisroel.

 

sok212.jpg
A group from “Bafrayung”

 

I was active in “Ha–khaluts” and in “Frayhayt” and was the founder of “Ha'khaluts ha'tsair” in the years 1927 to 1935 (until my own aliye to Erets Yisroel).

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During the same years I was also active in the political party “Poaley tsion” Zionist Socialists.

Political argument and undertakings were not the only content of these organizations, but also cultural, literary activities of a general Jewish or worldly character.

The library named after Y. Kh. Brener was built by individuals, and help from the organizations with hundreds of active readers. It is worth taking this opportunity to mention the members Yosl Rozentsvayg, Zishe Fridman and Yosef Rubin of blessed memory, who devotedly built the library, not sparing any effort or time in enlarging the number of readers and acquiring new books.

And not only passive readers: various literary talks or literary contests, checkers evenings or conferences with Jewish writers and poets. In a word, the library was one of the most important institutions to sate the thirst of the youth (and not just young men!) to know and to study what they could not get in another place.

The library held thousands of Jewish books, originals and translations from classic literature, almost everything that had appeared in print in Yiddish. Now is the time to specify that Yosl Rozentsvayg, Zishe Fridman and Yosef Rubin gave years, day in and day out, to the library while their single intellectual satisfaction, literally a holiday, was when they got a new reader or brought new books from Warsaw.

There were dozens of activists in Sokolov, in the library or in the youth organizations; in the party or in the drama circle or the shul organization, the Prebel shul, Free Scout (from “Frayhayt”), “Keren–kayemet”, “Keren–ha'yesod” – everything was voluntary, with devotion and enthusiasm and not once did the activist have to cover “small” expenditures from his own pocket…

 

The character of the organizations

There were no “golden youth” in Sokolov and no assimilation. The organizations schooled their own leaders and activists. Circles met together several times a week. There was a lack of social venues, so people met in private homes and read, heard a lecture about culture, literature, sociology or social problems.

The activity was multi–branched: self–education circles,

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excursions, summer camps, winter seminars which were central or regional, and so on, one activity more or less completing the other.

The youth pulled away from their earlier path and in the movement acquired a world–view of national and social freedom, sincere in the BATSOYGEN, not seeing any abstract ideal but the opposite – touching each one personally and understanding that it is only with his identifying himself, with placing himself on the side of a realist, is the guarantee that his ideals will not become a Utopia.

The inner relationships were fine friendship and familial. They developed the feeling of reciprocal help, in one word: the organization for him became a second and – many times – a better home…

The youth had received almost no musical education. There was no choir in the town, no orchestra, and no symphonic concerts were heard. They did not know about classical or modern music. The fire department's band played sad or happy marches, according to the need, and that at a very low level. Some learned to sing a

 

sok214.jpg
A group of “Haluts ha'tsair” – 1930

 

little in the public school or knew some Jewish tunes from their parents, from the high–holiday liturgy or from Hasidic singing and devotions.

But the youth sang. Yiddish folksongs developed.

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There was no musical notation but a song was sung from circle to circle, from town to town, from place to place, through summer camps, seminars or conferences; and especially the songs of erets yisroel which were brought in by messengers from erets–yisroel. Hundreds of folksongs – songs or regular Hasidic nigunim [complex tunes without words] ¬– were taken around by the youth. Curious: I once went to a presentation by Ha'khaluts–ha'tsair in “Dom Ludovi”. They had written 2 or 3 political parodies to well–known folk tunes and a few years later in Vilna, Leybl Shpizman (secretary of Frayhayt) grabbed me and wanted to sell me (for a price, that I would teach him a new Yiddish folksong) those very parodies that were new. Fresh off the press…

The Yiddish theater provided no few songs, despite their level (which in a small town was not very elevated). The youth would extract the kernel, uncover something new in it and turn it around in their own particular, robust way.

At that time there were not yet any sound–films or radio. Intuition and sensitivity enlarged the limited possibilities; in short, the youth were full of joy and life, an idealistic, dancing and singing life.

The Poaley–tsion party with its hundreds of members was then actually an “older youth organization”. The majority of its members were almost 30 years old (I myself joined the party when I was barely 17). With the history and rich multi–branched activities of the Poaley–tsion party it was certain to take in new members.

Here I will mention just a few members who were murdered during the Holocaust: Alter Shuster, a party leader in Poland, a worker his entire life. Despite his heavy worries about livelihood he did not abandon his community obligations. He was a doer and a teacher. Not always successful in helping himself, he was generally ready to help a friend. He was beloved not only in party circles; he was a leader not only in the areas of small–town Sokolov. In his later years in Bialystok he was one of the party leaders there.

Yitskhak Skole, master and teacher, lived his last decades in Warsaw. He was one of the founders and leaders and also subtle, and an individual, sympathetic person. He came to socialism first of all for ethic and human reasons. A Zionist heart and soul. Permeated with culture and knowledge. Drawn to the book as to something holy. In

[Page 216]

1933 when Hitler came to power, he felt a repulsion to flesh and blood and became an ethical vegetarian. He supported the theory that everything bad and cruel and murderous came from eating flesh and blood. In his later years he also speculated on philosophical questions. In Hitler's hell Skale was active in the Warsaw ghetto, an activist in the public kitchen, helping to organize a Hebrew–Yiddish school network in the ghetto. He was close to the Ha'khaluts circles. He was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto.

Yitskhak Zarembski, a folksy type, an impulsive, energetic activist; there could not be a party committee without the energetic Zarembski; the eternal treasurer of the party, who always covered the party's deficits from his own pocket. He was also always ready to help a friend in need. He was the proprietary member of the party, and his home was the center of the Poaley–tsion affairs. Honest and loyal, he was devoted to the movement; an individual without complaints and limitations, a rare type for whom the word and the heart were one.

Khenokh Zayants, the intelligent young man. The opposite of Zarembski and maybe quite a complement: deliberate, logical, calm and systematic. He never hurried and he was never late. Most of the time secretary of the party, was one of the most important party activists. Always a smile on his lips. Treated everyone with honor, calling up the respect of his opponents. There was no important activity in which he was not the nerve and the tone–setter in the movement. And not only just within the framework of the party: in every general societal party activity Zayants was the messenger. His knowledge and dedication brought the party, and him, recognition and praise.

Exterior – calm. Interior – far from calm. He dreamed of erets–yisroel and more than once told me about his “dreams” of building his life in erets–yisroel; he dreamed but did not achieve…

These are just a few of the dozens of activists, outside the elders who were mostly intimate friends. The murderous hand erased the reserve of Jewish hopefulness and realization of ideals.

[Page 217]

sok217a.jpg
A group from the drama circle of the “Poaley–tsion”, 1922

 

sok217.jpg
Uncaptioned
_____________ scouts, Sokolov, 31 September '38 [possibly '36]

 

[Page 229]

The Bund in Sokolov from 1900 to 1911

Itskhak Nahari–Mendzshitski
Nosn Fodemberg (Los Angeles)

Translated by Tina Lunson

The Bund – which was organized in Sokolov in the beginning of 1900 by Avrom (Leser) Grinberg, Leyb Fodemberg, Shepsl Berger, the black Yosl, Avrom Tshishinski, Kalman Yekhiel Fridman, and others – was the first political national party that, in my view, brought a new idea and independent thought into the town; that was the party that awoke in the worker youth, and to some extent in the yeshive youth, the consciousness of fighting for economic improvement and political, national, and cultural activity.

From 1900 to 1905 the Bund had hardly any respect from us in the town; from time to time a brochure appeared, or a proclamation that went from hand to hand among “certain people.” And it was read with great interest and caution. Sometimes outside people showed up, with long, untrimmed hair, red shirts worn out over their trousers and belted with broad sashes knotted with fringes that dangled as they walked. These people drew the attention of our young men – shnekes as we youth were called at that time. We followed them with curiosity and interest until they drove us away. As we later realized, they were agitators. They came often to Sokolov from Shedlets and later from other towns to give instruction to the founders of the Bund in order to form birzshes or exchanges, to lead agitation among the workers and organize various actions.

The enlightenment work of the Bund was conducted at the exchanges, in gardens, in the woods, behind barns, and in other secret places. It was all very conspiratorial. But it began to draw the attention of the police, who noted the outside people with their strange clothing and also the hangers-on who followed them around. The police began to follow too,

[Page 230]

investigating their work, and in 1905 the Sokolov police broke in on a lot of leaders of the young Jewish Bundist organization, arrested them, and sent them off to the Shedlets regional prison for sentences of various lengths.

The first arrest came unexpectedly. The young Bundist leaders were, in the beginning, a little shocked and that broke off the activity of the Bund for a short time, but the work was gradually reinstituted and the activity continued.

The ground in Sokolov was fruitful for Bundist activity, as the town had a lot of craftsmen such as shoemakers, tailors, cap-makers, furriers, quilters and others who sold their merchandise in the markets, fairs, and to merchants from far-off Russia. The workers in those crafts worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day and before the Jewish holidays entire nights, for a paltry semi-annual or annual pay-off. Although the worker and the proprietor would meet in the beys-medresh to pray, or for a toast on a celebration, or on being called up for an aliye to the same Torah scroll, there was nevertheless a hidden resentment smoldering in the heart, a dissatisfaction with their proprietors for the countless hours of work every day for small wages. A few workers would individually in some way or another ask the proprietor to raise his wages. Some few received the raise but mostly they had to finish the season for the price that they had been hired for.

The Bundist activists took advantage of the difficult situation of the workers to spread proclamations and brochures, to agitate and awaken the consciousness. Gradually the agitation had effect. The peace between workers and proprietors was weakened. The workers began to be convinced that asking proprietors individually for a larger wage was in most cases a specious conversation. On a certain day the workers declared a strike against Meshe Simkhe Yoel's. Their demand was: twelve hours a day of work for the same wage.

There was tumult in the town. The proprietors had never heard of such a thing. Such presumption: Presenting demands to the proprietor and stopping work, or not giving any more – such a thing had never happened in the history of Sokolov. Meyshe Simkhe Yoel's called the parents of the workers also guilty for the strike. But to

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great wonder he found out that there were tsitsilistn in the town who spoke about the strike without the workers. Meyshe Simkhe Yoel's was obstinate. He would not beg the good-for-nothings to go back to work. Let them strike however they wanted, he thought. When the strikers wired him that they would throw his whole workshop of boots out on a market day, he gave in to the demands.

 

sok231.jpg
A Bundist group in 1910
[The sign they are holding seems to read “Bundist Group, Sokolov 1919”
– it's not so clear, it could well be 1910]

 

The first strike won was a great victory for the young Bund in Sokolov. That gave courage for further work and gradually the demand for a twelve-hour work day spread to all the branches. In a short time the Bund was able to introduce a twelve-hour work day in all the factories in Sokolov.

In the first period after its founding, from 1900 until the First World War in 1914, the Bund brought class consciousness to our workers in town for economic improvement, encouragement to read, learn, and elevate the cultural situation for the backward and ignorant--a short period but a large and important piece of work for that time.

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The war of 1914 took away some of the Bundist leaders to the army; others left the town. There were no activists left in town to continue the work, except there was still a commotion in town. True, it was lit by the workers from before the awakening of consciousness, who learned from the Bundist agitation.

Meanwhile people read what they received: a proclamation, a brochure. People were more aware, more ripe, and when the Germans occupied our town and instituted an abnormal life – those thoughts that the Bund had awakened came to be expressed. There was now an intelligent and conscious youth.

Culture clubs were created. Political parties. Drama circles. As in every town, so for us in Sokolov, we had diversity of opinions that led to a division of our Sokolov youth into two opposing political ideologies. On one side the Poaley-tsion headed by Borekh Vinogura, Ayzik Platner, Itshe Farbiazsh, Nosn Koyfman, and others; and on the other side, the Bund with Noske Fodemberg, Borekh Rozenboym, Itshe Shpanke, Shmuelke Bornshteyn, Nekhe Veligura, Gele Grinberg, and others. The Bund rented space for a club from Aron Kopls. We brought in speakers and arranged readings, opened a library, subscribed to the Bundist Lebns fragn (Vital questions) from Warsaw and conducted a little political work.

The work spread widely and blossomed. In 1918, when the First World War ended and there were opportunities to emigrate, almost all the Bundist activists left Sokolov for Argentina, Erets-yisroel, the United States, and other lands. The younger generation that remained took over the work of the former members of the Bund until the outbreak of the Second World War and the khurbn (Holocaust).

 

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