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[Page 835]

Bobruiskers in America

by Yehuda Slutsky

Translated by Don Mopsick

The immigration from Bobruisk to America began in the second half of the ninetheenth century. Single families and small groups left on the path to their new home, because of livelyhood or to eschew theTsar's military service and save themselves from political perscution.

Israel Kopeliov, who came from Bobruisk to America in 1882, mentions in his memoirs, Once in America (Warsaw, 1928), just a few encounters with his countrymen. But in the 80's and 90's of the last century, we already find in the Yiddish press in Russia news about groups of emigrants, cheifly artisans and workers, on their way from Bobruisk to America. In 1888, Hamelits writes in a correspondence from Bobruisk about the striving to emigrate to America. In a book, The Jews in Canada (Montreal, 1930), is related about Avrom Rudolf, who was 19 years of age, came in the year 1888 from Bobruisk to Montreal, and later played a leading role in the Jewish community. In 1894, the Landsburg family came from Bobruisk to America, where Rivke Landsburg in the coming years distinguished herself by her activity in the community.

At the end of the 19th century, there was already a significant number of Bobruiskers in New York. mostly of the religiously disposed. Coming to the new land, they found themselves in a difficult situation: lonely, lost, alien in country and alien in language. They had to adapt themselves to the new life, and also learn a trade.

The economic situaton was then strongly opressive, the work hours long, the income small. The factories - dark and opressive. One had to work long hours to make a living and accumulate extra money in order to bring the family over from the old country more quickly. Many of them were not able to stand the difficult work and they went back. The more courageous remained.

Most of the immigrants were then grouped in the vicinity of the East River, New York. Landsmenshaftn and khaverim (societies) then began to be created whose cheif goal was temporary economic and spiritual help.

A group of Bobruiskers in 1898 founded the Congegration Anshey Bobruisk, Moyshe Yitskhok Goldman, chairman. At their location on Henry Street, besides praying they also took up temporary aid: interest-free loans, help in case of sickness and cemetery plots for the deceased. In 1938, the congregation counted 315 members (of them merely half truly Bobruiskers). With the congregation was a women's branch, ("Bobruisker Ladies' Auxiliary"), Kh. Gorelik was the secretary. The congregation had its own rabbi, a burial society, and a gmils khsdim fund.

Several years after 1898, some of the countrymen chose for themselves the East River and settled in a new Jewish area in Brooklyn. There a second shul was founded with the name Khevre Aguda Akhim Anshe Bobruisk, led by Yakov Kinstler, Harry Mashrum, and others.

Such unions, which concentrated around their own shuls, were established also in other ciites in America (for example, the “Bobruisker Kehila" in Baltimore, founded in 1905; counted in the beginning 40 families).

In the beginning of the 20th century, in the days of revolutionary turmoil in Russia, the Jewish youth of Bobruisk streamed to America; especially those who were active in the revolutionary parties and had run afoul of the authority organs and police. Almost all of them stemmed from hard-working and proletariat parents, “by the wetlands near Bobrulke [river], in small, leaning-over cabins at Sloboda, Minsk Plan, Berezina-bred," thus they were characterized in a greeting poem by Hillel Maytin, also an immigrant form Bobruisk. They came from the Bund, form Yiskra, S.R., Lover of Zion, and S.S. Berl Katsenelson in his open letter mentions many of his comrades who, by way of the Land of Israel, came to America, and there they remained.

[Page 836]

One of the Bobruisker immmigrants, Ahron Gorelik , in his memoir-book, Stormy Years (New York, 1945), writes broadly of this wave of immigration.

At first these radical immigrants were not organized, but when the oncoming news about the progress of the revolution in Russia was taken in, an upstanding group of Bund and S.D. organized under the name of “Bobruisker Revolutionary Union" with the goal of supporting the revolutionary movement in Bobruisk. The union would from time to time send money to help worker comrades, buy arms for self-defence, etc.

With the growing absorption in American life, the Bobruiskers founded more and more standing local organizations. It shines that the first such organization was established in 1906 in Chicago in the framework of Arbeter Ring [Workman's Circle], (Bobruisker Branch, 131 Chicago). In 1938, at the head of the Branch stood S. Gardov.

In 1907, an economic crisis ruled in the country . Unemployment was great at that time. A group of Bobruiskers got together in the house of V. Kestin and thought about their general situation and decide that every one of them should unite with as many countrymen as possible in order to create a branch of the Workmen's Circle. At a picnic arranged by the Free Worker Voice in July, 1908 in Almer Park, there were encountered 23 energetic young Bobruiskers, and on that beautiful Sunday there was laid the foundation of the establishment of Bobruisker Branch 206. In the newly founded branch, the countrymen held meetings every two weeks. V. Kestin was chosen as the first financial secretary, the membership was comprised of students, yeshiva bokhers, workers, and others. The slogan was “one for all and all for one."

All looked upon each meeting with so much eagerness, because to that meeting used to come new countrymen with fresh regards of the time. There they received the first brokha (blessing). Temporarily, heated debates took place, but by the close all remained the best of friends, united.

Branch 206 was one of the biggest and most active in the family of Workmen's Circle. In 1938 it counted 400 memers, and in 1958, (at the 50-year jubillee) - 465 members, among them more than 50 youths born in America. One of the most committed comrades of Branch 206 was Ruben Guskin, one of the most important leaders in the Jewish worker movement in the United States. After his death in 1951, the branch adopted his name.

The financial secretaries of the branch were: Jacob Goldberg, Felix Zeldin, Avrom Fikus, Louis Shildkret., Izzy Wolfson and Jacob Neuman. The last several and twenty years, the secretary was one locally-born who reads and speaks Yiddish fluently, the son-in-law of Rubin Guskin, Izzy Ginzburg. There should also here be noted that some of our membership were active in the cultural area: Mikhl Gorelik, Avrom Gorelik, Jacob Fakstov, etc. and Louis Kaplan. They founded or took part in founding Jewish schools for chldren.

After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, emigration to America stopped. In 1917 there were so many young memebers entering the U.S. Army and, until they returned, their membership dues were paid by the kase [fund] of the branch.

[Page 837]

When the war ended, the Bobruisk Relief Committee was founded in New York to help countrymen in the old country, and Avrom Fikus was elected as the administrator. He organized a general relief which was composed of the Bobruisker shul, Chicago Bobruisker A.R. Branch 131, and other smaller societies and unions. A fund of ten thousand dollars was created. In 1919, two branch delegates were elected, Felix Zeldin and Avrom Fikus, and from the Bobruisk Bes Hamedresh, - a delegate, Tevye Lafon, whom the Bobruiskers had to give help. But because of the war situaton in the vicinity of Bobruisk, the delegates did not have the possibility of executing their aid mission of distributing financial help to the needy of Bobruisk. The greater part of the gathered money was returned and distributed among charitable organizations in the United States, of which the Histradrut received a significant sum.

In that time the Bobruisk Branch arranged every Sukkos and Pesakh a dance ball and masquerade which a thousand Bobruisk countrymen used to attend.

With time, Bobruisk immigrants produced a great number of writers, editors, poets, artists, scientists, leaders, and naturally, businessmen who played a significant role in Jewish and general life of America. For example, Dr. D.W. Shimen (came to America in 1920), director of the eminent College of Medicine in Chicago; Mendl Elkin, longtime secretary of YIVO in America; the poet Tsilie Drapkin; the writer Yosef Tunkel (the Tunkeler); the above-mentioned Ruben Guskin; Yehoshua Goldberg, cheif Rabbi of the American [Naval] Fleet , and so on, in various important areas,

After the Second World War, Bobruisk countrymen in America were taken up with organizing aid for Bobruisk. The Bobruisk Relief Commitee of Nonpartisan Countrymen was established, whose memebers did not belong to the relgious circles, nor to the Workmen's Circle. In support of this committee stood Velvl Levkovitsh, one of the first Lovers of Zion in Bobruisk.

The committee later united with the two old unions and they all educated the General Bobruisk Health Committee under the leadership of Nokhem Halperin, one of the central figures in Branch 206.

[Page 838]

In 1948, when Medinas Yisroel Branch 206 was founded, many contributed with financial help and also bought (the branch and single members) Israel Bonds in the thousands of dollars.

The branch supported many charitable organizations which turned to it for aid. Over 58 years since Branch 206 (or Bobruisker Branch) was founded, the members still felt young and active. This is thanks to a number of the members. One of them who earned great recognition was the chairman David Kof. We first celebrated his 75-year jubillee, may he live to 120! Kof came to America as a young boy with great hopes and ambition to study and become a doctor, but because of the war and financial circumstances, he gave up his studies and became a successful businessman.

Before the last 17 years, he was the standing chairman of the branch. He led the meetings with intelligence, tact and was loved by all the members. Our protocol secretary was Ahron Meyzlson, a yeshiva student in the old country. Wise, intelligent, and to-the-point, his protocol was carried out and clear. He also was loved by the branch members.

A number of famous personalities were among the members of the Bobruisker Workmen's Circle Branch: Mendl Elkin, Yosef Tunkel, (the Tunkeler), H. Maitin, Dr. Yehuda Minkin, Jay Grayson, (Greyevsky).

Regrettably, because of limits of space, it is not possible to mention all the active cultural and financial contributors who deserve recognition.

[Page 839]

When the Bobruiskers in Israel, headed by Kadish Luz, chairman of the Knesset, were taking steps to publish the Sefer Bobruisk, they established contact with the Bobruisker countrymen in the United States. The go-between was Meyer Solof of the first Lovers of Zion which came to America in the beginning of this century and made aliyeh to Israel in 1962. At the end of 1963, the American Committe for the Bobruisk Yiskor Book was founded.

The American Committee was in the beginning composed of Chaplain- Yehoshua Goldberg (chairman), Dr. Yehuda Minkin, Nokhem Nelson, Nokhem Halperin, and Dovid Kof. Supported by Dr. Yitskhok Mikhlin, Lazar Estrin and Yehoshua (Felix) Itkin.

In 1965, the committe was reorganized on a successful method: Rabbi Yehoshua Goldberg, (chairman), Dr. Yehuda Menkin (chairman), Moshe Itkin, (secretary).

Members: representatives of Branch 206 David Kof, Ahron Meyzelson, Nokhn Halperin, Israel Fikus, Nokhm Nelson.

At the first meeting of countrymen and Branch, the chaplain Goldberg addressed the crowd and aked for help in undertaking in publishing this book about Bobruisk through sending in photos and other materials and also collaborating with financial help.

Thanks to the tight cooperation among the Bobruiskers in Israel and the Bobruiskers in America - this book, which will serve as a memorial to the city of our birth, Bobruisk on the Berezina, shines forth.

[Page 844]

In Memory of Khaim Katsenelson

by Nochum Nelson

There were two brothers—Chaim and Berl Katzenelson. The younger one—Berl—dedicated himself to matters of the Jewish world; the older—Chaim—to practical matters.

Berl, became the well-known Zionist activist, who already at 16 was known as a genius. He was involved in world affairs. And if anyone needed an answer to a question from Marx's “Capital” or from a Marxist instruction book, he went to Berl, like religious Mussulmen [Moslems] to holy Mecca.

If one had to organize a squad to carry out a strike—that was Chaim's job. If there was news that there was a program in a nearby town, Chaim was the first to worry about security and would organize a group of young men who were good at fighting and quickly send them there. There was no issue in the revolutionary activity of Bobruisk Soviet Socialist Party that Chaim did not take an active part in: hiding an underground printing press, transporting ammunition, readying a hiding place, and whatever. Often his photo laboratory served as a meeting place for local meetings.

I recall with what respect I would regard Chaim when he would appear at a meeting (I was 16) and from some corner his voice would be heard: “Act properly.”

I remember many episodes from Chaim's life and his activity in those stormy days. I will tell some of them and thereby eternalize his memory.

The police chief once told Chaim that Bobruisk did not need two police chiefs, and that since he did not plan to resign from his position, it would be better for Chaim to leave Bobruisk.... It is said that the police chief said the same to Nacke—one of the leaders of Bobruisk Bund.

When the Homel pogrom broke out in 1905, Chaim and groups of comrades from the Bund organized a self-defense group of “strong” young men and led them to help the Jews of Homel. On the way to Homel they were stopped by the police who forced them to go back home. Chaim understood that they would be arrested in Bobruisk, so he commanded that they should separate five verst [about 3¼ miles] before Bobruisk and enter the town via different paths.

In Bobruisk all the Jewish parties—Bund, Soviet Socialists, Poalei-Zion—had separate groups. In order to arm themselves, they needed money. Each party would send out a delegation of “strong” young men, who would go to the rich Jews to “ask” for money to buy arms. In the Bund, the leader was Nacke, in the Soviet Socialists—Chaim. Once it happened the several young men form the Soviet Socialist Party came to Nacke's father for money. Nacke's father was firm that until he got an order from Nacke, he would not give any money. The group answered that their leader was not Nacke but Chaim and make a wreck of the house. And that was when Chaim screamed out his popular saying: “Behave properly.”

One winter evening Chaim was arrested and they found a note in his pocket with the name of a person who was supposed to meet him at 10:00 at night. They brought Chaim to the train station—the meeting place. The sheriff and several policemen were hiding and looking out at the platform where Chaim was in order to arrest the visitor, when he would approach Chaim. When Chaim saw that the visitor left the car of the oncoming train he raised his collar and ran past him calling: “Cold, ride farther.” Once, twice, until the visitor understood what it meant and got back on the train and disappeared.

That was in 1905 or 1906. I was then sitting in the Bobruisk jail. We were 12 political prisoners amidst 120 criminals. I was the oldest of the political prisoners and the spokesman of criminal prisoners was a Siberian, a convict. Relations between us were good. The criminals respected us, they left us alone until a certain comrade was brought to us. Several months before, early in the morning, that comrade of ours, in an open assembly pointed out a thief in that group, by calling out: “Beware of thieves.” One of the thieves recognized him and for that sin the thieves decided to get even with him.

I went over to the Siberian, appealed to his intelligence not to allow a bloodbath, but my words fell on deaf ears. “Give us the politician and nothing will happen to the rest,” the Siberian demanded categorically. It is understood that such a thing was decided for us. Turning to the chief of the jail was also not a solution. We decided not to give up our comrade but our chances of protecting him were slim.

Early the next morning Chaim was brought to the jail. When I told him what was happening with our comrade, he went straight to the Siberian. The meeting between the two leaders lasted less than an hour and the incident was straightened out.

I don't know what kind of magic Chaim performed, but I do know it was easy and secure to live and work hand-in-hand with him.

May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life


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