by Aryeh Khativah, Kfar Witkin
Translated by Amy Samin
When the day came to create a memorial, in the form of a book, to the town of our birth, it was fitting that we also made note of the movement which came into being many years before the Holocaust. It is thanks to the mission and method of that movement that so many people remained alive to mourn the destruction.
The birth of the He Chalutz union in Goniadz came about when the second class of the Hebrew school completed its studies. On the evening of that last day, we – the students of the graduating class - were summoned by the distinguished educator Mordechai Nilovitzki, to a graduation party. It was not customary to invite any contributors or dignitaries to such a party, and the reason became clear that very night: that party turned into an emotional gathering marking the complete separation of the devoted educator from his students, who were like friends to him. His attention to and concern for the social solidarity of our group meant that we were fortunate enough to spend time with him earlier. It began with the conversations held prior
to the publication of the class journal, Ha Nitzutz [The Spark] and our close mutual contact at the time it appeared. Now, with our parting, his heart grieved with the fear that this tight-knit group might turn into riff-raff with its first contact with life on the streets.
On the street one could still hear at full strength all the enthusiasm over the great Russian Revolution. Its pretentious slogans for a comprehensive solution to all of the problems of human society, without distinctions between nationality and race, enchanted many and swept up countless Jews from every strata of society, including young men and women from our class at school, who looked on and were harmed a long time before we reached the end; and we were still just youth who had not yet reached the age of fourteen.
Indeed, the temptation was great, especially later on, when the Bolsheviks invaded Poland in 1920 following the withdrawal of
the battered Polish Army. Certainly many still recall those fear-filled days for the acts of robbery and terror by the retreating army. Even on the last day of the withdrawal, three Polish cavalry officers committed a robbery in the city, and only a few hours later a single Russian cavalryman suddenly appeared on the entrance road (Tiplaa Gas). Dressed in a red shirt, with one bandaged hand holding a red flag, he slowly advanced, without fear, towards the town square with a friendly expression on his face. How spectacularly brave his youthful performance seemed to us! While our attention was still caught by this solitary cavalryman, we got another surprise: from a different direction, the Dolostova Street side, hordes of foot soldiers who began streaming into the square. Practically all of them, much to our amazement, were barefoot and in tattered uniforms, and all of them were carrying rifles. They all had one question: ‘Is the road to Warsaw long?’ One regiment had been delayed, and here they were in the town square. The children who walked among them were given pet names, and they called the adults comrade. They spread out in the fruit and vegetable gardens like starving locusts, eating unripe fruit without noticing the difference.
After they had left the city, the cavalrymen kept coming including Cossacks, notorious amongst the people of Israel, all of them polite and friendly. The heart pounded with the heroic songs and the hopefulness radiated by the flow of cavalrymen, and the splendor of their devotion to the idea.
That same kind of fire was integrated in the soft hearts of schoolchildren with the coming of the news that there was hope for the founding of a Jewish state following the Balfour Declaration, and with the spread of the rumors of the existence of Jewish regiments in the Land of Israel, the flame ignited the New Spirit, which blew fiercely…Only the bloody clashes between Jews and Arabs that came later returned the balance in our uncertain hearts, but we did not give up.
Thus, at that same graduation party, the teacher spoke to the class demanding from us that we load upon our soft shoulders not only the burden of our newspaper, the character of which had yet to be formed, but also the burden of the revived nation, to join in the building of the homeland that was to be returned to us in the law of nations, to redeem the land that was empty and to fill it, not only with funds but, most particularly, with toil and also
with weapons, if needed. His words fell like seeds on a plowed field.
A few weeks later, with the end of the ‘honeymoon’ of our separation from school, there awakened a desire among the youth for initiative and action, and at the time, the goal seemed quite clear and tangible. The first group was made up of 11 youths. The process of unifying the group took a few months, and we refrained from admitting new members. Even after that, members were accepted one by one after meticulous investigation. All of this stemmed from the concern that broadening the organizational framework would create internal anarchy, and we didn't yet feel that we had the ability to control a group of youths who had no tradition of discipline, especially those youths who had not been students in the past. Attention was paid to integrity and fair behavior. The main period of growth was when we rented rooms for the club in the house of Eliezer Terschensky the carpenter, near the yard of the synagogue. We began cultivating connections with the He Chalutz Center, and we were fortunate to have visits from lecturers. We developed cultural activities and arranged question and answer receptions. Those activities brought many youth knocking on our doors. We absorbed many new members, including girls. Thus, the first group also constituted the subsequent dominant power which brought about the pioneering atmosphere. At that time, we felt powerful enough to create a new framework – He Chalutz Hazair [the Young Pioneer]. The role of leader was given to our friend Moshe Zakimovich, and activities were carried out separately. These were, generally speaking, the youths from the last class of the school. The activities branched out with the members' first trip to training sessions on the He Chalutz Center's training kibbutzim [cooperative farms]. Training was also given there on learning a trade, though principally we focused on agricultural training. This wasn't possible on the spot, and so we began to harass more than one farmer in the area surrounding the city to please allow us to do a little plowing on his land…At that time, plowing seemed to us to be the crowning glory of agricultural work. For a time we also performed exercises and drills, as a nod to the Torah verse to teach the sons of Judah archery, When we appeared on the streets and on trips on the roads outside of the city we would do so as a group, in friendship, in the way of youth – singing aloud. Thus, songs of all kinds filled a very honorable role, constituting a special gravitational force
for our group, especially the choruses and romances of the Land of Israel, whose great magic lay in their pleasant contents. Many people asked to learn the songs, even the non-Jews, our neighbors. Among the many evenings, I recall one when I was on the bank of the river near the home of the fisherman Bochanki, leaping from boat to boat, which were tied together with chains to wooden pegs, when suddenly a familiar, pleasant song reached my ears. I was amazed to hear Hebrew words with a foreign pronunciation: You promised me you would come. You promised – but did not come. I searched for you all night in the avenues. After a few minutes, I recognized the singer – the daughter of the Polish widow Veshinska, owner of the inn in the vicinity of our club, which was at that time in the Gerber house. I felt proud and content…
Our connections with the outside increased thanks first of all to our members in the training programs, and to our friend Elimelech Sheinenzon, who had a job in Warsaw in Krobio's department store and who, in his free time, would visit the Grochov training farm and the He Chalutz Center. Those places were the first in which there were meetings with emissaries from the Holy Land.
With the passage of time our branch became known among the other branches in the area (apparently by the He Chalutz Center) as a unified branch, well-educated in Hebrew and Zionism, even though the number of its members – even during the peak days - never went above forty or fifty. The He Chalutz committee in Grodno, which was founded in the autumn of 1920, a short time after the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from Poland, to which were sent two delegates
from our branch, also helped to strengthen our connection to the area, and therefore to broaden our horizons and instill confidence in those who led our programs. I was one of the delegates, and even today the breathtaking impression made upon me by the committee in its discussions and even in the fact that it existed, still lives within me. The cars of the train on which we traveled were crammed full of soldiers, and anyone who remembers the atmosphere that prevailed within the Polish Army following the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks can certainly imagine our feelings – but our fear was ungrounded.
The Polish Army, under the leadership of Pilsudski, had made a hasty retreat to the gates of Kiev; the fortress in Grodno was one of the few places where the Poles were halted and fought a rearguard war. The signs of the battles were still quite evident in Grodno and the surrounding area.
The conference was held in an expansive, well-lit auditorium, and the gathering of a great many delegates swarmed the auditorium and the area around it. Loud and fluent speech in Hebrew was heard in the hallways, and even the group of delegates devoted to Yiddish could not dampen
the sparkling, celebratory feeling. A surprise awaited us, the Goniadzniks, in the meeting between the guests in the auditorium and the daughter of our rabbi, Feige Wolf, who was a kindergarten teacher in that city. It is fair to say that our feeling, being among all of those delegates, was that although it was the first time we met and got to know them, it was as if we had known them for years. Thanks to the special and friendly atmosphere that prevailed there, we made the acquaintance of delegates from branches in Sovlak, Sochovolia, Grajewo and more.
We made closer contact with the branches from towns located closer to our own: Knishin and Sochovolia. Of especial note was the visit of the delegation of pioneers from Raigrod, when they heard that our union was there and came to ask for our help in establishing a branch in their city. We spent the whole day together there, and in the evening went out together to accompany them to the Bosovich train station. Along the entire way to the station, located in the fortress, there was, so far as is known, no settlement. We made our way there and back in a spirit of sheer joy and wakefulness; it was an experience which was wrapped up in the essence of friendship.
Such a feeling came about because of good relationships that bound the group together from the inside, especially among the members who had recently joined us, and who became a factor in the addition of even more members.
It is fitting to pause here to examine the relationship between ourselves and our parents, and the adult population in general. From the beginning there were signs of negativity and criticism. There were those who called us chalutzim parutzim [broken pioneers] because we had broken the yoke of mitzvot [commandments] and were not punctilious about keeping the Sabbath. In time, the attitudes towards us changed and we were given consideration and growing affection. Eventually, most of the public was imbued with Zionist awareness, which fed not only from the fields of religion, history, and romance, but also from the plight of the Jews in present times. The first Polish Legionaries harassed the Jews and insulted their dignity. Songs of hatred and incitement against Jews were heard, and the people of General Haller's army, among them Poles with American citizenship, cut off the beards of Jews on the trains.
The first time our members went out for training, and later also to the Land of Israel – the public became convinced that
Standing (from the right): Yessia Burke, Malka Yanovsky, Yehudit Levine, Bilka Gornostaysky, Fishel Yitzhaki
Seated: Shoshana Pakrasky, Avraham Raigrodsky, Peltinovich, Belka Kleif
this wasn't, after all, a child's game. Now they were saying: although they don't keep the mitzvot, they are all in all good Jews – and maybe even better than many who are observant. Not like parties on the left, the Bund and the Reds, our members would occasionally visit the house of study and the synagogue. We liked to hear cantorial music, especially on holidays when Rabbi Eliezer Zakimovich of blessed memory would pass before the Ark. We came to love his version of the prayers and melodies. Many days later, when we were far from the homes of our parents, we would pass the evenings with those melodies and thereby lessen our isolation (incidentally, Rabbi Eliezer lived out the remainder of his life in the Holy Land). We received a kind of approval and sometimes support from the Zairei Zion [Young Zionists] party, most of whose members were, at that time, scattered around the world and only a few individuals remained, including: Zelig Nivodovsky, Wolf Pikersky of blessed memory, and Yehezkel-Peretz Tesherniak, long may he live, who along with us lives today in the Land of Israel.
He Chalutz brought life and activity to our city. Sometimes we put on theatrical performances, some of which
First row (from right): Berel (Baris), Hannah Gelbord, Dov Tershchansky, Ziva Koberinsky
Second Row: Tova Friedman, Ariyeh Hatiba, Gittel Simcovitz, Moshe Zakimovich
were the fruit of our own creativity, on subjects involving the Land of Israel and the contents of which were mainly social or work-related matters. Also, sometimes celebrations and receptions were planned.
He Chalutz also worked for the benefit of the Hebrew school in town: advocating continuing Hebrew education – in gymnasia and seminaries – in the larger cities. We had a long and protracted struggle with the Reds, who were not able to act constructively in any way, aside from their mouths being busy with abstract preaching. They harassed us in every possible way. The first stage was trying to pressure our active members, then they tried to bring us into their club to have political arguments, and when we avoided visiting their club,
since we saw no value in fruitless arguments, they began coming to us and harassing us. After they were convinced that idle chatter would not sway us, they tried to bring more compelling evidence – fisticuffs, but we also stood firm before such tactics, even though they were older than our members. We felt that this gave us a foretaste of the struggle we could expect in the Land of Israel.
Many of our members never arrived in our designated land, whose gates were securely locked in those days, and they scattered in countries across the seas. However, the many who arrived in the Land, by direct or indirect means, persisted in their faithfulness and devotion to her from the first day of their arrival.
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