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[Page 259]

The Zionist Movement
and Zionist Youth Movements

 

Dawn of the Zionist Movement in Town

by Eliezer Leoni

Translated by Ala Gamulka

There are very few towns and villages in Poland where the Zionist movement was as deeply entrenched as in Kovel. Zionist ideals pierced the depths of all social layers in towns. People with opposing ideas united in the realm of Zionist activity.

A good description of the beginnings of the Zionist movement in town can be found in “Hamelits” from 1896: “Various classes and parties united with love and in peace for the sake of the Zionist ideas. The movement to settle Eretz Israel has been entrenched, for the past few years, among the chosen few. However, lately, the rest of the residents have also been taken by the dream with one voice.

 


Zionist Council 1918

Seated, right to left: Sarah Blumenfeld–Tslavitch, Mendel Kossovsky, Brukhin, Heinich Geller, Burstein, Moshe Davidiuk, Barukh Reiter
Standing, right to left: Avraham Erlich, Berel Roizen, Ida Nitsberg–Gutenboym, Yosef Avrech…

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Dr. M. Feinstein and other honorable people – fully devoted to their love of Zion and Jerusalem – managed to disseminate these ideas in an excellent fashion. Their hard work brought, after Passover, the establishment of “Agudat Zion” and many members joined and donated generously. The new group was involved in teaching Hebrew language and literature to the youth, distributing good literature among the populace. It also presented subjects such as Jewish history and the words of the wise sages.

It was most pleasant to see people from all movements, differing in their thoughts and habits, doctors, scholars and Hassidim, join together for conversation and advice. They were all unified in any matter in the Jewish world”.

The first meeting of “Hovevei Zion” took place on a Shabbat in 1894. The meeting was held in the Talmud Torah on Ludomir Street. The courtyard was filled with Jews wearing long kapotas. It is interesting to note the speeches at this meeting were half in Hebrew and half in Yiddish.

The synagogue, in the house of Yudell Schechter on Lutske Street, also served as the clubhouse for the General Zionists. The Zionist committee and the Zionist library were also located there. Among the founders of the library – who also collected the books – were Isser Miller. Eliyahu Burk, Mikhel Roizen, Yerucham Lublinsky and the son of the late Moshe Gonik. I do not need to emphasize that these cultural leaders spoke Hebrew among themselves. These were the first to establish the base for the revival of the Hebrew language among the town residents.

At the Zionist synagogue the following were listed among the founders of the Zionist movement in town: Alter Gevirtsman, Dr. Feinstein, Mikhel Feinstein, Berish Ziskind, Ben Zion Mersik, Yonah Meisels, Berl Tsuker, Dr. Perlman, Dr. Lifshitz, Gershon Goldstein, Avraham Sheinboim and Heinich Geller, z”l.

At the beginning, the Zionist movement was only known to a few, but it soon became a popular calling. The movement educated the masses by teaching them Hebrew language and Jewish values.

The educated youth in the Zionist movement volunteered to give “Shabbat classes” to the workers. On this day of rest, they taught a chapter of Tanach and Jewish history. At the end of Shabbat, they continued with arithmetic and various sciences. The curriculum followed the Zionist programme.

These young volunteers hung posters in the Houses of Learning. The posters invited the workers to participate in the Shabbat classes. Many heeded the calling. On 16 Elul 1899, the first class took place.

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Jewish National Fund Committee in Kovel–1929
A memento for the vice president of J.N.F in Kovel,
Mrs. Eventchuk on your saying goodbye

Right to left: Mrs. P. Prager, wife of Moshe Perl, Mr. H. Grinberg, Mrs. Eventchuk, Mrs. Milstein, Mrs. Gilberg

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The experiment worked well. Many people filled the classrooms of the Talmud Torah where the lessons were held.

Among the first Zionists the figure of the teacher and educator Heinich Geller, z”l, stands out. The contribution by Geller to the history of the town is unmatched. Geller was a regular columnist in Hamelits and Hatsfira. His description of the life of the town is a first–class historical document relating to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

Geller was born in 1866 in Berestechke. His father was the teacher Zanvil Geller. At the age of 10 he travelled to his relatives in Lutsk where he studied at the yeshiva. In his spare time, he perfected his knowledge of Hebrew, Russian and German. At the age of 16 he began to write poems and articles in Hebrew. He occupied an important position among the Zionist leaders in Lutsk.

In 1882 he started to travel among the towns and villages of Volyn in order to organize the Zionist movement. He was imprisoned, for these activities, by the Russian authorities. In 1890 he married Frida Kibuk and settled in Kovel.

At the beginning he dealt in commerce and later he was a clerk in the City Hall of Kovel. In 1894 he left business and chose the teaching profession. He remained in it for the rest of his life.

In 1905, he opened, with other scholars, a Hebrew school with free tuition. In 1906 he had a coffee house, in his home, called Jaffa. It was actually a meeting place for members of the Zionist council. He was imprisoned once more by the authorities, but prison did not scare him away. As soon as he was freed he continued his activities in order to strengthen the Zionist movement in town.

His unstoppable devotion to the broadening of the Zionist movement in town and to teaching the Hebrew language –over dozens of years–caused his health to deteriorate. He died of pneumonia on 11 Nissan 1926. He was sixty years old.

The Zionist movement in town was popular with the working class. The figure of the “Special emissary” arose from among this group. This was a person who dedicated his entire life to the entrenching of the Zionist ideals in town. It was someone who worked day and night to attract more souls to Zionism and who convinced the assimilated to return. It was a person who distributed Zionist literature and who gave speeches in all the Houses of Learning about his topic. This type of person was imbued with ideas of revival from a young age.

This type of man of the people, an emissary of Zionism at the beginning of the movement in our town is epitomized by Eliezer–Meir Miller, z”l. He worked in the construction of chimneys in wealthy homes.

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However, after a hard day's work, he carried packages of Zionist leaflets and he hurried to distribute them among the Jewish youth and the working class.

His death created a heavy mourning pall in town. In Hatsfira of 24 Kislev 1902, Geller published a lengthy eulogy about the deceased. In it we read how involved he was in the dissemination of the Zionist dream. Geller writes:” Last Sabbath eve we lost one of the most faithful Zionists. Eliezer–Meir Miller was an honest and straight–forward man. His death has brought a heavy loss to Kol Zion. He was an energetic comrade who was dedicated to the Zionist ideals with his whole being and did more than possible for the movement.

The deceased was a poor man, but his influence on his generation was great. They were craftsmen, like him. He was educated and knowledgeable in Zionist literature, but he was a noble man who brought many simple people into the Zionist fold. He sometimes, on his own, bought books extoling the Zionist ideals and he worked hard to disseminate them among his acquaintances. He did this not for glory, but because Zion and Jerusalem were in his soul constantly.

The deceased barely made a living, but he was still among the first to contribute “shekels” and he also bought bonds. His great love of Zion can be described in this fact: When he learned that the bank was open for business he rushed to the Kol Zion committee house to share his happiness. He wrote in the guest book about his proposition to celebrate the opening of the bank in one of the coming days of Hanukah with a large crowd. He was only forty when he died”.

It has been stated earlier that the Zionist movement in town united people with opposing points of view. It should be noted also that the most ardent Zionist was the town rabbi at the beginning of the 20th century, the celebrated Rabbi Moshe Zackheim, z”l.

Rabbi Zackheim was born in Czernowitz. His father was Rabbi Mordechai Zackheim. At an early age he was known for his depth of knowledge of the Talmud and its interpreters. He married the granddaughter of the Gaon of Vilna, from Shkalov. She died young. He started out in business, but he was not too successful. The Jewish community of Kovel invited him to become its chief rabbi. In 1887 he was sent a contract and he came to Kovel in 1888. Rabbi Zackheim left many pieces of writing about innovations in Halacha and legends. There were also many interpretations of Talmudic and Kabbalistic literature.

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Rabbi Zackheim stood out in his personal attributes, his wisdom and his great diligence on behalf of the community and its charitable institutions. He was a true Zionist still from the beginning of the development of the movement in the eighties. He was a member of the organization Kol Zion to his dying day.

 

Pinhas Dashevsky

Among the leading Zionist figures in town in that era was a very interesting person. For a period of time Pinhas Dashevsky, a student at the Polytechnic institute in Kiev, was front and centre in the news in the Jewish and non–Jewish world.

 

 

In the winter of 1902 Dashevsky came to Kovel and was a private tutor. It is not known what made this young man of 22 to come such a distance. It is rumored that love was the motivation. A few years later Dashevsky married Anna Shenker– one of the two sisters who headed the girls' school.

When Dashevsky arrived in town he discovered a very active Zionist movement. There was a Zionist club called “Jewish Teahouse”. It was a front for widespread Zionist activities. Dashevsky became chairman of the club and appeared as a speaker at many functions.

Dashevsky was born in the village of Korostishov, Kiev Region. His father was a military doctor. At first, he was an assimilationist, but soon he was intrigued by the Zionist ideals. He was one of the founders of a student Zionist group which was based on social–Zionist thought, It was called “The Revival” and its aim was to bring the national ideals to the Jewish masses.

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These were the days of the slaughter in Kishinev– spring 1903. Prior to the pogrom there were the incendiary speeches of Pavel Krushevan, the editor of the anti–Semitic newspapers Znamia (Standard) and Bessarabyets (Bessarabian).

Dashevsky could not accept the slaughter. Although he was in Kovel, he planned to murder the one responsible for it – Krushevan.

Once when he visited the late Meir Entin he was highly agitated and seemed to be struggling hard. Dashevsky asked Entin: Can you imagine a Jew would murder Krushevan? Entin tried to change the subject and said: Why should we sacrifice a Jew? Krushevan is not such an important and famous personality.

Dashevsky was angered by this reply and did not continue the discussion. He suddenly disappeared from town. A few days later there were headlines in the Russian, and the Jewish, newspapers–Hatsofeh, Hatsfira– announcing that a young Jew called Pinhas Dashevsky had tried to kill Krushevan.

Dashevsky had armed himself with a pistol and a Finnish knife in case his hand would slip and he would murder an innocent person. He chose the knife and thrust it in Krushevan's neck. He then immediately notified the policeman who was standing guard. Krushevan was only lightly injured. On 17.6.1903 Dashevsky was in court. The well–known attorneys, P.G. Mironov and A. Gruzberg undertook his defence– pro bono.

Dashevsky appeared in court looking noble. He announced that he was a Jew and a loyal Zionist and the asked the judge to call him by his Hebrew name – Pinhas, and not Piotr. In his defence speech Dashevsky emphasized that his wish to murder Krushevan came to him when he was living in Kovel.

Dashevsky was sentenced to five years of hard labor and the loss of his rights. The story created much excitement among the youth in town and it caused a general awakening for the need for self–defence. The late historian Dubnov wrote about Dashevsky: “He became a saintly hero among holy victims who accept their sentence. After that, the heroes who used self–defence in the pogroms were imbued with his spirit”.

His sentence was shortened by a pardon from the Tsar and he was able to finish his studies as a chemical engineer.

When he was freed from prison, Dashevsky returned to Kovel and married Anna Shenker. They had a daughter called Ruth (Rosia). She was quite talented and studied in the gymnasia of Klara Erlich.

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She then trained as a veterinarian.

In 1910 Dashevsky travelled to Eretz Israel with a group of Students and professors from Kiev. There he went to Rehovot and he met his old friend Meri Entin. In their conversation he spoke of his time in prison and that he was not treated badly.

Dashevsky returned to Russia. The Soviet authorities employed him in various technical institutes. Eventually, he was no longer favored and he was arrested in 1933. In June 1934 he died in a Soviet prison after eight months there. He had been ill.

 

The first people to make Aliyah to Eretz Israel

The Zionist organization in town did not content itself with Zionist education only. It called for a personal contribution– to make Aliyah and to settle in Eretz Israel.

This was in the days of the 6th Zionist Congress when Uganda was proposed as a refuge.

In Kovel there were some who were for Uganda, but they were in the minority. Those who swore “If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right– hand wither” decided to achieve their dream of settling the land.

In 1903 the first two pilgrims from Kovel went to Eretz Israel: Meir Entin and Dov Weinstein. They travelled to Odessa where they met Lilienblum and Droyanov and received proper information from them.

When they arrived in Eretz Israel they settled in Rehovot. They chose this settlement due to the articles by Moshe Smilensky in Hatsofeh. These articles spoke about the private initiatives in Rehovot. First, they worked at Menucha Veavoda (Rest and work)– the company that founded Rehovot. After some time, Weinstein left Rehovot and moved to Segera and eventually Menchemya. He died during WWI after he had been tortured by hard labor at the hands of the Turkish regime. Meir Entin died of old age on 14 Adar 1956.

Some time later Baruch Pantorin made Aliyah with his wife Masha (sister of Dov Weinstein). They settled in Menchemya. This settlement was attacked many times by the Arabs, but the Pantorin family never left it.

Pantorin loved the people of Kovel and he always tried to arrange jobs for those who made Aliyah from there.

The first pioneers mention the name of Baruch Pantorin with great respect and love because he looked after them as a father does for his children.

Pantorin died in 1925 and was buried in Menchemya.


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Zionist Activity Before the Balfour Declaration

by Avraham–Meir Weisbrot

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Before WWI Zionist activity in town was quite limited. Those most active were: Gitlis and Finkelstein. Dr. Feinstein also belonged to that group and he was even a delegate to one of the Zionist Congresses.

Aside from teaching Hebrew and having programs for Jewish National Fund, there was not much influence exerted by the Zionist movement on public life. It was not a movement of thousands. Its representatives were few. They were mostly wealthy or members of the intelligentsia.

Public activities had a philanthropic character and were evident in four important institutions. These were:

Educational institution “Maskil Al Dal”– for poor children. It was a secular school with little Jewish studies. Its principal was Mr. Yudkovitz, a renowned pedagogue, specially brought from Chernigov. However, he fell ill and died at the age of 34.

The first library in town was established in those days. It had books in various languages. It was founded was Mr. Erlich who donated his private library to it.

Philanthropic activity did not confine itself to spiritual work only. It also assisted with material needs.

 


Committee of Zeirei Zion and the first pioneers of Kovel

Seated right to left: Asher Lublinsky, unknown, Avraham-Meir Weisbrot, Tzvik, Yosef Tzvik, Haim-David Bernstein
Standing from right to left: Shlomo Saltzman, Gershom Melamed, Bork

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Among the activities helping in a material way, we must mention especially “The Peoples' Kitchen”. It was founded by Michael Kaditz who was chairman and Mrs. Tsippa Roiter. The kitchen was intended for laborers and other needy people. From time to time balls and plays would be arranged with income being earmarked for maintenance of the kitchen.

A fourth public institution we must mention, in particular, was the establishment of the Jewish Municipal Hospital. The leading spirit behind this institution was Mr. Klorgloz. He was assisted by several personalities, including lawyer Appelbaum.

All activities took place during the times of the Tsar.

In 1917, with the Germans occupying the town, there was a great change in public activities. It now encompassed many parts of life. The Germans drafted almost everyone to work. The men were in labor camps and construction of houses for the Germans while the women were mostly employed in laundries.

The almost unbearable work conditions caused the laborers in the camps to have an uprising. They congregated in Prozhansky's synagogue for a protest assembly. It was then decided to turn to the German authorities and the Jewish mayor, Mr. Mendel Kossovsky, with a demand to limit to eight the daily work hours, to distribute work in a judicial manner and to pay with food.

A committee was elected which included A.M. Weisbrot and Mr. Klonitsky. They came to the German army commander and Jewish mayor Mr. Mendel Kossovsky and presented the demands of the camp laborers. The committee was promised that the laborers would now be treated with dignity and justice. Truly, the promises were fulfilled. There was now order and a special department was created to register the laborers. Its secretary was Mr. Yaakov Bork.

 

First steps in organizing the Zionist movement

The Zionist movement in town grew from a few members to a popular group after the Balfour Declaration. A public meeting was held in the large hall of the workers' kitchen in order to explain the purpose of the Zionist movement. This meeting was also attended by the camp laborers whose representatives had demanded several activities for their protection.

After a lengthy and lively discussion, it was decided to establish the Zionist organization and to include all factions. It is well known that only in a joint effort would they be successful in founding the organization.

A committee was elected. Its members were: Yaakov Bork, chairman, A.M. Weisbrot, vice chairman, Gitlis, Yustman, Finkelstein, Goldstein, Schwartzblat, Shimon Eisen and a student by the name of Rosenzweig– just arrived from Russia.

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The committee took upon itself the task of organizing the public activities in town and to attract many to Zionism.

The committee rented a few rooms near the workers' kitchen. This served as the first Zionist club. Important work was developed there and every Shabbat there were lectures and discussions on Zionist topics. Hundreds of members were registered– mainly young people. Their activities stood out in the cultural field and in collecting funds for Jewish National Fund.

The Zionist activities were successful. In those days, when there were revolutions in Russia and Germany, there were many left– leaning groups that popped up in town. They felt it was time for their ideas to influence the public.

I remember a large meeting– 500 people– called by most of the public organizations then existing in town.

The Zionist organization was also represented. The chairperson of the meeting was Dr. Moshe Kaditz, leader of the leftists. The leftists threatened those assembled with their speeches and people were depressed. Soon, one of the Zionist speakers, in plain language, put down the heated rhetoric of the leftists. He told them that even if grass will grow on their cheeks, a forced, authoritarian situation will not come to town. The speaker asked those assembled to follow the Zionist movement since that was the only solution to the social and national problems of many Jews. He disputed the leftist contention that liberty can be obtained by terror and extermination and he proved that their ideas were hanging by a thread and were based on a weak premise. His words calmed those assembled and they carried the speaker on their shoulders.

At this time the Zionist movement in town grew and blossomed. Many members joined and a clubhouse was opened. There was broad popular–cultural activity. The clubhouse became a center for Jewish life in town. Many cultural and educational institutions were established as a result.

 

Division in the Zionist organization

As previously stated, the Zionist organization included all factions in the movement. However, eventually, the many heated discussions in the clubhouse became quite ideological. A division according to world views was in the offing. Most of the youth were members of Zeirei Zion and it became the main part of the Zionist movement in town. Some time later, in 1921, an offshoot of Zeirei Zion, was established after the Prague Conference. It was the Union group. Still, there were joint programmes in cultural, educational and Aliyah fields.

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The leaders of Zeirei Zion were: A.M. Weisbrot, chairperson, Saltzman– secretary. Members of the board were: Bernstein, Lublinsky, Melamed, K. Bork, Dov Polishuk, z”l, Schwartzblat, z”l. The Union was headed by, among others: Zvi Shapira– chairperson, Volvoler and Puritsky.

In 1920, the fourth Zionist Congress took place in Warsaw. The delegates came from various factions within the Zionist movement. For the first time, the following 4 delegates were chosen to represent our town: – Yaakov Bork and Rabiner– General Zionists, A.M. Weisbrot and Marus Hodorov (now a physician in Russia)– from Zeirei Zion. At this conference Zeirei Zion became a party by itself and it established its own central institutions.

 

The Eretz Israel office

The Eretz Israel office was one the important institutions in Zionist circles. All Zionist parties in town participated in it. At one time, its secretary was Dov Polishuk.

This institution undertook the job of organizing Aliyah and to help every person, either with information or with material assistance.

During the time of escape from Russia there were members of Dror in town– Berdichevsky, Bankover, Poliushko, Ben–Dori, z”l, Minkovsky, and others. They, together with other pioneers staying in town on their way to Eretz Israel, found a warm atmosphere in the Ertz Israel office.

I remember that these people felt at home in Kovel. The Zionist atmosphere characterized the town and this made it easier for them as they traveled.

The Eretz Israel office also looked after youth that wished to make Aliyah and helped them in every way possible. It was instrumental in encouraging many to make Aliyah.

 

Participation in the helplessness of Zionism within the Joint

Our activities did not remain only in acquiring membership to the Zionist ideals. We also participated in various institutions in town. We must stress our work in institutions of the Joint. It was one of the main groups that saved poor Jews from the shame of hunger. There are not enough words to describe the great assistance provided by the Joint to the Kitchen for the Hungry, provision of food for children and approving budgets to maintain schools and hospitals. Special mention should be made of the struggles between the helpless Hebrew movement, guarding the budgets of the schools, and the Bundists.

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Seated from right to left: Haim–David Bernstein, Israel Prozhansky, Michael Feinstein, Avraham–Meir Weisbrot, fifth is unknown, Yaakov Bork, Langer
Standing from right to left: Shayev, Dov Soibel, Haim Greenberg, Muqrin

 

The latter group was headed Mr. Bilov. He was actually a secret Communist. This was discovered when the Bolsheviks came to town.

Thanks to the Zionist activities, the Joint provided more funds for Tarbut School. Heading the Joint in town and in the area were: A.M. Weisbrot, Simcha Heinich, Gitlis, Lublinsky, Bernstein, etc.

The Joint was the main factor in the establishment of the school named after Prof. Friedlander, z”l, on Mitzkivitcha Street. Its organizers were active members of Zeirei Zion.

Prof. Friedlander was born in Kovel and had served as vice chairman of Joint worldwide. He was murdered together with Rabbi Cantor, z”l on the border of Poland and Russia. They were on an important mission to Russia.

Zeirei Zion wanted to commemorate Prof. Friedlander by founding a school named for him.

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The Joint responded to our request by contributing to this school. This was in spite of the fact that it had stopped subsidizing Hebrew schools at that point. The school continued to be supported by the Joint for some time longer than other institutions. This was thanks to the fact that we were fortunate to have the widow of Prof. Friedlander on our side. Mrs. Lilian Friedlander was living in Eretz Israel by then, but she was keenly interested in the school. The Joint also supported the founding of the Folks Bank. It eventually was included in network of popular banks in Poland. The bank was very important in helping craftsmen, grocers and owners of small businesses. This aid allowed them to maintain their work and they earned a decent living. For several years, the bank was headed by Haim Greenberg. Others involved in running the bank were, among others, Sheynkar, A.M. Weisbrot, Glass, Gitlis and Moshe Perl. When Greenberg left, he was succeeded by Moshe Perl. He remained in that position until the Nazis entered town.

 

Cultural activities of the Zionist Organizations

The Zionist and non–Zionist organizations had general cultural activities in order to have people join their point of view. These activities were assemblies, parties, balls, etc. However, the organizations really competed among themselves by inviting well–known and important people from the outside. These people described to the audiences the problems facing the Jewish world in Poland and elsewhere.

Three of these General Zionists, hungrily received by the Jews of Kovel, were Dr. Yehoshua Gotlieb, z”l, Yosef Haptman, z”l, and may he have a long life, Yitzhak Greenbaum. The General Zionist movement in Poland was divided into two streams: “Al Hamishmar” (on guard) and “Et livnot” (time to build). Greenbaum was the leader of the Al Hamishmar party and Gotlieb and Haptman led Et Livnot. The Zionist movement was influenced by Greenbaum as he was the actual leader of the Polish Jews. His appearances in town became important events. Many people came to hear him speak since they saw him as someone who would be making Aliyah.

Greenbaum had a charming personality, but Dr. Gotlieb was an excellent speaker. He was known as an outstanding orator. Even those who did not agree with his point of view, still followed Dr. Gotlieb because of his rhetoric and his beautiful language skills.

Yosef Haptman, z”l, was an esthete, with a beautiful soul. He came to town many times. Each one of his literary speeches became a cultural event in town. He was a journalist and a brilliant writer.

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Folks Bank Committee

 

Avraham Levinson, z”l, was one of the best–known representatives of the Union. He was a star on the stage of Jewish public life in Poland.

He was one of the young Jewish members of the Polish parliament. Immersed in literature and culture, he spoke well. Every one of his appearances was a pleasure for all. He could speak about lofty subjects in simple language that was understood by everyone.

The best– known representative of Zeirei Zion was Israel Ritov. He was an important and popular speaker in Poland. He understood his audience and he knew how to excite his listeners to turn to Zionism.

The workers party had Zvi Rosenstein, Malkin, Koltun (he became leader of the Communist Party in Israel), emissaries from Eretz Israel– Rashish (now mayor of Petach Tikvah), Yehuda Almog, Yitzhak Tabankin, Duvdevani, Zerubbabel, etc.

A special event was the appearances by Zeev Jabotinsky, z”l, in our town. His speeches were attended by his followers and those who were against him.

Jabotinsky was listened to with pleasure even by those who were far removed from him ideologically. They argued with him, if possible, but they all valued his great talent– his ability to explain.

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There were also appearances in town by those opposing Zionism, especially at election time. The most outstanding among them was Haim Rassner, z”l, head of the craftsmen union in Poland. Even the Zionist crowd found him interesting. We had bitter, difficult debates with him. We argued with him with and without permission. We often interupted meetings where Rassner was speaking. It was not just for the sake of interruption, but it was an important struggle for the souls of the Jews of Poland. It was a holy war. An ideological struggle between two philosophies: Zionism and its opponents.

The religious crowd had as one of the leaders of Mizrahi– Rabbi Brod. He was a representative of his district to the Polish parliament. He was accepted by many other factions who listened to him even if they did not always agree with him.

Our lives were enhanced by these colorful leaders, the opportunity given to the Jewish community in Kovel to hear opposing views and the dialectic struggle between different world concepts. It made it easier for individuals to choose their path in life. It is really because of free choice and understanding that most people followed Zionism.

An unforgettable event was the first appearance of the emissary of Keren Hayesod– poet Leib Yafeh.

 


Members of Zeirei Zion in Kovel in 1926

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Everyone came to hear him. Leib knew how to draw even those who were not so generous. He excited people and he awoke in them their national spirit. Their hearts were opened and they donated to Keren Hayesod hundreds of dollars. Kovel managed to collect, for Keren Hayesod, large amounts. The total was second to that of Lodz only. It was well–known within the Zionist crowd in the country that Lodz led in total funds, but Kovel was always second.

There were also authors and poets who visited: Ansky, Tchernichovsky, Segalovitz. Mastboim and Kolbek. Nearly every theatre group from Warsaw or Vilna came to town and discovered an audience craving artistic endeavors. From time to time, there were traveling theatres such as those of Ida Kaminska and Sigmund Turkov. We should especially note the performance of the world– famous cantor Sirota.

All these performances shed a beautiful light on the gray life, the everyday world of the Jews of Kovel. They struggled hard to maintain their existence. The desire to be free, to establish a state and to make Aliyah, to be like other peoples, rooted in land and in labor– these were healing and brought some sweetness to their drab lives. It gave them hope and encouragement.

Anyone who visited our town, be it from central offices or as emissaries from Eretz Israel, was warmly received. When they left town they confessed that here there was a Jewish community that would give everything for the building of our land and that was prepared for great sacrifices in order to create free, proud, upright Jews.


The Poaley Zion Movement in Kovel

by Aharon Werba

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The history of the Jewish workers parties in Kovel is, probably, similar to that of such movements in Russia., Ukraine and Poland. The socialist-Zionist workers movement in our town held an important place in our public life. Perhaps it must be stated that it was even more than just important. I was active in its ranks for a short time. I had been part of the workers movement of Eretz Israel in Hechalutz and Dror. I will give a short account of this party in Kovel.

Our town did not have much heavy industry. There were no large factories. There probably would not have been workers there as there were in other towns in Ukraine and Poland. Still, the town served as a large centre in the district and it provided services to a population of tens of thousands. Hundreds of laborers were involved in specifically Jewish occupations: tailoring, sewing, shoemaking, baking and blacksmithing.

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There were also those who constructed wagons that were used for transportation of people and goods. (There were no motorized vehicles in town or nearby). The socialist parties were active among these laborers- also the Bund and the Communists. It was only later that the Poaley Zion party became active.

In spite of pursuits and harassment by the police, there were professional unions of bakers, needle workers and office clerks. The Bund was controlling these groups and there was also considerable Communist influence. As of 1926, Poaley Zion became important.

The spiritual force in these professional unions was Batya Mendel. She was a dynamic activist and full of energy. She came from a bourgeois family and she lived in her brother's house. He owned a stationery store. She earned a living by sewing. Batya was the chairperson and secretary of almost every professional union. She was also active in the cultural field among the laborers. When Poaley Zion was instrumental in establishing a Yiddish language school, Batya joined the school committee and helped with advice and in deeds. She continued this work as long as the school existed.

Poaley Zion occupied a place of honor within the workers movement thanks to some active members. It originated many cultural and professional programs. Its influence was not only on workers. Soon after its founding, the movement managed to participate in municipal elections. It succeeded in obtaining places in city hall. The leader and founder of Poaley Zion in town, Meir Reiz, z” l, served for several years as a member of the steering committee. If I remember correctly, it was the first time that the workers group, thanks to Poaley Zion, had its own representative in city hall.

I recall that the Poaley Zion movement began its activities with the arrival in town, in 1925-26, of Meir Reiz. He was an engineer by profession and he was invited to serve as a teacher of mathematics and physics in the Tarbut Gymnasia and in the school of Klara Erlich. This respectable position of a teacher was not enough for comrade Reiz. He was not like the rest of the teachers in Klara's school. Most of them came from Galicia and spoke Polish. They were content with the status of a “professor” and they were believers in the governing authority. Comrade Reiz was a member of a socialist-Zionist movement and in spite of the danger of losing his job as a teacher in a Polish gymnasium he strove to establish a branch in town.

Soon he was joined by a group of young men and women and Poaley Zion became important in our town. Reiz was a man of the people, highly cultured and friendly.

[Page 277]

His personality drew a group of young writers, among them Kalman Liss. He was s sensitive young man, cultured, involved in his surroundings and a lover of Volyn. He used to sing about it: “My Volyn is simply freezing”. This is how one of his poems about Volyn begins. Moshe Grinstein, z” l, another young dreamer, was secretary of the Tarbut Gymnasia. He was imbued with sadness as evident in his poems and works. Leib Olitzky, a young author, very talented, was known in the world of Yiddish literature for his creations. These three were close to Meir Reiz and with his encouragement and influence they became involved in disseminating culture among the people. Until the establishment of Poaley Zion, there was no cultural activity in Kovel, in Yiddish. It was a town with many residents. It is unnecessary to state that there were no schools in which the language of instruction was Yiddish.

Kovel was a Zionist town. The Zionist movements left their imprint on our town. There were strong, large Zionist youth movements and they drew the majority of the young people among us. There was an extensive system of educational institutions- Hebrew language- serving students from kindergarten to high school. There were thousands of students in these schools. There were also Polish schools that were intended for Jewish children. The Polish government was interested in spreading the language over these formerly Ukrainian areas and it subsidized these schools. It also supervised closely the quality of teaching. In this atmosphere, Meir Reiz stood out. It was mainly due to the subjects he taught and his tremendous knowledge that he was able to keep his position as a teacher in the Polish-Hebrew high school. (In the end, he was fired, at the insistence of the director, for his public activities).

In this nationalistic and Zionistic atmosphere on one side and Polish assimilation on the other, Meir Reiz began his activities in Poaley Zion in Kovel.

At the beginning, the movement was small, but at the end it was very successful. At first, the public doubted the ability of the few leaders who invaded the area that was held as a monopoly by the Zionist movement in town. Other movements did not even try to enter the cultural and educational fields. Perhaps this was due to the few members they had or because they did not expect to succeed. It is a fact that when Poaley Zion was organized, it began its activities in Yiddish. Yiddish authors were invited by the movement to visit town. Among them were Peretz Markish, Moshe Kolbek (close to Poaley Zion at the time) and others. Hundreds attended their lectures. New readers, from Kovel, were added to the ranks of the Workers parties' publications.

The Zionist parties, even those connected to the Zionist workers party, were not able to enter the workers' groups. Their members came from among the merchants and owners.

[Page 278]

The same was true for the youth movements. They also came from the same ranks. It was only with the establishment of Poaley Zion that contact was made between the workers and Zionism. The movement was heard at meetings and its voice was joined to those of the veteran parties already existing in town. It was accepted that there could not be a meeting of workers without a representative of Poaley Zion.

The movement “dared” to participate in municipal elections and it was quite successful. In the Kovel city hall there were Jewish representatives and even the vice-mayor was a Jew. This was due to the fact that the majority of residents in Kovel were Jews. These representatives belonged to Zionist groups or were simply Jews. The novelty was the election of a representative of Poaley Zion. He was even elected to the executive committee.

The jewel in the crown of the activities of comrade Reiz and the movement was the establishment of the school in which Yiddish was taught.

There were Yiddish schools in Volyn even earlier. In 1921 representatives of Volyn participated in the first conference of Yiddish schools held in Warsaw. The Central Yiddish Schools Organization was founded. Poaley Zion had a strong delegation at this conference. However, the Polish government was uneasy about these schools. It believed they would produce a generation of revolutionary socialists. It thus made things difficult. It closed the schools in Volyn. The residents there were mainly Ukrainian and they desired independence. The government wished to deepen the influence of Polish. It hoped to Polonize the Jews. The Yiddish schools in Ukraine did not please the government since they were opposite to its aims. It was easier to close the schools. Most of them did not have proper permits and the majority of teachers were unlicensed. These were good excuses for the closure of the schools. The education department in Warsaw cancelled the permit of “School and Education” of Poaley Zion because religion was not taught there. It took much effort to undo this edict.

All the various authorities did not care for these schools and made their lives miserable. In this hostile environment, be it the government or the more prosperous Jewish community (they saw the Yiddish school as overdoing it)- all prevented the establishment of a Yiddish school in Kovel.

The people active in Poaley Zion cared about and loved Yiddish. The question of teachers was solved by the fact that several well-educated people took upon themselves the task of becoming teachers in this school. They did not even care if their salaries were reasonable and paid on time. An outstanding effort was made to collect funds to pay for an appropriate location- one that would be accepted by the authorities so they would issue a permit. Finally, after much work, the Yiddish school in Kovel was opened.

[Page 279]

I do not remember how many students there were in the school during its existence. I am certain there were more than 100 in its first year. This was not insignificant. The school brought to the movement many popular activists and some of the best youths. The high school graduates served as teachers and counselors. I believe that Dr. Ziskind was very helpful. He was a beloved, even-tempered man. Also, the sons of the rabbis, more modern in their thinking, gave a hand to this project. Krause, the son of the Rabbi -called the Grabivitzer- served as secretary. Mrs Gutenboim, daughter of Rabbi Nitzberg, z” l, an educated woman who maintained a large library in town, taught in the school. Her husband, Kalman Gutenboim, a philosopher and a scientist, also helped in the success of the school. It was rumored in town that he understood Einstein's theories.

In 1927 I was recalled to Warsaw to work in the Central office of the movement. Even though I left my town, I still continued to follow whatever was happening there. In time, there were changes. Due to pressure by the authorities, comrade Reiz had to leave his teaching in the high school. Other staff members moved to different towns. Some went to bigger cities and some just left. However, the original seed took and was fruitful for several years. Names of members who helped so much with the movement are not listed here simply because I no longer remember them. Unfortunately, I had nothing in writing since it did not exist. Many hard-working members have remained anonymous.

This article should serve as a memorial to good and loyal people who were swept in the storms of war. It is also an encouragement to those who are still alive here and elsewhere. Their hearts are with us.

 

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