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[Page 159]

Zionist Activity in Our Town

Jakob KLINGBAJL, Holon

Translated from Hebrew by Carole Turkeltaub-Borowitz

My father's house was a Zionist and traditional one, and so, we, four sons and three daughters, were brought up in this atmosphere, although, like most of his generation, father studied at the yeshiva in Kutno. When he was about to reach the age of conscription into the Russian army, father decided that, before his enlistment, it would be a good thing to learn a trade, and he made his mind up to become a tinsmith at the workshop of my uncle, Szmuel Rozenbaum (of blessed memory). But this plan did not please his mother. Grandmother Rachel (of blessed memory) complained about it to judge Lajbisz (a righteous man of blessed memory) who, after hearing the objections from both sides, passed judgement: her son was making a good decision and may there be many Jews like him, since there is nothing finer than a Jewish youngster learning a trade by day and dedicating the night to the Torah. Grandma had no choice but to accept this verdict. After he got married father took care of the Kutno community mikveh (ritual bath) for fifteen years.

When the author Szalom Asz visited our home in Israel, he reminded father of his time at the yeshiva when they were pupils together. He reminisced about the slap on the face that he got from my father for reading “forbidden” books under the desk during lessons. The author was proud of the people in the land of Israel who came from his town, who were all working folk lending a hand to develop the country. And so, over many years, in Kutno, we were prepared psychologically and pragmatically, even before we emigrated to Israel.

While my brother and myself were still schoolboys at the first Hebrew school in Kutno, the Bnei Zion Haktanim [Young Bnei Zion society] was founded. Jakob Zerchin was its leader – he was also principal of the school. The job of the society was to distribute Keren Kayemet stamps, picture postcards of the Land of Israel and so on. However, after a short while the First World War broke out and I went to Germany to learn to be a locksmith and a plumber. At the end of the war I returned to Kutno and joined the Tseirei Zion [Youngsters of Zion] society, whose leaders then were Natan Tiger (of blessed memory), Zosza Szpira, Bronia Jarecka, Jakob Zandberg, the teacher Libart and the son of Rabbi Izrael Jehoszua Trunk (of blessed memory). This association promoted cultural events and was active in matters to do with the land of Israel and Zionism. And so, many Zionist leaders in Poland visited Kutno.

In 1918, after the Germans had departed from Poland, for fear of pogroms from the Polish population, Jewish youth started to arrange Jewish defence groups. Even we, us Kutners, got organized and obtained arms from the Germans who were withdrawing from Poland. The first head of defence in


The HeChalutz society in Kutno


our town was Wirzbicki, the principal of the high school. Of course, the first search for concealed weapons was made at the high school, but they found nothing because the arms were hidden in the wood store belonging to Mr Holcman and in Turbowicz and Nachman Wajnsztajn's (of blessed memory) beer factory. However, as a result of this search all Zionist business was stopped, except for HeChalutz activity, which apparently the Polish police officer, Miczinski, approved of. The day after the search, while I was walking in the street with my friend Jakob Meler (of blessed memory), the above mentioned officer stopped us and without saying a word, gave Jakob a slap and ordered me to report the next day at the police station. When I got there the following day he questioned me about the activities of HeChalutz and I explained to him that our aim was to train Jewish youth for productive work in Israel and we had no political agenda.

My reply satisfied him and we were given permission to continue with our activities. He even promised us that as long as he was a police officer in Kutno not a hair on our heads would be touched. And he kept his promise. There were no pogroms in Kutno.

After the Germans had left, Kutno HeChalutz requested joining the ranks of the Polish military organization, POW. But they turned us down claiming that the organization was closed. Meanwhile we extended our activities and even arranged a local congress of HeChalutz.

After the Russian-Polish war, in 1920, after I had been released from the Polish army, I applied to emigrate to Israel, but the central office prevented involved members from emigrating so that the movement's activities would not be shut down. However, at the same time, Szlomo Welsztajn (Franc), and his brother Josef (of blessed memory), and Jehuda Bromberg, emigrated to Israel. After them my father (of blessed memory) emigrated to Israel. A year later he brought his family to him and even I emigrated a year after them. My father's house was a meeting place for all Kutno emigrants in Israel. After a short time M. Lustigman, Kolski, Wajngarten, Chaim Elbaum, Gwircman and others came to Israel.

The leaders of HeChalutz were: I. Majranc, A. Shimonowicz, J. Zandberg, J. Meler and myself.

It must be mentioned that Kutners played an active part in various aspects of Zionist functions in Israel, in the Hagana (before the War of Independence) and in social and economic life in Israel.

[Page 160]

The Beginning of “Betar”


Translated from the Yiddish by Carole Turkeltaub Borowitz

The youth movement HaShachar [“The Dawn”] was founded in Kutno on the 24th of April 1923, after it had first received instruction from Stanisławów, from an organization called by the name of “The Union of Scouts called after Josef Trumpeldor”.

The number of members in the movement from the town was small. They used to gather together at our home. Among the activists remembered from that time were members Mosze Goldwasser (of blessed memory), the two Rapke brothers (of blessed memory), the Wajkselfisz brothers, and the writer of these lines. Also, as the main director for the group


Leaders of the Union of Soldiers

was based in Stanisławów [now in Ukraine], we were by way of a link with the leader of the Galil Warsaw group, member Goldberg (Har Zahav), standing in contact with the head commander Albert Bibring in Stanisławów. From there I received instructions and commands in the Polish language, in a telegram. In one circular the “Ten Commandments of Betar[1] were printed, based on the principles of scouting in national Jewish education, with the aim of realizing the dream of a Jewish state within the historical borders of the land of Israel.

The first meetings were held in the Am HaSefer school. The idea had constantly grown larger with an input from all quarters. It did not take long before it became one of the strongest organizations in the town.

At the end of 1927 the first national conference of Betar and HaShachar was held in Warsaw, with the participation of Zeew Jabotinski, at which the unification of both organizations and the emergence of Betar was proclaimed. In Kutno this gave an impetus to a new determination and activities.

Then Zwi Szczsig was appointed leader of the Kutno troop, which was divided into small groups with a leader in charge of each one. In the town, a Betar training farm was set up.

When A. Propes was appointed the representative of Betar in Poland, the movement took off. In the year 1929 the movement held a training course in Klesów [now in Ukraine]. The same year the Kutno Betar held a very successful summer camp, not far from Włocławek.

In the organization there were areas where leaders from the Betar troop found themselves in special circumstances. When member M. Zandberg came from the training camp in Vilna, he had to change the course of the troop which had been altered by member Elbaum, who had managed to introduce his military training together with similar Polish organizations. This military training left a deep impression on the youth.

At that time I was learning at the Betar leaders' school in Warsaw. But the blessed work of the Kutno Betar was erased by the tainted German hand which destroyed the entire Jewish life in the town.


Translator's footnote
  1. Stands for Brit [covenant] of Josef Trumpeldor; a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Latvia Return

[Page 171]

Ken Hashomer Hatzair in our city

by Yehudit Riftin, Ein Shemer

Translated by Sara Mages

In 1917, when I was ten years old, I entered ken[1] Hashomer Hatzair in the city of Kutno. The ken already existed. It seems to me that it was founded by the Torunchik brothers of Lodz. The scouting performances of the ken's members in the city streets, their uniforms and the scouting sticks in their hands, made a great impression on me. After putting a lot of pressure at home, my eldest sister, Rachel z”l, agreed to take me to the ken to register. The ken was in a large lot which, I believe, stored scrap iron. It was far from the city center, beyond the railway tracks and (I suppose) belonged to the Bromberg family. When we got to the lot the instructor was busy. He ran one of the members around the lot as “punishment” for some offense. When he was free he registered me and I was accepted. Some time later, the ken's flag was placed in my hand and I brought it to my father's house.

I remember wide scouting activity from my first period in the ken: extensive scouting games in the local park and nearby forests - bonfires, field kitchens, guard duty, signal training, knots, etc. We learned the theory of scouting from Polish scouting literature. We also fulfilled general “public” functions such as: honor guard next to the municipal synagogue on the occasion of installation of electricity in it, or an honor guard at a public meeting in which Dr. Yehoshua Gottlieb, member of the Central Committee of Polish Zionists, appeared. It seems to me that I stood in two honor guards. Guardians, from among the parents, were also active in the ken and one of them was my father. They even participated in the questions during the “guard exams.” I remember that one of the parents asked me during the exams: “in what knot was Haman hanged?” and “where, in the map of Eretz Yisrael, lies Shiloh?”

After the pogroms in Lvov we held a memorial evening in a hall that, I think, also belonged to the Bromberg family. There, I read my poem about these pogroms.

I delivered the guard's promise inside a dug valley, in the “gunpowder valley” (prochownia). Apparently, at one time, there were gunpowder warehouses there. In our time - in the vast valley - at night, facing a flag bent over us, around a burning bonfire - we gave the promise.

Great assistance to the ken's scouting activities, its festive gatherings and night trips, was given to us by the agricultural farm (mainly the rose farm) of the Isaac brothers near Kutno. Today, the farm and one of the brothers are probably the only remnant of Jewish life in Kutno. One of the brothers was one of Israel's chief defense commanders (Major General Isaac).

I remember the ken's first newspaper that I was “responsible” for publishing.” It appeared in several hand-copied forms. The Polish section consisted of brief news items about Eretz Yisrael or, as we said then, of “palestinographia” [the study of Palestine]. The Hebrew section included a section of the poem, “Tziyon ha-Lo Tish'ali” [Zion Won't You Ask], by Yehuda Halevi. My group believed that this news paper could serve as a legitimate source of revenue for the group's coffers. And, indeed, one of the parents paid three zloty for this newspaper, but we received a severe reprimand from the ken's leadership.

I remember very well the visit of M. Ya'ari in Kutno. He stayed at my parents' house. His visit took place on the opening day of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ya'ari expressed doubts. He believed that this celebration symbolizes a turning point from the period of pioneering to the period of careerism. Until now I had known him only from his articles, and when I saw him face-to-face, it seemed to me that I was standing before a great living legend. However, the public meeting in his participation was not crowned with great success.

Part of the ken's activity was conducted through the district leadership, Kutno-Włocławek, and close ties formed between the two branches. It seems to me that the district was managed by Beta Schnitzer from Włocławek and by me.


Aryeh group, Yehudah HaMaccabi Battalion in Kutno


[Page 172]

There were also some friction with the main leadership, but I do not remember on what. In the city we were a serious public factor and everyone respected us, Jews and non-Jews. In the days of “Pilsudski rebellion” that, as we know, a large part of the working population in Poland believed that it was an advanced coup, representatives of P.P.S. youth approached me about revolutionary cooperation with our branch of Hashomer Hatzair.

The members of Hashomer Hatzair, in the Polish and Catholic gymnasium, fought bitterly for their right to carry the symbols of Hashomer Hatzair at school. It was not easy for us to carry the insignia on the other side of the lapel while we were studying.

In 1926, we, several graduates, left for our first Hakhshara [pioneer training] in Kishlintza farm near the city of £om¿a. A short time later I was drafted to work in the main leadership in Warsaw.


Translator's footnote
  1. Ken - nest in Hebrew, local branch of a youth movement. Return

“Our eyes are raised to Eretz Yisrael”…

by Ita Ayalon, Kibbutz Eilon

Translated by Sara Mages

As if through a lead screen the “rynek” (market) in our city rises in my memory. This was the place where the youth concentrated. We had regular places next to the shops or next to the warehouses. There we gathered, and there we also tried to solve personal and general problems that occupied us. There it was possible to talk about everything: about politics, about anti-Semitism, about Eretz Yisrael and dream about the future that awaits us. At such moments the world seemed large, open and wide.

But the days were the days of Hitler's rise to power. The border town, Zb¹szyñ, was filled with Jewish refugees expelled by the Nazi regime in Germany. Relatives, who were deported from Germany, also came to our house and told us horror stories about the German abuse of these refugees. Anti-Semitic spirits also began to blow in the city. The street began to empty of youth. The youth group found a place in one the city's corners, within the walls of ken[1] Hashomer Hatzair. There, we sought a solution to the problems that troubled us. there we tried to find out what was going on around us. The ken symbolized freedom, self-respect and national pride. It restored our love, joy, and hope. We spent long hours singing, which transferred us to distant worlds, to a world of light and sun. With the sounds of singing we reached the shores of Lake Kinneret, Emek Yizrael, the Negev and the kibbutz. Many came to us. Many were attracted by the radiant light of the ken.

I remember one Lag BaOmer. There were many preparations for it. At dawn one woke up the other, many did not sleep that night in their home fearing that their parents would not let them leave for the forest for fear of the anti-Semites. In the morning the ken left for the forest, pitched its tents, the lungs filled with fresh air and the eyes were lifted to the blue sky. On this day, the youth unloaded the burden of worries that weighed on them all year round. Lag BaOmer was a holiday for us. At dusk we returned to the city in unified rows, flags and torches in our hands and cheerful singing in our mouths. The Jews, who were waiting for us by the roadside, welcomed us with applause and joy.

When I tell my children today about the Lag BaOmer celebrations of the Jewish youth in Polish towns, I must emphasize that, even then, we needed a new Rabbi Akivah in light of the decrees of the state authorities These were the days of the rule of Rydz-Smigly, Selvy-Sladkovsky and Mrs. Prystor, who decided that the slaughter of animals according to Jewish law was barbaric and, therefore, it was necessary to slaughter the animals that are intended for Jewish needs by a more “humanitarian” method, in other words, in the form of a shot and not according to Jewish law. This decree, of course, was not the only part of their anti-Semitic policy. They wanted, by all means and methods, to deprive the Jews of their livelihood and to make their life miserable. A few years before the outbreak of the war the prime minister of that period, Skladkowsky, gave expression to the anti-Semitic line taken by the Polish authorities when he announced in the Sejm, “pogroms against the Jews - no, but boycott and economic dispossession, quite so!


Graduates and youth of ken Hashomer Hatzair


[Page 173]

However, it was precisely then, during the period of harassment against the Jews, that the ken developed and flourished. Before our eyes stood the idea of immigrating to Eretz Yisrael, the kibbutz and labor. We felt the need to give some reason to our lives in the city under the hostile conditions around us. Our battalion decided on shared life: together we visited the cinema, the library, we spent a lot of time together in all kinds of parties, but it did not last long. Before May 1 we were arrested by the police as we sat in the movie “The World us laughing.” Fear and panic gripped our parents. Their sons and daughters were detained by the police! After all, everyone knew the nature of the Kutno's policemen, those “nobles” who respect people… That night, parents, relatives and friends gathered around the police building, which was located then on the corner of Nowy Rynek and Sankivicza streets and fear was visible from their eyes. What will happen! What to do!

But we, the detainees, sixty in number, were not frightened. All of us, as one, declared that we were members of Hashomer Hatzair and we don't have a connection with the communists. We are Zionists and our eyes are raised to Eretz Yisrael. Indeed. Hashomer Hatzair movement gave us confidence. We were proud and not afraid of the authorities' imposition of fear. After all, at that time the Jews needed security and pride. In the evenings the Jews were afraid to go out into the street, afraid to be seen in the street, maybe today is a holiday for the Poles, maybe they got their salaries today and already spent their money on vodka and in their drunkenness they would harass the Jews. After all, they never lacked “reasons” to beat up the Jews…

The atmosphere became more and more poisoned. Every gentile felt that it was his “sacred” duty to incite against the Jews. From time to time we were rewarded by visits of students from Poznañ who delivered speeches and incited against the Jews. Many of us still remember that Friday, a hot and scalding summer day, when a warning passed from one Jewish home to another, “do not buy cream and butter in the market - the “Endecja” poisoned all the dairy products,” and the Jewish women went to the market on Sabbath eve, bought only poultry, and dairy products did not reach their mouth. The Jewish carters organized night guard duty on the Jews and their homes, and young men carried iron fists in their pockets.

The days grew darker, the tension increased, there was no air to breathe, we concentrated in our ken that many flocked to in those days. Between the walls of the ken we asked for an answer and a solution to our future. Everyone wanted to immigrate, and even the parents pressed for immigration by all means, whether by a certificate or by Aliyah Bet [2], but the gates of Eretz Yisrael were locked.

“We are immigrating to Eretz Yisrael” - we sang in the hot summer evenings, and for a moment you imagined that we will immigrate, all of us, all the young people in the city. But it was only a dream.

The storm of blood and death quickly approached and destroyed the Jewish communities with their inhabitants.


Translator's footnote
  1. Ken - nest in Hebrew, local branch of a youth movement. Return

A glorious page in the history of the Jewish youth in Kutno

by Naftali Krul, Beit Alfa

Translated by Sara Mages

Ken[1] Hashomer Hatzair in Kutno was one of the oldest in Poland. It was probably founded during the First World War by the Torunchik brothers of Lodz. At that time the ken bore a distinctly scouting character and devoted itself to the study of the Hebrew language and knowledge of Eretz Yisrael. The ken gained the support of the Jewish public thanks to its educational activities and its loyalty to the values of Zionism. For a long time it carried the name of the Scout Federation or the branch for the distribution of culture of the Zionist Organization. At that time the ken was assisted by a parents' committee. The ken consisted mostly of the youth who studied in the two schools in the city: the students of “Am Ha'Sefer” and the students of the Polish gymnasium. My friends and I joined the ken after a conversation with the ken's leader at that time, Yakov Riftin.

In addition to the emotional element of joining the ken we also wanted to emphasize the difference that distinguished us by activities for the community and being an example to others. The movement served as a platform for social activity and over time, with its ideological consolidation as a Jewish youth movement that educates its members to national loyalty and aspires to a society based on the principles of justice and equality in which the kibbutz serves as a model for this life - we saw in the movement a challenge to the stark reality of Jewish life in Polish towns. Indeed, such was the reality. The waves of anti-Semitism began to rise and the Jew's stature leaned over. There were many solutions to the distress of life that the non-Zionist parties raised before the Jewish public. As I listened to the debates conducted by the Bund and the Communists, which were also held in our home (my brothers belonged to these parties), I knew that I would not find my way in these parties and the way to the revival of our nation.


The ken's activities

The ken was composed of three age groups: “Kfirim” [young lions] - boys and girls up to the age of 15; “Tzofim” [scouts] - up to the age 16-17; and “Bogrim” [graduates]. We operated under uncomfortable conditions. We did not have a permanent club and we had to wander from place to place. The educational activity, which included the study of the Hebrew language, history of the labor movement and the settlement in Eretz Yisrael, was conducted according to age. Inquiries were made on various subjects, such as: our relations with other parties, the Diaspora and Eretz Yisrael, our place in the international labor movement, etc. However, the essence of education was the aspiration for self-education, self-realization, and the renewal of man and society.

One of the main activities of the ken was the organization of “summer colonies” for all the members. In 1925, there were already three “summer colonies” of the Kutno and Włocławek region which included the kens in: Kutno, Włocławek, ¯ychlin, G¹bin and Płock. The head of the regional leadership was the member Yakov Riftin.

The summer colonies were organized for the purpose of educating for greater independence, for group life with youth from nearby towns, closeness to nature and centralized cultural activities. Of course, we were interested in full participation in the colonies, but it was not easy because of the parents' fear for the fate of their children. It was necessary to invest considerable energy in persuading the parents to allow their children to go to these summer colonies.

The ken also took part in general public activities and gained a reputation for its dedication to the activities of the Jewish National Fund in which we always took first place. In addition, we participated in the distribution of the “Zionist Shekel” and the League for Labor Eretz Yisrael. In the thirties, we conducted the activities of the Halutz branch in our city and left our mark on all its activities.

As the members of the ken matured it was time to leave for “Hakhshara,” meaning, to prepare ourselves for immigration and life in a kibbutz. In 1926 the first group of members left for “Hakhshara” in Kislenice near £om¿a, and over the years our members left for “Hakhshara” points in Radom, Kielce, Czêstochowa and others. There was great blessing in the “Hakhshara” period, social groups were formed and the members adapted to physical work that most of them never experienced before..

[Page 174]

On the verge of the end

The ken knew periods of ebb and flow in its activities. The gates of Israel were closed. The hope of a rapid immigration was slim, and it was necessary to spend many years in “Hakhshara.” The graduate stratum was reduced and there was no one to deal with the faulty ideas of the “Bund” and the extreme left that brought the Zionist movement to an end. Such was the condition of the ken in the years 1935-36. It numbered more than 200 members whose instructors were members of the “Hakhshara” in Kutno (Podlaskie A). After a short time, the number of members was reduced to 150. Part of the graduates' battalion did not go to “Hakhshara” and was considered to leave the movement.

With the Nazi occupation the ken began to regroup. In reports sent from the ken to the main leadership by Dov Treschmil, (two of them are kept at the Ringelblum Institute and copies at “Yad Vashem”) the member, Azriel Meroz (today a member of Kibbutz Gazit), wrote in the summer of 1939: “Despite the tension in the city and the smell of war felt in the air, the ken operated as always. In particular there was activity in the following strata: “Zofim,” “Zofim Bogrim,” and “Bogrim.” Because of the lack of a club there was no activity in the young strata. In July, the “Zofim” stratum left for a summer colony in Dobrzyñ nad Wisł¹. Two weeks later the colony was dispersed by order of the authorities on the grounds of public disorder. After our return home it became clear that all the other colonies had been dispersed for security reasons. The stratum of “Zofim Bogrim” did not leave for the summer colony, but the ken continued to operate and its activities were held in the public parks until September 1, 1939. After the outbreak of the war there were only a few meetings of members and one of them was - aid to the refugees - to the members of the movement who fled from Bydgoszcz, Włocławek, Toruñ and Poznañ who were on their way to Warsaw.”

“On September 16, the city fell in the hands of the Germans. The meetings stopped and after some reorganization, we resumed our meetings. The main activity was how to hide the ken's little property. In a meeting with Dov Tarshmil, and members of the “Zofim” stratum, it was decided to hide the flags of the ken and the scouts' battalions, while the booklets in Hebrew and Polish were to be burned.”

“With the increase of the flow eastward, most of the members of the movement left the city, especially the older strata, including me.”


The dream of a new tomorrow

The member, Zipora Maron (Kibbutz Gazit), who was a young member of the ken, adds: “After the entire graduate stratum fled eastward we were left with no guidance. We were at a loss and we did not know what to do. From time to time, when circumstances allowed us, we met and reminisced. We lived in the hope that everything would pass quickly, our members will return home and the life of the movement will be renewed. I am sure that if a few members of the “Bogrim” stratum remained, we would certainly have continued to operate in accordance with the conditions created in those days.

In this way we passed the summer, a summer full of worries and decrees imposed on us by the Germans.

In the summer of 1940 the order was given to leave our homes and move to the ghetto. I don't have the strength to describe the ghetto with its horrors and horrific conditions, but we looked for each other and even met together. The meetings were an essential need of all of us, a way to escape for a moment from the hellish conditions and reminisce about the old days. Sometimes we read books and dreamed of another tomorrow. We could not sing for fear of being discovered, we knew very well that the power of singing together can help a person in his grief and sorrow.

“The meetings, which took place on one of the hills inside the ghetto, were only known to our members. We set up guards for the fear that the police would find us and, indeed, they did everything to suppress any spark of organization. Although we did not ignore the danger involved in these meetings, we felt a strong need to maintain contact between the members and, of course, we had no contact with the outside. We were completely cut off from the world”...

Indeed, ken Hashomer Hatzair in Kutno had written a glorious page in the history of the local youth. His education for change in values, his desire for self-fulfillment and Zionist activity, brought dozens of members to life in a kibbutz in Israel. Today they are in Eilon, Beit Alfa, Gazit, Gal On, Merhavia, Evron, Ein HaHoresh, Ein Shemer, Ramat HaShofet, and dozens of members are currently active in Israel in various fields and, in this, the right and value of ken Hashomer Hatzair in Kutno.


Group of Hashomer Hatzair members


Translator's footnote
  1. Ken - nest in Hebrew, local branch of a youth movement. Return

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