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[Page 295]

In the “Bund” circles

by Nachum Chanin

Translated by Judy Montel

Nachum Chanin (1885-1965) – one of the leaders ofthe “Bund”, and eventually the general secretary of “Arbeiter Ring” in the United States. The following article was published in the Jubilee pamphlet of “Minsker Progressive Branch 99, Arbeiter Ring”, New York, 1956, as a letter of greeting on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the The second article, about B. Vladek, was publishedin the 40 year anniversary pamphlet, New York, 1946.

From Siberia to Minsk

The fiftieth jubilee of Branch 99 is to a large extent also my own personal holiday. I will never forget the letter I received from America in the remote and cold village of Siberia, that Branch 99 was doing all in its power to get me out of Siberia and bring me to America. And indeed, that is who brought me here.

My close friends, here in America and there over the sea, were young men and women of Minsk. My first steps in the workers movement and the socialist movement I took in the city of Minsk, when I arrived there from the tiny village Chalopenitch, Minsk district.

I do not have any better greeting in my mouth than that I sent you 45 years earlier (1911), for the 5th anniversary of the founding of the Branch. When I read this letter of congratulations again just now, I was swamped by an entire universe of memories of beloved Minsk! How precious you were to me then, when the ice-cold chains bound my legs.

I was then in prison. In prison people live by sinking into the past. The present is so gloomy and dreary that one has no desire to think about it. The past is so beautiful, rich, that only from there is it possible to draw strength and look forward to a better future.

My memories were closely linked to Minsk. There I was born, spiritually, there I embroidered my sweet dreams about a better world. And here, seven years have already passed since I left Minsk. How long a period that is! How difficult were those years for me. What is happening in Minsk now? Where are those songbirds, together with who I sang songs of spring? Who of my companions is still living and who has fallen? Who of them of them are in Siberia and who today scorns everything that was holy to him in the past, all for which he was willing to sacrifice his youth, health, freedom and life entirely?

My desire to be in Minsk, to visit with friends, to peek into their eyes and to see what they express, whether hope or despair – has never been as strong as it is now. The thought that I will never again see the cradle in which the best years of my life were nourished – was dreadful. If I could only go freely one more time and in secret go to the places that are significant to me, and then… and then – to die!!! Minsk and tears gush from my eyes. Here are those fond, sweet memories.

Death rules wherever I set my foot down. Hi stone walls, chilly as death itself, surround me. Wherever I turn I hear the rattle of chains, sighs of people denied liberty, half dead. And even so the moment arrived when we were brought to a remote village, far from a train station, far from people. And the police inspector announced to us that we were free.

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“You are free!” – what a crude, wildly cynical ring those words had in voice of the inspector. You are free to die here of starvation, and you are forbidden to go to another village, because… you are a political Jew.

The thought of escape comes to mind. But to where? And who will help?

Unexpectedly I receive a letter from the Minsk comrades who are in New York. They offer help in escaping.. And I begin to make preparations to start off. But to where, via Japan or Russia. If I am arrested travelling to Japan, my punishment will be three months of imprisonment, and if I travel to Russia – I will be punished with three years of hard labor. But the desire to see Minsk is so strong, that despite the lurking fear, I decide to travel via Russia. And I am soon on the way. Every day brings me nearer to the place I yearn for. And then I am in the outskirts of Minsk. The spires of the churches are already visible. When I reached the station and saw the gendarmes I recalled who I was, and that I hadn't a single address of comrades in Minsk, that that I didn't have a passport. I left my possessions at the station and walked towards the city. My heart filled with joy. I imagine Zachariewskaya Street filled with people who I kept yearning to see and hear. But on this street I didn't meet a soul. How many people passed me, but not the same people, not the same eyes. Could they all be in the synagogue courtyard today? But there was no one there either.

Where to go now? No one of the living remained. Perhaps to peek into the cemetery, to see the fate of the graves of our comrades?

Accosted by mournful shivers I came to the cemetery. I stopped by one grave and more graves of the fallen. The graves were overgrown with tall grass, the wind bent the grass stems towards me as if they were greeting me… no human foot had trodden here for a long time.

For a long time I stood by the graves. Was my heart aching for the comrades whose bones were already rotting in the earth, or the living who had allowed these graves to be forgotten from their hearts? Suddenly, I don't know from where, the cemetery guard appeared in front of me and asked: Who are you looking for here, a brother? A sister? I answered him that all of those buried here are my brothers and sisters. I left the cemetery, and a hot, hot tear of parting fell from my eye.

Vladek and Minsk

The name Baruch Charny was known to the Minsk Bundists before he became a Bundist. He appeared before us as a representative – a rival from the “Friendly Camp” of “Poalei Zion” which had recently been founded. One day, in the summer of 1903, the Minsk organization announced to all the illegal circles that on Saturday afternoon in the Kumarovka Forest a debate would be held between a Bundist speaker and two Zionist speakers, the brothers Shmuel and Baruch Charny. Our Bundist speaker was to be Kolya Teper. To this meeting a thousand people from all over the city came secretly to the forest.

I was forbidden to go to this meeting. A certain number of activists always needed to remain in the city, lest an arrest take place – so that there would be people left to continue the “Bund” activities in the city.

When the “Committee” informed me that I was not allowed to go to this meeting, I was very depressed. I wanted to see the crowd of people in the forest with my own eyes and to hear with my own ears the points with which Kolya Teper would overcome his two opponents, Baruch and Shmuel Charny. For he would be the winner – none of the Bundists had any doubt in the fact. I sat tensely in my illegal apartment and waited for someone to come and tell me how the first battle between the “Bund” and Poalei Zion had gone. Late in the afternoon Aharonchik the cobbler came into my room, happy and satisfied and says: Oh, how Kolya Teper let them have it! He turned them, those miserable Zionists, into dirt and dust!

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I was happy that the “Bund” had won the battle. But the next day my happiness waned. I met “Dina from Vitebsk”, an intellectual who had been sent by the “Central Committee” to direct the “Bund” activities in Minsk. She told me in a sad spirit: Kolya Teper argued well, but made a hard impression on many of us. He is short, adorning his words like a fish in water, throwing rude words towards his opponent from time to time. And worse than that, was that Baruch Charny was speaking against him, a tall young man whose dark head is handsome and who wears a pince-nez. He spoke calmly, with lots of humor and amazingly rich language. He made on all of us – Bundists and non-Bundists – a tremendous impression. If he weren't a Zionist, I would have fallen in love with him. I'm afraid, she said, that this young man with his rhetorical talent may take the masses from us.

And indeed, Baruch Charny didn't give the “Bund” a moment's rest that summer. Everyone was talking about him and his speeches, and even the Bundist masses spoke of him fondly and with appreciation.

When I returned to Minsk at the start of 1904 B. Charny was locked up in the Minsk prison. He was arrested as a member of the Poalei Zion. After the fact, his arrest gladdened the hearts of the Bundists very much, for this way they were rid of a powerful rival. The Minsk group of Poalei Zion had a wealth of intellectual-leaders. Among that group at the time were: Berger, Rubenchik, Chaika Cohen, Dr. Kaminski, S. Niger, Chaim Shimon Fainson (a close friend of B. Charny who later committed suicide), and many others. But none of them was as dangerous as B. Charny.

The Minsk prison was in those days filled and crowded with political prisoners, most of whom were Bundists. We would transfer them packages of food and clothing from the outside. We would smuggle them illegal literature and receive illegal letters from them, articles for our illegal Bundist newspapers. In short, the iron bars and the locked solid gates with dozens of armed guards did not stop us from knowing every detail of the lives of our comrades in jail. One day we received a letter from Kolya Teper's wife, Zina, that Baruch Charny had announced that he was joining the “Bund”. The joy and pleasure of all the Minsk Bundists was unimaginable when they learned that their well-spoken rival, whom they loved in the secret recesses of their hearts, had become one of them, had become a Bundist.

In the fall of 1904 Vladek was released from prison. The Bundist “Committee” decided that Comrade Yehudit Chipkin, a Bundist activist from Vilna, would meet with him in my presence and would draw him into the practical work of the “Bund”. He was then living in a dark room of a shabby Jewish house in “Batza”. We spent an entire evening with him. After several months, the salespeople of the shops in Minsk went on strike. The city was in an uproar over the strike. The governor of Minsk, Mosin-Pushkin, allowed the strikers to enter the great study hall every day. Thousands of people came to the meetings. Not only the study hall was filled from end to end, but even in the synagogue courtyards hundreds of people were standing. Baruch Charny is the chief speaker, a new speech every day. His learned quotes spread over the entire city. His name became famous, people spoke of him as of a prophet, everyone, great and small, knew him. When he walked in the street everyone stopped to look at him. Detectives followed him. He was forced to leave the city. We parted and he traveled to Vilna. There he was crowned as a glorious speaker, “the young LaSalle”. Eventually he became famous around the Jewish socialist world by the name of Vladek.

He was born in the small village of Dokor in the Minsk district. Minsk and the “Bund” developed his personality, sent him out to the wider world. It is no wonder the people of Minsk always saw in him one of their own.

[Page 326]

Mania Vilboshvitz and Chaika Cohen

by Mendel Zinger

Translated by Judy Montel

Mendel Zinger, a journalist and author, one of the Poalei Zion personalities in Austria was born in 1890, moved to Israel in 1934. He published books of research on the labor movement. The chapter below, as well as the rest of his chapters which are in our book – are taken from the book “The Beginnings of Socialist Zionism”, “Yalkut” Library Publications, the Haifa Labor Council, 5718 [1958].
The problem of the relations between the trade union, which deals with improving the economic situation of the workers, and the Socialist party, which mainly deals with political matters, has been on the agenda of the international worker's union ever since the first meetings between the workers' representatives from various countries. There were countries that tended to prefer the economic activity, and there were countries that tended to prefer the political activity. The attempt to separate between these two types of activity had concrete expression in Russia in 1899, after a vigorous argument that had been going on for several years within the parties, and especially within the Social-Democratic Party. In this year a group of socialists appeared who were called “Economists” and they wanted to free the trade union from the authority of the leadership of the socialist revolutionary activists.

Rev Zubatov, head of the political police in Moscow used the tendency to separate between the economic activity and the political activity with intelligence when he established “independent” trade unions in Minsk. This movement, which was later revealed as one of the provocative means of the Czar and his gang, then held to the following sort of thinking: even if we reach the Parliament itself, most of its delegates will be from intellectual circles, and they won't keep faith with the proletariat. These intellectuals will serve the bourgeoisie. The external constitutional shine will blind the eyes and confuse the minds and in the end, the Parliament will be a bourgeois institution. Therefore, it would be better to accept Czarism, even if only temporarily, and meanwhile to concentrate on activities to benefit the economic and cultural affairs of the workers and the peasants.

In one of the certificates that was found in the Russian archives, Zubatov himself defined the aim of his activity with these words: “Due to the government initiative to correct the situation of the workers, the army of fighters are removed from the hands of the revolutionaries. The staff remains alone. Satisfy the demands of the workers and they will abandon the political activity, and will even turn the revolutionaries over to you.” In this manner, Zubatov succeeded in bringing significant sections of the workers movement to a state of confusion and to introduce demoralization into the ranks of the revolutionaries.

This kind of thinking – a combination of apolitical anarchy, whose power is always strong in countries in which reaction rules, appeal to the simple instinct of the worker and the peasant, who regard intellectuals with suspicion, and seeming concern for the economic situation of the worker and the peasant, attracted significant circles among the workers of Russia, including Jewish workers from various political backgrounds.

N. Chanin, one of the first members of the “Bund” in Minsk, in his article in “Zukunft”, December 1948, describes the place of Mania Vilboshvitz in the Jewish workers movement in Minsk and her ties to the activity of Zubatov: “The public treated Mania Vilboshvitz with special affection. Mania didn't have any limits in her devotion to the workers.

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It is difficult not to describe the impression she made, when Mania decided to learn a physical profession and went to work in carpentry in one of the workshops, where the employer and the workers were all Bundists. Only in this type of workshop could a woman learn a profession like carpentry at this time, and when the news spread through the “Bund” circles in Minsk that Mania Vilboshvitz is standing next to a carpenter's table and working with a plane or hammer, it aroused great amazement, and affection for her grew even more. Mania was then about 18-19 years old, of medium height, strong, her hair was cut short, she wore spectacles and gave the impression of an extraordinary person

Suddenly, Mania and Chemrinski were arrested on one of the nights on which many of the “Bund” youth were arrested, young men and women from the party activists. They sat in jail in Minsk for several months and afterwards they were both sent to Moscow and there they sat for a long time in the well-known “Butirki” prison.

In those days, Zubatov was making his appearance on the stage of the Russian “Ochrana” (Secret Police), which had taken upon itself to destroy the socialist movement in Russia, and not by persecutions and police violence, but by lobbying with the authorities, to allow the workers to fight for improvements in their economic situation, for shorter work hours and higher pay; and from the workers, in return for this surrender – they demanded that they abandon the political struggle and battle against Czarism.

Zubatov went to convince Sasha Chemrinski and Mania Vilboshvitz with the rightness of his aspiration and promised them release from prison so that they could return to Minsk to start a separate movement, based upon the economic demands alone. They accepted his plan, were released from prison and came to Minsk.

Vasiliyev was then the police commander in Minsk, a clever and cunning man, and he understood Zubatov's ideas only too well. When Sasha Chemrinski and Mania Vilboshvitz arrived in Minsk, they found Vasiliyev to be an assistant to Zubatov's new movement, which the two began to establish in Minsk.

Thanks to the tremendous influence Sasha Chemrinski and Mania Vilboshvitz had upon the masses of the “Bund”, in those days and with the help of the clever police commander Vasiliyev, they succeeded in leading a significant portion of the masses of members of the “Bund” astray, who joined Zubatov's movement, as well as members of the liberal and Zionist intelligentsia.

Every Saturday night they held well-attended meetings sponsored by the Zubatov-Party. At these meetings, Mania Vilboshvitz and Sasha Chemrinski played an important role, for they excelled at speaking to large audiences. The Bundists would come to the meetings organized into groups, would present questions they had prepared in advance and create disturbances during the meetings. These activities of the Bundists held serious danger, since Vasiliyev the police commander had his own spies and often the questioners were arrested when they left the meetings and went outside.”

Among the Poalei Zion of Minsk the ground was prepared for the apolitical trend espoused by Zubatov's people. The “Economists” among the Poalei Zion became caught up in the motto of economic activity in the “independent” trade unions. As a parallel organization to the general movement of the “independent” unions “The Independent Jewish Party” was later founded, in which the members of the Minsk Poalei Zion were quite active. Mania Vilboshvitz and Chaika Cohen were among the most active members in this party and they were also the liaisons between it and the movement of the independent general trade union.

Mania met Chaika Cohen in Minsk in 1899, during the beginning of Poalei Zion. Chaika was then about 15 years old and younger than Mania. In they eyes of S. Niger, Chaika was short, but beautiful, alert and with tremendous energy. Her dark hair was cut short, and she frequently had a cigarette in her mouth.

[Page 328]

“She was a sister, and perhaps, young mother and housekeeper to a group of serious people who were always deep in argument and very distracted. All of the practical cares Chaika took upon her own shoulders.” Chaika's family members were educated and all of them of noble spirit. When Chaika was about 13 years old her father died of tuberculosis. She had a sister and two brothers, she was the eldest.

And in those days, socialism in Russia had a cosmopolitan character, that is, it ignored the nationalist issue. For Socialism – they then claimed – only humanity exists, a working class exists. And the nation is a capitalist creature, and a loyal social-democrat does not deal with such creatures.

Chaika's mother had a “Chaynaya” (Tea House), which was actually the club of Poalei Zion. Mania was studying carpentry at the time and worked 12 hours a day. One evening Mania came to the “Chaynaya” and heard how Chaika, the charming and beautiful young woman, was explaining to an adult man, that it is possible to be a worker and a Zionist at the same time and to see the final goal as the Zionist accomplishment in the land of Israel.

Chaika's words were logical and convincing. She claimed: It is a mistake if you think that there will be no nations in the world. All of the nations will continue to exist, in all of the nations there will be a socialist movement, and the socialist movements of all the free nations will unite. Socialism will connect them. Why must I abandon my connection to my people because I am a socialist, will other socialists from other nations do the same?

Chaika argued her claims with great enthusiasm and her words made a tremendous impression on Mania.

Mania loved Chaika with her soul, and from conversations with her, doubts arose in Mania's heart regarding the abstract cosmopolitanism and the apostasy in the concept of negating the nations; and it was she who introduced Mania to the idea of proletarian Zionism.

Before the Zionist convention in Minsk in 1902 Chaika met the priest Gafon in Petersburg. For nights they discussed the questions of Judaism, Zionism and Socialism. Gafon did not believe in the Zionist solution, but Chaika remained in his memory as a holy figure. He worshiped her for her unlimited willingness for battle and self sacrifice on the alter of her sturdy faith in her ideals. And after the meeting with Gafon, apparently, Mania and Chaika introduced the lawyer Shimshon Rozenbaum to Zubatov for a discussion about the organization of the Zionist convention in Minsk. In these discussions they also obtained an agreement regarding a permit to hold the convention.

It is interesting to note that Mania and Chaika could not accept for years the fact that Gafon and Zubatov worked for the Czar's secret police.

In one of the side rooms of the “Paris” hall in Minsk, in which the Zionist convention was held in August 1902, a cafeteria was arranged for the delegates and guests. Practically, the responsibility for the cafeteria was given to the “Poalei Zion” union headed by Chaika Cohen. Also the men and women working in the cafeteria, all of them volunteers, were mainly from the members of “Poalei Zion”. Mania Vilboshvitz was also among the ushers.

The preparation for the convention was great and the demand for entrance-tickets was much greater than the capacity of the hall. Many of the Zionists of Minsk, who were not delegates, were barely able to gain entry. However, not only Zionists, but also non-Zionists and even opponents of Zionism pushed to be present at the discussions of the convention. The job of usher or worker in the cafeteria allowed one to be present at the convention for all of the days of the debates. There were complaints that the privilege of being an usher was given to Mania, who was not then a Zionist, while others, Zionists and those who bought the Zionist shekel, were not so privileged. A complaint was lodged with the executive committee of the Zionists of Minsk and the executive committee transferred the complaint for explication to the “Poalei Zion” union. The union put together

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a clarification committee, and it demanded an explanation from Chaika, why she had chosen Mania in particular to be an usher at the convention when she knew that members from “Poalei Zion” and members of other Zionist organizations as well as ordinary people who bought the Zionist shekel were not able to visit the convention even once from lack of space. Chaika responded that Mania also bought a shekel in this year, however the committee was not satisfied with this explanation and reprimanded Chaika for her carelessness in fulfilling a position of responsibility in the name of the union.

During a party at the home of Dr. Shimshon Rozenbaum on the eve of Simchat Torah, the host described the difficulties he had encountered in his efforts to gain permission to hold the convention in Minsk and to what degree he was helped by Mania's connections with Zubatov, who instructed the police authorities to allow the convention to take place. After the riots in Kishinev “The Independent Party” was, in fact, liquidated in 1903, the persecutions of the Jews, the war against the Zionist movement and the general reactionary bacchanalia that then began destroyed any illusion of the possibility of activity under the aegis of the authorities. Zubatov, who knew more than many others to appreciate the situation which had been so comfortable for the Czarist authorities in cooperating with the “independents”, tried very hard to stop the liquidation or at least delay it, but this time all of his efforts were in vain.

With the liquidation of “The Independent Party” Chaika became involved with the workers' committees in greater Russia in order to continue the activity in different channels. The secret police, which sensed this, began following Chaika and Mania. Mania was advised to leave Russia. One day one of the members of Poalei Zion showed up in Minsk and suggested killing Pliva as revenge for the abuse of the revolutionaries. Mania was given the job of going abroad to obtain the sums of money necessary for this activity. Mania went to Berlin and came into contact there with one of the very wealthy people, who volunteered to donate the necessary sum. But the assassination plan on the villain Pliva failed.

From Berlin, Mania set out for the land of Israel to meet her brother Nachum who had traveled there.

Regarding those days in Israel Mania wrote in “Words of the Po'a lot [Female Workers]” among other things: “In order to alleviate my gloomy spirits, my brother invited me to pass through the country on horseback for scientific purposes. Since I had no hope of renewing my first plan of action – I agreed. Mendel Chankin was our guide.

We rode for ten hours every day. We would change the horses, we went through all the Arab points in the country, from Dan to Be'er Sheba, and we were also on the other side of the Jordan. The trip lasted six weeks. I became attached to the country with great, unusual, love that fills the entire soul, mind and emotions. This love for the land stayed with me my entire life, as if the two thousand year old tie had been renewed between us.”

Mania settled in the country. Chaika Cohen joined the territorialist camp, went to London and became the right hand of Israel Zangwill. In 1906 Chaika returned to Russia, Mania also traveled there illegally. Before their trip to Russia the two met in Brussels, capital of Belgium. Chaika had her brother Me'ir with her at the time, one of the activists of self-defense. In an undercover defense action Mania and Chaika now met again and with them other members of the former Poalei Zion from Minsk, who were now territorialists. They were all active in self-defense and dealt mainly with smuggling arms.

Also in self-defense Chaika had a major role. Her influence upon people who worked with her was amazing. The trust the members had in her knew no limit. The deep ties of friendship between Chaika and Mania continued throughout the years. Chaika died in America in 5711 [1951].

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