Translated by Judy Montel
The author, Yitzchak Berger (1875-1945 one of the founders of the Po'alei Zion (Minsk Version) and one of the leaders of the Zionist activists in Minsk. See more about him on pages 429-432.There are people whose lives follow a straight line without swerving to the right or the left, and others for whom the shifts and changes in the life of the community make a very deep impression on their souls and as a result cause changes in the values of their own lives. During the long life of Dr. Chaim Churgin, there were many changes of the guard, and for this reason, the story of his life is also made up of block upon block, layer upon layer.
This article was published in Davar, 5th of Nissan, 5699 (1939).
In his youth he studied Gemara, first at a Yeshiva in Minsk and later in the great Yeshiva in Volozhin, whence the light of the Torah spread forth to all of the communities of Israel. When he returned from Volozhin, he was attracted to secular studies. Russian literature of the second half of the 19th century, which was swept by winds of folk style and was entirely colored by love and support for downtrodden and miserable folk, captured his heart. And he himself was entirely a 'folk' type. His father was the beadle in the synagogue, his mother was a craftswoman, who made wigs for women. The plight of the Russian farmers, workers and laborers whose echoes reached him via the poems of Nekrasov, the stories of Dostoevski, the articles of Dobroliovov, Pesarev, Chernishevski and Herzen gave him no rest. Upon his world view, two Russian philosophers of the time had particular influence: Lavrov (Mirtov) in his letters regarding history and Michailovski in his articles in sociology and social philosophy. Churgin became an active member of Narodania Volia (Freedom of the People). He began to work in the underground. He would travel for the movement from Geneva to London, from London to St. Petersburg, from St. Petersburg to Vilna, to Minsk and other places. His [political] party name was Angry Chaim, a name that suited Churgin very much. At the end, of course, he fell into the trap. The gendarmes arrested him at the border with suitcases filled with forbidden things. He was not afraid. A man like Churgin had no fear. He was blessed with extraordinary courage, made without a trace of fright. However, he worried a great deal about friends. He was very worried lest his failure lead to the arrest of his companions, and all of his thoughts were concentrated on one point: how to notify his friends that he was in the hands of the gendarmes so that they would have time to escape or cleanse their apartments of any political chametz (leavening). He thought and found. To the question of the gendarmes, who was supposed to receive his shipment from him, he responded that in Minsk, on the road which goes from the train station to the city park, a man is waiting for him with a special signal, to whom he must turn over everything he has. The gendarmes believed him and went with him in the hopes of arresting the messenger as well. Of course, there was no such person. Churgin had only to appear in the streets of the city with his chaperones in order for his arrest to be made known to the party, and with his cunning he saved his friends and his joy knew no end. That very day, the door to the jail closed behind him for a long time
In jail he met a young divorcee, also a revolutionary, an intelligent woman, daughter of a talmid chacham Torah scholar, the daughter of the RR Ya'akov, head of the rabbinical court of Boerchni-Dneprovsk, Yekaterinoslav district and she herself, the student of scholars. She also was educated in Talmudic literature. They married in jail and the guards stood up for them.
Also after the second segment of his life arrived, after he traded the environment of the talmudic sages Abaye and Raba with the books of Bukel, Spencer, Marcham and the like, he did not sever his connections with religious Judaism. What power, unseen and high, hidden in the depths of his heart's conscience, pulled him always to the synagogue. One incident became in its time a great joke in Minsk. The minister of the gendarmes in Minsk was a musical connoisseur, especially the melodies of the cantors, and on holidays, and of course during the high holidays, he would come to the synagogue to listen to the singing and prayers, and how surprised he was to find there his regular customer, Churgin, standing in a corner and praying with great concentration. He knew all of the revolutionaries and knew of their negative attitude towards both temporal and divine rule, and here Churgin stands, praying with all of the Jews. The Gentile could not restrain himself, with all of the proprietary generosity that the gendarme-officers excelled at, asked him What are you doing here? What does my friend have to do with a house of God?
This segment of the long and multicolored life of Churgin also came to an end. The reaction of the government of Alexander III destroyed the revolutionary movement for a known while and the members of Narodanya Volia scattered in all directions. Some found their graves in the walls of the fortress of Peter & Paul or in Schluesselberg. Others in the plains of Siberia, some committed suicide after their terrible disappointment and others went insane after decades of solitary confinement. Some found their consolation in the bitter drop of alcohol but most made their peace with the crisis, found work as clerks in government agencies and continued their lives as people of the twentieth day (a term for clerks who have no public or ideological content in their lives, whose only high point is the salary which is paid on the twentieth day of the month).
Churgin was not like this. True, after the changing of the guard in the life of the society a change arrived in his life as well. However, also in this period, as in its predecessor, his life was given over entirely to public works.. Churgin entered into the life of the present, opened a dentistry office and from this earned his living. His wife also earned, she was an excellent bookkeeper, she kept the books of a large trading firm the Minsk branch of the Vilna firm, Aronovitch and Gershovitch. After a few years he was elected to be one of the directors of the Municipal Pharmacists Bank and got a decent salary. But all this was of the least importance. The main thing was his public work. In Churgin's life there arrived an important turning point. The work for the Russian people passed like a shadow, and he returned to his people, to the rock from which he was hewn. Churgin, son of the beadle (shamash), son of Naomi the wigmaker who prepared free meals for the scholars of the study hall, became the most prolific public activist in his city, wholly Hebrew, one hundred percent. He was particularly interested in institutions whose task it was to teach the young people of Israel trade and agriculture. At seven in the morning, summer and winter, he would run from artisan to artisan to see if the youngsters were being well-taught, if the artisans and their wives weren't exploiting them to do housework or to take care of their children, if their white boots and clothing were in good order. Every time you entered Churgin's apartment, the hallway was full of people. Some entering, some exiting, and nearly all of them on public business. If, by chance, a few sufferers were sitting in the waiting room who had come to see the dentist, they were pushed to the corner. And sometimes, in the middle of the day, Churgin disappeared. He travelled out of the city to an agricultural farm founded by Mr. Weisbram in memory of his deceased son and of which he, Churgin, is a member of the administration. This farm produced good and experienced farmers. Some of them came to Eretz Israel! He worked not only as an activist, but as a doer. He was always jumping to the head of any charity and would announce a large sum of his own, and thus educated the wealthy and taught them how one must spread money around to charities. He was very careful about every penny of public funds. This reached a level of miserliness. But, on the other hand, he was a great spendthrift with his own money for matters of charity. As mentioned above, this section of his life was purely Jewish. There remained just one corner for cooperation with the Russian intelligentsia the work of culture. In Minsk there was a municipal library named for Pushkin, and we were both elected to be members of its administration. Our cultural work, shoulder to shoulder with the best of the Russian intelligentsia was extremely pleasant and sweetened for us the bitterness of the black reaction in Russia.
Afterwards, there was another turning point. In 1897, when the voice of the first (Zionist) Congress reached us we Mr. Shimshon Rosenboim of blessed memory and I made the first attempt to pull Churgin into our ranks and we were successful. A few weeks after the first Congress, at a meeting designated as that of the Zionists of Minsk, Motzai Shabbat Shuva in 5658 (September, 1897), in the Hebrew Trade School, after the lecture of Dr. Y.L. Vilensky about the first Congress, Churgin officially joined the movement and the Zionist endeavor all of the practical labor: pounds, shares of the Colonial Bank, after the fifth Congress also the Jewish National Fund stamps all of this work was concentrated in his hands. After the fourth Congress in London, where S. Rosenboim was elected as a member of the Zionist Acting Committee, Churgin was elected in his place as the Chair of the Municipal Committee and Esther Churgin was elected to be Rosenboim's secretary and the administrator of the office for the Minsk area.
Before the great assembly of Russian Zionists in Minsk, the second day of Elul, 1902, Churgin was elected as a member of the committee for preparing the assembly that the late Rosenboim had chaired.
Twice, he participated with me in the Congresses. At the fifth, in Basel, and at the 14th in Vienna. He visited Israel in 1912.
The last segment of his work in the diaspora the days of the world war. He was active in a committee for refugee relief. He was the Chairman of the Committee of Work Assistance. He was a member of the Supply Committee that attended the City Council. In the days of Kerensky there were democratic elections in Minsk to the city council and we were able to unite nearly all of the Jewish voters into one list, expressly stating that all of the candidates who were elected by this national list would form a national Jewish faction in the democratic Council. Churgin was elected to head the faction. During the German occupation we arranged a democratic community in Minsk and Churgin was elected to head the community. I was nominated, of course, by the Zionist faction. But both the Bundists and the Agudas Yisra'el people had no objection to his candidacy, because all of the inhabitants of the city in their various parties and factions had great faith in his honesty, his seriousness, his devotion and his pragmatism
In 1920 he traveled to London for the Zionist convention. He could not return to Minsk because in the meantime, the Bolsheviks conquered the city, so he then came to Eretz Israel. (his wife Esther, who had remained in Minsk, left there in the winter of 5696 1936 in order to move to Eretz Israel, but she took ill in Warsaw and died their, alone and destitute). Here began a new episode of public work, many important activities in the building of the country. This is the last ring in the long chain of his life, which were full of glory and honor.
Translated by Jerrold Landau
From the article Berl's Mission in the volume of writings Zion Vatzedek (Zion and Justice), Book Two, published by Tarbut Vechinuch, 1971.At a time of grace and self-disclosure, when he was not concerned that this would be seen as the heresy of heresies of haughtiness, Berl would relate and later I was able to find documents that testify to this that as it seemed to him, it was he who created the theory that became famous as Non-Proletarianism.
The path to this was opened by Dr. Ch. D. Horwitz at the Zionist convention in Minsk. There was a Zionist convention in Minsk in the year 1902, which was even before Kishinev. Herzl was still alive, and Russian Zionism was at its peak. From that time until 1917, Zionism in Russia did not have such a convention. Every Jew who was connected to it was anxious about the news. The Russian Zionist movement was then the largest of all of the national organizations of the World Zionist Organization. To this convention came not only delegates, but also guests from other places. Among them was Berl. He was still a fifteen-year-old youth. Berl came to Minsk from his city of Bobriusk, with the treasures of his father's home in his heart.
At this convention, he heard the Russian lecture of Ahad Haam about the role of Hebrew culture in Zionism. He was not pleased that the talk was in Russian. He once told me that this is like someone who immerses with an insect in his hand . He witnessed Weizmann and Rabbi Reines reconciling with each other. However more than all of these, his heart was moved by one speech that never departed from his memory for the rest of his life. This was the speech of a man whose voice was later silenced in the literature of Israel; however at the time, they pinned great hopes upon him. He was one of the first who began to speak about the Jewish economy in Hebrew literary style, and who published Hamamon in Hebrew, the first book about modern economics that was written in Hebrew. This was Dr. Chaim Dov Horwitz. He lectured at this convention about Jewish economics in the Diaspora. This was the economic basis of Zionism, and this was the first theory about the economic and social basis of the Diaspora, and the inevitability of the nation descending down the slope if it were to remain without its own land. Berl regretted throughout his life that he was not able to find the proceedings of that presentation, so that it could be published and used as a foundation for his Zionist thought.
Ch. D. Horwitz had not yet merged Zionism with Socialism. He also did not see himself as a Socialist in the classical sense of the term. However, he was the first to sow the light that penetrated into the paths of Jewish economics in the Pale of Settlement in Russia. The Marxist analysis of facts that was brought down in the books of the Lika census  exposed openings for him. There was no longer a refuge from the upcoming bad thoughts. No hope of emancipation could satisfy him any more. Horwitz brought this thought to the convention in Minsk, and these words served as a revelation and directive for the future to Berl.
|1||This is a statement from Jewish law regarding one who immerses in a ritual bath (Mikva) to remove a ritual impurity. One of the sources of ritual impurity is contact with a sheretz (any of a set of types of insects or reptiles). If one immerses in the ritual bath while holding on to this sheretz, the immersion is obviously hypocritical. Return|
|2||There is a footnote in the text here, as follows: The Y. K. A. organization conducted a census of the Jews of Russia in 1897. It brought to light very important facts about the social and professional makeup of the Jewish population. Economic researchers and Jewish organization, especially Socialist Zionists, used the material of this census extensively. Return|
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Minsk Memorial Anthology Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2021 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 13 Oct 2008 by LA