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Ostrowiec Becoming Modern

[Page 224]

The Development of Modern School Systems

by Iser Boymfeld, Rio de Janerio

Translated by Tina Lunson

As a native Ostrovtser who spent the best of his young years in the town I feel a strong desire to tell about the great efforts that the conscious part of the Ostrovtse Jewish population made to modernize its education system and make it appropriate to the demands of the new era and the new needs that had been created in our town, as in other towns of Jewish Poland after the First World War.

Before the First World War the Jewish children in Ostrovtse were educated according to the familiar example. They began with an elementary teacher who taught the them alphabet, and later went over to a teacher who taught them khumesh mit RaShI [the Five Books of the Torah with RaShI's commentary]. Then came the teacher for Talmud, starting with the “arbe avos nezikim” [concerning damages] then going to more difficult chapters such as “nedrim” [vows] and Talmud with commentaries and to the laws of purity in the “Shulkhn orekh”.

I remember the elementary teacher from my time, R' Asher–Leyb, a tall Jew, broad shouldered, in his fifties. One studied with Asher–Leyb in a large salon in which there was one long table with two benches for R' Asher and one smaller table with two benches for his belfer or helper. All together about 60 students studied with R' Asher.

R' Asher's kheyder also employed the traditional–for–the–times braided whip, with which a teacher held the pupils in fear.

R' Abish taught us khumesh mit RaShI. We also began to study Talmud with R' Abish: bava kama, bava mitsiye, kidushin. R' Abish did not use a whip, but a kind of ruler which he had made himself from a thin board. A rap with that ruler gave a child swollen hands more than once.

R' Khayim was a higher teacher for us; people called him Khayim the lender. He had a total of 8 students. He taught Talmud with commentaries, the tractate for the holidays. He also taught the reading of the Torah from a scroll, with a trope.

At R' Khayim's we studied the lesson in the morning and repeated it later in the day. In the afternoon R' Khayim either slept in his alcove or was busy with the clients who borrowed 5 to 10 rubles from him.

R' Kahayim did not have a whip or a ruler. But when R' Khayim twisted your ears you felt it for a long time. He also had other ways to punish the unruly pupils. Such a boy had to help the rabbi's wife with the housework or go into penitence.

Bar–mitsve boys studied with R' Azriel, a small, thin little Jew of skin and bones with a pointed beard. R' Azriel put his whole soul into the pupils and rarely ate to his fill. His ambition was that his pupils could be examined successfully by the elite of the town.

These that I have mentioned were not the only teachers in Ostrovtse. They were the most well–known.

At the same time that public life in town was dominated by old life–ways, the haskole [haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment] began to secretly permeate it. I recall how I once saw in a study–house that as the adult boys Yehoshue Rozenman, Ruven Halpern and Shloyme Naforstik were studying, they were hiding something under the Talmud volume. I was intrigued and I could not rest until I knew that these were the then–famous books “Ha'tue b'darkhey ha'kahyim” and “Kevures ha'mor” [Wanderder on the path of life and Burial of the Ass] by Perets Smolenskin. I was drawn and gradually became close to the above–mentioned study–house boys and was their go–between for carrying the “Ha'tsfire” from one to another and the Yiddish and Hebrew haskole books like “Oheves tsion” [Love of Zion], “Ashmot shomron” [Sins of Samaratins], “Even negef” [Stumbling block] and others. I usually got the books from the secretary Hernes Kantor, who in Ostrovtse was called “the philosopher” because

[Page 225]

loved to talk about RaMBaM and his “More nevukhim” [Guide for the perplexed]. It seems that even though his name was Khayim Ginsburg, the observant Jews called him “the soul catcher”; nevertheless for arbitration and for business matters they turned to him and had the greatest respect for him. At that time I was 14 years old.

My grandfather Zundele Boymfeld must be counted among the maskilim [followers of haskole] in our town, and was known as an anti–hasid. My grandfather R' Zalman Yoshes, his brother, could not find peace with him. My grandfather, who studied with the Ber Rebi, could not make peace with the thought that his brother could be anti–hasidic. My father had a fine library in his house and many communal matters had been decided in our home.

During and after the First World War, the Jewish environment in Poland had begun to develop an intensive cultural–social life, and life in Ostrovtse had taken on a different face. The beginning was quite modest. A small–loan society was founded in 1914, and was the first expression of the self–activity of the new, rising Jewish youth. The society was founded in the house of the Mints family with the participation of the writer of these lines. Later new institutions sprang up in the environment of the loan society: a public library, the Zionist organization “Mizrakhi”, a “Poaley tsion”, professional unions, secular schools and other institutions.

The founders of the loan society were Menye Blankman, the brothers Yekhiel and Elieyzer Pantser, Yekhiel Halpern, Ziml Halpern, Moyshe Kats, Simkhe Mintsberg, Mayer Rozenman, A. Kroyngold, Yankev Vaynberg and Iser Boymfeld.

The organization “Mizrakhi” was founded by Motl Sheyner, Moyshe Kats, Leybish Halshtok, Yehoshua Kuperman, Elimelekh Halpern, Mordkhe–Mayer Nisker, Avrom Dovid Kroyngold, Yankev Koper, Iser Boymfeld and others.

The Zionist organization was founded by Avrom Yankev Mintsberg, the brothers Yehiel and Elieyzer Leyvi, the brothers Shmuel and Ezra Bomshteyn, Simkhe Mintsberg, the brothers Blankman, Elieyzer Mintsberg, the brothers Yekhiel and Elieyzer Pantser, Yehiel Malinak, Yekhiel Halpern, Yekhiel Vaynberg and others.

The Poeley tsion organization was founded by Ayzik Benker, Fayvl Shteynbok (died in Brazil), Shmuel Sharfshteyn, Itsik Nusinovitsh, Hersh Kudlovitsh, Yosl Finklshteyn, Shmuel Shpayzmakher and Itshe Lustman.

The “Bund” was founded by Avrom Shertsman, Itshe Zinger, Shmuel Beyglman, Sh. Fishman, A. Grober, I. Frumerman, Velvl Patsontek and Yitskhak Vagshol.

The noted party organizations created the movement for establishing modern Jewish schools in Ostrovtse. The first modern school in Ostrovtse was the Tarbus school. It founders were Avrom Malokh, A. I. Mintsberg, Simkhe Mintsberg, Yehiel and Elieyzer Leyvi, Yekhiel Mayer Blankman. The director of the school was A. Kestenberg, whose wife helped him in his work. 120 students studied in the school.

After the Tarbus school, the Mizrakhi school was founded, in which there were 350 pupils. Many children could not be accepted because of lack of space. The founding of that school was thanks to the devoted social activist Moyshe Lederman, who was for many years president of Mizrakhi, a member of the city council, vice–president

 

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The Tarbus folks-shul

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of the Jewish council and whom everyone in the town valued and loved. The director of that school was A. Viner, and the teachers were Erlikh, Shakher, Rabinovitsh, Rumianik, Mandlboym, the brothers Zilberberg, Temse Ayger. Blume Mushkes and others taught the kindergarten. There was a year when, due to the pressing demand from parents, the Mizrakhi school accepted 380 children, which was beyond its capabilities and could not be sustained.

Later the “Poaley tsion” founded the “Folks shul” in which 150 children studied, under the leadership of the teacher Zamiet–Shkovski, Fayvl Shteynbok and others.

The new, modern schools created a brilliant educational opportunity for the Jewish child. The schools had good, suitable venues with the necessary furniture, maps, pictures and instruments. The schools used the best pedagogical education methods. The school became a second home for the child. The children loved the teacher, who know how to win the trust of the child. They went to school with eagerness. Parental committees were established and school holidays were instituted at which the parents and children spent happy time together.

Further, the modern schools attracted the Jewish child who had a very weak desire to go to a backward kheyder. The observant religious Jews were thus also forced to reform their educational institutions. Then modern Talmud–Torahs were established where there was also secular knowledge and the children wore school uniforms. But the modern Talmud–Torahs had less success than the Mizrakhi schools that were located in the center of the town, had good teachers and good direction. The Mizrakhi school was known for its children's presentations and so was called on in the surrounding town to give some of the presentations.

 

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The first Jewish students in the Ostrovtse boy's gimnazium [high school]

Modern education was naturalized in Ostrovtse until Hitler may his name be blotted out destroyed everything.


[Page 227]

Charitable Jewish Institutions in Town

by Paltiel Brikman

Translated by Tina Lunson

Ostrovtse, just like all other provincial towns in Poland, did not especially excel in the social conditions of its Jewish population. Poverty, want and lack of sanitary services were almost a normal condition. Residences where people lived together with a large number of children in one room, with at most one little side room, and the barrel for water, the slops pail and the oven for baking and cooking as well as heating, were a very common situation in the streets of the poor.

Because of those unbearable conditions, the Jewish council was forced to develop multi–branched charity activities in various areas. We will try to record a few charity institutions and their activities here.

 

Lines ha'tsedek [homeless shelter]

This institution was located on Shener Street. The manager of the pharmacy for the shelter was a thin little Jew with a sparse yellow beard, Yekhiel Yanovski. He was almost a complete pharmacist, knowing what to give an old Jew for a cold, a poor mother for her children who had measles, had the pox or just a fever. Jews also went to him for a wad of cotton, a vial of iodine.

 

Biker kholim [visiting the sick]

The tasks of the bikur kholim were many, from going to sit with the very ill overnight to borrowing various medical equipment that would be useful to the patient. It was a very difficult and sacred work and Yankele Hertsog was the faithful director of that institution.

He also led a second institution which was called “Gut shabes, yidelekh” [good sabbath, Jews]. This was an institution that undertook to provide poor families with khale for shabes. Each shabes morning two Jews would carry a big basket by its two handles and with the call “Gut shabes, yidelekh!” they knocked at Jewish houses and [p. 228]

people happily gave them khale that they had baked extra on Friday just for this mission. Shmuel Povroznik and another Jew had claim to go around with the basket and call out, “Gut shabes, yidelekh!

 

Gemiles khesed kase [small loan fund]

Almost everyone had to come to the gemiles khesed fund, whether to make a loan himself or to provide an endorsement for a friend or a neighbor. One could borrow from 100 to 500 zlotych from the fund and repay it at weekly rates from 1 to 5 zlotych. Akive Roset had given a room for public prayer, and it was that minyon that put together the committee for the fund every Monday and Thursday, and Jews came there to pay their installments. The only one who was paid for his work in the fund, a few zlotych a month, was Yosl, Motl Shamli's oldest son. The last president was Mendl Brikman and his assistants were Pinye Vatsharsh Sherman, Yankele Tarshish, Khane Rivke's son–in–law and others.

 

Hakneses orkhim [taking in guests]

This noble task of helping homeless and displaced happened especially when the Jews of Konine were driven out to Ostrovtse. The entire Jewish population of the town took in the refugees as their own relatives. One case will serve as an illustration: A woman, Montshke was her name, was standing in the middle of the market square with one of her sister's daughters and from their condition it was clear that they felt themselves refugees, as uprooted from their home and thrown into a town where they had no friend and no rescuer. One of the town proprietors, Yekhezkel Vaynberg, approached them and took them into his home, where they lived with his family until they all were taken away to Treblinka.

 

Public Kitchen

The Judenrat [Nazi–imposed “council of Jewish elders”] organized a public kitchen in the venue of the “Mizrakhi” group, which provided around one thousand lunches a day. The leaders of this effort were Moyshe Likht, Khayim Fishl Silman, Itshe Vishlitski, Mendl Brikman and Yehude Ratshimora.

 

Yeshives

There were two yeshives in town. One was called “the Rebi's yeshive” and it was supported by the Hasidim of our town and of other towns. The second was called the “Novorodke yeshive” and the entire burden of maintaining that yeshive fell on the Ostrovtse Jews. The boys of the yeshive had “eating days” among the population of the town. Besides that there was a yearly bread–action in the study–houses and each householder was obligated to give a kilo or two kilos of bread each week for the yeshive boys. The yeshive boys lived around the old and the new study–houses and the shul. Passers–by on Old Kuniavska Street could overhear the well–known Musar melodies as they studied. The attire of those boys was conspicuous too: A big tall hat, a long frock–coat with an open blouse, disheveled.

There were also small aid institutions in Ostrovtse, and on Purim for the feast, besides the usual help for the poor, couples collected money for the Poor Brides' Fund and other charitable institutions that functioned in the town.

May these lines of mine be a living memorial for the holy work that the Jews in Ostrovtse did in order to come to the aid of their impoverished brothers.


[Page 233]

New Winds Are Blowing

by Isser Boymfeld

Translated by Yaacov David Shulman

Ostrovtse, a town with a train station in the Kielce Voivodeship, was known for its large metal factory, where 24,000 men worked in three shifts. 17,000 Jews lived in the town.

After the First World War, which broke out in 1914, Ostrovtse grew extensively. In town, various institutions cropped up: sports organizations, libraries, schools, drama circles, a choir, and more.

This provided the impetus to transform the old–style cheders (one room school houses) with their melamdim (Torah teachers of young pupils) and bahelfers (helpers) into new–style cheders–i.e., talmud torahs (classroom schools). At the same time, there were yeshivas, Hasidic shtieblech (small synagogues) and batei midrashim (Torah study halls) with morning and evening classes.

Jewish laborers began engaging in political–economic activism in 1905, in the revolutionary movement against the Russian czarist regime. A few were sent to Siberia for their illegal political actions.

The town of Ostrovtse was almost completely Jewish. Jewish houses stood in all four directions around the marketplace. A Christian seldom moved onto the main streets. 70 per cent of the Jewish Ostrovtse population derived its income from business; 20 percent from crafts–cobblers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, glaziers, smiths, tinsmiths, construction workers and others; and 10 percent were professionals–melamdim, teachers, associated staff, doctors, dentists, pharmacists and others.

The overwhelming number of Jews in Ostrovtse were deeply religious. I will mention my uncle, Dovidl Boymfeld (or, as he was known to everyone in Ostrovtse, Dovidl Kalman Yashes), the leader of the Sabbath observant Jews. Every Friday eve, before candle lighting, he and his comrades would go out

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into the town and demand that stores close. Many times, he caused damage to the barbershops that were cutting hair or shaving beards a little bit late into the night. On Monday morning, he would pay for all of the damage. This happened numerous times.

The young Dovid came up with new ways to put an end to the backwardness of the town. In 1914, the first youth gathering in Mintzes' beis medrash took place, in which the writer of these lines participated. At this first youth meeting, a gemilus chesed [free loan] fund was created in order to help the craftsmen who could not pay the weekly wages of the journeymen working under them, because their own boss was taking a bath or enjoying an afternoon nap and did not sympathize with these tailors, cobblers or carpenters whose journeymen were waiting to be paid. Many times, it happened that a craftsman would avoid his journeymen by coming home come late at night, and he himself did not have enough for Shabbos. The fund helped many such craftsmen, lending them up to five rubles, which they would pay back over the course of the coming week.

This first youth gathering also founded the first library in Ostrovtse, which stood until the destruction of the entire Ostrovtse Jewish community.

 

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Workers of the sport club, Yutzshenka

 

A few months later, after the founding of the library, the first Bundist group was formed.

In those years, a struggle took place between the Agudah and its most important rival, the Mizrachi, regarding who would influence the youth of the shtieblech and batei midrashim.

A bloc consisting of Mizrachi, Tze'irei–Mizrachi, Zionists, Tze'irei–Tzion, Po'alei Tzion, and politicians, in which sometimes the Bund also participated, was active in the elections to the gmina and town government, and attained a significant representation that the Agudath had to deal with.

The first contest with the Agudah took place on November 2, 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was celebrated in a mass ceremony held by the Zionist organizations from right to left, Shomrim, sports clubs, women's organizations, Tarbut and Mizrachi schools. Each group had its own flag, and a few even brought their own orchestra. Despite the fact that the Agudah, and the rabbinate as well, tried to prohibit street celebrations and gatherings in the great synagogue, all of that interference was put aside, thanks to the work of our community leaders led by the gmina vice chairman, Moshe Lederman,. This demonstrated the strength of the organized youth, which with the help of sympathetic elements ended the privileged positions of the religious community leaders, who had for many years allowed no one to speak. From then on, a new attitude began to form regarding the youth in our home town of Ostrovtse.

Religious life was concentrated in 40 Hasidic shtieblech. Foremost were the Gerer and Aleksander Hasidim. The two large batei midrashim were attended by craftsmen, as well as misnagdish (non–Hasidic) householders. The small beis medrash belonged to the tailors. It was in fact called “the tailors' beis medrash.” They had a tradition to recite psalms every day before dawn.

The large synagogue belonged to the ordinary folk: craftsmen, hand workers, unskilled laborers, porters, butchers. They set the tone for the synagogue–always taking into account, however, the view of the Ostrovtse rabbi.

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Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halshtak, who was born in Sabin in 5610 [1849–50], had illuminated the town with his righteousness and brilliance since 1888. After ten years as rabbi in Skernyevitz, he came as rabbi to Ostrovtse in 5649 [1888–899]. Very quickly he gained the love of all the townspeople–even the Christians. Whenever a Christian had a dispute with a Jew, he only wanted to go for judgment to “the rabbi.”

It is worth noting that one of the students of Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halevi, the Ostrovtse tzaddik, was Rabbi Shmuel Brodt, who later served as the Mizrachi representative in the sejm. From time to time he would leave the sejm in Warsaw and go to Ostrovtse in order to discuss matters with his rebbe. He would always hurry to Ostrovtse to gain the benefit of the great Torah light that shone in Ostrovtse and illuminated the entire Jewish world. In Rio de Janeiro as well, there was a student of the Ostrovtse rebbe, a ritual slaughterer named R. Berish Diamond.

 


[Page 248]

“The Zionist Youth”[1] Arouse the Jews to Aliyah

by Moshe Blajberg

Translated from Hebrew by Yechezkel Anis

[ ] translator's remarks

The year was 1927. We were a group of 13–15-year-old youths, graduates of the Mizrachi school, suffused with a Zionist awareness imbued within us by our teachers. Our longing for the Land of Israel found expression in the Hebrew language that we spoke among ourselves and in the Hebrew books that we devoured, everything from poetry to prose.

Meanwhile, there was a great crisis in the Land as the yeridah [dropping out] of new immigrants was increasing from day to day. The Grabski Aliyah[2] had failed, with some of our own townspeople among the returnees. The better-off merchants were bitter and spoke ill of the Land, while the younger idealistic ones returned despondent and withdrawn. Their conscience bothered them over their inability to weather the crisis.

They would occasionally visit the small meeting hall of the National Guard [HaShomer HaLeumi], soon to be called the Zionist Youth [HaNoar HaTzioni], and teach us some of the songs that came out of their ordeal. It was amid this atmosphere that the Zionist Youth became a bustling center of yearning for Aliyah to the Land.

 

Our ideological teachers and educators

It is only proper that I mention some teachers and a few others who left their imprint upon us and indirectly led to our organizing ourselves into a dynamic group of 200 Zionist youths who wielded a large influence over the town's other young people.

I am reminded of our teacher, Alter Yehudah Erlich z”l, who gathered around himself a small circle of students whom he would take out at dawn to the Kunow forest. There he would recite before us the poems of Bialik and Tschernichovsky. When he made Aliyah – we were then 10- or 11-year-olds – he left behind a great void that increased our longing for him and for the Land. We followed the occasional pieces that he would contribute to various Hebrew literary publications and with pride would brag that our teacher was a recognized, practicing writer.

I should mention as well another teacher, M.Y. Peker, whose fiery words and poems laid the foundation for the formation within our school of the Chaver group, which eventually became the National Guard. He even provided each of us with a hand-written membership card.

Another distinguished teacher was Genia Levy z”l who, in spite of the ideological differences among us, instilled in us the desire for a life grounded in justice and self-supporting labor.

The precious Yid, Reb Yehoshua Kuperman z”l, a Mizrachi man whose rendering of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur night would leave us all trembling, had no small influence on our future paths as well. We used to swallow up the conversation between Minchah and Maariv among the Mizrachi shul goers, when Reb Yehudah would pronounce with his dark, burning eyes: “Do not despair. Years ago, many Jews who emigrated to America came back as well, but those who remained – today they are Rockefellers!” His words were prophetic, for the few of our townspeople who managed to stick it out in the Land eventually struck roots and if they persisted, even acquired considerable assets.

Engraved in my memory is a wonderful picture of Simchat Torah hakafot at the Linas Tzedek shul. Leading the sixth hakafah I see Avramele Malach z”l proudly marching with a Torah scroll in one hand and a Simchat Torah flag produced by the Jewish National Fund in the other. He supported us in every Zionist activity that we conducted in the town. An opposing memory involves a certain Ostrovtzer named Meir'l Chazans who scribed a pathetic pamphlet in ridiculous language entitled “The New Tower of Babel.” In it he unleashed a tirade against Herzl's State of the Jews. How bizarre it sounds when I read it today.

The first meeting hall we used for congregating and organizing was on Malinska street – the hall of the Zionist Organization, who kindly availed their facilities to us. Its leaders began taking an interest in us, particularly one of its more active members, Leibl Klajner z”l, who became the head of our group. In one of the rooms there we discovered a veritable treasure – the ten-year-old library of the Young Guard [HaShomer HaTzair, a Socialist-Zionist youth movement], together with scouting gear and camping equipment. On every pamphlet was inscribed the name M.M. Kuperman, a name that was to become legendary. The son of Yehoshua Kuperman, who headed the Young Guard, M.M. Kuperman made Aliyah in the 1920s, dug and paved roads, but then became disillusioned and switched sides to become a leader of

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the anti-Zionist Palestinian Communist Party [PKP].

I recall the day that the Yiddish newspaper Haynt [Today] was nowhere to be found in our town. It was during the 1929 Arab riots when dozens of Jews were massacred. The reason for the paper's sudden disappearance from our town was an article reporting that the PKP had signed a secret memorandum of understanding with the riots' leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem. Among the signatories was our townsman, M.M. Kuperman. The paper was hidden by all so that his father would not have to see the report and suffer distress.

M.M. Kuperman's image fascinated us and so when his wife visited Ostrovtze after they were expelled from Palestine to the Soviet Union [where they met their end as Trotskyites], we invited her to speak to us about her husband and their experiences in the Land. She preferred to remain silent, but did join us in singing the Zionist songs of the time.

Our tenure at the hall of the Zionist Organization did not last long: a fire that broke out on one Shabbat devoured the building and everything in it, including our precious treasure, the library and camping gear. Our group was left without shelter, and so we would congregate on the ruins of the hall, with the sound of our singing carried into the distance. Many curious youths ended up joining us and our numbers steadily increased.

All sectors of the community were represented among us: the wealthy, public school children, even the poorest of the poor whose hard-working parents were very far from anything Zionist.

 

Our group conquers the Jewish street

I can recall an encounter I had with a Jew named Shmali Baruch Leizers, a Bundist [Yiddish-Socialist]. He was a porter who, perched on a curb in the marketplace, would devour the Bund newspaper – the Volks-Zeitung [People's Times] – from beginning to end. People used to say that after the Shabbat morning prayers he would walk to the railway station, a distance from town, in order to bring back the Volks-Zeitung, the only Yiddish paper to appear on Shabbat. At the time, the Bund had already disappeared from our town. When its national leader, Beinish Michalewicz, died, Shmali dropped everything and traveled to Warsaw so as to attend his funeral.

This same Shmali approached me once and said, “Granted I'm a sworn opponent of Zionism, a non-believer in the Land of Israel, but I would greatly appreciate it if you would accept my son as one of your group. I see you as the only youth group in town that knows how to attract the young and make them into menschen [decent human beings].” It goes without saying that we accepted him happily. There were many others like him.

By the way, that Shmali, in spite of his anti-Zionism, did not get any satisfaction from the 1929 Arab pogroms. Instead, he would tell us, “You have no business being in the Land of Israel. The imperialist English rule there and they're the ones who are responsible for everything going on. Take your revenge on them!” He suggested that we send dozens of youths to India in order to join the civil uprising there and increase the mayhem.

As our numbers grew from day to day, we found ourselves in need of our own meeting place. This turned out not to be so easy. No landlord was willing to rent out space to a youth group, given the noise and singing. After several runarounds, we ended up finding a place further out of town in a Gentile neighborhood, on the way to the Siennien forest, not far from the pig slaughterhouse. It was quite bold of us, but the new building afforded us ample space: a large courtyard for outdoor assemblies and several rooms for nighttime activities.

Each evening boys and girls would stream to our new warm headquarters [in winter, carrying coal and wood for the kindling stoves] and enjoy themselves until late at night singing and dancing, learning Hebrew and geography of the Land, attending various talks, and practicing their scouting skills.

All holidays and Jewish occasions were celebrated in the confines of our headquarters where we injected content and meaning into our lives. I remember a certain Pesach eve, with frost still on the ground, when a minyan of us made our way to the hall at dawn for pidyon bechor [redeeming the firstborn]. We kindled the stove and in the warmth it provided we spent that Pesach eve in accordance with Jewish custom. We imagined ourselves as characters in I.L. Peretz's story, If Not Higher, when the Tzaddik of Nemirov, masquerading as the peasant Vassil, brought firewood to a sick Jewish woman, lit her stove and stayed to recite selichot [penitential prayers] by its flame. In our case it was not the prayer of one man, but of many youths who had found new meaning in their lives.

On Shabbat the place hummed from early in the morning. In the afternoon we would read aloud from Hed-haken [“The Nest's Echo”], a pamphlet that we produced each week. It was edited by our leaders with the active participation of Avraham Rozenman, who already then exhibited talent both in writing and in speaking. I recall a communal gathering in the old shul at the time of the 1929 Arab pogroms. For the first time, Avraham appeared in the name of the town's youth and delivered a fiery speech on the implication of those events. His call for massive Aliyah to the Land left a deep impression upon those assembled. After that, he would represent us at all kinds of communal gatherings.

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We would produce a special edition of Hed-haken for special occasions. For the 50th birthday of Yitzchak Gruenbaum [a Zionist leader and member of the Sejm] we produced an edition in his honor and were even able to present it to him. Standing at the edge of the forest leading to Kunow on a cold snowy day, our entire group with its officers waited until late at night for Gruenbaum to arrive in town for a lecture. He was delayed due to a stormy session of the Sejm where he delivered a forceful speech against the anti-Semitic government.

An assortment of emissaries from the Land, representing all movements and streams, would visit our group. We drank up their accounts of events in the Land and they found in us a source of support for their activities in town.

 

We participate in local elections

As an organized youth group, we developed various social activities in town. We participated in the Zionist Organization's choir. We established a drama group and arranged an annual dance party whose proceeds went to the Jewish National Fund, even though we were too young to actively take part. Soon the town's authorities began taking notice of us. Viewing us as nothing more than a scout group, they did not look kindly upon our political activities. They knew that we represented Yitzchak Gruenbaum's party in the Zionist Organization and tried numerous times to challenge the legality of our activity.

The height of their harassment came with the 1931 elections for the Polish Sejm. The ruling party at the time, headed by Poland's revered liberator, Jozef Pilsudski, reneged on its promise of equal rights for Jews and other national minorities in Poland. Yitzchak Gruenbaum, from the podium of the Sejm, demanded our rights as citizens equal in every regard. Every speech he delivered served to encourage the Jewish masses, regardless of party affiliation, in their struggle against the oppressive Polish government.

It was in this climate that the 1931 elections for the Sejm began to take place. Amongst the Jews, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, together with assorted other machers [lobbyists], called for supporting the list of the ruling party, which bore the number 1. The Zionist Organization, with Gruenbaum as its head, appeared as a separate list, but found itself suppressed in most of Poland's provincial towns. No one would dare conduct a campaign in the light of day, and at night every campaign placard was destroyed by bands of thugs working for the government's list.

It was then that we Zionist teenagers mobilized ourselves into action. We operated at night so that by the next morning the whole town would be plastered with giant campaign posters and the paths covered with the number 17, that of Gruenbaum's list. One night, we broke into the Agudat Yisrael headquarters and seized all their campaign material as well as a printing press.

The government's secret police began pursuing us. I can't forget how one night, after returning from a grueling round of posting campaign placards, we were accosted by those thugs who laid in ambush ready to tear us apart. We began to flee, with them in pursuit, until we reached the street which housed the old shul and beis-medresh. We took refuge there knowing that these toughs would never dare enter our house of worship. We emerged victorious from that election campaign. Over 1,000 votes were cast in our town for Gruenbaum's list.

 

The first olim from Ostrovtze

From merely singing and dancing to Zionist songs, we proceeded to the next stage: attending hachshara [preparatory camps] for settling the Land and then ultimately making Aliyah itself. It was hard leaving behind the bustling life we had enjoyed, but all our desires were directed exclusively to the Land. Thank God that we had the foresight to leave school and family behind and to make Aliyah – before the great scourge…

On the deck of the ship, I already decided to direct my first steps in the Land to those few of our townspeople who had not abandoned it.

[Page 251]

I wanted to see them and let them know that there was a next generation in the town that thought like them. Once arrived, I sought out these people whom I didn't even know, as I was only 8 or 10 years old when they made Aliyah.

I met with Yechiel Levi z”l from Kibbutz Ginegar and gave him regards from his nephew. Standing before me was a Jewish farmer, a cattleman by trade but also a distinguished educator. He very much enjoyed our meeting and let me know it as we walked the length and breadth of Kibbutz Ginegar, which lies along the edges of Balfour Forest. I mentioned to him the letter that he had sent to his pious father, so detached from the problems of the Land, but which his nephew had shared with us. In it he spoke of the drought that they were suffering and of the rat scourge that consumed every good inch of field – simple words etched in pencil on “simple paper, gray as ash” [as in the well-known song, Two Letters], but which for us served as a complete treatise regarding the conditions of the Land.

I went to Jerusalem and visited the home of Shraga Feivel Mincberg z”l. Such joy and embracing of two fellow townsmen who didn't even know each other! I remembered him from my childhood, from the times he attended the Linas Tzedek shul on Shabbat. But now I was meeting a different Shraga Feivel, a laborer at the Dead Sea Works in Sodom who returned to Jerusalem every Friday. He had become the spokesperson for the Dead Sea workers organization. Towards the end of his life, he became active among Tel Aviv's workers as well.

Last but not least, there was Eliezer Halevi of Kibbutz Geva, may he live a long life. The elder of the group, he was the leader of the Zionists in our town and a well-known accountant – who left it all behind to make Aliyah. On the day I came to visit him, he had just finished his shift baking bread. He took me on a horse-drawn wagon to harvest green corn for the cattle shed. He showed great interest in everything that was happening back in his home town. He was a man of progressive views – a dreamer and a visionary. He left an indelible impression upon me as I took my first steps in the Land.

Those of my peers from the Zionist Youth who succeeded in making Aliyah formed a community of sorts in the village of Kefar Saba that we called Kibbutz HaMefales [“The Leveling Kibbutz”]. For a time, a dozen of us dwelled there together, seeing the kibbutz as a natural extension of our former lives. With time, however, the group broke apart and each found his own path in life while remaining faithful to the purpose of his making Aliyah.

I find it only proper to mention a few of them, and thereby bring this chapter of the Zionist Youth to a close. I will mention the active members of our town's group who made it this far, finding their place in the constructive and productive Jewish settlement of our Land:

I will complete my recollections of the Zionist Youth of our town by mentioning one of our group's second generation, Shlomo Rubinsztajn z”l, who fell while commanding the defense of Kvutzat Nitzanim.

On the way to the South, along the coastal road in the direction of Kibbutz Negba, stands an abandoned army camp which, during the Second World War, was occupied by the Polish Anders Army from which many Polish Jews were allowed to desert.[3] Amongst them was Tzvi Landau z”l who settled for a time on Kibbutz Usha. Alongside this army camp stands a modest marker, upon which is written: “Here fell our comrade Shlomo Rubinsztajn, commander of Kvutzat Nitzanim, in battle with the Arabs as he defended members of the farm on their way to work.”

Shlomo Rubinsztajn was a member of our group's youngest contingent. The son of hard-working parents, he made Aliyah on the illegal immigrant ship Asimi and joined Kvutzat Nitzanim. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors from our group, he became a leading member of the kvutzah, managing its orchards. It was in those orchards that he and his comrades fell defending the kvutzah from Egyptian invaders who overran and occupied it for a short time. Its members [including my brother Yechiel] were taken captive after a fierce battle between a few dozen Jewish youths and hundreds of Egyptian soldiers, armed and equipped with tanks and artillery. After spending half a year in captivity, they returned to reestablish Nitzanim as a thriving agricultural settlement. There one may find a memorial to those who fell in its defense, including its local commander, our fellow townsman, Shlomo Rubinsztajn z”l. The memorial stands atop a hill overlooking the settlement as an eternal testament to those who fell in its defense.


Tranlator's Footnotes

  1. HaNoar HaTzioni Return
  2. In the middle of 1924, a wave of immigration to Palestine of mainly shopkeepers and artisans began, largely due to the economic crisis in Poland and the restrictions imposed on its Jews by the Polish finance minister, Wladyslaw Grabski. Hence, the Grabski Aliyah. Most of the newcomers settled in urban areas, primarily Tel Aviv, intent on resuming their prior occupations. In 1926, however, immigration was halted due to a severe economic crisis in the Land. Nearly half of the new arrivals returned to their lands of origin. The first signs of economic recovery came in 1929, when aliyah picked up again. Return
  3. The Anders Army was the name given to a battalion of Polish soldiers that was formed during WW2 in the Soviet Union under the command of Wladyslaw Anders. Many Polish Jews exiled or imprisoned in the Soviet Union were drafted into the battalion. It eventually fell under British command and was sent to Palestine. Once there, the Jewish soldiers were allowed to desert and join the ranks of their Zionist brethren. Menachem Begin was among them. Return

 


[Page 252]

The Revisionist Zionist Movement in Ostrowiec

by I. Birnzweig

Donated by Avi Borenstein

Like in every Jewish town in Poland, Ostrowiec was also home to various youth organizations and movements from all streams, yet the different branches of the Revisionist Movement particularly excelled in their public activity, such as the Brit HaTzohar [Union of Revisionist Zionists] and Brit HaHayal [Revisionist Zionist Association]. The lectures held every Saturday at Brit HaTzohar by Adv. Friedenthal, who is now in Israel and by the late teacher Rabinovich, May G–d Revenge his Blood, were renowned among the youth movements and many came to hear them.

Among the figures who stood out the most in these organizations activities, were the Chairman Yisrael Rosenberg, May G–d Revenge his Blood, Shmuel Zussman, who represented the movement before the municipality and the community's committee and Secretary Moshe Goldfinger, who is now in Israel.

The Jews of the town experienced an exceptional experience when Zeev Jabotinsky appeared in Ostrowiec. The film theater was too narrow to hold all the masses that came to hear the leader and the nearby streets were filled with Jews listening to the speech from speakers installed especially for the occasion. Mr. Friedenthal had the tremendous privilege of receiving the distinguished guest and opening the lecture. Y. Rozensweig had a big part in the success of this event, after investing numerous hours preparing it. The lecture was followed by a party with festive tables at the home of Mr. Heine, the richest man in town and father–in–law of the Rabbi from Gur, who offered him his spacious and luxurious apartment. We sat there with the great leader until the early hours of the morning, listening to his words without feeling time pass.

Brit HaTzohar was established in 1927 by a group of youngsters headed by Yaakov Orbach. It evolved into an active and strong body that took part in the town's cultural and political activities.

Two years later, Shmuel Grossman and Eli Mintsberg established the Beitar Movement, which quickly developed and included most of the town's youth within a short time, mainly thanks to teacher Rabinovich, who contributed valuable cultural contents to the movement's activity, many ran to the lectures and cultural balls that he hosted. Beitar also organized summer camps, defense sports training, trips and more. When members of Beitar walked the town streets wearing their uniforms, they were considered by all as the start of the Hebrew army.

After the Nazis began WWII in 1939, an underground Command Center was established by the honorable Messieurs P. Shar, Rabinovich, K. Waldman, S. Goldman, Bluma Grossman and Rachel Steinbrat. Brit HaHayal was organized thanks to Captain Yakir Goldberg (Har Zahav), who came especially from Warsaw for this purpose. He managed to gather a number of young Jews after their service in the Polish army and lectured to them about the purpose of Brit HaHayal. Adv. Tzisel agreed to assume the role of commander and together with the rest of the Command members – Yaakov Zeltser, Eli Levi and others – managed to infuse the acknowledgment that all military veterans should take advantage of their military experience to benefit their brothers, wherever they may be and should protect Jews and their property from Antisemitism. However, they considered getting to the Land of Israel as their main goal, whereas at the time it was closed to Jewish immigrants. Many of them came to the Land of Israel as part of the Aliya Bet [illegal immigration by Jews], which was organized by Mr. Zaitsik from the Center and took part in protecting the Jewish settlements from Arab thugs.

The Nazi evil put an end to this vibrant life and our precious youth was destroyed.

Let these lines serve as a memorial for all the members of the movement who did not live to see their idea victorious in free Israel. May their souls be bound in the bond of life.

 

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