by David BenGurion
Translated by Aryeh Wanderman
Plonsk excelled in four different things: it was a city of maskilim (intellectuals); of Chovevei Tzion (lovers of Zion) and later of Zionists; Hebrew was the spoken language of a large number of its Jewish inhabitants; and from it came the first Jews of the second aliyah from Russian Poland to the Land of Israel in greater numbers than from any other city in Poland and Russia. My father's home was the center of all these things that characterized Plonsk.
Meetings of the Chovevei Tzion, and later of Zionists, took place in our home. The young generation, many of whom made Aliyah in the days of the second aliyah, also met in my father's home. When we, the youth, organized for self defense after the Kishinov pogrom and after we read, with great excitement, Bialik's Masa Nemirov, the arms were hidden in the basement of our house.
The population of Plonsk at that time was about 5,000 Jewish and about the same number Polish. The Jews, however, lived in the center of the city in the central market place, in the new market place and in the streets coming out of the central market place to the edge of the city in a street running to the west in the direction of the regional city, Plock, in a city running south in the direction of Warsaw, in a city running north in the direction of Ciechanow and two streets running east to the new market place. The Poles lived in the outskirts of the city, and because of this whenever there was a contoversy between the Jewish youth and the shkatsim (vermin), as we called the Polish youth, we came out on top because we were the majority everywhere.
The city was ruled over by the Russians who disliked both the Jews and the Poles and they did not interfere in the controversies between us.
The Jews could generally be divided into three classes: the rich merchants (which included the Kasman, Tzemach, Fuchs, Taub and other families), almost all of whom were Chasidim (mostly Gur Chasidim but also Gustinim, Kotzk and others); the middle class who were mostly Misnagdim (opponents of Chasidism), Maskilim (intellectuals), and members of the Chovevei Tzion movement who later were Zionists; and the third class who were artisans who tended more towards the Haskalah (intellectual movement).
The Chasidim prayed in their shtieblech (small prayer houses). The other Jews prayed in the large synagogue or in the batei midrash (study halls) which were next to the synagogue.
The synagogue in Plonsk was noted for its beautifully decorated aron kodesh (holy ark) which was considered to be one of the most beautiful in Poland. The paintings on it were done by the artist Yosef Bodko from Plonsk. A copy of this painting is in my cottage in SdeBoker. Opposite the synagogue, on its north side, stood the Old Bet Midrash (study hall) where mostly the artisans and the poor came to pray. In back of the synagogue, to the east side, stood the Lower Bet Midrash (der hintershter) where the lower middle class men came to pray. To the east of it was the New BetMidrash which was built in 1880 by Yitzachak Cohen who had no chidren; the maskilim and the leaders of the Zionist movement prayed there, and it was there that my father prayed and where I prayed in my childhood.
A small alley was opened opposite to the synagogue which was called the alley of the goats (kozsha). At the end of the alley was a large field to the south in which there was a large courtyard which had in it two wooden twostory houses which belonged to our family.
When I was born, my father, Avigdor, son of Tzvi Aryeh Green, was about 30 years old. He was born on the first of Shvat, 5617, and I was born on the 17th of Tishrei, 5647 (October 16,1886). My
mother was about the same age but I don't know the exact date of her birth and unfortunately no photograph of her has remained. In those days, as far as I remember, there was no photographer in Plonsk and my mother died at a young age. She died of septicemia, after the birth of her 11th child, on the 15th of Shvat, 5658, when I was 11 years old. The baby also died right after birth. Only five of her children remained alive and grew up and all of them came on Aliyah to the Land of Israel. My first born brother, Avraham, who was about nine years older than me, and my sister, Rivka, died here in the Land of Israel. A second brother, Michal, 7½ years older than me, born March 19,1879, and my younger sister, Tsipora (who was called Feigela in Plonsk) (born 15th of Shvat, 5650), are alive my brother in Tel Aviv and my sister in Haifa. My brother Avraham was the only one in the family who was religious and when the Mizrachi movement was founded in Poland in 5663 he joined it. The founding conference of Mizrachi in Poland took place in our home when I was young.
My mother's death was the worst experience I had in my childhood and the pain of this loss accompanied me for many years. For many years I continued to see her and talk to her in my dreams and sometimes ask her why she is not here at home. She apparantly was an only child of her parents, because I don't remember any brother or sister or any other of her relatives. Her father, David Yosef Friedman, died before she was born and I was named after him, although in Plonsk I was called Duvtsha. I remember my grandmother, my mother's mother, who lived in our house until she died.
My mother inherited two houses and a large orchard from her father on the outskirts of the city, near the garden of the Catholic priest of Plonsk. Pears, apples, plums and cherries grew in the large garden, and we would lease it to one of the Jewish gardeners in the city. We lived peacefully with our Polish neighbors. The relationship of the Poles around Plonsk with my father was one of honor and trust. He handled their legal affairs. As a lawyer he was honored also by the Russian rulers in the city, such as the Justice of the Peace who had a Polish mistress and three children from her, and he would walk in the streets of Plonsk with the children and mother behind him; the regional ruler and head of the police who were Russians, as well as their assistants. Most of the policemen in the city were also Russians.
Our two houses were wooden houses of two stories. We lived in the house which faced the garden and the well in the yard behind the house. Our apartment had four rooms. Two rooms on our floor were leased to the Shochet (ritual slaughterer),Yitzchak Yaakov Esterson, who was a Chasid of Gur and a friend of my father. The Shochet was charged with Zionism and was persecuted for this by the Chasidim of Gur until he was forced to leave Plonsk and went to America. I met him there in 1915 after I was expelled from the Land of Israel by the Turks in the First World War.
There was another Chasid of Gur in Plonsk, Simchah Isaacs, who was one of the first members of Chovevei Tzion and later a Zionist, and was a learned and dignified man. He had a store on the street between the Central Market and the New Market. He had no children, but he married a second wife, a widow, Shoshka Nelkin who had two sons and a daughter named Rachel. The sons immigrated to America. Simchah Isaacs, who was harassed by the Gur Chasidim, came on Aliya to the Land of Israel, at first by himself, in 1905 or the beginning of 1906. His wife and her daughter Rachel BetHalachmi came on Aliya together with me about a year later.
In our second house lived my brother Avraham who got married when I was 10 or 11 years old. A few other Jewish tenants also lived there.
What I remember most from my early chidhood is about my mother, Sheindel, who took care of me with great love because I was weak and somewhat sickly in my childhood. My mother took me in the summer months, according to the advice of the doctors, to the village where our relatives lived. They were the only Jewish family in the village. All the members of that family came on Aliyah to the Land of Israel several years after me. For some reason I was the child who received special loving and gentle care from my mother. Perhaps the reason for this special care was what the doctor had predicted. My father had taken me to a specialist in Plock and after he examined me he said that the size of my head, and especially the prominent back part of my head, showed that I have great talents and that I will
be a great man. When my mother heard that she was filled with pride and happines. My mother, who was religious, hoped that I would become a great rabbi. My father, on the other hand, was a free thinker, but religiously observant, as was his father, Tzvi Aryeh Green, who was one of the Maskilim of Plonsk and who was an ardent opponent of the Chasidim whom he considered to be sinners and idle worshipers. He was one of the admirers of the Desoyer the name by which Moshe Mendelson was called in our city and a great admirer of the Vilna Gaon.
I found the following in the memoirs my father wrote about my grandfather (my father's father):
My father was a very learned man and also a ‘maskil' (intellectual). He knew three languagesHebrew, Polish and Yiddish. He admired Spinoza and tended to agree with him. He kept all the mitzvot, even the strictest ones. He was familiar with philosphical works, from Plato to Kant and he was expert in the Hebrew philosphical works from the Rambam (Maimonides) to the Ranak (Rabbi Nachman Krochmal). He was a permanent subscriber to the periodical Hashachar and he admired the editor Smolenskin. He also admired Moshe Mendelson. In his old age, in the 70s of the 19th century, when the Russian Czar ordered that the Russian language should be the official language in all the Polish government offices, my father succeeded in learning Russian and was able to write requests to all the government offices and, in particular, to the courts of justice.
My father lived in the house of the Gvir(nobleman) R' Yisrael Lipo Eshkol, the brotherinlaw of Natanel Tzemach, for more than 40 years. He had conversations and debates with his landlord, would tease him saying that he was richer than him and his sleep is sweeter and to him, to the nobleman, that he was jealous because his brotherin law conducted better business, and this keeps him from sleeping well.
This grandfather started to teach me Hebrew when I was three years old. I remember that he used to hold me on his lap and teach me the names of all the parts of the body and of things in the house. He would read to me from the chumash (the Five Books of Moses) with the commentary of Mendelson and with his German translation printed in Hebrew letters. After I had learned a lot of Hebrew words he would test me in the following way: he would say a twolettered Hebrew word and I would have to give him another twolettered word which began with the last letter of the word he had saidfor example if he said the word ben I would say the word ner, then he would say ram and I would have to say a word which begins with the letter memand this would go on for 10 to 15 minutes.
My grandfather, like my father, was a lawyer. He had an office on Plock Street, not far from the yard behind our house, and when I was a child I used to go to him every day. I don't remember if he was part of Chovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) (he died before the beginning of the Zionist movement). My father was one of the founders of the Chovevei Tzion movement in Plonsk and I assume he inherited this from his father. In any case, I know that my love of Zion and of the Hebrew language was inherited from my father, although when I told him, before I was even 20 years old, that I had decided to go on Aliyah to the Land of Israel and be a worker in the Jewish settlements, he voiced his opposition and he asked me to go to Switzerland to study in the university. When he saw, however, that I was stubborn in this matter, he did not stand in my way and gave me his blessing as well as my travelling expenses.
In his autobiography The Rise of Shalom Lish, Shlomo Lavi dedicates a whole chapter, chapter 4, to a description of the family of Aharon, the name he uses in his book for my father, and the name he uses for me is Meir Sadeh. This is what Lavi writes about my family (but with the correct names):
We have already written about the family of R' Simchah Isaac and about the meetings with his beautiful daughter. The family of Avigdor Green (Aharon Sadeh in the original) was similar. Although Shomo did not retain many memories of this family, he did sometimes remember them because of the son, David (Meir in the original), the youngest son of Avigdor Green and the youngest of the group of youths. In their youth there was not much contact between Shlomo (Lavi) and David, perhaps because of the difference in their age. When Shlomo was 15, David was 12, and among youths this is a big difference. Nevertheless, he was connected with the older group because of his intelligence and his rapid and deep grasp
Shlomo (Lavi) doesn't remember much about David at an early age, but he has some memories of the Green family's house, of the entrance and the large yard in front of it, and the large garden in back of it. He remembers the spirit of the house which had a great influence on the youth as they grew up. The young Shlomo sometimes felt out of place in this house. The spiritual and cultural difference between his family and the Green family's house was very great: one was a strictly religious house and the other was a house of maskilim and of those who were only partially observant. There was also another, a more basic difference: Shlomo came from a poor house with only limited resources, whereas here was a house of welltodo people with a relatively less restrictive life style. He was, nevertheless, attracted to that house, which was the center for the Zionists of the city. It was also a house in which the mistress of the house was a good and intelligent woman, and in which there were two daughters, who were, although, a little older than him but freely and graciously treated all those who came to the house. Shlomo, the growing adolescent, was attracted to this as if by some magic which he couldn't understand, but at the same time was deterred by it
And a big brother, the first born of the brothers and sisters, named Avraham, was in the house and he remained strictly religious despite the fervent Zionism. He was, nevertheless, interested in exploring the philosophy of religion. Shlomo, when he came to that house, either for conferring about some activity, or to hear the news about what is going on in the world, also wanted to be present with the daughters. Actually, he didn't have enough courage for that, so he would turn first to the brother or the father of the family who would happily welcome all guests, especially those boys.
As for David, the youngster of the group, who delved a lot in external studies, Shlomo, who was older, found it difficult to live with his superiority. Every one realized that little David had a good head, but Shlomo (Lavi) could not deal with this. Little David went to Warsaw, the big city, and thus disappeared from Shlomo's sight, until he saw him again in Petach Tikvah where Shlomo was already living for ten years.
When I was seven years old there was a cholera epidemic in our city (in the summer of 1894) and we went to live in the village until it abated. It was at that time that my grandfather, Tzvi Aryeh Green, died, at the age of 75.
When I was ten years old I heard during the prayers in the New Bet Midrash, where those who were associated with Chovevei Tzion prayed, that the Messiah had appeared in one of the foreign cities, and his name was Herzl. He was described as a wonderful man, taller than others, good looking, his radiant face adorned by a black beard. In 1897 the first Zionist Congress took placed in Basle, and the Chovevei Tzion in our city became Zionists. That year, when I was ten years old, I was studying with a teacher named Shmuel Yosef Lask who came to us from Malava. He was an enlightened man and a grammarian and he taught us Hebrew and Bible with a new approach. He also taught us Russian It was in his class that I started my Zionist activities while I was still a child.
As soon as I learned that the Zionists bought a shekel, which cost 40 Kopeks, I organized the students who were learning with me with S. Y. Lask to save one Kopek a week which was held in a common fund and after 40 weeks each child bought a shekel. This was in 1898 when I was 12 years old.
The Polish language was always heard in my father's house because my father's customers were mainly Poles, farmers and land owners from around Plonsk who came to him with legal questions and hired him to handle their legal problems and to represent them in the court in Plonsk and in the regional court in Malava. I had already decided in my youth, however, not to remain in Poland, and I therefore decided not to waste my time learning the Polish language which I would not need as an adult and I contented myself with learning Hebrew and Russian.
I remember the first two Hebrew books which I read as a child: Ahavat Tzion (Love of Zion) by Mapo and Uncle Tom's Cabin by Beecher Stowe, translated by Singer. I was then about 9 or 10. These two books made a great impression on me which lasted for many years. The stories of Mapo from the days of the Bible instilled a new spirit in the pages of the Bible which I was learning and strengthened my yearning for the Land of Israel. The book Uncle Tom's Cabin aroused in me a deep feeling of loathing of slavery. I later read stories of Smolanskin and Broides and the poems of Yehudah Leib Gordon and the writings of Achad Ha'am and Dostoyevsky, and in Russian the stories of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Togniv (?) which also left a deep impression on me. After reading Resurrection by Tolstoy I became a vegetarian until I left my house and was not able to prepare food as I wished.
The love of my life, however, was Bialik. The first collection of his poems was published by Toshiya. I learned all those poems by heart. I bound all the collection of poems together with hundreds of empty pages on which I copied every new poem by Bialik which appeared after the publication of Toshiya.
When I reached the age of 14 I considered myself grownup and I was part of a small group which included also Shlomo Tzemach, Shmuel Fuchs, Lippa Taub, Shlomo Lefkowitz (Lavi), Yitzchak Kavshana, and others (all of whom, except for S. Fuchs, later came on Aliyah to the Land of Israel during the Second Aliyah). We founded an organization which we called Ezra, a name which indicated its goalthe return to Zion. The new element in the organization was speaking Hebrew. I was the youngest in the group. Tzemach was a few months older than me and Shmuel Fuchs was a few years older. The three of us were the nucleus of the Ezra organization. We decided to speak only Hebrew, using the Litvak pronunciation rather than the Polish pronunciation. My first lecture to the organization, when I was only 14, was about Zionism and culture. This was at the time when there were debates in the Zionist Organization about cultural activities, which the Mizrachi movement opposed and even Herzl was not so much in favor of. We were not satisfied only with speaking Hebrew among ourselves, but took upon ourselves to teach the workers sons who had, although, studied in their youth in a cheider (a classroom where children were taught Jewish studies), but they had finished their studies at a young age and they knew only a little Hebrew. Our aim was to have all of the young generation in Plonsk speak Hebrew, and we set up evening classes for them in the New Bet Midrash. The main teachers were Shlomo Tzemach and myself. Tzemach belonged to a renowned family which had become poor, but his father, Abba Tzemach, had the good fortune to come in fourth in a large lottery and win 75,000 Rubles and became rich again. All the sons of the Chasidim joined Ezra, as they were greatly influenced, like all of the young generation of Plonsk, by the writings of Achad Ha'am and Berdichevski. The opposition to Zionism by the heads of the Chasidim, however increased greatly. One very ardent Chasid, Avigdor Volman, who knew that on Shabbat there was going to be a meeting in our house of the youth and that his son, Avraham Beresh, might participate in it, took away all of his son's clothing early in the morning, while he was still asleep, so he could not go out of the house all that day.
When that son came on Aliyah to the Land of Israel several years later, in 1906, his father tore his garment and sat shivah in mourning as if he had died. He never wanted to hear anything about his son, and even though many people from Plonsk went to the Land of Israel and came back, he never asked any one of them what his son is doing of if he is alive. His opposition to Zionism was so strong that he considered Aliyah to the Land of Israel a great sin which carries extreme punishment.
Shlomo Lavi, in his autobiography, writes about the following event which occurred while he was walking with Avraham Beresh:
One evening Shlomo (Lavi) was walking with a young man, the son of one of the fanatics, a very learned but weak man and an idler, whose wife supported the family with her store. They were walking to and fro immersed in a lively conversation about the future and purpose of their lives in their twofold exilethe exile among the goyim (Gentiles) and their exile from their parents (Lavi's father was also fanatically antiZionist). They were unaware of what was going on around them. Suddenly Shlomo was awakened by a blow to his head. He turned around and he saw the father of this friend (Avigdor Volman, the father of Avraham Beresh), standing very angrily with a stick in his hand and loudly shouting: ‘You are walking with goyim, with sinners?' The son ran away and the father ran after him shouting crazily.
I was exempt from battles between father and son. Shlomo Tzemach, however was also the son of Chasidim, like Shlomo Lavi, but his father, Abba Tzemach, was more lenient and tolerant, and I don't know that his father objected to his Zionist activities.
We tried to publish a periodical for the youth, and, again, the ones who did the work were Shmuel Fuchs, S.Tzemach and myself. We printed our articles with a hectograph, but I think we didn't put out more than one or two issues. The periodicals we read then were Hatzfirah and Hameilitz.
Our city was against the Uganda proposal which came up in the Congress in 1903, and both the elders and the youth joined Tzionei Tzion. Our group of three Shlomo Tzemach, Shmuel Fuchs (both of whose parents were religious Chasidim) and myself discussed how to fight against Ugandism and we decided that the best way to fight it was Aliyah to the Land of Israel. We decided that, for family considerations, Shlomo Tzemach will be the first to go on Aliyah, which he did in 1904, or the beginning of 1905. I was living then in Warsaw because I was preparing to enter the school of engineering which had been established for Jewish students by a rich Jew named Voleberg (because in Russian schools there was numerus clauses). My plan then was to come to the Land of Israel as an engineer. I was living then with the Frenevuk family on Novolifiah Street. Shlomo managed to take 300 Rubles from his father's account (that was after his father won the lottery), and he came to me in Warsaw on his way to the Land of Israel. We assumed that his father would come looking for him in my room, so we decided, after we consulted my friend in whose house I was living, to hide him by their relatives. Shlomo's father, Abba Tzemach, did, indeed, come to my room in Warsaw the next day and asked me where his son is. I answered him that his son had been with me the day before but he was now in hiding and I was not permitted to tell him where he was so that he won't take him back to Plonsk. Abba Tzemach, who was a man who had great selfrespect because of his family lineage and his renewed riches, began to embrace my knees, to kiss me and to cry, and plead with me to tell him where his son is. I was at that time only a young man of about 18, and I became filled with sorrow and doubts when I saw such a distinguished elderly man pleading with a youth like myself, but I had to restrain my emotions and stubbornly refuse.
Shlomo was an only son, although he had sisters. I held out for a long time, and only after Abba Tzemach swore that he would let Shlomo go and all he wanted was to see him before he departs, I gave in and arranged a meeting between them. Abba Tzemach kept his word and did not do anything to prevent Shlomo from going. The story of Shlomo's travelling to the Land of Israel is recorded in his book Shanah Rishonah (First Year). After Shlomo many others who were members of Ezra made
Aliyah to the Land of Israel, including Yitzchak Kavshana, Shlomo Lefkowitz (Lavi), Lippa Taub, Shmuel Krieger, Motile (Mordechai) Michalson, Avraham Barish Volman (now Yitzhar), Yitzchak Wasserzug and tens of other youths from our city, including quite a few girls and including the two sisters of Yitzchak Kavshana.
Tzemach used to send me letters every week. Each letter consisted of ten to twenty pages, in clear and beautiful handwriting, in which he gave a detailed, artistic description of the people, farmers and workers, and described the settlements, especially Petach Tikvah and Rishon L'tzion where he worked. In these letters there was a full description of the boycott which was declared in 1905 by the Council of Petach Tikvah against the Hebrew worker not only regarding employment but also receiving medical care and buying medications in the pharmacy. These matters were run by the settlement's Council which was like a local government because the Turkish government did not concern itself with the Jewish settlements. Each settlement was like a small Jewish republic and was governed by its Council which was elected by the farmers. The workers did not have voting rights.
When I later came on Aliyah and met the people who were described in S. Tzemach's letters, I already recognized them as if I had known them since my childhood. I also already knew how Petach Tikvah looked from Shlomo's letters. I carefully saved Shlomo's letters like a valuable treasure, and they were indeed important historical documents from that period. When I went to Turkey several years later to study law I took the letters with me, as well as my diary which I had started to write when I was 14 years old. However, when I was deported at the time Turkey entered the First World War, all the letters, as well as my books, which were in my room in Constantinople, were lost. When I returned after the war I tried to find the house in which I had lived, which was called Tattar Pension, but it had been destroyed and another house had been built on the site and nothing of mine remained. It is possible that the Turkish police had confiscated all my belongings after I had been deported.
I spent several years in Warsaw before Tzemach came on Aliyah. I intended to enter the Technion of Wolberg and I earned a living giving lessons as a Hebrew teacher in the Skala school which was on Fransiskani Street. I was 16 or 17 then. My salary was 20 Rubles a month. In the meantime I heard that the Bund had sent representatives to Plonsk with the intention of organizing the young workers to join the Bund in our city. I hurried back to Plonsk to uproot such an affliction from our city which was famous for its Zionism and its devotion to the Hebrew language. It was then the eve of the first Russian revolution when the Poalei Tzion organizations were being formed in the cities of Poland, and which I had joined in Warsaw. I decided to form a branch of the Poalei Tzion organization in Plonsk in order to uproot the Bund from our city. I returned to Plonsk and began my fight against the Bund. The youth, who had at first joined the Bund, then joined Poalei Zion. The Bund then sent its best speakers from the nearby cities and public debates were organized in the synagogue between me and the Bund representatives. The entire city eagerly participated in this disputation. Aside from the traditional influence of the Maskilim, the Hebraists and the Zionists, there was local patriotism which worked in my favor, since I belonged to the city's residents and was fighting against the representatives of the Bund who were outsiders. There were times when all the stores were closed when there was a debate and everyone came to the synagogue to be present during the war between the member of their city and the strangers who came to agitate. The Bund was defeated. During these debates I had to us the Yiddish language, even though until then I always gave my talks only in Hebrew because I was an ardent Hebraist since my childhood and opposed the use of Yiddish.
In those days the va'adim (committees), as the workers' organizations were called, had almost complete control in the streets of the Polish Jews. The regime of the Czar became stronger and the number of suspects who were arrested increased. I was also suddenly arrested on the street in Warsaw, apparently because my long hair aroused suspicion. I was held in the jail on Lipia Street where both criminal and political prisoners were held. (In the days of the Czar this distinction existed.) I was imprisoned for several weeks for no reason until my father went to the head of the Warsaw Police, and then something strange happened: before he appeared before the head of the police my father sent him his card on which was written his name, his family name and his profession, in Russian. He was immediately called before the police minister who said to him you are Victor Green and I am Victor Green. This indeed was the name of the head of the police in Warsaw who was purely Russian. I don't know if it was because of the common name, or for some other reason, an order was given to immediately release me.
During the time I was in jail I had one bitter day. We had held a demonstration against one of the jailors, and as punishment for this we were put together for one day with the criminal inmates, most of whom were Jews. Most of them dealt with women and for the first time in my life I heard filthy talk which terribly shocked me. I did not believe that human beings could descend to such heinous, ugly depths. These criminals acted towards us with hatred and harassed us any way they could, but the police immediately sent us back to the political section.
That was not the only time I was imprisoned. A few months before my Aliyah to the Land of Israel I was invited by the community in a nearby town, Ratzonz, to pass judgement in the controversy over choosing a Rabbi. Ratzonz was not politically part of Plonsk but rather of Valotzlavoc, but the Council of Plonsk was well respected in the whole area for its justice. The Rabbi of the city and its Judge often
gave over to me the authority to make a legal decision in controversies between two Jewish groups. The controversy in Ratzonz broke out over choosing a new Rabbi and the Jewish community was divided in two, each part was in favor of a different candidate, which resulted in turmoil in the town. The Council of Poalei Tzion, which effectively had control of the town (in 1906), interfered, for some reason, in this controversy, in favor of one of the candidates, and when the other Rabbi kashered the ovens for Pesach, Poalei Tzion sent men to spill beer in the ovens in order to make them not kosher for Pesach. One of the owners, who belonged to the other side of the controversy, complained about this to the local authorities. The Council then threatened him with sanctions and even shot at his house. He then turned to the Council in Plonsk and asked them to pass judgement between the two sides. I went to Ratzonz and investigated and recorded the details of the controversy. Since I had no official authority I then went by boat to Valotzlavoc which had jurisdiction over the Council of Ratzonz. When the boat docked in Valotzlavoc a policeman came directly to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said (in German, for some reason) you dog, come with me. I was locked up, with all the details of the controversy in Ratzonz in my possession. I knew that there could be very serious consequences and that I could be sent to Siberia. All this was shortly before I was supposed to leave Plonsk and go on Aliyah. I notified, through political channels, the Central Council of Poalei Tzion in Warsaw, about my imprisonment and about the material I had in my possession, and they immediately sent a man with 1,000 Rubles, and they obtained from the police all the written material I had in Valotzlavoc, and since there was no proof against me my father came to Valotzlavoc and took me out of the prison. I was also helped by the two sons of the Rabbi of Valotzlavoc, Rabbi Kowalski.
In the summer of 1904 our city was shocked by the news of the death of Herzl. It is hard to describe, sixty years later, how great a blow this was for us both for us and for the elders among us.
I was severely depressed, as if my whole world was darkened and the light was taken out of my life. In a letter which I wrote two weeks later to my friend S. Fuchs, I expressed some of my feelings and the feelings of my friends:
Warsaw, 4 Av, 5664, the 7th year after the first Zionist Congress.
It is difficult, almost impossible, to sit and write today about other matters, even those closer to my heart. The tragedy is so very great, and increases as time goes by, and is engraved on our hearts and minds, so that it is impossible to think of anything else. No amount of crying or lamenting can help. The soul will not listen to our common sense and reasoning and cannot console us.
Our hopes and dreams are now orphaned! He who initiated and nurtured them has died, has been cast into the dark grave and covered with dust. Alas, what a horrible thought! A cold darkness surrounds us, there is no light of hope, no advocate for our dreams. The sun is gone, but its light still shines. His great merits have not died and been buried with this great man. He bound together all his wonderful spiritual treasures and placed them not only in dying organizations and institutions but in his eternal spirit. The seeds of rebirth which he aroused in our hearts and bones will not die. The flame of his love for our hapless eternal people and for its widowed homeland which this man ignited in our souls and in our blood will not be extinguished. His lofty thoughts will always be with us, the aspiration for our rebirth which he inspired in us will remain rumbling inside of us until we complete this great task to which this great man devoted his life.
My brother! We did not, until now, appreciate enough what we now know as a great loss to our unfortunate suffering People. There will not arise again in our midst such a wonderful man who combined the bravery of the Maccabees, the purposefulness of David, the strong devotion of Rabbi Akiva who died while reciting God is One, the humbleness of Hillel, the beauty of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, the fiery love of Rabbi Yehudah Halevy. Only once in a thousand years is born such a wondrous man as this. Like the great size of the ocean is the greatness of our loss.
And yet, here am I today, more than ever, certain of our victory, and certain that there will come a day when we will return to our Land, the Land of poetry and truth, the Land of prophecy of the prophets, and there we will behold the shining heavens of clear, bright blue, and there we will hear the rumbling of the waters of the Holy River which heard in the past the songs of the shepherds and the magic of simple pious love. There will arise a great poet who will sing a lofty song which will inspire the hearts of our small but great People, which is born again, and of the mighty warrior who has reawakened with his great strength those who were in the deep sleep of the grave!
Zion! You will yet blossom forth in all your beauty and see the return of your sons as free men, living in the light of freedom shining beautifully in the future! And for the present? Our Land has been destroyed in the past but we are still living. For two thousand years we have been in the depths of slavery and desecration, our bones have become dry, every ray of light has been extinguished, we have been in the darkness of the cemetery and suddenly a man of light, freedom, hope, faith and work. Suddenly awakening, approaching, standing up straight, aspiring for freedom, working for rebirth. Can we turn away for even a moment from the strength of our wonderful, omnipotent People?…
With the blessings of Zion,
As is well known, the Congress in 1904, after Herzl's death, rejected the Uganda proposal, and the Zionist Organization was divided. The advocates of the Uganda proposal, headed by the Jewish Englishman, Zangwill, separated from the Organization and formed a territorial organization which aimed to establish a homeland for the Jewish People outside of the Land of Israel. The head of this territorial organization in Warsaw and in Poland was Chazan (the father of Y. Chazan from the Shomer Hatzair). A workers movement, S.S. (Territorial Zionism), arose which was in favor of a territory. Nachman Sirkin joined them for a while.
The territorialists became widespread after the death of Herzl, but Plonsk was not afflicted by them. All the Zionists, young and old, remained faithful to Zion. In addition to this, the Yidishists, who became more popular among the leftist circles, did not take hold in our city, and the younger generation remained faithful to Hebrew as our only national language. I, however, unknowingly, caused one my friends, Yitzchak (Itchi) Fuchs (the younger brother of Shmuel Fuchs) to become a
Yidishist. This is how it happened: When I returned once from Warsaw to Plonsk I told about my meetings and discussions with a group of Yidishists in the Poalei Tzion movement. Yitzchak Fuchs expressed his amazement of the foolishness called Yidishism. I told him that the Yidishists had their own logic. When he asked me what it was, I explained to him, in the heat of the discussion, what their view point was. He then said to me that, if so, they are right. I then started to tell him the opposite argument why they are mistaken but to no avail. He became a Yidishist because of me. A similar thing happened to me again years later. I went, for the first time in my life, in 1933, to lead the battle of the elections for the Zionist Congress in Eastern Europe. My main battle was against the Revisionists who were increasing in Eastern Europe. My main argument in public meetings was pointing out the difficulties in accomplishing the aims of Zionism and the need for pioneering efforts and limitless devotion to building the Land. Among other places, I spoke about this at a mass meeting in Riga. The next day a man, about 40 years old, came to my hotel room. He told me he had been at the meeting the previous night and for the first time he had heard the truth about the Land of Israel, and he stopped being a Zionist. I answered him that at the meeting I still had not told of all the difficulties I knew from my bitter experience in the Land, but of my faith in Zionism was getting stronger from year to year.
In 1905 I participated in the first meeting of Poalei Tzion in Poland, as the delegate from Plonsk. The meeting took place in the home of Yitzchak Tabenkin, 27 Nalavsky Street. The main speaker was BenTzion Raskin who lectured on "Palestinism in principle as opposed to the prognostic Palestinism of the Russian Poalei Tzion (Brochov and associates).
Palestinism in principle was explained on the basis of dialectic materialism. This concept seemed puzzling and artificial to me and I expressed sharp, basic criticism of "Palestinism in principle. Those who argued with me said that I was talking like a Bundist.
I had at that time already definitely decided to leave my studies and to go on Aliyah to the Land of Israel and work there as a laborer in the settlements. I was only waiting for Tzemach to return, as we had agreed before he had left. Shmuel Fuchs, who also had spoken of Aliyah to the Land of Israel, went, in the meantime to England, and, instead of going to the Land of Israel, went from there to America where he remained for the rest of his life. At first he completely abandoned Zionism, became a Yidish writer and turned into a Yidishist. When I arrived in America in 1915, after I was deported from the Land of Israel, I met him and, of course, told him about our activities in the Land of Israel and he gradually returned to Zionism. He married a woman from Sherptz, a town not far from Plonsk, and became a dentist.
Yehudah Erez, who collected my writings and published them in twelve volumes, incidentally discovered letters I had written to Shmuel Fuchs several years before I went on Aliyah to the Land of Israel, which Fuchs had saved for fifty years and which I did not know still existed.
Yehudah Erez went to the United States in 1954 at the invitation of a childhood friend of his. He spent three months there and met Dr. Shmuel Fuchs in a strange, wonderful way. A few days before returning to Israel he happened to meet his friend Nachum Kantorowitz, one of his old friends from Poland and had a long walk with him. He was in a hurry and wanted to leave him quickly, but his friend pleaded with him to go to a restaurant with him. At the end of the meal they saw Bonchik, one of the leaders of Poalei Tzion, and they started talking with him. When they got up to leave they saw a group entering the restaurant and Kantorowitz said to him: do you see the old man in the group that is Dr. Fuchs, the personal friend of BenGurion. You should meet him. Since the name Fuchs didn't mean anything to him, and since he was in a hurry, he asked Kantorowitz not to introduce him to Dr. Fuchs, but suddenly he heard a voice calling hello Yehudah. It was the voice of a young woman, the niece of Dr. Fuchs, who had served before the establishment of the State in a squadron of the Palmach. He went over to her, and was then introduced to Fuchs. Fuchs asked him how BenGurion was. Erez answered whatever he answered and wanted to leave, but Fuchs suddenly told him that he had letters from BenGurion from before he had come on Aliyah to the Land of Israel. A few days later he met with Fuchs who gave him a pack of letters. Erez leafed through the letters and saw the date the 7th year of the first Zionist Congress i.e. 1904.
Yehudah Erez wrote to me: I saw another envelope in Dr. Fuchs' hand but I didn't dare ask him if that was also by BenGurion. As we continued to talk, Fuchs said: ‘I have something else by BenGurion. After I left for America, Megilat Haeish by Ch. N. Bialik was published. B.G. feared that I might not get to see it in the periodical in which that poem was published, so he copied it completely, from beginning to end, and sent it to me. I didn't want to part with this manuscript. He photographed it returned it to me.' At the end of our meeting he gave me the manuscript. I commented to Dr. Fuchs: ‘For fifty years you have saved the letters of your old friend. What a wonder! The signature on them is not David BenGurion but Yosef David Green, a young boy among other young boys in a Jewish city in Poland.' He gave me a short answer: ‘We always knew that David was destined to become great’.
When Erez returned to Israel he quickly returned the letters to me. I was surprised because I didn't
remember at all that I had sent letters to Fuchs before I came on Aliyah to the Land of Israel, and I had been in America about three years and had met with Fuchs several times but I had never heard from him that he had letters from me and that he had saved them.
Erez was so excited by the meeting that he began to believe that the meeting with Fuchs was arranged from Above.
Among the letters that Erez brought me from Fuchs, I found the letter which I had sent him after Herzl's death in 1904. And in one of the letters, dated 19 Sivan, 5674, I wrote to Fuchs about my lecture at the Ezra meeting on the Shavuot holiday in which I argued with Spinoza. I was then less than 18 year old. The following is the letter:
On the first day of the holiday the Ezra organization held a meeting. I was the only speaker. I spoke about the value of the Shavuot holiday and of the giving of the Torah and their connection with the existence of our People and with Zionism, and also the matter of the chosen People. Do your remember Spinoza's question about the chosen People? The interpretation I gave was that there is no basis for his question. Spinoza was really mistaken in this matter. He thought that the meaning of atah b'chartanu (You, God, have chosen us) is that God desires the good of only the Hebrew People, as He remembered the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and therefore He gave His Torah only to them. On this basis Spinoza rightfully asks how it can be assumed that God, the All Encompassing, can seek the good of one People and give His eternal laws only to them. Spinoza concludes that the laws of the Torah do not have general, eternal value but only partial value, for only one People, and that they are a collection of political, social and economic laws that apply only to the Hebrew People who need to keep them. This is the meaning of the chosen People according to Spinoza. I do not have Spinoza's writings before me at the moment and I write this only from my memory. In my opinion this choosiness is not by God's will but rather because of the nature of the Hebrew People, for if the Hebrew People, by means of its natural talents, they, and only they, could initially fulfill themselves the eternal idealism which is in the Torah, and then spread it throughout the entire world, it would not be obligatory but would be possible. This would require two basic conditions: the will of the people and their free development. If the People had developed freely in their land, without their physical and spiritual enslavement, and, mainly, there was strong free will, then it would take place in its entirety. This can similarly be foreseen in the case of any genius. God, or Nature (in this case either has the true capability), grants the genius superior talents, not out of love of him but rather out of a desire to bestow on the world great creations (for example poetry or philosophy). He provides an emissary (either intentionally or not either way, in this case) who has the necessary talent and is empowered to bestow these things on the world. If this talent develops, and circumstances of his life permit, these lofty works will be accomplished. If, on the other hand, this superior talent is stifled (as it has occurred many times, particularly among us) this great potential will not be brought to fruition. This has occurred with our People. With the loss of our freedom, the natural talents of our People have been stifled. This is the aspiration of Zionism, etc. (The remainder you can understand by yourself).
In the summer of 1906 Shlomo Tzemach returned from the Land of Israel for a short time. Together we left Plonsk, and with us was the wife of Simchah Isaac, who was already in the Land of Israel, and his daughter Rachel, on our way to Odessa and from there we went on Aliyah. In Odessa we visited with the Odessa Council and there we met three men: M. L. Lilianblum, Menachem Mendel Usishkin and Mr. Brachiya. To my surprise I didn't find any understanding of the motivation of our Aliyah in any of the three. I left the Odessa Council, which had been known to me since my childhood, in disappointment, although I had previously been an admirer of Lilianblum after I had read his articles and his memoirs.
After a two week trip in a Russian boat we arrived in the port of Jaffa on June 9th, 1906 (the 13th of Elul, 5676).
After the First World War all the members of my family who were still alive came on Aliyah my father, my two brothers and two sisters. My father came in 1925. His license to practice law, which he had since 1878, had been rescinded in 1920, after Poland gained its independence from Russia and there were increasing waves of antiSemitism in Poland. He then became the secretary of the Jewish community until he came on Aliyah. He then worked as a book keeper for Solel Boneh until he reached the age of 80. He died at the age of 86, in my sister's home in the Borochov neighborhood, on the 13th of May, 1942 (the 26th of Iyar, 5702).
I was in the United States when my father died, on a mission from the Jewish Agency preparing a convention of all the Zionist organizations in the United States in the Baltimore Hotel. It was there, in 1942, that the program named for that hotel was accepted. That program included three demands:
New York, May 14, 1942
Dear, beloved Paula, Geulah, Amos and Ra'anana,
I received tonight the news that my father has died far away, in loneliness, without standing by his bed in his last moments, without seeing him before he left us. When I return home I will not find him. I know how much he longed to see me, fearing that his last days are near. I am deeply sorry, for I know that from my eleventh year on, after my mother died, he was for me both a father and a mother. He gave me much out of great love. And there was so much we had in common, even though I belonged to another generation and was different from him in several matters. From him I got my love of the People of Israel, of the Land of Israel and of the Hebrew language. In our small house in Plonsk, in the outskirts of the city, next to a desolate garden, when I was a child, the Chovevei Tzion members from our city would gather, and when Herzl's Zionist movement was born our house was the meeting place of the Zionists of the city.
Even when I did not yet understand the meaning of the discussions and debates, I absorbed the longing for Zion which filled the house during the daily meetings of the chief activists Simcha Isaac, Yashfa, the shochet (ritual slaughterer) and others among whom my father was the head. All the time he was free from his work as a lawyer was devoted to the love of Zion and to Zionism and to communal needs. My father inherited his love of the Hebrew language and literature from my grandfather, Tzvi Aryeh, who died when I was seven years old. I don't remember if my grandfather belonged to Chovevei Tzion in his days. I only remember his great love for the Hebrew language. I remember that when I was a small child he would hold me on his lap and teach me words in Hebrew and grammatical rules, but I don't remember if I heard from him anything about the Land of Israel and Chovevei Tzion. On the other hand the memory of my father occupying himself with the Land of Israel has remained in my memory since the first days of my life. I remember his speeches in the New Bet Midrash (study house) where he prayed, together with his friend Yashfa who was also one of the head Zionists in the city and who died several years ago. I remember his constant pleas in the periodicals Hameilitz and Hatzfirah which we received in our house. I remember the weekly meetings of Chovevei Tzion and the Zionists, of which Simcha Isaac was the chief speaker. Simcha Isaac was one of the first to come on Aliyah to the Land of Israel. He was the stepfather of Rachel BeitHalachmi (Nelkin) who also came on Aliyah thirty six years ago. He died here during the last war. I remember that my father was one of the enthusiastic supporters of Herzl immediately after his appearance, and supported him in the controversy with Achad Ha'am, although as a veteran reader of Hebrew he greatly honored Achad Ha'am as a prominent writer. But when the Uganda proposal was raised, which led to my Aliyah to the Land of Israel, he was without any doubts one of the fighters for Tzionei Tzion, as it was called then, and he vehemently opposed any exchange of the Land of Israel, even temporarily, with any other territory.
After Kishinov, when we, the youths of Plonsk, secretly organized selfdefense and acquired arms, I was the head of the organization and hid the arms in our house. My father knew of this and did not restrain me, even though he knew well the dangers for me and for his standing if the matter would be uncovered. On the contrary, he was proud of what his son was doing. When I combined socialism with my Zionism, my father did not agree with me but he did not oppose it, although he tried to bring me back to the proper way. He didn't want me, at my young age, to engage so much in communal activities. His ideal was that I should be a student and should finish university studies, and he was sorry to hear from me that I had decided to go on Aliyah and work as a laborer. This decision was a severe disappointment for him because he hoped I would become a famous scholar, but he did not deter me. On the contrary, he provided me with the means and arranged for my journey. The letters he received from me from the Land of Israel were very, very dear to him, and everyone in the city came to read them. He saved them with great love and many of them are still saved in our house although some have been lost with time. Only when he heard from someone from our city, who returned from there to Plonsk, that I am not well and am hungry and my clothes are torn, did he write a letter to me telling me to return home. When I explained to him, however, that I cannot consider that, he accepted it. He tried to send me money, but when I asked him to stop, he did. After that it became his life's dream to come on Aliyah with all the family. In the meantime, however, the First World War broke out. I was deported from the Land by Jamal Pasha and I ended up in America. Many of the members of the family were scattered around Russia, due to the expulsions and the hardships of the war. Only after the war was his life's dream fulfilled and he and all his other children came on Aliyah, one by one.
He reached old age and I wish it on all of us. I am sad, however, that I was not at his side when he passed away. He was a beloved father, full of love. He was a faithful Jew. He was an honest, goodhearted man, with an open heart and participated in the sorrow of others. When I return home I will never see him again.
I kiss you all with love.
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