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The Scroll of my Life

Chapter 19 – Hakhshara

A new period in my life opened when I went to assist Father in his business. True, I still accompanied him to early morning (shakhres) and early evening (minkhe-mayrev) prayer services, but I also met with new friends, read newspapers more eagerly and held conversations about current events in the world. The world was changing in interesting ways. After Poland achieved national independence, an economic upsurge began which did not omit Semyatitsh, where Jews began to recuperate, to do business, to work in workshops, and the situation markedly improved.

New ideas were in the air and they affected Jewish youth, which plunged into the study of secular subjects with heart and soul. Since the high school (hoyptshul) was in the big city, Semyatitsh young men and women could not attend it and resorted to studying and discussing by themselves, becoming autodidacts. In some instances one taught another or taught a number of others. They read newly-published works in three languages, Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. There were libraries with books in all these languages and new ones were established.

There were all sorts of parties in Semyatitsh, but the strongest were the Zionist ones. Zionism in Semyatitsh had an old tradition. Our grandfathers and greatgrandfathers had felt a yearning for Zion, which they had expressed in prayer. The few fanatic Hasidim who were angry at Doctor Herzl for taking the initiative to establish a Jewish state were almost unnoticeable. They spoke scornfully of the Zionists, who believed they could accomplish more with congresses and politics than had two thousand years of prayer, fasting and faith.

Semyatitsh was different in that the majority of the highly observant (frume) Jews did not regard the Zionists as heretics (koyfrim). Many pious Jews were like my father in being both religious and followers of the "Lovers of Zion" (khoyvevey-tsien) movement. Their piety did not prevent the very religious Jews from speaking sympathetically of Zionism, and they loved to tell stories of the wonders worked by the idealists, who dried swamps, and dug wells in the bleak desert. They believed that the time would soon come when the Land of Israel (ertsisroel) would again be a Jewish country, "a land flowing with milk and honey," and Jews would have a home of their own, their own land. Kheyder-boys overheard the old men's stories and repeated them to each other with delight. Children no less than adults hoped for deliverance (yeshue) for the Jews in Exile (goles).

From childhood on it was clear to me that the time must someday come when Jews would become prosperous and have a land of their own. I was not in the least bothered by the fanatic Hasidim who regarded the Zionists as heretics because they sought to hasten the end (tsuayln dem kets). [73]My father was my best example; he was a pious and observant Jew and yet approved wholly of all those who were ready to immigrate to the Land of Israel (ertsisroel). By all means, he felt, may the Exile end as quickly as possible and the Jews have their own land. Father loved the pioneers (khalutsim) who were building the country, and I loved the Zionist songs that the young men and women sang, mostly on the Sabbath, when they went walking together in the woods just outside of town.

Understandably, it was always the young people who spread the Zionist idea in the shtetl, but there was no lack of enthusiasm among older persons as well; they regarded going to Palestine (ertsisroel) simply as fulfillment of a religious duty (mitsve). They took every opportunity to speak well of those who openly declared themselves to be Zionists. The young khalutsim profited from (hobn genosn fun) the older generation and absorbed a wonderful synthesis of Jewish and general learning (toyre un haskole), of Zionism and religion. In these "Lovers of Zion" (khoyvevey-tsien) circles, the conflict between generations disappeared.

In Semyatitsh as in all of Poland, Hekholets (Israeli Hebrew: Hekhaluts; 'the Pioneer') and Hekholets Hatsoir ('the Young Pioneer') were strong.  This movement started in Russia in 1917 and in a short time included tens of thousands of young Jews. Enthusiastic youths founded the Semyatitsh movement in 1924. I was closest to Menakhem Pundik; he and Moyshe Pinkhasovitsh were assigned to Hekholets Hatsoir as group leaders (madrikhim). [74] They deepened our grasp of Zionist thought and of the ideas of Hekholets on what we had to do in the new period, and on aliya [75]as both national goal and personal duty.

There was nothing humdrum in our discussions, but rather enthusiasm, especially for immigration (aliya), which required cultural as well as physical preparation. The accent fell on training for agricultural work, for "going on hakhshore." Training farms were set up in the early 1920s in various parts of Poland. The young khalutsim were carried away by the vision of aliya to the Land of Israel, by the magic of the new Hebrew songs, as well as by the idea of leading a healthy life of physical labor in field and garden, in cattle raising and other occupations.

Hekholets developed in Semyatitsh, but not smoothly. The organizers and group leaders worked hard and made their intellectual and organizational contribution. There was a sharp struggle for the minds of the youth, whom other parties, mainly the Bundists and Communists, tried to attract. When I recall that struggle, there rise before my eyes various figures and I remember various events, great and small, which happened to and around me, but I don't remember everything, all the details. Time has wiped out not only names but dates and the sharpness of things, events, people. But I cannot forget how we debated not only Bundists and Communists but also Betarists and others. [76]

We also argued among ourselves over the ways of building a country of our own, a national home; over practical and theoretical problems; over Hebrew and Yiddish; over Zionism and Socialism. Almost all of us came from the yeshiva and the besmedresh. This was a transition period for us from Talmud to secular book, from religious Jewishness (frumer yidishkayt) to secular-national attachment – a complete attachment to Jewish tradition and a fervid quintessential Jewishness (pintele yid) in the heart. All this was reflected in the discussions which we carried on heatedly.

It is hard for me to say that the problems that we argued about were altogether clear to us. However, for the majority of Semyatitsh youth it was clear that Jews in Poland suffered from antisemitism and therefore it was simple and self-evident that Jews needed a national home. Building it in the Land of Israel (ertsisroel), the land of our ancestors, was our great ideal, one to which we dedicated ourselves with all our youthful fervor. At that time, though the economic situation in Poland had improved, blatantly antisemitic incidents were not rare. I would encounter them in my trips to the surrounding towns (shtetlekh), which I visited in connection with our glassware business. We had customers all over, and wherever I went I heard Jews bemoaning the hatred which the antisemitic parties had spread and which was strongly felt in dealings with Polish officials and civil authorities.

Wherever I went I met Jews who were anxious and embittered. They had not learned to cope with the old decrees when new ones, aimed specially against Jews, arrived to further embitter their lives, particularly of small tradesmen and craftsmen. The young people observed the situation with wide-open eyes and sought solutions in the new ideologies of the day. Some thought that socialism would bring salvation and others that communism was the answer. They were battered by these ideas as by powerful waves in a raging sea, and some were thrown from one wave to another, from socialism to Zionism, and quite often to communism.

More than one Hasidic youth went straight from the besmedresh bench to communism. Such Hasidic youths, yeshiva students, broke with religion, became freethinkers, even heretics, and tried to fill the subsequent vacuum in their lives with some great ideal. It seemed to them that communism contained within itself all the ideas for the salvation of mankind. Though at times this type of Jewish revolutionary stimulated my imagination, the idea of communism remained foreign to me.

I was not drawn to Zionism only because I saw how antisemitism was growing, robbing Jews increasingly of their economic base, leaving them suspended in air. I saw in Zionism the restoration of the Jewish people, the rebuilding and renewal of Jewish national independence. Through joining a Zionist youth circle I became familiar with the history of the great six-million large Jewish community of pre-war Russia, of the Russia of the pogroms of the Tsarist period, when a great Zionist movement was created. This movement was a thorn in the eye to the Bolsheviks, and we knew what Zionists suffered in Bolshevik Russia and that the Zionist movement there was being totally liquidated. This aroused my anger at the followers of the Bolsheviks, at those who believed in them and had tied their life and future to communism. My spiritual education had prepared me for Zionism.

Entering the newly-organized Hekholets made me feel that I was actively engaged in helping realize a great ideal, part of a stychic mass process of Jewish youth on the way to self-realization. [77] Menakhem Pundik was the soul of the organization. He always tried to explain to us the issues which were debated among the various Zionist groups, and those more sharply fought – virtually in an ideological war – with our bitter opponents, the Bundists and Communists.

The debates in the Zionist camp among the various Zionist parties and youth movements were sharp enough. Stormy meetings took place in which practical and theoretical questions were argued, over the Diaspora and the Land of Israel, Yiddish and Hebrew, kibbuts and moshav, large kibbutsim and small kibbutsim, over the Arab problem and over cooperative work-forms and many other problems which fermented among the youth in Poland and were strongly felt in Semyatitsh as well. Tens of questions were posed in the question evenings (kestl-ovntn 'box evenings'). Questions were asked at the Friday night and Saturday night meetings. Though often simple, they could also be complex, with an original and sensitive approach to the events of the day in the Jewish and the larger world.

These were the years after World War One, when Europe was blooming with national independence movements of small nations which had been long oppressed. Like every social movement which grows out of deep socio-economic causes, the national liberation movements of oppressed peoples of that time had a democratic and at the same time a revolutionary character. These national movements greatly influenced the Zionist movement.

True, the existing situation of the Jews in Poland influenced us and we Zionist youth acted from our analysis of that situation, but many around us were affected by the national-revolutionary movements which then arose in the political-social life of Europe; they strongly affected the thought and feeling of Jewish youth. In our discussions questions often arose which the older generation had wrangled over, such as the debate between political Zionism and the Russian "Lovers of Zion" (khoyvevey-tsien) movement, the so-called "practical Zionists," whose aim was to settle the Jewish masses in the Land of Israel alone. I am reminded of that particular question, since I also heard it from my father. It had apparently occupied him in his youth when a struggle took place between Territorialism, heir of Herzlian political Zionism and practical and principled Palestinism (Zionists of Zion) [tsieney-tsien]. That conflict was also loudly echoed in the then young socialist-Zionist movement, Poale-Zion (poyle-tsien). The Uganda Project and the Territorialist conception in general won support among large sections of the young movement and many years later sparks of the same idea were revived.

In Semyatitsh, too, there were individuals who carried around the ideas of the former Zionist-Socialists under the leadership of Dr. Nakhmen Sirkin; they left the Zionist movement and joined Zangwill's Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO). How it happened that clever Jews, practical and politically mature people, could accept the dreamy speeches of the writer Israel Zangwill was a riddle to me. When I was young I didn't think much about this. I simply rejected all such ideas and never tried to look at them more deeply; they had no appeal for me. Years later, when I knew a bit more about Zangwill, about his books, I examined his ideas and his whole personality more carefully and I again concluded he was a utopian, and I still could not grasp how his ideas captured so many sharp minds. I will probably have occasion to raise this subject again in connection with my Zionist activity in later years. I won't linger on this theme here – it has become antiquated. I bring it up because it tells us something of the spirit of that time.

All these ideologies and the debates surrounding them tell us about Jewish problems, about the eternal snarl (plonter) in relations between Jews and non-Jews. In the years when I grew up, the youth in Semyatitsh tried to find expression for their inner desires, aspirations and discovered powers. This drive for expression made Zionist thought a form of revolt against old ideologies and against new ones which lacked a message of redemption. Therefore the Land of Israel was for us a concrete territory for Jewish deliverance. On that territory there was taking place, stychically, the economic autonomization of Jewish social life. The Land of Israel was thus presented both as a historical demand and a historical need, one which was being realized from its own self. [78]

It now seems to me that my father, who was so sensible of the decrees which fell upon the Jews of Poland, nonetheless regarded it as a weakening of the Zionist idea to base it on the external force of antisemitism rather than on the upsurge of an inner awareness. My father saw the essence of Jewish history in the struggle to translate the thought of the prophets into action, to realize it in life. Yet my father did not reject those whose connection to Zionism was prompted by material need, by antisemitic decrees. What mattered to him was the Jewish national idea (der natsyonaler mehu's fun yid). He used to say that the Jews have a particular nature (bezundern mehu's) which distinguishes them from other peoples.

Menakhem Pundik formulated the same idea differently. In his talks with us he used to say that Jews carried the feeling and consciousness of the Jewish national genius with them from the Land of Israel, but in Exile (goles) these qualities were reinforced by Jewish travail and need.  Persecution and oppression, Menakhem Pundik used to say, don't operate in a void. They have no effect on a mere body (epes a fintsern guf) without inner illumination. There is a distinct Jewish existence (kiem), a Jewish character; there is an historical heritage which dates from the time Jews lived as an independent nation in the Land of Israel, in the bounds and atmosphere of national statehood.

We often had occasion to discuss antisemitism. Many young people simply could not understand why peoples (di felker) hated Jews. Antisemitic incidents were frequent in all of Poland, and they were encountered as well in Semyatitsh, where they sometimes assumed menacing forms. Menakhem Pundik did not regard antisemitism as accidental, but as the fruit of both the Jewish and general world situations. It therefore in no way lessened the stature of Zionism that Jewish need and persecution of Jews served as the initial impetus for the national reawakening.

It is hard for me to remember whether Menakhem employed a special organizational method when we founded Hekholets. His brain never stopped working and he was sensitive as well. Perhaps he understood better than others that Jewish life consisted of suffering and endless cruelties. He therefore came to the conclusion that just as the distress of the masses called forth the socialist movement, which drew its moral and practical strength from want, from the economic decline of broad sectors of the people, so antisemitism could power the Jewish moral renaissance. It could be a starting point towards renewal of the life-forms of the entire Jewish people, which could be accomplished only in the Land of Israel (ertsisroel).

Menakhem used to formulate this with much talent.  Every talk of his stretched out for hours. He had an exceptional knowledge of Jewish history and he sought the reasons for hatred of Jews on the one hand in their apartness (bazunderkayt), their different manners, and the unsubstantiality (neshomedikayt) [79] of their historical condition; and on the other hand in ancient and modern human life-forms generally. We used to swallow his words and explanations and were glad to accept his conclusions. I remember, for example, his explaining that from the day the Jews lost their national and political independence in the Land of Israel, they began to live a strange life which had no historical parallel – the life of a landless and scattered nation.  And in their wandering they encountered an environment whose character and soul were the opposite of Jewish traits. Thus did Menakhem draw for us the picture of how the Jewish problem arose and how it assumed such sharp forms on the basis of ancient and eternal antitheses between the strong and the weak, the persecutor and his victim. People have always been full of hatred and scorn for strangers who wander into their midst.

Moreover, among Jews there was the additional fact that just as their weakness was considerable, no less marked was their rebelliousness.  Inhabitants of the lands to which Jews migrated saw before them a weak and helpless people, which was at the same time stiffnecked and stubborn. Jews lived in Poland a thousand years and the Poles did not know them, did not understand them. The Poles deduced from the fact that Jews were persecuted for ages that things had to be so, that they had a right to oppress them and, moreover, they deserved to be oppressed. Their sins were inferred from their weakness. They regarded their weakness as deserved and weakness itself as a crime.

Our Hekholets group grew spontaneously. [80]New members kept joining and there were times when we couldn't decide whether everyone should be accepted, whether they were all suitable candidates for the training farm (hakhshore). We knew that the Land of Israel needed tough natures and that even from among the Tsire-tsien [Tseire-tsion 'Youth of Zion'] and Poyle-tsien [Poale-tsion 'Workers of Zion'] members who had arrived in the Land years before, only a small portion had remained, living and working under difficult conditions.  Many had not found there the conditions and the life that they had sought.  For the most part life in the Land of Israel was too hard for them and they did not hold out. They suddenly began to miss their homes in the diaspora (goles). Some returned and others emigrated to other countries.

In the discussions we carried on among ourselves, some comrades maintained we should be selective, for the Land needed personalities, strong people with a Zionist education and hands like anvils (kovadles).  There were heated discussions over this issue, as over other issues, such as: Were we merely a reservoir of working-hands for the Histadrut or were we the standard-bearers who march at the head of the camp to build the Land of Israel and there carry out a great social upheaval in Jewish life and realize the national vision of Zionism? Should we be just ordinary immigrants or khalutsim? Naturally, our answer was: "Khalutsim!" That reply, most obviously, straightaway obligated us to spiritual and physical preparation (hakhshore) for aliya. Everything within us cried out for action. In that atmosphere we organized a training farm for khalutsim, a kibbutz, in which we could prepare for life in the Land of Israel by hardening ourselves physically and spiritually.

There were dreamers among us who aspired with their entire being to immigrate to the Land of Israel to build the national home, but they were unsuited for organizational activity and for hard labor. But there were also those among us who, while they did not mock the dreamers, combined in themselves dream and deed, intellect and practicality. They voluntarily made themselves the delegates (shlikhim) of our organization in order to get things done. Such were comrades Pinkhesovitsh [Pinchasovitch], Tshereshevski, Menakhem Pundik, and others, who distinguished themselves in their ability to plan and organize, to explain and to convince. They were gentle and courteous in their relations with the members, yet they were also firm and resolute when it came to carrying out projects and resolutions which our group had decided on in open meetings.

The resoluteness of these comrades affected all of us, touched the people around them. With all their stubbornness, decisiveness and organizational ability, they did not possess even a trace of that coarseness one finds in high-handed people (tkifim). They were not that kind of leader. On the contrary, with their approach to work, their comradely character, they won respect and love for themselves. We were soon infected with their restlessness and took upon ourselves the most difficult tasks. The same restlessness affected our work at the training farm (hakhshore).

There were fifteen members in that first Semyatitsh training farm and again Menakhem Pundik was the soul of the group. [81] His personal qualities were even more strikingly present here. He combined in himself vision and simple gray prose, comradeliness and love of work. We responded to him with the same comradely affection and a readiness to execute every task laid upon us. At the beginning our training farm was a partial one. We began by working several days a week in the Maliniak Brothers' plywood factory (diktn-fabrik). [82] We put the money that we earned in a common fund for establishing a training farm. After several months we rented a small field in the region of Slocha [83]and plowed and sowed it.

The work was not easy, but we were driven by an energy which had long been slumbering in us. Menakhem's eyes sparkled and he was radiant when we talked about the philosophy of work (der toyre fun arbet) which, in one's own land, he believed, became sacred. He argued that if Jews did not do their own work, then Jewish morality, which he regarded as the highest in the world, and which went hand in hand with work, would crumble. He warned that the highest of all positive commandments (mitsves) was to live from one's own labor on one's own soil. His words on work and morality inspired us. [84]Decades later his words often echoed in my ears: "A land can be acquired only through work and creativity, and thus a healthy people with spiritual and moral values is formed." To this day I can still see how his eyes sparkled when he spoke of work and morality.

In the course of time, the Zionist functionaries (askonim) in Semyatitsh, as well as large parts of the Jewish population, began to take an interest in us. We were talked about in homes, in the besmedresh, and wherever people congregated. We became an established fact (a firme) and we began receiving proposals to rent this or that complex (hoyf). We finally decided to take the place at Kayanke with its large field area, well, barn and house. [85]Although it was badly neglected, we were not frightened off. On the contrary, it gave us the impression that we were making a fresh start.

We got to know the neighboring peasants and they promised to help us with advice, with work tools, with food and with seed. The peasants in that area were very poor. The Jews of the shtetl had a good reputation among them and they related to us warmly and with trust. They believed we would bring life to the village.

They were wonderful days, tense and joyful. Eighteen of us went out to Kayanke, including four girls who were as enthusiastic about the training farm (hakhshore) as the boys were. The first thing we did was to set up temporary sleeping quarters and a kitchen;  everything was very primitive.  We went right to work to clean out the well and to straighten up the household. Several of the comrades sat down to work on the cultural program and on the statutes (takones). We called our training farm "Shakharia," "Kibbutz Shakharia."[86] I spent no more than two years there, but in my memory the time I spent there seems longer, which is hardly surprising. It is not the clock that measures time, but our store of impressions, experience. When the senses are active and the brain is fed with the raw material of impressions, when life is full, the clock moves slower and the time-segment is longer than usual, fuller, and it remains in the memory as a period rich in events.

In any case, when I recall my training-farm experience, I do not measure it by the calendar or by the pulse – not by physiologic functions, not by chronological time – but by the mental activity, the conscious faculties of the spirit, the rich world of feeling which were then mine. Life in the kibbutz gave food for thought every hour and every minute: young men and women with unheard of energy, stubbornness and readiness to sacrifice themselves to realize their dream, had come together to refashion the world.

Group-living brought with it certain problems at first. We managed somehow with the work, but we also wished to develop traits appropriate for kibbutz life. We were especially sensitive to instances of inequality.  The comrades were close to their homes, from which they all brought food (produktn) packages, some larger and some smaller, which their mothers had given them when they visited their families on Sabbaths or other free days. This could have led to unhealthy feelings of envy. We were prepared to overcome egoistic weaknesses in ourselves and, like many other problems, this one seemed to solve itself in the midst of the ardor and idealism which ruled all of us.

We lived with the feeling that we were engaged in a great and holy task and that we were part of a great historical movement. After the enthusiasm there followed gray workdays with difficulties which we had not foreseen.  Our means were very limited. There were days when we had no food, not even bread. Our good parents always assisted us. I remember when my father drove through Kayanke and brought a little package of chocolate, which he divided among us all. We were very moved and did not know how to react.  But we did not tell Father that on that day we had not had any bread to eat.

As I already mentioned, the neighboring peasants were good to us. On one occasion a neighbor, a good-hearted peasant, gave us a present of a calf for meat. Comrades immediately led it to the ritual slaughterer (shoykhet) in town to be butchered. For quite a few days in a row we ate meat daily. True, not often did we receive such gifts and very seldom could we afford to buy meat. Given our income, we could not even dream of such a thing. In time we acquired a small horse and cart, which made our work easier. The day we moved our total possessions from our meeting place in Semyatitsh to Kayanke with our own little horse was a great day. It developed into a kholets demonstration, for many comrades were present and they followed on foot singing kholets songs.

Before our eyes we saw the Land of Israel, whose wastelands we would redeem and whose economy we would make into a model for others. We saw ourselves as a military unit marching to battle, armed with our work implements and a great deal of enthusiasm. Our humble village hut seemed like our staff headquarters on the front lines. The young women comrades busied themselves with large pots, preparing food.  Work ceased at sunset, we ate and then finished the day [87] with a khaluts hora dance. The singing spread far around.

It was not easy to establish "Shakharia." The well was neglected, the fields wasted, the barn and the house dilapidated. We worked hard for a long time until things were under control. Comrades and guests from town who visited us, especially young people, used to help out quite often.  Everyone felt that we were building something in common, not only for ourselves but for the hundreds of others who would come after us. In the future our training farm would be a source of encouragement for scores and hundreds of others, but in the meantime we had to work hard until our fields could be harvested.

In order to maintain ourselves until then, we were forced to seek temporary jobs in the vicinity. Thus we found unskilled work (shvartsarbet) at the Semyatitsh train station. We did not take into consideration that we were competing with neighborhood peasants, who also sought employment at the station when not working in their fields. This called forth opposition on the part of the peasants. The station workers threatened to strike and we felt we were about to be attacked. But we did not let ourselves be defeated. A Jew who for years had been a contractor (podryatshik) at the railroad station and knew the authorities and the workers very well, intervened, and the matter was somehow smoothed over.

That was a victory for us and it cheered us while we plowed and sowed.  We told ourselves that our path was long and hard but that there was no other, and that it led to the deliverance of our people (der derleyzung fun folk). When work at the railroad station ran out, we did not despair but sought and found work at the Dombrowa sawmill (tartak). Six of our young men and one of our young women went there. Other workers from the surrounding country and from Melnik were employed in Dombrowa.[88] They had sufficient reason not to stomach our presence. They didn't want any khalutsim.

We on our part knew we could not lose that work place and so there were conflicts. Believing that without them nothing would get done, the others decided to quit work. Since there would be no one to take their place, their demand that we be dismissed would have to be met. However, the son-in-law of the sawmill owner took our part. A competent professional, he kept things going. He gave us instructions and showed us what to do.  We were eager to prove we could be relied on. This too was a victory and it gave us additional confidence and energy.

In the Fall we harvested the grain in the fields. Our barn was full of rye and barley from our own labor. We soon had our own potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes from our own fields and we were happy. But the barn emptied as quickly as it had filled up. Debts had been accumulating and we had to sell things to cover them. Again we had to look for work, but things were bad and we couldn't find any. We faced a hard winter. The debts kept growing, there was no employment. Menakhem Pundik went to Warsaw to seek help from the Hekhaluts center. He lingered there a while and soon saw he would get no subsidies, since the Hekholets coffers were empty. Menakhem returned, discouraged, with empty "promises." But we didn't lose hope.

We kept on doing our chores in the house and in the field; they gave us no income, but they helped us wait for better days. In the evenings, after a day's work, we assembled in the house or in the courtyard, and with arms around one another's shoulders formed a ring and sang and danced. Our joyful singing echoed far. We were united by one and the same idea: the only deliverance for the Jewish people lay in its own land, working its soil with its own hands, and defending its honor and existence with its own strength.

Before my eyes I see my comrades of that time: Menakhem Pundik, Arn-Dovid Shoyshn [Aharon David Shoshan], Dovid-Noyekh [David Noah] Keyles, Yoysef [Yosef] Yablon and others, the khalutsim, almost all of whom emigrated to the Land of Israel, settled its hills and valleys to till and revive them.

That is how we felt at moments of great difficulties, of worry and even of hunger. We consoled ourselves with the vision of a beautiful tomorrow in the Land of Israel. The more difficult our conditions, the greater and stronger became our love and longing for the Land of our dreams. The common effort of all the comrades strengthened our faith and our courage.  Years later, in Panama and in Lima, when I was already well established, I often thought longingly that I would gladly exchange all my possessions for a small plot of land at the foot of the Judean hills. This longing did not come upon me at times of crisis only, but when I was relatively prosperous. Life, however, was always a struggle for existence, full of conflicts which pushed aside nostalgic thoughts and returned me to my daily reality.


Chapter 19 – Footnotes:

  1. Many Orthodox Jews regarded any human effort to speed up Salvation, the Coming of the Messiah, the Return to Zion as heretical, as an effort to manipulate Divine Prerogative. This is the theme in several Yiddish works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, where "hastening the end" may also allude to certain modern utopianisms which have proved disastrous.Return to text
  2. M.R. writes a great deal about Menakhem Pundik (1906-1930), who seems to have been one of the most important figures of his youth. The tone is eulogistic – Menakhem Pundik, having realized the khaluts ideals of aliya and self-labor, drowned in the Kinneret when he was very young and still fresh in Erets Yisrael. See Kehilat Semyatitsh, pp. 168, 252-253 (includes photos) and passim. See the same source for references to Moyshe Pinkhasovitsh (pp. 168, 172 [photos] and passim). Return to text
  3. 75) Literally 'going up' = 'immigration'. Return to text
  4. Betar is an acronym for Brit Yosef Trumpeldor. This was the youth section of the Revisionist Movement led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. The movement was very strong in Poland. Return to text
  5. Here we have a taste of the jargon of those days. Ber Borokhov and others socialist-Zionist thinkers used to like to think of immigration to Palestine as a "stychic" process, that is, an inevitable one, one determined by socio-economic forces. Any process that there was, of course, was principally voluntaristic. The term 'self-realization' was part of the fixed jargon of the khaluts movements. "a stikhishn masn-protses tsvishn der yidisher yugnt oyfn veg fun zelbsrealizirung" Return to text
  6. By invoking "stychic" processes an illusion of clarity is achieved. This is the jargon of the period referred to above. Return to text
  7. Literally 'soulishness'. Perhaps the intended meaning is 'centrality'. Other possibilities are 'sensitivity' and 'spiritualness'. Return to text
  8. See Kehilat Semyatitish, p. 171 and passim. Return to text
  9. See M.R.'s "Der hakhshore-kibets 'Shakharia'," Kehilat Semyatitsh, pp. 325-328 [photo on p. 326]. Return to text
  10. See Kehilat Semyatitsh, p. 59 [photo of plant of "Braci Malinax"], p. 332 [photo] and passim. Return to text
  11. I have not found this place in any of the standard atlases, apparently because it is very small. Return to text
  12. The original has: hobn arayngegosn a likhtikayt in undzere neshomes, literally: 'poured light into our souls'. Return to text
  13. See Kehilat semyatitsh, p. 168 and passim. I have not found Kayanke in any of the standard atlases, apparently because it is very small. Return to text
  14. A neo-Hebraism – Hebrew shakhar 'dawn'. Return to text
  15. The original reads "mekadesh geven dem hakhshore," literally 'sanctified the training-farm'. Return to text
  16. Melnik (Polish: Mielnik) is located at point C-10 on the 1986 Mapa Administracyjna of the Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa. Dombrowa (Polish: Dabrowa [first a is nasalized] Bialostocka [slant across l to sound like w]) is located at point B-10 on the same map. The sawmill and the "Shakharia" khalutsim who worked there are described in a report in the Hebrew paper Hatsefira in 1927 (see Kehilat Semyatitsh, pp. 174-5). Return to text

Chapter 20 – Polish Antisemitism

Even though these are only my personal memoirs, in transmitting them I am aware that they are also a biography of our generation, one which was born in a transitional (beynashmoshes 'twilight') epoch and was dominated by great ideals while being fated to witness the bankruptcy of almost all of them. In addition, this generation was condemned to live through the most terrible destruction (khurbm) of the Jewish people, the physical annihilation of six million Jews. Yes, a most tragic generation, and yet rich and colorful, creative and restless; deeply unfortunate and yet also stormy (shturmish). [89] When I remember those years in Semyatitsh, I relive in my entire being [90] the storm in the hearts of young and adult at that time.

We often hear complaints that the Jews did not take seriously enough the dangers that were facing Polish and European Jewry. The truth, however, is that as early as the 1920s, even in Semyatitsh, an alarm was sounded alerting the Jewish masses to the dangers threatening their existence. Jews perhaps did not try to estimate how great the danger was. Was it indeed possible to predict the horrendous dimensions of the Shoa (khurbm)? But most Jews understood that Jewish lives and property were threatened and that their Christian neighbors breathed hatred and were just waiting for an opportunity to destroy Jewish life.

The youth felt this acutely when they considered their futures. Even before Hitler came to power in Germany and while the German Jews were still telling themselves that Hitlerism was a passing phenomenon, Polish Jewry already felt on its own skin the Hitlerite poison of its own antisemites.  The truth is that the Jews in Poland were extremely uneasy and their unease grew day by day. National Democratic Party [91] newspapers spewed out their virulent incitements against the Jews. In the churches the priests held poisonous sermons. The Polish government could not solve the economic crisis and wished to divert the rage of the poor and unemployed against the Jews, showing that they were to blame for all that was wrong.

Poverty among the Jews was strongly felt. Taxes were oppressive and people sank into the mire of indebtedness and couldn't extricate themselves. Had it not been for various institutions which provided help, many in the shtetl would have been ruined because of debt, and who knows what would have become of them. In addition, unemployment grew and Jewish youth saw no way out for itself. It is not surprising that just as in other towns and villages, so in Semyatitsh, the youth was increasingly drawn to the idea of leaving Poland as soon as possible. Immigration to the Land of Israel (ertsisroel = then "Palestine") was hard;  there were no certificates. Ways were therefore sought to reach other countries – just so as to get out of the Polish swamp.

One day while I was walking around the market place with a friend, observing how despondent the Jews looked, I noticed a tall lean Jewish man standing near a store, rocking lightly and muttering something to himself.  Passing him I asked him why he was talking to himself. He looked at me with quiet amazement, his face creased with despair, and said, "Meayin yavoy ezri?" ('Where will my help come from?'). [92] His words cut right through my heart. Such congealed despair, such deep woe, so hopeless and bottomless.

The year 1929 arrived and the crisis in Poland had worsened and with it so had the antisemitism. That is how things have always been with the Jews. As soon as the economic situation goes bad, the Jews are the first to be picked on. The public (di gas) doesn't understand complicated economic problems, which are matters for professionals and politicians. The latter exploit them for their purposes. This practice was at that time reenforced in Poland. On one side, the Communists blamed everything on the capitalist regime, and on the other side, the right-wing parties, the Endecki, pointed to the Jews as the bloodsuckers of the Polish people. The Jews were the capitalists, the oppressors, the manufacturers who exploited the Polish worker – and they were also the Communists!

With genuine fright we watched the growing malice (rishes) of the Poles. They, the local (heymishe) antisemites, received incendiary material from Germany, where the Hitlerites prospered after their defeat in the march on Munich in 1923, when Hitler was arrested. In prison he wrote Mein Kampf, in which he described how he would take power in Germany and conquer Europe, how he would defeat Communist Russia and destroy the Jewish people. A theory had developed in Germany that the Reich had lost the war because of the treason of the Jews. The forces of darkness in Germany fused into Hitler's National Socialist Party.

At the meetings of Hekholets Hatsoir (=Hekhaluts Hatsair 'Pioneer Youth') we discussed what was going on in Germany. We talked about Mein Kampf, the credo of Nazism. We could not understand how the world could be so indifferent to Nazi propaganda. It was clear to us that Nazism was supported by the magnates, especially of heavy industry, and Hitler therefore had the necessary funds to organize his followers, form his shock troops, spread millions of copies of his book, as well as of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Written in 1865 against Napoleon the Third, the Emperor of France, the Tsarist police had altered and distorted this pamphlet so as to make it appear to be the protocols of a secret Jewish government which sought to gain control of the world. There later appeared the book, The International Jew, by Henry Ford, the American automobile manufacturer, which repeated most of the known antisemitic libels.

At one of our discussions, someone said that Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and The International Jew were a kind of trinity of antisemitic literature which was becoming a kind of religion in the whole Christian world. Antisemitic incitement won adherents to Hitler not only in Germany, but in the surrounding European countries and especially in Poland, where an open campaign was waged against the Jews – blood libels, prohibition of ritual slaughtering, special benches for Jewish students in schools at all levels, and attacks on Jews in the streets in almost every city and town. The impoverished Jewish population was squeezed mercilessly by taxes.

The Jewish newspapers also carried news about antisemitic agitation in the smaller neighboring countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and especially Romania and Hungary. Emigration was the only remaining solution for the Jews of Poland. I came across this desire to immigrate in every town and village I visited in connection with our glassware business. Everywhere I heard about the chicanery and vexations which Jews had to suffer from the administrative power. You felt the fear of pogroms everywhere and everywhere the youth dreamed of emigrating.

Jews in the towns became geographical experts and knew the economic situation of every distant land. It was already known then that America was far from being the "golden land" that it was right after the First World War, when it had so much money it didn't know what to do with it.  Americans invested vast sums in European enterprises and the American banks offered credit for the purchase of these shares, which rose steadily and brought immense profits. Until one day the entire edifice crumbled. This happened in 1929 in America. People started selling their stock shares and the natural result was that the value began to go down. The banks and the industrial enterprises did not have enough money to pay out the vast sums which they were responsible for and they went bankrupt. The companies which had invested in Europe, mainly in Germany, began to ask for their money back, but the banks lacked funds and also declared bankruptcy.

In this manner the economic crisis moved from America to Europe. The numbers of unemployed grew everywhere, which helped the Nazis and was oil on the fire of their antisemitic propaganda. As want increased, it became easier for the Hitlerites to spread their propaganda, to promise all sorts of benefits if they were brought to power and liquidated the Jews, who were responsible for all afflictions. It was easy for the Nazis to spread their antisemitic incitement in Poland, where the soil was favorable for every form of Jew-hatred (sines-yisroel). The human being is an animal that can be trained. Some animals take long to train. Others can be trained quickly – such were the Poles in everything that related to Jews.

If among the Prussian population it was necessary to spend a little more time pumping in the Junker spirit until the leaders succeeded in extracting the type of Germans who frightened the world with the Jewish specter, the Poles were always ready to believe all the blood libels about Jews and they were easily incited to beat up and murder Jews. Quite quickly did the Nazi's baiting darken the brains of the Poles and turn them into evil beasts (khayes roes), bloodthirsty, rapt, lying in wait for Jewish victims – especially the poorest and weakest.

One market day in one of the towns where I used to go to meet customers of our glassware business, I encountered a strange fearfulness. It was being said that the peasants had been incited and were getting ready to carry out a pogrom against the Jews. The youth had begun to organize a resistance, but the adults asked, "What will be the outcome? The police, who always take the part of the pogromists, will again say the Jews started it, and there will be arrests and trials." They told of a Jewish village-peddler (dorfsgeyer) who had taken his son along with him to a village. When they entered the place, the Gentile boys (shkotsim) sicked the dogs on them and father and son were horribly bitten. The peasants of the village looked on calmly while the Jewish boy bled. They were amused at his screaming. Father and son barely crawled back to the shtetl, bitten and bloody. It seemed beyond endurance.

Jews saw their position afresh. Sons and daughters began seriously to prepare to leave their homes. Mothers went about with tear-stained eyes.  On that day I returned home with the firm resolve to go out into the world to find some ground to stand on, some prospect for rescuing my family. On the way I met a friend from the movement who looked equally distraught. He had been dreaming for years of immigrating to the Land of Israel, but he had lost hope. The doors were locked. My friend was better oriented than I in statistics, had read newspapers more than I had, and foresaw that a tragic time lay ahead for Jews in Poland. He said the main problem was the rising number of unemployed in the country. There were too many people, he said. If you read the statistical tables and made comparisons with other countries, you saw overpopulation all over, but in Poland it was catastrophic. Overpopulation brought demoralization and incitement against the Jews.

At home I talked with Father about the despair and sorrow of the Jews, telling him what I had seen and heard in the shtetl I had been in. I tried to cushion my words and made a point of mentioning my selling success. This didn't seem to have any effect. He sat quietly and from time to time looked at me sadly. He apparently understood my situation and knew that I was about to say something important. It took some time before I overcame my embarrassment and, as slowly and calmly as I could, I said: "Father, when all is said and done, I see no way out for me here. I have decided to leave." I thought Father would try to dissuade me. After all, I was still needed in the business, which for the time being was doing quite well. All my brothers were employed and had their hands full with work. To my surprise, I saw on my father's face that he understood both my description of the Jewish situation in Poland and my decision to leave. In a matter-of-fact tone he said, "I have thought about this often, have hoped that you would receive a certificate, but who knows when that will happen."

The same day Father called together the entire family for consultation and repeated all that I had told him. None of this was news to my brothers. They knew the situation and were familiar with the atmosphere in the streets. They made no effort to encourage me to have faith. True, faith is a good Jewish quality, but there are times when faith may be a kind of blindness – one doesn't want to face the truth and loses his sense of reality. The greatest news to me and to my brothers as well was Fathers' bitter admission that he saw the situation just as I did. Father still remembered the Polish outrages (retsikhes) during World War One and he maintained that many years of peace and tranquility would have to pass before the Poles washed their hands clean of blood and drove the beast of the Poles back into latency (farborgnkayt). In the meanwhile we Jews can be crushed in the bloody aftermaths of the post-war period. One clearly sees the beast in the Poles and it is lying in wait for a victim. As though speaking to himself, Father said, "Yes, children, the air here is poisoned and Jews are blamed for every misfortune."

Thus Father clearly saw the situation of the Jews in Poland in 1929 and with complete decisiveness said the Poles needed a scapegoat, a tragic role to which the Jews from ancient times had special claim (khazoke). It was that way throughout the world, especially Poland, where the ground was burning beneath one's feet. Father and my brothers agreed that I would travel to Panama, where my uncle, my mother's brother-in-law, already lived. He had gone there several years earlier and apparently was somewhat established by now. I was to look into the possibility of bringing the entire family there.

I have never forgotten that discussion with Father and my brothers. It is hard for me to describe the feelings which then ruled me. On the one hand I was happy that Father and my brothers agreed that I should carry out my decision. On the other hand leaving home made me anxious. My brother, Shimen, turned pale and his eyes filled with tears. [93] Such scenes doubtless enacted themselves at that time in many homes, when children left for the outside world. In the shtetl they were envied. People said: "Respectable children emigrate, make a fortune and help their parents." Most of the grown-ups had nothing to do and from far-off countries from time to time they received welcome letters from children with greetings and news of having done well, sometimes accompanied by a few dollars. That's how strangers spoke, but parents who had to part with their sons, sighed, "May such a fate befall the enemies of the Jews (oyf soyne-tsien gezogt); may they yet know what it is like to be a parent and be torn from your flesh and blood while still alive."

Yes, there were then many such homes, where the departure of sons robbed life of its zest. People walked about like shadows, with aching hearts.  On that day longing began to gnaw at me, and continued to do so for many years. I read the same longing on my brothers' faces and in their voices, though they tried to appear calm and spoke with a smile on their lips. One could almost have imagined they regarded my leaving as a natural event.  Father also behaved in the same way. He went to his business, worked as he generally did, with energy and good humor, with the acute grasp of his deep intelligence, with the sure logic of an experienced merchant, admired by all his acquaintances. I, too, immersed myself in work, prepared to take care of the formalities, passport, visa and other matters in which I was wholly inexperienced. Because of all this I had to travel to Warsaw, a city which I did not know at all and where I did not know my way around.


Chapter 20 – Footnotes:

  1. In Yiddish, 'stormy' is properly _ shturemdik _ and _ shturmish _ is 'violent'. M.R. is influenced here by the German _stürmisch_ 'stormy'; he evidently uses the word in a positive sense as parallel to the earlier 'restless'. Return to text
  2. _ ramakh eyvrim _, literally '248 organs'. Return to text
  3. _ endekishe_, Polish: _ endecki_. Return to text
  4. "Esa eynay el haharim, me'ayin yavo ezri" 'I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; where will my help come from?' (Psalm 121:1). Return to text
  5. M.R. writes here "older brother," which is an error since Shimen was younger. M.R. may have written "older" while thinking the opposite, or he was referring to one of his two other brothers, who were older, namely Pinye [Pinkhas] or Srol [Yisroel]. Return to text

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