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[Page 316]

The Pioneering Movement in Smorgon

by Beni Marshak

Translated by Sara Mages

In the winter of 1923 the first branch of “HeHalutz Hatzair” [Young Pioneer] was established in my hometown Smorgon. Its founders were the members: Pinchas Rashish (the mayor of Petah Tikva) and Aharon Berdyczewski a member of Kibbutz Yagur. Both arrived to the border district of Eastern Poland from faraway Warsaw to organize the Jewish youth for the doctrine and the “theory” of Zionism, and to prepare it for the revolutionary mission of the generation.

It's no coincidence that the first branch of the pioneering movement was founded in Smorgon. Masses of discouraged youth, who sought a new path in life, wandered in the city in the first years after the First World War. They clung to the Zionist-pioneering message that came to them from Israel. This fermentation of youth had deep roots in the history of the city of workers. The “Bund” movement was established in Smorgon, the “Leather Workers Organization” was founded and cells of workers gathered in the bakeries (the famous bagels). Also the proximity of Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lita, ” helped to bring the theory of the revolutionary activity. Moreover, the regime of the notorious


1929, the “Halutz” federation in Smorgon


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Władysław Dominik Grabski in Poland, the corruption that has spread throughout the society, the suppression of the workers in general and the Jews in particular, the dispossession of the minorities from the economic positions - all of these served as the cause for the establishment of the revolutionary pioneering youth movements “HeHalutz Hatzair” and as a result of a transition of ages - “HeHalutz.

The first organizers of “HeHalutz Hatzair” in the city, who expanded and deepened its ideological ideas, were the members: Zalman Alprovitz, Gita Brodny, Mordechai Cohen, the writer of these lines and others. The founding meeting was held in the “Hekdesh” which was in the ground of the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

From the first days there was a feverish activity in the young branch. Every evening the house was crowded with groups of boys and girls, “night owls, ” who talked about the events in Israel and in the movement. They clarified current issues, learned about the Jewish labor movement, studied the Hebrew language and waited impatiently to do the real work. In 1924, when the slogan of the pioneering movement in Poland: “Pioneers for training and physical work” was thrown in the Jewish street - it was like a “note from the heavens” for us in Smorgon. One feeling filled the hearts of the members - the desired moment, the time for expansion and fulfillment - has arrived. In the coming days more than thirty Halutzim [pioneers] left Smorgon for the first Hakhshara [pioneer training] points in the district - to the Maladečina Forests. Boys and girls, who have never held a tool in their hands - not a saw, not an axe and not an hatchet - are now clutching them in their hand and see them not as tools for physical labor but as spiritual-ideological conduits. Although the work was grueling, the trees of Maladečina Forests succumbed to the young Jewish men. The trees were cut down, sawn, sorted, and tied in bundles. On Saturdays, when one of the members visited the “local” chapter of “HeHalutz,” he inserted a new spirit, a spirit of joy and creativity, a sense of freedom and release from the anxiety which accumulated during the week. The visits of these tourists from the Hakhshara points in the forests created a tension in the hearts of the members. This stream of activities stretched and passed until it evoked every house in the city, “startled” it from its tranquility and incited its young sons.

Smorgon was fortunate that most of the members of the “HeHalutz” in the city immigrated to Israel during the limited immigration of 1924. Almost all of them joined the “Work Battalion” named after Joseph Trumpeldor. The letters, which came to the branches of “HeHalutz” and “HeHalutz Hatzair,” testified that the “Smorgon group” didn't embarrass their place of origin.

In those days, a joke circulated among the Hakhshara kibbutzim about the young men from Smorgon.

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The “Litvaks” claimed that the young men from Smorgon weren't able to distinguish between right Shin[1] and left Shin[1], and that they pronounced the name of their city “Shmorgon” not Smorgon.

This is the place to mention that our town was one of the few places in Poland that its young men and women, who joined “HeHalutz” and “HeHalutz Hatzair”, left for pioneering training and immigrate to Israel - didn't anger their parents. On the contrary, the parents showed sympathy to their children's actions and supported them as much as they could.

Not once the reading was delayed in the synagogue when the public found out that a pioneer from a needy family didn't have the financial means for his immigration to Israel. Needless to say that solution was found on the spot for that Halutz.

The pioneering movement in Smorgon also radiated its light on the city's Hebrew School “Tarbut.” This school was one of the most organized schools in the district and contained hundreds of students. The cooperation between the teachers and the pioneering movements was a blessing for both. This interaction existed for many years, and deepened the common values of the “Tarbut” movement and the pioneering movement.

All these years the city was poised towards the pioneering activity and lived in the movement's atmosphere. The glorious revolutionary tradition of Smorgon was renewed, and was transferred from the adults to the youth.

We can't forget that our city was destroyed for the first time during the First World War. Although it was almost rehabilitated at the beginning of the liberation of Poland, every Jew knew and felt that it was only a temporary fix, and that the Satan of extinction lay at the entrance to their home in the Diaspora. This premonition brought the positive attitude of the residents of Smorgon towards the pioneering movement.

In 1925, two members from Smorgon, Zalman Alprovitz z”l and Beni Marshak, were drafted by central headquarters of the “Halutz” movement in Warsaw for the first national seminar. The first delegation from the “Halutz” federation in Israel participated in it, and its members were: Y. Trenkin, Tarshis and Zisling. When Zalman and I left for the seminar we continued our ties with the chapter in Smorgon. Two matters encouraged us: A) The affiliation of our members in the “Work Battalion” in Israel. B) The expansion of the branch in our hometown. At the end of the seminar we were sent to the Hakhshara's central points in Poland - Zalman to “Shaharia” and I to “Klosowo. ”

During the three and a half years that I've stayed in Klosowo, I had the opportunity to meet Halutzim from my town who came to the Hakhshara.

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I always wondered about the pioneering spirit that pulsed in them, their willingness to participate in missions and their strong will to overcome obstacles. Many of the Halutzim from Smorgon, who received their training in Klosowo, live to this day in kibbutzim in Israel.

The transformation of Kibbutz Klosowo into a permanent training point in the life of the movement in Poland caused my separation from the chapter in Smorgon but, I always knew what was happening in the chapter and followed its activities from afar.


From the right: Y. Magdy, Herzl Antzlevitz, Eliezer Zipkin, Binyamin Gilinski, L. Danishevsky.
Sitting: S. Rodansky, M. Danishevsky, G. Weinstein, M. Weinstein.


My last visit to Smorgon was on 2 October, 1929, the day before I immigrated to Israel. I only had a few hours to say goodbye to the family that I haven't seen during my stay in Klosowo. I arrived secretly to my hometown to receive its blessing for the road - and said goodbye to my loved ones and to my friends clandestinely because the Polish authorities were looking for me. If they managed to find where I was, they would have delayed my immigration. On the next day I left Smorgon and crossed the border near Kopyczyńce in Poland. I left behind me a Jewish city and its inhabitants, a city of vision and action that was completely destroyed by the Nazi criminals. Among city's martyrs - the elderly, women and children - was my mother of blessed memory. My sister and her daughter, who managed to visit me in Israel in 1939, returned to liquidate their interests in order to return immediately to their son and their brother in Kibbutz Givat HaShlosha. They returned in August, and the war broke out in September 1939.

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You can find the Smorgonim everywhere in the country: there are those who realize their aspiration in a kibbutz, and there are those who work in a city or in a village. Today, as in the past, they are spiritually united to the same “original” cause, to the same guideline in the history of Smorgon, and its unique sociological development within the Polish Jewry. The Halutzim of Smorgon wrote a special chapter in the Israeli wars. I will be content with one of many. The most noticeable is Mordechai Cohen z”l, the son of the city's slaughterer. In 1923 he was one of the founders of “HeHalutz” movement in Smorgon. He was educated in a Zionist family, and was among the first who immigrate to Israel and joined the work battalion of Yosef Trumpeldor. Since his arrival to Israel he was an active member of the Haganah [“The Defense”] and a revered instructor and commander. In 1941, when the best young men in the country were called by Yitzhak Sadeh z”l for operation “Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha'Sira[2], it was clear that Motke will be one them. Their mission was to sabotage oil refineries in Syria. May his memory be blessed together with the memory of his friends who fell in the battles to liberate the State of Israel. May the right of Smorgon, whose streets were filled with the cheers of young fighting pioneers, will stand for us. We, the few survivors in Israel, will not shame the spirit of our ancestors and our daring friends - for the bright future of our position in our independent state.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. The Hebrew letter Shin represents two different phonemes. The two are distinguished by a dot - a dot above the left-hand side of the letter for S, and dot above the right-hand side of the letter for Sh. Return
  2. Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha'Sira” - “The 23 Who Went Down at Sea” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Boatswain Return

[Page 321]

The Beginning of the
“Halutz” Movement in Smorgon

by Tzvi Horovitz

Translated by Sara Mages

Dedicated to the memory of my brother Nehemiah, his wife and their son Reuven
who perished in the Kovno Ghetto, May the Lord avenge their blood.

In the midst of the First World War (1915) all the Jews were expelled from the city. All of a sudden, by order of the military authorities, all of them became refugees. They left in a hurry and scattered across the cities of Russia and the Ukraine. Most of them remained in their new place of residence also after the war and at the beginning of the revolution. Terrible pogroms were carried out against the Jews during the exchange of regimes in the Ukraine. The war refugees, including the Jews of Smorgon, started to return to their homeland after the Bolshevik regime was established and reached a relative stability. They returned with their elderly, children and young men. When the youth, who grew up during the war and revolution and during the bloody pogroms against the Jews, returned to Smorgon they found it burned and desolated. They began to calculate their life and the question that pecked in their mind was: Is it possible to build a future here? Is it possible to plant a safe life here? Until when are we going to be sacrificed on the altar of regime changes!?

The youth began to organize itself for immigration to Israel. Of course, there were many obstacles in their new way. Their parents objected. They couldn't accept the idea that their sons and daughter will leave them, and more, that they will go to the desert and to an unpopulated country. They claimed: we wouldn't object if you wanted to go out into the big free world, immigrate to the United States or to Argentina, but it's a total madness to wander to the wasteland.

However, the young people's desire to build a homeland and the realization that the Jews had no future in Russia, were so strong that they didn't pay attention to their parents and nothing could have delayed or stopped them. Emissaries came to Smorgon from the central headquarters of the “Halutz” movement. They established branches, sent the members to Hakhshara [pioneer training], and after they completed their training season - they arranged their immigration to Israel.

Some of our members have completed all the stages of preparation, immigration certificates were obtained for them, and they, the lucky ones, immigrated to Israel. I remember the first letters that came from our members in Israel. We used to get together specially for the reading the letters. We read them seriously and swallowed every word like hot cakes. The desire to do the same throbbed in every heart, and each one of us wondered and asked himself - when will I be able to reach the land of our longings?

[Page 322]

Slowly slowly the pioneering movement, which was a movement of a few brave and bold individuals, has become a national movement which encompassed almost all the Jewish youth. At that time, “Hehalutz Hazair” movement was established to fill the vacant places of those who left for pioneer training and immigrated to Israel.

The question of educating the children in the Zionist spirit arose, and as a practical answer it was decided to establish a Hebrew school which was called “Tarbut School. ” Classes in Hebrew for adults were also opened. Here, I need to mention the dedicated diligent teacher, Gilinski z”l, who devoted all of his energy to teaching the language in evening classes. Every Sabbath, after the reading of the Torah, he climbed on the synagogue's stage and asked the congregation not to interfere with their children's decision to immigrate to Israel.

Our activities also included the founding of the library. Over time, thanks to the devoted work of the librarian Rafael Weinstein, the library became known as the best and the largest in the Smorgon region. Sometime later, Zionist political parties were established among the youth like: “Zeirei Zion,” “Hitachdut,” “Hashomer Hatzair” and others. At times, the arguments between the members of the various political parties and their fans lasted till midnight. The youth found a purpose in life and an interesting content. Our influence started to show its signs in the Jewish street. Also the sedated elements within the community considered us, against their will, as a rising active force which took up a position in the public life.

I will mention two valuable activities that were executed by “Zeirei Zion” I was among their initiators.

A. In the municipal elections we wanted to enter one of our members to the city council. The delay was caused by the age requirement law. We faced a serious problem since we were younger than the required age, so, we turned to Mr. Potashnik who was a fan of our party. Since he was entitled to be elected under the regulations, we asked him if he would agree to be our candidate. He gave us his permission. We entered his name to our list, and thanks to the hard work of our members he was elected to the city council. It was a significant accomplishment for the pioneering movement in Smorgon. We can't forget that Smorgon was an industrial city, and the “Bund” movement was very strong even after the First World War. We had a hard and bitter struggle in the council with the members of the “Bund” who opposed to any Zionist activity.

B. The second activity was also important. With great effort we were able to penetrate the administration committee of “Tarbut School. ” The committee was represented by conservative community dignitaries, and we weren't willing to accept the fact that the school wasn't managed according to the Zionist spirit.

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Our decision was determined: we will spare no time and effort in order to enter into the committee that set the school's rules. What have we done? We consulted.

Since there were orphans in our city that their mothers couldn't pay their tuition at “Tarbut School, ” which was relatively high, (at that time the Polish government didn't support the minorities' independent schools. “Tarbut” existed from the support of the community and from tuition fees), we committed ourselves to pay the tuition of these students. To obtain the necessary funds we got a job, a hard unskilled job - to clear the rubbish from the ruins which was plentiful in those days. We also recruited our friends for this purpose. After a hard struggle we received representation in the school administration, but in the eyes of the city's officials it was a bad thing. The old activists, who were rich in experience, didn't agree with the intervention and the penetration of the young people to their area of activities. We didn't give up and with the help of the teachers, who quarreled for us and fought our war, we entered our representative.

Gradually, step by step, we penetrated into the daily life of the community. Bit by bit we expanded our operations and entered the various areas that were in the hands of the “community elders. ” Many of our rivals, the young members of the “Bund” or the P.P.S. - who objected the Zionist idea - joined our ranks. I will mention only one of them, and he is the member Yisrael Rappaport z”l. He was an educated man who fought against the idea of the rebirth of the nation Israel in its ancient-new homeland. Eventually, he was convinced that we were right. He became active in our movement and helped us a lot.

We set up Hakhshara points, which were managed by volunteers, near Smorgon. Our member Beni Marshak (today a member of Kibbutz Givat HaShlosha), was sent by “HeHalutz” to a seminar in Warsaw, and was absent from his home for a long time. One day he came home to visit his family. I, as a member of “HeHalutz” committee, came to his home in the morning to clarify a number of issues, but, I didn't find him. The young man was gone. I asked his mother Where is Beni? She told me that he went to bed with the rest of the family, and when they woke up in the morning they didn't find him in his bed and the bedroom window was wide open. Apparently he left the house through the window because he didn't want to wake us by closing the door behind him.

There was a Hakhshara kibbutz in Soly. I traveled to Soly and found him there. He walked the whole way and came to visit the kibbutz.

When our movement grew and became stronger, the question of funding stood before us in all of its severity. Among the members of the Hakhshara were young men who didn't have the necessary funds to immigrate to Israel. There were also those who came from affluent families but their parents,

[Page 324]

who objected to their children's immigration, clenched their fists and refused to give them the expenses for the long journey. In those days, the “Jewish Agency for Israel” didn't cover the expenses of those who immigrated to Israel. This was the common practice: if, for example, the branch received twenty five immigration certificates and the numbers of candidates, who were ready for immigration, was larger, then, those who had the financial means were favored over the poor. We opposed this unjust arrangement. We said that the members should immigrate according to their place in line, if they had the financial means or not. Therefore, we started to look for ways to obtain the financial means, and here, an idea flashed in our mind - to establish an amateur drama group: we will present plays, sell tickets, and with the money we'll finance the immigration. We cooperated with all the Zionist parties. We invited an actor from Vilna to instruct the amateur actors. At first we presented light skits, and then we proceeded to serious plays. Of course, apart from the instructor, all the work was done voluntarily. Even the hall was given to us free of charge by a school called “Internet.”

I consider it my duty to mention our member, Mordechai Cohen z”l, who was the son of Smorgon's slaughterer. He successfully played the main role in Victor Hugo's drama before his immigration to Israel. At the end of the play, the Polish police officer, who was present at the show, shook his hand and thanked him profusely for his wonderful acting.

He immigrated to Israel in 1926, and was one of the excellent commanders of the “Haganah” [“The Defense”]. During the Second World War he was one of the 23 members of the “Haganah” [Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha'Sira[1]] who left for a military mission on behalf of the country and didn't return. May his memory be blessed.

We presented a play each time we needed money to finance the immigration of our members. We informed the public in advance that we'll use the proceeds to finance the immigration of our members, and the hall was always full. There was always someone in the city council that was willing to help us to obtain a license for the shows.

Finally, I would like to dedicate a few lines of thanks and recognition to the memory of Rabbi Plutkin zt”l, who served as the town's rabbi in the period before the outbreak of the Second World War. He helped us a lot with our pioneering work, and despite his poor health he always came to the train station to bless the Halutzim who immigrated to Israel with “Tefilat HaDerech” [traveler's prayer]. Even the “Halutz” meetings were held in his home. He was admired by all the residents of Smorgon, and was always ready to help them before the local authorities who valued him. May his memory be blessed.

The full name of the teacher is Yehudah Leib Gilinski. He was born in 1873 and came to Smorgon in 1893. He immigrated to Israel in 1925. In 1927 he traveled to the United States to visit his father but he didn't live to return to Israel. In 1936 he died of a brain hemorrhage that caused to him by a Jew who claimed that the Israelis dispossessing the Arabs of their lands. He got angry when he heard these words of slander - and died.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha'Sira” - “The 23 Who Went Down at Sea” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Boatswain Return


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