by Meir Shimon Geshuri
Translated by Leonard Levin
1. The Blossoming of the Vision
The Zionist vision is as old as the Jewish people. In every generation and in every age, attempts were made to fulfill this idea in deeds and actions. Hibbat Zion [in Russia in the 1880s] was a fruitful and important experiment that helped to provide much groundwork for the elements of the idea not only practically but also theoretically and scientifically. But organizing the national will in a clear political fashion, mobilizing energies and aspirations, announcing the goal and formulating it in rules and orders, creating financial institutions and national funds for realizing the ideathis was Herzl's magnificent achievement.
Another matter is clear without a doubt: Zionism was first born on the knees of religion. Had religious Judaism not connected the Jewish people to its historic land through rules and customs, a kind of memorial to the destruction, with prayers and songs, halakha [law] and Aggadah [lore], there would have been no trace of Zionism. The great Torah scholars, who bore the banner of religious Judaism, were the first who yearned for Zion and also went there, believing as they did with perfect faith that the salvation of Israel could only come from Zionism. Only in Eretz Israel could we perpetuate the Torah and tradition of Israel. The yearning for Eretz Israel was always a protest against assimilation, whose slogan was, Let us be like all the other nations. The dawning of the Zionist idea began when the opposition to assimilation developed among various Jewish circles.
During the first period of Zionism, religious and cultural questions were not raised in Zionist circles. Zionism then stood above these delicate concerns, and this period of peace was truly an ideal for many Zionists. But political Zionism did not remain in this state for long. Even before it had managed to deploy its powers properly, a new call was heard in the Zionist camp: Learn Hebrew! Foster Hebrew culture! Then the democratic faction was established. Then, too, Mizrachi was founded.
The task of Mizrachi in Zionism was to defend the worldview of those devout Jews whose external form was religious but whose inner essence was national, though it did not as yet have any clear awareness of the commingling of these two elements. Among those who stood at the head of Mizrachi were respected sages and writers (Rabbi Zev Yabetz, Rabbi Yitzchak Jacob Reines), and they exercised spiritual influence on this young movement. The inner power of Mizrachi and its external influence then grew considerably. From that time on, Mizrachi underwent changes and transformations, especially the split on the Uganda question, which was famous in the movement. Long after the separation, the movement returned to its regular path, and its strength and influence in Zionism were renewed.
During the period of Russian rule, it was forbidden to mount organized mass movements, to hold meetings even in the beit midrash or the synagogue on behalf of the Zionist idea. Every such activity had need of a disguise to conceal the true objective from the evil eye. Nevertheless, there were preachers who would speak in their sermons about settlement in Eretz Israel and stir the passions of their throngs of listeners. Those who devoted themselves to such propaganda were called preachers, and among them was the preacher Karotkin, who would wander around the major cities of Poland and win converts for religious Zionism. Wherever he visited, the time that he stayed became a time of festive gathering for the devotees of the idea of religious Zionism and for the workers who were active on behalf of the settlement of Eretz Israel.
There were more than a few such individuals who carried on their activities in stealth. Theirs was a hard struggle, because they were always liable to be imprisoned on account of those who whispered into the ears of the local authoritieseither the opponents of Hibbat Zion or the circles of fanatics who regarded Zionism as forcing the redemption and as lacking faith in the Messiah. These started to persecute the youths who were attracted to Zionism, interfering in their lives and driving them out of the shtibls. These persecutions did not prevent the establishment of Zionist societies in the various cities in Poland, especially during the period of the first Zionist Congresses, after Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Rabbi Yitzchak Jacob Reines from Lida, and Rabbi Sh. Rabinowicz from Sapotskin joined the Zionist Organization. About twenty religious Zionist societies were active in expectation of better days, in which they could go out in the public square and work openly and with the requisite momentum. These days came only after Poland was conquered by the Germans during World War I. They then had the possibility of conducting communal work in public, establishing organizations and societies, holding assemblies and meetings.
2. Putting the Idea into Practice
After the end of World War I (191418), Mizrachi began to operate more vigorously in Poland as an organization of religious Zionists who aspired wholeheartedly to the renaissance of the Jewish people in Zion, the land of our ancestors, on the basis and in the spirit of the Jewish religion. This aspiration came to expression in the slogan Creating a secure refuge in an open, legal fashion for the Hebrew people in the Land of Israel according to the spirit of the Torah and Jewish tradition. This was to be done by deepening the religious and national consciousness in the hearts of the Jewish people and by strengthening the religious constituency in the land of Israel. Mizrachi's methods of work included affirmation of all Zionist activities pertaining to political work, redeeming the land, and fostering Hebrew labor in Eretz Israel, as well as special activities for fostering our original culture. The Mizrachi organization in Poland was an entity unto itself. It had its own shekel funds, its own bylaws and central committee, not connected with the local Zionist Organization, its plenary decisions, and its directives. Mizrachi sought to educate and raise children for a Hebrewspeaking nation, living through Torah, while the Torah lived through it. Thus its primary aspiration was to disseminate knowledge of our written and transmitted Torah, knowledge of the Jewish people and its history, and knowledge of our Hebrew language and literature. For this purpose, Mizrachi and its youth branches established in various cities cheders for children and evening classes for adults in which they learned Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, Jewish history, and other similar subjects, in which they deepened their religious and national consciousness, their devotion to the sanctities and needs of the Jewish people, and faith in a renaissance of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland. By establishing teachers' seminaries, yeshivot, and various ulpan education programs, Mizrachi intended to raise generations of guides for the future on behalf of the movement and its needs.
The Mizrachi Youth organization was established alongside Mizrachi. The difference between adults and youths in Zionism generally and in Mizrachi in particular was not only a difference of age and years. There was a profound psychological difference. The regular Mizrachi members were devout and pious, good Zionists and good Jewsfor themselves. They were also able to influence other traditionalist Jews through their Zionism and to influence Zionists through their religiosity, and in doing so they fulfilled an important role. But Mizrachi was made for greater things: to reestablish Judaism on its ancient historical basis, on the spirit of the prophetic promises and the Torah of Israel. The elders of Mizrachi were not cut out for this task, and it was necessary to found Mizrachi Youth for this purpose. This organization was a novelty in Poland, where there was already much spiritual ferment among the youth. Major youth organizations arose in this period, including Hechalutz Hamizrachi (Mizrachi Pioneers), Hashomer Hadati (Religious Guards, or more properly Religious Scouts), Beruria, and surpassing them all, Hapo'el Hamizrachi in Eretz Israel, which served as an absorption center for aliyah in its kibbutzim and other institutions.
With the conquest of Poland by Germany and Austria in World War I, Staszów was found in the zone of Austrian occupation, and its authorities seemed to be interested in energizing Zionist activity. The Mizrachi organization was founded in Warsaw in the winter of 5676 (191516), in the Germanoccupied zone, and this movement slowly grew and started to take root in the cities and towns in the country. Through the Hebrew weekly Hatzefirah (The Siren), which appeared in Warsaw, edited by the preacher and writer Rabbi Yitzchak Nisenbaum, knowledge of the life of Mizrachi started to reach Staszów.
A most important role in Staszów and beyond it was played by the gaon Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart, who was the chief rabbi of the town for about twentyfive years and who gained a reputation as one of the leaders of the generation. He occupied an honored place in the world of rabbis, and Jews turned to him from all corners of Greater Russia with questions, seeking his advice in matters of Torah. He was especially renowned for his unusual memory and sharp mind. In Staszów he became the prime initiator of various rabbinic activities, he was president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Warsaw in 5669 (19089), and from time to time he traveled as an emissary in Poland and Russia to organize the rabbis and the Orthodox. He positioned himself at the center of religious Jewish life without abandoning the study of Torah even for a moment. But with the outbreak of war in 1914, he was taken hostage by the Russian authorities on suspicion of spying on behalf of Polish Jewry for the benefit of the enemies. Even in Russia, where he was sent, Rabbi Graubart was able to establish educational organizations of quality. After spending three and a half years in Russia, he returned to Staszów on 17 Elul 5678 (25 August 1918). He participated in a meeting of Agudas Israel at which they offered him a position in the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah (Council of Great Torah Scholars), but he refused to accept it on account of the Agudah's opposition to Zionism, even to religious Zionism. In one of his letters to an Agudah leader, he expressed the view that it was impossible to agree that all matters of Jews in sacred and profane matters, things that are subject to experience, expertise, and much practical knowledge, should stand under the rule of pious rabbis.
Rabbi Graubart took a leading position in the Mizrachi movement. Prior to then he had been active in the Hovevei Zion movement, as had Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Rabbi Yitzchak Jacob Reines, and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, and there had been a time that he had stood in the same ranks as men like Rabbi Jehiel Michal Pines, Zev Yabetz (his intimate friend), Rabbi Meir Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchak Nisenbaum, and others. He appeared as a speaker in all the conventions and meetings in all the major cities of Poland as well as in Lithuania and Galicia, and he published dozens of articles on the problems of the day. Certain circles proposed selecting him as a representative in the Polish Sejm, and others nominated him for a position as the Rosh Yeshiva of the great Tachkemoni Seminary for training rabbis in Poland, where he would have cooperated with the famous historian Professor Majer Bałaban and the famous gaon Rabbi Chaim Heller.
Rabbi Graubart was a fervent devotee of political Zionism and a sworn admirer of Herzl, and at every opportunity he would sing the praises of his exalted efforts for the welfare of the Jewish people. On the other hand, he considered religious Judaism's lack of action in the Zionist arena to be a calamity, decrying the kind of Orthodoxy that stood at the margins and did little to build the Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel.
Once when he was conversing with Nachum Sokolow about various problems related to Zionism, he complained to him about Zionism's not helping to establish religious settlements, and Sokolow responded, ׁIt is our job to increase the immigration of olim to Eretz Israel, not to discriminate between one Jew and another. If you want to build a religious Eretz Israel, build it! Organize, make aliyah, and build settlements that live by Torah and tradition. Graubart was pained at the sight of religious Jews sitting with their hands folded, while others made aliyah and built the homeland. Once he cried out, Woe to this people that is unaware!
He was a member of the presidium of the second national conference of Mizrachi in Warsaw in Iyar 5679 (spring 1919), a member of its educational committee, in which he lectured on education, proposing a program for educating a generation versed in Torah that would also have general knowledge, a generation in which Torah and humanism would unite in a blended whole. In the closing session of the conference, he gave his speech in Hebrew. He managed the Hebrewlanguage weekly journal Hamizrachi in Warsaw and published articles in it on various topics, some of them scholarly.
In Nisan 5680 (spring 1920), Rabbi Graubart received an official invitation from the Jewish community in Toronto, Canada, to serve them as rabbi of the kolel there. At first he hesitated. But he was forced, for a variety of reasons, to leave Poland. That summer he participated in the World Zionist Congress that was held in London, at which he gave a speech in Hebrew on behalf of the World Mizrachi Organization. He arrived in Toronto on 4 Elul 5680 (18 August 1920).
Mizrachi in Staszów
In Staszów, Mizrachi was the strongest religious organization and exercised considerable influence in the town. It was home not only to those religious Jews who daily prayed May our eyes see Your return to Your city Zion but also maskilim and Hovevei Zion members of the older generation who had fought for Zionism in their day and woven dreams about settling in Eretz Israel.
Notices about Mizrachi and its development in Staszów were published, beginning in 5678 (191718) in various newspapers, starting with Hatzefirah, edited by Rabbi Yitzcham Nisenbaum, and later in the weekly Hamizrachi, an organ of the Mizrachi movement that was published in Warsaw. Afterward, notices were found also in the organ of the Torah VeAvodah movement that appeared in Warsaw under the name Dos Yiddishe Leben. Among these notices, I looked in vain for a notice of the founding of Mizrachi in the town. One thing is clear, however: the Mizrachi organization was founded before the return of Rabbi Graubart, the great religious Zionist, from his Russian exile. But it is likely that there was a connection and reciprocity between them.
The first notice of Mizrachi in Staszów appeared in Hatzefirah (Adar II 5678 / FebruaryMarch 1918), which declared that the Mizrachi organization in Staszów was developing nicely, its membership was increasing, and it had founded a separate prayer house. In addition to its conducting energetic propaganda among the traditionalist circles and collecting respectable sums for JNF, its work was spreading in all areas of public life. Mizrachi organized a Talmud Torah in the city, in which around fifty orphaned children who as yet could not read or write were getting an education. The students were served meals twice a day. The organization conducted a lottery raising about 2,000 marks earmarked for clothing them. In a recent meeting, Benjamin Tochterman, Zev Kopel, Chaim Elbaum, Sh. Eisenberg, Abram Nisenbaum, Eliezer Wajnberg, and Benjamin Graubart were appointed to its executive board. In addition, Pesach Tannenbaum, Jerachmiel Wolbromski, Zvi Wagner, Shalom Feferman, Jacob Kohen, and Leib Feferman were appointed to the subcommittee for administering the soup kitchen.
About three months later, another article appeared in Hatzefirah (12 Sivan 5678 / 23 May 1918), according to which Mizrachi submitted a list of candidates from its members' ranks to the city elections that were soon to take place, expressing the hope that they would all be elected to the council. Concerning Mizrachi itself, the article emphasized that the Mizrachi chapter in the town was increasing daily. The chairman of the election committee was P. Wajnberg. On Lag Ba'Omer, Mizrachi hosted a large celebration in which many of the town's inhabitants participated.
The appearance of speakers who came from outside, especially the preeminent ones, was noticed in the religious Zionist life of the town, even though Rabbi Graubart was considered an outstanding speaker. Thus Staszów seemed to confirm the rule that no man is a prophet in his own city. Rabbi J. J. Rapoport came on behalf of the Warsaw Mizrachi Center; he knew how to attract the public with his words as with magic ropes every time that he appeared. A notice was published in Hatzefirah (10 Tammuz 5678 / 20 June 1918) that Rabbi Rapoport passed through the town, and the speeches that he gave in Staszów were quite effective in propagating the idea of Mizrachi among all parts of the community, especially among the young. Thanks to his recommendations, various Mizrachi committees were set up, for instance for Talmud classes, for publicity and membership, for selling shekels [fundraising], for ancestral inheritance, and for JNF. The guest speaker also visited the Talmud Torah and examined the students, who excelled in their knowledge and in their understanding of what they had learned. A new executive was elected, comprising Benjamin Tochterman, Zev Kopel, Pinchas Wajnberg, Abram Nisenbaum, Josef Reich, Moshe Karpec, and Benjamin Graubart. New committees were also established for providing clothing, shoes, and daily meals to the Talmud Torah students.
After the notices in Hatzefirah, a first notice appeared in the journal Hamizrachi (7 Adar II 5681 / 17 March 1921), saying that Mizrachi awoke from its passive state after a long hiatus in organizing activity and proceeded to pass a series of edicts and decisions appropriate to the needs of the time. In order for the work to be conducted more energetically, they found it necessary to appoint men at the head of the chapter who were devoted heart and soul to the Mizrachi idea. In a general meeting that was held Saturday night, 26 February, a new executive was elected, comprising B. Tochterman, Sh. Ajzenberg, P. Wajnberg, M. Kohan, and Israel Meckier. Among other things, it was decided to collect the dues assessed by the central organization, to raise the funds for Keren Hayesod immediately, and to arrange broad publicity on behalf of the Mizrachi shekel.
The notice published two weeks later in the same newspaper, after the election of the executive in a general meeting, was surprising. It appeared that something irregular had occurred, and as a result a notice appeared (in Hamizrachi 21 Adar II 5681) reporting that after the great freeze that had prevailed in our camp in previous weeks, a ferment was finally awakened in Mizrachi circles and the desire for work grew. In those days, a general meeting was called of all Mizrachi members, and it was decided to proceed immediately to renew our labors and to conduct broad publicity for the Mizrachi idea and to strengthen the Mizrachi Talmud Torah and cheders. The following were elected to the executive: B. Tochterman, president; A. Nisenbaum, vicepresident; Z. Groshaus, treasurer; P. Wajnberg, Sh. Ajzenberg, L. Feferman. The article goes on to tell that they purchased a building for the Talmud Torah for 100,000 marks thanks to the support they received from the Stashovers in America. They took this opportunity to express their great thanks, together with the request that they continue their support in the future as well for the needy from whom Torah will come.
During the year 5680 (191920) there were no articles about the activities of Mizrachi (including its youth) in Staszów, or for that matter from other locales, apparently because of the war that had suddenly broken out between Poland and the Russian Bolsheviks, resulting in the conscription of young Jews into the Polish army. After the disturbances subsided, the youth in Staszów were again able to lend their shoulder to Zionist activity and organizing Mizrachi. As indicated earlier, the published notices about our local chapter resumed in the journal Hamizrachi starting in March 1921 at greater length than before, apparently in compensation for the prolonged silence. One can see from what was published that the Mizrachi chapter renewed its youth like an eagle and continued what it had started. Meanwhile, the organ of publicity had changed.
Another notice came after one more hiatus of over a year and a half (in Hamizrachi, 24 Kislev 5683 / 14 December 1922), reporting that Rabbi Shlomo Gartner had visited the town and stayed several daysand that his lectures in the beit midrash made a powerful impression on the listeners. Thanks to this, a collection of dues was organized, and a respectable sum was collected. In the members' meeting that took place with the participation of the guest rabbi, various decisions were approved, among them: (1) to organize evening classes for members to learn Hebrew and Jewish history; (2) members would be obligated to raise a minimum of 500 marks per month toward organizational dues; and (3) members would be required to subscribe to the weekly journal Hamizrachi.
Another long hiatus followed. The journal Hamizrachi ceased publication, and in its place came the Yiddishlanguage weekly Unser Shtimme (Our Voice) and later Dos Yiddishe Leben (Jewish Life). Only at the beginning of 5688 (7 Cheshvan)that is to say, after a hiatus of about five yearsa notice was published in Unser Shtimme reporting that Abram Zita visited the Mizrachi chapter in Staszów, and a general meeting of members and friends was called in connection with his visit. The president, B. Tochterman, opened the meeting and gave the floor to the guest Zita for a lecture that lasted for three hours. The lecture made a strong impression on the listeners and warmed their hearts to continue their work. The notice was submitted by Israel Meckier.
In the meantime, Mizrachi decided to give the youths more freedom in the matter of organization in line with their own approach and understanding, and this was a positive step for the rapid development of the entire movement. The dynamic forces in the Mizrachi youth movement began to spread and capture the hearts of the religious youth and even to enlist a portion of them in the religious Zionist movement. Branches of Mizrachi Youth, established in nearly all the provinces of Poland, met to organize the youth in schools under the name of Hashomer Hadati [Religious Guard / Religious Scouts] and afterward, after they became stronger and more established, also to establish branches of Hechalutz Hamizrachi [Mizrachi Pioneers], not to mention Beruria, a special organization of religious girls. A strong religious pioneering spirit pulsated in the heart of all these organizations, as well as the readiness to act vigorously for the sake of the people, the land, and the culture of Torah.
The first notice of Hechalutz Hamizrachi in Staszów appeared in Dos Yidishe Leben (15 Ab 5685 / 5 August 1925), reporting that a troop of Hechalutz Hamizrachi numbering twentyfive members was founded on Lag Ba'omer (12 May) by the boys of the beit midrash. Lectures were given on every Sabbath by Mizrachi president Benjamin Tochterman and others, and Hebrew lessons of the troop were conducted in the evenings. The executive of the troop consisted of Asher Szajner, president; Chaim Goldhar, vice president. Sh. D. Apelbaum, secretary; J. Waserman, and E. Baumajl. The group tried to establish a carpentry shop of fifteen members. Overall, the organization developed nicely.
The central activity of Mizrachi in Staszów was strengthening the Mizrachi cheder, of which the members were proud. A celebration by Mizrachi on the occasion of the examination in the Mizrachi cheder was reported in Dos Yidishe Leben for 26 Shevat 5689 (6 February 1929); parents, representatives of the Jewish kehilla, and dignitaries of the town were present. The examiners were the assistant rabbi, J. Gerszt, and the education committee of the cheder. Nearly all the children demonstrated progress in their studies and impressed everyone with their clear and knowledgeable answers to all the questions that were addressed to them. After the examination, the chair of the cheder committee gave a detailed report of the spiritual and financial state of the cheder, and in honor of Tu Bishvat he addressed those gathered with a short and interesting speech on the importance of this day with respect to the goal of turning Eretz Israel again into a land flowing with milk and honey. In the evening, a Tu Bishvat celebration was held, arranged by the students of the Mizrachi cheder. The cheder hall was finely decorated, and the children made several presentations that included lectures, dialogues, and various recitations. Among the rest, the students L. Rajfer, M. Blausztajn, M. Szwarc, and Sh. Frydman were notable. In the end, two members of the education committee, Noach Blausztajn and Sh. Goldfarb, gave lectures full of content. All the presentations of the celebration were given in Hebrew. The celebration made an unforgettable impression on all those present, and afterward J. Kestenberg, a member of the cheder committee, distributed fruits to the children in honor of Tu Bishvat.
After a hiatus of three years, another notice was published reporting that Rabbi Yitzchak Jacob Reines visited in the town. He lectured twice, and his words were received enthusiastically by those in attendance. He also participated in an Oneg Shabbat celebration with a large audience present, contributing to the success of the Mizrachi membership and dues drive. His visit made a strong impression in the town.
When was the Mizrachi youth organization in Staszów organized? There was no notice of the event in the newspapers, and only after some time a notice appeared (in Di Yidishe Shtimme, 1 Nisan 5692 / 7 April 1932) that a general Mizrachi youth meeting had taken place on Saturday night, on 26 March, at which they elected a new executiveN. Blausztajn, president; M. D. Jaskółka, secretary; A. Milgrom, treasurer; and Z. Jaskółka, K. Taubenblat, A. Pomerancblum, and M. Kopel. A protest motion was passed against an atrocity in Kfar Hittim. The executive had already met for intensive activity in organizing classes for Bible, Talmud, Jewish history, the history of Mizrachi, the Land of Israel, geography, and more. The notice was submitted by M. D. Jaskółka.
From additional notices it became clear that in addition to the Mizrachi cheder, in which all the Stashovers took pride, Mizrachi also established Jabneh, a school for girls, which provided another important staple in the local Mizrachi educational offerings. The article in Di Yidishe Shtimme (20 Iyar 5692 / 26 May 1932) reported that a ball was organized in the town by the girls of the Jabneh school on the second intermediate day of Pesach (24 April), and in addition to a variety show, a play in four acts, Moses by Bergman, was staged. The ball was attended by many guests, and the presentations were successfully produced and received with applause by those in attendance. The headmistress, Z. Lajzerowska, and the president, J. Meckier, were thanked for their great assistance in organizing the event.
And finally, the last notice that was published in Di Yidishe Shtimme (2 Ab 5632 / ? August 1932) also concerns the girls' school Jabneh, which on 20 Tammuz put on a flag ceremony in the courtyard of Mizrachi House in the presence of a large assembly. J. Meckier, the president of Jabneh, gave the first part of his opening speech in Hebrew, and the president of Mizrachi, B. Tochtherman, as well as the president of Mizrachi Youth, N. Blausztajn, spoke after him. The headmistress of the school gave the Mizrachi president the honor of removing the veil from the flag. The whole assembly sang [the Zionist hymns] Hatikvah and Techezaknah. The students marched with the new flag to the synagogue, where a memorial service in memory of Dr. Theodor Herzl took place. The event made a great impression in the city. The school examinations took place during the 23rd and 24th of Tammuz, and everyone was enthusiastic about the progress of the students. The headmistress, Z. Lajzerowska, reaped many encomiums for her great labors. The notice was submitted by Z. Jaskółka. This concludes the series of notices about Mizrachi in the said newspapers.
Mizrachi was very active in Staszów and occupied an important place in the Jewish life of the town. Time took its toll. It was a period of a changing of the guard in the Polish Zionist movement. The helm was taken over by masters of broad vision and action, and the Zionist representatives became a mouthpiece of all the demands of Polish Jews, internally and externally. Many actions and activities were undertaken on behalf of Zionism and the organization of the national, political, and cultural life of Polish Jewry. The development of the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement continued apace, and its youth branches were consolidated under the umbrella of the Torah VaAvodah [Torah and Labor] movement, which included Mizrachi Youth, Hechalutz Hamizrachi, Beruria, Hashomer Hadati, and the union of middle and high school students Jabneh. Indeed, these were hard times, times of struggle, conflict, and unceasing inner battles with the [nonZionist] Agudah for hegemony over the religious life of Polish Jewry. In the shtibls of the antiZionist rabbis, all those who had looked and been stricken with the heresy of religious Zionism and had joined Mizrachi or its youth organizations again started to be expelled. And then Mizrachi had begun to set up its special prayer houses in every town and village. This led to the further growth of strength of the Torah VaAvodah movement. Mizrachi in Poland continued on its own path, a path of religious national Judaism, and was not deterred by the hard struggles with its opponents. It maintained its many important positions, reinforced its strongholds, and its influence increased. It emerged from all these struggles stronger than before.
In Staszów, too, the influence of Mizrachi on the local Jewish communal life increased, and its strength was recognized in its representation on the town council, in the kehilla, and in the institutions of the Jewish community. Mizrachi and Mizrachi Youth worked hard to prepare their members for making aliyah, and those who immigrated to Eretz Israel have participated in the determined effort to shape the religious character of the Yishuv and of the State of Israel since its founding.
by Yosef Blusztajn
Translated by Leonard Levin
Jewish Staszów, in whose space dreams and ideas from all colors of the rainbow were raised and clashed and whose proponents, the bearers of the previous, directed all their energy to propagating them in the local collective consciousness, especially among the ranks of the youth, sparked Mizrachi as well to turn an important part of its best activity toward addressing the next generation, the youth, which comprised a fermenting factor, shaping the image and character of the town.
Possessing a certain influence in the area, as a result of its important activities in the organizational, Zionist, cultural, and educational arenas, Mizrachi understood that without capturing the heart of the youth and organizing it in a concrete framework, it would be lacking a certain support, in effect the strongest and most solid support to the maintenance and development of the entire structure in the long term. That being the case, Mizrachi started to exercise its influence in the 1920s and to attract the religious youth in the area to its ranks. Mizrachi Youth was organized, whose members were recruited mainly from the regulars of the beit midrash and the students of the yeshiva. Afterward, when the young organization became sufficiently established to stand on its own, it was its leaders' turn to take the initiative into their hands and to found Hashomer Hadati, whose members came mostly from the Mizrachi school Jabneh.
The members of these groups, who were attracted by the idea of religious Zionism grounded on the firm foundations of a 100generationsold tradition but who were also captivated by the social life of the scouting movement, flocked to its ranks. All of these consolidated voluntarily around the banner of Hashomer Hadati, under whose umbrella they were able to perpetuate and foster the sacred traditional lifestyle, which they regarded as a prerequisite for the existence of the Jewish people and the realization of its vision.
A rich cultural and organizational activity was conducted within the walls of Hashomer Hadati and Mizrachi Youth. With volunteer spirit and enthusiasm, we participated in activities on behalf of the Jewish National Fund [JNF] and realized specific achievements. We had our place, too, in the Lag Ba'omer marches of the local Zionist youth, which always left a strong impression on those who viewed them and all the more on the participants. We invested a lot of energy and demonstrated our ability in setting up the Hashomer Hadati corner of the bazaar for the benefit of JNF, which served as a fitting showcase for the achievements of the local Zionist community. The strong connections with the center helped us in clarifying the path of the movement and its objectives and in fortifying our institutional position.
For those who sought an answer to their problems and strugglespersonal problems and struggles and those of the eternal peoplethe Hashomer Hadati troop served its counselors and scouts alike as a spiritual and moral support, a support that eased the struggle for existence, helped their understanding of the world and of Judaism, provided grounding for our way, the way of combining Torah and Zion, and prepared and forged our spirit for the hard tests of the future.
As a shepherd inspects his flock, so scouts and counselors pass before my spirit's eyes, young girls and boys, some as devoted and loyal friends, others as educators and pathfinders. They all did everything that they could to maintain and advance a movement with its own sense of itself, clearly knowing what lay before it.
Among the counselors were Aaron Milgrom, who fell at the hands of the murderers in Poland after the war, after passing through all seven circles of hell in the camps; Chana Winer, a smart and able young woman, who carried out her task with understanding and faith but who also perished in the holocaust. Among the survivors are Saul Goldhar, who lives with us in Israel; Chana Wajnberg, who lives in America; and the writer of these lines.
When the time came for the kernels that had been sown with labor, devotion, and love to start sprouting and for the first buds to produce their fruitsthe flood came and swept it all away in its polluted torrent. There was nothing left for us but to bewail our dear ones, who had been cut down before their time, and to erect a memorial to their pure souls in this book.
by Elchanan Erlich
Translated by Leonard Levin
With the end of World War I and the reconstitution of Poland, the ideological ferment in Polish Jewry grew by leaps and boundsa ferment whose source and impetus were in the Enlightenment and in the social and national ideas that had been developing on the Jewish street in the previous decades.
The firm, mighty pillars of the traditionthose pillars that had continued to maintain the uniqueness of the Jewish people through the years of exile despite the continual eating away at its material and spiritual existence on the part of the ruling nations among whom they dwelt, and despite the bloodletting of pogroms and persecutionsat long last, those mighty pillars, which had withstood the attacks and challenges for so long, were finally withering. Here and there breaches and deep fissures emerged in the protective wall of tradition that Judaism had fashioned for itself.
The slogan transvaluation of values charmed many with its novelty and motivated large portions of the body of the Jewish people to forsake their ancestral tradition, which had been sanctified for so many generations. As the process of longing after new values and ideals grew, whether socialrevolutionary or nationalistZionist, the alienation from tradition, a fact that in the estimate of the staunch traditionalists endangered the very structure on which the Jewish people's existence was based, grew as well.
All these factors received encouragement and additional strength from the aggravation of the Jewish problem, which in the meantime took on a totally different character and formnamely, the character of marked economic competitionby depriving the Jews of any economic foothold and ignoring the winds of modern times by remaining in the fossilized life patterns of previous generations. The result was not long in coming. The destructive influence of this web of factors caused the beit midrashthe stronghold of the Jewish people, the fountain from which our persecuted brethren drew the strength of spirit to stand up to any enemy or oppressorto be gradually emptied of all its finest youths, the assiduous students who contributed their remaining strength to shore up the shaky pillars of the house and who supplicated in the dust of Torah.
Then new forces appeared on the Jewish street, inspired by the same new winds, whereas the merit of their existence was the striving to find a radical solution to the Jewish problem, which had in the meantime gotten worse daily. These forces became established and took a position after their predecessors, although the majority of the Jewish population still kept faith, in the small towns at any rate, with the Jewish Torah and tradition.
In the light of this hard struggle, in light of the wellfounded worry that in a short while the glowing coal of Judaism would go out altogether, the best minds of traditional Judaism understood that to continue to ignore the new situation would be like abandoning the holy treasure of the tradition to whatever wind might or might not blow its waya fact that would determine the soul of the people.
Once this realization had penetrated people's hearts, a movement of awakening and organization of mighty proportions began in the late 1920s, a movement that encompassed every place where Jews dwelt. This movement of awakening arrived at our town as well. Once it arrived, at the initiative of several people who had a sense of responsibility and anxiety concerning the Jewish religion and its sanctities, the local traditional community became a focused and organized force, fighting and strong. To be sure, this constituency had previously fought valiantly for whatever appeared holy and important in its eyes. But their fight lacked staying powerit was the exclusive possession of an official organization working unceasingly according to preestablished, defined principles.
Indeed, once the local Agudas Israel organization was formed, its initiators and active members showed such talent for action in so many areas that in a few years this organization had turned into one of the central and decisive forces in shaping the image of the town. Many of the economic, political, and educational positions that traditional Judaism had lost on account of the maelstrom of new forces, such as Mizrachi, the Zionists, and others, were retaken. It was amazing to see with what dynamism and youthful verve these people acted, most of whom were getting on in years. This could only be because their devotion and deep faith in their path, the path of unqualified obedience to the dictates of tradition as they had been crystallized throughout the generations, revealed deep and powerful spiritual powers, powers that succeeded in stoppingto a large extentthe process of straying from the source and surrendering to ideas and ways that our ancestors never entertained.
To be sure, the strengthening of the Agudah was helped greatly by many various objective factors: (1) the appearance in those days in Poland of Piłsudski's Sanacja (healing, reconciliation) movement, which enlisted the Agudah as an ally; and (2) the major difficulties that were encountered in the building of the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel, difficulties raised both by the British Mandate authorities and by the Arabs, who vociferously and violently opposed the continuation of the Zionist project. It is nevertheless our obligation to point out that the Agudah in those years demonstrated a properly dynamic and vital approach to Zion. This vitality came to expression not only in practical action, of which we shall speak later, but also in the fighting spirit that marked all its members and actions.
As an example of that fighting spirit, I will relate here an episode that I remember from those times.
One of the Agudah leaders of that time, Rabbi J. L. Orlian, came to our town. He lectured outside the synagogue and also to the Agudah members of the shtibl of the Gerer Hasidim, who included my late father. In the course of his remarks, the lecturer mentioned [Nahum] Sokolow, who was then visiting in Poland, and mocked the Zionist newspapers, which called Sokolow's appearance Exposure. He said that this definition was only appropriate to a minister but not to Sokolow, who was only the president of the World Zionist Organization. (Incidentally, in those days Wincenty Witos, head of the Polish Peasants' Party, was then serving as prime minister.) My older brother Chaim was present at that meeting. He was a welleducated young man and very much accepted in society because of his quiet and friendly temperament. When my brother heard the speaker mocking Sokolow, he could not restrain himself and asked, Doesn't the honored speaker have anything more important to say? The participants immediately shouted insults at him from all sides and chased him out of the shtibl.
This story is an illustration of how the Agudah was characterized by fighting spirit and extreme intolerance from the start of the period of its rise to organized communal activity.
Activities of the Agudah
Daily Page [of Talmud]
The Agudas Israel organization, whose very rise and reason for being were based on their observance and fostering of the sanctities of Judaism as they had been crystallized over the generations and came to iconic expression in the yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania; Agudas Israel, whose primary platform was to solve all the existential problems of the Jewish people, spiritual as well as material, according to the spirit of the Torah and tradition without deviating to the right or left from whatever a veteran scholar might propose; Agudas Israel, which set out in strength and zeal against whatever had the whiff of modernitythis organization, naturally, began its activity, immediately after organizing and mustering its ranks, with the institution of the communal study of Daf Yomi, a daily page of Talmud. The traditional Jew saw the beall and endall of his spiritual world in the pages of the Talmud and its commentatorsto wit, in the Oral Torah, well based and supported in every instance and situation upon the Written Torahin accord with the saying: There is nothing that is not hinted at in the Torah. Through study in communal and in oneonone chevrusa settings, the beit midrash and shtibls were again filled with Godfearing Jews. Incidentallyor not so incidentallythis also solved organizational and other problems connected with the Agudah.
The Beis Yosef Yeshiva
Immediately after its establishment, the Agudah set its eyes on education, the same fundamental institution in whose absence there was no value or future to any communal organization. The local activists of the Agudah, such as Reb Chaim Elbaum, Reb Zvi Goldberg, Reb BenZion Lewowicz, and others, got in touch with the leaders of the Beis Yosef Yeshiva in Ostrowiec and established this institution of religious education, a glory and source of blessing to religious education in the area, in the summer of 5689 (1929). About 7080 students were educated in the yeshiva, and the instruction followed the Musar method of Rabbi Yosef Yozel [Horwitz] of Novardok. The Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Israel Rosenberg, and his lieutenant, Reb Berl Lulow, not only were brilliant scholars but also got along with people; in the words of the rabbinic proverb, they gave pleasure both to the Almighty and to God's creatures. This fact had the most positive influence on the religious youth of the area, and many of them were attracted to the yeshiva and soaked up Torah from them.
Hand in hand with the education of boys, the leaders of the Agudah also did not neglect the education of girls, even though traditionally, in accordance with the interpretation of veshinantam levanekha you shall teach them to your sons, but not to your daughtersit had not been customary to teach Jewish daughters Torah In keeping with another rabbinic maximIt is time to act for the Lord: [one may] violate your Torah the Agudah founded the girls' school Beis Jakob in parallel to the Jabneh school of Mizrachi. In doing so, the Agudah forged an important link in the education of the younger generation in the spirit of Torah and tradition, which was their guiding light.
Economic and Political Positions
The local members of the Agudah concentrated a certain portion of their interests in economic activities. They did not rest content with the great influence they had in the management of the Spółdzielczy [Cooperative] Bank (incidentally, a central member in its management was the late Zvi Goldberg), but they later initiated and founded their own bank, by the name of the Kupiecki [Merchants'] Bank. This new institution, like its predecessor, developed nicely and conducted the most varied banking enterprises. The president of the board of this bank was Reb Mendel Frydman, Reuben Baruch Hercyk served as manager, and Mendel Grinberg was treasurer. All three perished in the Shoah.
In matters of local political influence, too, with respect to the Jewish kehilla, the town council, and the like, the Agudah exercised considerable power. Its members succeeded in exercising noticeable influence among the broadest channels of the local population. It reached the point that, in the last ten years before the outbreak of World War II, the Agudah captured power in the kehilla, and its head was included among the kehilla council members.
Relations to Eretz Israel
During the first years of its existence, the Agudah was a movement that fought against any departure from the traditional lifestyle. This applied to customary religious practice and all the more to principles and new ideas. Among the latter was counted the idea of settlement in Eretz Israel.
The Agudah directed its fury especially at Mizrachi, which dared to force the Messiah's hand and to act in common with all the parties that were taking constructive action for settling the Land of Israel and turning it into a Jewish state. But despite all the Agudah's cleaving to the old and rejection of anything new, the Agudah demonstrated a certain flexibility in this area during the last years of the existence of the Polish Jewish community.
The attempt on the part of an everincreasing open antiSemitism to force Jews out of every possible economic niche and the economic crisis that resulted from it, not to mention the longing for Zion that was deeply ingrained in the heart of every Jew and especially of the young Jews brought up on the values of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, and all the more the natural aspiration to see in Zion a solution to the present problem of the Jewsall these argued for a reversal, and the leaders of the Agudah, perhaps unwillingly and out of necessity, gave their assent. So it happened that, after a number of years of uncompromising war against the proponents of Zionism, such as the various branches of the Zionist Organization and especially Mizrachi, in 1934 (very late in the game!) the Agudah suddenly changed its stripes and announced establishment of a monetary fund on behalf of settlement in Eretz Israel. It was called Keren Hayishuv (Fund for Settlement), in parallel to the Keren Hayesod (Foundation Fund) of the Zionist Organization. At the same time, the Agudah organized pioneer training programs; some of its youths and members attended these programs, and some of them went on to make aliyah.
There were youths and activists of Agudas Israel who organized in separate units, for they recognized the new realities facing Polish Jewry. Some of them pressured the organization to change its direction and to address the question of settlement of the land of Israel proactively. Eventually they succeeded. To be sure, in their senseless battle against Zionism, the Agudah squandered much precious time and energy. This war cost the Jewish people much blood, sweat, and tears in every sense of those words on a scale and scope that Jewish history had not previously known. Certainly, the Agudah displayed absolute blindness and exasperating indifference toward basic solutions to the Jewish problem and toward the historical processes of antiSemitism. The Agudah saw Judaism as an abstract ideal to which it devoted considerable energy, strength, and talent while entirely ignoring the concrete reality of ordinary Jews, who in their struggle for existence encountered everincreasing hatred, hatred that in a few years would bring about the total destruction of Jews and Judaism together in those lands.
We should note in fairness that even the Zionist movement in all its branches, which included recognition of the reality of antiZionism as a central theme in its ideological considerations, also failed to see in advance the abyss that was opening up under our people's feet on account of that torrent of hatred.
There is thus no reason to fulminate against the Agudah or to blame them for not foreseeing the future. On the other hand, it is clear that had the traditionalists not stubbornly opposition Zionism for many years but rather assisted it actively, then the cumulative power of a Zionism supported by the entire Jewish people would have increased by several times the pace of building up and broadening the Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel, and it would then have been possible to save many precious souls from the doom of annihilation.
Here are some of the prominent members of the Agudah in Staszów, including its initiators and active members:
Reb David Teomim (Tauman)a banker, well connected, respected, and a major philanthropist. His house contained the shtibl for the Gerer Hasidim for many years. He was learned and firm in his views. He was one of the first and most important active members of the Agudah.
Reb Motel Frydman (Mottele Meir's)devoted to Torah. He was of the important Gerer Hasidim. He was scrupulous in observance of minor and major matters alike. He was respected in the city and was counted among the finer Jews of the first class.
Reb Chaim Elbauma Jew of benevolent temperament, pleasant to people, of a warm disposition to anyone created in God's image. As a member of the Agudah, he was one of the most active and was counted among its central members in most of its institutions. He was also one of the initiators and founders of the Agudah.
He perished in the holocaust.
Reb Israelke Wajzmana Jewish scholar and a wise man. A prayer leader of the first rank, whose name and voice were famous in the whole area. He was full of worldly experience, and his small talk brought much pleasure.
He perished in the holocaust.
Reb Moshe Blumenfeldthough he was very well connected, being Reb Mendele Herzl's soninlaw and Reb David Teomim's brotherinlaw, he did not put on airs. He was humble, modest, and blended into the woodwork.
He perished in the holocaust.
Reb Itche Mancznika Jewish scholar and enthusiastic Hasid. He was famous as a smart Jew, and whenever a difficult choice had to be made, Reb Itche was the safest address to go to. He was one of the important active members.
He perished in the holocaust.
Reb BenTziyon Lewowiczwas one of the most devoted and enthusiastic members of the Agudah. In his zeal, he knew no compromise. He fought hard with all his family members who were attracted to the new ideas.
He perished in the holocaust.
Reb Ephraim Zingerhad a quick grasp of things and was devoted with every fiber of his being to the Agudah and its institutions. He was its chief representative on the city council and was the last president of the Staszów kehilla. He also served as head of the Judenrat, and he risked his life more than once by standing up to the Germans. He was also the first victim of the Staszów community on the day of its liquidation.
Reb Zvi Goldberga Jewish scholar and also a maskil. He was moderate and had the appearance and manners of a person of culture. He served as president of the kehilla before Reb Ephraim Zinger. He survived the holocaust and arrived in Eretz Israel.
He died in Tel Aviv in the month of Kislev (December) the year of this writing.
Rabbi Gershon Wincygsteran understanding and goodhearted Jew. He led the Musaf service in the shtibl of the Gerer Hasidim and the Agudah.
He perished in the holocaust.
Reb Abram Wiecznika young scholar who came from Szydłów, he was among the active members of the Agudah.
He perished in the holocaust.
Finally, we give some details and names of the Agudas Israel Youth in Staszów:
The organization was founded around 1930.
The founders were Raphael Elbaum, Leibel Wajsfeld, Abramche Rzezak, Chaim Zinger, Majer Rizenberg, Alter Zinger, and Fiszel Nusbaum.
The members of the leadership were: Binem Rosensztok, Majer Rizenberg, Pinchas Guterbaum, Yehezkel Szor, and Judel Krigsztajn.
Reuben Baruch Hercyk was the honorary president. The secretary was Mendel Grinberg. The educator was Abram Pas. There were about sixty members.
The activities included group prayer on Sabbaths and holidays, daily classes in Talmud, and evening classes in Bible. In addition to the activities already mentioned, the members engaged in fundraising for Keren Hayishuv, and some of them participated in pioneering training, including Moshe Wincygster (who perished in the holocaust) and Chaim Zinger (who is alive and made aliyah).
Jakob Rosen was also among the active members of the movement.
NOTE: Long before this article was written, the author went to a number of Stashovers, former members of Agudas Israel and its youth affiliate, both in Israel and in Diaspora, requesting them to write down their memories of this movement in our town. All these requests were in vain. I did, indeed, receive a few details and names from our comrades in Tel Aviv: Mr. Issachar Wiecznik, about the Agudah, as well as from the late Zvi Goldberg, who took down the information from Chaim Zinger (who lives in Bnei Berak) about the Agudah youths, but these did not add up to a complete article.
The lack of an article about this movement, which was one of the central and most active in our town, gave me no rest, and when this book was already in print I decided to make good the deficiency while it was still in my power. By writing what I have written, I did the best I could to describe this movement, its background, activities, and evolution, with all its positive and negative aspects, as impartially as I could. The few critical remarks in this article were not written in order to provoke or blame but to describe a historical reality as it appeared in the eyes of this writer.
p. 170Students and teachers of the Beis Yosef Yeshiva in Staszów. Titles on the photo: (top) High Yeshiva for Talmud and Instruction in Staszów; (bottom) Rabbi Reb I. Rosenberg, Headmaster. Rabbi Reb Ch. Iligman, Advisor. Reb D. Lewowicz.
p. 171Board of the Beis Jakob School. Sitting from right to left: Zvi Goldberg, Chaim Elbaum, Ephraim Zinger, BenTsiyon Lewowicz. Standing: Solomon Aaron Nisenbaum, Reuben Baruch Hercyk, Abram Pas.
p. 172Agudas Israel Youth Organization in Staszów.
by Yaakov Shiloni
Translated from by Lenny Levin
It was at the end of the nineteenth century. The echoes of the French Revolution, which in its time had thrown the whole cultured world into turbulence, had not yet been silenced. The revolutionary slogans of liberty and equality were absorbed slowly into the thinking of the workers' and intellectual classes of the enlightened countries of Western Europe. The working class was not yet organizedbut it arrived at self-consciousness and started to realize its strength. Socialist thought, which came to prominent expression in the Communist Manifesto that had been published at the end of 1848 by Marx and Engels, found an echo in people's hearts, and socialist parties started to organize in the industrial countries of Western Europe. At first these were mainly circles of intellectuals, but masses of workers, whose class consciousness was advancing, quickly started streaming toward them.
In Russia, by contrast, absolutism held unlimited sway. The working class, and similarly the peasant class, were oppressed and deprived of elementary civil rights. Under this regime of poverty and servitude, rage and bitterness accumulated among millions of laboring people. But Russiathe fortress of reaction in Europeput down with a strong hand every attempt at opposition, while continuing to provoke the workers and peasants through material, social, and political deprivation. Only in 1905, with the humiliating defeat of absolutist Russia in its war against Japan, when the rottenness of the regime was made clear to all, along with the worsening of its economic crisis as a result of the war, did the Russian working class dare to appear on the public stage. From then on, the Russian workers' movement underwent various transformations, but the ferment that had been stirred as a result of these events did not go away. On the contrary, it intensified, even as it was forced, by virtue of the regime's harsh repression, to go underground.
Western civilization, which had penetrated through every hole and crevice into Russia and into Poland (which politically was a part of it), encountered special difficulties on the Jewish street, over which the Jewish clerical class (including rabbis and yeshiva heads, as well as the secular officialsParnasim and Gabbaim) had unlimited rule. Aside from the Pale of Settlementthe Russian equivalent of the Ghettowhich had been imposed by the government, the Jews segregated themselves willingly into an internal spiritual ghetto. Aside from the tribulations that were visited on them continuallywhether in the form of pogroms, which were directed against the Jews in order to deflect the rage of the oppressed masses into side channels, or the blood libels, or economic restrictionsthe only matters that aroused the inhabitants of the Jewish shtetl were changes in the appointment of the Rabbi, the Gabbai, the ritual slaughterer, and the like. Despite this double wall, enlightened ideas slowly trickled into the towns within the Jewish Pale and with them, socialist ideas. Even our shtetl, far from the royal highway and the great Jewish centers, encircled externally by Polish cities and villages, and (as it were) hermetically sealed from within, given to the oppression of the Gabbaim, the clerics, and the wealthy citizensdid not withstand the sledgehammers of the time. The new ideas did not pass over it, but at first there were only a few individuals who were swept into the new spiritual streams of the Enlightenment movement.
This movement, bearing the idea of renewal of Jewish life on universal humanistic foundations, found a resting place in the hearts of these pioneers, who saw that the patterns of Jewish life, hardened by the dust of generations, had weighed on them, in all their spiritual, social, and economic degradation. The struggle of these people, who were not to be counted among the Jewish elite, for their material survival amid general poverty, and their dissatisfaction with the patterns of life we have mentionedthis constituted the background for these political movements in the city and, more especially, in the shtetl. It was certainly no accident that the Bund and Zionism appeared around the same time. These two were destined to answer to the various needs of the Jewish public. But the motivation was the same, namely, the despairing situation of the crowded Jewish community in Russia and Poland, which had suffered from the decrees and oppression from the Czarist regime, as well as from spiritual deterioration, which was a result of the internal relations within the ghetto.
The founding of the Bund in Staszów took place in 1905, at the height of the oppressive Czarist regime. How and by whom it was foundedI don't know. Perhaps this is not important. The determining thing is that conditions were ripe for the penetration of new ideas, for the outbreak of the spirit of the time into the realm of the town. This spirit penetrated through cracks and crevices, through desires and longings. Once the Bund was established, organized Zionism penetrated to the town laterthe town shook itself from the dust of generations. The poor started to raise themselves up from the dunghill, and the nameless, lowly ones from a social perspective, arose and were drawn to light and hope. No longer did they look back to the imperial martyrs and the inspiration,that they left behind from the depths of history. New heroes were born on the Jewish street. Hirsch Lekert, the shoemaker, who fired at the general governor of Vilna in 1902 as a protest over the beating of demonstrators, and who went courageously to the gallowsbreathed a new spirit into people's hearts, a spirit of revolutionary, active martyrdom. New songs were heard on the way to the Golejów woods, songs that fired people up and raised their spirits.
This was not yet a solidified party, answering to all the problems of life, to every why and wherefore. It would be correct to say that this was a mass movement of protest. Protest against whom? Against them all! Against the oppressive regime, against humiliation, against decay, against the rich men and the rabbis, against the propertied, against the exploiting factory owners, against superstitionand above all against a bitter fate with no exit.
With respect to the composition of its members, the Bund in Staszów was different from that in the large cities because of the absence of a defined class basis for class struggle, according to the classic definition. This was in essence a lumpenproletariat, which conducted its class war, as it were, against the petty craftsman, who barely eked out his own living. Despite this fact, the members of the Bund had the feeling that their class war combined with that of the working class as a whole and that the regime in the town was just a part of the general regime, which it was necessary to change in its entirety.
As a result of this difference, the discussions over many issuessuch as the differences between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and later the question of national-cultural autonomywere conducted only within a narrow circle, while most of the members were only passive listeners. It was questionable whether they understood the content of these debates. But being there, within this framework, they felt that they were present where history was being made. The hour of the passive members came, too. When it was announced in the major Jewish centers that the time had come for organization in self-defense, a similar organization took place in Staszów. Then came the turn of the butchers and the wagonersthe former ruffiansto give vent to their rage and their clenched fists. Indeed, Staszów never saw real pogroms. The gentile periphery was not strong enough. Nevertheless, occasionally a Jewish lad was beaten up, who dared to go out from the town limits to the suburbs. In such cases, the self-defense units of the Bund showed their strength by restraining drunken soldiers who messed with Jewish travelers.
At first the Bund in Staszów limited itself to spreading socialist propaganda in Yiddish, organizing crafts unions, and political struggle against the Czarist regime. But after some years, the Bund consolidated as a party with a defined political agenda, with national-cultural autonomyand it then began a struggle with other public groups in the town over the shape of its cultural-spiritual life, especially among the youth.
But the principal strength of the Bund was not in its agenda and solution to the Jewish question. Its strength lay in its insistence on breaking down the walls of the ghetto. Its importance was in exorcising the demons and ghosts from the Jewish houses, streets, and synagogues; in the new songs that kindled hearts and breathed new life among the poor and oppressed in the town.
Then 1917 came. News of the October Revolution and the Balfour Declaration came to our town.
The hearts of the youths and the poor of the town were singing with joy. The Bund's activity was renewed with added energy. But there also arose Zionist parties, which added to the tension. With the commingling of the spirits, many imagined that Messianic times, with redemption for all humanity, were taking shape. In the shtibls and besmedresh they took sides and calculated the end of days, finding support in the Zohar and Malbim, whereas in the Bund meeting place they discussed the changing orders of the world and society with the zeal of former yeshiva students and found support. . . in Lenin and Trotsky. Before long, these hopes were shattered. The Revolution was stopped in its tracks, in its very land of origin. It was wallowing in the blood of civil war. The end of the World War and the rebirth of Poland reawakened people's hopes. But disappointment was not long in coming. Anti-Semitism and the Hellerchiks; raised their ugly heads and clipped our wings. Nevertheless, the Bund's activities kept on growing. A youth wing of the movement aroseTsukunft. The occupational unions were reorganized. Cultural activity was conducted within the branch and outside it, in addition to the work for the library and the establishment of theater troupes. The branch was considered one of the largest in the country, and many Bundist leaders visited the town: [Henry] Erlich, Chmurner [Joseph Lestschinsky], [Jacob] Pat, [Bainish] Mikhalevich, [Samuel Mordecai] Zygelbojm, and others. But the campaign against the Bund grew as well. Parties of every stripe looked at Staszów and were enraged at the stands taken by the Bund in their struggle for the souls of the youth and of people generally. The clerics tried their utmost to oppose the Bund's steps through every means at their disposal, even of the disreputable kind: threatening a poor widow who was distributing milk, to undermine her livelihood, by proclaiming a prohibition of milk if she should agree to hold in her house a lecture by Arthur, one of the members of the center. One should note that this scheme failed, thanks to the alertness and strong stance of the leaders of the Bund on the spot.
In the meantime, the policy of open anti-Semitism of the Polish government brought about a worsening of the economic crisis among the Jews. The Polish cooperative movement that was favored by the regime provided stiff competition to the small Jewish merchants, and the economic basis of the Jews tottered. In this situation, a large part of the Bund's active base understood that the solution of cultural autonomy, which the Bund had proclaimed as a radical and comprehensive solution to the Jewish problem, was unsupportable. Without a strong economic infrastructure, there was obviously no place for the superstructure of cultural autonomy. For this reason, many left the party. Some joined the Communists, some emigrated to the United States or to South America, and some tried unsuccessfully to cross the border into Russia. Another portion, especially among the youth, turned to the Zionist parties, especially to Hashomer Hatzair. Things reached the point that at the end, before I moved to the Land of Israel in 1929, the Bund was having difficulty surviving.
On the political path of the Bund during its last years and its stubborn clinging to its solution, Jewish history passed a tragic verdict, symbolized by this memorial book for the Jews of Staszów, who, along with thousands of other Jewish communities, went up in flames with all their constituent strata, including the Bund.
In its struggle against the Nazi beast, in the period of the Holocaust, the Bund wrote some cautionary chapters. It was one of its leaders, Zygelbojm, who tried to awaken the conscience of the world through a dramatic actcommitting suicide at the gate to the English Parliament.
But this fact has no power to cover up the sin that the Bund sinned, in its war against Zionism during the last years of the Polish Diaspora. Were it not for this, it would have been likely that tens of thousands of more Jews, especially of the youth, who believed sincerely in the Bund and its solution, would have found their way to Zion.
by M. Wajnbaum-Fiszof, Hadera
In memory of Golda Goldhar-Winer
Translated from by Lenny Levin
New winds were blowing in the town, universal humanistic ideas, firing the imagination and awakening hopes, that out of mighty confrontations the way to a new world was being carved out, a world that was wholly good, along with uplifting national ideals nourished by roots in the longing of many generations for redemption, ideals that had reached their climax in the mighty spotlight cast by the Balfour Declaration. All these suffused our hearts and awakened a clear expectation of a new reality that was on the way.
In the meantime, amid this heartfelt expectation, faith in the stability of the traditional lifestyle weakened and tottered in the hearts of many. The strength and power of the old spiritual treasures was steadily weakening those treasures that for centuries had served as a solidifying and maintaining factor of the people in Diaspora. The exclusive authority of the sacred books evaporated and was undermined; many no longer saw in them the spiritual nourishment that would answer to the questions of the hour. Many people of good will saw in fact that something entirely different from the old and expected was in the process of happening. They felt the urgent need to forge new spiritual-cultural values to take the place of the old legacy, which had been pushed into the corner and had lost a vital part of its charisma and influential power.
Influenced by these winds of change, and suffused with deep faith in the destiny that the new age had laid upon them, a number of enlightened souls in the town established a library worthy of the name, in order to supply to the youth in the locale the same youth, that was shaking free of the chains of the old, and was thereby released to participate, body and soul, in shaping the new spiritual food, in which would be found, in addition to answers for the questions that were raised by the breaking of the old vessels, also up-to-date informative material concerning all the problems of the hour.
However, in the face of this handful of people, who labored tirelessly without thought of reward, stood a major obstacle, namely, the problem of funding. Indeed, where could they get the considerable amounts necessary to establish a library that would meet the needs of the time?
They sought and found. The shortfall in financial sources would be countered by unyielding devotion to the idea. Indeed, by the power of this devotion these people started to organize evening events and theatrical presentations, whose revenues were dedicated to acquiring books. In short order, appreciable sums were accumulated from these sources, while the number of books in the library grew accordingly, until in the end it turned into the largest and most important collection of books in the town.
As long as the library was small and served a small circle of readers, a small, narrow room in Kołcielna Street sufficed for its needs. But with its development and growth, as a result of the above-mentioned efforts, the circle of readers thirsty for knowledge broadened immeasurably, and it became necessary to move the library to a roomier location on the central market square (the Rynek).
When several of the library's organizers immigrated to the Land of Israel, new workers, possessed of energy and initiative, took up the slack. Among these, we may mention especially Golda Goldhar. Through her great devotion to the institution, the continual improvements that she introduced, and the exemplary order that she maintained all on a volunteer basis Golda made an outstanding contribution to the development and expansion of the library, bringing it forward step by step.
Under Golda's capable leadership, the library arrived at the respectable size of 10,000 volumes, including books of considerable importance and contemporary relevance, in all areas of literature, science and society.
The maintenance of this cultural-educational treasure of such great value was conditional on permission from the authorities. Indeed, more than once serious difficulties and obstructions were encountered in the course of the proper work of the library. The fact that the library served as a primary factor for disseminating enlightenment among the masses of youths and adults this was a thorn in the flesh of the authorities, and they spared no effort to impede our progress through all sorts of decrees over time. One incident out of many will serve as an example.
As we were walking home once from a meeting that lasted until the late hours of the evening, suddenly the policeman Trepko appeared and put us in jail for 24 hours. The next day, after we were freed, we were sternly warned that if the library was not securely locked by 9:00 in the evening, permission for it would be revoked once and for all!
All this notwithstanding, the work we did in the library gave us the greatest pleasure. We were supremely aware that the labor in which we were engaged had a supreme intellectual and educational value for the youth. How great was our joy over every new book that was added to the bookshelves! This realization gave us the spiritual satisfaction, in the face of which all the annoyances that were heaped on our path, from whatever source, were insignificant to us. We passed over them to get on to the main thing, which was continuing the enterprise. When I made aliyah in 1930, the new shift continued with the sacred labor, and persevered in it until the great calamity, when the library with all its principal parties the leaders and readers, all together fell into the abyss!
by Elchanan Erlich
Translated by Leonard Levin
Sensitivity to the suffering of one's fellows was one of the most prominent fundamental traits of the Jews of our town. This sensitivity developed over the generations and became a prominent trademark of every Jewish community as such. The hard conditions of exileliving under foreign rule, which was often hostile and alien to the vital interests of the Jewish populationgenerated and even forced upon this Jewish community, deeply conscious of sharing a common fate, the need to take care of these interests with its own hands. And these interests were many and varied: openly and secretly giving alms to the poor, whose relative number was by no means small in the town; free medical care to those in need of it; material and spiritual aid to the families of the sick, sometimes for days and weeks at a stretch, by caring for the ill member and relieving the burdens on the other members of the family; monetary assistance in the form of interestfree loans, provided by the Gemach Fund; and more.
Staszów was certainly not different in this area from many other towns. I have no basis for drawing these comparisons, but I can remark that a sizable portion of the local Jewish population, whether acting as private individuals or as members of philanthropic institutions established specifically for this purpose, devoted the better part of their energy, time, and especially their heartthat warm Jewish heartto helping their fellows in every way.
A striking expression of the tremendous importance attributed to mutual aid may be illustrated by the sayings of our rabbis concerning one of the primary manifestations of this, namely gemilut chasadim [deeds of lovingkindness]. This commandment is counted among the three basic elements that determine the survival of a society, as the rabbis said, The world stands on three thingson Torah, on divine worship, and on deeds of lovingkindness. Similarly, they said, Great are deeds of lovingkindness, for they bring about reception of the divine presence.
Indeed, in daily life, in the midst of difficult and oppressive economic conditions, many Jews, including the simple folk, demonstrated their heartandsoul devotion to the performance of these mitzvot, investing themselves with their 248 limbs and 365 sinews to perform this sacred service of helping others.
Many of them saw in this task of helping others their primary task and purpose in life, often ignoring not only their own private and family cares but even their own fragile health.
Here is an authentic story that was told to me by Yaffa BrukowErlich (who lives in Israel) about her father Reb Josef Brukow (who perished in the Shoah), who was one of the active members of Linas Tzedek and other local charitable organizations, a story that serves as a striking example of the holy devotion that distinguished Jews throughout the year in their care for the welfare of others. Close to their home on Rytwiańska Street, it happened that a boy was taken ill. When her fatherwho was no longer youngfound out about this, he left his business and ran instantly to the Linas Tzedek house, which was located on the opposite side of the town, on Opatowska Street, in order to bring a bathtub to the boy. This elderly man, whose own health was precarious, was concerned not to lose any time, so he did not arrange for a porter but dragged the heavy bathtub on his own back, without worrying about himself, in order to bring help to the Jewish boy as quickly as possible. It is noteworthy that this incident was not some exception from which one could not draw broader conclusions. Quite the oppositethis personal dedication was characteristic of many Jews who engaged in such matters, acting with no thought of reward but purely out of altruistic motives.
This dedication was characteristic of the members of the Linas Tzedek [Hospice / Paramedical] Society, who included Reb Szmelke Eisenberg, Reb Moshe Kantor, Reb Leibusz FajwelsAspis, Reb Leibel ZilasHorowicz, Reb Anszel Rosenbaum, and Reb Josef Brukow (whom we have mentioned), as well as of this organization's women's auxiliary. All of these exerted themselves with energy and responsibility in fulfilling the mission of the society. This was equally the case with the members and officers of the Shmiras Laylah (Night Watch) Society, headed by Reb Asher Nusbaum and Reb Alter Erlich, as well as the Gemach (Mutual Aid) Society, of which we shall speak later.
The members of the Night Watch Society spared no effort to ease the burdens of families of invalids. They were untiring in their ministrations. If they knew there was a chance that their assistance could alleviate the burden, they called on members and arranged night watches that provided assistance faithfully and reliably for as long as necessary. In discharging their obligations, the members of this group were not deterred by bad weather, and they offered their services to anyone without distinction as to social class. At every place and time, for old or young, for rich or poor, in rain and cold, in snow and sleet, they performed their mission without consideration of ulterior motives or discrimination.
The members of these two societiesLinas Tzedek and Shmiras Laylahhad some compensation for their unflagging and impartial work in the form of two Kiddush celebrations that they jointly arranged on the intermediate Sabbaths of the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot. On those two days of the year, they prayed together in the synagogue, and after the prayers they all gathered in one of the members' houses. A proper Kiddush spread was set out there, accompanied by songs and dances in the spirit of the day. In high spirits, they dispersed to their respective houses, bringing pieces of cake and nuts for their family members as good luck for procreation and other good things.
The third important charity institution in our town, the Gemach (Mutual Aid) Fund, was founded in 1928. Its members included Mendel Frydman, Isaac Tuchman, Mordechai Sonszajn, Solomon Lipszyc, Gabriel Beker, Mendel Goldfarb, Mendel Grynberg, [?] Buchbinder, Leib Mendel Szniper, and Josef Blusztajn. Like their friends in other charity institutions, these men displayed not only good will and devotion to the tasks that they undertook as members of the treasury committee but also remarkable energy and initiative, so that in the end they turned the fund into an important credit union for hundreds of needy Jews.
Jews who fell on bad times and found themselves penniless, or who had other credit sources closed in their faces, or because of hard economic times could not afford the interest customary in ordinary banksall these (and they were not few in our town) turned to the Gemach Fund. When they came, they were received cordially and received their interestfree loans without a fuss; thus many were able to go about their business and maintain themselves with dignity.
To complete the picture, we recall also an important fact deserving of special mention. In addition to these organized communal bodies, dozens of private individuals worked voluntarily and invested of themselves from time to time in this holy work of helping others out of an inner urge without any pressure or connection with these institutions.
We remember well those pairs of upstanding members of the community, men and women alike, who frequently took leave of their private affairs and circulated around the town soliciting for a nice contribution and thus collected a serious sum of money to offer to another respectable Jew who had encountered reverses or was suffering from an illness or some other need. This fine and human picture of Jews circulating in the marketplace and the streets to act on behalf of the welfare of another who in order to maintain his status was ashamed to ask for a handout was a frequent sight in the town and added another hue and interest to its social life.
But there were also a few Jews for whom charity and confidential assistance became their daily regimen and an inseparable part of their being. These Jews always sought out those in needand in the hard economic conditions of the town, there were plenty of theseto whom they offered their assistance on a weekly basis. Among these, little Yossele [Prizand] is especially memorable. Every Wednesday or Thursday this simple, generous soul went on his rounds through the city, collecting contributions for his dependents. On occasion this simple, honest Jew was suspected of deriving private benefit from the public funds, but he maintained his ground. The great mitzvah of giving confidentially and assisting the weak was as great as all the other mitzvot combined, and these slights were not enough to deter him from carrying it out. He maintained this practice his whole life long, regarding this as his mission in life.
Also Malka Chaveles, the mother of Tobias Nisengarten, in whose house the local jail (kaze) was located, would customarily go out from time to time to collect contributions on behalf of the poor prisoners whose families were unable to support them or who had no relative to look after them.
Indeed, the impartial and blessed activity of these charitable institutions, as well as the individuals we have mentioned and those who were not mentioned, continued unceasingly until the outbreak of the war, the same war that brought total destruction and annihilation to these institutions and their members.
We note with sorrow that except for Mordechai Sonsztajn (who lives in Israel), of all the dear people whom we have mentioned in this brief survey and who did so much voluntarily on behalf of their fellow human beings, out of love for and faith in humanity, not a single one is left.
May their memory be for a blessing!
P. 181The board of Linas Hatzedek (Hospice and Paramedical) Society.
P. 182The Women's Auxiliary of Linas Hatzedek (Hospice and Paramedical) Society.
P. 183The board of the Gemach (Gemilus ChasadimMutual Aid) Fund. Sitting from left to right: Mendel Frydman, Isaac Tuchman, Mordechai Sonszajn, Solomon Lipszyc; Gabriel Beker. Standing: Mendel Goldfarb, Mendel Grynberg, [?] Buchbinder, Leib Mendel Sznapir, Josef Blusztajn.
P. 184Jews come to receive loans from the Gemach (Mutual Aid) Fund.
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