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[Page 207]

Parties and Organizations

 

[Pages 61-62 Hebrew] [Pages 209-210 Yiddish]

The General Zionists – Bnai Zion Association

by R. Yosef

Translated by Leon Zamosc

After the Hovevei Zion held the Katowice Conference in 1884, the Zionist idea gained traction in the Diaspora, especially among the Jews of Eastern Europe. The General Zionist Organization was the first Zionist political party in Poland and in our own town, where the name of the party's local branch was Bnai Zion Association.

Under the Czarist regime, all political activities were prohibited. Being illegal, the Zionist movement had to function underground. However, with the German occupation of Poland during the First World War, the Zionist activists were able to work openly, launching extensive operations throughout the country.

The founding members of the Bnai Zion Association in Zychlin were Avraham Yitzhak Rozenfeld (first chairman, died in the United States), David Steinberger (Shamir) (first secretary), Aharon Kanarek, Avraham Getzel, Rivka Rozenbaum and the late Berish Adler, who passed away in Israel. Yitzhak Kelmer, Fischel Lesman, Pinchas and Hinda Getzel, Yosef Zislender, Riva Rozenberg, Rivka and Yosef Chelmski and Chava Najdorf, of blessed memory, perished in the Holocaust. Distinguished for their good lives in Israel were also Yehezkel Helmer, Meir Helmer, Altale Kanarek, Bracha Olsztyn and Shoshana Kelmer.

The Balfour Declaration of November 2 1917 had a spectacular impact on the Jews of Zychlin. I remember the solemn assembly at the elementary school on Pasieka street. There was a huge crowd and David Steinberger's speech was impressive. The meeting ended with everybody singing Hatikvah in a tremendous expression of hope.

After the defeat of the Germans and the reestablishment of Poland's independence in 1918, the activities of the Bnai Zion Association led to considerable achievements for the town's residents and the Zionist cause. Particularly important was the effort to organize a Jewish defense for fear of pogroms by the Gentile population, with the possible assistance of the Polish army. All the political parties in our town participated in the defense initiative.

Extensive social and cultural activities were organized by a club that functioned in the house of Moshe Mendel Wojdeslawski on Pasieka street, and later in the house of Icze Opatowski on Market street. There were balls and celebrations for the national holidays. The holiday festivals and the plays of the dramatic circle gained a reputation, attracting people from all the other towns in the region to the performances in Zychlin. The main force behind all of that was the great teacher and Zionist activist David Steinberger, who took the initiative for the activities and had a decisive role in their implementation.

It is worthwhile to mention the activities of the Bnai Zion Association, which distributed the Zionist shekel and raised funds for Keren Hayesod, Keren Kayemet, and the Jewish National Fund. The association held a special fundraiser for the benefit of Jewish academics in Poland and it also distributed the weekly Hebrew newspaper HaTzfira in Zychlin. All these efforts were led by the devoted Zionist activist Yitzhak Kelmer.

A special chapter was the struggle for control of the Jewish community. In 1908, there had been a succession conflict following the death of Rabbi Itche Meir Zachil. On that occasion, the orthodox Jews of Agudat Israel had managed to beat back a challenge of the Zionists, crowning Rabbi Mordechai Alter, a Ger Hasid, as the new rabbi of Zychlin.

But in the first community elections that were held after the First World War, the General Zionists beat Agudat Israel by a decisive majority. Avraham Yitzhak Rozenfeld and David Steinberger, the leaders of the Bnai Zion Association, were elected as chairman and secretary of the Zychlin Jewish community.

In the 1920s, the rifts that took place in the Polish Zionist movement also affected the General Zionists in Zychlin. The majority tended to support the Al-HaMishmar faction, which had been founded by Yitzhak Gruenbaum.

The General Zionists did not invest the efforts that were required to make sure that the youth would stay within their organization and take responsibility for its further development. The result was that the youth, for the most part, left the Bnai Zion Association and joined the more radical organization Tzeirei Zion.

[Pages 63-65 Hebrew] [Pages 211-213 Yiddish]

The Turen Farein sports association

by Y. Gil

Translated by Leon Zamosc

Among the refugees who came to Zychlin at the outbreak of the First World War was Gombinski. He had been an active athlete in the Turen Farein movement in Lodz and was determined to establish a branch of that sports organization in Zychlin.

To accomplish this task, he called for a meeting that was attended by people from all the movements and political parties. Attended the meeting. David Steinberger (Shamir), Meir Helmer, Yehoshua Zyger, Getzel, Zaiderman, Ettinger, Bielawski, and the author of these lines. Gombinski lectured on the program under the slogan “A healthy mind in a healthy body”, and the participants responded enthusiastically to the idea of establishing a sports organization in the town. I was chosen as secretary and all those who were present undertook to obtain the first necessary financial means.

Not long after, we received a license from the German occupation authorities allowing us to establish the Turen Farein branch under the name Association of Jewish Athletes and Gymnasts in Zychlin. We invited Mr. Zaida, a sports teacher from Lodz and purchased the necessary equipments. We leased an open lot on Podwal street, which used to be a lumberyard and was surrounded by a fence.

 

The Jewish Turen Farein association in Zychlin, 1917

 

The registration of members for the Turen Farein sports association aroused great interest in the town. Soon more than a hundred members of all movements were recruited - active athletes and fans. The activists were divided into groups, and a special youth department was established. In the summer we exercised on the field and in the winter in the town hall. The official uniform was: white trousers, a white shirt and a white hat with a blue stripe around it. The flag was blue and white with the gold emblem of the Turen Farein association. At the beginning, the teacher used German terminology. After much debate, it was decided to use Hebrew terminology in the performances and German in the exercises.

 

Turen Farein 1919 membership card of Yitzhak Rozenberg.
On top of the card, the slogan of the organization:
A healthy spirit in a healthy body.

 

The first general meeting of the Sports Association was held in early 1917. The following people were elected as members of the committee: Gombinski, Ettinger, Steinberger, Bol, Bielawski, Getzel, Chlawny, Zaiderman, Rozenkopf, Meir Helmer and me. The functions of the committee were assigned as follows: Gombinski as chairman, Ettinger as treasurer, and me as secretary. The meetings were held in the hall of the general library.

 

The Turen Farein sports association's committee with the first group of gymnasts, on the occasion of chairman Gombinski's departure from Zychlin

Standing from right: Leibush (Aryeh) Olsztyn, Noah Zyger, Pantzer, H. Kelmer, M. Schwartzberg, W. Reszelbach
Seating from right: Moshe Davidovitz, A. Davidovitz, W. Bielawski, Gombinski, Y. Lemberg, Aaron Lemberg, Zyger. Below: Meir Rozenberg, Yitzhak Rozenberg, Gleider

 

During the first year of the association, a sports show was held in the yard of the Wideslawski flour mill, arousing an enthusiastic response from the spectators. The participants were athletes from Kutno, Gombin and Gostynin. In the second year there was another impressive performance: there was a festive atmosphere in the town and the sounds of the Kutno orchestra accompanied the athletes as they marched to the sports field. David Steinberger opened the celebration and welcomed the guests. The first group performed exercises with the help of sports equipment, the guests performed some other exercises, and then there was a show of mass gymnastics. Acrobatic human pyramid formations were finally presented to the sound of the orchestra, with the spectators holding their breath in trepidation. The Sports Association become the general athletics organization for the Jewish youth of Zychlin. It also made appearances in sports festivals and tournaments that were held in the neighboring towns.

The third and final sports festival took place in 1918. There was a larger number of athletes and the performances included really difficult exercises. This time, a youth group also participated in the shows. Later on the same year 1918, the association held its second general meeting, electing a new committee that included Bol, Bielawski, Aaron Lemberg, Yehoshua Zyger, A. Schwartzberg, Reszelbach, Noah Zyger, Leybush Olsztyn, Moshe Davidovitz and me. No one was elected from the Bnai Zion Association because they only had a few members in the Turen Farein association.

At the end of that year Poland regained its independence and by the beginning of 1919 it issued an order for general conscription into the Polish army. A large part of the youth was drafted into the army and many others left Zychlin. By the summer, the heyday of the Sports Association was over.

In 1922, the activists of Poalei Zion made an attempt to resume the association's activities under the leadership of Moshe Davidovitz. A soccer team was established, but it did not last long. In 1924, the group of Poalei Zion Right organized another soccer team that also dispersed after a short time,

 

Soccer team of the Turen Farein association in Zychlin

 

In 1927, Poalei Zion Right, together with Hashomer Hatzair, renewed the activities of the Turen Farein sports association under the leadership of Hirsch Kelmer. They organized a soccer team called Hapoel, with Yosef Gostynski as captain. The team played in competitions with the local Polish team and with Jewish and Polish teams in the nearby towns. On Saturday evenings, ballrooms were held in the sports hall.

The association was active until the outbreak of the Second World War. The arrival of the German Nazis marked the end of the Turen Farein association and all the other social activities of the Jewish community in the town.

[Pages 67-75 Hebrew] [Pages 214-222 Yiddish]

Hashomer Hatzair in Zychlin

by Bunim Steinberger (Shamir)

Translated by Leon Zamosc

The first group of scouts, from which Hashomer Hatzair would later grow, was founded in Zychlin in 1917 by Avraham Toroncyk, a student from Lodz, who came to the town during the First World War and stayed with us for several years.

In those days there was unemployment and shortage of foodstuffs in the large cities. Many people returned to the small towns, where at least a modest subsistence was possible thanks to the food supplies provided by the peasants from neighboring villages.

Zychlin was one of those “happy” small towns where life was relatively normal. During that war, it received many temporary residents, who came from the “big world” to stay with their relatives during the economic crisis. Among them were educated young people who made a considerable contribution to the enrichment of the town's public and spiritual life. One of them was the student Toroncyk, who was hosted by members of his family. He was the one who brought the idea of initiating a youth movement to the town and, thanks to his initiatives, branches of Jewish scouts organizations were established in Zychlin and in neighboring Kutno.

It was a time of great anticipation and expectation. After the Balfour Declaration, which heralded a new era in the life of our people, and after the October Revolution, which seemed to offer a new direction to the development of all mankind, there were hopes that a large immigration from the Diaspora would lead to the rapid construction of the new Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel. It seemed that we were on the threshold of a new period in history, that the First World War would be the last war and that, from then on, humanity would take decisive steps to abolish exploitation, oppression and discrimination and establish a society founded on equality, justice and freedom.

Poland, which had gained its independence after years of enslavement, was experiencing a wave of rising anti-Semitism. There were pogroms and the beards of the Jews were being ripped off in the open air, on trains and in public squares, in cities and towns.

This was the background for the development of the Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, which was inspired by the Hashomer organization that had been established by young pioneers in Palestine. The Hashomer youth fulfilled the sacred role of protecting the new Jewish settlements from harassment and were ready for any sacrifices to achieve that goal. From its earliest days, and as it matured over the years, the Hashomer Hatzair movement served as a creative home for idealistic, dreamy and warrior youngsters who carried in their hearts a deep longing for the national and social liberation of the Jews in their homeland.

In those days, the Jewish community of Zychlin numbered 600 families with approximately 3,000 souls. Like the vast majority of the Jews in Poland, most of them lived a life of deprivation. It was a period of great awakening leading to the development of a turbulent public life among the Polish Jews. A vibrant, ramified public life flourished among those 600 Jewish families in Zychlin. Branches of all the parties and organizations that existed on the Jewish street operated in the town, including the General Zionists, the right and left-wing factions of Poalei Zion, Agudat Israel, Mizrachi, the Bund, Hechalutz, and even a small cell of the Folkist party. A Hebrew school was established and evening Hebrew classes for adults were organized. Libraries were opened, a gymnastics association was founded, and a dramatic circle routinely performed a variety of plays. Balls, lectures and roundtables were held. Despite the material scarcity, the town had a rich civic and cultural life.

This was the background of the founding and operation of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in town. I will mention the members of the first group of scouts that provided the basis for the subsequent establishment of the Zychlin branch of Hashomer Hatzair. That group included seven members: Yaakov Lemberg (the leader), Yaakov Zhukhovski. Avraham Zhukhovski, Eliyahu Rozenfeld, Avraham Wrontzberg, Aaron Kanarek and Kalman Kizelsztein. When he arrived in Palestine, Avraham Zhukhovski joined a kibbutz of Hashomer Hatzair and to this day he continues as part of the movement. The other members of the group left to Palestine as they grew up and followed different individual paths. That first group served as a kind of match that lit the flame.

 

The first group of scouts in Zychlin, 1917

From right: Avraham Zhukhovski, Aaron Kanarek, Avraham Wrontzberg, Kalman Kizelsztein, Yaakov Zhukhovski, Eliyahu Rosenfeld, Yaakov Lemberg (leader)

 

I should also mention that when the Hashomer Hatzair branch was established, it had the patronage of a group of veteran Zionists who monitored its activities and took care of its needs. The group included David Steinberger (Shamir), Avraham Rozenfeld and Meir Helmer.

The youth that huddled in the small clubhouse of Hashomer Hatzair at the time did not have external temptations. What they had was a rich and meaningful inner life. In those two rooms they spent a couple of hours a day. The rest of the time they were busy in other ordinary activities. And yet, that couple of hours became the center of their lives. Outwardly, it may have seemed like a children's game, but the game was serious: they were part of a movement and they had a goal.

Today the youth seems to have an aversion to social movements and pre-determined patterns. The deep desire is not to identify too much with a trend and to maintain full individual freedom. But the fact is that the Hashomer Hatzair “trend” and its stubborn concentration around a conscious goal forged the character, refined the mind, and trained the youngsters for the task of building a country and establishing a new society. It prepared them for self-fulfillment, pioneering, aliyah, and life in the kibbutz. It was a bright light shining in the darkness of an oppressive reality of Jewish poverty and anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism was a weighty factor in shaping the Jewish youth's national consciousness and the aspiration to a homeland of their own, where they would be able to live a fully independent national life, free from harassment and persecution. Life in Zychlin, where Jews made up about a third of the population, was rife with numerous anti-Semitic manifestations. Every gathering of Jewish children, every meeting of Jewish youth could trigger a bout of stone-throwing by Polish boys, with the encouragement and blessing of their parents and most of the older Polish population. When we organized our activities it was necessary to take into account the threat of such attacks. More than once they would organize in gangs and stalk our boys and girls when they were out for walks, with the malicious intent of striking at the Jews and preventing them from spending time together in nature, which would apparently preserve the “purity” of the Polish countryside.

From the very beginning, Hashomer Hatzair had to take vigorous steps to deal with harassment and protect its members, especially the youngest who were children below the age of ten. Self-defense, the need for constant vigilance, and the perpetual confrontation with Polish anti-Semitism became an integral part of the movement's operation. They forged the spirit and character of our youngsters and taught them to stand up for themselves in front of hostile foes that sometimes were stronger than them. Indeed, we never suspended our excursions, games and activities for fear of the threats. We were always prepared to defend our right to exist and our freedom of movement. When necessary, we were also ready to return blows in that hair-raising war.

In accordance with the tradition of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, our work focused on scouting, the cultivation of a “healthy body” culture, and an extensive array of activities designed to foster the intellectual, educational and ideological development of our young people. Scoutism had the effect of straightening the bent backs of the Jewish youth and taking them out of the confined walls of life in exile. It brought them into the bosom of nature, strengthened their muscles, developed their orientation in the field, and increased their agility and resistance to difficulties. Therefore, a substantial part of the activities of our educational units consisted of order exercises, gymnastics, camping, scout games and trips. Every summer, our groups would spend about two weeks in scouting camps that were organized on a regional level, with participation of hundreds of young people from all the shtetls in the area.

In Zychlin, we carried out our scouting activities in what we called the “Hashomer field”. It was an open pasture area that stretched along the side of Pasieka road outside the town. Our groups, companies, and battalions would gather there on Saturday mornings and sometimes on weekday evenings, spending hours in various scouting and sporting activities. The battles with the Polish boys were often fought there, as they tried to attack the guards that we posted around the field.

Our main efforts, however, were invested in enriching the intellectual, educational and ideological capabilities of the youth. There was no high school in Zychlin, the only school for post-primary study was the Commercial School, which offered the equivalent of a sixth-grade secondary education. The number of Jewish students in this school was small - only a few members of Hashomer Hatzair received their education there. Therefore, among other things, our movement had to serve as a substitute for school, in order to fill as far as possible the gaps of our members' education in the areas of general and Jewish knowledge. The majority of our instructors did not have a high school education either. What they knew they had learned on their own, as self-educated people, taking advantage of every free hour of the day and night for reading and study. They had to deal with books that, due to a lack of thorough education, were not easy for them to digest. Nonetheless, they did important educational work with their groups and, in the process of preparing for lectures and conversations on various topics, they expanded their own education. What they acquired for themselves and then passed on to the boys and girls in their groups, came from their hearts. This is how our young people learned about general and Jewish history, literature, biology, economics, social and political history, psychology, the Jewish national question, anti-Semitism, and other things. This is how they acquired the foundations for articulating a worldview of their own. They did not obtain a formal high school education, but they overcame their intellectual poverty and became enlightened people, seeking their way through society and the world through their own tireless mental and spiritual effort.

 

Group of Hashomer Hatzair in the 1920s

From right: R. Landshnaider, Kalski, Kanarek, Zylberberg, M. Olsztyn, N. Landshnaider, Tzvi Lemberg (instructor)

 

A lot of time was devoted to the Hebrew language, the Bible, and Hebrew literature. Some of the older groups were even able to switch from Yiddish and conduct all their activities using the Hebrew language. Equally important was the effort to educate our members about Eretz Israel. The older instructors, who were familiar with the Hebrew language, did their best to gain as much knowledge as possible about what was happening in Palestine, the struggles of the working class, the experiments being conducted by the kibbutz movement in general, and the views in the kibbutzim that belonged to Hashomer Hatzair in particular. They regularly read “Davar”, the newspaper of the Jewish workers in Palestine, and the magazines “Ketuvim” and “Torim”, which reflected trends in the young Hebrew literature produced in Eretz Israel. Any new book, in fiction or poetry, that came from Palestine, and especially those that discussed the realities of life in the country, would serve as a topic for conversation and exchange of views. The songs that were popular in Eretz Israel were sung at our assemblies, talks and parties. They were brought to us from the summer camps and from meetings with delegates or visitors from Palestine. Thus, Hashomer Hatzair was like an enclave of Eretz Israel in the midst of the gray reality of our life in exile. The atmosphere was “Palestine” in every way. “There” was more important than “here.” Our life “here” was considered a temporary life, the whole purpose of which was to prepare the young for their future lives “there”.

At this point it is worth mentioning the dedicated action of the members of Hashomer Hatzair on behalf of the Keren Kayemet. They were always on the first line of every effort to raise funds, participating in “Flower Day” festivals, “Blue Box” campaigns, and in the organization of banquets and lotteries whose proceeds went to the Keren Kayemet.

 

The “Revival Company” of Hashomer Hatzair in Zychlin

 

The heyday of the Zychlin branch of Hashomer Hatzair was the period between the end of the First World War and the mid-1930s. During that period we did not have competitors – we were the only branch of a Zionist youth movement in the town. Our educational units were full and the size of the organization depended solely on the number of available instructors. As stated, back then we had about one hundred and twenty members, sometimes we had even more. We were considered one of the best and most active branches in the region, and in the years 1927-1928 we were given responsibility for managing the regional office of Hashomer Hatzair for the entire area of Kutno-Wloclawek. I had the honor of serving as regional secretary during that period.

In the late 1920s, when the leadership of Hashomer Hatzair made final decisions about the duty of individual self-fulfillment and about the pioneering and kibbutz-oriented character of the movement, our older comrades began to go out for aliyah training. Among them, the first to emigrate to Palestine were members of the Olsztyn family - Meir, Miriam and Sarah, who, together with their entire family, settled in Jerusalem. They were followed by Chaya Kelmer, Chaya Tuszynski, Hanna Zyger and Malka Rubin.

With the British Mandatory government's reduction in the number of immigrant visas, the movement sought and found indirect ways of reaching Palestine. That was the case, in early 1932, of a group that included Avraham Helmer, Zelda Klinger, Feiga Kelmer, Yehuda Zyger and Bunim Steinberger (Shamir). They got tourist visas for a visit to Palestine on the occasion of the first Maccabiah Games that were held in Tel Aviv. Once they were there, they stayed in the country as illegal immigrants. Rivka Kanarek, Pinchas Kanarek and Hannah Feldman also managed to reach Palestine in the early 1930s.

With the aliyah of those who for many years had been running the organization, there was a generational change in the movement. The younger cohort took over the reins and continued the activities. Thus, in accordance with the tradition of Hashomer Hatzair, the chain of activism continued and one generation passed on to another generation the educational and ideological legacy of the movement. In time, the members of the younger cohort also began to go for training and the aliyah continued, despite the fact that, due to the British growing restrictions to immigration, the drizzle was thin and only a few members were able to break the siege. Two of them were Chava Rubin (Shamir) and Eliezer Kanarek, who arrived in 1934-35.

According to the comrades who stayed longer in Zychlin, Hashomer Hatzair declined rapidly during the second half of the 1930s. The reasons were both objective and subjective. The effects of the world economic crisis caught up with the town, impoverishing people and reducing the chances of employment. Jewish youths rambled around, without jobs and without prospects. Because of the barriers to immigration into Palestine, thousands of pioneers were bottled up in the preparation for aliyah, sitting in training camps for years. Many began to despair, hopelessly returning to their cities and towns. Those who returned to Zychlin no longer had the option to stay within the organization and they left it. In general, young people were less likely to go to training under these conditions. The movement, which was built on the duty of self-fulfillment, training and aliyah, was halted in its development. There was no anvil for the hammer.

The general atmosphere changed and there were profound changes among the youth. With the unopposed rise of Hitler to power, the suppression of the forces of revolution in Spain, and the political trials in the Soviet Union, the bright hopes of the 1920s vanished. The cloud of uncertainty replaced the clear perspective of the paved road. These conditions severely affected the members of Hashomer Hatzair. As the Second World War and the Shoah approached, the number of members and the level of instruction went sharply down, despite the efforts of the activists who were in charge. That group included Israel Lenchinski (who managed to flee to the Soviet Union during the war), Yechiel Zyger, Grunam Opatowski, Hannah Liebfreund and Rivkah Borowski.

It is difficult to obtain verified details about what happened in Zychlin during the Shoah. Very few people remain alive and some of them are outside Israel. The information we have is that the social activities in the town came to an end with the outbreak of the war and the occupation by Hitler's armies. There were furtive meetings of Jews, but there was no organized public life. Among the people who had been active in Hashomer Hatzair, we know that Fela Michalska, Belchia Cohen and Melah Rubin were involved in assisting the sick and the needy.

In 1940, the Jews were confined into a ghetto. The Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1942, sending all the remaining Zychlin Jews to their deaths at Chelmno extermination camp.

Thus came to an end the existence of the Jewish community of Zychlin, with its material poverty and the richness of its inner life. As in other Jewish communities, its younger generations had been involved in a revival movement that was interrupted by the annihilation – a movement whose members did their best to contribute to the gathering and rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland.

We carry in our hearts the memory of our shtetl and of our ancestors' efforts to sustain their communal life for hundreds of years despite persecution, suffering and destitution. It encourages us to continue our struggle for the full liberation of our people in the restored national state of the Jews.

 

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