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[Pages 75-79 Hebrew] [Pages 223-230 Yiddish]

The workers' movement – Poalei Zion Left

by Moshe Zyger

Translated by Leon Zamosc

Until the second half of the 1920s, neighborly relations between the Polish and Jewish populations were fairly normal in Zychlin. In the 1930s, however, things changed as a result of the strident anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns that were being conducted by the right-wing party National Democracy and by some circles in president's Jozef Pilsudski's coalition. The venom of hatred against the Jews was increasingly felt in the town. Against that context, the Jewish labor movement of Zychlin, which excelled in the intensity of its social activism, stood at the forefront of the struggle for the defense of the cultural and political interests of the Jewish population.

To understand the background of the Jewish workers' movement in Zychlin, we must go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the construction of the railway from Warsaw to Lodz and towards the German border spurred the development of industry throughout western Poland. The effects of industrialization were also felt in Zychlin, which was located at a distance of 25 km from the Pniewo train station. A large foundry was built on Podwal street, and a smaller foundry on Narutowicz (Budzyner) street. Moshe Mendel Wojdeslawski opened his steam-powered flour mill on Pasieka street and two sugar factories were also established oustide the town, one in Dobrzelin and the smaller Kronenberg-Bloch factory in Budzyn. These factories employed dozens and, during the sugar production season, hundreds of workers.

These economic changes stimulated an increase in the number of Jewish merchants and craftsmen. The socks and weaving workshops received orders from traders in Lodz. A large number of people were engaged in the so-called “Jewish crafts”: tailors, shoemakers, seamstresses, makers of hats and caps, tinsmiths, who toiled 12-14 hours a day for a meager income.

The difficult economic and social conditions of the laborers served as a fitting background for the establishment of branches of Jewish socialist parties in Zychlin. The first of them was the Bund, which was founded in 1903 by Yitche Getzel, brother of Pinhas and Avraham Getzel, who later emigrated to the United States. They were joined, among others, by Eliezer Skrobek, brother of Shimon Skrobek.

In 1905, a branch of the Zionist-Socialist party was opened in town by Shimon Skrobek, an excellent orator, and my cousin Moshe Zyger. The Zionist-Socialists, who called themselves S.S. by their Russian initials, favored the idea of Jewish territorial autonomy, but rejected the mainstream Zionist movement idea that the Jewish national home had to be built in Palestine. In Zychlin, the organization existed until the end of 1907. The local shopkeepers referred to them as the “Union Boys” because they called for the unionization of the wage laborers. The Zionist-Socialists conducted an outreach campaign among the workers and fought for improvements in their economic situation. As a result, wages were raised and working hours were cut.

In addition to workers, the Bundists and the Zionist-Socialists also attracted the middle class youth. But their successes were short-lived. After containing the 1905 revolution, the Czarist regime cracked down on the activists, which led to the emigration of the leaders. The Socialists ceased all public activity in Zychlin and the previous achievements of the workers were abolished.

The more progressive youth in town, however, did not put up with the stagnation in public activity. They looked for ways to change the situation and came up with the idea of establishing a Jewish library. To promote the idea, they invited the well-known author Hillel Zeitlin from Warsaw to deliver a Purim lecture on the subject of “Assyria, Jerusalem and Rome”. The speaker was late and the lecture began at ten o'clock in the evening, but the municipal theater hall was filled to capacity and the audience received the lecturer warmly. Eventually, though, the Czsarist authorities refused to grant the license and the goal of establishing the library could not be fulfilled. After Yaakov Zaiderman and my brother Yehoshua returned to the town, they took steps, together with Shlomo Zeiber, Yechiel Bicz and David Skrobek, to revive the idea of opening the library. They requested permission to invite Y. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem to give lectures, but again they encountered many difficulties on the part of the authorities. In the end, the initiative to open the library had to be dropped.

With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, economic life came to a standstill. The two sugar factories stopped working and the flour mill reduced its activity to a minimum. This caused the impoverishment not only of the workers, but also the craftsmen and shopkeepers. The German occupiers, wanting to gain sympathies among the locals, pursued a liberal policy towards the Jewish community.

Under the new political conditions, Yehoshua Zyger, Yaakov Zaiderman and the son-in-law of Moshe Mendel Wojdeslawski finally obtained the official permission to open a library with an adjacent reading room. The new library, which was inaugurated in October 1915, was supported by a circle of youngsters who worked to expand its literary and artistic activities. In 1916, the library staged a musical concert with works of the Jewish composer Mattathias Bensman in the municipal theater hall. It also organized an extensive program of literary evenings inviting lecturers such as Meir Weissenberg, D. Ben-Tzipor and S. Stopnitzki.

The economic conditions in the big cities had worsened as a result of the war. Many people moved to the country towns, where it was easier to get food. Among those who came from Lodz, there were some who went into public work and helped enrich the social and cultural life of the Zychlin Jews. In 1916, the library's management expanded to include, in addition to its founders, David Steinberger (Shamir), Yechiel Bicz, Pinhas Getzel, Gombinski and Yechiel Landshnaider. An organization for gymnastics and sports was also established, attracting dozens of members who trained under the guidance of the Zayde brothers.

There were efforts to reactivate the labor movement too. The temporarily arrivals included the Zolty family, whose son, Wave Zolty, had been a weaving worker in Lodz. He took the initiative to reestablish the branch of the Bund in Zychlin and succeeding in recruiting many workers into the ranks of the party.

In 1914, my cousin Moshe Zyger returned from Switzerland and founded the Zychlin branch of the Poalei Zion party. He reached an agreement with the Bund to cooperate in the establishment of a youth cultural association under the name of Tsukunft (Yiddish for “future”). The association attracted a large number of youngsters, organizing readings from the classics of Yiddish literature twice a week. The readings were accompanied by debates about the content of the works and there were also lectures on various cultural topics. But this idyllic cooperation did not last long. The Bund's pressure to impose their party's ideology on Tsukunft led to conflicts and scandals. Eventually, the German authorities closed the association.

 

The committee of Poalei Zion Left in Zychlin
on the occasion of Moshe Zyger's departure to Palestine

 

The Poalei Zion organization expanded its activities and its influence on the workers increased. In 1917 they brought one of their national leaders from Warsaw, Briskman, who gave a lecture in the library's reading hall about the ideology of Poalei Zion. Motivated by the event, Yaakov Zaiderman, Yehoshua Zyger and Shimon Majdat became activists of the organization. Together with Katz from Kutno, they organized classes to study cultural history and the teachings of Karl Marx and Dov Ber Borochov.

At the time, the Poalei Zion party in Poland split into two factions, left and right. At the founding meeting of Poalei Zion Left, which took place at the end of 1917 in the residence of the Hebrew teacher Maizel, a new committee was elected. It included Moshe Zyger, Yaakov Zeiderman, Yehoshua Zinner, Shimon Majdat and a few others whose names I do not remember. In the summer of 1918, Poalei Zion Left obtained a license from the German occupation government to open an office in the town. They rented a four-room apartment on Pasieka street and their activities were expanded in all areas. They held lectures and evenings of questions and answers on political and cultural issues, with local speakers and outside guests. They also organized a dramatic circle that presented many plays in the town. Other initiatives of Poalei Zion Left included the establishment of a youth department and a trade union that fought for higher wages and shorter working hours for textile and leather workers.

In 1918, immediately following the establishment of the independent state of Poland, we heard about preparations made by anti-Semitic extremists to riot against the Jews of Zychlin. Poalei Zion Left convened a meeting of all the Jewish political organizations in which it was decided to organize a self-defense group. Some small arms were purchased as part of the preparations. However, things did not get to that point, as the supposed threat turned out to be just a rumor.

The Polish Socialist Party conducted extensive activities among the Polish population of the town. As in other cities and towns of Poland, a joint Labor Council of Polish and Jewish workers was established in Zychlin in 1919. In the elections for the Labor Council's committee, Poalei Zion Left won the largest number of representatives from the Jewish population. It should be also mentioned that Poalei Zion Left established a consumer cooperative that only existed for a short time. The managers of the cooperative were Moshe Avraham Shwartzberg, David Schwartz, and Israel Wolf Lemberg.

In the elections for the Polish parliament, Poalei Zion Left received 40% of the votes of the Jewish population. They were represented in the municipal council and also in the Jewish community board until the outbreak of the Second World War.

After the end of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, the emigration of teenagers from the town began, and many of those who had left Zychlin during the war did not return. This caused a temporary reduction in the activity of Poalei Zion Left. Also, there were some activists, led by Shimon Majdat, who abandoned the organization to join the Communists, as well as a second group that moved to Poalei Zion Right. Still, in spite of these defections, Poalei Zion Left remained the most influential Jewish party in Zychlin. The activists who emigrated or went to other parties were replaced by new members who, together with the remaining veteran activists, continued to work in all areas – economic, cultural and political.

Following a Poalei Zion Left initiative, a central office was established for all the trade unions. In 1924, it successfully organized a strike of all Jewish and Polish bakers, which led to an increase in their wages.

During the Polish-Soviet conflict, the Polish government had closed the Bund's cultural center Arbeter Heim (Workers' Home). To fill the gap, Poalei Zion Left established a Society for Evening Classes and organized a sports and gymnastics department that was headed by Moshe Davidovitz until his departure for the United States. The general meeting of the library members decided to attach the library to the Society for Evening Classes. Also at the initiative of Poalei Zion Left, a branch of Poland's Central Organization of Jewish Schools was established in the town. In all these activities there was participation of members of the other Jewish parties, including the Bund, the Folkists and the non-partisans.

When I visited Zychlin in late 1937, I found that the institutions were continuing their work, albeit without much enthusiasm.

In March 1942, the Jews of Zychlin were exterminated by the Nazis in the gas vans of the death camp at Chelmno. The town's Jewish community was wiped off the face of the earth. May its memory stay engraved in our hearts.

[Pages 79-81 Hebrew] [Pages 230-233 Yiddish]

In the name of the common people

by Yehoshua Wojdeslawski

Translated by Leon Zamosc

More than anything else, the livelihood of the Jewish families of Zychlin depended on small-scale commerce and the crafts. The craftsmen, mostly tailors and shoemakers, made their living selling their artisanal products to the urban population, while the retail merchants, who made up the majority of the Jewish population, bought and sold a variety of merchandise in the town and in the surrounding villages. Once a week, on market day in Zychlin, the small merchants would put their goods up for sale and the peasants from the villages would bring in their agricultural produce. It was a day of lively trade between them.

Zychlin had a municipal council of 24 members, including Jews and non-Jews. Given the composition of the town's population (60 percent Jews and 40 percent non-Jews), the Jewish members of the council should have been in the majority, but the Starosta (district governor) artificially reduced the Jewish representation in the municipality by including Christian rural villages from the surrounding area within the town's boundaries.

The Jewish political parties played a very important, active role in public life. There were three active branches of parties in our town: Poalei Zion Yemin, Poalei Zion Left and Agudat Bnai Zion. I do not mention the Socialist Bund, because it did not really have a working branch in Zychlin. In terms of their level of activism, the two Poalei Zion groups were by far the most important parties. Particularly noteworthy was the activity of their representatives in the municipality, where they did much for the town's residents in the area of taxes and the cost of health care and hospitalization, which was a heavy burden on the Jewish population.

The work of a Jewish member in the municipal council was not easy, especially when he represented a party that defended the interests of the common people. Everyday their work of advocacy met with objections and appeals. I, however, did my best to fulfill the promises I had made when I ran for election. Proof of it was the fact that, when I ran again in the next election, the number of votes for my candidacy doubled.

It is especially important to say some words about our work in the Zychlin Jewish community. Before we gained representation in the community committee, its main job was to raise funds for the salaries of the “holy vessels”: the rabbi, the slaughterers, the cantor, etc. When we run for election to the committee, we promised that we would work for a more “modern” community and that we would promote the aliyah to Eretz Israel, giving material support to the Jewish pioneers who lacked financial means to emigrate to Palestine and raising funds for the Keren Kayemet and the Keren Hayesod.

It is praiseworthy that the Jews of Zychlin, who were always sympathetic to the ideals of socialist Zionism, made their contribution to establish its foundations, and massively participated in the lectures that we offered on political and literary subjects. Among the speakers who came to town, I remember the writer and historian Yitzhak Schipper, M. Naishtat, Dov Ber Malkin, Israel Ritov and others, including Avraham Morawski, who gave a lecture on Yiddish theater.

The members of Freiheit, the youth organization of Poalei Zion, were wonderful people in terms of their physical and spiritual development. The movement was active in the professional and cultural field, organizing joint meetings with the youth of the Polish Socialist Party. On May 1st, our youngsters would demonstrate with them on the streets of Zychlin (a daring feat that not even the Bundists of Kutno were ever able to achieve).

 

Members of Freiheit, the youth organization of Poalei Zion in Zychlin

 

It is very painful to think about all those Jews who were active in the socialist Zionist work and were murdered through no fault of their own. They left a huge empty space behind. They cared for the poor Jewish population, they stood at the forefront of the social and public life in Zychlin, they worked for the Keren Kayemet, the Keren Hayesod and other national institutions. In sorrow and pain I remember them and the members of all the other movements with whom I frequently worked in our public activities. Thanks to the Zychliner organization in Tel Aviv, I have been able to recall the memories of those tragic days on various occasions.

Polish Jewry, which was so rich in its creative forces and so accomplished in the fields of literature, science and Zionist activism, no longer exists. An immense human pool of Jews, Zionists and pioneers has disappeared as if it had never existed. The Nazi beast plunged into the heart of Judaism and consistently carried out its murderous plan. First it destroyed the Jewish intelligentsia, the academics, the people in the liberal professions, the public activists, and then the starving masses, which were crushed to submission and led like sheep to the slaughter. It was the end of Polish Jewry and, with it, the end of the Jewish community of Zychlin.

[Pages 81-86 Hebrew] [Pages 234-241 Yiddish]

An active political life - Poalei Zion Right

by Michael Schwartzberg

Translated by Leon Zamosc

As in a kaleidoscope, thirty years of my life in Zychlin pass before my eyes - the years of my childhood and youth before I left the town forever. It is hard to believe that all those Jews, from the youngest to the oldest, were still alive; that all the cultural, political and religious institutions that they created have disappeared from the face of the earth.

Zychlin, like many other country towns, excelled in its public and cultural vitality and in the diversity of its political orientations, which ran the gamut from the religious orthodoxy of Agudat Israel to extreme Communist views. Most of the town's youngsters, however, were inspired by the national spirit and identified themselves as Zionists.

 

My father's house

My father, Yitzhak Ben-Yaakov, had eight children and toiled hard along with the workers that he employed. Still, despite his preoccupations about livelihood concerns, he did everything he could to make sure that his children received a national-religious education. He was also active in public social work and in the Zionist movement. His house was open to all visitors. Many Jews would show up every day to read the newspaper, because not everyone could afford the “luxury” of spending money on a subscription. Two or three times a week, people from all walks of life would gather with us to read the news, chat, and argue about what was going on in the world. In one way or another, the debates always ended up focusing on the same critical issues: Palestine, Zionism and the Bund. Among the regular visitors, I remember Yosef Rozengarten, Yehezkel Crook, and Itche Zeifert. But they were only a few of the many visitors that regularly came to our house.

Even though I was young at the time, I would listen to the conversations and arguments with great interest. My father was very pleased and, seeing that I liked the debates on political issues, he would often take me with him to the Zionist clubhouse. I remember well a particular evening in which my father and I attended a session dedicated to Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state. On the way back home, my father proudly told me that the first Zionist organization in our town had been established as early as 1901.

 

First sorrows

In 1920, while still a yeshiva student, I joined the Zionist movement through the youth ranks of Poalei Zion. In those days, after the revolution in Russia, many of the town's youngsters were fascinated by the new winds blowing from the east of Poland. I, however, under the influence of my father, did not follow the current. I remained in the movement, which brought the Jewish people to a life of freedom in its independent state.

Yaakov Zaiderman introduced me to the youth of Poalei Zion. He was then called “the father of the youngsters.” Sometimes he would have conversations with us about current issues, Jewish literature, and the value that literature for the Zionist movement and socialism. We were organized into different circles, according to our topics of interest.

In August 1920, at the Poalei Zion World Conference that was held in Vienna, the party was divided into “right” and “left”. The Poalei Zion Right movement joined the World Zionist Organization and participated in its congresses. The Poalei Zion Left had opened negotiations with Moscow over their admission to the Third International, but those negotiations ended in failure because they did not want to give up the name Poalei Zion. In our town, as in other places, a fierce propaganda campaign was launched by the two Poalei Zion factions against each other. In Zychlin, the members of the party formally decided to stay with Poalei Zion Left. I should note that the younger activists were not allowed to attend the meeting in which the decision was made.

At that meeting, there were two members who opposed the majority decision: Yaakov Moshe Berman and Pinchas Davidovitz, who began, on their own initiative, a broad advocacy campaign supporting the principles of Poalei Zion Right. This led to the formation of the first nucleus of the Poalei Zion Right youngsters in Zychlin. I participated in that group, which in 1921 also included, in addition to Berman and Davidovitz, other activists like Noah Rozengarten, Bunim Bornstein, Avraham Hodes, Michael Schwartzberg, Moshe Iatzkovski, H.V. Zandberg and Leibl Rozenberg. We had to conduct our work in secret because it was contrary to the official position of the party in the town. At one point, however, Tzeirei Zion gave us some shekels for the Twelfth Zionist Congress, which we began selling in the town. When the party heard about this, we were expelled from its ranks, which left us with no alternative except declaring ourselves as members of the Poalei Zion Right party.

 

Youth organization of Poalei Zion Right in Zychlin

 

That same year we invited A. Sh. Yuris, a well-known Poalei Zion Right activist from Warsaw, to visit us in Zychlin. His lecture was a great success and motivated us to continue working. We were also in contact with the Poalei Zion Right activists in Wloclawek. One of them, Yosef Horn, visited us frequently for long conversations that helped us develop our lines of work in Zychlin.

On that same year, the first Poalei Zion Right conference was held in Warsaw. We sent Y. Zyger as our own delegate to the conference. Since we did not have a place of our own and the Tzeirei Zion organization (which was theoretically aligned with Poalei Zion Left) did not have enough members, they informally allowed us to conduct our activities in their clubhouse, which allowed us to recruit more youngsters for our organization.

 

The unification

In 1923, an official negotiation took place on the unification of Poalei Zion Right and Tzeirei Zion. We already had an ongoing “cooperation” and, since we did not have major ideological differences, we decided to merge and informed our party's central office in Warsaw, which expressed its satisfaction. We were the first to reunify the two Zionist parties (at the national level, the reunification took place in 1924). This step was good for us. It allowed us to grow numerically and attracted experienced activists like Yosef Rozengarten, Yaakov Lemberg, and Yehoshua Wojdeslawski. That same year we were visited by Berl Locker, who was already known as one of the world leaders of our movement. After the lecture, he sat with us until dawn, chatting like friends and offering orientation for the continuation of our work.

 

Election failure and its lessons

Our confrontation with the other parties in the city sharpened in 1924, when we decided to run in the elections to the Zychlin municipal council. Since all of us were below the minimum age that was required to run for office (25 years old), we knew that we could not submit a candidate from within our ranks. So we decided to present the candidacy of Mr. Zafran, who was a supporter of our party. This step surprised the other parties and helped us a bit. In the end, our candidate was not elected, although the difference in votes between him and the winner was small.

We learned the lesson from the election and decided to work harder. The work with the youth was handled by Yaacov Lemberg, whose initiatives and organizational abilities brought an increase in the number of party members. The day-to-day party work was in the hands of Yosef Rozengarten, who did the job with dedication and success until the day of his departure to Palestine in 1925. He was followed by our youth leader Yaacov Lemberg, who also emigrated to Eretz Israel in 1926. After that, the new chairman of our party was Yehoshua Wjodeslawski.

 

Youth committee of the Poalei Zion Right party, on occasion of the departure of Yaakov Ben-Binah (Lemberg) to Palestine

From right: L. Szenowski, Yaakov Moshe Berman and Avraham Hodes (Rozen). Below: P. Zik and Yaakov Ben-Binah (Lemberg)

 

We made steady progress in our work. We became an active force in the Zionist movement and, more generally, in Zychlin's political life. We developed contacts with the local branch of the Polish Socialist Party and they agreed to our proposal to hold a joint demonstration on Workers Day. Our cooperation and the joint demonstrations lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

We approached the next elections to the Zychlin municipal council, which took place in 1928, with more experience in the field of communication. Our candidate was the chairman of the party, Yehoshua Wjodeslawski. The bulk of our struggle was against the activists of Poalei Zion Left, who tried to obstruct and disperse our election rallies. But they did not succeed. Thanks to our door-to-door campaign, our party won its first seat in the municipal council. Wjodeslawski's work as a councilman was of great value. He staunchly defended the interests of the poor Jews in Zychlin.

 

A puzzling event

In 1928, there were two events that, by today's standards, may seem strange to us, but at that time they were important “focal points” in the public debates of the Polish Jews. On that year, the first conference of the League of Workers of Eretz Israel was held in Warsaw. The political parties represented at the conference were Poalei Zion Right, Gordonia, Hashomer Hatzair, Ahdut, and the General Zionists of Yitzhak Gruenbaum. At the opening session, when the chairman of the Tarbut movement M. Gordon presented his greeting in Hebrew, he was booed and jeered by the delegates of Poalei Zion, who demanded that the speaker speak Yiddish. Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who was also the vice-chairman of Tarbut, called them to order, arguing that the League of Workers of Eretz Israel was as important for Tarbut as it was for Poalei Zion. In response, the activists of Poalei Zion angrily left the hall, and they only returned after Mr. Gordon finished delivering his greeting in Hebrew.

The second weird incident took place later in the year at the next conference of the League, which had a special festive atmosphere because it was attended by more than 200 delegates and important visitors like Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi and Yosef Sprinzak as special envoys from Eretz Israel. Emile Vandervelde, a Socialist politician of worldwide-fame (at the time, he was serving as Belgian Foreign Minister and chairman of the Second International) was also present with his wife at the conference's opening session.

After the high-ranking guests left the hall, some of the Poalei Zion delegates made noise, and protested against the hoisting of the blue-and-white flag. Sprinzak tried to convince them of their mistake, but his words were lost in the midst of the commotion. So Yitzhak Ben-Zvi stood up, waited for the clatter to subside, and sharply condemned the protesters, saying that the blue-and-white flag was our national flag, the same flag that was waved and honored at all the events of the World Zionist Organization. He demanded an immediate end to the protests. As Ben-Zvi spoke, a young man waved a red flag and things finally calmed down.

 

The establishment of Hechalutz

Avraham Helmer, the head of Hashomer Hatzair in our region, approached us to launch a joint effort to establish a branch of the Hechalutz youth movement in Zychlin. After a lot of hard work, we were able to convene the founding meeting of the new organization.

Hechalutz was run by a committee chaired by Helmer, who fulfilled his role with great devotion until he emigrated to Eretz Israel. At that point I was chosen to replace him. Over the next few years the movement expanded with the recruitment of many teenagers that were sent for training and preparation for aliyah. Over time, Hechalutz became the largest youth organization in Zychlin.

 

The Hehalutz organization in Zychlin

 

The training

The Poalei Zion organization continued to grow in Zychlin. By 1932, we were able to establish our own training base. We reached an agreement with the Kibbutz Borochov in Lodz and they began sending their groups for training with us. We took care of their accommodation and all their instruction, coaching and preparation for their aliyah and future work in Palestine.

In 1933, Yehoshua Wjodeslawski, the leader of our party and our first representative in the town's municipal council , emigrated to Eretz Israel. Pinhas Davidovitz became chairman of our party. On that same year, our representative Yaakov Moshe Berman won a seat in the elections for the Jewish community committee.

When the British Mandatory authorities drastically reduced the number of immigration visas for Palestine, the few available certificates were reserved for pioneers who had done the training and preparation for aliyah. The advice that we gave to those who wanted to go to Eretz Israel was: “you must go to training and preparation”. With Meir Helmer, we went to training in the town of Kolo during the year 1934. After a few weeks, Meir Helmer decided to take a shortcut: he left the training camp and eventually succeeded in reaching Palestine as an illegal immigrant.

[Pages 87-89 Hebrew] [Pages 241-244 Yiddish]

Founders and activists of the Bnai Zion Association

by Rivka Kanarek

Translated by Leon Zamosc

From my youth, I remember Zychlin as a town with a long Zionist tradition that went back to the days of the Hovevei Zion movement. Already in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were families that had special coin boxes to collect money for Eretz Israel. With great love and affection for Zion, they run fundraising campaigns among the Jewish residents, encouraging them to follow in their footsteps and do the same. Among those families I remember the following: Rozenfeld, Zhukhovski, Farber, Mendel-Meir Rozenbaum, Avraham Katz, Berish Adler, as well as the family of my father and teacher, Mordechai Mendel Adler, their memory is blessed.

By the standards of that period, their activity was so effective that it succeeded in motivating the younger generation, arousing among them a national awakening and a deep disposition to love Eretz Israel and work for it. From the dawn of their youth they harnessed themselves to far-reaching actions, organizing groups for education and culture, and all this despite the fact that the way in which they began to walk was still uncertain.

The youngsters who were first active in the Zionist movement in Zychlin were unique figures. They included Riva Rozenberg, a noble daughter of a Gur Hasid, Pinchas Getzel, Fischel Lesman, Meir Kilbert, Goldbfarb, Aaron Kanarek, Meir Helmer, Bracha Olsztyn and myself (I was known as Altaleh in Zychlin). There were of course others who are not mentioned here.

In 1916 or 1917, these young people founded the Bnai Zion Association in the town. In those days the group did not have a clearly defined ideology and was not affiliated with any political party. Often in the evenings and sometimes early in the morning, the activists consulted among themselves about the activities that the group should undertake. Initially, there was no one to provide guidance to them. External instructors or lecturers could not be invited to come to Zychlin because of the lack of resources. But those limitations did not last long. Help came in the form of a gifted and talented man who elevated the Bnai Zion group to the King's Road - David Steinberger (Shamir).

Here I should also mention the Biderman family of Zychlin. The head of the family, Shmelke, was looking for a groom of all virtues for Tova, his eldest daughter. He indeed succeeded in finding a good boy from an ultra-Orthodox and noble Hasidic family. The young man, David Steinberger, was a Torah scholar, a prodigy who was also proficient in secular studies. During the week he wore a low cape, while on Saturdays and holidays he wore a silk cape and a shtreimel. But it did not take long for David to change his traditional clothing to a modern style. Then he joined the Bnai Zion group and, to our delight, we discovered that we had been blessed with the kind of leader that our group needed. The tasks he undertook on his own were all-encompassing. He gave talks about Zionism and organized evening classes in Hebrew, the Bible, and Jewish history. He was fluent in Hebrew. Within a short time, the Tarbut school, which provided Hebrew instruction, was established in Zychlin under his leadership. The school was affiliated with the nationwide Tarbut organization, which had a central office in Warsaw. The Jewish youth of the town, thirsty for knowledge and education, quickly filled the classes. It should be noted that, until the opening of the Tarbut Hebrew school, there had not been a single school in Zychlin that deserved to bear that name and where Jewish children could receive a decent secular education.

One day we were informed that the Keren Hayesod had established WIZO, a world organization of Zionist women. Their role was to organize fundraisers that were considered especially appropriate for women, such as the Gold Fund campaign, which was mainly about collecting rings and jewels among Jewish women as a contribution to the Keren Hayesod. The headquarters of the organization sent iron rings to the Zionist organizations all over Poland, to give to each woman as a gift in recognition of her donation. Such rings also reached the Bnai Zion in our town.

The Bnai Zion group in Zychlin maintained its unity, and the female members remained as loyal to it as before the founding of WIZO, but they participated vigorously and passionately in the Gold Fund campaign. When we went out in pairs to all the districts of the town to collect donations, the doors of all the Jewish homes were opened to us. We explained the purpose of our mission and got a very favorable response. The campaign was a great success. Not only did the women remove the wedding rings from their fingers, but they also added other gold rings, earrings, necklaces, brooches and watches. Our success became known in many other towns and cities, some much larger than Zychlin. They followed our example and were also successful.

 

Group of students in the Hebrew evening classes, taught by Rivka Kanarek

First row: Lederman, Sara Rubin, R.Kanarek, R. Koren, R. Landshnaider
Second row: unknown, Feiga Kelmer, teacher Rivka Kanarek, Nomi Landshnaider, Koren
Third row: Zelda Klinger, Malka Rubin

 

Sadly, many activists did not fulfill their aspiration to emigrate to Palestine. Before their own aliyah, they felt that they had to stay as long as possible to fulfill the important goal of training other pioneers and assist their emigration to Eretz Israel. So they postponed from one day to the next, fearing that nobody would fill the empty space that they would leave behind.

Nevertheless, some of the Bnai Zion activists did manage to reach Palestine in the mid-1920s, including David Steinberger (Shamir) and his wife Tova, Yehuda Jakubowicz, Meir Helmer, Bracha Olsztyn, Aaron Kanarek, and myself. They got to see that the families they established in Eretz Israel were among the founders and builders of the Jewish state.

The Bnai Zion activists who stayed behind were interrupted in the midst of their blessed activity. They were working with supreme fidelity when calamity descended upon them. The Nazis murdered them, along with our other brothers and sisters, men and women, elders and children.

We will never forget them.

[Pages 90-31 Hebrew] [Pages 244-247 Yiddish]

The committee of the Jewish community

by Yaakov Neufeld (Noi)

Translated by Leon Zamosc

When Poland was part of the Russian Empire, it was customary for the Jewish communities to have overseers. They were typically appointed by only a handful of the town's Jewish residents, but they were generally respected by the members of the community and recognized as the local Jewish leaders by the government. In those times, they were considered omnipotent in the running of all aspects of Jewish religious life, including the synagogues, houses of study, mikvehs and slaughterhouses.

The first open elections for the Jewish community committee took place during the First World War, under the supervision of the German occupation authorities. All the heads of families who paid dues to the Jewish community were qualified to participate in the ballot. In Zychlin there were two lists of candidates: Agudat Israel, which included the followers of the Ger Hasidim; and a coalition of the General Zionists and the religious Zionists of the Mizrahi party. With the support of a majority of the Jewish residents who until then had not been able to participate in the management of community affairs, the Zionist coalition won the election. However, while they were still in the process of getting organized as the new authority of the Jewish community, the withdrawal of the Germans from Poland left them without legal basis.

 

The center of Jewish religious life in Zychlin as depicted in a drawing by W. Reszelbach. Surrounding the square and the water pump, from left to right, the beit hamisdrash, the synagogue, and the mikveh.

 

With the end of the First World War and the restoration of Polish independence, a special department for the affairs of Jewish communities was established at the Ministry of the Interior. The constitution and subsequent legislation defined new rules for the internal governance of the Jewish communities, which had to be based on democratic elections in which the community's committee members would be chosen by all those who paid dues to the community.

The Zionist movements were determined to gain control of the towns' Jewish community committees. In Zychlin, however, the majority of the voters were not members of parties. Instead, they tended to follow and support different personalities. As a result, only one of the members of the committee elected in 1919 was a candidate of a political party - Aharon Oberman, from the Agudat Israel list. The other elected members were Zalman Morgentaler (as chairman), Wolf Dorn (a shoemaker who represented the artisans), Shalom Kilbert, Yitzhak Kelmer, and Michael Kozisovitz. The activist of Hashomer Hatzair Bunim Steinberger (Shamir) was appointed as secretary.

Shalom Kilbert, Yitzhak Kelmer, and Michael Kozisovitz were the most active members of the council, the living spirit of the institution. Kelmer was a tireless promoter of Zionism, fighting to get subsidies from the committee for Keren Kayemet, Keren Hayesod and the Zionist youth organizations. He served as deputy mayor and played important roles in the general development of the town. Kozisovitz had settled in Zychlin because his wife came to work in the town as a dentist. He was very knowledgeable, fully devoted to social work, and interested in the religious affairs of the community.

The town's Jewish religious institutions were concentrated in a large area in the shape of the Hebrew letter Het (ח). On the east side was the beit hamisdrash, on the west side the mikveh, and on the south side the synagogue. In the middle of the square there was a well that was considered the best water source in the town. The synagogue was a spacious building whose foundations reached down into the depths of the earth, with many steps leading down, recalling the biblical verse “From the depths I have called thee.” In a large fenced yard, next to the mikveh, was the building of a poultry slaughterhouse, where the blood used to flow in open canals under poor sanitary conditions. At Kozisovitz's initiative, and with the help of experts from Warsaw, a sewer was installed and a pit was dug to treat the waste according to modern techniques. People were amazed that clean water came out of the pit... Other improvements included a new wooden floor in the synagogue and the renovation of the neglected mikveh with the installation of baths and a roof over the bins.

All this was possible because the religious services and their maintenance were now the responsibility of the community's committee, which collected membership dues from all the Jewish families and operated according to an annual budget that had to be inspected and approved by the Jewish Communities' office of the Polish Ministry of the Interior. In the past, the slaughterers had depended on payments from the butchers and the rabbis had to make a living from several different sources. In the new system everyone received a monthly salary, each according to his position, and all the income from the religious services went into the community's fund.

Next to the office of the community committee operated the Gemilat Hesed fund, which offered interest-free loans to the poorer Jewish craftsmen and small merchants. The capital for this fund was provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and the loans were repaid in weekly installments.

 

Board of the Gemilat Hesed in Zychlin, with visitors from Warsaw and America

 

Needless to say, there was a good dose of friction between the rabbi and the community committee. One example was the dispute over the rabbi's salary. The rabbi's supporters, who were followers of the Ger Hasidim, were worried that there was not enough difference between his salary and the slaughterers' salary. Another example was the committee's decision to open a door on the south wall of the beit hamidrash in order to facilitate the entry and exit of worshipers. Since the adjacent courtyard was shared by the rabbi's apartment, his supporters saw it as trespass and filed an appeal with the authorities. In the end, the appeal was rejected and the community committee was allowed to complete the door's installation.

In the same courtyard, a Talmud Torah was later established for the children of impoverished families.

In 1942, Hitler's henchmen deported all the Jews of the Zychlin ghetto to their deaths at Chelmno extermination camp. Since then, there have been no Jews in the town. This book will serve as a memorial for future generations. May the memory of those who perished be blessed.

[Pages 248-253 Yiddish]

On the religious ways

by Yosef Ben-Yehoshua

Translated by Janie Respitz

Edited by Leon Zamosc

The beit hamidrash

From the outside our beit hamidrash looked very poor, but inside it possessed spiritual content. It was a homey, folksy house of worship, always filled with people praying, the majority common folk from the poor social class such as craftsmen, retailers, butchers, coachmen and village peddlers who held their heads high despite their bent shoulders, and kept their high spirits despite their broken bodies. They were soulful Jews with earnestness and great virtues. For those Jews, the beit hamidrash was the best place to display their spiritualty.

Even before dawn the first “idlers” arrived to recite psalms. The other worshipers showed up as soon as day broke, particularly the coachmen who had to time themselves to avoid missing the morning and evening prayers as they went back and forth between Zychlin and the train station Pniewo.

At dawn the beit hamidrash was opened by Zalmenke the Beadle, a poor Jew who lived in destitution and poverty and waited for Hannukah so he could go from house to house collecting Hannukah gelt (money). He had a side “business” selling beef fat to poor people who used it to season their potato soup or their beans with farfalle. They didn't even dream of a piece of meat. They were happy with a piece of fat.

In that situation of insecurity and constant worry about earning a living, the Jews of our town wanted to warm their souls. They found this when they prayed in the beit hamidrash, recited psalms, read a chapter in the Talmud or listened to a preacher. These common folk received great spiritual pleasure from the most righteous man of their generation, the old dayan Reb Aron Yehuda, a regular at the beit hamidrash. His spot was to the left of the Holy Ark, while the Rabbi stood on the right. He was small in stature, but large in spiritual and religious devotion. He came to the beit hamidrash with a heavy bag with his prayer shawl, which weighed more than him. Jews and gentiles had great respect for Reb Aron Yehuda. He fasted every Monday and Thursday and, on the days when he did eat, he had his meal at lunchtime like a bird, not for enjoyment but to keep himself alive to serve the Master of the Universe.

On the Sabbath in the afternoon after a nap, he studied the weekly Torah portion with the worshippers. During the week he taught and offered explanations on the psalms and other prayers. Even the wealthier Jews would occasionally drop in to the beit hamidrash to study with him.

The sound of prayer and Torah did not stop all day and continued until late at night.

 

The Days of Awe

On the first day of the month of Elul, hearing the sound of the Shofar, a feeling of dread fell upon our brothers, the children of Israel, especially during the days of repentance. Avreymele the Shulklapper would walk with his little hammer in his hand and knock three times on the doors of Jewish homes calling: “Jews, wake up for the prayers of repentance”! During this month the old dayan Reb Aron Yehuda prepared the worshipers to “repent, pray, and give charity”.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after evening prayers, all the worshippers pushed toward the door to wish the Rabbi to be inscribed in the Book of Life. The worshippers brought memorial candles to the afternoon prayers before Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur. The biggest enemies have forgiven one another and wish each other to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Some people returned to those they forgave the day before after the final Neilah prayers and ask for things to remain the same.

The old dayan Reb Aron Yehuda led the morning prayers from the lectern on the High Holidays. Musaf, the supplementary prayers, were always led by Reb Feyvish the Shochet. His voice was weak but, as the worshippers said, his prayers reached all the way to heaven.

 

Sukkot and Simchat Torah

As soon as Yom Kippur was over pious Jews hammered in the first poles of the sukkah. The gentiles brought the branches to cover it.

On Simchat Torah children would come with their parents carrying little flags in their hands decorated with a red apple and a candle stuck inside. Class distinction could be determined by the flags: rich children came with flags made of boards artistically decorated and with printed words. In the centre of the flag there was a Holy Ark with a Torah Scroll. The poor children came with paper flags which were torn by the slightest wind gust. There were such blatant differences between rich and poor… The rich were referred to as “beautiful” Jews.

The following morning when the Torah was read, the scene was the same: much greater honours were bestowed upon the rich while the poor were given three lines to read. All the boys who were preparing for Bar Mitzvah were called up together to recite a blessing.

 

The prayer for rain

This prayer had a different meaning for the poor people. They were afraid of the upcoming winter: they did not have enough coal, wood or potatoes. They lacked warm clothing and shoes for their children. In one word, no livelihood. They sang a folk song in town which characterized the situation:

Summer is quickly departing,
Winter is approaching,
The roof is broken,
The pelt is worn out
And there is no money”.
This song was sung to the same melody as the prayer for rain.

 

Hannukah

The days of Hannukah brought a special joy for the school boys. It was a big deal because they did not have to go to heder at night. They would go to the beit hamidrash for afternoon and evening prayers and lighted Hannukah candles. They shoved their way to the table under the window where the Hannukah menorah stood. They wanted to see it and hear the blessings. After the blessing everyone would break out in song singing Moaz Tsur and then there would be a stampede to parents and family to ask for Hannukah gelt and eat latkes. The boys also loved to play dreidel (spinning top).

 

Purim

There is a folk expression which says “Purim is not a holiday and malaria is not a disease”. However, in reality, particularly in Eretz Israel, Purim is a holiday and malaria “was” a disease. The Jews of our town ran to the beit hamidrash to hear the reading of the Scroll of Esther by the regular Torah reader, Chaimke Melamed the Dumpling. He always mispronounced Queen Esther's name. The Scroll of Esther was also read by women in their homes.

My father of blessed memory was very good at leading prayers and reading Torah. Women would gather in our home to hear him read the Scroll of Esther. When he was done my mother of blessed memory served hamentashen to our guests, who wished my parents to live another year so they could return again to hear my father read the Scroll of Esther.

In the afternoon, a group of boys in disguise, headed by Shaul the Pigeon Catcher and Chaim Leib the Medic's Son, went through town on horseback. The younger boys from the heders, who waited all year to go from house to house and earn a bit of money delivering Purim gifts, would receive a coin in every house.

In the evening, at the Purim feast, Purim players from the beit hamidrash went from house to house performing a Purim play. Their last song was “practical”:

“Hey Mr. Strong as Iron,
Give money, give money,
I must continue on my travels”.
They used to tell a story about a matchmaker who disguised himself as a wealthy prospective groom and announced how much money he earned in one day. It turns out that the day the matchmaker was referring to was Purim and his earnings were due to the delivery of Purim gifts.

 

Passover

On Hannukah they would already begin to prepare for Passover, rendering goose fat for Passover. While cooking, our mothers removed bits of crackling goose skin and give it to the children. These goose fat cracklings also served as seasoning for the potato soup and other dishes. After Purim they began to prepare the potatoes and whitewash the houses. Poor people earned some money for Passover helping the bakers bake matzah. They perforated the matzah. Those who ate matzah made under the strictest kosher supervision made it themselves taking water from the pump and carrying it to the bakers to be exact and ensuring that there would not be the slightest flaw. My father of blessed memory ate this strictly supervised matzah. From one “pot” of flour he baked 24 little matzahs for the entire period of Passover. He only ate matzah balls on the last day of Passover.

Women would begin to cook a week before Passover, placing beets in a keg for the meat borscht. The women who did not do this bought it from Ratze the Borscht Lady. They also made wine from raisins for the four cups. Wealthy Jews brought wine from Lodz or Warsaw for the four cups.

There was a rumour circulating in town that Reb Yitzhak received wine from Rishon Letzion in Eretz Israel. This news made a great impression on the Jews of Zychlin and everyone was jealous of him.

On the Sabbath before Passover (Shabbat Gadol) our rabbi delivered a sermon in the beit hamidrash about keeping strictly kosher.

On Lag Ba'omer school boys went out with bows and arrows. The Zionist youth organized outings outside of town where they enjoyed the fresh air, pitched tents, lit bonfires and cooked their own food. This helped to prepare them for immigration to the Land of Israel.

 

The Holiday of Receiving the Torah

On this holiday we remembered the story when Jews were in the Land of Israel, worked their fields and delivered their first fruits. In our town we symbolically marked this holiday with “glitter”, which we bought from the gentiles and spread around in our houses.

When we read the Book of Ruth we longed for the Land of Israel even more.

 

Tisha B'Av

When we read Lamentations Jews cried over the destruction of the Holy Temple. There was a custom in the beit hamidrash to throw slippers.

 

The yeshiva

There was a yeshiva in the beit hamidrash. The head of the yeshiva was the great scholar and Talmudic genius Reb Reuven Mordechai Skrobek. Not only boys from Zychlin studied in this yeshiva, but boys from other towns as well, especially from Lecyca. They were given room and board in the homes of the wealthier Jews. Sometimes one of these young men would be taken as a groom for the host's daughter. For the young generation the yeshiva was like a university. The boys immersed themselves in the study of Talmud and other holy texts. Occasionally, some of these boys got their hands on secular books such as Shomer's novels (Shomer was the pseudonym of Yiddish author Nahum Meir Schaikewitz), Mendele Mocher Sforim's “The Mare” as well as Zionist pamphlets. By the way, Sholem Asch studied in the Zychlin yeshiva.

* * *

All this was all obliterated by the murderous Hitler gangs, may their names be blotted out. Nothing remains of the Zychlin Jews, no graves and no one to recite the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Let my words serve as a memorial monument for our murdered parents, brothers, sisters and families as well as all of our holy martyrs.

 

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