Translated by Debbie Nathan In the decade before World War II, a rich townsman named Mr. Avrom Ziskind and some of his partners bought the so-called Black Forest. The forest near Zyrardow that was on the Skierniewice side was called the Skierniewice Forest. The Warsaw side was called the Black Forest because the trees there were so thick. Mr. Ziskind built the Miedzyborow train station in the middle of the forest, about a mile and a half from town. About ten vacation villas were erected there, and during the summer many people came from the Warsaw area and from even farther away. These visitors to the piney Black Forest (many of them Jews) revitalized our city and connected us to the outside world.
Incidentally, a few years later a tragedy happened that shook the entire city and its environs. The same Avrom Ziskind who built the new railroad station was killed there when he was run down one foggy morning by an express train. This event made a strong impression, since Avrom Ziskind was very popular and esteemed among the city's Jewish and Christian population.
Earlier in this work we have talked about our Zyrardow factory. In my chapter of reminiscences, I will merely add that in the 1930s, the firm changed its status. During the period after Polish independence, there were quarrels between the Polish government and the factory owners (who were French and German). They were called the foreigners, and they owned 60 percent of the stock in the factory. An argument was made that the foreigners wished to exploit Polish production. After vacillating for a long time, the owners tired of the issue, and in 1930 they sold some of the stock to the Polish government. The Poles thus got more than 50 percent of the shares and took control of the factory. The entire Polish press, especially the nationalists, dedicated much space to this news, and deemed it a victory by Poland over foreign capital. Whether this improved the material conditions of the laborers is a big question. More struggles and strikes ensued due to the pittance that workers earned.
The factory played a big role in forming the city's civic and political character. With its large mass of proletarians, Zyrardow was one of the Red Cities. In later years it always had a proletarian city administration, mainly from the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The same was true during the early years of Polish independence after the war. In 1918, in the first city council elections, the Socialists and Communists in Zyrardow had 20 representatives out of a total of 24.
This, of course, did not please the country's governing bourgeois-reactionary forces, and after pressure from above, the Red city council was dissolved. But that did not change things workers were still the dominating influence in the city. The 1920s became harder and harder, with an ever-sharpening period of crisis. Unemployment, periodic shortages and inflation brought poverty and hunger to the workers' families. Through demonstrations whose main slogan was Work and Bread, Zyrardow's working class showed their readiness for struggle and organization. This was also a difficult period when it came to arbitrary acts by the police. Demonstrators were often attacked, and police sometimes even used firearms during confrontations.
Later things stabilized somewhat. The state of the labor market became such that constant vigilance did not have to be exercised to defend workers' interests. Led by the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and to some extent by the Communists, Zyrardow's Polish workers struggled stubbornly to improve living standards for some 7,000 textile workers who were the backbone of economic life in the city.
But Zyrardow's organized Polish proletariat did not gain power and importance merely on the economic front. Their movement's influence was also felt in community and political life. Zyrardow was one of the few cities in independent Poland that were not corroded and poisoned by the bloody, biological anti-Semitism that took over the whole country. Relations between Jews and Poles were more or less bearable. Although the Polish community did not maintain direct relations with the Jews and Jews did not seek any contact with Poles, Zyrardow was different from many or more accurately, from most Polish cities.
Relations changed between Jews and Poles when anti-Semitic and reactionary waves inundated Polish civic life, and the entire Polish press (with minor exceptions) spread daily buckets of toxic enmity on Jewish citizens of the new Poland. In comparison, Jewish and Polish co-existence in Zyrardow was fairly accommodating.
In fact, in the surrounding cities and towns at the time, hired Polish hooligans would suddenly show up to picket Jewish businesses and often forcibly prevented Polish customers from going in. But to Zyrardow's credit, it must be said that, such actions were not successful here. The slogan Swoj do swego (stick with one's own) was not accepted. If a few hooligans tried to put leaflets and incendiary slogans near Jewish businesses and party offices and not let Christian customers into the stores, some Poles would come the next day and drive them away. After that, the anti-Semitic picketers wouldn't dare show up again.
A series of works have already described the newness of Zyrardow's Jewish community and its involvement with the city's main feature the factory. It influenced the Jewish community to develop differently from the way it did in surrounding towns, both in appearance and behavior. Here I will describe some of the key differences.
Zyrardow never had medieval houses or historic squares suggesting a glorious past. Our homes and buildings were made of brick and stone, and many had two stories. The city was built with a plan and with modern urban methods, which made it a clean city. We lacked the traditional provincialism of many Jewish cities and towns, which were still partitioned into miniscule, generations-old factions organized around rabbis, rabbinical judges, ritual slaughterers and cantors. We did not have such sharp community divisions. There were no traditional, pedigreed families, nor any big rift between elite and common Jews. Perhaps this happened also because we were more connected with the capital, Warsaw. We breathed the pulsating life nearby, and the constant, dynamic rhythm of labor in Zyrardow. We always tried to downplay the petty intrigues that dominated provincial Jewish towns.
Economically, Jews occupied the position of the so-called middle class. Storekeepers and artisans ran independent workshops, where they worked with their family members. Seldom were many salaried workers employed in a workshop. When there were employees, it was sure to be a workshop with a couple of young boy or girl apprentices. As soon as these journeymen or women mastered their craft or felt they could do better than the boss, they would rent a little business somewhere and hang up a shingle with a picture of open scissors. It meant that here you could find a newly-minted tailor who was starting to make an independent living. And not just tailors this applied to other Jewish occupations, such as shoemakers, boot stitchers, hat makers and so on. All the small workshops were concentrated in Jewish hands.
I shall pause here to note a phenomenon that characterized the entire history of Jewish community life in Zyrardow: Jews did not work in the factory. In the early years they did not even try to, because the factory worked six days a week, including the Sabbath. Back then no one dared to openly desecrate the Sabbath, but in later years, when a few bold individuals announced they were willing to work on Saturday, their applications were dismissed with various excuses and rebukes. Management did not want even one Jew in the factory. And as we Jews used to say, it wasn't worth it anyway to knock yourself out. Some thought that other jobs were easier and perhaps more respectable than being a factory worker. Thus, for its entire existence, the factory remained devoid of Jews. Perhaps there were a few people working in administration who were from France and who had converted from Judaism relics from when the management had been in French hands.
Even though Zyrardow had a relatively small Jewish community, it was a miniature version of the entire, multi-hued spectrum of vibrant Jewish communalism in the country. All the parties, all the currents and directions that were active on the Jewish street in Poland were represented in our city. Hassids and those who no longer believed. Secularists and the observant. Nationalists and extreme internationalists. All tried to take the floor and spread their influence over the spirited face of the city's Jewish community. Adherents to different rabbinical dynasties were organized into various little synagogues. There they gathered to pray, study, recount the miracles of their wise men, and repeat the doctrines of their rabbis. There they celebrated the end of the Sabbath and the festive revelry of weddings, as well as yortsayts (anniversaries of family members' deaths), in accordance with their customs for the dead. When they had to, they also got involved in city affairs. The feeling was that since Hassids of all stripes were fellow believers, they should not be left out, especially from kehila (the Jewish Community Council) elections to choose the warden of the synagogue, or from elections to City Council.
The main Hassidic group were the Gers. Later when the Ger dynasty took charge of organizing a political movement of Hassidic and observant Jews the Agudat Yisroel it established this movement in Zyrardow. This broadened their influence far beyond the Gers.
In Zyrardow, a dynamic Polish civic-intellectual life began in 1917 and 1918, at the end of World War I, with Poland's uprising for national independence. Worldwide transformations ended the war, overthrew many regimes and, above all, brought on the Russian Revolution. They also transformed the traditional Jewish community, which went through its own Sturm und Drang.
All the progressive movements that influenced Jewish life breathed the winds of freedom blowing from everywhere. The socialist and progressive movements on the Jewish street were growing into real forces in the community. In addition, the Zionist movement in all its varieties was significantly expanding its influence, pinning major hopes on the recent Balfour Declaration and on England's assumption of a mandate over Palestine. People believed that Zionism's political goals would soon be realized through the construction of a national home for Jews in the Land of Israel.
Zyrardow also experienced this flowering in it finest form. Parties were organized, ranging from right to left, beginning with the above-mentioned observant Jews who called themselves the Agudat Shlumei Emunei Yisroel (Wholly Faithful Israelites) all the way to loyal followers of communism. A very important Jewish cultural institution was also founded then: Di Tsukunft (The Future) later called The Peretz Library. It was supposed to be a non-partisan cultural institution, and in certain respects it was. But it had members of many political parties and beliefs, and many factions tried to get control of it. They tried to storm the Bastille as they searched for a chance to win an electoral majority alone or in coalition with related groups so they could run the library and thus raise their party's prestige. As a result, all the civic-minded groups in Zyrardow's Jewish community became increasingly interested in the library. Further, every group who controlled the library tried to run intensive cultural activities in order to boast about this work during future election campaigns. So the activities tended to get very lively.
I will write separately about the library. Although I see evidence of provincial naivete when looking back at those bygone struggles for control of the library, the intense conflict and idealism were characteristic of the spirit and goals that most Jewish youth lived and breathed back then.
Like many other cities, Zyrardow was evacuated to Warsaw when World War I broke out. The unfortunate Jews lost their businesses and became homeless. When people returned to their abandoned homes after the war, they started making tentative contacts with the outside world, or to put it more accurately, with our folks on the other side of the ocean. Here we should remember our American brethren who were big contributors, who rushed aid to the hungry and impoverished Jews of Zyrardow. Expulsion and homelessness had ruined these Jews, and hunger stuck in their bones during the entire German occupation. With the help of various foods that were shipped, a people's kitchen was created here where poor people got a chance to eat for almost no cost. Children from the public elementary schools, and beginning and advanced pupils from the Jewish religious schools, got hearty meals twice a day. Things were so well-organized that every religious and secular school would send a delegation of children over to bring food from the kitchen back to as many children as were in a given place.
I remember going on a delegation once and carrying the food, which was a rather hard thing for young children to do. We met two elderly Gentiles, and we heard one say to the other: See how much solidarity one Jew has for another! The American Yids worry about the local Jews. Not like us Poles: a Pole can pull his empty pockets inside out before another Pole's eyes and it doesn't matter. We had nothing to add to these comments then. And nothing today either.
As we noted earlier, political and community life in Zyrardow was influenced and formed by the civic and political groups that operated then in Poland. They had branches in the provinces, including in Zyrardow. Besides these centralized institutions and organizations, there were also various local groups with no ties to national bodies. But the work of all of them contributed to a lively community in our city.
We will begin according to the usual way (of reading Yiddish and Hebrew): from right to left. We have already recalled that Orthodox Jews began to organize a religious party under the name the Aguda Union. In sum, it was loosely organized. The truly Orthodox, pious Jews, or at least their rabbi, could see no point in copying the secularists by organizing a party with all the party intrigues. For them, the House of Study, the little synagogue, was the union that organized pious Jews. It was the framework that bound Jews together and linked them closely with the old traditions. Their only goal was to study Torah and keep its commandments, to be pious, and to preserve Judaism. Various politicians made sure that the pious Jews could vote for their own through special opportunities, or through elections for the synagogue administration and City Council. The rabbis sent letters to their followers, telling them to vote for whoever would insure that pious Jews would be selected. The religious Jews generally were more tied to the fundamentalist doctrines of the synagogue and house of study than to their homes. They worked, studied, sighed about hard times, and hoped for better.
The Mizrachi (Religious Zionists)
The Mizrachi (Religious Zionist) organization in Zyrardow grouped around itself a number of artisans, craftspeople, students and simple folk for whom religious Judaism was important. It was always a vibrant organization. It maintained a party office where members gathered, and also an observant elementary school where children got a traditional, religious education. The Mizrachi was highly regarded in the city and was the main way that Zionist-Nationalist ideas entered Orthodox circles.
Back then, when Zionism was heresy for a good proportion of religious Jews, there was grumbling that it would influence many pious youths to actively work to build a home in the Land of Israel. Speakers often had a very hard time when they were sent from the central offices of the Palestine Foundation Fund, or from a Zionist benevolent group, to hold an educational meeting for the fund. The most popular and practically the only meeting place then was the synagogue or the study house. Speakers frequently would not be allowed to hold a meeting in the synagogue. The really zealous Aguda people were definitely against them. Until right before the Holocaust in Poland, they were opposed to Zionists building the Land of Israel. More than once, dramatic scenes were played out in the synagogue. Pro-Israel speakers could not take the floor, and were screamed at with the accusation that they were really there to mislead, and God forbid convert the Jews and take them to the Land of Israel.
Adding to the Mizrachis' popularity then was the fact that they drew many young people into their orbit by organizing a youth group, Young Mizrachi. In fact, the group completely disintegrated after a few years. But Young Mizrachi members later became spirited activists in all the other, secular parties from the general Zionist to the ultra-left movements. All religious youth groups in Poland went through this process. The children, God help us, simply did not keep the faith. Ironically, troops of religious youths were continually fortifying the ultra-radical movements on the Jewish street.
The Mizrachi always had proper representation in the kehila. In the final years, the group's representatives were Binem Ziskind and Yakov Baran. To the latter fell the sad job of chairman of the Judenrat, used by the Germans so that Jews would help exterminate Jews.
There were not many General Zionist organizations in Zyrardow. Perhaps this was because in our city (and in most cities and towns in Poland) these groups did not succeed in attracting youth. The socialist-Zionists and even the radical leftist movements had youth members; they were a dynamic force that influenced and vitalized these organizations' activity. The General Zionist organization was always bourgeois, with a few influential individuals who also occupied certain key positions in Jewish (and broader) civic life.
It was the same for us in Zyrardow. In the early years when Zionism and Zionist propaganda were beginning to penetrate Jewish homes, a few individuals took it upon themselves to distribute medallions and bring the blue and white cans to Jewish houses to collect contributions.
Here we should remember one of the finest prominent citizens of that time: Yosef Rozentsvayg, who by trade was a watchmaker but who also helped his father-in-law in the lumber business. He was one of the few Jews in the city who lived in a Poles-only part of town, known as The Backwoods. Everyone in the city loved and listened to Yosef Rozentsvayg, even Orthodox Jews, who were not exactly known for their tolerance of non-religious Jews. But they made an exception for Yosef Rosentsvayg. Everyone loved to spend time with him, to chat and hear one of his clever bon mots. He was very witty and affable, and loved to discuss things with everyone. He wanted to convince people that Zionism not rightwing or leftwing Zionism but simply basic, Jewish national consciousness was the path all Jews should embrace. He raised his children with this view, and they were all loyal and devoted members of the Zionist movement.
Fayvl Rotshtayn was also one of the most important Zionists in the city and was for some years chairman of the kehila. We note to his credit that a year before the outbreak of World War II, the kehila took over the Peretz Library. At that time it was under Communist leadership, and when the Polish government learned this they threatened to dissolve it. As head of the kehila, Rotshtayn managed to convince a couple of Orthodox and Hassidic synagogue administrators who opposed supporting this impious collection of some 2,000 Jewish and Polish books into changing the Peretz Library into a Jewish city library. He also successfully convinced the Polish government that the kehila had no involvement in the library's leftist past. He presented it as a simple community matter like liquidating a bankrupt business. In fact, the entire book collection, which had been assembled over decades, was taken over by the kehila. An interparty leadership committee was created with representatives from all the Jewish parties then in Zyrardow, with the leftists represented under another name.
Rightwing Labor Zionists (PZR)
The strongest and most influential organization in city was the Poeli-Zion Rekhts, known in Poland as the Rightwing Labor Zionists (PZR).
Why did the PZR in Zyrardow have a strong organization back then when nationwide especially from 1925 to 1930 it was one of the weakest movements? At least in the early years, credit for the organization's strength should go to comrade Yosef Nisnberg, who lives in Israel today. Comrade Nisnberg generally excelled at vitalizing every type of community activity, and there was nothing he did not take an active part in. His crowning achievement was organizing and establishing a strong PZR group, which he led until his departure for the Land of Israel in 1934.
After his departure from Zyrardow, leadership was assumed by a group of young comrades who continued the tradition and managed to attract most of the city's Jewish youth to the organization. Indeed, it became the strongest such group in the entire Warsaw region, though there were bigger cities with bigger Jewish communities. More than once, opponents remarked sardonically that the group here was so strong that the central office should be moved to Zyrardow. Together with Frayhayt (Freedom) the PZR youth group the organization had about 300 members right before the outbreak of World War II. It conducted lively political and civic education work in all fields and around day-to-day problems of the vibrant Jewish community in Poland. Special consideration was given to the youth. Frayhayt was divided into clubs where comrades gave lessons about Zionism, socialism and general cultural and civic questions. This developed a solid core of mentors educators who pulled youths as young as 12 and 13 years old right out of school. They took on the systematic work of giving public lectures about civic, political, literary and artistic subjects. Polish Jewry's best speakers, writers and literary figures were invited to present these lectures.
One of the most important undertakings should be remembered because of the extraordinary, unforgettable impression it made. This was in 1938, when international Jewry was celebrating the 100th birthday of Mendele Mokher-Sforim. To mark the date, we decided to invite Noah Prylutski, the famous writer, philologist and former deputy to the Polish Parliament, to Zyrardow to lecture on the topic. The Mendele Academy was held in one of the biggest theater auditoriums in the city, in the House of the People. The theater was packed to the brim with Jews from all economic strata and social circles. This effort undoubtedly helped the party's reputation, and gave the city's Jews their first taste of culture and knowledge.
Another, similar example was a lecture in the House of the People by the Parliamentary deputy Stanislaw Dubois. A famous activist from the PPS, he had gone to the Land of Israel a few years before the war started, and after returning he traveled around Poland giving lectures about his impressions. Back then the atmosphere was filled with anti-Semitic venom, so it was a great achievement and inspiration to hear from a non-Jewish socialist deputy who spoke with such praise and enthusiasm about the idealism of the Israeli people and the kibbutzes in particular. I remember a meeting arranged by the Labor Zionists with help from the PPS. Perhaps for the first time, hundreds of Polish workers and ordinary people learned that Jews were working not just on questions of who should or should not be allowed into the universities; or who should or should not buy from Jewish store owners. There were also Jews in Poland who were trying to lay the groundwork for an independent national life, and whose work evoked respect and recognition.
In the final years before the outbreak of World War II, the local Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and the Labor Zionists were usually in very close contact. Between 1934 and 1938, the two organizations developed the tradition in Zyrardow of celebrating the workers' holiday jointly during the May Day demonstrations. Since they were mostly from petit-bourgeois, religious homes, it took real boldness and party discipline to mobilize members and close sympathizers of the Labor Zionists to go into the streets with red flags and banners and march with the Polish workers. The Jewish part of the parade was quite noteworthy. The Yiddish and Hebrew slogans and the songs sung in Yiddish and Hebrew by the Jewish section about 200 demonstrators made an impression.
After the demonstration finished and broke up, there would be a farewell meeting outdoors. PPS leaders and delegates from the central committee always spoke, as well as many very important deputies from the Polish Parliament. A representative from the Labor Zionist Warsaw office would also appear. I especially remember May 1st, 1935. The leftwing Labor Zionist envoy was the lawyer Hertsberg, whose oratory was masterly and full of substance. His speech enchanted everyone not only did Poles comment on it, Hassids did, too. I heard from eminent local Hassids that Attorney Hertsberg's market-square speech about the Land of Israel contained moments that truly inspired respect from Gentiles toward the Jews.
For the 1938 joint May Day celebration, a PPS leader came: Deputy Niedzalkowski, executive editor of their central party organ, The Worker (he was later shot by the Nazis). A prominent leftwing Labor Zionist speaker was supposed to come who would be appropriate for Zyrardow and even for our PPS partners, but something got in the way and he couldn't make it. So we had to send a local representative, Comrade Getsl Haldzband, to speak before a large audience. Even though Comrade Haldzband was not prepared to speak, his performance in Polish was every bit as good in form and content as that of the prominent public speaker and deputy Niedzalkowski.
In the final years, the party organized a circle of artisans under the rubric Ho-Oved (The Worker), which made a spirited effort to prepare them for emigration to the Land of Israel. In summer months, the party organized frequent meetings and outings in the forest around Zyrardow. These were often joint gatherings, which we called pgishes, with neighboring organizations from Grodzisk, Amshinov (Mszczonow), and Skierniewice. These get togethers strengthened members' ties to the movement.
In the last kehila election before the war, the PZR put an administrator into the kehila management: the beloved and amiable Khaym Levkovitsh, father-in-law of Moyshe-Mendl Levkovitsh, who at the time was head of the kehila. When Levkovitsh left Zyrardow and moved to Lodz, Comrade Shmuel Mazelshtayn became the PZR representatative to the kehila and remained there until the Germans came into the city, threw out the longtime administration and replaced it with the so-called Judenrat the Jewish Council with Yakov Baran at its head.
The Leftwing Labor Zionists (PZL)
Unlike the PZR, the Leftwing Labor Zionists (PZL) did not have that much of an organization in Zyrardow. In truth, it was always a group of individuals who did not want to let the PZL banner fall. During election campaigns, for example, they would distribute party literature and other propaganda sent from the central office in Warsaw. They would distribute their party paper by hawking it from house to house. Here should be remembered one of their most loyal supporters: Comrade Itshe Yosef Shmitnikov (who is in Israel now). Even today, Comrade Yitsik Benek is well-known as an activist in Leftwing Labor Zionism and in the Sholem Aleichem School in Buenos Aires. When he moved to Zyrardow, a PZL group came into being, with its own office and a series of institutions. But with Comrade Benek's departure from Zyrardow, everything went back to the way it was before. The small group of idealists nevertheless were always concerned that, no matter what the course of history, it should never be forgotten that the PZL always had a loyal circle of people in Zyrardow who safeguarded the party flag.
In the general mix of organizational activity in Zyrardow, the Bund really lagged behind. All the more so considering that the Bund in Poland, in its central sphere, was a respectable aspect of Jewish organizational life and influenced most of the Jewish working class and the common people.
There were times in Zyrardow when the Bund maintained an office, conducted activities, and brought in lecturers from the central office. Their main efforts were centered on Zionism, which the Bund opposed. In 1927 and 1928, the Bund and the Zionist international movements each celebrated their 30th anniversary. The famous Bund activist Natan Shafran (who is in America now) came to Zyrardow. He was traveling throughout Poland with a lecture on Thirty Years of the Bund Thirty Years of Zionism. I remember every interested group came to the lecture. Zionist youth from all parties were significantly represented in the auditorium, and were unsparing with their heckling, which of course really unnerved the Bundist ushers. Although the lecture took place on a cold Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere in the auditorium was so tense that the police security guards, who always monitored Jewish activities, let both sides know that they were the third force who would decide about Jewish controversies; and that if the peace kept being disturbed, the lecture would not take place.
I remember this incident, but only as an exception. In general, inter-party relations were more or less proper, especially in the final years before the outbreak of the war. There were even cases of joint activities and symposia. I remember one symposium that provoked great interest. It was on the subject of Zionism, the Bund and the Workers Movement, and it took place in the Labor Zionist office though the panelists were local activists from various organizations. From the Bund, Mendl Yakubson stood out; from the PZL, Itshe-Yosef Shmitnikov; from the Communists, Yekhiel Tabaksblat; and from the PZR, Mordkhe Boymerder. The large auditorium and surrounding halls couldn't hold the large crowd, which by now was expressing great satisfaction at the exceedingly high level of discussion. At one time the Bund showed that it could influence the non-partisan cultural organization, the Peretz Library, and assume leadership. But I shall write separately about the library and the struggle around it.
The Leftwing Movement
When we speak nowadays of the leftwing movement, we mean the Jewish Communists. For political reasons, the Communist movement and its Jewish sector were unable to run open, normal party activity such as having their own office or conducting public meetings. Even so, everyone in the city (even the police) knew there was a group of youths that represented themselves to Jewish public as the Communist movement.
This group could not arrange its own events, but it took advantage of activities and public meetings that other groups held in Zyrardow. At these events the communists would represent themselves as the opposition, openly or semi-covertly polemicizing and defending their principles with fire and passion. For various reasons, it was very difficult to argue with these people. First, every discussion required that speakers have an equal chance to express themselves. Yet the communists were handicapped because they could not advertise who they were the party was illegal in Poland. On the other hand, this semi-covert opponent could not be openly challenged, because doing so might create a provocation.
Without a chance to do legal, open party work, the Jewish Communists tried to enter other groups or to found various nonpartisan institutions and thus protect themselves from police persecution. Indeed, a year before the outbreak of World War II, they succeeded in taking over management of the nonpartisan Peretz Library. The other parties had their own organizations, unions and offices, and were not all that interested in the library. That is how it happened that the Communists took over the leadership in a completely parliamentary manner. As one who experienced the Sturm und Drang around the fate of the most important institution in the city, I will dedicate a special section to it.
The Peretz Library
A year or two after World War I, the library was founded under the name Tsukunft (Future). Jewish community life began to organize quickly when independence came to Poland. Different types of groups were created in the Jewish urban areas of Poland.
The first included all manner of cultural institutions; the earliest of these were libraries. Everywhere, people from different socioeconomic classes and organizations felt an urge to help create Jewish communal life in Poland. Cultural and philanthropic institutions arose, created by religious, nationalist and socialist groups.
The group who founded the library was small. It consisted of simple, common people. Many were artisans who ran small worshops like the Shvartshtayn brothers, Shnayder, Luzer, Takubovitsh and a few others who emigrated shortly thereafter to other countries, and whose names unfortunately are no longer known. A possibly apocryphal story is told about the founding of the library. At a spirited meeting on the occasion of the second anniversary of its establishment, one of the founders, a butchers' union activist, stood up and told the chairman that in order to properly recognize and honor the library's founders who were already living in America, everyone should walk out of the place. The library was named Tsukunft , but in 1926, the tenth anniversary of the death of our great Y. L. Peretz, it took the name the Peretz Library. It continued operating under that name until right before the outbreak of the war in 1939.
As we recalled earlier, the library was a non-partisan institution that attracted all the young people in the city. It was also a place where a leadership struggle developed. During the final days of its existence, the library had a leftwing leadership. Because the Communist movement was suffering various acts of repression from the Polish government, some responsible leftist leaders decided to hand the library over to the Jewish kehila in order to safeguard its existence. Unfortunately, it did not last much longer, because the German attack on Poland came soon after, in September 1939.
The library owned a few thousand Yiddish and Polish books. It had some one hundred very active members who read and studied Yiddish, and thus had access to a general store of knowledge.
I remember the first time I went to the library, about thirty years ago. I was an activist in Young Mizrachi and was under the influence of the traditional, pious upbringing of my home. In the library was a whole group from our organization, and as a group we got involved in the struggle for partisan influence on the library. As already noted, the institution did not have a distinct or narrow party character. But almost one hundred percent of the members belonged to the gamut of parties that existed then. Every year before the general meeting, there would be a contest for power. The separate groups strived to obtain leadership of the institution, which was conducting very far reaching cultural and educational activity. That meant that the party who won the management committee election could take credit for all these efforts.
At the annual election meeting, blocs were usually chosen and a pact made to create coalitions to gain power. These matches were not always for love. At play here was more often hatred for a third opponent, and the party marriages were not always kosher. I remember how the Bundist Folkstsaytung (The People's Newspaper) in Warsaw printed a piece addressed to workers, rebuking Zionist Labor in Zyrardow for daring to make a marriage with the reactionary Religious Zionists against the Bundists and the left bloc at the library. Truth be told, the Folkstaytung was right this time. This partnership did indeed happen, during the time when the young and dynamic Yitsik Benek was living in Zyrardow. He already had a decade of Left Labor Zionist activity under his belt, and he quickly succeeded in establishing an active Labor Zionist organization in the city. In the next elections, he wanted to take over leadership of the Peretz Library along with other Zionist groups. Along with his friend Yitsik Frost (now in Israel), this writer was a Young Mizrachi representative on a special committee to take over the library. Head of the committee was the vibrant Mr. Benek. We worked out the strategy and means to win a majority of members at the upcoming general meeting. I remember the late-night meeting at Mr. Benek's house, which was headquarters for the decisive battle slated to occur at the next general meeting of the library.
The head of the library then was the very intelligent and non-partisan Moyshe Levental, who for personal reasons later had to withdraw from civic activity. Two blocs were created: one, of the Zionist groups, with Yitzhak Benek at the head; and the other the Bund, with Nayman and Moyshe Vaynshtok at the forefront. Some thirty years have passed since then. But I still remember that very dramatic meeting as though it were today. It started on a wintry Friday night, lasted until very late, and continued all Saturday. Both sides utilized the entire arsenal of parliamentary tricks to win a majority. This was no small matter for either side, because each felt that a victory by their opponent would threaten, God forbid, to shake the earth's foundations. The Bund ended up winning, and chairmanship of the library was taken over by the previously mentioned Noah Nayman. He was very likable and comradely with all his opponents. The secretary was Moyshe Vaynshtok. He was cultured, knowledgeable, and the personification of modesty. Generally speaking, and notwithstanding intense conflicts among officials (volunteers, not paid employees), the library as a whole was always an exemplary cultural institution independent of whoever held office, and irrespective of the leadership's ideological leanings.
Besides running the library, the organization occasionally organized lectures, inviting the most outstanding speakers and writers that the Jewish community had in Poland from the ultra-nationalist, red-haired Yuri Tsvi Grinberg to Ber Mark, who today is a famous Communist writer. At the Peretz Library, everyone had a chance to make speeches and address the public.
Incidentally, I remember a comic episode involving Yuri Tsvi Grinberg, which happened during his appearance. It serves as an example of the mood and behavior of that time.
This was in about 1925 or 1926. Yuri Tsvi Grinberg was traveling around Poland with an eccentric lecture on a bohemian-futurist theme: When Mefisto Chirps on the Flute. This was when Jewish poets and writers, especially young ones, were looking to poetry for new, modernist forms of expression that sounded to some Yiddish readers like reverse gibberish.
The poet Yuri Tsvi Grinberg, leader of a school of young poets, was seized with the prevailing mood. He spoke with an overarchingly forceful tempo and fervor. If the content of the lecture was odd, even more so were the gestures and movements he used to express his thoughts. His enthusiasm kept growing and his speech got more and more rushed and loud. Every time he read the refrain of the poem, he would shake, and end with the line: And Mephisto chirped on the flute! With rapturous ardor, he would stamp his feet until the glass literally shook in the windows.
It was a wintry Friday evening, already very late at night. The poet finally stopped in the middle of his lecture and lapsed into such exaltation that he started dancing on the floor boards to show the audience how Mephisto chirped on the flute. Until until the tenants in the building, could no longer take it especially the one on the floor below. He came up to argue: Why, on Friday night, after a whole week of toil when we're supposed to be resting, are goblins dancing and making pandemonium over our heads? The usher tried to calm him by taking him aside and explaining that the famous poet was reading a very important thing, a poem in which Mephisto Chirps on the Flute. At this point the man lost patience and shrieked at the top of his lungs:
Who the hell is Mephisto? What the hell chirping? Which damned flute? As far as I'm concerned, Mephisto Shmephisto can sit all night and chirp, or play the flute, but he's not allowed to dance
As already mentioned, the library at various times experienced internal struggles and partisan quarrels, which were common then in Poland. Jewish life was strongly split into different groups, and each fervently believed it was the only one with the right answers to all the vexing questions of the day. But notwithstanding flare-ups and differences of opinion, the library always had a reputation in the city as an honorable institution that truly helped to raise the cultural level of the membership. It made a distinct impression on ever widening circles of Jewish communal life in the city.
The Artisans' Union
In the general course of Jewish life in the city, an honored position was also occupied by institutions that did not have a partisan character. Among them should be mentioned the Artisans' Union, which encompassed a few hundred craftspeople. Artisan Union members were tailors, shoemakers, boot stitchers and others. At the head of the Union, which primarily safeguarded the economic interests of the membership, were the Shvartshteyn brothers, the tailor Aron Koyfman, and others. When dealing with questions such as kehila elections, a rabbi combined material interests with the spiritual. An effort was made to ensure that the most prestigious Jews were not always the ones called to the Torah for the best readings, so that the Jewish masses would, God forbid, be left out. It is a fact that artisans were always able to elect their own representative to the kehila. Through their various efforts and activities, the voice of the Jewish artisans, the salt of the earth, could not be ignored.
Hakhshore Kibbutz Grukhuv
In the last few years before the war broke out, a large proportion of Jewish youth sought a way to get to the Land of Israel. In Poland, Hakhshore (Pioneer) kibbutzes had been founded in many cities and towns, where the different Zionist pioneer organizations prepared their members for life in Palestine, a life of hard work. A branch of the Hakhshore center was also created in Zyrardow, with the name Grukhuv.
About 40 or 50 young men and women got together from different towns in Poland. They rented a modest, two-room apartment and went out in the city and neighborhoods to find jobs. It was a hard life for the young people. Unemployment was widespread and joblessness created many problems. Through the initiative of the local Labor Zionist organization and its then-chairman, Yosef Nisnberg, a city committee was created. All the Zionist parties of Zyrardow were represented on it, as well as many nonpartisan business people. They created a business partnership, one of whose purposes was to find work for the idealistic young people. As usual, the business partnership fell apart and the young people were left on their own to find employment and manage their lives. They found various jobs: in sawmills, tanneries, and so forth in and around the city. The young women went into different kinds of domestic work in Jewish homes. Although the kibbutz in Zyrardow did not last more than four years, it succeeded in bringing a new mood to working and to living one's life productively, and on a modest, collective footing. People active in the training kibbutz were an example and a guide for many young men and women in our city. After going through Hakhshore training, they left for the land of Israel and managed to save themselves before the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust, destroyed the vibrant kibbutz.
Problems that Created Unity
As a rule, divisive party ideologies reigned in most of the Jewish community. But there were moments when everyone united. Times of trouble and danger brought people close, and all the disputes and fights were erased and forgotten. During such times the religious and the secular were united, the rich and the poor, laborers and the self-satisfied bourgeoisie. There were many such moments in the final years before the Holocaust. I will recount three here: one that concerned Jews in general, one which affected everyone in the community and the world; and two that were local, Polish matters.
The first was the protest against the English White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Israel. The others were actions against local hooligan anti-Semitism: one regarding a pogrom in the Polish town Przytyk, and the second relating to the project in the Polish Parliament to forbid kosher butchering.
In the first case, joint protest involved the nationalist-Zionist youth sector, but the other two actions inspired deep-seated protest from all of Poland's more than three million Jews, who felt that the very existence of everyone of all Jews and all people was at stake. Both the Polish pogrom in Przytyk and the spiritual pogrom against kosher slaughtering a dogma of Jewish ritual provoked intense unrest among Poland's Jews.
Those inclined to look a bit deeper into these events saw dark clouds approaching from Nazi Germany that threatened to inundate the world and spread destruction and killing everywhere especially into Poland. Meanwhile, Poland failed to see the dangers menacing her, and emulated the Nazis with Jew hatred and Jew- baiting. The major, generalized sense of Jewish solidarity was reflected in the proclamation of a general strike. It was called on March 17, 1936. Initiative came from the left: from the Bund and the Jewish workers unions. But it was equally supported by both Labor Zionist parties and by the entire Jewish community, which united behind the strike. Jewish unity was exemplary. Workers and manufacturers participated. So did employees and merchants. All the Jewish workshops closed in the middle of a work day. It was one of the most powerful demonstrations we had ever seen. We had a big meeting in the synagogue. The invited speakers were from all the parties and groups who were appraising the perils encroaching on the Jewish population. They called for unity, perseverance and vigilance.
But who could have known then that the end would come so quickly? That the end of a community with millions of people would be so dark? Who could have imagined that the fate of the Jewish people was being weighed then? Sadly, today we are like mourners when we remember those times and the people who were. We remember them with reverence. They arouse sorrow and pain. We remember and we know we will never again see the vibrant life that was cut off by the brown-shirted villains and their helpers. We can only comfort ourselves with the fact that the foe of the Jews did not manage to eradicate every memory, as he wished to. We try to comfort our souls with the fact that amid the enmity, we rose up as survivors of the Holocaust and returned from the dead to build Jewish life everywhere. We are comforted that we find people from Zyrardow everywhere: in Israel and in the Diaspora, at the forefront of Jewish life and creativity. Perhaps it is also a comfort that we can forever commemorate our dead, our heroes and our martyrs with our remembrances in this Yizkor Book.
|A group of Young Mizrachi in 1929. From right to left: Standing: Mordkhe Boymerder (now in the United States); Rubn Vaynberg. Sitting: Yitsik Frost and Yehoshue Kaysman [the latter two are in Israel].)|
|Page143:||The Mizrachi council with a group of friends in Zyrardow. From right to left, sitting: Mendl Flint, Khaym-Alter Nayman, Khaym the Philosopher, Avigdor Lifshits, Nekhemye Libhober, Avrom Tiger. Standing: Sholem Gutkind, Yekl Baran, Dovid Levi, Yurek Gomolinski and Shif (who was not a Mizrachi member, but a teacher in the Mizrachi schools), Rubn Rakhman, Shmuel Foygel and Ketl Boymerder. The child at top right later became Dr. Dovid Flint. Of the entire group, not one is still alive.|
|Page 144:||A youth group of General Zionists in Zyrardow just before World War I. From right to left: standing: Yekir Albek (son of Mr. Albek, the Rabbi; Pinye Vayner, Avrom Itshe Bloshtayn. Sitting: Peyne Tshekhanovski, Avromele Tiger. The third figure is unidentified.|
|Page 145:||Members of the party committee of the PZR and managers of the Kraft Hapoel (Workers' Power) athletic club. From right to left, standing: Shloyme Birnboym, Avromishe Kshanzhenitser, Moyshe Aron Zilbershtayn, Shmul Mazelshtayn, Yisrulik Goldberg. Sitting: Moyshe-Mendl Tufman, Yosef Nisnberg, Yosef Levitas, Toyve Rotshtayn and Nayman.|
|Page 146:||The Zyrardow House of the People, known as the Dom Ludowy, is often remembered in connection with many undertakings of Jewish institutions that met there.|
|Page 147:||Outing of the PZR in the Sokule Forest, June 1931.|
|Page 148:||The first administrators of the Community Night Classes for Workers in Zyrardow, 1928. From right to left, seated: Elye Tsigler, Melekh Meppen, Yitsik Benek, Yidl Koyfman. Standing: Henekh Roznberg, Khaym Bart, Nahum Mults, Rubn Sobol. Missing from the photograph is Moyshe Yakubovitsh, who was in the military then.|
|Page 149:||Outing of the Warsaw Bund youth group Tsukunft (Future) in Zyrardow. In the picture are members of the Zyrardow Bund and the Tsukunft group: Moyshe-Khaym Koyfman, Efrayim Yeshanovitsh, Leybish Yeshanovitsh, Pola Platsker, Yehudis Kirshboym, Yerakhmiel Domb, Yosef Funtovitsh, Basha Ditman, Mendl Yakubson, Avrom Kshanzhenski.|
|Page 154:||The Hakshore Kibbutz Grukhuv in Zyrardow in 1934.|
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