by M. Bruchl Tel Aviv
Translated by Libby Raichman
It is not known if, in the period of Chibat Tzion [Love of Zion], before the advent of political Zionism, there were traces of the movement in Biale. Rather it must be assumed that there were not.
The outcome of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, also resonated in Biale. It is true that, at that time, there was no specific group of people who came into contact with one another, about the new word Jewish State that was thrown about in the Jewish street but certain individuals in the nearby and distant towns reflected on this and even contacted those who proposed this new movement.
Chassidic houses were known to receive a hectographically printed familiar circular by Dr. CohenBernshtein from Kishinev: the weekly (or monthly) journal The Jew was published in Krakow. In houses like these, there were also the first small signs a blue Star of David with the word Zion in the middle.
With the emergence of the Chassidic rabbis against Zionism, these first Chassidic sympathizers, distanced themselves from Zionism. There were however individuals who chose rather, to leave the Chassidic study houses. One of these Chassidim was Hertzl Halbershtat, Moshe Cohen's soninlaw, the brotherinlaw of the later famous surgeon Dr. D. Cohen of Warsaw.
The first organization of the Zionist group in Biale, was established in 1901 by Apolinari Hartglas who was then a very young student at the Warsaw university:
… at that time, at the beginning of my first summer vacation, between my first and second courses, I took to spreading the word of Zionism in Biale, with all my zeal. I found a few young people from among the Chassidic youth in Biale that I influenced in favour of Zionism. I spent my own money and brought many brochures in Yiddish and Polish from the publishing house Achiesof in Warsaw. I organized the first group that gathered together, held discussions and sang Zionist songs. Biale, one of the cradles of the worst, darkest periods of Chassidic aloofness, became one of the fortresses of Zionism in the Polish province.
In an article Times are Changing that appeared in Podlassier Life number 62 of 11.2.1927, Hartglas describes how difficult it was for him to organize the first Zionist group in Biale, because of his lack of knowledge of Yiddish and he therefore sought the assistance of the Hebrew teacher Sholem Ratshin.
This organized beginning, it appears, was the foundation stone for the Zionist structure that was built later, with longer and shorter breaks but without cessation, until it became this fortress of which Advocate A. Hartglas speaks.
This is what Asher Hoffer, one of the first Zionists in the town, reports about the early days of Zionism in Biale:
I cannot recall the year, when we, a group of Biale youth, began our activity for the Zionist ideal.
Eliezer Baynish Goldfarb came from Mezritsh to speak about Zionism, in the synagogue. The synagogue was packed. People came from all levels of society: Chassidim, opponents of Chassidism, merchants and tradesmen. Even Reb Itshe Meir Cohen and Reb Chaim Levi Rubinshtein of the great Gerer Chassidim, came to hear him.
Goldfarb's address in the synagogue made a strong impression on the audience and we, the Zionist youth group in the town, wanted to take this opportunity to recruit more members to our circle.
Unfortunately, we did not have a great response, due to orders from the Rabbis not to associate with
the Zionists. Then the Chassidim began to persecute the Zionists. The Zionists ignored this and a Zionist organization was established in Biale. The founders were: one, named Kamenne from Shedletz, who was an agent for Singer Sewing machines, Chaim Tvarkovsky who was a military tailor and Sholem Ratshin, a Hebrew teacher from Slutzk, soninlaw of a Biale resident. Meetings were held in quarters that were hired from Shimon Krideshtein. Sympathizers came from Chassidic circles, religious students and tradesmen. If one wanted to enter these premises, one had to creep in unnoticed, literally like a thief, so as not to encounter the persecutors of the Zionists.
In Podlassier Life number 7 of 18.2. 1927, Avrom Urmacher added a few details of that first period.
One Passover between 1903 and 1906, a meeting of Zionists took place over a glass of liquor, in the home of A. Urmacher. Amongst others, the following participated: The student A. Hartglas, Reb Gavriel the scribe, Reb Dovid Moshe son of Yossel, Moshe Yaver, Sholem Ratshin, Asher Hoffer, Binyomin Klieger, Avrom Lubeltshik. Hinech Cohen, Avrom Gelblum the teacher from Bork, a few elected Zionists students from the Biale Gimnazye and perhaps 50 religious students who used to come and study in the religious students' society.
Avrom Podlishevsky came from Warsaw to Biale to arouse interest in the KKL [Keren Kayemet L'yisrael Jewish National Fund]. He lectured behind closed doors in the home of the Bielsk tailor Chaim Tvarkovsky, to a very limited audience.
In the years 1903 1906, our own synagogue was established in the premises of Shimon Krideshtein. Besides praying there on Sabbaths and festivals, people used to gather there in the evenings for various lectures.
Yehoshuah Fisher, one of the oldest Biale Zionists, who had a temperamental and aggressive nature, and who stood at the head of the Zionist activities until the First World War relates the following:
Approximately in the year 1903, I turned to the OdessaPalestine committee in Odessa with a suggestion that I be elected as their representative in Biale. I have been sympathetic to Zionist ideals for a long time but due to my father's antagonism, I was not able to participate actively in the Zionist movement. Now, that that this antagonism has ceased, I have begun to be active. My proposition was accepted by the Odessa committee. I recruited a substantial number of members who paid an annual fee of around 3, 6, 10, 15 and 25 ruble to the Odessa committee.
Our group numbered approximately 30 members. Of those who were active, I remember: Asher Hoffer, Moshe Kavve, Ya'akov Shteinman, Binyomin Klieger, Moshe Rubinshtein and Moshe Braverman. We used to meet in my home and have discussions on Zionist themes. I managed initially, to involve religious students in our ranks. We used to receive a variety of Zionist brochures from the Odessa committee as well as material for implementing fundraising activities for the OdessaPalestine committee. The collection of money was carried out on the eve of Yom Kippur in the synagogue, study houses, Chassidic prayer houses and at the cemetery. We would put out plates and the names of the donors who had donated more than 20 kopeks, on a list. The first year we raised 6 ruble and in 1913 100 ruble.
At these collections, there was no shortage of incidents, mainly by the influential Chassidim. One Yom Kippur eve, in the Gerer house of prayer, Motl Mintz threw the plate off the table. After that incident I confronted Motl Mintz and warned him that he should not dare to do such a thing again because in retaliation, I would be compelled to react sharply against him, that would bring him no glory. Motl Mintz remembered my warning well.
From time to time we would organize talks by lecturers that we invited from Warsaw. The income was designated for the OdessaPalestine committee.
It is worth mentioning that sometime after I began the Zionist activity in Biale, I became aware that years earlier there was an active Zionist group that was led by Asher Hoffer, Moshe Kavve and Binyomon Klieger but due to the Tsarist government ban on Zionist activity, the group ceased to exist.
Approximately in 1910/11, the small group of Zionists was strengthened by fresh young blood. A number of the youth joined this group and devoted themselves to the cause with fresh zeal. Contact was arranged with the Zionist movement and the Zionist centres. They subscribed to the Zionist periodic press and read their publications (Ha'tzefirah, Razsvet in Russian and Di Velt in German) and also the Zionist Kopek Library that was published in Odessa.
The traditional collections for the OdessaPalestine committee continued every year on the eve of Yom Kippur in the synagogue and in the prayer houses. Besides that, the practical work, under the guidance of Yehoshua Fisher, consisted of stretching the shekel and in collecting
for the Jewish National Fund. These collections took place secretly because such activity was banned by the Tsarist government. The money was sent in the post to Cologne (Germany) where the headquarters of the Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] were housed.
A fundraising campaign was also implemented through the AngloPalestine Bank (now the Bank Leumi of Israel). The value of each share was £1 sterling or 10 Russian ruble. A lottery ticket cost 15 kopeks. One can assume that 60 65 people participated. The lottery was won by Pinye Riebak from the village of Ragizshnitze (he later became the soninlaw of Rabbi Shlaymele Goldberg of Kazion).
At first the group assembled in private houses in the homes of Yehoshua Fisher, Yisroel Finkelshtein (Ritker) or Asher Hoffer. At these meetings, besides dealing with organizational matters, debates would take place about Zionism, that was a common dream and the reality of a small group of inspired people, a dream that warmed everyone's hearts.
The size of the groups attending the gatherings, increased steadily, and the private homes became too small for the meetings. They began to think about having their own regular meeting place where members would be able to meet every day and spend time together. It would not be incorrect to say, that it was felt, that there was a need for such a place, where people would be able to unload the social energy that accumulated and grew with each session, and with each meeting of the members.
It was impossible to create a regular meeting place in the normal way during Tsarist rule, under the watchful eye of the Russian police. The idea was therefore born, to establish a benevolent society under the name of Achiezer [My brother's help] that would offer medical assistance to the sick who were in need, lend various medical instruments etc. A society of this nature existed in Shedletz and by following that example and its status, the society was legalized in Biale.
This society Achiezer and its important work, is a chapter of its own. Here we are interested in the Zionist activity that was conducted in secret between the walls of Achiezer.
As mentioned, the initiative for establishing the Achiezer came from the Zionist group but the actual purpose was hidden immediately, from the first moment. Connections were made with communal leaders and personalities in the town who were drawn in, to work together in the institution. Idl Shvartz was the head of the Achiezercouncil and the managing committee consisted of Moshe Kavve and others. The youth took responsibility for all the internal work, administration, duties, distribution of medical instruments etc. In this way a venue was created where one could gather every evening, play chess, talk, support one another and most important, be together. The Achiezer gradually became almost like a club for the youth and the community leaders who headed the institution were aware, and consented, because they saw that the only possibility of conducting the fruitful work of the institution, was with the involvement of the youth, as only they could accomplish the task with such devotion.
The Achiezer had its first premises in the home of the Viness family and later in larger premises in the home of Dovidtshe the son of Pessel. Here they would gather in secret on Friday nights so that the members and the management of the council, would not know. Readings from Zionist literature took place and also meetings with Zionist emissaries from other towns.
In this way, Zionist activity continued for a few years and became more intensive. Contact was established with the centre in Warsaw, although in a roundabout way. We learnt of the Zionist address in Warsaw via Berlin and Peterburg. The Zionist group in Biale sent a delegate, a certain Dr. Monosovicz to the 11th Zionist Congress, on a recommendation from Warsaw. He was supposed to come to Biale after the congress to give a report but this did not eventuate.
Over time, the group came out into the open and organized lectures in the hall that was then currently used, belonging to Yoske Kashtnboim. One of the lectures was given by Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenboim from Warsaw and a second by Dr. Shmuel Isenshtat who spoke about the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Already then in 1912 or 1913, the first film from the Land of Israel was shown in the cinema hall. It showed the Herzlia High School and the first houses in Herzl Street in TelAviv. If my memory does not fail me, it also portrayed the Passover festivities in Rechovot, that took place at that time during the intermediate weekdays of the festival.
The contact with the Zionist organization in Warsaw was maintained through the press and by articles in the special section for the province in Ha'tzefirah, where also Biale and her society were mentioned.
And here is one such article, in which there is a report of Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenboim's visit to Biale.
In the town of Biale, in the district of Shedletz, a public lecture was arranged about the Land of Israel and her Hebrew colony. This lecture drew a large audience and amongst those gathered, were also Chassidim from the various Shtiblech (small prayer houses) for whom matters regarding the land of their forefathers, were close to their hearts and they were very keen to know what was happening there. And in Biale there are Chassidim from various streams of Chassidism and they all lived in harmony but when it became known in the Shtibl of the Partshuv Chassidim that their counterparts also came to hear this heretical lecture, the stability of their movement was fractured and it seemed as if the walls were about to fall into ruin. That day was as difficult for them as the day of the sin of the golden calf … and on the first Sabbath after the lecture, when they took out the Torah scrolls to read, an announcement was made by the warden of the synagogue, that everyone who attended the Zionist lecture, dare not, from now on, come to the Shtibl…
There was a distinguished teacher among the Partshuv Chassidim in Biale who was greatly respected and had delved deeply into Sefer Ha'yetzirah. He could literally create a duck from the dust of the earth [do the impossible] … and it came to pass that when this punishment by the Partshuv opponents of Zionism, reached his ears and spread through the walls of his shtibl, he feared greatly lest the deadly poison will impact upon this holy corner and he hastened to invite the transgressors and described to them the magnitude of their sin, because in the future, the land of Israel will be a home for the Jewish people… God forbid that one should think such foul thoughts, that this is the view of the heretics, the Zionists, perish the thought. In reality, in every place that we live, that is where the land of Israel is, that is the opinion of the believers …
And if this foul thought is central to your beliefs, continued the teacher, then you will have to fast several times until your wayward thoughts are crushed, then the good God will forgive you. (From the Cycle of Life Ha'tsefirah tractate 174 of 15. 8. 1913).
Finally, the Zionist activity that was conducted between the walls of the Achiezer could no longer remain secret and caused anger amongst the leading authorities who were particularly angry because all this Zionist activity carried on for years under their noses and they knew nothing about it. It was real due to a fear that the institution that had developed so successfully, would be broken up. Even a Jew like Moshe Kavve, who was quite distant from these groups, in this instance he sided with Idl Shvartz who felt most cheated, being the head of the council. There was also a fear that Dr. G. Zita, who was assimilated, would leave Achiezer. The youth had made up their minds to carry on the work of the institute even if the leadership decided to leave the Achiezer. The crisis passed without any further agitation.
In the summer of 1914, on Tishah B'Av, the first world war broke out and immediately a black cloud was cast over Jewish life. Biale saw the refugee camps that were filled with the inhabitants of entire Jewish villages of Galicia and CongressPoland who fled their homes as the front line of fighting approached them. All Jewish social movements in all of Russia ceased their activities for a while and concentrated their efforts on the aidcommittee in Peterburg and its divisions, in order to provide for the needs of the refugees. The Zionist movement in Biale held its breath for a while.
In the summer of 1915, with the advance of the German army eastwards, part of the Jewish population of Biale began to leave. Fear reigned amongst them that the battles around the Brisk fortress would last a lot longer and that the closest towns would suffer most. Many went to Russia to places they were sure that the war would not reach. A small part, mainly the young members of families that remained in the town, went to Shedletz, to avoid being drafted into the Russian army.
After the German occupation of Biale in 1915, the Zionists that remained in the town became active again. They thought just then, that having a European government instead of the Tsarist government, would enable them to continue their social life, with more success.
The first Zionist discussions took place between Moshe Rubinshtein and Yehoshua Fisher. They thought about what kind of practical Zionist activity they could initiate, that would draw larger groups of youth into the Zionist movement. The first idea was to organize Hebrew courses for adults. The Hebrew teacher Ya'akov Shteinman was brought into the discussions. After considering one project after another and one program after another, they came upon the idea of establishing a Hebrew school with a children's home near the school, for the children of families whose men were drafted into the Russian army, or had gone to America.
In the middle of the winter of 1915/6, an intensive organizing campaign began, in order to prepare, announce and open the Yavne school at Passover in 1916. This was the first real step towards renewed Zionist activity during the German occupation. Details about the school itself and its activities, will be dealt with separately in this book.
Right from the beginning, the school demonstrated its strong influence, beyond the bounds of its actual activity and direct purpose. Male and female students of the school aged 12 and 13, used to come home with happy
little faces and in good spirits, with songs on their lips and with stories from Jewish history and legends that stirred their fantasies. Grownup sisters and brothers, who were older than school age, would envy their younger brothers and sisters who were fortunate to still be of school age.
Reb Chaim Levi Rubinshtein's wooden house on Kshiver street, where the Yavne school was situated, became like a flame that attracts all those who yearn for light. At the time of the lectures in the school, small boys used to wander behind the windows or stand a few steps back and listen, to catch something from its original source, straight from the teacher's mouth. Hebrew songs that were sung in the school were immediately heard everywhere.
The school had just opened a few weeks earlier when the first Lag Ba'omer approached and the children were taken on an outing into the forest. The male and female students, dressed in festive clothes, marched in orderly rows, singing Hebrew songs through the streets of the town. This first public march of the Hebrew school in the town, understandably, drew with it other young people who participated in the new celebration of this Jewish festival, that until now, had not been commemorated.
All this created a Zionist spirit in the town. The active Zionists were striving to increase and expand their numbers, after this first splendid success.
The Zionist circle grew with members from the so called refugees who slowly settled in Biale. Of those who joined, some were active workers and others, just members. At that time Moshe Barlas, who came from Brisk with his entire family, became an active worker.
In the summer of 1916, further steps were taken to embrace the youth and bring them under the influence of the Zionists. Reading sessions were organized every Saturday afternoon in the big hall in the shul premises. These gatherings were not only accessible to acknowledged Zionists but even to the opponents of Zionism like, for example, active Bundists who had good relationships with the Zionist leadership. Pulye (Raphael) Lederman was even given the opportunity to lecture from a Bundist point of view, and Vaksin (a refugee from Brisk) who represented an assimilated leaning, also had the opportunity to participate in the conversations and discussions.
This circle grew, the lectures were well attended and after a short time, a significant Zionist group crystallized. On the one hand, the attendance at the gatherings once a week on the Sabbath diminished (it was not possible to use the synagogue premises during the week) but on the other hand, there were constant additional overflowing discussions with opponents, where the same arguments and counterarguments were repeated again and again. It was therefore decided to establish a Zionist BetAm at a different location that would be a gathering place for the Zionist youth, and also for sympathizers. According to the decision BetAm would have to be led by a specially elected committee, under the leadership of the chairman of the Zionist committee.
The first location of BetAm was in the house of Meyer Korman in Grabanove Street, in the corner of that narrow street. The premises consisted of two attic rooms and a front room.
BetAm was opened in the winter of 1916/7 with a solemn opening night. The festivity could be felt not only by the inner spirit but also externally, by the clothes; the crowd wore their Sabbath clothes, were dressed up and excited. From the first moment, Moshe Rubinshtein stood at the head of Bet Am, one would say ex officio, as chairman of the Zionist committee. The other committeemembers were elected and amongst them were: Chaim Barlas, Mendel Kavve, Yonah Shteinman etc.
The organizational tasks that were initiated, were divided into separate branches. Various subcommittees were elected for each separate area of work. In this way many more members were involved in the activities. Each subcommittee had tasks to perform and at the same time, had to present a report to the governing committee. In this way they were able to participate in the meetings. Cultural activities took place often and consisted of readings of literary works and articles on current public affairs. A dramatic group was organized, under the leadership by Moshe Piekarsky, and a choir, under the direction of Shimon Blankleider (the thin one). Later Maccabi was established, as well as its windorchestra.
One room was designated for the activities of these subcommittees and every day, this room was at the disposal of another subcommittee, except when general gatherings and events took place and the entire venue was occupied.
Every Saturday afternoon, the Hebrew circle would gather and each time another member would read the current public affairs in Hebrew and other works in Hebrew. Among the active workers in the Zionist organization, were two German Jews who were in the German army: Fritz Kornberg an
Architect) and Dr. Shvabe, the chairman of the student rowing club Ivriyah in Berlin, who worked in Biale in Police administration. Their collaboration was very important but understandably, they were limited by the bounds of feasibility.
There was a buffet in the front room of Bet Am that was run by the Vineshtein sisters (Dudl Brukirer's daughters). Shayne, a younger sister of theirs (now living in New York) attended the Yavne school and brought them into the Zionist circle.
The work was satisfying. The youth came from all levels, even from amongst those who were apparently far removed from Zionism. Firstly, as already mentioned, the school students inspired their older brothers and sisters, and secondly, the Bet Am was the only place in the town where the youth could gather and enjoy themselves freely. From the first moment the Bet Am was set up on the basis of freedom of religion that even brought them into conflict with the earlier religious Zionists, part of whom actually left and founded the Mizrachi.
In the summer of 1917, after a period of intensive work, the first general gathering of the Bet Am took place that was supposed to be the first meeting of a large and strong group of organised members. Both rooms, that were not particularly large, were packed. After hearing the report of the chairman about the activities of the group, since the opening of Bet Am, the debates began. And here a strong opposition manifested itself, not against the nature of the activities but against the principle that one person, should not be the chairman of both the Zionist committee and Bet Am, at the same time.
The opposition was led internally, by the committee members Chaim Barlas and Mendel Kavve. The opposition influenced almost the whole gathering. M. Rubinshtein, with the support only of Dr. Shvabe, a person with strong organizational skills and pragmatism, defended the idea of one person as chairman, with the argument that this was the only guarantee that the Bet Am would remain Zionistic and not become a discussion club as it did in the period of the Sabbath gatherings.
This meeting lasted three evenings. Finally, it was decided that as an alternative to the issue of the chairman, the Zionist committee would also be the committee of Bet Am. From that time on, Bet Am formally became a Zionist organization, as a club and also as a venue for all Zionist activities.
In 1917, with the growth of the Zionist organization in German occupied territory, the central Zionist organization in Warsaw, decided to implement a Zionist referendum in all the towns and villages, together with fundraising for the Jews of Jaffa and Tel Aviv who were driven from their homes by the Turkish government. The primary purpose of the referendum, was meant to be a political demonstration for the Land of Israel at that time, however, in the prevailing atmosphere there was the belief that the current war was a freedomwar for oppressed peoples.
The content of the declaration read:
In recognition of the enormous merit of providing assistance to our brothers, the pioneers in the land of Israel, we, the Jews of Poland, express a strong desire that will not be broken. The great upheaval in the world that is likely to bring freedom and liberty to all the oppressed nations, will also realize the historic Jewish ideal to create a secure homeland in justice for the Jewish people, in its historic homeland, in the Land of Israel.
The signatures appeared under the text together with the addresses of the signatories.
The arm of the Federation of the Orthodox known as the The Jewish word, waged a battle against this referendum and called on all the religious Jews not to sign their names.
The Zionist organization in Biale played a very active role. Members went out in pairs and visited every Jewish home, telling the residents about the Land of Israel and the hope that is being pinned on a favourable solution for our needs, when after the war, nations will sit around the peace table. Tens of sheets of paper were filled in, with hundreds of signatures. Biale participation was also evident among the 200 Polish towns and villages with their 250 thousand signatures.
The various workcommittees of the organization expanded and required more place and time. The premises, that were an advantage in the beginning and made it possible to unload Zionist zeal, could no longer satisfy the appetite, that came with the eating. Each group (dramatic section, choir, Maccabi orchestra etc.) needed more days, more rooms, larger premises.
The search began for a second suitable place. In the winter of 1917/8 Bet Am moved into the house of Moshe Lebnberg on Brisk street, for a short while. It was at this time that the first public clash took place between the Zionist group and the Biale Rabbi.
In January 1918, news came of the death of the Zionist leader Dr. Yechiel Tshlenov. The committee
decided to arrange a public commemoration in the large synagogue. Previously too, Zionist events that were organized in closed locations (Bet Am, Yavne School) were visited by guests who stood outside of the ranks of the Zionist group; this time however, it meant an invitation to the whole community, to come and pay respects to the memory of the Zionist leader. This commemoration was duly announced. On the appointed day, the Biale Rabbi sent for the warden of the synagogue, Gadl the son of Binye, and not only forbad him to open the synagogue but also asked him to bring the keys of the synagogue and removed them from his possession.
The whole afternoon there were stirrings and turbulence. People who wanted to avoid a clash, turned to the Rabbi and tried to influence him to allow the commemoration to be held in the synagogue, but without success.
Evening began to fall and people came at the appointed time and began to gather in the synagogue courtyard, but were unable to enter the synagogue. In a matter of half an hour, the entire synagogue courtyard was black with people. This response from the community to this Zionist event, was a success.
The stubbornness of the Rabbi, threw the Zionist youth into a separate comicbattle, and the members of Maccabi who were assigned to maintain order at the commemoration, stood prepared to open the synagogue by force, which was not an easy matter; the synagogue was locked with double doors and heavy locks. It was difficult to decide whether to open the doors by force, as long as they thought that there was chance that the Rabbi would relent. They also did not want create the slightest sign of desecrating the synagogue by breaking down the doors.
When however, it became clear, that there was no other choice, an order was given to find a way of opening the synagogue from the inside, and as far as possible, not to break the doors. Three Maccabi members, under the leadership of Asher Feigenboim (Moshe Glezer's son), went into the women's synagogue on the third floor, tore a bar from the window and through this opening, Feigenboim let himself down into the men's synagogue. In a matter of half an hour, the synagogue doors were pried open from the inside. The synagogue was filled immediately and hundreds remained standing outside.
Members spoke about the deceased and even chanted the prayer El malei rachamim. This prayer should have been intoned by the town's cantor, who did not attend as he was forbidden to do so, by the Rabbi. Instead it was done by one of the members (Pintshe Liebman).
This incident, the public struggle with the opponent, and with the Rabbi to add, gave the Zionist leaders in the town the courage to shed their constraints and come out into the open. It was the forerunner of other social struggles and clashes that were waiting in the near future.
After a short time Bet Am moved into the house of Kalman Sheinberg on Sadaver street. Here in fact, was the actual, true Bet Am, the place that attracted the town's youth. The accommodation consisted of five rooms, of which two were combined. By removing the wall that divided the two rooms, one large hall was created for meetings and for gymnastic practices for Maccabi.
The work was divided anew into various subcommittees. Every branch was assigned its time and place appropriately, according to the new circumstances. Every two weeks, public meetings of the socalled Mo'atzah (Board) would take place, that consisted of the members of the various subcommittees. Permanent readings were introduced: literary, articles on current affairs from the press, literary laws etc. In one word, a renewed impetus began in Zionist life.
At that time, the Youth of Zion group, began to form in the town and later, during Polish rule, the Hashomer Ha'tzair, that began as a scout organization. They all found their place in Bet Am.
It was in 1918, that in the air, one could feel the approach of the end of the war. All around things became a little freer. The borders of the socalled stockade that had been locked in the whole time for the military, as a fenced off territory, without a connection to the outside world, was slowly torn down. Without knowing how and from what direction, the people received greetings and news from outside. With the advance of the German army deep into Russia, the Jewish military personnel in Biale, who were active in the Zionist movement in the town, left. In a roundabout way, they created some sort of contact between the Zionist group in Biale and the actioncommittee in Berlin.
There was almost no connection with Warsaw. For the third Zionist landconference
exit permits could not be obtained from the German stockade authorities. Gradually however, it became easier to make contacts and news began to arrive from different sources. In Russia, members were found who had left as the front lines of the war drew nearer. From them we began to receive literature, newspapers, and circulars from Zionist centres and from the Cultural organizations in Russia, that gave an idea of the scope of Zionist activity in Russia. Also, the afore mentioned Fritz Kornberg in Kharkov was in contact and sent publications of the Zionist youth movement in the Ukraine, where he was also active.
Later it was easier to make contact with Warsaw. One could already send a letter, and a travel permit was easier to obtain. At that time, the news of the Balfour Declaration reached us, news that the Germans hoped, would not reach the Jewish population.
In short, they emerged from their restricted circumstances to follow a broader path. They foresaw intensive political and social activity, to the same degree as they felt the slow dying of the German war tempo and its approaching end.
At the end of the summer of 1918, the first returnees began to arrive from Russia. On the one hand, there were the exleftists with the message of the Bolshevik revolution and its ideals, and on the other hand the Chassidic middleclass element, who, until the outbreak of war, could only be Chassidim of the prayer houses. A few of these returning Chassidim then founded the Agudat Yisrael.
These elements began to take their place in society. The Zionists, who were until then predominant, had to agree to an interparty collaboration (in the American aidcommittee, where all parties were represented under the chairmanship of Moshe Rubinshtein) and sometimes had to do battle with opposing parties.
In the autumn of 1918, the Zionist movement in Poland was strengthened by the fullblooded power of Yitzchak Greenboim, who returned from Russia at that time. The first task in organizing Jewish life in Poland, was Greenboim's project of calling together a general Jewish national convention, at which a national council would be elected, that would stand at the head of Polish Jewry and manage its interests. This idea met with opposition from the Agudah, the Bund, the members of the folk party and also Zionistsocialist parties. The Zionist leadership decided in the meantime, to call together, a preconference to this national convention in December 1918. This preconference was attended by Zionists as well as those who did not affiliate with the parties.
In Biale, the elections to this preconference, became the first contest of the Zionist group with other parties in the political battle. The main opposition in this area came from the followers of the Agudah. They undermined public meetings in the synagogue. They did everything they could to obstruct the idea of a general national Jewish council, that would not be built on Torah and commandments. At one of these gatherings, Itshe Meir Cohen, spoke from the side of the Agudah. Before the war, he was removed from worldly matters but after returning from Russia he felt that he was capable of appearing at a public gathering. His most important argument was, that the Zionists do not wear tzitzit [fringed garment].
On an appointed winter's day, the elections for the preconference took place in the synagogue. Moshe Rubinshtein and Chaim Barlas were elected.
At this conference, the Biale representatives made their first acquaintance with Zionist customs, and immediately, at this first introduction, occupied a meaningful place in the Zionist movement in Poland.
In January 1919, elections to the constitution parliament of the renewed Poland, brought pogroms against Jews in Lemberg, Kieltz and other places; attacks on Jews by the Halerchiks and Poznanchiks [antisemitic groups], by cutting beards and other similar heroic deeds, took place also in Biale.
At this time, the Zionist organization in Biale began to prepare for the election battle. Four constituents were attached to the Biale elections: Biale, Radzin, Vladove and Yaneve. From time to time, conventions were called of all the towns and villages in the four districts. These conventions were held in Bet Am. An episode that is worth mentioning concerns a Pole from the Mezritsh area who came to the convention and presented himself with an unusual request. He was a liberal Pole who did not agree with the antiSemitic incitement and wanted to receive a Jewish mandate to the Polish parliament. This election convention, after hearing the speeches of the members Ch. Barlas and M. Rubinshtein, accepted the Zionist election platform and created in Biale a
central election bureau, that would manage the election activities in the entire electoral district.
All the Zionist youth threw themselves into the election campaign with great enthusiasm. Local members worked intensively and made contact with all the towns and villages in the four districts through frequent circulars, letters and personal visits. Financial support for election expenses was not required from the central organization in Warsaw. Immediately after submitting the list of candidates (on which the following names appeared: advocate Apolinari Hartglas, advocate Alexander Hertz Alshvanger and the engineer Moshe Kerner) that received the number 5, a numbersale was organized in the entire election circle on the same day, that carried the number 5, in order to cover the election expenses. In the two months of the election campaign, the Bet Am became the frenzied headquarters.
With the approaching election day, a series of election meetings began, our own and of the opposition. The atmosphere became increasingly heated. Since the elections in the whole of Poland at that time, were already over, electioneering by all parties was now free. (Biale was only freed later from German occupation, therefore the elections here, took place later). The speakers and instructors were therefore able to put all their efforts into this one Biale election circle. The elections took place on a Sunday. On the weekend before the Sunday, a few young Zionist speakers from Warsaw voted: Dr. Esther Mangel, Yitzchak Itkin, Mordechai Yaffe, and Ya'akov Fiantnitsky who spoke at various gatherings. On Friday evening a meeting of the Folk party was held, at which Noach Prilutsky spoke. He was opposed by Dr. Esther Mangel from the Zionist side.
After the meeting, by the way, after close examination, it was decided to assemble the next day, on the Saturday night, at the same place (in the cinema hall of Chaim Kashtenboim), where there would be a meeting of the national register, at which Yitzchak Greenboim would speak.
The next evening Yitzchak Greenboim arrived in Biale. The hall was packed and the audience waited impatiently for the meeting to begin. One could feel the fire in the air. The opposition mobilized all their energies to disturb the meeting and in addition to them, the Bund were preparing to cause havoc and prevent Greenboim from speaking. Greenboim stood on the podium, encircled by a strong group of members, but it was impossible to start speaking. A strong Bundist group stood at the ramp in front of the podium and poured out a deluge of screams and heckling that had no connection to the actual problems of the elections. Finally, Greenboim managed to overcome the tumult of the wild screaming. His impromptu speech hardly touched on the elections of the following day, but was a cutting analysis of the Jewish problem regarding the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. With baited breath, the whole hall listened to the speaker. The group of Bundists at the ramp became more infuriated by Greenboim's analysis, and in their rage, they screamed that somewhere in a village, Zionists betrayed their Bundist members. Greenboim promised to investigate the matter. A Bundist then shouted provocateur! Greenboim immediately retorted: For this one pays with blood! A fight broke out and the meeting could not be brought to a close and one felt, that to continue was not possible. After a reception for deputy Greenboim, the members escorted him to the station.
Early on Sunday, all the members went to their assigned positions and performed their tasks with devotion. And now came the days of waiting for the results of the long exhausting preparations. These were days, that on the one hand, were days of release from tension, after weeks of stressful work almost without respite, and on the other hand, a restless, passive waiting for the result. Zionist members hung around impatiently in the corridors of the circle court that served the central election commission. They already knew 10 hours earlier, from their representative in the commission, before the central election commission officially declared the result of the elections, that their work was not in vain. They also knew that their beloved advocate A. Hartglas, would increase and strengthen the power of the national group's deputation in the Polish parliament.
The elections to parliament were the first political activity in the renewed Poland, in the general political arena. At the same time, the local government was formed, that included a magistrate, who began to control the activities of the parties and the social organizations and immediately banned the activities of the Zionist organization.
People however, did not lose their cool. It was evident from the first contacts with the new government, that the line of approach, of asking for legalization, was long and uncertain so they chose a shorter path. There was a decree from the head of state
who automatically legalized all the unions that had existed legally during the German occupation and this saved the situation. In truth, even from this point of view, everything was not strictly kosher, yet in this way it was much easier to procure a permit. This dispute with the new Polish government was reported in an article in the Zionist daily newspaper The Jewish People.
In August 1919, the fourth Zionist landconvention in Poland took place, to which Biale sent two delegates: Moshe Rubinshtein and Ya'akov Aharon Rozenboim. At this convention, the independent organization Zionistyouth distinguished itself. Already then, a split began in the lines of the Zionist organization, between democrats and those on the right, that later lead to the split between Al Hamishmar [On Guard] and Et Livnot [Time to Build]. Biale then sided with the democratic group.
In the same year 1919, there were also elections to the Biale town council, during which all Jewish parties nominated separate lists of candidates. From the Zionist list, Moshe Rubinshtein and Moshe Kavve were elected.
In the town council, all the Jewish councilors, besides the Bundists, built a Jewish faction under the chairmanship of Moshe Rubinshtein, and voted as one. Once, when on the day's agenda there was a Jewish issue for which there was no hope of avoiding a vote against Jewish interests, the Jewish faction disrupted this sitting by leaving the hall. In this way, they upset the legal quorum required for the vote.
There were never any clashes with the Bundist councilors.
From 30th December 1919 until 1st January 1920 there was a convention in Warsaw of Jewish councilors in Poland, in which Biale also participated. The aim of the convention was to unify Jewish activity on the town councils.
In 1920, Biale's participation in central Zionist activity in Poland, intensified. As a result, local Zionist activity was diminished, because active members went to work in the central Zionist institutions in Warsaw.
After Purim in 1920, a convention took place in Shedletz, of the Zionist institutions in the Shedletz area. The lecturers at this convention were from Warsaw, one from Shedletz and one from Biale. The lecture of the Biale member, was about social work. The social work in Poland at that time, after the first world war, consisted of the aidcommittees of Joint. Almost in the whole of Poland, this work lay mainly in the hands of the assimilated circles or in the hands of the orthodox. In Biale this work was managed by a broad social committee, under Zionist leadership, in which all the parties, from left to right, were represented. The work was conducted in a constructive way which was remarkable at that time. Therefore, the lecture at the aforementioned Shedletz convention, was given to a Biale representative. They wanted to know how it worked.
In 1920 there was a crisis in the PolishRussian war. The fighting front moved ever closer. Life became increasingly difficult; people did not leave their homes because they were grabbed for work. The civil government left the town and they remained under military rule. In the most difficult days, a PolishJewish civilian militia unit was established, in which our members participated, in order to keep an eye on everything that could be done for the Jews in the town because the militia had the right to move around freely in the town, even in the hours when it was forbidden to the civilian population. Finally, the town was occupied by the Red Army. The civilian militia ceased to exist.
The Russian military government immediately organized the Revkom (Revolutionary Committee) and gradually set up the division of the civil administration. In organizing this administration, the Russians did not necessarily seek a communistic group of fellowworkers but at first employed everyone who volunteered to cooperate. Later the government challenged every person capable of doing administrative tasks, to work together.
At that time, there were vigorous debates in the Zionist group, about whether to cooperate or not. Sessions were held regarding the acceptance of official decisions about this matter. A consensus had to be reached, for in the event of a negative decision reaching the government, it would immediately result in a trial by the revolutionary tribunal and an instant death sentence for sabotage. The debate was therefore held in secret and there was an unspoken exchange of opinion
without any decisions. Each person therefore made their own decision and no one prevented another from acting according to his own understanding.
Once a question was raised in a session. It was a Sabbath, 6 days after the Russian military government settled in Biale. Early on that Sabbath day, one of the leading members was invited to a meeting of the division of culture and school matters, that took place in the building of the high school. The member was required to assume the position of inspector of Jewish school matters in the Biale and Yaneve districts. The discussion lasted approximately an hour. The member tried to extricate himself from this appointment, saying, that he was a Zionist and that he could only build an educational program that would include Hebrew and Tanach (Bible). The answer was that there would be no interference in the educational program. His reluctance did not help at all as a mandate was written for the member mentioned, on the spot, and he was appointed early the next morning, in order to give him time to find appropriate premises for his office.
That Sabbath afternoon, a session of a small group of members was called, that took the form of a visit to a sick female member, around her bed. During the discourse, the question was mentioned, very sharply for the first time. Most were in favour of the position being accepted because of the importance of Jewish schools remaining in Zionist hands. The minority, and amongst them the member selected to hold this office, were of the opinion that they should wait for the outcome of the battle in Warsaw. In the event of Warsaw falling, then they would be able to come into contact with the Zionist central committee.
The next day, Sunday, the appointed member did not go and look for premises for an office. In the evening, placards with notices were posted in the town by the Russian government notifying, that in cases of sabotage, people would be brought before a revolutionary tribunal within 24 hours. Because of this, it was decided that the appointed member should take over his position on Monday. Suddenly on Monday however, there was a change in the military situation, and the same evening, the Russian army evacuated Biale.
The retreat of the Russian army, that happened so suddenly, brought a situation where members who worked in Russian administration had to leave Biale, for fear of revenge by the returning Polish government. These members fled eastwards. Some of them stopped on the way, in places where they were not known and later returned. Others fled to Russia.
The reorganization of Zionist activity in the town was difficult after the Bolshevik invasion that caused part of the active members to relocate. The political atmosphere, and PolishJewish relationships were strained, and did not make the implementation of social practises easy.
After the confirmation of the Balfour Declaration, an immigration of Polish Jews to the Land of Israel began. The immigration policy of the Zionist organization favoured the immigration of tradesmen. At that time the Zionist organization in Biale established a joiner's workshop that was located in the courtyard of the Freedmans (called: Garden of Eden), in Narutovicz street. There, in the workshop, a number of members acquired a trade and prepared for their emigration to the Land of Israel. The workshop was run by Asherl Feigenboim (Moshe Glezer's son).
In approximately 1920, individuals began to prepare for their emigration to the Land of Israel.
The first person to leave Biale and went on Hachsharah [preparatory agricultural training for prospective immigrants to Palestine] to the pioneering farm Grochov, near Warsaw, was Itte Urmacher. Later, she was actually among the first immigrants to the Land of Israel. Further, of the youth that emigrated were: Zelig Rozenfeld and Pearl Vizenfeld. Of the older people Shlaymele Viseberg
|Certificate from the Zionist organization in Biale, for Moshe Braverman on his immigration to the Land of Israel in 1924|
(hatmaker), Yeshayahu Agress, Alter Vineberg, Sholem Rogalsky, Noach Man etc.
At the end of summer 1922, the end of the term of office of the Polish Constitutional parliament approached. Jews too, had to begin preparing for the election of the new parliament.
In Biale, a circle conference was called for the first time in Poland, for representatives from the entire election circle (4 districts), at which the deputies Yitzchak Greenboim, Apolinari Hartglas and Heshl Farbshtein had to present reports of their activities in the Constitutional parliament. The conference took place on a Sunday. In the morning, there was a public meeting in the hall of Chaim Yaske Kashtenboim. After the meeting the deputies received delegations from various societies and institutions. In the afternoon, a large Zionist meeting was held in the synagogue. The streets on the way to the synagogue were packed and Biale had never seen such congestion in the synagogue and in the synagogue courtyard. In the evening the conference of the representatives of the election circle, was held in Kayovske's hall. At this conference, a decision was taken regarding the list of candidates to the second parliament, from the Biale election circle. Afterwards, similar conferences were called in other election circles, based on Biale's example.
In 1923 the great dispute in Polish Zionism began and brought about a split between two groupings: Al Hamishmar and Et Livnot. The Al Hamishmar group was in the minority in Biale. To the 6th Zionist landconference, Biale sent delegates from the Et Livnot group. The leading members in Biale, who belonged to Al Hamishmar and who always represented Biale at the landconferences, were elected to this conference in other locations.
The reactionaries that grouped themselves around the Rabbi, could not digest the growth of Zionist life and activity in the town and brought out their old weapon from its hiding place, the ban. The reason for the ban was, a fragment from a poem by the poet Dovid Shimonovicz, that was printed on the title page of a periodic publication by Hashomer Ha'tzair, under the name El Al. This edition, with appropriate commentaries, was brought to the Rabbi by a Chassid from Radzin.
The ban that was imposed on the Zionists, was announced with all its harshness in the synagogue, by the Rabbi himself, beside kindled lights, accompanied by the blowing of the shofar and vehement curses. These curses from the Biale Rabbi and the calling of the ban, made a deep impression on the superstitious masses.
This needed a prompt and not belated answer, that would undo and completely destroy this foolish fear. And the answer came immediately. The next day, it already became known that the Zionists were taking up the battle and would wage it freely and publicly, against the Rabbi and all his accomplices.
From this ban, the first newspaper in Biale was born, named Biale Echo. In the newspaper, the ban was put to shame. The scene of the ban in the synagogue was presented in the form of a play that made the audience roll from laughter, yet this was necessary.
The Zionist organization in the town was preparing for the community elections and in order to establish an election fund, it organized various events. Amongst these, it was decided to bring Cantor Gershon Sirotta and his daughter to perform in a concert. When everything had already been organized and the posters announcing Sirotta's appearance, were already visible in the town, the Zionist organization received a telegram from Cantor Sirotta, saying, that unfortunately he was unable to come, because there was an intervention in the name of the Biale Rabbi, that he should abandon the idea of visiting Biale. The Biale Zionists did not keep quiet, and after much trouble, they persuaded Sirotta to come to Biale.
A Purim ball was organised at a public venue during Purim in 1924. A special script was written for the ball, a satire about the ban, that began with the words: I was sent to you by the Rabbi (a parody based on Bialik's The last word). The program for the ball was advertised publicly on posters and marked the reading of this satire. This enraged the followers of the Rabbi. They tried with every possible means to affect the removal of the satire from the program, but the Zionists did not yield to their demands and the satire was recited at the ball.
With this bold battle, the Zionist organization in Biale caused havoc in their attempts to modernize the Middle Ages.
After the ban, the Zionist opponents in the town put pressure on Kalman Sheinberg to remove the BetAm from his house. Of course, Kalman Sheinberg took all steps to get rid of the Zionist organization, that was unfortunately for him, successful. The Zionist organization had to leave the superb, large
premises and move to the house of Mendl Goldfarb on Mezritsh street. In their new premises, there was also the contemporary, now wealthy, Tarbut library, and various lectures were arranged there.
The completion of the dissertation by M. Bruchl
With the departure of Moshe Rubinshtein from Biale, first to Warsaw and later to the Land of Israel, the activities of the general Zionists in Biale, was weakened. Also the splitting of the Zionist organization worldwide, understandably, echoed in Biale. The further downfall of the organization of the general Zionists in Biale, was therefore a natural phenomenon.
Until the beginning of the twenties, Biale possessed one Zionist organization, where all those disposed to Zionism in the town, were grouped together. The Mizrachi however, existed as a separate party, and aside from cultural activities, cooperated with the Zionist organization in all matters. The Hashomer Ha'tzair was then purely a scout group, under the authority of the Zionist organization, during all necessary party activities. In this period, various Zionist groups began to rise in Biale according to the pattern set by other towns in Poland, that were directly in line with the central organization in Warsaw. Not only did they not cooperate with the earlier Zionist organization in the town, but often went against her. Of course, the newly formed groups drew a number of members from the former Zionist organization to them and almost severed the flow of youthful power in its ranks.
In this period Hashomer Hatzair changed from a scout group and became an independent youth organization with its own political orientation. The Revisionist party came into existence and waged a bitter battle with the local Zionist organization. The Hechalutz movement came into existence and was very active, drawing the working youth into their ranks. Hechalutz sent its members on Hachsharah (agricultural training farms that prepared prospective emigrants to Palestine) and tried to encourage them to emigrate to the Land of Israel. In the thirties, the right wing Po'alei Tzion, established a branch. In Biale there was also an active division of The league for a working Land of Israel.
Of course, these differentiations within the Zionist camp, strongly affected the former unity of the Zionist organization in the town, that had now become a division of the general Zionist organization in Warsaw and in which, there again existed the factions A and B. The members of the older generation remained in this organization, without the youth. The difficult social situation had its effect, throwing the members into complete apathy.
Standing from right: Yisroel Goldshtein, Shmuel Zusman, Zelig Yakobovsky, Shmuel Orlansky, Yostina Zeidman, Ya'akov Kornblum, Dovid Kantor, Dovid Nortman, Boruch Tselnikker
Sitting: Moshe Morgenshtern, Ya'akov Shteinman, Asher Hoffer, Binyomin Klieger, Ya'kov Aharon Rozenboim, Yitzchak Agress
Third row: Shmuel Viezenfeld, Hershl Orlansky and Chaim Miyodek
At the head of the Zionist organization in Biale after the departure of Moshe Rubinshtein, were:
For many years Chaim Miyodek was the secretary, who excelled in his intensive work. In the last years
the Zionist organization was located in Tshasnem street, in the house of the butcher Moshe Goldshtein.
It needs to be mentioned that despite the splintering of the Zionist organization into different groups a situation that prevailed in Biale in the last few years before the war, all the Zionist groups were united in their activity for the Keren Kayemet L'yisrael (The Jewish National Fund).
From Podlassier Life number 29/9 of 26.7.1933, it can be seen that during the elections to the 18th Zionist Congress, that took place in the town on 23rd July 1933, 968 votes were cast out of 1027 members with voting rights.
List number 1. (Al Hamishmar) 59 votes; List number 2. (Et Livnot) 5 votes; List number 3. (Mizrachi) 132 votes; List number 4. 0 votes; List number 5. Bloc for a Working Israel 514 votes; List number 6. Revisionists 251 votes; List number 7. 7 votes.
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