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[Page 174]

The Bundist Faction in the City Council

by Khaim Babitz, Tel Aviv

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In the history of the national struggle waged in Polish municipalities for equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens, the 15 year–long efforts of the Bundist faction in the Nowy Dwor city council can surely serve as an example. Those tireless efforts yielded results, liberating the masses from the fear they felt when they required aid from municipal institutions and had to enter the city hall.

I remember from my youth two town officials who inspired such fear in me: the apothecary Karnarski, an avowed reactionary and anti–Semite who belonged to the NDK [right–wing Polish Nationalist party], and Dr. Danyel. There were certain people in the Jewish community who cooperated with these men and helped them carry out their policies. One of these was Der Geler [Redheaded] Mendl, in front of whose shop Dr. Danyel would park his carriage. Der Geler Mendl would bow obsequiously and hand the doctor a pack of cigars, all the while discussing municipal matters.

The first city council was elected in 1919 or 1920, but did not last long, its term curtailed by the Polish–Bolshevik war. Unfortunately, we do not have any information about the distribution of votes at that time and of the council members I remember only our esteemed townsman, the dentist Shmuel Grabman, who was elected on the slate of the folkistn [populist party] and then voted along with the workers' representatives on all questions.

There were very few Jewish councilmen at that time. The Jewish population felt alienated from the city council, and thought it was only for the non–Jews, not for us. This changed in 1923 when the council did not have a full complement of members, and the staroste [county government] ordered supplementary elections. This was the first time that the town population experienced the great struggle for a just municipal policy.

It should be noted that in this matter the Jewish and Polish workers formed a united front, a “Socialist bloc” in which the P.P.S. [Polish Socialist Party], the Bund and the Communists were represented. At the time, the Communists were called “the left P.P.S.” Both parties lacked a stable organization in Nowy Dwor. The Christian Democrats still wielded strong influence in the Modlin shipyards, where the majority of Polish workers were employed. Because of their weakness, the P.P.S. and the Communists had to rely on the Bundist organization, which provided the strength and set the tone for the Socialist bloc.

Their victory was a surprise. The Socialist bloc won three seats: From the Bund, [Khaim] Rudowski; from the P.P.S., Pshibishewski; and from the Communists, Lukoshewski, a Polish shoe–worker. From that time on the Nowy Dwor city council served as a municipal arena in which the conflicts among the various political tendencies played out until the last days of the war with the Nazis. It should be added that for the four years of their terms, the councilmen of the Socialist bloc

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functioned as a unified force, voted together and were in constant contact.

The Jewish population began to feel that the town administration wasn't a matter only for “them” but that every one of us had his rights and obligations and needed to demand his due. Leading the struggle was the Bundist organization with its sole councilmember, Rudowski. The struggle was two–fold: a political one – to achieve a Socialist majority in the council and magistrat [city administration, whose officers were selected from those elected to the council]; and a daily, practical one – to help the poor Jewish population with interventions with various municipal institutions. “Interventions” then meant getting help for a sick person who didn't have a penny to his name, with Rudowski running to get a town doctor to treat him for free, or get him into a hospital without charge. Or one had to intervene for a tenant who was being evicted, or for someone whom the tax authorities were threatening with confiscation of his last bit of goods –a common occurrence in the “lordly” homes of Piasker Street – whom we had to help lest they be left to live on the streets.

All these small troubles and events served as the best reflection of the socio–economic conditions of the vast majority of the Jewish population. So it was understandable that our actions on their behalf yielded results and when the council term ended and new elections were held in 1927, the Bund had a major victory. Together with the P.P.S. and Communists, they achieved a Socialist majority.

Of the 24 councilmen elected, 13 were from the Socialist bloc – 6 from the P.P.S., 5 from the Bund, and 2 from the Communists. Ten of the councilmen were Jewish – 5 from the Bund, 2 from the handworkers' union, 1 from the Communists and 2 from the Jewish national bloc, which included all the Jewish civic organizations. As far as I remember, those elected from the Bund were Khaim Yitshak Rudowski, Didek Zilbertal, Ahron Gortsovitsh, Nisn Shteynberg and Sinek Hirshbeyn. Rudowski was elected to the magistrat as Vice–Mayor and Zilbertal was alderman for the financial department. Yisroel Rabinovitsh (recently died in Australia) and Pinkes Kronenberg replaced them on the city council. Those elected from the handworkers' union were Ahron Shulbank and Binyomin Kronenberg. Fishl Brotsik was one of the two left wing [Communist] representatives.

The election campaign was one of the biggest political actions that Nowy Dwor had ever seen. The Bund needed a large venue to house their programs and large meetings, so large that Junker's hall wasn't big enough, and they had to move first to the courtyard at Junker's and then to the marketplace. In many cases they held parallel meetings and Nowy Dwor had the honor of hearing the best speakers and activists of the Bund. On the last Saturday before the voting, the great popular leader Herr Beyrish Mikholovitsh closed the election campaign at Junker's courtyard with these words: “The famous military fortress Modlin is in Nowy Dwor, but Nowy Dwor itself is a Bundist fortress.”

But the electoral victory also caused the Bund some serious problems. The P.P.S. faction didn't have suitable people to place in charge of the municipal administration. Moreover, the councilmen from the right wing groups –Polish as well as Jewish – were so embittered by their defeat in the elections that they didn't want to work together with the Socialist majority in the magistrat. They also had the support of the people in power in Warsaw who were looking for ways to break the power of the Socialist majority in the council and in the magistrat.

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The magistrat consisted of five members: The mayor, his deputy, and three aldermen. The Mayor was supposed to be from the P.P.S. and his deputy from the Bund, but the P.P.S. didn't have a suitable candidate. The Bund then proposed its candidate for Mayor – Rudowski – and this put the P.P.S. in a difficult position, because the Polish reactionaries were then conducting a terrible campaign charging that the P.P.S. had sold out to the Bund. The central offices of the Bund and the P.P.S. in Warsaw got involved. At one point, they were considering for the Mayor's position an activist of the central Bund, who was involved in Bund activities regarding municipal government – Herr Victor Adler, who was later killed. But finally the P.P.S. designated their own candidate – Turek, who came to us from a town near Lodz also called Turek, where he held an important position in the party.

The finale of the great political event played out at the first meeting of the newly elected city council. Not only the councilmen had prepared for this meeting, but also large segments of the townspeople, mostly the Jews. The town was still feeling the impact of the delayed implementation of the people's victory. The meeting was held in a larger hall – Roznboym's “salon” and it was a stormy and dramatic one.

There were two important points on the agenda: 1) election of the magistrat and 2) declarations of the factions. As for the elections, everything went as predicted: there was a clear majority which was well prepared to elect its candidates. In contrast, the question of reading certain parts of the Bundist declaration in Yiddish required the consent of the P.P.S. and required negotiation. The reading of the declaration in Yiddish was not just a local practice; it was a Bundist practice in all municipal councils, especially where there was a Socialist majority. Moreover, people wanted to emphasize the rights of the Yiddish schools, language and culture. When the time came for the reading of the declarations, you could feel the tension in the hall. Pincus Hirshbeyn began reading the Bundist declaration, and when he switched to Yiddish, and when the amazed non–Jewish councilmen heard these sentences they could not understand, the chairman initially tried to ignore it and did not react.

But the bell soon started to ring, calling the speaker to order, ostensibly because this was in violation of the rules. But despite the objections of the reactionary Polish councilmen, the speaker managed to continue and complete his statement to the loud applause of the huge audience that had gathered in the gallery. The whole Jewish population of the town celebrated in and participated in the struggle.

The right wing councilmen declared that they would not participate in the election to the magistrat. The magistrat that was elected consisted of three P.P.S. members (Mayor Turev and two aldermen) and two Bundists (Vice Mayor Rudowski and alderman Didek Zilbertal.)

The Socialist magistrat did not have an easy job, but thanks to constant effort succeeded in driving off the threats of reaction and anti–Semitism, the influence of those two prominent men, the doctor and the apothecary, and building the town government into a communal institution, elected by the people for the people, not excepting the Jews.

The right wing councilmen did everything they could to prevent the Socialist council and magistrat from carrying out its normal constructive work. They had the support of the staroste, the voievode [provincial government] and the

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entire ruling class. First, they tried to nullify the election, and when this didn't work, because there was no basis for it, for many months they simply sabotaged things by not permitting ratification of the municipal budget. When this didn't work, all the right wing councilmen –Polish and Jewish – renounced their posts so as to deprive the council of a full quorum so that the government would dissolve it. But the Socialist majority opposed the dissolution, until supplementary elections were ordered to elect others to take the place of those right wingers who had resigned.

The rightists continued the fight and boycotted the supplemental elections, but the voting was held. The P.P.S. won six additional seats and the Bundists five more. Among those elected in the supplemental elections were Leye Shtaynberg, Hershl Kirshteyn and Khane Kupershteyn. Of the 24 council members, there were ten Bundists.

The greater majority of those elected were re–elected to further terms of the council and remained council members until the outbreak of World War II. Of course, the power of the Socialist town council did not endure. By order of the Sanation[1] government, it was dissolved. There began a period of strengthened reaction by the Sanation against the Socialist and democratic movements and against the so–called Center–Left. The P.P.S. in Nowy Dwor practically disappeared and with it the Socialist majority.

But in the Jewish arena, the Bund's influence continued to grow and the numbers of votes they received increased. Until the end in 1939, the Bund had five council members, even though it later required a larger number of votes to be elected, because the Sanation government incorporated into the town the completely Polish districts outside the town, with the aim of “Christianizing” Jewish Nowy Dwor.

The growing anti–Semitism in the 1930's confronted the Bundist council members with a difficult struggle for the rights of the working class and Jewish populations and with difficult conflicts with the rightist majority for a more fair distribution of the municipal budget, to help the Jewish institutions and to recognize the right of the Jewish workers and unemployed to jobs in public works projects.

For a long time, the Polish majority had tried to deprive the several dozens of Jewish carriage and wagon drivers of their livelihoods by establishing an autobus stop in town and between Nowy Dwor and Warsaw, knowing that this would impoverish them So the Bundists on the council fought this, in certain cases by using parliamentary obstructions to disrupt meetings and to prevent a vote. For using these tactics at one meeting, the five Bundist council members were punished with 14 days in jail. They refused to accept the alternative of payment of a fine and served their time, leading to demonstrations and protests against the government and in support of the council members. The whole town was caught up in the matter and even their political opponents admired the actions of the Bundist council members, whose reputation grew.

Today, as I write these words from a distance of 30 years, we can all be proud of the almost two decades of our communal work in our little town, which was carried out with such revolutionary spirit, political breadth, and national pride.

[Page 178]

now178a.jpg
Presidium of the Convention Committee in Nowy Dwor, 1933

 

now178b.jpg
Excursion of the Nashelsk Tsukunft in Nowy Dwor, April 17, 1930


Translator's Footnote

  1. Sanation: Polish, Sanacja, was a political movement that came to power after Jozef Pilsudski's May 1926 coup d'etat. It preached the primacy of the national interest, was opposed to parliamentary democracy, and supported authoritarian government. Return

 

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