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[Page 235]

Election Campaign in Staszów

By Yitzhak Grinbojm

Translated by Leonard Levin

The coup of Józef Piłsudski in May 1926 sparked many hopes within Polish Jewry and within leftist circles in the country. Even the Communists were infected with these feelings. The opposition of the National Democratic Party and units of the army that were influenced by it was broken within a few days, and the government passed to Piłsudski and his inner circle. Within these groups members of the intelligentsia were prominent, supporters of the previous PPS (Polish Socialist Party), and members of the radical peasants party (the Polish Peasant Party “Wyzwolenie” [liberation party]).

It became clear that the power of the National Democrats and the radical nationalist factions allied with them [who ruled Poland briefly in mid–May 1926] was not great, as was apparent to the naked eye, and they could not withstand the daring attack of loyal army units, behind which stood the workers, the vast majority of the peasants, and the national minorities, first of all the Jews.[1]

There were some who worried that the fateful confrontation between the two political camps was liable to lead to revolution and a bloody civil war. But Piłsudski and his comrades preferred to operate on the margins of the revolution, not at its center, and the National Democratic Party was careful not to fan the flames through anti–Semitic incitement, as was its custom. It decided to make a dignified retreat, fearing that it might otherwise spark a civil war with unpredictable consequences.

The clerical nationalist faction therefore submitted and made its peace with the new government. For his part, Piłsudski made his peace with the prevailing situation in the Sejm, in which a right–wing majority and peasant centrist group held sway, from whom he had wrested power.

The logic of the coup and parliamentary custom required the dissolution of the Sejm and the holding of new elections, which would set the pattern of the future government. But Piłsudski's faction feared the unpredictable outcome of elections without prior preparation of the groundwork. The national hero feared the influence of the National Democrats and their allies on the man in the street due to their long experience in anti–Semitic incitement and propaganda, which could sway the masses irrationally. The new leader therefore wanted to gain time in which he could strengthen his position in the army and in the governmental bureaucracy, to strengthen his ties with the leftist peasant groups and the PPS labor unions, and similarly to attract to his side the new leadership of the previously elected Jewish representatives who had signed the famous agreement (the ugoda) with the National Democratic government, which already in its honeymoon period was unmasked as a delusion and deception.[2]

Professor [Kazimierz] Bartel, who was appointed prime minister, took it upon himself to fulfill the new governmental plan. His inaugural speech was greeted positively. He inserted a paragraph whose formulation was negotiated with the Jewish representatives. This contained specific promises for civil equality and even concessions to national autonomy in the educational sphere within the country.

This new political style, articulated in the prime minister's speech, was different from what had been accepted in the country previously, and it signaled a positive change of attitude toward the Jews.

New winds began to blow even within the governmental bureaucracy, and it seemed that a new period had begun in the relations of the government toward Jews and other national minorities in the country.

However, even Professor Bartel was not quick to move from official pronouncements to action, much less decisive action. He put the emphasis on constitutional reforms that would strengthen the powers of the nation's president, not on social or national problems in the country.

The first Sejm, elected in 1922, which was noted for its coalition of national minority representatives at the initiative of the Jews, completed its appointed term. Before the elections for the second regular Sejm, I decided to obtain clarification of the government's plans with respect to Jewish demands. The relations between the leadership of the Jewish caucus and the government were good enough that we could obtain advance information concerning its plans toward the Jews and determine our position for the coming elections on that basis.

My interlocutor in the appropriate governmental office informed me explicitly that the government planned first of all to carry out its economic plans for the country, and only afterward would it have the leisure to solve the Jewish problem. It became clear to me at that point that it was up to the Jews to continue to maintain the bloc of national minorities in the country so that their interests would not be lost sight of amid the tangle of other problems with which Poland was involved in that period. The continued cooperation of national minorities in the country for the coming period was not a simple matter at all due to the [Orthodox Jewish] Agudah's participation in the governing coalition, the separatism of the Ukrainians in eastern Galicia, and the increased influence of the Communists in Ukrainian Volhynia and Belarus.

In light of the new conditions that had been created among the minorities in the country, greater weight was placed on the election districts in former Congress Poland, in which not much hope had been invested in previous Sejm elections.

One of those districts was Kielce, which contained a number of towns with a large Jewish population (80 percent and up), including the town of Staszów, a town that boasted a Zionist history and was an important Jewish center. At the head of the list in that district, we nominated Abraham Goldberg, the editor of Haynt,[3] and all the important powers in the Jewish center of Warsaw went out in a spirited campaign to those locations.

This was my first and last visit to Staszów. This was a hurried visit of half a day, as other towns in the area were on our itinerary–Chmielnik, Ostrowiec, Stopnica, and others.

When we arrived in town, all its Jews came out to greet us. A mass meeting took place in the large beit midrash, as there was no other large hall in town appropriate for our purpose. Between the formal greeting and the mass meeting, we conducted a short discussion with the leaders of the local Zionist movement. We introduced our candidate, the editor of Haynt, who was meeting his readers in the beloved province, as it was called in the capital city of Warsaw, for the first time. This lively meeting revealed the existence of full understanding between the editor and the masses of Jews with respect to choosing the path on which Polish Jewry should go in the future. In the warm relation between these Jews and their leader, one could see the mutual admiration that prevailed between a rabbi and his congregants.

Abraham Goldberg was somewhat embarrassed by the honor and respect that everyone felt for him, a fact to which I was already accustomed in my journeys among the many towns of Poland. But in Staszów and the other towns in this district, the enthusiasm and admiration were out of the ordinary, as if these dear Jews felt that this was their last opportunity for expressing their heartfelt feelings concerning the problems of Polish Jewry and its leaders without interference.

The mass meeting took place in the beit midrash as planned. It seemed that all the Jews of the town had come out to hear us. Young and old, long–caftaned traditional Jews and short–coated modern Jews all mixed together along with many women, especially of the younger generation.

It was my task to explain the meaning of our decision to continue, in anticipation of the coming elections, our previous policy of presenting a united bloc of all minorities in the country. The government of the coup, in which we had placed great trust, I said, had disappointed us and was going back on its declared promises to the Jews. Despite the fact that the Jews could receive the same number of mandates by appearing as a separate national list, it was better to appear united with the members of other minorities in order to be a more potent factor in the country, a factor that the government would have to take into consideration.

I must admit that my feeling during the mass meeting in the beit midrash was not at all good. Standing in front of the Holy Ark with my hat on my head inhibited my flow of speech, my movements, and as a result also the flow of my thoughts. Someone standing next to me whispered incessantly, “Don't forget the place you are in! Don't let slip a sentence that is liable to insult the feelings of those present!” It was thus difficult for me to explain the reason for the Agudah's joining the government coalition. Still, I had to criticize, if only in a moderate tone, the actions of Agudah, as it hoped to achieve satisfaction of its religious goals at the cost of shattering Jewish national unity. Of course, I added, this faction of Jews could act in the Jewish economic and political arenas because they were close to the government. The negotiation with the National Democratic government, which had been conducted by [Rabbi Ozjasz] Thun and Dr. [Leon] Reich, and had led to the famous agreement, the ugoda, demonstrated to them that even the leaders of the right–wing “Endeks”[4] are ready to honor religious demands. How much more so, then, the members of the present regime of Piłsudski who took power from the Endeks and explicitly announced that they do not need to have a special alliance with the Jews in order to agree to their just demands.

The Zionist leaders, Dr. Thun and Dr. Reich, did not involve the Agudah leaders in the negotiation, and that is why they were angry at them. It was not difficult to understand that it was easier for Piłsudski's circle to make a deal with Jews whose national and economic demands were of a lower priority than their other demands. We were therefore asked by the ruling cadre to go into the elections together with the Agudah as a national Jewish bloc supporting the government. This meant that we were being asked to give up our struggle for civil and national demands, as these latter had already been demoted to the lowest priority in the government's plans, and also to accept the leadership of the Agudah, which had become an insider to the ruling power.

I had to explain all these political considerations in the beit midrash, where no doubt many fans of the Agudah were present. It seems that I was successful in this mission, as I encountered no opposition among those present at my speech. My words were received with enthusiasm and cheering, not only because I was careful not to attack the leaders of the Agudah, but probably also on account of the fact that they were all convinced of the correct path of the Zionist Organization in Poland at that time, which had set the national and economic demands of Polish Jewry at the center of its activity. “The city has been taken!” cheered the Zionists after the mass meeting. But the elections validated the view, based on statistical considerations, that the votes of the Jews would be insufficient unless the votes of the Poles were split among various lists. And this did not happen.[5]

But Staszów, as an alert and vibrant Jewish town, fulfilled its national task as the leaders of Polish Jewry outlined it in their persistent struggle for achieving economic stability for the Jews and securing their national and civic status.

 

Footnotes
  1. Poland went through a period of economic and political instability in 1922–26. The coalition led by the right–wing National Democrats ruled briefly in May 1926, at which point Piłsudski organized a coup to bring the political balance back to the center; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zef_Pi%C5%82sudski. return
  2. Ugoda” is Polish for “settlement.” From 1924 to 1926, negotiations between Jewish parliamentary leaders and the leaders of successive Polish governments, representing various Polish parties (of whom at least one–education minister Stanisław Skrzyński–was a National Democrat), culminated in an agreement to support legislation addressing Jewish concerns; this effort at rapprochement collapsed, however, in April 1926, shortly before the Piłsudski coup. See Antony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia (Oxford, 2012), vol. 3, 71–72. return
  3. Haynt (Today): a Yiddish daily newspaper published in Warsaw from 1906 to 1939. return
  4. Endeks: members of the right–wing “N. D.” (National Democratic) Party. return
  5. It seems that the Jewish attempt to elect Abraham Goldberg to the Sejm from the Kielce district did not succeed owing to the relatively greater cohesion of the Polish parties in the area. See Abraham Goldberg's obituary, http://www.jta.org/1933/10/26/archive/abraham–goldberg–editor–of–warsaw–hajnt–dead. return


[Page 237]

From Staszów to Israel

By Ya'akov Shiloni

Translated by Molly Karp and Leonard Levin

In your childhood, my son, you asked me question upon question the likes of which every child asks when he sees the wonder of existence and wants to understand and grasp mysteries that do not suit the developmental level or age of children. Yet within the sea of questions and questioning directed at us are found also those for which we frequently enough do not have adequate answers, if any at all, as a result of their simplicity and elementary nature.

I wish here to dwell on one of the questions of this last type, a question that pierces and penetrates to the depths of our soul and our fate, a question that demands an exhaustive and open answer.

The event happened upon my return from the areas of development in the Negev. I told you then, my son, of the tribulations of the new immigrants from Poland who were transferred there for settlement. And in the course of the conversation, I said, “For these people, who for most of their lives grew accustomed over hundreds of years to the temperate Polish climate, to the cultural landscape, to its forests, fields, and gardens, and to the thriving settlements; for these people, suddenly thrown into a subtropical climate, hot and dry, without tree or shade, into a desolate and arid place in which there is only cloudy dust as far as the eye can see; for these people it is difficult, at the very least, to stand for the first time in drastic contrast and with the anguish of idle hands, with an anguish that eats at the body and soul, that attacks them and destroys the joy of life that should be found in creation.

And I continued, “When we arrived–what a hated word for the majority of immigrants!–it was precisely this difficult climate of the wild landscape, the necessity of starting everything from the beginning in order to establish a homeland from the ground up for those coming after us; it was precisely this entirely new situation, in all its manifestations and with all its difficulties, that aroused our imaginations and lifted our spirits. And in it specifically and only in it did we find spiritual satisfaction, happiness, and the joy of life.”

And then–do you remember, my son?–the question spilled from your mouth: “Papa,” you said, “what brought you to Israel?”

My eyes fixed on you, and I said to myself, this simple, direct question is the most important and basic question that I have ever heard from you, and I must of necessity give it as open and comprehensive an answer as possible, holding nothing back.

For the thought that our children might see the land as something natural and self–sufficient, as their birthplace and nothing more, without any connection to the past or nurturing from it–this thought harbors great danger, the danger of a Canaanite mentality,[1] a threat to the continuity of the entire project, a project that has brought us to this point.

*

Many years have passed, nearly three decades, since your mother and I left the town of Staszów in central Poland.

Staszów was not famous among the cities of the world and did not appear in the encyclopedias. It would nevertheless be of interest to sketch its image and perpetuate its distinct aura. Doing so would at least help to explain our state of mind and our approach to the problems of the world, as well as the strong connections of fate and peoplehood we felt for Eretz Israel.

It is hard for me to reconstruct the past. But I will do what I must in order to draw from the teeth of the past what is in my view necessary for that purpose. I have no intention of prettifying the image of the town–the Jewish component of which no remnant survives on account of the holocaust that took its toll on Polish Jewry during the Second World War–but only to describe things as they were, with all the joy and pain, the hope and disappointment, as they are inscribed in my memory.

*

The market square spread out at the center of the town. It was a large rectangle, several hundred meters on each side. In the center of the square stood a block of buildings, each side of which housed a row of storefronts, side by side.

Market day took place every Monday and Thursday in the marketplace, and peasants from the surrounding villages flocked to it–some by wagon, some on foot–to sell their agricultural produce to the townsfolk and to acquire in exchange whatever they needed in the way of housewares, clothing, shoes, and the like.

Streets and alleys with their one– and two–story houses extended symmetrically in all directions from the market square. Our family lived on one of the streets–Rytwiańska–in the house of Zayde “Mottel the Egg Merchant,” who was so called because of his business. The whole population on this street was composed of Jews, the men with beards, laborers, merchants, and Torah scholars.

 

The Ruin

When I was five years old, my parents sent me to the cheder of Reb Majer Melamed, where I gained my first knowledge of the letters of the alphabet and their combinations.

The cheder, like other cheders of that time, served at one and the same time as kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and schoolhouse for between twenty and thirty tykes. Imagine, my son, the atmosphere of studies in this all–purpose space, in which the ordinary noise and tumult combined with the voices of the boys, repeating the rebbe's recitations. The teacher, a pudgy Jew, who to our youthful eyes appeared very tall, with a thick, blond beard streaked with white, was quite beloved by us, and we learned quite willingly from him. This is because his manner of teaching was patient, and he did not beat us as the other teachers of that time did. But that was not the important thing. The primary attraction that drew us to favor this teacher and his cheder was a house that had burned down many years previously, whose remains lay next to the cheder.

This ruin, which was left in its desolate condition for many years, served us as an ideal place for all kinds of games during the daytime and as a never–failing source of scares in the evening hours. We would run hurriedly and without looking back past the place when we returned at dark from the cheder. In our imagination it seemed to us that from every corner, hole, or jagged edge of the wall all kinds of demons and evil spirits were peering at us, liable at a moment's notice to swarm over us and wreak havoc on us. Our fears were strongest during the winter evenings, when the snow that was piled on the many outcrops of the ruin took on all kinds of monstrous shapes, inspiring fear and dread. Our tender youthful imaginations wove countless tales around this simple ruin. In our mind's eye, it was transformed into a castle of mysteries in which deeds dreadful beyond description took place, especially at night.

 

Rachel Weeping for Her Children

I was transported into an entirely different atmosphere when I was enrolled with my second teacher, Reb Yankele. The difference was expressed not only in this rebbe's manners and relation to his students but primarily with respect to the scene and the studies. The gaunt teacher with the goatee was indeed in the habit of punishing his students for every trifle, and to add insult to injury, I was deprived of the next–door ruin, the source of games and fun–yet–frightening imaginings. At the same time, I was plunged into the new and fascinating world of studying the Chumash.[2] Our days here were occasionally boring, but the narrative and legendary portions of the Chumash gave us full compensation. Indeed, we were quite attentive when the rebbe told them to us. The marvelous tales and legends touched our heart strings and imaginations, riveting us to our places, and we swallowed every word that came from the teacher's mouth. To this day the marvelous and tragic episode of “Rachel crying for her children” in Rashi's commentary rings in my ears: when the Jews were exiled from their land by Nebuchadnezzar, Rachel would come out from her grave, located by the road on which the expelled people marched, and would cry over the fate of her exiled children and would know no surcease until she received assurance from the Holy and Blessed One that “the children would return to their borders.”

Reb Yankele's cheder stood next to the Czarna River. All the town's tanneries, all of them owned by Jews, were located on the opposite side of the river. In the summertime, the river was calm and its waters were clear; in the fall and spring, it was turbulent and overflowed its banks; while in the winter, it offered a frozen and polished surface on which the children would skate for pleasure.

This small river, which in the children's memory, especially in its time of pride, raised associations with the Jordan, together with the legends of the coming of the Messiah and the return of the Jews to their homeland, which we absorbed and internalized in the period of our studies; it generated in us even then the first blossoms of our connections of fate and peoplehood to our ancestral homeland.

 

The Eastern Wall

Papa thoroughly fulfilled his obligation to educate his children in the way of mitzvot. When I was still a small boy, Papa would take me regularly to the great beit midrash, where young men would sit day and night studying Talmud and the codes of Jewish law. During the recesses between one prayer service and the next, the worshippers would gather in groups heatedly debating the strategy of the war, World War I, which was then at its height. The only source of information was the newspaper that arrived, several days late, to the town maskil, Dajtelbaum.[3] Incidentally, we children viewed him as a heretic, as he was different from the other Jewish townsfolk not only in his manners but also in his appearance–his short–cut coat, broad–brimmed hat, and long–trimmed hair.

We also viewed the synagogue, next to the large beit midrash, as cloaked in special sanctity; it was customary for the Mitnagdim,[4] laborers, and common folk to pray there. Thanks to its artistic design, the synagogue was a great source of attraction to the children. They were not inhibited about feasting their eyes on the eastern wall, with its splendid drawings and stained–glass windows.[5] The eastern wall bore carvings of all kinds of animals and fruits of the land–the seven species for which the Land of Israel was famous; thus it depicted our land as the land flowing with milk and honey, thus substantiating for us in a tangible way what we had learned from the tales and legends of the Torah.

 

Legend of the Messiah

As a result of the conditions of the war, Jewish refugees came to us from Lithuania and Volhynia, and the Jewish community assumed care for their support. I remember one of them in particular, a wide–eyed man, who quickly acclimated to the town and became a Talmud teacher. His cruel manner toward the children generated strong hatred on the part of the students toward him. But even stronger than our hatred for his cruelty, we loved him when he sat down and started to tell us, in a relaxed manner and with deep feeling, marvelous tales of Jewish lore drawn from the Bible and the Talmud. At that moment we lost entirely our sense of present reality and were transported in our spirits to ancient Israel, its prophets, kings, and princes, when it was still crowned by its halo of majesty and glory.

Indeed, the conditions of the war impressed their stamp on everything and made life quite difficult for everyone in general and for the Jewish community in particular. But this did not matter at all to me. I lived my own personal life far from that reality and its tumult. The very fact of the hard reality and the war of all against all reinforced in me all the more my deep faith in the coming of the Messiah that was about to be realized. I viewed this cruel war as the war of Gog and Magog, heralding the coming redemption–the redemption that I saw as knocking already on our gate. I often withdrew into seclusion, and for hours I would be dreaming awake about life in ancient Israel, full of splendor and vision, and praying for its reestablishment. Filled with emotion, with a sense of “all my bones proclaiming,”[6] I poured out my discourse before my Creator. My emotion reached its climax when I arrived at passages such as “Return us to Zion speedily in mercy!” These were prayers not said in rote but out of yearning and soulful outpouring of a person imbued with deep faith in every word taken literally. I believed, with full confidence, impervious to contradictory evidence, in the imminent end of days and in fulfillment of the dream of generations–in our generation–in fulfillment of the elevated and exalted legend of the Messiah, the same legend that caused my soul to tremble whenever I spoke of it or recalled it.

 

Anti–Semitism

The yearning and longings for the earthly Zion that I have just described received practical encouragement from an external factor, a factor whose influence and weight were decisive in the shaping of our worldview and our choice of direction in society generally and Jewish society in particular. The factor was anti–Semitism. Indeed, in my childhood I was not able to formulate that potent factor or define it in any more or less logical way. Even so, one could not in any way ignore, even for a short time–the feeling of humiliation as a result of that factor, a feeling that tormented my whole being and disturbed my repose.

You, my dear son, who were lucky to grow up in your homeland under natural conditions, free from any pressure or compulsion from outside and similarly from any inferiority complex toward the ruling majority–you could not imagine all the pain and psychological suffering bound up with this oppressive feeling!

Despite the fact that in the center of Staszów and in the streets close to the center about 90 percent of the general population was composed of Jews, one could sense with every footstep that they, the Poles, were the rulers. The mayor of the city was a Pole; all the city officials were Poles. Even the owners of the pharmacies were Poles. But this was not only a moral humiliation but a humiliation–one out of many–whose external expression was felt by the Jew when he came in contact with any office–namely, that he had to go in bareheaded.

More than once the town was suffused with dread from fear of physical disturbances, especially during the Catholic holidays and saints' days, when the Catholics, arriving en masse from the surrounding villages, assembled in the town and all Jews were banned from the streets. This situation set its stamp on our state of mind and our thoughts and awakened in us the strong desire to rid ourselves of any dependence on a foreign and hostile player who imposed his will and dominated all areas of life without it mattering to him if it affected you adversely or not.

All this contributed to setting a basic tone of national deprivation that colored our existence. To this were added the sense of social injustice that ensued from the awakening whose echoes arrived to the town after the Russian Revolution, and additionally the hope and enthusiasm that swept through the Jewish street with the publication of the Balfour Declaration. The response to all these came with the establishment of Zionist and socialist parties, among them the Hashomer Hatzair movement, which in my time was practically the only youth movement in the town.

 

Parties and Movements

My knowledge of the beginning of the organization of the Bund, which was taking place already in 1905, came from word of mouth.[7] At about the same time, the first trade union of garment workers and shoemakers was founded. The Bund membership consisted of the lowest class in town–workers, day laborers, butchers' apprentices, and the like.

With the outbreak of the second Russian revolution in 1917, a period called “the springtime of nations” on account of the many hopes that were awakened in its wake, the Bund broadened its ranks and developed multifarious forms of party and trade–union activity, calling on workers to fight against the ruling and exploitative propertied class. Indeed, as I look back, the struggle of those times appears laughable and ludicrous–the “class war” in our town was conducted mainly between impoverished workers and their employers, who in many cases were no richer than they were. Indeed, all in all the exploiters and the exploited belonged alike to the lumpenproletariat, and this had nothing in common with the war of the classes in its classical sense.

Still, dealing as we were with the conditions of our town, we were convinced that in our war against the “propertied” class (which was struggling hard for its own survival) we were participating personally in the world struggle for the victory of socialism, and the part that we played would surely speed its full realization in our own time.

In addition to the Bund, other parties arose in our town, such as the General Zionist Organization, the left–wing Labor Zionists, Hashomer Hatzair (which we mentioned earlier), Mizrachi, and later also Agudas Israel.

At first Hashomer Hatzair was merely a scouting organization, an organization that gathered around it the educated and well–to–do youth of the town. But after a while, it became defined as a socialist youth organization for which the principle of self–realization was dominant. The nature of things required that there be ideological competition among the existing parties, but we should note that in certain areas there was also rather close cooperation, such as in the trade unions and to a certain extent also in the cultural sphere.

A town library was established by pooling our resources; it grew over the years to contain thousands of volumes, including the most current works. A dramatic troupe was also organized, which thanks to its outstanding talent was also invited to much larger cities than Staszów, such as Kielce, Sosnowiec, and others.

There was also an attempt to found a common educational forum, which in a moment of hubris we called a “folk university.” But after several meetings in which we discussed the question of outlining methods of cultural activity, it became clear that each party faction intended to smuggle its political agenda into the budding organization, and it collapsed before it could get off the ground.

All this political and cultural activity necessarily stood under the sign of the war between the younger and older generations, a war that sometimes took on sharp forms. To be sure, these matters have been dealt with in greater breadth, and certainly with more talent, throughout modern literature. But I cannot refrain from remarking that there was a crucial difference between the process of Jewish enlightenment in western Europe and the parallel phenomenon that we experienced. The final goal of the former was assimilation and blending into the general culture. For us, despite the stubborn and continuous struggle between two generations, most of the political movements, with the exception of communism, were strongly devoted to the Jewish people and its past.

Through the multifarious activity described above, as we matured we sensed the crying opposition between the present and the future; the opposition in our town between its spiritual wealth, despite our material poverty, and the lack of a perspective on tomorrow–an inevitable result of the feeling of uprootedness and absolute alienation from our place of birth. The town and its surroundings, including its lovely landscape and abundant fields; the forests and lakes, within which we loved to boat and sing, to hike and enjoy ourselves, to love and dream–all these failed to impart to us the feeling of stability and attachment to the locale. Just the opposite–every contact with the hostile environment strengthened in us the clear recognition that we were strangers there, that all our labor was in vain, and that it was imperative for us to direct our attention and efforts toward the future and toward our ancient homeland, a homeland in which we could be masters of our fates, free to be ourselves, and in which we could live a just life in our own way, by our own free choice.

 

From Utopia to Reality

In the hard years for our movement, years when the cities of Eretz Israel were almost entirely closed off to us and a portion of the youth “sobered up” and turned its back on the Jewish people–in those years, your mother and I were among those who took a firm stand and remained loyal to the movement despite the tremendous obstacles that were set in our path. In the end, we made aliyah, we built kibbutzim and settlement stations, and we were privileged to see the realization of the dream, in large measure.

And here is the homeland, the weighty reality and content that you, my son, see before you!

Now, after decades of uncertainty and wandering in foreign fields, the Jewish fate knocks again on the doors of those who flee from the battlefield of yesteryear. The “sober ones” of those days, who were sure that we were dealing in utopia and that only they saw the exilic reality and its solutions in the correct perspective, today they come back to us in despair, disillusioned with the destruction of their world. Their faith–their delusion that it was not only possible but feasible to establish a just society in the midst of a foreign nation with fully equal rights for Jews–was shattered to smithereens. It became clear to them, to those “realists”–to their pain and our pain, too late–that the struggle for solving the Jewish problem as an integral part of the universal human struggle for a new society, based on foundations of justice and equity, was a quixotic utopia, whereas the idea of establishing a homeland for a homeless folk, which appeared to them as utopia, has become a tangible and redeeming reality!

 

Homeland and Historic Continuity

Take this to heart well, my son. This homeland, which for you is a self–evident thing, natural and simple, this homeland in which you were raised and grew up, with the immediate sense of being a free person, with psychological stability, rootedness, and full identification with the landscape around you, with the pond under the thick eucalyptus trees, the cypresses standing straight at the edge of the orchard, the field with its blossoming and its fruit, the morning mists with their freshness, the shadows of the grove with their romantic aura and other cozy corners on the farm, this feeling of happiness, which you don't sense because it is all so natural, was entirely missing for us.

It may very well be that the place where we were born and grew up was lovelier, and it was certainly more convenient. In any case, that is how I imagine it. But it was no homeland for us! We knew and felt–and the main point was given to us to feel in the most tangible way–that this was not ours!

Our concept of homeland is an abstract idea, and it gave rise to longings for a real, tangible homeland, a homeland in which we could live as free people living a healthy, just folk existence, without external domination and pressure. These are the longings that we absorbed with Mama's sighs when she read the Tzena–urena,[8] with the legends that were engraved on our hearts in cheder and in the beit midrash, in the prayers that we prayed and the dreams that we dreamed.

 

Remember this, my dear son!

All this wonderful project, which was erected here through labor, through sweat and blood and which constitutes a free and happy homeland for you, is only the continuation of a historical progression that came to expression through the last decades in the various national renaissance movements; it is a continuation and quintessence of the labors of the Jews of Staszów and many such towns in Diaspora; it is the culmination of the efforts of many generations by whose virtue we have arrived at this point.

Moreover, the national renaissance movements themselves, by whose direct results the Jewish homeland of Israel has been reborn, should not be thought of as separate movements cut off from the distant past but as an inseparable continuation of prior generations reaching back through the whole history of the long Jewish exile.

 

Footnotes
  1. “A Canaanite mentality”: allusion to the nativist movement in Hebrew literature associated with the “Council for the Coalition of Hebrew Youth” in the 1940s, dubbed “Canaanism” by its critics. The movement called for an affirmation of a Hebrew identity of Jews in the new homeland based on territory and language without reference to the religious and historical traditions of Judaism; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaanism. return
  2. Chumash: “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, read liturgically from beginning to end each year in the synagogue, with which cycle the studies in cheder were coordinated weekly. return
  3. Maskil: a Jew educated in secular learning, especially modern European languages, literature, science, and philosophy. Such secular–educated Jews were a small minority in the nineteenth century; secular education became more common among a greater sector of the Jewish population especially after the rebirth of the Polish state and the drafting of educational standards after World War I. return
  4. Mitnagdim [sing.: Mitnagged]: non–Hasidic Jews. return
  5. The eastern wall was generally the front of the main sanctuary and was the focus of attention because of the custom to pray facing eastward–toward Jerusalem, itself a symbol of the Jewish desire to return to the ancestral homeland. This, too, was the reason for the elaborate artwork on that wall. The seven species of produce of the Land of Israel–wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates–are mentioned or alluded to in Deuteronomy 8:8. return
  6. Allusion to Psalm 35:10: “All my bones proclaim, O Lord, who is like You!” (incorporated into the Sabbath morning prayer Nishmat). return
  7. See Ya'akov Shiloni, “The ‘Bund’ in Staszów,” http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/staszow/sta135.html#Page175. return
  8. Tzena–urena: a Yiddish commentary on the Torah that was a staple for traditional Jewish women, who spoke and could read Yiddish but who generally (prior to the onset of modern educational methods) did not have the classical Hebrew text–based education that the boys and men had. return


[Page 242]

My Father's Home

By Bina Nusbojm

Translated by Leonard Levin

A picture of my home, a Jewish home, pious and devout, is imprinted on my memory to this day. The image of Papa, Reb Neta Wolf, a fervent Hasid with blue eyes, looking at you from deep under his broad forehead, hovers before my soul's eyes as if he is standing alive in front of me in his full stature. The sounds of his singing still ring in my ears as he sits bent forward reading a book by the light of a smoking lamp before the cock has crowed. His warm, lively melody still accompanies me as he is skimming the weekly Torah reading in preparation for the Sabbath, a melody that imparts a festive atmosphere and “added soul” to all members of the family;[1] a melody that bestowed on us something unseen but nevertheless so important for fortifying soul and spirit.

But the thing that made the greatest impression on me and impressed its stamp on all arrangements of the house, transforming them from top to bottom, was the holiday of Pesach, with the many prolonged and unique preparations that were bound up with it.

“Thirty days before the festival, one preaches about the laws of the day.” In our house this saying was translated into the language of reality and observed fully. As soon as Purim arrived, we began feverish preparations for the bigger holiday to come. First, it was mandatory to prepare the raisin wine. After that came the turn to make ready all the accompaniments, such as potatoes, matzot, eggs, onions, and the like, and to store them in special places so that they would not come in contact with anything leavened. In the midst of this gay tumult, a hurried series of trips to the tailor, the dressmaker, and so forth began, urging them to complete their assignments. The walls of the house would also prove that a holiday, completely different in its substance and practical requirements, was coming. Whitewashing, basic cleaning, scrubbing–in short, lots of preparation in every corner that you looked.

However, despite all the labor and inconvenience bound up with it, our spirits were high; everything was done out of the joy of a mitzvah. Also the spring days–the period when nature shakes itself back into new life–added their own measure, not at all negligible, to the festive feeling that enveloped the house and its residents.

In the end, the holiday approached. The house was all filled with light, everything was shining and bespeaking majesty and glory. And then Mama, with an industry that knew no weariness, would take out the snow–white tablecloths and the other holiday accessories, splendid and polished, from their special storage place, a place that human hands did not enter all the rest of the year.

And now the Seder night arrived.

In a corner of the table, covered with white linens and set with luxurious taste, the ancient silver candlesticks shone with an air of importance. Beside them was the special cup for Elijah the prophet, around which stood the children's cups with their many hues, while at the head of the table Papa was reclining on a blinding–white couch, his silver wine cup by his side on a silver tray.

The serene sense that all was well permeated everything, accompanied by a hint of anticipation. The sisters with their new dresses and rainbow ribbons in their braided tresses shone with delight. The brothers, also dressed in new garments, saw themselves as members of a wedding party, of prime importance, because they knew the Haggadah. Mama, wearing a wig that had been specially ordered, dressed in her luxurious holiday dress and adorned with jewels, was glowing and radiant. While her lips fervently whispered the blessing over the burning holiday candles, she was the picture of innocence, devotion, and faith and imparted this spirit to all those around her.

We arrived at the climax of the evening's experience when Papa arose wrapped in his white kittel, wearing his impressive shtreimel, wine cup in his right hand, and his large eyes half closed and, addressing heaven with his sweet, sure voice, began to chant the melody of the Kiddush, sanctifying the holiday of freedom. But immediately afterward, when the youngest son of the company asked the famous four questions and we began to recite the Haggadah, the tension relaxed. We then listened willingly to Papa's explanations of the mighty event of the exodus from Egypt and its decisive results in shaping the character of the Jewish people for its entire history, lasting thousands of years. When we arrived at the paragraph “In every generation a person should see himself as if he went out personally from Egypt,” we were filled with nostalgia and longing to repeat this wondrous vision in our time as well. In the meantime, Papa was continuing the Haggadah and we were following suit. The simple words, telling endearingly of the events of the Jewish people in different periods, inspired us with their spirit, while serene pleasure and faith born of devotion spread out and enveloped us.

 

Footnote
  1. “Added soul”: traditionally, on the Sabbath every Jew receives an “added soul”–a poetic way of expressing the heightened consciousness that comes with the festivity of the day. return


[Page 244]

The 20th of Tammuz–Herzl's Memorial Day

By David Goldwasser, Negba

Translated by Leonard Levin

It was in 1917, toward the end of World War I. In the Jewish world it was a time of great expectancy. The echoes of the organizing and consolidation of the creative forces in the Jewish people were felt also in the outlying areas, including our town. People who were gifted with a sense of the new age, with the demands and revolutionary possibilities that were latent in it–a new spirit began to pulsate in them, and daring ideas for changing the exilic way of life that had now become obsolete were advanced. These people initiated actions some of which indeed were immature, but the fertile and imaginative spirit that they exuded sparked surprise, accompanied by curiosity, among the traditionalist keepers of the gates of the previous generation.

One of these activities, as I remember it: I was studying then in the cheder of Reb Alter Melamed. It was a clear, hot summer day. The rebbe was engaging in major efforts to pund Torah into his tender students, who were sitting around the long table, without much success. The atmosphere in the cheder was stifling, and the boys were trying with all their might to liberate themselves from the yoke of the rebbe and his assistant, the “belfer.” They wanted more than anything to jump outside and luxuriate in the crisp air, to find release in games as their hearts desired. But the will of the rebbe, assisted by the power of persuasion of the belfer's whip, prevailed. Despite their strong desire, the boys submitted to the inevitable.

Suddenly, after all hope was lost, three hefty youths ran inside, holding sticks, and announcing forcibly, accompanied by commanding knocks on the table: “The boys must stop their studies now and go to the synagogue.”

Seized by confusion, the rebbe wasn't able to get a word out of his mouth. We, like birds sprung from their traps, rejoicing at our teacher's predicament, jumped outside like an arrow from a bow and ran, as requested, in the direction of the synagogue.

In the open square between the large Beit Midrash and the synagogue stood youths dressed in scouts' uniforms, who immediately on our arrival arranged us in rows. We then saw the great spectacle before our eyes: a blue and white flag of large dimensions decorated with a picture of the late Dr. Theodor Herzl, draped on a banner. Next to it, someone ascended a bare stage and gave an emotional speech about the topic of the day. This marvelous and unusual spectacle left a permanent impression on me. It concluded with the mighty singing of Hatikvah, a song whose echoes were heard in the distance, and which created an atmosphere of festivity and exaltation that was out of the ordinary.

This was the 20th of Tammuz of the year 5677 (July 10, 1917), the day on which the first public memorial in memory of Theodor Herzl was organized in our town. Only members of the younger generation participated in this meeting. But it paved the way for annual memorials in years to come, to which large gatherings from all circles and all ages thronged, and which took place inside the synagogue, not outside it.

This was a major event for the town, and especially for us children. In our healthy childlike sense we grasped that something entirely different from the accepted had taken place within the precincts of our town and its ossified arrangements.

And if on the next day we were again harnessed to bear the yoke of the cheder, and its boring studies, in its depressing and stifling atmosphere, had been restored to the way they were, still, we felt, if we did not fully understand, that things were no longer the same!

 

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