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{Page 379}

Portraits of Progressive Activists

by Y.M. Pukacz

Translated from the Yiddish by Jerome Silverbush

Edited by Roni and Jerry Liebowitz

[with comments in brackets]

Shamai Birencwajg: Somewhat shorter than average height, back bent a bit, almost always looking at the ground, carelessly dressed, Chassidic movements – that is the outer appearance of Shamai Birencwajg.

Looking at him, no one could imagine that he was the leader of a revolutionary movement. Just the opposite, he gave the impression of a man who has no interest in anything.

A man who could excel in the rules of conspiracy and who likewise excelled in looking into taking a position for any political situation. For years he was at the head of the Progressive Movement in Belchatow and put his stamp on the work. Ever weary with worries about making a living, he nevertheless found time to read and to teach himself and others.

At meetings, he remained a long time and listened carefully to what others had to say. Then came his few calm and measured words which contributed clarity and simplicity, even in the most heated discussions.

In 1938, he was arrested and banished to Kartoz-Bereze [Bereza Kartusk – a concentration camp in the marshes of eastern Poland (present-day Belarus)]. He bore the suffering and torment there with the same patience with which he had led the Movement for years. Then came the tragic year, 1939. After the liquidation of the Belchatow Jews, Shamai turned up in the Lodz ghetto. Also there, he was socially very active. Also there, he quickly became popular and loved.

In the end, the capable activist shared the same fate as millions of Polish Jews: Majdanek and ashes in the wind!

Kalman M. Przedborski

Kalman Mendel Przedborski: A long and thin face. Expressive clever eyes. Always ready to do a good turn.

A child of poor parents, poverty had bound him from childhood on in the yoke of hard work, but the bitterness of his personal fate never had any influence on his character and his relationship to humanity.

If it is at all possible for goodness to have an embodiment, it would be found in his person. From his earliest youth on, he was occupied with social and political activities. And wherever he was active, he gained prestige. Even political opponents respected him greatly.

Brought up in the Borochowistisher [named after the founder of Poalei Zion in Russia, Ber Borochowen] Leftist Poalei Zion Party, he later found himself in the forward ranks of the Progressive Movement.

One seldom saw him alone. [He was] always surrounded by comrades and friends, who listened to him like Chasidim listen to a Rebbe. One knew that he was always ready to do a favor and give a piece of advice. He wanted to help everyone and take care of everyone, but he constantly forgot to do one thing – to think about his own welfare.

Already at the beginning of the Hitler occupation, he was arrested and sent to Chelmno, where he was murdered together with the majority of the Belchatow Jews.

Shmuel Gershon Morgenstern: Young and tall, with a pale and boney face, with a pair of black fiery eyes and constantly with a smile on his lips. Anyone who has contact with him must like him. He speaks softly with a ringing tone, but he speaks little, because he has a shy nature. He preferred to listen rather than to talk himself. However, he possessed a temperamental and partly also a stormy nature. He hated to wait and put aside until tomorrow what should be done today, because he was always afraid that he would be a little late.

From time to time he would cough and spit, and with every cough a bit of blood would come out of his mouth from his diseased lungs. Just as he was from childhood on used to hunger and want, likewise it made no big impression on him when his lung disease threatened his life more and more. He just didn't want to talk about it…

In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Shmuel Gershon could not remain indifferent, and, ignoring his poor health, he traveled to Spain and enlisted in the famous Dombrowski Brigade. Enthusiastic letters from him arrived in the town. He was happy that he had an opportunity to fight against Fascism. At the beginning of 1938, every trace of our heroic friend and comrade Shmuel Gershon Morgenstern was lost.

His friends will never forget him.

Jakob Lejzer Dobszynski: A young man of abut twenty years of age, Jakob Lejzer Dobszynski was already an old party activist. He loved to constantly have discussions with everyone to convince them of the correctness of his ideas. He gesticulated wildly when he spoke, and everyone loved him because of his simplicity and honesty

Although in the last few years he was busy with a very important office in the Movement, he constantly avoided being conspicuous. He did his work quietly but precisely.

After the outbreak of the war, he escaped to the Soviet Union, and after Hitler attacked Soviet Russia, he voluntarily enlisted in the Russian army and fought on the Ukrainian front, where he died heroically in a bloody battle with the Nazis.

Itche Lejb Goldberszt: A pauper in seven coat tails [idiomatic expression, meaning “a king of the poor”], he was never downhearted. [He was] always happy, joyful, and ready to tell a joke or a story.

A thin one, skin and bones, and on top of that a physical invalid, one would constantly meet him, satisfied, shakily supported on his wooden crutch. His physical shortcomings had stopped him from earning a decent livelihood, and because of that he suffered great need.

Because the Progressive Movement did not have a meeting place, for years his poor room held the I. L Peretz Library.

A passionate reader, he was well versed in both Jewish and universal literature. From time to time, he would give a lecture on literature. His ringing voice and poetic manner of speaking captured and held his listeners.

In 1936, because of a provocation, he was arrested and sent to prison for a year. But when he came out, he was as joyful and lively as always.

After the Nazi occupation of Belchatow, he was part of the first group that was murdered. During a selection, he was sent to a mass death along with all the sick, weak and aged.

Finding himself on the truck about to be driven away, he screamed to the gathered crowd: – Jews, they are sending us to death. Take revenge for us!

Mendel Szymkewicz

Mendel Szymkewicz: An energetic and genial comrade, he was one of the most enthusiastic activists in the Progressive Movement in Belchatow. At meetings and rallies, he was the eternal opponent and heckler, always putting in his “two cents.” Often, he tended to stammer a little, but that did not stop him from bringing down the house with his argument.

Mendel Szymkewicz was in prison for years, but that did not break him, and he was always cheerful and ready for a fight. He loved to take on difficult jobs, which he always completed on time. He never let any opportunity whatsoever pass by to lead an active party agitation. That was his favorite work.

Like the majority of Belchatow children, he came to the Movement harassed and plagued by hunger and need. His trade was carpenter, but he strived to achieve something higher and more beautiful.

When the Nazis occupied Poland, Mendel left for the Soviet Union, and, after the founding of the Polish Peoples' Army, he immediately joined as a volunteer and was involved in a series of battles against the Nazi army. In the famous battle of Lenino [the author may mean Leningrad, since Lenino was the site of a Nazi massacre, not a battle], he was killed by a Nazi bullet.

Gotsche Hofman: She came to the Movement from a middle class home, where she received a traditional Jewish upbringing and threw herself into the Revolutionary Movement with complete youthful fervor. She sat for years in Polish jails, but she was always ready for new accomplishments. She had a middle school education, and she was active doing education work with the workers and farmers.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, she emigrated to the Soviet Union, and today she is actually the only Belchatower who lived to see the liberation of Poland, to which she immediately returned and where she continued to be active in the complete fulfillment of her ideals.

The children's group “Pioneer”

Even though the Leftist Movement in pre-war Poland had very limited possibilities for mass work, it had, like every mass-movement, paid much attention to the education of the youth.

Soon after the creation of “Combund” [Communist Bund], the Leftist Movement had struck deep roots among the youth. It is characteristic to underscore that, thanks to the specific conditions in the Party, whether because of what happened after the great arrests or because of the divergence of views in the Movement (after the year 1925), often the entire job fell on the youth. And one must admit that the Belchatow workers and children of the people [Volks-Kinder] always carried out with full comprehension all [the tasks] entrusted to them.

It is quite understandable that one ran into many difficulties trying to recruit members for the children's group “Pioneer.” These difficulties were caused first of all by the illegality of the Leftist Movement conducting its activities, and, following from that, the lack of a location in which the youth would be able to spend time and interact socially. The Progressive Movement was not able to give the child all that the other legal parties had the possibility to give. However, because of that, the Leftist Movement stood higher, because it planted in the child a clearer look at life.

The candidates for the Pioneers were recruited mainly from the children of the Belchatow poor: children of 11, 12 and 13 years of age. Because of special conditions, every Pioneer only knew the members of his group.

First of all, every candidate had to take a precise course in which he was instructed on the basic responsibilities of everyone involved in the Movement, like discipline and conspiracy [secrecy]. The work of teaching the fundamental principles was taken on by several older comrades, who at the same time were the link between the Pioneers and the youth. In 1932, the following people carried out this task: Hiller Belchatowski, Shabtai-Yechiel Moszkowicz, Mordechai Huberman, and Chayah-Tzviah Farber.

Besides the tasks mentioned above, our older comrades also paid much attention to the political education of the child, discussing current events with him and also teaching the history of the Workers' Movement.

The Leftist Movement understood completely that every “Pioneer” must be well prepared, both politically and intellectually, so that he will be able to courageously defend his position and, when it is necessary, not to waver and to be prepared to make sacrifices. This work was not easy to accomplish, because one had to consider that the Pioneers had to be very careful that at home they did not suspect that the child was involved with political activities. Many children came from Hasidic homes, where the least suspicion could lead to literally tragic consequences for the parents and the children themselves.

Another problem was arranging the meetings since – as mentioned – the Progressive Movement did not have its own meeting place. One could not even get a room where the children could gather. It finally came to conducting the work mostly in the summer months, in the forest and in the fields, and even in winter, in the great frosts and snows, we had to meet from time to time in the forest. Very often we had to hold consultations walking in the street.

In 1933, the children's organization “Pioneer” was highly respected by all the other children's groups in Belchatow. At that time, a whole series of activists joined the Movement, both boys and girls, among whom, one should especially mention: Pesse Kaufman, Hinde Szmulewicz, Mendel Kaufman, Meir Borochowicz, Ziske Eksztajn, Mendel Pigula, Moshe Machabanski, Sholem Machabanski, Frejdl Belchatowski, Ephrim Lozer Machhabanski, and others.

The task of “Pioneer” was not merely to educate future political activists, but also to its work belonged the stimulation of reading of our classical books and works of Jewish and world literature, which were later discussed and commented on during the meetings. For that purpose, the Movement had put at the disposal of the children, the so-called “Pioneer Library,” which really did a lot for the education of the worker-child as a politically responsible activist as well as an educated Jew and human being.

At various opportunities, older comrades came to chat, give lectures, and have discussions with the Pioneers about actual political problems. I am especially reminded of comrades JakobTzingler and Jakob-Lejzer Dobszynski.

What were the tasks of “Pioneer”?

It must be noted that in pre-war Poland there was almost no youth that was not under the influence of a political movement and was almost always having discussions and taking positions on local and general political problems. Every Pioneer was obliged to bring out in such cases the viewpoint of the Party. Also, the Pioneers took part in various social gatherings, lectures, and meetings. As an illustration, it is worth while remembering the great action that was carried out in Poland in 1936 against the introduction of the “numerus clauzus” law [a law limiting the number of Jewish children] in the Polish high schools. When it happened, except for those explicitly forbidden by the police, there were protest meetings and manifestations of every political stripe on the Jewish street, and also in Belchatow the protest movement played a large part. A day before the protest action, the “Pioneer” together with “Skif” [“Sotzialistisher Kinder Farband” – the Bund youth movement] called together almost all Jewish school children and explained to them the meaning of “numerus clauzus” and the position that one must take. The children were gathered in the courtyard of Meir Ber Szwartzberg. Speeches were given by a chairman of “Pioneer” and a chairman of “Skif”. Also present was Jakob Lejzer Dobszynski as chairman from the Leftist Party and Mendel Lajb Gliksman as chairman from the “Bund”. The second day, pickets were placed at the schools, and none of the children were admitted into the Aryan schools. At that time, I stood together with Lejbl Goldminc of “Skif” and Mendel Kaufman of “Pioneer”. That was one of the nicest actions in which the Belchatow youth were actively represented, showing the growing will to fight anti-Semitism and [rightist] reaction [reaktsia], which was then rampant in Poland.

It should also be mentioned that when Poland was still engulfed by the crisis year of 1930 with waves of strikes, the then famous “occupation strikes” in the factories were carried out, and our children also took an active part in the fight. The Pioneers were used to throw packages of food into the occupied factories, for the striking workers, who were stuck in the factories, surrounded by police. Not one of the children avoided being hit by the police, but that did not stop them from carrying out their task.

The children from “Pioneer” also had the task of convincing their school comrades to skip school on May 1, and although the director had threatened them with sanctions, every May 1 a significant number of children were absent from school.

* * * *

That which I described earlier was no more than several images and episodes of what the “Pioneer” in Belchatow actually was – a work that was always connected with the readiness to sacrifice oneself and which was opposed by Polish reactionary power. But even then, the children of the working class without any fear opposed the danger from Polish Fascism.

The Pioneers have consciously drawn the thread of a magnificent continuum, the continuum that stretched from Hersz Lekert and Naftali Botwein.

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