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[Page 269]

About “Betar[1]” in Bielsk

by D. Melamdovitz

Translated by Sara Mages

This youth organization was founded in the city in 1928. I was 15 years old at the time, devoted to scouting, a member of Hashomer Hatzair[2] and dreaming a dream… the dream of the fighting Jewish boy, healthy, proud and preparing himself to remove the shame of the Diaspora from the people. I thought I would find this in Hashomer Hatzair, which has engraved the scouting on its flag without probing in politics, and saw its main role in the recovery of the generation's body and soul. That year Yehudah Gothelf[3] appeared and his words were clear, Hashomer Hatzair cannot be satisfied only with scout activities and instilling truth and honesty in the boy's heart, but the youth of Hashomer Hatzair must direct themselves to a political war in favor of human principles etc., and it was implied from his words that this war is also directed against a part of the Jewish people.

In my opinion it was a strange turn and most of the principles were foreign to me. I was completely absorbed in a highly motivated national treatise, and in weaving a great vision of the small nation I renounced any role of our people in the system of opinion of the great world. And here we were called to give up the national issue, if it is about international principles. This was my first clash with the goals of Hashomer Hatzair.

Then, a crisis occurred and my path was made clear to me. Yeruham Sluhovsky and


“Trumpeldor” - Bielsk

[Page 270]

several members older than me, and I among them, decided to establish Betar as a great personal need, through which, and in it, we will be able to continue on a path that seems to us to be the truest of all.

Over time we gathered good, enthusiastic and ready to action youth, and ken[4] Betar in Bielsk became one of the strongest in the area.

When Begin[5] had to carry out an informational and organizing operation in the towns around us, he came to us and from here he departed to the nearby towns. Our ken served him as source of inspiration and enthusiasm that he carried to the region. From time to time I accompanied him and ended his informative evenings with a living example, so to speak, of a representative of a ken that justifies every effort invested in the youth of the generation. Then, ken Betar was a real example for the youth who see themselves completely immersed in the problems of nationality, the exiled people and the return of the homeland.

In 1935 I made aliyah[6] to Israel and by then Betar was already well known in the city. Its members were among the participants in every general Zionist activity in the city, and tried to serve as a symbol of national unity and willingness to act for this unity.

The activities of the ken were among the most constant. Our general meetings also aroused enthusiasm among the “guests” from other youth organizations. The ken became a kind of hothouse for the Zionist soul, and its enthusiasm stood the various tests of times of crisis, which befell the Zionist movements and the aliyah movements. We didn't let go of the great faith, and didn't let the doubt to erode and collapse foundations. It is clear, that the image of Jabotinsky filled our whole being, and by the strength of his warrior vision our spirit was also strengthened. But Betar, in the version of Bielsk, also had something of its own, which was an expression of a deep ideological national unrest.

When it comes to Betar at that time, it is impossible to ignore the mutual enmity that raged in the organized Jewish street. This enmity was in fact a substitute for a war of opinions and a search for a way, and it raged throughout the Zionist camp on all its systems and shades of ideas. But it is known that most of the enmity was always directed at Betar. Which was not the case in Bielsk, here the cooperation between all shades of Zionism and the youth movements was highlighted, and it seems to me that many will agree with me if I say that the Zionist unity in Bielsk was largely preserved thanks to ken Betar in the city. We have shown that we can overcome much vulnerability for the sake of the common national cause. We proved, in practice, that the principle of national unity and love of Israel must be lifted above all principles. This quality was one of the most prominent in our nest, and it can be said that throughout Betar's existence in Bielsk, national brotherhood was maintained as a principle, which members of Betar controlled it, since they saw it as the main point and root of their Jewish national education.

During its operation, the ken established a Hakhshara[7] company in Bielsk, and a dimension of fulfillment was added to its operation. The company demonstrated to the city, to the youth, and to the ken itself, that Zionism has no value if it is not used as a means of advancement, and there is no value to it, if it is not trained for the reality of Israel and a willingness to dedicate years of youth to the needs of the people.

The ken brought a holiday to the life of the city. In its demonstrations, uniforms, in the external appearance of its youth, Betar added content to Judaism and gave it legalization to be proud of itself and its desire to be like all the peoples in its country and in its character.

The activities of the members of Betar for the national funds brought a blessing and increased the

[Page 271]

scope of its results, just as they expanded the circle of true Zionists that commit to fulfillment, to a national appearance and to the full obligations of the generation. Contrary to the Zionism of the declaration, Zionism imposed personal duties on everyone. All the youth movements in the city have done this, and Betar among them, but Betar, as a distinct political movement that opposes practical Zionism, innovated in this act of practical activity also something for the older members of Hatzohar[8], its mother movement.

The scope of Betar's activity in Bielsk is evident in the large number of those preparing for aliyah, and in the number of immigrants it brought from Bielsk. It's a pity that various circumstances blocked the waves of aliyah and among them also the immigrants by force of Betar youth of Bielsk. It is a pity that they stayed there and in the mass graves they, and their dreams, were buried together.

The memory of the glorious members of Betar in Bielsk will live forever.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Betar - Hebrew acronym for Berit Yosef Trumpeldor (Joseph Trumpeldor Alliance) is a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia, by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky. Return
  2. Hashomer Hatzair (lit. “The Young Guard”) is a Labor Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913. Return
  3. Yehudah Gothelf was a member of the top leadership of Hashomer Hatzair movement in Poland. Return
  4. Ken (lit. “Nest”) the term for a local branch of a movement that suggested the intimacy of a family. Return
  5. Menachem Begin was born in 1913 in Brisk, Poland, at a young age he joined Betar and a few years later was one of the prominent leaders of the movement. He was an Israeli politician, founder of the Likud Party and the sixth Prime Minister of Israel. Return
  6. Aliyah (lit. “Ascent”) is the immigration of Jews from the Diaspora to Eretz Israel. Return
  7. Hakhshara (lit. “Preparation”) the term is used for training programs in agricultural centers in which Zionist youth learned vocational skills necessary for their emigration to Israel and subsequent life in kibbutzim. Return
  8. Hatzohar - (Heb. acronym for HaTzionim HaRevizionistim) was a Revisionist Zionist organization and political party in Mandatory Palestine and newly independent Israel. It was founded by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and others in April 1925 and followed the establishment of Betar in 1923. Return

[Page 272]

The Game of Shadows and Lights in Bielsk
(and something about Betar)

by Yakov Shemesh

Translated by Sara Mages

It is difficult to say that the Jews in Bielsk constituted one close-knit family. In the period before the tragedy of the Holocaust a united Jewish front had not yet formed. Its eight thousand Jews were divided among themselves like all the Jews of the cities, for various political reasons and contradictions. But from a Jewish national point of view, in their attitude towards the gentiles and their active enmity, the residents of Bielsk were united and maintained a single front of national pride and standing up for their dignity.

I entered the movement of Ze'ev Jabotinsky[1] z”l when I was eight years old. At this young age I already had a developed national recognition and a tendency towards political Zionism and, to my great regret, I encountered the phenomenon of a lack of attitude [respect] towards Betar on the part of the people of HeHalutz[2] and the members of Hashomer Hatzair[3]. I saw it in the attitude of these movements towards an important Jewish personality, the lawyer Klemantinovski. Although he was from Bialystok he managed the ken[4] of Betar in our city and commanded it - and the attitude was no different towards his deputy, Mr. Vilin, a photojournalist who was the son-in-law of Mr. Melamdovitz. A despicable personal campaign had been waged against these two men, and when a disaster happened, and one of the members of Betar, who came from the nearby town of Orla, was dragged into the moving belts of a flour mill and killed, in the nearby town there was no visible participation in the grief by the members and activists of Hashomer Hatzair and the people of the anti-Zionist Bund[5]. This matter made me very angry and left a scar in my soul. However, when the anti-Semitic members of Endecja[6] ran amok in the city under the leadership of the priest Stolowski, the young people of Bielsk found courage in their hearts and under the guidance of Betar pushed the rioters and broke their pride to shards.


The management of the Union of Revisionist Zionists, 1935

[Page 273]

In the national movement there were also religious men [in a group] named Brit Hashmonaim – Yeshurun[7]. Once, a delegation of fifty members, dressed in the magnificent uniforms of the Betar movement, came to the District Governor to lobby for something. The anti-Semitic Deputy District Governor told them: by now I was used to seeing frightened yehudonim[8], now I am beginning to better understand your great leader, Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky. The delegation asked the District Governor for police protection for the Jews who are occasionally harmed by the incited mob, and warned him that if the hooligans interfere with the course of life of the Jews in Bielsk, incite the gentiles against us and the police would not protect the Jews from the hooligans, the trained Betarim would give the anti-Semites the answer they deserve.

The governor Krishlevski lowered his head, pondered and answered: I have no doubt about this warning, I trust you more than the Polish police.

On September 24, 1938, in the early hours of the day, the town's Jews were surprised to see that their shops and workshops were dirty with tar and anti-Semitic slogans, and hooligan guards stood by the shops to prevent non-Jewish shoppers from entering and buying. A whole gang gathered near the shops of the Barchat brothers and the Freodles brothers, and I saw it. I immediately alerted the members of Brit Hahayal[9], Betar and Hatzohar[10], and at half past eight they all appeared in their uniforms with pointed sticks in their hands, and the rioters left. By the Catholic Church, near the train station, shkotzim [young gentiles] distributed an anti-Semitic leaflet to worshipers accompanied by wild incitement against the Jews. The distributors were immediately removed and close to two thousand copies of the leaflet were destroyed. Then, a serious quarrel broke out next to our store on 80 Mickiewic Street, and Vronsky's grocery store near the Town Hall Square. In this skirmish six Poles were injured and a member of Betar named Yochanan Lev (now he is a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces). Next to the place of business of a man named Topoloski, three old Jews, who at the same time were returning from Beit HaMidrash “Yafeh Einayim,” were beaten. The attackers escaped towards 3 Maja Street (Paranda Street) and fled into the pharmacy where they smashed all the windowpanes. We immediately chased after them, dragged the hooligans into the large yard, and a few minutes later they were all wounded and bleeding. Mr. Klementinovski and Mr.Villach immediately appeared and asked for an interview with the station commander, when the commander refused to accept them [i.e., to see Klementinovski and Villach], the members of Brit Hahayal appeared and forcibly released the Betar members, and the police chief, who was known to be a complete idler, swallowed his insult and remained silent.

The life of the peaceful town was often disrupted by the quarrels of the Jewish shopkeepers, who fought each other over their poor livelihood. However, in the evening after the businesses and various concerns ended, the ancient and beautiful synagogue, Batei HaMidrash, “Itzale” or Shaare Zion, were filled with ordinary people of all kinds who came to participate in a Mishnayot[11] lesson, or to listen to a biblical chapter in Shulchan Aruch[12]. Radiant was the appearance of HaRav R' Ben Zion zt”l, and his awe-inspiring figure and sincere humility attracted the common people from the leather worker to the carter, and they came, for half an hour, to hear the traditional melody of those studying Mishnayot or the Gemara[13]. I don't remember

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the names of the explainers, but it is hard to forget the interest of the common people to each explanation, and every word, that came out of the mouths of the preachers.

How nice it was to observe how the Jews received the Shabbat in Bielsk. Everyone gathered in Beit HaMidrash in their best clothes, and all the worries of the weekdays seemed to have disappeared from their faces, In Bielsk they really felt the holy Sabbath in their hands.

The worshipers literally fought with each other to receive a guest, or guests for the Sabbath, and no one missed this opportunity - of the mitzvah of “hospitality.”

When the holidays, and the Days of Awe [High Holidays], were approaching, everyone prepared with reverence to stand before the judgment of the Creator of the world, and surpassed themselves on Yom Kippur. The prayer houses were illuminated with an abundance of lights that had a kind of holiday and remembrance, and the shamásh[14], R' Baruch, lit the large candles in the afternoon before Kol Nidre[15], and placed them inside special sandboxes. The city's Jews received the holy day with trembling, awe and fear. No one dared to desecrate the holy day, even indirectly, and on the eve of Kol Nidre prayer, everyone reconciled, forgave each other's transgressions and turned from enemies - to friends.

It seems to me, that Betar absorbed its Jewish values, and its national pride, from this way of life. In this social image, which took shape in Jewish cities in the Diaspora, my movement saw a national achievement worth fighting for and maintaining force brigades for this war of gentiles and Judaism.

Therefore, when I wrote about Betar, I slid to the description of the precious way of life in Bielsk and its dear Jews who, to my sorrow, are no longer.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880 – 1940) was a Zionist leader – the founder of the Revisionist Movement, and the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar. Return
  2. HeHalutz (lit. “The Pioneer”) was a Jewish youth movement that trained young people for agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Return
  3. Hashomer Hatzair (lit. “The Young Guard”) is a Labor Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913. Return
  4. Ken (lit. “Nest”) the term for a local branch of a movement that suggested the intimacy of a family. Return
  5. The Bund was a Jewish socialist party founded in Russia in 1897. Return
  6. Endecja, was a Polish political movement active from the second half of the 19th century under the foreign partitions of the country until the end of the Second Polish Republic. Return
  7. Brit Hashmonaim (The Alliance of the Hashmonaim) was a Zionist, nationalist and ultra-Orthodox youth movement which operated between 1934-1949 in Poland, Lithuania and the Land of Israel. Yeshurun is a poetic name for Israel used in the Hebrew Bible. Return
  8. Yehudon (pl. yehudonim) is a derogatory nickname for a Jew. Return
  9. Brit Hahayal (lit. “The Soldier's Alliance”) was an association in the spirit of the revisionist movement, of veteran Jewish soldiers, which operated in the 1930s, in Europe and Eretz Yisrael. Return
  10. Hatzohar - (Hebrew: acronym for HaTzionim HaRevizionistim (lit. The Revisionist Zionists), was a Revisionist Zionist organization and political party in Mandatory Palestine and newly independent Israel. Return
  11. The Mishnah (pl. Mishnayot) is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions that are known as the Oral Torah. Return
  12. Shulchan Arukh (lit. “Set Table”) is the most widely accepted code of Jewish law ever written, compiled in the 16th century by Rabbi Joseph Karo. Return
  13. The Gemara, which in Aramaic means “to study and to know,” is a collection of scholarly discussions on Jewish law dating from around 200 to 500AD Return
  14. Shamásh is person who assists in the running of a synagogue or its religious services. Return
  15. Kol Nidre, (Aramaic: “All Vows”), a prayer sung in Jewish synagogues at the beginning of the service on the eve of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Return

[Page 282]

Why was Kadima Founded

by M. Kaplanski

Translated by Sara Mages

Kadima [forward] wasn't founded on the ruins of Hashomer Hatzair[1] or at the expense of HeHalutz Hatzair[2]. These movements were active at the same time and continued their activities. The basis for the founding of Kadima, and the ideas that were at the foundation of this movement were desirable to everyone, and the same factors that nurtured the two [movements] also constituted the father of our movement. I mean, that it was impossible to establish a youth movement without the support of some older movement, or some older circle, and this was also the case with Kadima.

I remember that we were sitting at the home of Mrs. Gramayza. She was a distinct Zionist figure and devoted in heart and soul to the Zionist movement in the city. She, the adult, always found interest in the youth, her home was a meeting place for all the Zionist movements, and I always found a common language with here. We sat and talked and made the total account of the youth in Bielsk. It was at the time when Hashomer Hatzair decided that the matriculation certificate was not important. The most important thing is aliyah[3] and the fulfillment of Zionism, that is to say, to leave for a kibbutz and make an aliyah to Israel. As a result, there were many children from the government gymnasium in Bielsk who were not even interested in getting the matriculation certificate. They left their studies in the middle and departed for Hakhshara[4]. However, there were many good youth in Bielsk, close to Zionism, but since they opposed going to a kibbutz and communal life, and also because their parents were not ready to allow them to leave them, these youth would surely have left the existing movements that advocated Hakhshara and aliyah. And there was a danger that we would lose them. We, the members of the youth movements in the city, and especially Mrs. Gramayza, discussed what we should do in order to not lose these youth, some of whom were learning youth who did not want to go to Hakhshara and some wanted to finish their studies and then make an aliyah to Israel. We wanted to find a way out that would keep them within the Zionist framework, and that they would be useful to the Zionist movement in the city. We decided that it was necessary to gather this youth and find a framework of activity for them, such as Keren Kayemet LeYisrael [Jewish National Fund], Keren Hayesod [The Foundation Fund] and Eretz Yisrael Workers' Fund, that they will organize all kinds of traditional celebrations of the Zionist movement so that Tarbut school will not be cut off from Zionism. In this manner the idea of the academic corporation, Kadima, came about.

At this time also Bialystok, which was a city close to us, debated the problem of its academic youth, who also has not yet decided to leave for Hakhshara and make an aliyah to Israel. We tasked Shlomo Epstein to be one of the founders of this youth movement, and Joseph Serlin, who was one of the founders of Kadima in Bialystok, would help him.

We brought Serlin to us, we gathered 20-30 teenagers, boys and girls, and he lectured to us about the Zionist movement and its roles, and in this manner Kadima was established in Bielsk on October 9, 1928. A small part of its members made an aliyah to Israel, through the Halutz and Gordonia[5], or Hashomer Hatzair, and since in Kadima it was possible to also be a member of HeHalutz it did not interfere one to the other.

[Page 283]

Unfortunately, the lion's share of the people of Kadima perished in the Holocaust, some of them fled at the outbreak of the war to all countries of the world.

And those are the first founders of Kadima: Anyuta Sinai - she survived and lives in France. Sara Gramayza - perished. Chava Vaksman and her husband Shlomo Epstein perished, and I am the only one of the founders who is in Israel.

The branch in Bielsk was not a big branch and about thirty teenagers belonged to it. This movement existed and has done all the Zionist activities together with the Zionist movement


Kadima in Bielsk 1928 - the Knesset member, Serlin z”l, in the middle


in the city under the main leadership of Gramayza and the patronage of Melamdovitz, Stupnitski and Appleboim, who were usually the leaders of the Zionist movement in the city.

The main activity of Kadima, and its leaders, was the support of Tarbut school.

Tarbut school in our city was always in a difficult financial situation and it was always necessary to take care of the teachers' salary. We had no teachers in Bielsk and they were brought from the surrounding area, from Bialystok and other places, and they needed money. The budget of this school was always in deficit. Therefore, the people of Kadima invested a lot of energy and hard work to organize balls, evenings of entertainment with dances and a program, or presentation of plays, and all the income was dedicated to the school. It really was a big part of the school's budget.

In 1936, I visited Poland and was in Bielsk for 4-5 years [the author probably meant days]. Kadima hardly operated in the city at that time. Then, Hashomer Hatzair was the strongest movement in the city, and HeHalutz

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who has done a lot for the idea of fulfillment. Sara Gramayza was still in the leadership of the Zionist movement together with Stupnitski, Melamdovitz and Appleboim. Epstein was from the youth of Bielsk. After his studies abroad, when he returned as a student to Bielsk, he married Vaksman and stayed as the principal of Tarbut school in Bielsk. He then began to engage in full Zionist activity.

Then I realized that Kadima fulfilled an important role in Zionism, if not in its fulfillment in Israel then in its preservation abroad, it formed a framework that fostered Zionist activity and inspired people to this action. And that is its importance.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Hashomer Hatzair (lit. “The Young Guard”) is a Labor Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913. Return
  2. HeHalutz Hatzair (lit. The Young Pioneer) was a youth group that came together in 1923 to train for immigration to Eretz Yisrael. Return
  3. Aliyah (lit. “Ascent”) is the immigration of Jews from the Diaspora to Eretz Israel. Return
  4. Hakhshara (lit. “Preparation”) the term is used for training programs in agricultural centers in which Zionist youth learned vocational skills necessary for their emigration to Israel and subsequent life in kibbutzim. Return
  5. Gordonia was a Zionist youth movement whose doctrines were based on the beliefs of Aaron David Gordon, a labor Zionist thinker and the spiritual force behind practical Zionism and Labor Zionism. Return

[Page 285]

HeHalutz Hatzair as an Active and Activating Force

by Yakov Zahavi- Goldvitz

Translated by Sara Mages

HeHalutz Hatzair[1], as a youth organization, was very active. In my time it was headed by Motke Idelman who passed away here in Jerusalem, and Aharon Reichman who is here in the kibbutz. Later, I was also in its management.

The activity of HeHalutz Hatzair was centered on mobilizing for activities for the building of Eretz Yisrael. The existence of Tarbut[2] school and all the Zionist organizational activities carried out by the adults. HeHalutz Hatzair[3] was also represented in all the Zionist institutions, such as Keren Kayemet LeYisrael [Jewish National Fund], educational institutions, and others. With the crisis in Israel during the meora'ot[4] the pioneering movement weakened and disbanded. That's when the Zionist youth organization, Kadima [forward], was founded. Some of our youth began to move to the communist movement, and to keep them connected to Zionism, the Zionist youth organization, Kadima, was founded. However, we were not satisfied with this and did our best to continue within our framework.

We were helped by the leaders of HeHalutz[5] in our city, Yakov Golomb, Stern and Heschel Kadlvuvski. They took HeHalutz Hatzair under their wing and we did the work. At that time the activists of HeHalutz Hatzair were: Feivel Kremer, myself, Malka Goldvitz, Zevergitzky and Shoshana Kaplanski.

In the late 1920s, the duty of HeHalutz Hatzair was to train its members for pioneering fulfillment. Members on the verge of adulthood left for agricultural training in Grochów[6] near Warsaw. Whoever was a working youth, had a profession or started in his profession, stayed in Bielsk with the consent of our committee and in the knowledge of HeHalutz Hatzair center, and continued his training. Our second role was to instill the Hebrew language to the members. In this role we entered into a special activity in everything related to the existence of Tarbut school.

We participated in fundraising campaigns held to the balance the budget of this school. We bore the burden of worrying about the teachers' salaries, and were partners in everything the adults, and the parents' committee, had done for this institution. We collected items from the wealthy for the Hanukkah “bazaars,” sold tickets to the various balls held for the benefit of Keren Kayemet LeYisrael and the school, and by this we increased the sources of income for the existence of the school because we saw in it the concentration point of the reserve of the Zionist fulfillers.

In fact, there were other youth organizations that cooperated in all the aforementioned operations, but we did what was assigned to us with serious dedication, the seriousness of working boys who have passed the test of action in life by the necessity of their fate and are used to action.

Hashomer Hatzair[7] was also active with us. But there was a difference between us and Hashomer Hatzair .While it did these things as the main ones and saw the Hachshara[8] as secondary thing, or, at least, non-binding on behalf of the movement, HeHalutz Hatzair devoted itself entirely to Hachshara and aliyah, and did the rest of the activities as required by the main thing, which is the building of Israel by self-fulfillment.

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HeHalutz Hatzair was involved in education, Zionist life, collecting donations, agricultural training, professional training, distribution of certificates[9], in the day-to-day life of its members, while Hashomer Hatzair was not active in those areas. Hashomer Hatzair was then the favorite child of the General Zionists[10] of the faction of Al HaMishmar of Gruenbaum[11] and Sneh[12] (then Klaynboym). They were radical General Zionists, and saw Hashomer Hatzair in Poland as the national intelligentsia of the learning youth. Hashomer Hatzair gathered the youth who attended high school and, the most important thing for Gruenbaum, was to take these youth out of assimilation, move them to the lines of Zionism and include them in activities for the benefit of Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, distributing shekels[13], to cultivate Hebrew culture and the culture schools, and also that they learn Hebrew.

HeHalutz Hatzair gathered within it the children from the middle school that were members of the working class, who actually also studied trades such as carpentry, shoemaking and tailoring. The main activity was to give them a conceptual education about Eretz Yisrael, to interest them in everything that is happening in Eretz Yisrael, what is a kibbutz and what is a moshav[14], the moshava[15], HaKibbutz Ha'artzi [Nationwide Kibbutz]. All these things were taught to them so that they would know the country before they make an aliyah and be able to receive a certificate. Anyone who needed to get a certificate had to take an exam, and know what Israel is and the theory of Zionism. That was the main thing.

In 1924, we divided HeHalutz Hatzair into groups and there were teachers who supervised them once a week, twice a week, and gathered them for meetings of conversation and activity. But it was forbidden, it was illegal in Poland. All these activities were illegal and we had to arrange all this in such houses that the Polish government would not suspect. At the beginning it all was done under Tarbut. I remember that we once held a meeting at Winograd's, the police came and asked “what is this,” and we said it was in relation to the Tarbut schools and a meeting is now taking place here.

In 1924, on the holiday of Shavuot, Reuven Uzisky and I left for Orla, a town eleven kilometers from Bielsk, to found [a branch of] HeHalutz. It was a town of religious people whose occupation was mostly in peddling, and there the communists were strong. There was one there, Chachki, a well-known communist who grew up in his town's background, and was opinionated and active. HeHalutz and Tarbut were not there. Once, Einstein came from the Tarbut center in Warsaw to Orla and was about to speak at the synagogue, what did the communists do? They turned off the lamps and beat him up. Since then we haven't done any activity there. We couldn't ignore it. Therefore, we mobilized on our own free will, and by the strength of our spatial movement awareness, because we felt that if we would be alone in Bielsk, and there were no branches in the vicinity, we would not exist. We concentrated in the forest, because the eyes of the police were open in the city. Immediately, the communists also gathered, started arguing, until it came to beatings. Coincidentally, I had a relative there who knew the police, and when the policemen started to ask - what is going on there? we hear shouts in the forest! I approached that Chachki and said: look, if they will arrest us, there is a Zionist organization and there is Tarbut who will take care of us, but when you fall into the hands of the police they will not release you, and I took him and entered

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the town arm in arm with him to remove the police suspicion from him. And on the same day we convened a meeting of the founders of HeHalutz and established [a branch of] HeHalutz in Orla. Later, a Hebrew school was also founded on our initiative. Since then, the communists stopped bothering us. They knew that we would not be deterred and beatings would not scare us, and if we decide, we would carry it out.

When I made aliyah, I remembered the activity of our HeHalutz Hatzair, in and around Bielsk, with a certain pride because we dared during the crisis period for Zionist fulfillment, we acted and also activated others in Bielsk and its surroundings.



Translator's footnotes
  1. HeHalutz Hatzair (lit. The Young Pioneer) was a youth group that came together in 1923 to train for immigration to Eretz Yisrael. Return
  2. Tarbut - “Culture” in Hebrew, was a network of secular Zionist educational institutions that functioned in Poland in the interwar period. The language of instruction was Hebrew. Return
  3. HeHalutz (lit. The Pioneer) was a Jewish youth movement that trained young people for agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Return
  4. Meora'ot (lit. Events) the 1929 bloody clashes between the Jews and the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael during the period of the British Mandate. Return
  5. HeHalutz (lit. The Pioneer) was a Jewish youth movement that trained young people for agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Return
  6. The training farm in Grochˇw (also called Kibbutz Grochˇw) was founded by the Halutz movement in 1919 and used by Dror movement and HeHalutz Hatzair to train youth for agricultural and other work in preparation for immigrating to Eretz Yisrael. Return
  7. Hashomer Hatzair (lit. The Young Guard) is a Labor Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913. Return
  8. Hakhshara (lit. Preparation) the term is used for training programs in agricultural centers in which Zionist youth learned vocational skills necessary for their immigration to Israel and subsequent life in kibbutzim. Return
  9. The certificate was an immigration visa to Eretz Yisrael during the British Mandate. The certificates were limited in quantity and given in quotas set by the British in negotiations between them and the Zionist management. Return
  10. General Zionists (Heb. HaTzionim HaKlaliym) were originally a loose political group within the Zionist movement, made up of those Zionists who were neither socialists nor religious and who at first did not draw up a program of their own. Return
  11. Yitzhak Gruenbaum was a noted leader of the Zionist movement among Polish Jewry in the interwar period and of the population in Mandatory Palestine. He headed the Radical Zionist faction, initially known in Poland as Al Hamishmar [On Guard]. Return
  12. Moshe Sneh (Klaynboym) was a member of the General Zionists party, an Israeli politician and publicist, member of the First to Fifth, and Seventh Knessets. Return
  13. The shekel was the annual membership fee of the Zionist movement. Return
  14. Moshav (lit. Settlement) is a type of cooperative agricultural settlement in Israel. Return
  15. Moshava (lit. colony) was a form of rural Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine. Return

[Page 295]

My Town and My Movement

by Shaike Vaser (Mesilot)[1]

Translated by Nancy Schoenburg

Bielsk, my town: “I recall for you the kindness of your youth” [biblical quotation from Jeremiah 2:2],[2] when you were a typical Jewish town, bustling with life and known for joy and pain, until the reaper came and destroyed every Jewish memory of you.

Bielsk the town still exists, but OUR Bielsk, where we grew up, we studied, and were educated …

The town of Bielsk continues to exist, but OUR Bielsk, in which we were raised and studied and educated as Jews - that is no longer. Not many Jews were among the rich of Bielsk --- very few [lit. even a child could count them]. Most people were either well-to-do or poor, merchants and artisans who were busy every day of the year, each one with his own craft and business. They toiled hard for their livelihoods, but their hearts were open for helping and supporting their fellow man, and many were needy, some only for the gemach[3] and some for anonymous giving. There was always someone ready to dedicate his time and strength to fulfill the mitzvah [commandment; good deed] of helping others.

In the years that have passed since I left the city and made aliyah [immigrated to The Land of Israel], I have forgotten many names, but not the people. How could I forget one of my neighbors, a roofer (der schindel schlager), a Jew short in stature, one of the people, full of energy and joy of life, who ran about on weekends to arrange for the poor, who were not from there, as guests for Shabbat. Or the distributor of letters and newspapers who had been widowed and left with small children and without a source of income. Good Jews took the initiative and succeeded in convincing the postmaster that, although there was a letter-carrier in the town (a non-Jew) and his salary came from the post office, the widow would only distribute the letters of the Jews and without a salary. Payment would come from the Jews themselves. Thus, they assured a dignified existence for the family.

The town was small, but many roads encircled it from every side, and the youth strolled on them for pleasure. These roads were silent witnesses to much singing, loves that blossomed, and ideas that crystalized during endless discussions and debates.

The town was rich in its cultural life. The youth were alert to what was happening and most of them were organized into [political] parties and youth movements. I do not think there was a Jewish party in Poland that did not have a branch in Bielsk.

I will mention Sander the shoemaker, the Bund operative, who while doing his hand-work would often argue with me about two issues:

  1. Why should children have to learn a dead language? Hebrew.
  2. Is the tiny Land of Israel (Palestina, in his words) able to solve the Jewish Question?
The Zionists opened many diversified activities and their mark on the city was substantial in everyday life and especially at the time of elections – local, national, Zionist Congress, etc. Then sleeping and quiet Jews would also awaken and amaze with their activity.

I will mention with awe-inspiring honor the three Zionist leaders in the city: Stopnitzki,[4] Melamdovitz[5], and Appleboim[6] z”l [may their memory be a blessing]. Their names were a symbol of everything that the Hebrew language and the Land of Israel were connected to. They had a large hand in every Zionist activity.

[Page 296]

Mr. Appleboim was full of energy and extended his activities also to other areas like Cooperatzia,[7] Linat HaTzedek[8], and others.

The first Zionist youth movement organized in the town and connected to a national and international movement was the “ken” [a cell; literally “nest,” as they referred to each of their groups] of Hashomer Hatzair.[9] Its appearance in the town was like a breath of fresh air for the youth and many joined the ken. Over time, although small in number, it materialized and gathered serious youth who devoted themselves to Zionist work in the town and trained for pioneering and aliyah. The ken worked hard for the “Tarbut” School,[10] which struggled hard for its financial survival.

The work for Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] was interwoven with educational activity on behalf of the Land of Israel, and the ken [of Hashomer Hatzair] was a large part of it.

There were numerous and varied educational activities and workshops within the walls of the ken and the rooms of the “Tarbut” School, which were used in the evenings and on Shabbat as a meeting place for members of the ken. But also there were no small number of activities spread outside – camps in the surrounding forests, escorting processions in the city, and organizing summer moshavot [colonies] in one of the surrounding villages.

Many a parent, sympathizers, and the just-curious would visit the camps and moshavot for a while and breathe the air of The Land of Israel.

At the end of the 1920s, the educational work of the ken began to bear fruit with the departure of the first graduates for training and at the beginning of the 1930s for aliyah [immigration] to Israel.

During these years, graduates of the ken were also joining a branch of “Hechalutz” [pioneering youth movement] and its workers. During this period, there began a radical turn in the attitude of the older youth in the town to The Land of Israel. Many who had been far from Zionism and even opposed to it, were joining Hechalutz, and going for training. Those who merited and succeeded also made aliyah to The Land [of Israel].

I did not purport to describe everything that linked and connected me to our Bielsk. I just wanted to contribute my small part to the book and thus to participate and lend a hand in remembering the town that I loved and the people whom I so appreciated.

Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. Mesilot: A kibbutz in northeastern Israel near Beit Shean, Mesilot was founded in 1938. Its founders included members of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Return
  2. Jeremiah 2:2 quotation: the translation of the phrase is from the Milstein Edition of Art Scroll Mesorah Publication Ltd. (2014), p. 9. Return
  3. Gemach: usually interest-free loans, a Jewish free loan society. The word is an abbreviation for gemilut khasadim or “acts of loving kindness.” Return
  4. Stopnitzki was the principal of Tarbut School. See page 144. Return
  5. There is a brief biography of Efraim Melamdovitz on page 204. Alternative spellings include Melamdowicz, Melamedowicz, Melamdovitch, and Melamdowitch He was a Hebrew teacher and fervent Zionist. He is in a photo on page 48. In the chapter In the Bielsk Ghetto & the Camps, Meir Peker wrote that Melamdovitz was among the first group of Jews to be executed by the Nazis. Efraim Melamdovitz is included in a document in the online Yad Vashem Archives titled “List of 658 Jews who lived in Bielsk Podlaski before the war, and their fate.” About this initial group, the document states “probably they were shot and buried” in or near the Piliki Forest. The chapters I Was One of Them on page 409 and We Will Not Forget the Bielsk that Was Destroyed on page 445 mention the Piliki Forest as a place where Jews were taken to be shot. Return
  6. The chapter Why was Kadima Founded on page 282, mentions these three as leaders of the Zionist movement in Bielsk. In Bielsk in the Eyes of a Teacher on page 107, Appleboim and Melmedovitz are mentioned as “the Zionists who stood as the source of light for the [Tarbut] school.” Return
  7. Cooperatzia: mutual assistance cooperative. Return
  8. Linat HaTzedek was charitable aid society that sponsored a hospital in Bielsk. See Image of a Society on page 11 of the English section. Return
  9. Hashomer Hatzair: a Labor Zionist youth movement. The mission of Hashomer Hatzair was to train young Jews for living in The Land of Israel. Return
  10. The text says beit haseger, but more likely is beit hasefer or the school. Return


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