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[Pages 49-52]

Second Part:

Between the Two World Wars

 

Social and Cultural Life

 

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By M. Guyer

Translated by Clarice Gostinsky Horelick

Edited by Ada Holtzman z”l and Leon Zamosc

In Gombin, as in the other towns and cities of Czarist Russia, a mood of resignation and apathy had settled down after the failure of the 1905 revolution. In those times of general passivity, only the small Zionist and Bundist groups were engaged in some cultural and political work.

The outbreak of the First World War brought months and years of need and hunger. In the first days of the war, it seemed that everything we had built would go up in smoke. The Germans arrived in Gombin on August 2 1914 and, with very little interruption, stayed in place until the end of the war. On November 11 they put in place a civilian government appointing Schneider, a local ethnic German who owned a clothing store, as mayor of the town.

Among the Jews, and despite the difficulties and the shortages of food and basic goods, the passion for social and cultural work continued. Before the outbreak of the war, we had asked our Maskilim contacts in St. Petersburg to obtain permission from the Czarist authorities for the opening of a legal library in Gombin. When the war erupted, however, we lost all contact with St. Petersburg. Then, near the end of the war, the establishment of the library was authorized by Schneider, the mayor of Gombin.

Now that we had the permission we discovered that we did not have a place or money for the library. In the past, we had had a small, half-legal library that circulated books once a week. Later, during the war, we had packed these books into crates and had hidden them.

Finally, we found a space in Poznanski's house, a three-storied building facing the town's main square. We rented the second floor, removed the internal walls, and replaced the separate rooms with a large new hall that could accommodate two hundred people. Inside we installed a backdrop with a curtain that had been painted by the German soldiers. Abba Wolman arranged the lighting with gas lamps because, back then, there was no electricity in Gombin…

Now we had a place where we could organize lectures and performances. The difficulty was that Gombin's local intelligentsia was rather small. The wealthier young men and women who could afford a higher education went away to the bigger cities. However, we managed to recruit some of them to come back from their gymnasiums or universities, to give lectures for organized audiences in Gombin. The Bundists had also established cultural circles that offered various scientific and educational courses.

 

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The Bund's Jewish Kindergarten
Teachers: Sonia Cemelinski-Nowogrodska (right) and Channa Celemensky (left)

 

The Gombiner youngsters' thirst for knowledge facilitated the effort to raise money, and we were able to buy almost 2000 books. We numbered and catalogued them and, pretty soon, they were ready to be borrowed by readers. We formed a multi-party committee of five members, including three Bundists and two Zionists. They recruited a group of young people to help check out the books.

The opening of the library brought a fresh breath of life to the town. Adults and children flocked to the library. When the set up was completed and the lending of books was routine, we began to think about more uses for the large hall. We organized a “drama society” and we had a number of capable talented directors like Weislicz, Domb, and others. With great success we produced Uriel Acosta's Chashe the Orphan, and other dramas by Sholem Asch, Stanis&322;aw Przybyszewski , Anton Tshechov, and Leonid Andreyev. From time to time we also organized concerts.

A big attraction were the open readings, to which we brought famous speakers- like Israel Lichtenstein, Wiktor Szulman, N. Szafran, M. Kasher, and many others. The young people received the lectures with great enthusiasm. The culture work was done collectivelly, but each separate organization also arranged its own political and educational activities. By the end of 1919, the Zionists and the Bundists had separate libraries in Gombin.

By the end of the First World War we organized a concert garden, and it was about that time that the Bundist teacher Sonia Cemelinski-Nowogrodska came to teach in Gombin (she would be later killed by the Nazis.) The political groups grew stronger and involved larger and larger numbers of Gombiner Jews. The end of the war brought the restoration of Poland's independence. There were local elections to choose the new municipal authorities. In Gombin, twelve Christians and six Jews were elected as members of the municipal council. Four of the six elected Jewish councilmen were activists of the Bund.

 

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Jewish folk-school with teachers
Abram Kalmus and Ignacy Sztokhammer, 1924

 

One of the consequences of the war was a shortage of food. A special appropriations committee was appointed to bring flour, potatoes, fat, and other foodstuffs from neighboring larger towns. When the war with the Soviet Union broke out in 1919, the Polish government arrested the four Bundist councilmen: Melech Tadelis, Ignacy Sztokhammer, Abraham Tiber, and Yizhak Mosze Chaja (Guyer). Other political activists were forced to escape, and I was one of them. I ran away to America with my family. On October 17 1920 we joined my brother in Detroit.

Despite the setbacks, the groundwork for Jewish cultural and social work in Gombin had been laid out and would continue to bear fruit. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, we maintained permanent contact with our colleagues and friends in Gombin. The political and cultural activities prospered and flourished. Gombin became a place to which prominent Jewish political leaders and speakers were drawn. Lectures and discussions, concerts, and artistic presentations were organized. The young people had a deep lust for learning, and the Jewish organizations from all political stripes actively responded to their desire to learn and their hunger for social activity. Like hundreds of other Jewish cities and towns all over Poland, Gombin was immersed in a powerful cultural movement that enriched anyone who wanted intellectual freedom. Many referred to Gombin as “Little-Warsaw”, so intense was the town's Jewish social life.

And it went on like this until the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Nazi demon of death descended over the Jews of Poland.

 

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The teacher Sonia Cemelinski (center) when she was freed from prison.
In Gombin. Near her sits comrade Emanuel Nowogrodzki

 

[Pages 53-59]

The Social Assistance Work

by Chaim Rafel (Szacher)

Translated by Clarice Gostinski Horelick

Edited by Ada Holtzman z”l and Leon Zamosc

 

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This chapter of Chaim Rafel's memoirs (his name in Gombin was Chaim Szacher) describes the broad, multi-faceted activities of the town's Jewish social support institutions between the two world wars.

* * *

My father Pinchas Szacher spent his entire life working for the welfare of Gombin's Jewish community. When I was still a child, I would accompany him to the Jewish schools, the Cheders and Talmud Torahs. He was always busy raising funds to pay for the poor students' tuition fees and provide clothing for the needy. We also distributed bread and herring and, when any of those poor children showed special ability to learn, my father would try to provide them opportunities to benefit from a higher education. Neta Pelzenmacher and Jecheskel Blacharz worked side by side with my father, also assisting the poorer students.

I mention this as an introduction to the kind of social assistance work that was done in our town. The Jews of Gombin had always distinguished themselves by their open eyes - and open hearts - to the needs of the poorer members of the community, and there was not a single case of a poor Jewish child or a destitute Jewish family that did not receive some warm support from their more affluent brothers.

The social assistance work developed in stages. It began in a spontaneous way, when a group of wealthy residents of Gombin, on their own initiative, took simple steps to help individual children in need. In time, the social assistance became more and more organized. There was a reception area for the needy, Hachnasat Orchim, in a room above the Mikvah (bathhouse). Later, a Bikur Cholim organization to help the sick was established in a much larger hall located behind the Bet Midrash (Study House). The work of Bikur Cholim, which was supported by 40 to 50 Jewish families, consisted in visiting sick people in their homes, bringing them food, and paying the pharmacist for the medicines they needed.

 

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Jewish Kindergarten group with the teacher Rajzel Zychlinski

 

The money for these activities was raised in the old and traditional Jewish way. Every Friday, we simply “went to the houses” and the Jews of Gombin did not refuse. The doors were wide open for those who went around collecting funds and the Jewish families contributed their charities. A second source of donations were the Nedarim, pledges of money that the Jews made in the synagogue when they were called up to the Torah. A portion of those donations were designated for Bikur Cholim.

Every year, Bikur Cholim organized a big Kiddush on Shmini Etzeret, the eighth and last day of Succoth. They would invite the “pnay” of the shtetl (the “VIP” of town) and also the rabbi with the Klay Kodesh.

However, the social assistance work was still affected by chance. Since the income from “going to the houses" and the Nedarim pledges varied a lot, the distributed aid was not constant but random. It took many years until these goodhearted but amateurish activities took on the form of true, planned social work. The turning point for the establishment of a more stable, organized effort was 1915, the first year of the First World War.

Gombin's economic life was shattered by the war. Yesterday's rich men became paupers and yesterday's poor became even poorer. Since Gombin was located on the front lines between Germans and Russians, the local traders and artisans were cut from the neighboring areas connected with their businesses. The crisis was so deep that it was no longer enough to go around “to the houses” and collect funds for the neediest. It was now necessary to run a larger operation that would allow the provision of help to all the needy. The conditions were right for the emergence of the first Gombiner assistance institution, which was called Yugent Hilf Verein (the Youth Assistance League). The founders were Melech Tadelis, Abba Wolman, Yossel Yarlicht, and myself among others. At first, we raised funds through assessments to the wealthiest members of the community, but as soon as the war ended and the links with the rest of the world opened up, we began to receive help from America.

It is necessary to mention that, by this time, the town's emigres in America had created their own Society of Gombiners. In their evaluations, they had accurately predicted that the war would cause an economic upheaval and that the Jews of Gombin would be in urgent need of material help. One of the leaders of the Gombiner organization in the United States was my brother Sam Rafel, who came to Gombin immediately after the war bringing with him a considerable amount of money.

By then, a group of Jews whose children had emigrated to America before the war, had also created their own committee in Gombin. The committee included Jecheskel Holtzman, Jakob Leib Zychlinski, Hersh Nussan Zolna, Abraham Tiber and my father Pinchas Szacher. The task of this committee was to distribute the money received from the Gombiner emigres in America. A big part of the money went for clothing and food for the most needy.

 

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Feeding the children in Gombin's Jewish folk-school No.2

 

The year 1922 was particularly important for the assistance efforts in Gombin. On that year, the much-travelled landsman, Abraham Max (Manczyk) came to Gombin from America bringing a large sum of money that included the funds sent by the Society of Gombiner emigres and a substantial donation from his own pocket. That was the basis for the People's Bank, which was established with the active participation of Abraham Zamosc, Abraham Leib Gibs, Melech Tedelis, Abraham Tiber, my father Pinchas Szacher, Jecheskel Holtzman, and others whose names unfortunately I cannot remember. In time, the support that the People's Bank received from the Gombiner Jews in America was boosted by additional grants from the American Joint Distribution Committee, which was active in Poland and was popularly known as simply “the Joint”.

The People's Bank became an important institution that played a big role in the life of the Gombin Jews during the interwar period. Its main purpose was the provision of loans, which were given out to those who could offer substantial guarantees of repayment (collateral) or were deemed capable of repaying a certain percent of the loan on a monthly basis. This, however, implied that only a relatively small part of the population could benefit from the support of the People's Bank, the most important group being the merchants.

 

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Board of the Gombin Savings and Loans Kasse, 1913
From right to left, top row: Abraham Zamosc, Melech Tadelis, Louis Philips (Pochekha)
Middle row: Fajwel Borenstein, Hirsz Jakob Wrobel, Shmuel Kraut, Mosze Glikzeliger, Abraham Shlomo Plonski, Abraham Fried, Yankel Hodes
Bottom row: Henech Zorkawski, Mordechai Szwartzberg, Noah Teifeld, Abraham Wolfowicz, Israel Rozen, Josef Gibs
Bottom left: Leibel Drachman

 

The limitation of the People's Bank, then, was that it did could not help the poorer Jews, which included the many craftsmen who were not capable of fulfilling the bank's conditions. In this respect, I should mention another important institution: the Handicrafts Union, which had been established in 1913 to look after the professional interests and needs of the artisans: tailors, shoemakers, bakers, hat-makers and poor Jews. Those who were active in the Handicrafts Union included Chaim Luria, Meir Laski, Wolf Laski, Zalman Bol, Hershel Finkel, Jonah Bibergal, and myself.

The Handicrafts Union was very useful in resolving disagreements and helping improve conditions for the working people, but it could not meet all the needs of its members. Its main drawback was that it could not offer financial help. The fact that the People's Bank's was also unable to assist the poorest sectors of the community gave rise to the idea of forming a second, separate bank for the artisans and the poorer Jews.

The idea became a reality in 1927 – another important moment for the Gombin Jews during the interwar period. On that year we received another visitor from America, the landsman Szoiman, who came with his wife bringing funds from the Society of Gombiner emigres. At a meeting in the house of Jecheskel Holtzman it was decided to use the funds for the establishment of Gmilot Chasadim, a new bank for the poorer Gombiners.

The founders of the Gmilot Chasadim were Abraham Tiber, Chaim Leib Borenstein, Yitzhak Szikarka, Abraham Wrobel, and Pinchas Szacher. The goal of the Gmilot Chasadim Bank was to lend money without interest, allowing borrowers to repay the loan over longer periods of time. At the beginning the loans were small, but they did get bigger in the following years. Right before the Second World War, the bank was giving loans of 300 zlotys, which was a nice sum at the time.

Like the People's Bank, Gmilot Chasadim was supported by funds from the American Gombiner Society and the Joint. In the year 1930, when my father passed away, I replaced him in the committee. By then, In addition to the already mentioned founders, the committee also included Chaim Luria, Meir Laski, Hersz Madera and Meir Zeideman, an honorable, dedicated and loyal Jew, who did not want any reward or pay for his work. Our meetings took place on a weekly basis. We were in constant contact with the American Gombiner Society, sending reports to New York every two months. The Secretaries were Abraham Tiber and Meir Zeideman.

 

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Meeting of the Gmilot Chasadim Bank in Gombin in the year 1921
Seated from the right: Meir Zeideman, H.N. Zolna, Pinchas Szacher, Abraham Tiber, Yitzhak Szikarka, Sam Rafel, delegate from America, S. Borenstein, M. Celemenski, H. Holtzman. Standing: S. Holtrzman, F. Finkelstein, Bauman, Abraham Wrobel, Meir Laski

 

The social assistance work in Gombin was very developed. Considering that our town was small and was relatively isolated from the surrounding towns and cities, it could serve as an example, and a standard, for every scholar interested in the history of the shtetls – those small Jewish communities in which everybody was closely related to everyone else. The most important point was that individuals did not live for themselves, but they also lived for the others and every Jew was a part of the total. My account of the social and philanthropic work in Jewish Gombin only reflects a small portion of all that was done over many years of work. The great tragedy of the Second World War marked the end of Gombin and its living Jews. The books, documents, ledgers and notes from all the institutions that took care of their welfare were also destroyed.

These few lines should remind us of the historical accomplishments of the activists involved in the social work in Jewish Gombin. They should also uphold the memory of the fact that mutual assistance and concern about everybody's welfare were central values for the Jews of Gombin.

 

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A group of social work activists with Abraham Max (Manczyk),
delegate of the Society of Gombiner emigres in America

 

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