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History of the Jewish Community of Grodno (cont.)

4. The Spiritual Social Category of the Society

The Character of the Leadership of the Kehila

Translated by Shimon Joffe

Contrary to the internal changes which took place in the Russian Jewish society during the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, in which Grodno Jewry was an ardent participant, little change took place, during this time, in the traditional character of the Kehila in the city, internally and externally. Unskilled labor and craft–work, commerce and transport in Jewish hands continued to observe the Sabbath and festivals and preparations for these continued as in previous generations. Transgressions, when they occurred, on the Sabbath mostly, were hardly seen outside the community and were insignificant in any case. These drew attention only in the visits of some students in the city high schools, sailing (in summer) on the river to camps on its banks, and visits to the theater and circus or cinemas as well as youths spending time on the Sabbath in the Turkish cafe's in town.

The Kehila Leadership

The dominant opinions in the ‘Chevrat Hamitpallelim Hayehudim’, of public activists and some of the wealthy old generation, standing side by side with those semi assimilated doctors and jurists, none of whom being beholden to the public at all, these seemingly constituted a substitute for the Kahal.

As is known, the czarist government abolished, in 1884, the Kahal and transferred its functions to the general governmental agencies, particularly to the municipalities. These were also responsible for the special taxes placed on the Jews only – the Korovka and the candle tax – the income being devoted to meeting the religious and social needs of the Jewish population. The rabbi appointed by the authorities became the representative of the Kahal, (Kazioni Rabin), whose task was not rabbinical per se, but rather that of registrar of births and deaths among the Jews, to confirm engagement and marriage and to preach sermons in Russian as required by the regime.

The institution of an ‘Appointed Rabbi’ was introduced by the government in 1850. Until 1860 the graduates of the Vilna school for rabbanim (among them the Jewish philologist Yehoshua Steinberg) complained that the Grodno Kehila, and that of Vilna and Berdichev as well, refused to appoint a rabbi from among the graduates of the above school. In the years 1870–1876, Yosef Hurwitz was the Appointed Rabbi, chosen from among the Haskala writers. He had three rabbinic predecessors in the city in the same position; Kadish Luria, in the middle years of the forties of that century, (15 years), L (the full name is unknown to the author), and Rivash. Gurwich, (Hurwich) introduced a number of important regulations affecting the Kehila, but according to a correspondent, did not satisfy the Kehila leaders and was forced to leave Grodno. In 1876–1894 the Appointed Rabbi in Grodno was Benyamin Moshe Kotkind, a graduate of the above school. As a rule, these rabbis served at the beginning as teachers or inspectors in the government school for Jewish children, (popularly known as the institute, the reason being that the teachers in this school were graduates of the Vilna institute for teacher training). To elect an Appointed Rabbi was the only choice left to the Jews – the worshipers of each synagogue and prayer hall elected a few dozen electors and these then elected the Rabbi.

It was only after the Zionist movement began activity in the public life in Grodno that a battle began over the ideological character of the office of the Appointed Rabbi – a functionary not generally accepted by the people. The appointee was considered an official of the antagonistic government and was bereft of influence and civil courage. Furthermore, the Kehila did not wish him to have a high public stance in his position and he should not interfere in matters over which they considered themselves the guardians. No wonder then that after his appointment as Appointed Rabbi, Dr, Shmaryahu Levin, a notable and inspirational Zionist leader – could not keep to his appointment for a lengthy period of time, more so in Grodno of those days, in which he experienced a basic narrow minded attitude.

The rabbi appointed after him, in 1900, Shalom Ben Rabbi Dov Halevi Epstein, a Zionist as well as an ardent educator, bewailed the state of Hebrew education and expressed his opinions in the Hebrew press. He labored hard to remedy this in Grodno – but eventually gave in and moved to Kharkov.

Yitzkhak Ya'akov Heilperin took his place. A graduate of the ‘Vilna Institute for Jewish Teachers’, later he held the post of principal of the government school for Jewish children in Grodno. In his position as ‘Appointed Rabbi’, and as the last one in that position, he acted according to the accepted rules in this task.

 

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Dr. Shmaryahu Levin

 

With regard to the budget for the Jewish Kehila, which had no legal standing, the municipality allocated the amount. Though the Jews, according to the law of 1892 did not have the franchise in the local elections, the authorities were permitted to appoint Jews to the council, in a number not exceeding 10% of the total. This municipal council, whose Christian members were elected to their position by arbitrary rules laid down by their religious affiliates belonging to the upper classes only – they appointed a committee to deal with the Korovka tax, and these added a few honorable prosperous Jews to serve as advisers. This committee decided on the allocation of this tax (the collection of the tax was given over to a few tax collectors from among the community's wealthy), among the various budgetary items; some for the religious needs, including the bath house, some for the social welfare institutions, etc. The final arbiter in the above was the district authority itself.

Finally, at the beginning of 1905, when fresh winds of change began to blow among the Jewish and the general public, the Jewish members of municipal councils rebelled (having been appointed by the councils), and in a conference in Vilna, convened by the ‘Office for Defense of Jewish Rights’, previously organized to fight for equal rights and against Antisemitism, decided, in line with a proposal by a member of the Grodno city council, Dr. Zamkovski, that they should all resign together from their positions in support of their demand for the franchise, active and passive to be granted to their national compatriots. Dr. Zamburski and Yosef Frumkin, who was also an appointed member of the city council for the past thirty years, acted in accordance with their proposal and resigned. This is recorded to their credit unlike other fellow Jewish city councilors who did not rush to join them in their protest.

Torah, Charity and Benevolence

In the religious society and in the wider social sphere, as well as among the general Jewish public, the influence of the rabbis in Grodno was great, bearing the titles also of Morei Tzedek and Morei Hora'ah.

 

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Rabbi Eliakim – Shlomo Shapira

 

The community we are dealing with are; Rabbi Eliakim Shlomo Bar Rabbi Haim Shapira, Rabbi Gavriel Ze'ev Wolf Ben Rabbi Yekhiel Yitzchak Margaliot, and Rabbi Ben Rabbi Moshe Gelbord. Among the best known Morei Tsedek of the period is Rabbi Eliakim Shlomo Shapira, son in law of the Moreh Tsedek, who officiated in Grodno before him. Rabbi Yehuda Leyb Rabinowitz was born in 1819, he was a great scholar well versed in the ways of the world and served at first as rabbi in Eishishok, a Torah devoted town near Grodno. He was a noble and admired figure, very influential among the people and accepted among the Christians and officialdom. Community problems were solved by him. He was a Hovev Zion, a Hebrew books aficionado and worked for their distribution. In his last years, he resigned his post in Grodno, which he held from the year 1885, in order to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. He found his resting place in Jerusalem in the year 1905 where he was buried with great honor. Many affectionate stories circulated in Grodno about him and his responsa were printed in many books.

 

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Rabbi Wolf Margaliot

 

Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Margaliot (Rabbi Velvele, as he was popularly known, was born in Vilna in the year 1847 – died in 1934 in the USA). A descendent of the author of Ba'al Seder Hadorot, he was the son in law of Rabbi Nechamke of Horodna (Grodno) and appointed Moreh Tsedek in the city after the death of his father in law in 1879. He had a sharp intelligence, energetic, a scholar and preacher. (He also engaged in book selling, and the sale of Ethrogim). He was well–known as a conciliator between appellants in matters of Torah. He was a delegate to the second Zionist congress. but resigned from the movement and became an anti Zionist. In 1907 he was invited to take up a rabbinic post in Boston, USA, and emigrated there. At a later stage he held the position of president of the Association of Orthodox Rabbis in the USA and Canada. He authored , among others, ‘Agudat Ezov, dealing with the Hagadda of Passover, (First Vilna edition, 1903), Shem Olam – New Interpretations, Hadranim al Hashas Vehespedim – Vilna 1904, Torat Gabriel– Chumash exegesis (Jerusalem, 1910) and Ginzei Margaliot – on the Chameish Megilot’.

Rabbi Abraham Gelbord (Rabbi Abraham), born in 1851, died in Grodno 1938, held the position of the city head Moreh Hora'ah until the outbreak of the Second World War. He will be mentioned again.

Rabbi Abraham was very popular with the Grodno public. In the final decade before the First World War the Moreh Hora'ah was Rabbi Yehuda Ben Rabbi Yitzchak Mendel Rabinowicz Born in Waski or Constantinovo in the Kaunas district , 1914). He was a descendent of Rabbi Yom Tov Lifman, author of Tosaphot Yod Tet. He served in the rabbinate of Tiktin (Tykocin) and Sokolka and from the year 1903, settled in Grodno and served as Moreh Tzedek. In addition to his greatness in Torah studies and piety he was also known for his generosity and distinguished character. He published a treatise called ‘Masped Gadol Vekaved’ about Rabbi Israel Salanter (Warsaw 1883).

 

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Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Rabinowicz

 

In the period under consideration, Rabbi Moshe Trop was among the best known Yeshiva heads in Grodno. The father of Rabbi Naftali, head of the Radin Yeshiva, he introduced the system of logical analysis in the studies and was the leading spirit there. Rabbi Moshe Trop was, as related by his student Rabbi H.A.Yanovski, a profound scholar, sharp and knowledgeable (in the city he was known as Der Offener Moyiakh – the open mind), a great exegesist and very industrious.

The Grodno Yeshiva was known as one of the best in Lithuania. Many attended it, coming from distant parts, and many of its graduates achieved fame, in time. Among these are Prof. Israel Davidson (Moshowitz), expert on the Hebrew Poetry of the Middle Ages; great Hebrew journalist and author and editor of Ha'aretz, Dr. Moshe Glikson; and a resident of Holinka, near Grodno, (the Holinker), a descendant of Rabbi Yitzkhak Isaac Haber, among the rabbis famous in the Lithuanian communities in the nineteenth century and born and educated in Grodno. He was a great author on the obvious and the hidden in the Torah, and an educator; the teacher and Hebrew grammarian and researcher Chaim Aryeh Chazan; the author in Russian and French and the translator of the Talmud into French, a delegate to the Katowitz conference of Hovevei Zion and among the leading activists of the movement in Paris, Dr. Yisrael Michal Rabinowitz, and many others. And at the beginning of the twentieth century, the author and thinker, the researcher and editor in Yiddish, Abraham Manes.

Among the instructors in the Yeshiva, and later, its head, who also introduced the teaching of secular subjects, was the popular Yehuda Leyb Zupowitz, (born in a village near Olita, Vilna district, died in Grodno in 1931); also known as the Rabbi from Eishyshok (Der Eishyshoker as he was popularly called). During his decades of teaching he educated many generations of students. He was very popular in Grodno as a lecturer in the Sabbath lectures, given each Sabbath to the worshipers in the various study halls. He taught an audience of a hundred listeners in the study hall Alsheich, where he held the post of Rabbi, Mishniyot and the weekly Haftara. Rabbi Haim Leyb was known as a dynamic man, helpful to the depressed and embittered who stood in contact with him.

A friendly competition was practiced among the wealthy in Grodno– in the field of charity. Rabbi Eliezer Ben Rabbi Moshe Hakohen Bergman (born 1826 in Amdur, died in 1896) undoubtedly took the lead with his helping hand to public need (including the Eretz Yisrael public), and the individual in distress. Among other deeds, he built a building to house the Talmud Torah and equipped it with all that was needed for its proper functioning. He assigned money in his will for the erection, and the equipping of a trade school. This became one of the most highly regarded Jewish institutions in the city which in time graduated metal workers and mechanics. Yosef Shereshevski, and more so his partner Shraga Feivl Rusota, a plain Jew, who both demanded and gave freely, competed against Bergman. The first among them, erected a fine orphanage building, the second erected an outstanding Beth Zkeinim home, and both equipped the buildings richly.

Beginnings of Assimilation

Like all the other Jewish communities in the Russian Pale, Grodno too didn't sink into the past. In spite of its inherent tendency to conservatism it was not immune to the general changes taking place during that period.

Yiddish, the language spoken and rooted among the masses of Jews, who read the Jewish daily with enthusiasm and persistence, (1600 copies of Haint were sold in 1909 in Grodno daily, as against 2000 in Vilna). It nevertheless made a great impression and stood out in the city. In the decade preceding the First World War, the language and cultural influences affecting wide swaths of the Jewish youth, of the educated and the well–to–do circles was felt. This was due, first and foremost, to the institutes of higher learning, despite the fact that entry into these general institutes of Jews was limited, by the municipalities and the government, to 10%. This was particularly true of the high schools (the Jews constituted about two thirds of the Grodno population). The extent of the Russian influence grew from year to year. The Russian language and enlightenment continued to spread and took the place of the Hebrew language, of Yiddish and Jewish culture.

In the decade mentioned, it was common to meet young men and women in Grodno dressed in school uniforms bearing the insignia of Russian institutions irrespective of where these students studied. A minority attended the city primary schools or the government high school, or private schools, which were supported with Jewish money (having no choice but necessity because of being bound by the ‘numerous clausus’): or studying in the government schools set up for Jewish children, (supported by taxes on candles and kosher meat , paid only by Jews), all of them were taught to obey the first of all rules – to speak Russian. Even though there were some of them who did not quite follow the rule, outside the school walls, the majority followed the demand to speak Russian willingly and with enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that their pronunciation and accent were not exactly that of the Goyim. There were many, especially girls, to whom conversation in the foreign language became a matter of fashion, of higher status and coquetry, whereas the Jewish jargon became a symbol of the lower classes. In the case of speech (within the home Mame Loshn still ruled), but the other symbols of culture, the weekly newspaper reading, the book, cultural activity, art etc., Russian was uppermost. This was true mostly in cases where the social rejection process was not on account of Jewish nationalism or socialism.

Furthermore, missionary activity was prevalent within the educational institutions in Grodno, more so, in the girls' high schools. (Four such missionary groups existed, the one – supported by the government, another private Christian group and yet another – a Jewish group). There was little difference between them in their ability to convert. The Christian agitation, particularly that with a Protestant bent, and more so that of the Baptists (to ease the feeling of disgust at conversion) was carried on in the schools by the Christian teachers. It found an echo among certain sections of the Jewish youths, mainly among the girls. They saw in it an opportunity for a brighter future and were also charmed by its possibilities (especially of the elegant Russian officers with their epaulets and dances). These conjured up a full guarantee in their inducements. Tragedies occurred in a number of Jewish families in Grodno during that period, – of young women eloping with officers. This temptation to enter Russian life at all costs became evident in the Jewish quarters – in this period of nihilism and careerism after the failure of the Russian revolution and the riots and reaction which followed.

Great was the influence of the rich Russian culture in its entirety when viewed positively – its literature, its sophisticated periodicals and arts, especially the theater. Shows in Yiddish were as a rule forbidden, not that there was a theater of note in Russia in that language.

5. The Revolutionary and Social Movement among Grodno Jewry

First revolutionary Seeds

The period dealt with, was distinguished mostly by the social and national awakening among Grodno Jewry within the Jewish community and among the European nations and the ones across the seas. The factors and the currents which stood out in Jewish public life in Grodno, reflected exactly the currents in Russian society.

The first Jewish revolutionary group which came to life within the Pale, and founded by Leyb Davidowitz, had emerged from the Socialist group of Aaron Lieberman. It existed in Grodno in the years 1875–1876. The group was liquidated it would seem because of a denunciation to the police. In the charge sheet against the group it states that it was under the leadership of Isaac Ben Israel Slutzki, aged 25, a past a student in the Vilna rabbinic academy and Constantin Bielski, a seventh grade Grodno high school student. Among the others incriminated are; Solomon Anders and David Rotenstein, previously a student in the Vilna School for Music, and his brother.

Jewish Socialists from Grodno were the first to agitate among their brethren. Among them: the doctor Emil Abramowitz, (1864–1922), the first Marxist Socialist to act among the Jewish laborers, renowned for his unblemished and moral personality. Shmuel Rabinowitz, son of the writer and historian, Hovevei Zion activist Shaul Rabinowitz. Born in Grodno in 1865, and after emigrating in his youth to Switzerland, he joined a group of Jewish students who intended to publish literature dealing with workers problems in Yiddish (beginning with an essay on working conditions in ancient Eretz Yisrael). He was the private secretary of the Russian sociologist and writer Piotr Labrov who advocated revolution in the spirit of ‘going to the people’. He translated into Yiddish the pamphlet which contained a sort of ABC of Socialism (Who lives off Whom by S. Dikstein). He was sentenced to 10 years exile in Siberia for printing the pamphlet in London. He participated in the smuggling of the pamphlet to Russia and its distribution there. Refael Soloveitchik, son of a wealthy Grodno citizen, lost his life while undergoing torture in prison by the Czarist secret service, in 1893. Shmuel Godzhanski (born in Grodno 1867, imprisoned in the USSR in 1936, exiled in 1938, his end fate is unknown). One of the first Socialist agitators in Yiddish, particularly in the form of a Drasha in writing. (He was known as Der Lerer, the teacher, and by his pseudonym Us). One of the first leaders of the Bund in Lithuania. In 1907, he stood as a candidate for the Second State Duma for the Grodno District, representing his party.

The Beginning of the Jewish Workers Struggle in Grodno

The industrial development brought in its wake the creation of a Jewish proletariat in Grodno, and within it, in view of the special character of the tobacco sector and complementary industries, the role and status of the women workers which had changed from that of housewife to one of an independent wage earner within the family, with all that implied in family life.

Dr. Shmaryahu Levin, who spent a number of years in Grodno, at the end of the nineteenth century, was cognizant of this situation and mentions it in his memoirs ( Reminiscences of my Life, volume 3, Bama'aracha, Tel Aviv, 1938, pp154). He writes; ‘In Grodno I met for the first time a Jewish factory worker different in character from an artisan – a worker, who is nothing but a part of a huge machine. He is forced to forgo his appreciation of himself, his completeness and standing in his own right – when I witnessed in Grodno how daily, at dawn, young women disappear within the walls of the tobacco factory belonging to Shereshevski, and reappear in the evening. Their lungs having absorbed and swallowed tobacco dust. I again did not see them as individual separate souls, I saw before me a crowd mixed and poured into a machine, humanity mechanized’.

Their existence, continuous Dr. Levin, was a war against want and distress, and in spite of this, they were anxious and willing to accept a post in the factory. In those days, a shortage was felt of house servants in Grodno. Householders searched for servants in the surrounding communities. A well paid servant was, by and large, much better off than a factory worker. Yet in spite of this, poor young women in Grodno preferred the factory – the very word ‘servant’ bore a denigrating sound for them. They saw in it a symbol of the ancient slavery.

Life within the factory, in which the workers are concentrated and work together in the same or similar conditions, with all the hardships involved, particularly in the conditions of nineteenth century work, these conditions were sufficient to make the worker aware of his situation and fate, but also to his strength in unity, and set him on the path of communal organization. The right of the Jewish labor movement in Grodno, as is common elsewhere, was to declare its demand to raise the Jewish worker from squalor and improve his state. And as it conducted its struggle and raised the workers stature in the public mind and that of work in general, it also revealed to the Jewish worker the hope and possibility of achieving, this by determined action, and freedom for the working man.

The wave of struggles to improve the working conditions in the years 1893–1897, reached Grodno as well and found its expression in strikes.

As told by Michael Hacohen Sinai, editor of the anthology ‘Grodner Opklangen’, in recounting his days in Grodno before he left it in 1894, there was no workers movement in Grodno, except that on a few occasions agitators arrived from Bialystok and Krinik, (Krynki) and tried to organize the carpenters, the tailors and shoemakers, and especially the workers in the Shereshevski factory, but to no avail.

In 1897, though, a number of workers, who had recently settled in the city, succeeded, with the help of some intellectuals, to form an organization among the Jewish workers in Grodno, and were even prepared to send a delegate to the founding conference of the Bund, which took place that year. The agitation carried on among the wage earners in their work places, did not, in general, bring results. One of the reasons for this was the close relationship between the owners of the workshops and their workers, both working together at the same bench. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1898, the employee carpenters declared a strike which lasted a fortnight and involved some 200 men. The strikers succeeded in effecting a shortening of the work day to 12 hours – this success stood them in good stead only in the high employment season.

Shmaryahu Levin tells of the first Bund members in Grodno (vol 3, pp149). He gives great credit and admiration to ‘a wonderful young woman called Fisher and he declares his envy of this party’ which is able to draw such great hearts such as this woman who is ‘clever, and a delicate soul with a noble honesty. Capable of propagating ideology without fear or personal consideration’.

A Jewish Socialist group in Grodno also existed, called the Di Arbeiter Fon (The Workers' Flag). It cooperated closely with the Jewish members of the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S.). The party carried on its main activity in Lithuania in those days, among the Jewish workers in Grodno. (In 1889 the first section of this party came into being in Grodno and 8 of the 14 members were Jews).

The first great strike broke out in Grodno in September 1899, after a number of successful small strikes took place during the summer, demanding a shortening of the long working day, especially among the tailors who worked 15–16.5 hours in a regular day and 18 hours before festivals.

A strike was called in the Shereshevski tobacco factory of the 800 cigarette makers. Their demands were for an increase in their piecework payments, which was lower than wages for similar work in other cities, and eliminating the fines on account of waste. The strike broke out after it was secretly prepared by Bund agitators in two covert meetings of the women employees in the forest in Fishki outside the city. In addition, contact was made with the workers in the Vilna and Bialystok factories in order not to suffer strike breaking on their part.

The district governor demanded, in public announcements, that the strikers return to work whereas the Bund put out leaflets in support (the Factory owners threatened to fire their parents working in other departments of the plant – whole families were employed in the factory). The P.P.S. also published leaflets – in Yiddish – encouraging the strikers.

As the strikers refused to yield, the police secret service hunted down them down and arrested about one hundred women, some as young as 14–15 (the factory employed girls as young as 12 years). Even a nursing mother was arrested together with the baby in her arms. The following day the strikers demonstrated before the prison, shouting the slogan: ‘arrest us as well – we too are guilty’.

Public sympathy for the strikers resulted in that a few of the city personalities proposed to mediate between the strikers and the factory owners and consequently a mediation committee was set up consisting of ten workers and three industrialists– the first mediation committee in Russia in a labor conflict.

When the district governor attempted to hinder the mediation, the Grodno workers demonstrated against the government and the delay – and for the release of the arrested females.

An agreement was signed after nine days of closure, which made for an increase in pay and an end to fines. The strikers did not return to work until all their arrested compatriots were released.

That same year, the first meeting took place in Grodno, in secret, in honor of the First of May, with the participation of some sixty persons, before the outbreak of the strike.

While at the same time activity began to introduce education to the workers.

At the beginning of the year, an association called Poalei Tsedek was founded, its members were workers at the Shereshevski plant. They met on each of the six days of creation between the hours of the evening prayers and the end of work and listened to lectures on Tanach, history and Hebrew given by qualified teachers volunteering to teach without pay. These were mostly young, who were unable to translate a passage faithfully but who gathered their great knowledge from the holy writ and Jewish wisdom.

A few months later, Dvorah Fisher, a qualified teacher, already mentioned above, was permitted to ‘open and keep a private evening school for girls and women, housewives and wage earners who are unable to attend a regular school’. Thus, the association was founded by her to teach writing, reading and arithmetic to the young females working in the city factory. The girls met three times a week to be taught by volunteer teachers. Besides Dvorah Fisher, Marcus, Chana Yoffe of the Margolin family, the wife of Betsalel Yoffe and other young – female – intellectuals joined in the work to help the students' progress in their studies. Dvorah Fisher continued her activities within the Bund. In the years 1905–1906 she was among the leadership of the Russian party, as witnessed by Franz Kurski, a leader in the party (in his book Gezamelte Shriften, New York, 1952 pp.355–356). She was born in Grodno in 1869, graduated from the Gimnasium, learned to be a seamstress and while working in the trade carried on agitation among the working women in favor of the Bund. She was arrested in 1903 and imprisoned in Vilna. She worked as a teacher in this city and continued later in Sweciani in the Vilna district in the Yiddish primary school and the high school which she had founded. She was outstanding as an educator and admired and honored for her honesty and decency. When, in September 1941, the Jews were taken out of the city by the Nazis, she had the possibility of saving herself by payment of a bribe, but she chose to go with the people.

The success of the strike in the Shereshevski plant encouraged the other Jewish Grodno workers to take action to improve their working conditions, in particular, to shorten the working day which reached 14–15 hours daily. 5 tanners struck in the summer of 1900 demanding a working day of only 12 hours, and won. Thus also the painters, (70 men) who struck for two weeks and won a working day of 13.5 hours, including a half hour break for food. So too the builders (60 men), they lost because of unorganized workers not of the city. Whereas 80 box makers, on piece work for the Shereshevski plant succeeded after a 5 days strike, in receiving an addition for their work.

In the Shereshevski factory the women workers won, at first, certain improvements in the working conditions, such as the right to bring food with them; as well as a ‘mutual fund’ to providing assistance in the case of illness, or in other cases, to receive loans without interest charges. This fund existed in the factory since 1887 – but now it was taken away from the owners and transferred into the workers hands. A percentage was deducted from the workers' pay for this fund, as against a fixed amount paid, for the same purpose, from time to time, by the owners who, in the past, managed the fund as if it was their own, in order to divide the work force.

Although, after 120 women workers struck in the plant at the end of the year demanding a wage increase, a reduction of the work load and to fire the foreman who oppressed them, and to allow a half hour for a morning meal – the strike failed to achieve its ends. The reason for this was that the owners on their part, stopped the work of the cigarette makers, until hunger forced its way into most of their homes. There were among them some who offered to work instead of the strikers. The offer was taken up and some 70 were taken on in the packing department, coming to work and returning in closed carriages, accompanied by police. After the defeat of the strike 12 packers who had struck were fired though the production quota was reduced and a half hour was granted for a morning meal.

On the other hand, 50 seamstresses and 100 tailors, succeeded at the same time, after a strike of two days, to shorten the working day to 12 hours for most of them, though a minority continued to work 13–14 hours a day.

The issue of the economic professional struggle of the Jewish worker, from the beginning of the century, was woven into the fabric of the city and it grew and developed, not only in the tobacco industry but also in other work places. In the summer of 1901 the workers in the book binding plant belonging to Charin, struck in protest at the increase in working hours. Also, one hundred Jewish shoemakers and about one dozen gentiles struck demanding a shortening of the work day (to less than 12 hours), a change over from piece work to weekly wages and an increase in pay. The shoemakers won two out of the three demands as the work hours were not shortened. In the same manner, the bakers achieved a pay raise.

That same year the Bund in Grodno printed the first issue of the secret bulletin ‘Grodner Fabriks–Bletel’ (Grodno factory leaflet), issued by the party. The leaflet detailed the work conditions in the Shereshevski factory and that of the women workers, most of whom took ill because of the tobacco dust which was not extracted from the work rooms: they were pale, the color of lime, suffered from T.B. and were thin and melancholy. There were those among them, with swollen kidneys as a result of the horrible hygienic conditions existing in the plant. The leaflet further mentions that according to figures published in the official gazette ‘Grodenskaya Vdomosti’, 1300 workers out of a total of 1500 took ill in the factory within one year. The ‘Fabriks Bletel’, which appeared many more times concludes its first issue with a call to the workers to come out in a fight both for the improvement of their working conditions and against the enemy, the oppressive regime ruling Russia.

On the same theme, the Bund published in Grodno a story in pamphlet form called ‘Memoirs of a Cigarette Maker’ (Erinungen fun a Papirosen Makherke) written by Shmuel Godzhanski, already mentioned above. The heroine of the story, which achieved wide circulation, is a woman, forced to work in a factory which is on strike and here she comes up against reality. Influenced by an agitator, she becomes aware of the living conditions of the worker and sees the struggle in a new light, a socialist one.

In 1902, the Grodno workers movement falls behind that in other cities, as pointed out in the Bund newspaper ‘Poseldanya Isvestia’ (The Latest News), issue No. 83 August 28, but with that, it mentions that the mass of workers and some of the intellectuals heed the call for the revolutionary socialist democratic struggle. There is a constant hunt for suspected ‘heretics’, in particular in the neighboring forests where the ‘brothers and sisters’ (underground revolutionary pseudonyms) held their meetings and the police arrested people on any pretext.

Within the scope of the economic–professional workers struggle, a Jewish workers element came to the fore. In addition to the Bund and the P.P.S., 40 workers struck in the Betzalel Yoffe eating house because of the unfair firing of one of them, and they also demanded a 12 hour work day (instead of 13 hours), a pay increase and better treatment; and as for the strike – it was led by the Poalei Zion party, founded there.

Two major events were the high marks in the Jewish in the labor movement in Grodno in 1903. The pogroms in Kishinev and Homel and the initiation of self defense, mentioned above. Also, agitation activity within the army.

The agitation was carried out by Bund agitators in the troop barracks – by leaving leaflets on the staircases, sticking them in the toilets (known as the club rooms of the private soldiers), and on the tea urns, etc. And also in small gatherings, as well as activity among the conscripts reporting for induction. The Poalei Zion activists carried on agitation among the Jewish recruits and through them also among recruits not of the (Jewish) faith. The emphasis was on explaining to the latter that the government fostered the hatred of Jews and their wild spirits because it was interested in turning their minds from the policy of oppression directed at them.

The first congress took place in 1903 in Grodno of the Jewish association allied to the P.P.S with the participation of delegates from Warsaw, Bialystok and Grodno.

The professional economic domain saw strikes in the Shereshevski factory; 260 workers in the Machorka, which ended with a reduction in the production quota and an increase in wages: a strike of the mechanical metal unit – in protest against the firing of one of the workers. The printing works of Lapin saw a strike of 50 workers (including gentiles), against the arbitrary firing of one of the workers. They won. On the other hand, a strike in the factory for binding materials, belonging to Charin, with the participation of 200 workers, failed. Furthermore, arrests were made of participants in the secret meeting in the Lusosna forest, and punishments were suffered. At the year's end a strike broke out again in the Shereshevski factory, – in the sorting department.

The nervousness of the authorities increased during that year as the spirit of revolt grew in Grodno. Searches and arrests increased. The Bund library stood in danger of confiscation and according to the late Israel Shochat, Dvorah Fisher asked Betsalel Yoffe, whom she trusted, to register the library in his name. Later, it was allocated to the Zionists, and Israel Shochat was among those who dealt with it. In order to understand the relationships, it must be pointed out that Dvorah Fisher is recorded as having donated to the Hebrew Girls School in Jaffa, in the year 1898, despite her being a member of the Bund. The Zionists also played a great role in the founding of the library.

The Revolutionary Activity – Ebb and Flow

The year 1904 saw the beginning of the Russian political revolutionary awakening and among the Jews as well, with the opening of the Russo Japanese war and its concomitants. That year, the struggle in Grodno to improve the Jewish workers situation continued and intensified, while, at the same time, political action began and became more frequent, in sympathy with the struggle of the revolutionaries throughout the country. Internally, an Anarchistic organization took root in the city among the Jews under the name Borba (The Struggle). It was founded following one in nearby Bialystok. The friction with the Jewish members of the P.P.S. intensified, those negating the separate organization of their Jewish compatriots, as well as with the S.R. These too, were close to the Anarchists in the principle of the use of terror as a political tool.

Central in the economic struggle in 1904 was the strike at the Shereshevski factory. It was opened by the sorters at the end of the previous year and quickly became a general strike in all the factory, because the owners did not honor the agreement with the strikers and these renewed their struggle. The owner then stopped the work in seven other departments which received their materials from the sorting section in order to create friction among the workers. He also introduced strike breakers from the outside to fill the place of the strikers. A general strike was announced therefore, at the factory, with the participation of 1800 workers. This affected, together with their families, some 8000 souls. The young among the workers held out, but the elderly, men and women, many of whom were employed in the plant, suffered hunger and want after a few weeks, and were in the throes of final desperation, as reported in the Postednaya Izvestia, No.166, dated February 9, 1904. ‘In groups they break into the factory gates daily, thin, terribly exhausted, crying at the top of their voices.’ Begging the owner to take them on to work – the moment anyone of the Shereshevski clan appears before them, the unfortunate old women begin to shout aloud – ‘long live Shereshevski, open the factory’.

The conflict in which various elements were united, a strike in workers defense, a lock out and a strike in sympathy, ended on a sad note for the workers, reports the above newspaper. (No.169, March 5, 1904). Not only did they not achieve their demands, to dismiss the strike breakers, to satisfy the sorters demands, and to reemploy the workers who had been fired, but 200 workers were not rehired. The industrialists, it further reports, were exuberant, and intended to rob the workers of all the benefits they achieved over the past years. In one of the departments, piece work was now the rule instead of the previous daily wage, and the defeated workers, exhausted from hunger, were in depression.

The struggle in the factory was accompanied by workers meetings, including mass meetings, in the synagogues, by the constant issuing of leaflets, by police searches, by wide–spread arrests and beatings. The detective force became particularly attentive, with the assistance of the Cossacks, before the First of May. And more so, in view of the self defense organization. The arrests this time affected also the Poalei Zion, and for the first time, Grodno workers were accused of membership in the Anarchist group.

Nevertheless, 15 meetings took place in Grodno and its vicinity on the First of May, with the participation of some 600 workers. No more than 150–200 worked that day in Grodno, excluding the tobacco factory where work did not stop in view of the warning given to the workers that anyone striking that day would be fired and arrested.

Organized by the Bund, an open demonstration took place in the main Grodno street, (Sobornaya, Dominikanska), on August 21, protesting the sentence passed on political exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia. Some 200 persons participated in the demonstration. A red flag carrying slogans was raised, leaflets were handed out and the Marseillaise was sung.

On the first part of October, a number of public meetings were held in Grodno under the direct instructions of the Bund, with the participation of 460 persons. Four more meetings in which groups of soldiers were present, were in protest at the police attack on Jewish workers in Bialystok. Leading the assault was the infamous Bialystok detective officer Griboidov, later shot to death in Grodno by a Jewish self defense member.

In common with the rest of Russia, the revolutionary activity sharpened and grew in Grodno during 1905. Now it found expression in demonstrations, on occasions armed ones and accompanied by clashes with the police and the Cossacks, as well as strikes in sympathy with revolutionary activities in other parts of Russia or as a reaction to violence of the police attacks and revenge taking on those struggling for freedom. Terror was practiced in Grodno also, especially in revenge taking by rioters acting for the authorities.

Within the Jewish workers movement in Grodno a S.S. (Zionist Socialist ) territorialist group arose, a split off from the Poalei Zion. A Seimistim group also appeared, advocates of wide ranging Jewish autonomy and according to their ideology this was bound to happen in good time as well as a national Jewish territorial concentration.

The month of January saw a strike in Grodno, organized by the Bund, in sympathy with the workers who fell in St. Petersburg on the ninth of that month (according to the Julian calendar), in their march along the Tsarist palace. Within five days, the strike involved the iron foundry, the huge flour mill, the tobacco factories, and all the printing works, the workshops, the pharmacies and the bakeries.

On March 26, the second large Bund demonstration took place in protest against the brutal treatment of the political prisoners in the local prison. A clash occurred between the armed ‘fighting troop’ of the Bund and the Cossacks squad and a worker, Peretz Bernstein, who had been badly beaten, died later of his wounds. His funeral turned into a tremendous demonstration which brought further clashes in its wake.

In spite of expectations of pogroms in Grodno on the first of May, and the preparations for self defense, nevertheless public meetings took place with the participation of one thousand persons and in the evening – a number of demonstrations in the city, accompanied by fireworks.

On June 21, the Bund and the P.P.S. organized a political strike in protest against the suppression of the workers rising in Odessa and in Lodz, and on November 21, a mass rally, by the Bund in support of the struggle of the postal and telegraph workers against the dictatorial regime. The same day, a mass meeting took place of the Revolutionary Military Organization directed by the Bund with the participation of 250 soldiers. This took place just a few weeks after the mutiny in Grodno of an artillery brigade. The Revolutionary Military Organization mentioned above arranged a number of meetings that year while the soldiers were encamped in their summer quarters.

The artillery soldiers revolt was suppressed by the Cossacks and dozens of the activists were arrested. They were subsequently sentenced to exile in Siberia. Their leader, Tsavatkov, (a Russian), was given a death sentence. The Revolutionary Military Organization, acting in concert with the P.P.S. smuggled the prisoner out of his cell just before the sentence was about to be carried out and carried him across the border. It is believed that two of the actors in this courageous feat, were, Eliyahu (Elchik) Stolar and Osip Chavilivitski, members of the Fighting Troop (the participation of N.H. Dreier in this action has already been noted). The following day, when the prisoner should have been executed, the city was flooded with soldiers, detectives and policemen who carried out searches but ended empty handed. The very same evening, festivities took place to celebrate the success of the venture, one in the Troop center in the secret apartment in the Shulhof and the other, separately, in the apartment in the Merchants Street, (Brigidska), belonging to Anna Kamentski, who housed , as it were, the Red Cross, belonging to the Fighting Troop.

In addition to the political activities, Grodno saw, in 1905, a number of economic strikes, – in the printing shop belonging to Lapin and Mailakhowitz and in the Sherashevski factory, where 400 workers struck for a period of 5 weeks and achieved a small wage increase.

The suppression of the revolution and the shedding of Jewish blood in a wave of pogroms which spread throughout Russia left an imprint also in the Jewish workers movement in Grodno. First and foremost – there was the concern with self defense against the riots. Whereas the political struggle concentrated, in 1907, mainly in the selection of delegates to the Second National Duma.

By 1906 it was already impossible to carry out a general strike in Grodno, planned in protest against the bloody events which took place in St. Petersburg on January 9, 1905. The government warned in announcements that all strikes would be suppressed by the force of arms. The public refrained from going out on the main streets that day, which were filled with Cossacks looking for excuses to act. These, now that no victims had come their way, broke into the Jewish lanes and greeted the passersby with their whips. They also affected mass arrests. The police, thirsty for revenge for the expropriations by the terror groups in the city, abused the prisoners, by accusing some of belonging to the Fighting Troops of the S.R. in Grodno. (the young Social revolutionaries, members of the party, mostly attracted by the first personal terrorist act).

In December 1905 the Police discovered –as mentioned above– an arms depot belonging to the Bund (as announced in the party newspaper –Di Naye Velt– Vilna, February 14, 1906, according to the Julian calender). It sums up the situation in the city as follows;

“the industrialists, in Grodno, it seems, are in favor, those who until now cheered the proletariat have begun now to dance to the tune of the reaction and derive benefit from it. In the Charin factory, six clerks were fired and a strike declared. The industrialist reacted by firing workers. At the Shereshevski plant a sword was waved above the workers throats and a series of humbling demands were laid before them.”

The Bund intensified the activity of the ‘Fighting Troop’ under its control in the spring of 1906 by the use of agitators from the center, among these are Sophia Dubnow (daughter of the historian) and Ehrlich. This activity was carried on, she recounts, in the huts of the poor in the city suburbs situated on the steep banks of the Neman River or in the nearby forests. Among the Grodno activists is to be counted the student Wolf (Abraham) Lipnik, later, he became the leader of the Bund in the city. In these circumstances activity had to be short lived in view of police surveillance and vigilance.

Nevertheless, vigorous activity was carried out among the Jewish tanning workers (the Grodno union had 80 members) who took part in the founding of the professional federation of tanning workers (Der Garber Bund) which included everyone in the Jewish areas of north western Russia. The dynamic spirit in the above, and in Grodno in particular, was, at that time, Arieh Garber (The Tanner), a leading member of the party.

The Bund party in Grodno numbered some 420 members 330 of whom voted in the election of delegates to the seventh party convention which met in September of that year in Geneva.

During 1906–1907 economic strikes took place in Grodno among these one by tailors. A central association of type setters was formed in the city.

In the elections to the Second Duma in 1906, representing the Jewish workers of Grodno, appear Gudzhanski representing the Bund, and Briskman for the S.R. One of them was appointed arbitrator representing the workers in the Shereshevski factory.

The national convention of the Bund took place in Grodno in the spring of 1908, a fact which brings out the city's importance within the party. The convention dealt with the adaptation of the Bund to the changed situation in the country, with emphasis on the legal opportunities.

In 1909 the Bund begins to recover from the assaults of the authorities and it engages in systematic organizational activity. With the permission of the authorities, a professional union is started of shop assistants with over twenty members in the beginning; in addition, 13 little strikes are conducted which end successfully. The legal remnants of the Shereshevski professional workers associations which had existed previously, show no signs of life and the attempts to revive them a year later, don't succeed because of a lack of unity among the workers. The three sports clubs, are left with a roll of 43 members only – all of whom are young as the older ones had left the party. Political and professional meetings are held. The average number of participants in these is 40, although the lecture in the forest is attended by 100 listeners.

The activity at the years end widens and under the direction of the Bund activists professional associations are founded for leather workers and tailors. Their working day is lengthened and shops often require the assistants to work after the close of the Sabbath. The tailors are once again employed on piece work. The economic actions are defensive ones only. The leather workers struck against the lengthening of the 12 hour work day, and succeeded. The Bund representative in Grodno maintained contact with a few of the nearby towns and arranged party work there.

In the 1910 Bund convention in Lwow, a delegate from Grodno is among the 12 delegates from local associations. A meeting to celebrate the 70th. birthday of the socialist leader August Babel is held with 163 workers attending.

In the days of the Baylis court case, September 25, 1913, a strike of Jewish workers in the great city, initiated by the Bund and Grodno, in protest against the libel.

The same year and in 1914 strikes by tanning workers (300 men) in Grodno, as well as by carters and porters, mostly Jewish.


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