by Hillel Shmulovitch
Translated from the Hebrew by Ann Belinsky
We were children, about 10 years old, when we returned to Lubtch, immediately after the First World War. The town was cut up with trenches, burnt, and wolves prowled around in the middle of the day.
Lubtch was used as a front line in the First World War. The topographical situation of the town - the Neiman River and the forests surrounding it, was well suited for the digging-in of the fighting camps. In the town itself the Germans built concrete fortifications with little windows for shooting, and in the forests, the Russians made fortifications of wood. The wide meadow that stretched from the Neiman to the town - the Varak - turned into no-man's land, mined and fenced with barbed wire. Inhabitants of the town turned into refugees, awaiting the day when they could return to their homes.
With the conclusion of the war, the inhabitants began to return to rehabilitate it from its ruins and again life became cheerful, with Jews working for their living and the voices of children resounding. Despite the difficulty of earning a livelihood and the poverty, they built public institutions that were vital for the community: synagogue, mikveh [ritual bath] and school - prayer, purity and education- the bases which were the foundation for Jewish life, and thanks to which Judaism existed, despite the hardships, the suffering and the penury that were part of our people's lot in the Diaspora.
The youth of the town built a library, at first located in the house of the teacher, R' Eliezer Kalmanovitch, around 1922.
The town was distant from the centers of trade and culture; the river and the forests hid the stormy mood of the period from the inhabitants. Life in the Jewish streets in Lubtch continued to flow slowly and quietly, and this was during a period when the spirits of the youth in Poland were fomenting, especially the youth of the national minorities. Many were arrested and sent to prison for several years. There were no signs in the town of the famous workers party the Bund, or of a communist cell among the Jewish youth, despite the fact that there were strong active communist organizations in the district. In this way we were out of the boundaries.
Only the Zionist movements came to Lubtch, albeit relatively late, but they did arrive. This is because the roots of Zionism suckled their strength from the prayers in the synagogue, the cheder and the yeshivot.
In the town, the Hebrew Tarbut school was founded, where the children were educated in Hebrew according to the new pedagogical method, by qualified teachers. Chaim-Asher Oshrovsky worked very hard for the school, seeing it as his life's investment.
In 1925, when the Hebrew University on Mt Scopus was founded, we celebrated this event in the Tarbut school; the teachers emphasized the historical importance of the event. We saw the university as a pillar of fire that would pass in front of the camp on its way to national redemption.
In the town there was a Polish elementary school, where some of the Jewish children studied, as one did not pay tuition fees there. The Jewish youth who attended this school also received a nationalistic education in the Zionist youth movements.
About 1924, the Hechalutz Haklali [General Pioneer] and Hechalutz HaTzair [Young Pioneer] youth movements were started in the town. Members of Hehalutz worked a large vegetable garden which was used as a training farm. In 1926, the first of the implementers of the goal of the Hechalutz Haklali emigrated to Eretz-Israel.
The cultural life in the town develops, the library is enlarged, a drama circle is formed and also the fire-brigade and the orchestra are organized. But the youth are still wondering, looking for their way. The economic situation gets worse. This is the beginning of the infamous Garbsky period. The Poles set up a flax cooperative, something which upsets the livelihood of many Jews. The burden of taxes gets heavier and trade lessens, the pressure and the poverty increase and the Jews arrive at a point of starvation; the anti-Semitism increases and no-one knows from where salvation will come.
As troubles mounted, the activity of the pioneering movements increased. In 1927 the Hebrew literature club was set up, guided by the teacher Alter Shmulovitch; the club had about 25-30 youth, graduates of the Tarbut school. The club dealt with Hebrew literature and from time to time one of the students was asked to prepare a lecture. Following the lecture, arguments and disputes arose about the problems of the nation and ways to promote its revival. Searches for the way of creating the renewal of the ancient homeland found their solution only with the setting up of the Hashomer HaTza'ir [Young Guard] movement.
In the summer of 1928, the branch of the Hashomer HaTza'ir was founded in Lubtch. The movement immediately drew the best of the youth to it, life became more interesting and it seemed that there was something to live for, and something to fight for.
The branch was founded by the initiative of a group of youth, aged about sixteen-seventeen, who were looking for ways to express their yearnings and hopes and for some reason didn't find this in the HeChalutz HaTza'ir youth movement. At one of the formative meetings that took place in the yard of our house, where the participants included Mordechai Kivlevitch, Chaim Sonenzon and myself, it was decided to establish the group. An important determining factor was that in Novogrudek, on the initiative of the teacher Piltzky, a Hashomer HaTza'ir group had been established there. We decided to invite Piltzky to come to us and after we heard an explanatory lecture from him, the group was established, and we were roped in by youthful exuberance to be leaders. The first head of the group was Nachum Shlimovitch and after he left, the responsibility fell on the young group leaders only. Many problems lay before us, but the central problem was operation of the leadership program, organized by the Galil [district] leadership and the main leadership. For this mission we were helped by the town library and by the support of many of the teachers who aided us with their knowledge and advice. By undertaking this activity, the group gained an honorable place in the town, as many parents began to understand that there was deep significance in the activity of their children and that it was not only for amusement.
In 1930, several older members of the group went to the seasonal training course. Their aim was to get to know older members of the same level from the Galil [district], and to see what physical working life was like. We began to act with regard to going to the training course. We made lists of the members who would go, taking into consideration their activity in the group and the promise to have suitable leadership and leaders. The first to leave for the training course was the member Yisrael Mendelovitz. The group became based with about 150-180 members. It had an educational library and the main thing was that it had a dedicated active and alert group of leaders. The group took part in meetings of the Galil [district] and was outstanding in its activities. Preparations for aliyah to Eretz-Israel began to bear fruit. Any older member who refused to go to the training course and to realise the principles of the movement, was exiled from the Movement.
Aliyah to Eretz-Israel was the solution for the youth who felt an atmosphere of suffocation and of no way out. A heavy financial crisis was going on in Poland in the years 1932-1935, and the Jews were heavily affected. The youths wandered around with nothing to do, literally, and many Jews were unemployed and suffered from impoverishment. The police and the regional council increased their oppression of the Jews, and the worst was the lack of hope and a way out. This crisis brought many to the gates of the youth movements. Activists in HaShomer HaTza'ir increased their activities and tried to penetrate as many levels as possible. Several of those activities were:
At a meeting, the employers even refused to discuss an eight-hour working day. The leadership of the group called for a meeting of the committees of HeChalutz and the Poeley Tzion political party (Tz. S.) and it was decided to undertake a cooperative effort. The first stage in the struggle was to prepare the workers themselves, to explain to them the essence of the struggle and that they would have to stand up against many difficulties, such as being fired from work, threatened and even enticed with a raise in salary. We promised them that at the end of the struggle, all would return to work.
As they had been asked to do, the workers announced to their employers, that they would not work any more than eight hours a day - here the struggle began. The employers fired them and threatened. Many jobless young people wandered around the town, but no-one took the place of a worker who had been fired; they behaved exemplarily, which toughened and strengthened the organization. A lecturer from the trade union was brought from Novogrudek, and his lecture added to the unification of the striking workers.
When the employers understood that threats would not defeat the workers, they began to use violence - they broke into houses and shouted threats at the worker's family, even at parents who were not at all involved in the issue. They threatened me that they would turn me over to the authorities and told my brother Yaakov, who was a teacher at the Tarbut school, that he would be fired. When the threats did not work, they turned to action: my brother and I were taken to the police and my father's trade license was taken away. I was accused of organizing the workers, even though I myself was not a worker - a serious political crime in Poland. In my defense, I claimed that the workers needed to have a free evening to learn Hebrew, and to prepare for their aliyah to Eretz Israel.
After we were released from detention, the family met together to discuss the situation, and it was decided that we would not stop the struggle, even if the whole family would suffer. (My parents approved this decision). The threats, the shouts and the bruises did not stop for a few more weeks, but the trade union arose and became a fact. An eight-hour workday was established, all the workers returned to their previous place of work and no-one suffered. Everyone was happy about the improvement in work conditions, and proud that they had undertaken the struggle and won.
Adolescent youth, sixteen and seventeen years old, with the help of some other twenty-year olds, organized themselves and went out to struggle against the employers who themselves were workers, working hard to make a living for their families.
In September 1935 I made aliyah to Eretz-Israel and thus realised the principal goal of the ideology of the HaShomer HaTza'ir youth movement.
by Gershon Jankelowitz
Translated from the Yiddish by Harvey Spitzer
A Jew named Bere Litshitzer lived in Lubtch. He was the son of very rich parents. When Bere got married, his parents scattered sweets on the streets to lead the bride and groom to the wedding canopy from their house to the synagogue. Afterwards, they distributed the sweets among the poor people.
Some time later, when nothing remained of his wealth, Bere became a very poor man. But Bere remained the mentch he had been: he didn't cry or complain, kept the religious traditions and quietly and calmly bore his hard life and even liked to make a joke at his own expense.
One day on his way to pray at the synagogue, Bere stopped by our house and said to my mother:
Chaya Sarah, just listen to what happened at my house. My chicken has gone crazy.
My mother looks at him as though he isn't from this planet and asks:
Bere, what are you chattering about?
Bere laughs and finishes:
She looks for crumbs under the table. Since there's no bread on the table, what can she find under the table?
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