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[Page 187]

Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir

Yitzchak Nissenboim

Translated by Judy Montel

The author (1868-1942, a rabbi and Hebrew author, spent many years in Minsk from 5649 (1890) on, died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The article is taken from the weekly “Hatur”, Jerusalem, 30th of Tishrei, 5687 (1927).

Among the tens of righteous teachers who dwelled in the various suburbs and streets that are in the city of Minsk was, in my time the righteous teacher Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir, quite famous in my days there and also for many years before and after. He was an excellent type;  during the time I lived in that city I saw things that were worthy of being established for generations.  I would give a lesson every day in “Ein Ya’akov” [a collection of midrashim from the Talmud], and on Shabbat, a lesson on the Midrash Rabba [large midrashic collection], in the study hall (Beis Midrash) of Gtzov, and Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir, who lived for thirty years and more in an apartment near there, he would pray regularly in that study hall.  And he had a habit of sitting at a distance and listening to my lessons.

I had already heard that Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir had complaints about the “Godol” (leader, lit. “great one”), and that the followers of the “Godol” made fun of Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir.  But I didn’t know the truth of the reasons for this disagreement.  Some said, that Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir who was lenient in halachic questions, was upset with the “Godol” who tended to rule strictly. Others said the opposite:  The “Godol” who was strict is angry at Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir the lenient… and then once after the evening prayers, Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir asked me to come by his house.  The most noticeable thing that hit my eyes first was his frightening poverty.  He lived in a rickety house, whose windows were nearly wholly sunken into the earth.  In a large room there stood book shelves, a table and a few simple chairs.  In the house it was always noisy.  Someone came in, someone went out.  One woman comes with a halachic question, another woman asks for a blessing.  He, a tall man, stands with his head down and responds to every single person pleasantly.  When he turned from his occupations, he took a manuscript pamphlet from one of the volumes and asked me to go over it.  I looked it over and understood the entire matter of his disagreement with the “Godol”. Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir was an expert on kosher slaughter.  He found that one piece of meat usually designated as “shuman” (a kosher fat) was actually, in his opinion, “chelev” (a non-kosher fat) and ought to be forbidden.  He took this matter to the “Godol” who was in charge of the slaughter-house.  But this “strict” interpreter didn’t want to decide strictly and forbid something that people had become accustomed to being allowed to do… Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir, the “lenient” one, is very bitter at the “Godol”, and claims:  Chametz (leavening on Passover) is punishable by “Karret” (a punishment by divine – not human – agency only, in which the sinner dies without issue), and “chelev” is punishable by “Karret”, and indeed, in a case where there is even a suspicion that there is leavening on Passover there are layers upon layers of strictrures, and here, there is an entire piece of something that is clearly designated “chelev” (and therefore clearly not kosher) and these rabbis pretend that they are not aware of it… and therefore, he decided to publish a special pamphlet in order for it to stir up the rabbi’s opinions, and he is asking me to edit this pamphlet for him with clear language and proper editing.  So I did as he asked, and from then I became very close to him.

And another, second stricture, Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir had:  He forbade that the edges of clothing, that they should be in a square shape, for then the entire garment would be in the shape of “Arba Kanfot” (four corners) and would be required to have “Tzitzit” (ritual fringes)..  And therefore, he himself only went about in garments with rounded edges.  And he also publicized this opinion of his.  But in these two strictures of his he remained alone. No one followed him…

And he had other strange habits.  He always walked with his head hanging down, lest he look at women.  And when he suddenly bumped into a woman at the street corner, he would jump back and stand frozen in his place…  The enlightened women would make fun of this “wild one”, but they respected him as a holy man…  During the days of the “Sefira” (the counting of the Omer, the days between Passover and Shavuot), he would attend the synagogues and houses of prayer during the time of evening prayers and announce from the “bima” (platform) that those present should take care in their counting to say the word “Shavu’ot” with a kamatz [short “o” sound as in “hot”] under the first consonant and not say, God forbid, “Shevu’ot” with a schwah sound under the first consonant…. He would get very angry at the printers who set the names of God in the prayer books exactly as they appear in the Torah, when the prayer books are constantly getting ripped and you find the names of God are torn and defiled…  And he went and printed a new prayer book, in which he set the names of God with only two ‘Yud’s, and also made other various corrections and removed the “obstacle” he found… On the Day of Atonement he did not allow the cantor in the house of study he prayed at to lead the prayer “HaNoten Yeshu’a” (The One who gives Salvation), saying:  Give us, at least, on this holy day, to accept upon ourselves only the yoke of the rule of heaven…  This opinion he also expressed openly and wished to enforce upon others, and many responded to him, although there was then in this matter a suspicion of danger…

But except for these “strange” actions, that caused many to dismiss him, he also had actions of a sort that aroused feelings of admiration in the hearts of people.  He was capable of “favors” like few others.  When people came before him with a request, public or private, and he thought he was capable of doing something in the matter, he immediately arose and went out to do so.  Pouring rain outdoors did not stop him and freezing weather did not slow him down, or any other delay.  And he went, in torn shoes, with swollen feet, alone in the middle of the night and in dangerous alleys….  He was dedicated to providing a “kosher dish”, and to this devoted his strength and time, and nothing was too difficult in his eyes in order to alleviate in any way the lot of the Jewish soldier in the Russian army.  In this work, he had a partner, the righteous teacher Rabbi Mendel Krasver, a rabbi in the suburb of Presba.

Every Shabbat, about half an hour before candle lighting, he would run to the depot yard and chase away all the Jewish carters, for them to return to their homes and rest on their sabbath.  The carters would listen to him, and immediately upon seeing him run, would pick up the reins of their horses and drive.  And when they passed in front of him they would call out cheerfully:  Good Shabbes, Rabbi!  Also the storekeepers, upon seeing Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir running to the depot, would quickly close up their stores.

Once he made, together with his partner in “A Kosher Dish”, Rabbi Mendel Krasver, a “Rabbi’s Act”:  As is known, in the year 5651 (1891) the first “Agudat Ha’Elef”  (Association of the Thousand) was founded in Minsk.  The first program of this association was arranged by a math teacher, and he was the loyal lover of Zion, Ber Schliphian.  The program was held according to “exact figures” and it turned out that if one thousand members would bring in forty rubles every year for five consecutive years, then they would be able to buy land with the money and plant orchards on it, and after eight years each member would receive an orchard plot with a house and would find a restful home and inheritance there.  The program was popular and soon one thousand members had been gathered.  A delegation went to Eretz Israel, bought the “Ein Zeitim” land from the clerks of the Well Known Benefactor [Baron Rothschild]. Agronomists found that the land was suitable for vineyards, the work began and amid the members and the lovers of Zion there was much rejoicing.  After a few years, it turned out that the layer of earth lower down was limestone, and the vines, after they were two years older and their roots deepened, grew sickly and died.  All of the money was lost.  The association broke up and “Ein Zeitim” was divided among twelve families of the original thousand…  And these also mostly sold their plots to others…  And from this whole great affair there was left a terrible agony of the soul…  However, back then, in the initial “honeymoon” months, the success of the “Association of the Thousand”  had a great influence and using the same format, the Zionists began founding organizations in other cities as well.

I don’t know whence this spirit came to Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir and our Rabbi Mendel as well.  But, one fine day, these two “Kosher Dish” activists went out with a second “Association of the Thousand” plan in hand, a plan that was also based on “exact figures”, and the figures were even more dazzling than those that had been the basis of the first “Association of the Thousand”.  According to this plan,  a thousand members had to pay only twelve rubles a year for five years, and they would buy land and plant vineyards, and every member will thereafter receive a vineyard, house, etc.  This “wealth” came to our activists when the found new sources of income from their vineyards, that had entirely escaped the founders of the first Association.  Those people calculated only the income from the grapes, whose wine would be sold at a certain price for Kiddush and Havdala;  but they found that the many branches of the vines had much to recommend them.  From them they would produce wonderful brooms and sell them at a certain price to all of the bath houses in Israel…  And this time as well, a thousand members were found quickly and Rabbi Mendel set out as a delegate to Israel.  To his credit, it must be said that when he arrived, he discovered that all of their plans, with their “exact figures” were evaporating, and upon his return, the founders return all of the money to its rightful owners.

Rabbi Mendel also held dear various plans in the matter of founding a village with a large yeshiva in it whose students would learn half a day and work the land for half a day.  But Rabbi Ya’akov Me’ir had already ceased to be interested in it and returned to his regular occupations.

When I tried to speak with him afterwards about “Settling the Land of Israel”, he would reply innocently:  “All right, all right!  But the redemption will not come until the Children of Israel are careful with the commandment of Tzitzit (ritual fringes) and all of them wear clothing whose upper edges are rounded and not sharp…”  Later, I was reminded of this “rounded” theory, upon which the redemption of Israel depended,  when I was meeting with Dr. Yoseph ben Aharon Chazanovitch,  founder of the National Library in Jerusalem, who had his own theory of roundedness….  Every time this enthusiastic Jew read or heard of an argument or division which had burst out in a Jewish community or society regarding some honor, he would arise, all upset and yell angrily, with much anger spewing from his mouth:  “Dry bedbugs!  What is their strength and what is their bravery?  They are brave enough only to call for argument and division!  No!  This nation is not worthy of redemption, as long as they don’t build our synagogues in a round shape, lest there be a sign where the “East”[1] ends and the “South” and “North” begin, the redemption will not come…”  Therefore, I would think to myself, this one also teaches the Torah of the circle… and who knows?  For it has already been said:  “A round house doesn’t transmit impurities…”[2]

It seemed that the two of them, both the Rabbi and the Doctor, died at the same time, when the ball of the Land of Russia rolled over and down into the abyss.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. The eastern wall was a place of honor. Return
  2. Masechet Nega'im Chapter 12, Mishna Aleph. Return


[Page 213]

The First Jewish Workers Circles

Yitzhak Hurwitz

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

The author (1860 – 1924) was a labor activist, philosopher and writer (see in this book the article on p. 217).
The following article (translated from Russian, with omissions) was published in the magazine Biloya (The Past), 1907, No. 6.

The Jewish workers movement in Russia is considered as beginning in the late eighties of the 19th century, when the Jewish working circles began to appear in Vilna. However, this is not exactly accurate. Several years earlier, a propaganda activity among Jewish workers' circles had begun in Minsk.

The few publicity attempts among the laborers in Minsk happened concurrent with the first activity of the socialist movement in Russia. In 1875, a student from the Institute of Technology (by the name of Schwartz and registered as Rabinowitz) arrived in Minsk intending to start propaganda activity. He began working in an ironsmith workshop. However, he was soon arrested and his activity left no trace.

His follower was Moshe Veller, a student at Kiev University, who was active among a few carpenters. Very soon he was forced to disappear, lived two years in Geneva, returned, and in the early eighties (of the 19th century) committed suicide.

In 1883 or 1884, Chaim (Yefim, a.k.a. Moshe) Horgin began systematic publicity among the Jewish laborers in Minsk, right after he was liberated from prison, where he was kept for some matter related to the “Narodnaya Volya” [People's will] organization. In the summer of 1884, Emil Abramowitz came to Minsk and tried to contact Horgin, but the latter did not welcome him appropriately. Abramowitz decided then to act independently: he established connections with the print laborers, organized lectures, taught them Natural Science and then Socialism. He was a talented lecturer, a pleasant person and utterly devoted to his cause. The workers loved and cherished him. He spent his summer vacations in Minsk, until 1888, when he received his doctorate in medicine and established his residence in Kiev, where he continued his activity among the workers. In the summer of 1885 I returned from Siberia and resided in Minsk. Based on our old relationship, I went to see Horgin, who was at the time the “general” of the Minsk group. He was with the “Narodnaya Volya,” while I, until my deportation, had joined the “Ciorny Peredel” and in exile I became a Marxist – although I must admit that my “Marxism” was a bit “Narodnik.” However, theoretical differences did not impede the Minsk revolutionaries from acting together in the framework of the same group. Horgin informed me that 160 people were studying in “his organization” – an unusual number at that time. I asked him to facilitate my acquaintance with the workers, and he replied that he will enter my candidacy to the organization and it will be decided by vote.

I did not like this suggestion. Conducting publicity action among the workers was the duty of any intelligent and honest person, and I don't recognize the right of any group to permit me to do my duty. Therefore I rejected Horgin's suggestion.

One of my old friends was Leib Rogaler, of Rabinowitz's group, who had been two years imprisoned in Vilna, and in Minsk he was under Police supervision. Through him I met Abramowitz and the typesetter Yosef Reznik. Vacation was about to end, and Abramowitz suggested that I assume the management of his group, of which Reznik was a member. I accepted.

My first meeting with the group occurred in quite romantic circumstances. Naturally, we looked for an

[Page 214]

isolated place, and at night we assembled in the military cemetery outside town. Of the participants I remember well the cobbler Chefetz, who later, on 18 October 1905 was murdered with his three children by the rioters in Odessa.

During this assembly I learned about the study program, prepared by Abramowitz for the Northwestern region, which functioned over the ten years preceding the founding of the “Bund.”

The study–groups were divided into 3 levels: 1. Learning to read–and–write in the Russian language, 2. Natural Sciences, 3. Socialism. New members could register to the first and second level course, and only members who had taken the second–level course would be accepted to the third level. In Minsk, our goal was to create a group of intelligent laborers who would be able to manage the entire activity. Naturally, it was necessary to learn the Russian language. It was certainly not a matter of assimilation or “Russification,” as it was later explained, but a necessity to give the workers – the future propagandists – access to the socialist literature. In the mid–1880s, Jewish socialist literature was not yet in existence, except for two or three brochures published in London; and we were not aware of these attempts. We had plans to translate to Hebrew booklets of Natural Science; one was actually translated by the veteran teacher Wolman, but we couldn't find a publisher.

By organizing classes for the study of Russian culture we satisfied a deep and vital need felt at the time among the Jewish masses. Starting from the 1860s, the aspiration of the young generation to receive a European education strengthened, and many adults began to learn the Russian alphabet; indeed, for a long time our propagandists were called by the Minsk workers “teachers”.

This situation was advantageous from the “conspiracy” point–of–view as well. The teachers knew the workers well and managed to select among them those who were most suitable for the socialist classes and so there were no arrests in Minsk during the last three years, although hundreds of workers have taken the courses.

Nevertheless, the way the classes of elementary Russian were conducted seemed to us senseless. If Gendarmes had caught us giving such a course, they would not believe that the course was so “innocent” and would arrest us and even send us into exile. Therefore I suggested founding a legal school, in place of our first and second level secret courses. Many doubted the possibility of creating such a school, because it was very difficult to obtain a permit, but among our revolutionary crowd was the doctor from abroad Mark Wollman, whose father–in–law Leder managed a school for Jewish children. I suggested that Leder try to obtain a permit to open a class for adults in the framework of the school and that Wollman be the teacher. Leder approached the director of the elementary schools and, although he did not give a written permit, he said nevertheless: “Go learn as you wish!”

In two or three weeks the number of students reached one hundred. They were divided into two classes, and the teacher Schlund helped. But the school became known by the local bourgeoisie, who understood what it was all about. A feeling of slandering was in the air; in four weeks Leder was forced to close the school.

Horgin and his group regarded our initiative with a bit of contempt. But after the closing of the school, two laborers from the group of Herb Chanale's approached him and threatened him with a beating, because it was said in town that

[Page 215]

it was his fault that the school had to close. This incident – their taking our side without having been asked – was very unpleasant and disturbing for us. We did not have any reason to accuse Chanale's, who in the seventies had regarded with sympathy Rabinowitz's activity, although after the latter's arrest he avoided contact with revolutionaries. This kind of “terror” could have damaged our activity. But it passed peacefully.

In addition to me, my sister, my wife and Abramowitz's group, those who couldn't find their place in Horgin's “organization,” joined us as well. Our group was called by the local people “the Isacovitz's (I was called simply Isac) as distinguished from “the Yefimowitz's” – the disciples of Yefim Horgin.[1]

At that time, publicity and propaganda among the workers was limited to analyzing the economic principles of the capitalistic regime and delineating the socialist ideal. Political matters were barely touched. The political concepts of the workers – and not only theirs – were a kind of a special mix of Bakunin anarchism and Jacobin bureaucratism. The assemblies were wild, without a chairman, and those who shouted louder controlled the evening. I introduced election of a chairman for each assembly and orderly registration of the speakers.

The workers decided to establish a small library of their own. We began to work on the by–laws of the library, section after section. The Yefimowitz's already had a small library and they suggested uniting the two. The question was who will manage the united library. The Yefimowitz's had imposed a censorship of their own on the illegal literature that was in their possession, which was given only to “the totally trustworthy from a political standpoint.” I mocked this tendency of “confiscating books from a public library” and giving them to selected people only. The Yefimowitz's argued also, that we do not pay enough attention to the “conspirative mood” while selecting our members; we, on the other hand, aspired to include in our propaganda as many people as possible.

In the summer of 1885–86 I suggested to hold a demonstration on a subject known to all. To do this, joint activity between the two factions – if they may be so called – the Isakowtz's and the Yefimowtz's was necessary. We invited the delegates of the Yefimowtz's for a consultation. Two assemblies were convened on this matter, in Yosef Reznik's apartment. From the “side” of the Yefimowitz's two workers, carpenters and a few people of the intelligentsia were present, their main speaker being Shlomo Marzinski, a high–school student aged about sixteen. Right from the start he attracted attention by his clear thinking and his spiritual development, surprising at his age. The Yefimowitz's supported ”open appearances” and the idea of a demonstration was rejected.

Personally, these assemblies served me as a means of getting acquainted, then developing a friendship with Marlinski. Connections were formed between our workers groups, naturally: our people went to the Yefimowitz's lectures and attracted their people to our group.

Only theoretical discussions were held about “the class war” these discussions had no practical meaning, because of the dispersion of the Jewish laborers among small workshops. The largest workshops were the printing–shops: there the foundation of the Printers' Union was laid. The owners soon manifested their “class–instinct” and began to harass the socialist workers. However, it never reached real conflict.

[Page 216]

In the summer of 1886, an uncontrolled strike broke out. We helped, and in Reznik's apartment two assemblies took place, and another one in the public park. Some 15 workers participated in the strike. The owners of the workshop intended to bring workers from Vilna, but the strike ended a few days later, in an agreement.

The development of our group raised the question of a locale. In the summer we would meet outside of town, in the forest; but for the winter we looked for an apartment. At the beginning we met in Reznik's home; he had a family and his wife was a seamstress, and we soon stopped meeting there. To meet in the apartment of a bachelor was difficult, because the rooms were very small. So we decided to rent an apartment; we found one, of three rooms, in the lower market, but we soon had to leave it, because the neighbors argued that the meetings of young men and women was immoral, and threatened to call the Police. This was dangerous for the tens of laborers who came to the meetings, so we had to stop the meetings and leave. We rented another place at the end of town, on Romanovka, where the young man Hirschfeld, who had returned from the US and posed as an English teacher, lived. Soon the spies discovered the apartment and we left.

It was difficult to figure out how many laborers were in our group. In the summer of 1886 we called an assembly of all the “teachers” and it turned out that the “Isakowitz” group numbered 130 laborers and the “Yefimowitz” group 160, as given by Horgin. Taking into account the members who were visiting other groups, we could assume that we had some 250 members. Two years later, I visited several centers in the North–West: in Bialystok and in Grodno there were no labor groups, and as to Vilna – Leib Yogichs[2] informed me that they have a group of four workers. And it was clear that in Russia nobody thought at the time of organizing propaganda or publicity among the laborers.

The first arrest in Minsk was in February 1887: Yosef Reznik was arrested in the printing shop, after another worker, Zarhin, informed the authorities about him. Reznik was sent into exile and returned in 1892, having lost the right to work in the printing shop. A year later he immigrated to the United States.

Reznik's arrest awakened the police, who were “asleep” until then. They began a series of searches and investigations, but in over two years they did not find anything.

However, more than by the activity of the police, our work was hindered by the emigration to the US, that had begun at that time. With our work we have prepared socialist laborers for America. When I came to New–York by the end of 1890, I found there a “Russian Association for Self–Development,” known among the immigrants as “The Minsk Workers' Association.” Indeed, out of the 35 members of the association 32 were workers from Minsk. The same year, we organized in New–York, in honor of the New–Year, the “Ball of the Minsk Socialists” where some 100 people of the former Minsk Groups attended.

Nevertheless, the propaganda among the workers in Minsk has not ceased; others replaced those who had left. This continued until the beginning of the mass–movement of the Jewish workers.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. In the late nineties, a new group of Yefimowitz's appeared in Minsk – the followers of Yefim Halpern, who was later deported to Eastern Siberia.Return
  2. The husband of Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the Spartacus movement in Germany. Return


[Page 217]

Yitzhak Aizik Horowitz

by A. Lissin

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

From his book “Memories and experiences” Am Oved Publishers, 1943
Translated by A. Kariv. The article was written in August 1924.

During the dawn of his spiritual life, in Minsk and later in Petersburg, the air surrounding Yitzhak Aizik was filled with discussions about the revolution – plans as well as expectations – and the enlightened among the Russian youth were immersed in dreams and visions about it. In the twilight of his days, after he had lived twenty seven years in America, the Great Russian Revolution finally arrived and became indeed a fact – sublime, world shaking. However, how different was it in reality!

It was not the big storm, full of electricity, of which they had been dreaming, which would have made the air of the world light and pure. It was more like a light scorching, mistaken as a pure and purifying fire. The air became heavy and suffocating, even worse than it was before.

It was a bitter disappointment, which lay with all its strength on the shoulders of Yitzhak Aizik. It was probable that he did not sense it himself in full measure: although he was never a calculated revolutionary or a calculated socialist, in his own soul he was indeed a revolutionary and a socialist more than all the “calculated revolutionaries,” who were shouting their ideas from every roof. Even when he “sinned” and leaned toward the reformistic movements, in his spirit he remained an unblemished Marxist. Just as there are people who are smarter than their words and better than their deeds, so was Yitzhak Aizik – more revolutionary than his words and more socialist than his deeds.

He began his revolutionary work in the twilight days of the vision of the revolution, days of great embarrassment, when the sun of the “Narodnaya Volya” [the Will of the People] had set and the sun of the Social-Democrats had not yet come out. The failure of the “Narodnaya Volya” was tragic and the ruins were everywhere. The members still felt like sailors on a great ship, but the ship was in ruins. Some of them looked toward the East, to the great Russian cities, where the “Narodniks” hoped to gather strength. Some of them looked toward the West, to Switzerland, where the Russian Social-Democracy began to take shape after the European model. And then Yitzhak-Aizik came, with his own model. Being far from the complete anarchists as well as from the half-anarchists – he was attracted by the light of Marxism, which at the time began to shine brighter and brighter. However, he received Marxism in his own peculiar way – in his opinions, in the world of his thoughts, but not in deeds and in real-life, where he was still a Russian individualist.

This is how he remained while in America, where he had soon arrived, alone and special in his way. He remained a Russian man on foreign soil. And when, during the first days of freedom he returned to Russia intending to become a member of the Duma, he was received coldly by the party, as a guest from America – an uninvited guest, who, according to the Russian proverb was “worse than a Tatar.”

[Page 218]

The Big Russian Revolution hit him in the face – the Bolshevik revolution perhaps even more than the Kranski revolution.

Yitzhak Aizik, like many of us, had to face the severe question: Lenin or Nicolai Nicolayewitz? Obviously, we were, with all our hearts and souls, on the side of the Bolsheviks. The war against the blockade and the war for the right of every person in America to his free opinion, even a communist one – was a holy war for many of us. It certainly was holy for Yitzhak Aizik, who had dedicated all his life to these causes. But he never tried to convince any person to accept his way:he will accept communism with all his might and he will live in New York according to Zinoviev's wisdom in Petersburg.

Yitzhak Aizik was not a fanatical follower – neither of Lenin nor of Trotzki – even when served as the official attorney of the Soviet government; and when he heard, for example, that the government nationalized the small businesses and the crafts, he became very angry. To nationalize small businesses in a country as poor and backward as Russia; to declare that every small businessman was a speculator and a criminal, while the Russian urban population would be destined to die if not for these “criminals” (even the wives of the Commissars were forced to buy in their stores) – this was stupid and irresponsible and without excuse. Due to his high position, he could not claim that publicly, but in private he would call the things by their true names, with all his strength and temperament, as loudly as he could. And when he went back to Russia, his eyes saw what they saw and ears heard what they heard, and during the first night in his home he was “honored” by a wild search of his home, which was not fit even for the times of the Czars. He did not keep it a secret, naturally: Yitzhak Aizik would not have been Yitzhak Aizik, if he had acted differently.

Nevertheless, if Russia had again suffered “intervention” and “blockade,” and the danger of having Nikolai Nikolayevitz on the royal throne again; if the communists had been sentenced again to death, prison or exile – we can be sure that Yitzhak Aizik would have devoted all his energies to the Soviet government and to the communists.

Yitzhak Aizik wrote important books in Russian and English. But among us his most important success was in the area of the Jewish press, which he enriched by his knowledge and talent. Many books have been written in many languages, but Yitzhak Aizik was unique among us.
He was able to write in a simple way about the most difficult matters. Cheap and superficial, watery writing – is easy. But to put a great deal of serious content in few words, and yet to keep the writing light and easy to understand – this is very difficult. Yitzhak Aizik was a great artist in this respect. He knew the secret of talking little and saying much. And he treated the people that he spoke to as his equals. Our former “propagandists” would speak in an unnatural high-pitched voice, like we would talk to a baby; the “scientists” would talk in a low unnatural voice, as the talk of a child who wanted to seem grown-up. But Yitzhak Aizik spoke to the people as adult to adult, without distortions or changes,

[Page 219]

and he was happy when he found the right word, “as they spoke in Minsk” and when he was able to use in his speeches a Minsk expression or a Russian saying.

The interests of the masses were his interests. He inherited from his father the rationalism and the ”freethinking”, by which all the enlightened were characterized, but not the contempt that the enlightened felt toward the simple folk. In his education, too much brain and too little imagination were invested – too little of the Jewish element, which would have assured that he would grow to be a national romantic. Indeed he was not one, and neither was he a Zionist, although the Po'alei Zion Party counted him among their members. However, he was a national realist, a Bundist in thought and feeling, although there was no peace between him and the Bundists. He was not opposed to the idea that the Jews should establish a national home in Eretz Israel, if they could. This was true “realpolitik” but it did not have the formal blessing of one or another Congress, therefore he did not bother with the theories how to help the Jewish masses “recuperate” by tilling the soil. Being a man of statistics, he knew very well that the masses were flowing from the village to the town and not the other way around, and he was looking for ways to improve the lives of the masses in town. And maybe this was why he became so angry when he learned that the Soviet government has nationalized the commerce and the crafts professions. He knew that this would affect nine tenths of the Jewish people, mainly the working and the poor, since the small businessman was working as hard as the laborer and helped the general economy as well.

 

min1_219.JPG
The house in Minsk where the founding committee of RSDP assembled (see next article)

 


[Page 220]

Minsk – Host of the Founding Committee of the RSDP

by Mordechai Berger

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Mordechai Berger was born in 1906 in Minsk, made Aliya in 1935.
He is the son of Yitzhak Berger – one of the leaders of the Minsk Zionists in the past.

On 13 – 15 March 1898, the Founding Congress of RSDP – the Russian Social-Democratic Party, the “ancestor” of the Russian Communist party – took place secretly in Minsk, in the home of Pyoter Vasilyevitch Romiantzev, 167 Zacharyevska Street. In time, the house became an actual place of worship, perhaps second in line after the Lenin Mausoleum, visited by tourists and pilgrims from all over the USSR.

On 19 March 1923, 25 years after the Congress, Romiantzev published Memoirs in the Belarus newspaper Zevyazda in Minsk, saying among others: “One day, in March 1898, Evgenia Adolfovna Horowitz came to me and said that an apartment was needed for a most secret meeting of 10 – 12 people, and she thinks that my apartment was suitable for that purpose. I agreed, naturally. The same evening, Evgenia Adolfovna came with 5 people… Neither I nor Adolfovna were present at the meetings… I knew that a committee was established for the foundation of the new party… Several months later, all the participants were arrested, among them Evgenia Adolfovna and I…”

We know very well who that Evgenia Adolfovna was. She was one of the most devoted Russian Social-Democrats, who began to organize about a year after the “Bund” was founded. Every intellectual in Minsk, at the time of the Soviet rule, knew about Jenia Horowitz, the manager of the central municipal library, the Pushkin Library. She had a rich history of revolutionary struggle, and was several times imprisoned and exiled to the far regions of Russia. In 1921, even her personal friendship with the leaders of the revolutionary underground and her connections with Bolshevik leaders headed by Lenin did not prevent her arrest by the Minsk secret police:Jenia was accused of “counter-revolution.”

From the stories told by my mother z”l, who was also imprisoned in Minsk (for the crime of Zionism), I learned that the courageous behavior of Jenia Horowitz was an example for all the political prisoners, men and women, from all parties. She was questioned and pressured to express, publicly, remorse for her deeds, but she had only one answer: “I knew how to withstand the Czar's Gendarmes, and I will withstand their heirs at the present time!”
What was the reason for her arrest? After most of the Bund members had joined the communist party, Jenia Horowitz remained with the Menshevik minority and even tried to conduct Menshevik activity in Belarus.

In an article about the Romiantzev's – father and son – published in the “Zevyazda” on 8.7.1967, Romiantzev's fate was described in detail, but of the activity and fate of Evgenia Horowitz nothing was mentioned.


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A. Liessin and the “Opposition” in Minsk

B. Katznelson

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Berl Katznelson (1887-1944) was one of the heads of the workers' movement in the Land of Israel and one of the forgers of its character.
This article is from the introduction to Liessin's book “Memories and Experiences”, published by “Am Oved”, 5703, 1943.
The years were the years of the forging of the Bund. There was not yet a general organization, but only “circles”. However, among those who were to be in the future among the founders of the largest and most consolidated Jewish worker's organization, there was already a desire to unify and to impose “discipline”. There was already great precision in things that were permitted and forbidden, and the imposing of regulations upon ideas. However, a person who was not comfortable in taking on a “yoke” could still find a valley in which to fence himself in. Valt[1], who from the outset was not disciplined and not part of a conspiracy, a free bird, returned to his Minsk strengthened in his heresy, and became a public disputant with his elders. He established his own movement, which stood in “opposition” to the realities of his environment. There, he was surrounded by love and reverence, and from there he dispatched arrows to the “cosmopolitanism”, “ecumenicalism”, and “broshorism”[2] that pervaded among the Jewish revolutionary circles.

It would be an exaggeration to state that Valt had a “program” different than those with whom he came to disagree. We will not specify what “paragraphs” he added onto their program: the spreading of Socialism among the Jews and the “war against Samodierzovia”[2]. The idea of a workers' organization specific to Jews (patterned after Russian S. D. Party), was an idea that invoked great fear in him when expressed, lest it be a lost idea. This idea already started to be accepted by the masses after Martov[3] the son of the High Priest[4], was sent from Petersburg to Vilna by government decree, whose authority without doubt permitted this. As for “National demands”, it is impossible to know what content they had from the mouth of Valt during the “opposition” in Minsk. The Bund had to go through eight years as a Jewish workers' movement before it came to a decision that indeed the Jewish worker has “National demands”. When it came to define them, it presented them as “cultural autonomy” that was extended for many years by Dubnov and Zhitlovsky[5], and whose formula was established by Karel Renner with the power of the authority of Austrian social democracy. However, during those years of “opposition” in Minsk, no word was heard about the benefits of National demands. The innovation of Valt was not with regard to the establishment of a National program for the Jewish worker, a matter that came to the fore within a few years by the Socialist Zionists. Rather, he was of a different spirit. It is possible to state that the dispute between him and his friends was not about what to do, but rather about how to do it. He imparted of his spirit into the movement. He imbued a Jewish spirit onto the movement. He was brazen enough to call himself a nationalist.

He rejected the “cosmopolitanism” that practically meant a negation of Jewish life. Rather than the cosmopolitanism that held reign, he presented internationalism that does not negate the nation and does not pass over it, but rather sees it as a historical unit that imbues life and merit to its development. He demanded that the movement be consciously and willingly National. He wished that socialistic activity not only draw from external books, but also from Jewish sources. He regarded Socialism as a continuation of Jewish history. He rejected the “ecumenicalism” that pervaded in socialist activity and placed all of its effort into strikes and the class war between its followers and the owners. He proved that the bounds are not set, for the Jewish worker is a hired worker “until the wedding”, and afterward he becomes

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“his own master”. It is important to shorten the work-day and to improve work conditions, despite the fact that the economic prospects in this area are not many, since this is a “war between the paupers and the church mice”. The work-owner and the shopkeeper (“the shopkeeper number 100 on the street”[6]) are not the bearers of “Capitalism”, but rather the bearers of poverty.

As well, the participation of Jews in this revolution was not widespread. He thought about it as a Jew. He would say that tribulations would increase in the wake of the revolution and Jewish revolutionary activity. The reaction would place the responsibility upon the Jews. He regarded Jewish activity for the revolution as a national matter, as an obligatory and honorable duty, as being faithful to the historical legacy, as the heritage of the prophets and heroes, as a continuation of the sanctification of the Divine Name, but not as a matter of “profit”. He imparted a Jewish character to the doctrine of Labrov: that the Jewish revolutionary has a unique obligation, that the enemies of the revolution will take revenge on his nation because of his deeds, and that he is duty-bound to understand the unique responsibility that he bears, who suffers and is tortured because of his revolutionary sons.

Valt's circle of thought was not as unidirectional as that of his friends. It contained an intermixture of several ideas: a deep socialist feeling, revolutionary romanticism, Marxist theory, a sharp idea of the Jewish reality, commitment of the Jewish masses, resentment against the heretical intelligentsia, a deep connection to Hebrew history and to its holy values, a sincere feeling to the tribulations of the Jewish people, without seeing a radical change in the situation, and a desire to maintain a proud and self-confident Jewishness within the revolution.

The poet within himself tried to impart a different character into socialist activity, different from the Broshorist style. He searched for the fundamental expression that penetrated to the soul. He joined to the activity lyric poetry, the historical idea, words of wisdom, satire, progressive statements. The symbolism of Hebrew history filled his soul and also his activity. In the days when socialist activity, that began to interpret itself in a foreign language, knew only workaday, lifeless Yiddish, – he published his first publication in the living national language. It was merely verses of propaganda, but a real song, in which he sang about the tormented worker chained to his post in the snows of the north; about the essence of “ecumenical” activity in which his soul pines for the Jewish shopkeeper whose soul is floating in the sublime worlds, and the “customer” removes him from his dream world; and how he pours out his soul – then in 1894 – in a poem that is completely blended with the fate of the nation: “I do not have, my forlorn nation, anything other than my soul. That I give to you. Behold the executioners are coming, who spread all of your historical paths in blood – and I am extending my neck to greet you. May my blood flow into the seas of blood of the multitude of myriads of your heroes and martyrs.”

Valt's internal world, his freedom of spirit and strength of opinion, differed from the world of his elders and friends, even though we cannot say that there was a difference between them in their socialist and political objectives. The two worlds could not dwell under one roof. War broke out. The “agitators” were dispatched from Vilna to Minsk to do battle against the heresy of Valt. This heresy was even granted its own name: “Valtovshism”.

A childhood friend of Liessin, who was on the opposing side, describes this with the following words: he was a man who did not recognize any organization and any authority. These virtues, accompanied with unusual satirical abilities, made him attractive to the masses. In the midst of the battle, he issued the accusation that the movement was cosmopolitan, and demanded that it take on a National character,

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that is, the unique life conditions of the Jewish masses be taken into account. It is self evident that he did not set any specific nationalist program. He also demanded that the activities of the movement be imbued with a Jewish spirit.[7]

Even given the little bit that we know about the battles of the Minsk “opposition” against its opponents, we are permitted to say that this was a miniature expression of the factional war within the Jewish workers' movement. Some of its effects were already evident: personal attacks, and twisting of the words of the opponent. The poor students who had not yet absorbed the ABCs of Socialism already found themselves between the two flames. The powers were not equal. Valt was indeed blessed with several virtues with which his opponents were not blessed: there was a special closeness among him and his students and admirers; his parables and examples were taken from close by, from things that were close to the soul and body of the audience; he used sharp sarcasm against his opponents; and above all – he had personal charm whose memory has not faded after decades. However, he had the lower hand. He was one, and against him were many. He demanded that his students follow the unpaved path, whereas his opponents presented sacred theories. He was a poet, but they were organizers. His power was in influence, and their power was in consistency.

Valt abandoned the battlefield. He did not milk the battle until the conclusion. “There is a personal side in matters of dispute.” The “opposition” was swallowed by the growing failure. He who was responsible for the opposition, who did not minimize his Judaism in the style of “Lithuania, Poland and Russia”, went to seek his brethren, the Jewish workers of America. Liessin had a name.

That year, in which Liessin arrived in America, the Bund was founded. What type of communal future was awaiting Liessin, and what relations would have been forged between him and the Bund had he not left Russia? This remains a question. Nevertheless, the ocean that separated Liessin from his friends who were now among the founders of the Bund did not distance the hearts but rather drew them closer. Liessin brought his influence of the love of the masses to the Bund. It was pleasant for him to think that he also had a part in its creation. He rejoiced at every expression of nationalist foundations within the Bund. He enjoyed thinking that the Bund was slowly following in his footsteps. He did not establish his relationship with the Bund in accordance with any particular detail that was in accordance or not in accordance with his opinion. He saw it as a new link in the chain of Israelite might and holiness. He was the chief over Lakrat, he was the chief over the first pioneers of the Jewish workers' movement. Bund was also proud of the poet of the workers, who counted himself in its camp and added to its splendor. At this point, his earlier sins were not remembered, the sins of nationalism and opposition.

The mutual attraction from afar was great, but its fate was strange: any close-up meeting came to conflict, to the exposing of the same historical difference in the recesses of the soul that separated him from his friends. He came to the Bund convention as a guest delegate from America, and was disappointed. His writings, which the Bund was anxious to publish, fell victim to the internal censor. They did not object to his “enthusiasm”, only to his “sarcasm”. To an insider, one of the family, much is forgiven, but it is not possible to forgive everything.

Soon enough, a mountain arose between them: the Land of Israel. The mountain did not grow at one time, but it rather grew over many years. Between the sons of Zion that he wrote in his youth, and his articles on the Land of Israel in his last twenty years of life, there were thirty years of anti-Zionism. He paid the price accordingly. It is worthwhile to delve into the sources of his anti-Zionism. Was it only from

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his mentors in Vilna? Not only. Their anti-Zionism was preceded by the anti-Zionism of his father, different than that of the Vilna “circle”, but anti-Zionism nevertheless. Valt inherited it from his father. He was not the only socialist who inherited anti-Zionism from his Orthodox parental home. His father, like many good, Orthodox Jews, protected him from Zionism. All of Orthodox Judaism – whether more strict, liberal or socialist – was duty-bound to oppose Zionism. The revolutionary foundations of Zionism were harmful to the guardians of tradition from any stripe. Abraham Geiger[8] was afraid of Moshe Hess[9]. Rabbis Alkalai, Kalisher, Gutmacher and Schlesinger[10] – their uprightness and piety did not stand for them. They frightened Orthodoxy. Even their pious desire to fulfil the commandments that are dependent on the Land deviated from the bounds of Orthodoxy as it was expressed in the Diaspora. The father of Avrahamel Valt, who imparted to him several paths of the soul, imparted to him the understanding that the Land of Israel is separate and the Chovevei Zion[11] is separate. In his debate with Medem, he relates that in his youth, he was a “secret but enthusiastic Chovev Zion.” In his memories of childhood he reveals that his father told him that Chovevei Zion are “light” Jews, and “light” Jews will not bring the Messiah, and that well-rooted Jews will not join with them. Avrahamel Valt rebelled against several of his father's ideas, but this idea he preserved. This divided him from the love of Zion for many years, perhaps until the workers of the Land of Israel taught him that Zionism is not simplistic Judaism.

Go forth and see: If Rachel our mother[12] were to appear before him with all the splendor of tradition, the love of Zion appears before him in the image of the “light” Beininson, whom he did not realize was fasting and mourning over the destruction[13]. It is possible that Avrahamel did not know that this Beininson had a daughter who was a member of Bilu, and built its fence, not a “light” matter. Indeed, this possessed might no less than those mighty deeds of the revolutionaries that attracted his imagination from his childhood. He, who became imbued with deep reverence for revolutionaries from the 1870s did not know, apparently, that these Chovevei Zion of Minsk included Chaim Churgin – a closed and wrathful man, and Yehuda Nofech, a warm and jocular man – from who came forth from the furnace of the revolution, from the study hall of “walking with the people”. These were no simple Jews, and no cowards, and his satire of “the Jewish representative” does not describe them. How much more so did he not perceive and perhaps did not know that in his Minsk there was a youth, a gymnasium student, who bore in his soul a combination of Jewish messianism and world revolution. His name was Nachman Sirkin.

Liessin lived his entire communal life in the midst of anti-Zionism. Despite the fact that he fell from them in his spirit, he regarded himself as “an anti-Zionist from conviction” for thirty years. He did not disparage it and “did not spit upon it”. On the contrary, he related to it with “pious holiness”. Thus did he testify about himself in his debate with Medem, who renewed the Bundist attack on Zionism in America, when the first delegation of the Histadrut arrived in 1921. It was to him a “magical dream”, without hope. He permitted himself to become emotional about the death of Herzl (something that others, also moved, could not permit themselves). He was able to admit that if Jews return to the Land of Israel, they would teach the world about socialist life, just as they taught the world to think about Socialism. However, such fine words of this nature did not change him practically. The armor of sober realism accompanied him for many years, even when he would explain that it was not “forbidden” to be a Zionist. “Do not believe in the actualization of Zionism. But as a magical dream, borne by our people for the duration of the 1800-year exile, we always had the wonderful Zionist romance.” (1918).

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The sober armor melted before the fire of hope that ignited with the Balfour Declaration: “Is it true that we came to this? Is it true that we hear the footsteps of the Messiah in the midst of the flood of blood?” (1918).

Despite this, the Balfour Declaration did not have the power to expunge entirely the sober realism. He, who filled all of his days with criticism of governments and rulers, was not able to maintain his enthusiasm for the Declaration for a long time. He quickly learned that one must not tie one's hope to a declaration on paper. However, in the interim, he was overtaken by faith in man to be able to actualize the declaration. The working pioneers of the Land of Israel won his heart. After the tribulation of 5689 (1929) he wrote: “The chief commander would say that one does not lose a war, but rather one believes that one loses it. The Israelite youths in the Land of Israel, whose one hand grasps the sprout and whose other hand grasps the building implements do not believe that the war is lost, and they will not lose it.” (1929). From then, he no longer sufficed himself with the “niceties” of the “magical dream”, but rather claimed: “If indeed now, when we have it in our hands to do it, we do not forge our lot, it will be our fault, our iniquity, the greatest national iniquity in the annals of our history.”

Here came the rift with the Bund. A stranger cannot understand the tragedy of this rift, only the two sides. It is possible to surmise that he impeded it and delayed it as much as possible, but it was impossible to avoid it. The rise of the Jewish worker in the Land of Israel did not have the same impression on the people of the Bund as it did on the soul of Liessin. Even the lone Bundists who would come to the Land to see with their own eyes that which they did not believe, and were “won over” and even promised that they “would change the relationship” when they returned – even they returned to their homes and were silent. The actions of the workers of the Land of Israel did not excite but rather frightened Jewish socialist orthodoxy. The younger generations of the Bund were not as secure in their views as their parents. They grew up in the midst of the Jewish workers' movement. Some of them absorbed Judaism, and others tasted the taste of Zionism in their youth. A well-rooted Bundist in our day could be as full of Jewish feeling as a pomegranate. He could permit himself some ideas that were completely forbidden to his Bundist parents. However, the Land of Israel remained as forbidden to him as previously, and perhaps even more so than previously. It destroyed the world of his soul, the belief in the “eternity of the Diaspora”.

As long as Liessin was a Diaspora nationalist it was possible to come to terms with him. It was possible to judge him favorably, claiming that his intentions were pure Bundist, despite the fact that he made use of improper terminology from a Bundist perspective, despite the fact that he exaggerates his nationalism and denigrates his Jewishness. It was still possible to bear his romantic nationalism. However, when he began to recognize the fundamental of the land of Israel, and recognized that it was practical, his merits no longer stood in his stead. There was now once again a need to do battle against the heresy of Valt. The debate moved from the inner chambers to the public gate. He met the battle with his weapons: “There is no law of this nature in the code of law, not with regard to Capitalism nor with regard to Socialism, that we are required to be the only nation in the world aside from the gypsies that is forbidden to have a national homeland, and is required to wander among the nations.”

He never ceased to hope that the day would come when the Bund, “which always absorbs only what has come to full fruition” would extend a brotherly hand to the Israelite worker, so that the Jewish workers' movement can become unified. However, in the interim, when he issued his greetings on the occasion of the decade of the Histadrut, stating that it was “the realization of the most noble of romances, that has no equal in history”, he saw fit to add, “To my dismay, I can bless the Histadrut only in my name, and not in the name of the organizations to which I dedicated my days of youth, and all the days of my life.”


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Valt and Liessin are alternate names of the same person. Return
  2. I am not sure of the meaning of this term. Return
  3. Julius Martov the head of the Menshevik faction. See http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSmartov.htm. Return
  4. The reference to High Priest would refer to a leader of the movement. Alternatively, the acronym Kaf Gimel, could stand for 23 – i.e. he might be 23 years old. However, the definite article that precedes the acronym would tend toward the first interpretation. Return
  5. Chaim Zhitlovsky, a Jewish revolutionary leader. Return
  6. I believe that this means “one of many”. Return
  7. The footnote that appears here in the text is as follows: “Boris Frumkin, Yevreiskaya Starina, 1913. Return
  8. The founder of Reform Judaism. Return
  9. An early Socialist Zionist. See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/hess.html. Return
  10. Early proponents of religious Zionism, and forerunners of Mizrachi. Return
  11. Literally “Lovers of Zion”, a forerunner movement of religious Zionism. Return
  12. Rachel, Jacob's wife and one of the four matriarchs of the Jewish people. Return
  13. The destruction of the nation of Israel at the time of the destruction of the Temple. Return

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