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The Zionist Movement {Cont.}

[Page 52]

Zionist Activity during the Balfour Declaration

Yakov Lifshitz Aharon Heruti [Freierman]
(Givat Hashlosha) (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The trademark of Rokitno was the Zionist spirit and the loyalty to Hebrew culture that permeated the town. All attempts by those opposed to Zionism collapsed against the reality of a Zionist town. The Hebrew language was something indisputable – an axiom. No one even suggested that Yiddish be taught. There was no need for it. Later on, there was a handful of Communists who operated secretly in town. This was a small weak group and it was not able to influence Jewish life.

An obvious indication of the Zionist make-up of Jewish life is the fact that, among all the collection plates placed in the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, the one belonging to the Jewish National Fund was the most noticeable one. The largest amount was to be found in this collection plate because there was almost no Jew who would not donate towards the redemption of the land of Israel. The Zionist youths, although they were mainly secular, streamed to the synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur – mainly to make sure that the Jewish National Fund collection plate would be filled and to encourage the congregants to donate.

There were many Jews in town who had donated to the Jewish National Fund before the Balfour Declaration and were in close contact with the Odessa Committee. There were some among them who were involved with the coining of the shekel at the First Zionist Congress and they kept it as an honor certificate.

This Zionist spirit of the parents was also handed down to their children. Their education, mainly in Hebrew, was imbued with a nationalistic-Zionist spirit. The cheder in Rokitno was not of the old type common in other parts of Poland. This cheder was progressive and liberated. This was the embryo of the modern Hebrew school. At first, secular subjects were taught in Russian, but eventually they were done in Hebrew.

The Russian language teaching material- “Leyaldenu” (for our children), used by the cheder teachers, had been specially written for Jewish children. Its content was Zionist. There were selections from Hebrew and Yiddish literature, the poetry of Bialik and stories by Peretz and Frug. The children subscribed to a Hebrew language children's newspaper edited by Aharon Livoshitzky.

The Balfour Declaration brought the Zionist movement in Rokitno to life. A strong light was kindled. Even though we did not know what exactly was coming, we waited for redemption. The historic connection with Eretz Yisrael was renewed and the gates of Aliyah were opened.

The Balfour Declaration and the October Revolution were bound together in Rokitno, but the Zionist youths did not follow blindly the alien crowd and did not pin all their hopes on the Revolution as a source of good things for the Jews. They lifted their heads towards Zion. The change in government, the troubles the Jews were suffering and their fears only served to deepen their yearning for Eretz Yisrael. We, the young children, composed a sad song in Yiddish. Its refrain was: ”O, that I were far away from here”. It meant that we wanted to leave this misery and go to Eretz Yisrael.

The Jewish streets of Rokitno were full of demonstrations in favor of the Balfour Declaration. There were many mass meetings. In those days, the synagogue served as an assembly place for Zionist meetings. At one of the large gatherings in honor of the Balfour Declaration, an announcer from Kiev recited the Yiddish poem by Bialik, “The Last Word”. It begins: “I have been sent to you by G-d. “ The Hebrew translation by Aharon Zeitlin reads:
“A prophetic G-d created me
He saw you in difficulties
He saw you withering and decaying
From day to day you are more bereaved.”

The children and the older teens were enthusiastic about revival. From early childhood, we belonged to Zionist youth movements named “Association of Children of Zion” and “Association of Flowers of Zion”. The establishment, in 1922, of Polish rule, allowed regular Zionist activities and a fresh wind energized the sails of the Zionist youth movement.

The youth groups presented several plays with all proceeds dedicated to the redemption of land. In a storehouse in the courtyard of Hershel Greenberg, a play was put on. The income of one-and-a-half rubles was used to plant trees in a Jewish National Fund forest. All the plays and parties planned by these groups had a distinct Zionist flavor. We wrote songs which reflected the moods of the time. One song was dramatized by a group of young women on stage wearing straw hats and carrying pitchforks. The floor was covered with sheaves of straw representing the harvest. One girl sang: “Are there any foxes there, my friend?” The boy who is inviting her to go to Eretz Yisrael replied: “Come here my child, my lovely dove.”

One of the main activities of the Zionist youth groups was the founding of a Hebrew library, which also contained books in Russian and in Yiddish. In those days, Shtibel Publishers was very active and we were among its first subscribers. We thought this was not sufficient and we worked hard at introducing Hebrew books into Jewish homes in Rokitno. Shtibel Publishers sent one of its representatives to Rokitno and we went with him to various homes where we generated orders for Tolstoy's “War and Peace” translated by Trivush and Knute Hansen's “Blessing of the Earth”. Many also ordered volumes of “The Period”. The library was initially located in the home of Yitzhak Pik and later in the home of Haim Yehuda Shohet. This was the only Hebrew library in town and the adults also enjoyed it.

The Zionist hopes came to fruition. The first to make Aliyah, during the Polish regime, was Gedalya Lifshitz. He joined a group of pioneers from Sarny and came to Eretz Yisrael in 1922. The excitement grew and “Hechalutz”, “Hechalutz Hatzair”, “Hashomer Hatzair” and later “Betar” were founded. They pulled in most of the young people.

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The temporary Zionist Municipal
committee hereby certifies that

Gedalya Lifshitz

is a member of the temporary committee
of the Zionist Organization
in Rokitno and is a member of the
Cultural Sub-committee.


The lives of the young people were turned upside down with many of them leaving home to go to Hachshara (pre-Aliyah preparatory settlements) in Klosov and other places. The first to go from Rokitno to Klosov were Sender Lerner, Eli Greenberg, Liova Litvak and Avraham Geipman. Lerner and Geipman made Aliyah.

[Page 55]

National Funds in Rokitno

Haim Shteinman (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Keren Hayesod

The activities of Keren Hayesod in our town were run by a few people only because the residents were canvassed once a year. The amount required was considerable and only the most influential people were involved. They formed the committee and pre-assigned sums to be pledged. It is important to note that the majority accepted the burden cheerfully. Those who argued about the required sums were blacklisted on the bulletin board in the synagogue. This did the job and those listed changed their minds and paid up. Every subscriber paid by bank check.

Jewish National Fund

Unlike Keren Hayesod, Jewish National Fund was a more popular fund, which conducted its business throughout the year and involved all residents – young and old. Everyone happily did his or her part as needed.

The local committee consisted of representatives of the Zionist movements in town. Mr. Haim David Weiner devotedly served as deputy for many years. He was followed by the teacher Mordechai Gendelman. The secretary was Avraham Binder and the treasurer- Aharon Lifshitz. Most of the responsibility was carried by the Zionist youth movements. They competed constantly for the title of the largest sums collected. “Hashomer Hatzair” usually led. The methods of collection were varied. First and foremost – the Blue Box which was exhibited in every home as a sacred icon. Mothers would drop coins every Friday night prior to candle lighting. The boxes were emptied monthly. They were always full to the top.

Other activities took place around the holidays. On the eve of Yom Kippur, there was a special table in the synagogue which contained various bowls for charity. The Jewish National Fund bowl dwarfed the others. We, the youngsters, watched carefully and encouraged the worshippers to give as much as possible. The results proved us right. At every Yizkor service we worked hard: we distributed printed sheets to the worshippers, which they would fold indicating the amount pledged. A few days later, we went to their houses to collect the money. There was a special event at Simchat Torah when a special Zionist minyan was held. The service leader was always the teacher Mordechai Gendelman. This minyan attracted many worshippers, especially the young yeshiva students. All proceeds from those called to the Torah were dedicated to the Jewish National Fund. We even went to other synagogues to collect our share.

The dedication of the Zionist youth to the Jewish National Fund knew no boundaries. We tried different methods to increase the income – be it Purim parties, bazaars, raffles or theater productions. We did not refuse any activity that could bring in money. Before Shavuot, we went knee-deep in mud to collect greenery in the forest. We braided the branches into wreaths containing the Jewish National Fund insignia.

We came to every wedding (uninvited) with the Blue Box and we did not leave until we filled it up. We did the same at funerals.

The jewel in the crown of our activity for the Jewish National Fund was the 20th day of Tammuz when a mass memorial rally was organized in memory of Dr. Herzl, the founder of Zionism. On that day, we used all our artistic ability and we presented a play to the large crowd. Almost all the Jews of Rokitno and its surrounding area attended. The harvest was bountiful. The Jews gave generously to the Jewish National Fund. With great satisfaction we would run to the deputy house, teeming with happy young people, to bring the money. We waited impatiently for the counting to end in order to find out who won first place. It happened that some individuals would leave upset and unhappy because they did not collect as much as the others. At that point, they made a vow to outdo their friends the next time. This was the dedication of the youth of Rokitno to the Jewish National Fund and to their homeland. It was the result of an excellent Hebrew and Zionist education in which they were steeped from childhood.

Women of all ages played a considerable role in the work for the Jewish National Fund. They organized special parties, raffles, prepared the food and decorated the halls elegantly. The atmosphere was that of pioneering in Eretz Yisrael. This was always done with dedication in order to achieve success and to collect money.

This is how the Rokitno residents showed their loyalty to Eretz Yisrael and to its national funds.

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[Page 58]

The Origins of the “Hechalutz” in Rokitno

Dov Ben Yehoshua [Vorona] (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

General Background to the Founding of “Hechalutz”

After years of riots, suffering and torture during World War I, peace finally came between Poland- who gained independence, and the Bolsheviks- who annihilated the Kingdom of Tzar Nikolai.

Rokitno became a border village. The Jews awoke to a new energetic life and they resurrected their economic and cultural lives. The lumber trade began to flourish. The sawmills and the glass factory worked at full steam. Brick plants were built and new ways of earning a living were discovered. Everything was blooming and the standard of living improved. Every storage space became a shop and every vegetable garden became a building lot.

The general growth drew many Jews from nearby villages to Rokitno – from Stariky, Osnitzek, Dert, Krapilovka and from nearby towns – Stolin, Dombrovitza, Sarny, Visotzk, etc.

However, the economic growth, which knew no precedent before the war, did not blind anyone. The Zionist movement in Rokitno began to ferment during this time. The youth, in spite of the economic freedom enjoyed in their homes, did not pine for a golden calf, but they were excited by the national Zionist dream. Zionism meant pioneering-Zionism.

This excitement was expressed by a song that was popular in the Zionist movement:
“Bless our G-d who created us as pioneers
He separated us from the General Zionists
He gave us the knowledge of fulfillment
He sowed in us love of group life.”

This was not a meaningless excitement. It was translated into practical terms. In 1925, the residents of Rokitno began to make Aliyah – the Gurman family, Zeidel Binder, Sade Lavan and my brother Nachman.

The Founding of a Hachshara Unit (Preparatory) in Rokitno

After my brother's Aliyah, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I saw my future in Eretz Yisrael and I began to prepare myself. In those days, there was selective Aliyah and only those who could be productive were chosen. I dedicated myself to learning carpentry with my brother-in-law, Betzalel Eisenberg.

One day I was working with Betzalel Eisenberg in the construction of the new synagogue in the “new town”. Usually near a synagogue, one can always see Jews. I entered into a conversation with Vitia Hefetz, Liova Litvak, Avraham Geipman and others. They asked me why I was learning to be a carpenter. My reply was: “In order to prepare myself for Aliyah. My older brother, Nachman, has made Aliyah and I do not intend to remain in Rokitno.”

Geipman told me that there was no need to learn a trade as there was a better, more useful way. He secretly told me about “Hechalutz” which was functioning in many towns near Rokitno. The Rokitno youth would also found a branch of “Hechalutz” where they would prepare themselves for Aliyah.

His words fell on willing ears and an eager heart. We immediately became practical. Aryeh (Leibl) Geipman went to Warsaw often and he was entrusted with finding out what were the possibilities of founding a branch of “Hechalutz” in Rokitno and how to go about it. As a result of the information he obtained, we began to work. My task was to organize a meeting between the youth in the village of Rokitno and those in town.

At the end of 1924, the Rokitno branch of “Hechalutz” was founded. Leibl Geipman registered it at the head office. After a few months, we performed a daring deed: we formed a preparatory group in Rokitno. At first, we feared we would not have enough candidates who would give up the comforts of home and who would willingly begin a life of hard labor in a collective. They would have to give up their regular life because of ideology. However, we were wrong. The youth of Rokitno were prepared emotionally for these difficult physical sacrifices. The following song sums it up:
“Tell us pioneers,
What is bread?
Rich people think it is
White bread.
For us, the pioneers,
The poor ones,
It is just a piece of crust.”

I was one of the first who came forward without hesitating. I left my brother-in-law and my home and I joined the collective. The other members were: Naftali Gilman, Avraham Geipman, Reuven Frital and Itzhak Pik (Itzhak was permitted to sleep at home since he had to help his elderly mother). Others from the village were: Shlomke and Shimon Gendelman. There were also two women: Anka (Hanna) Shlafer and Hava Barman.

We rented an apartment in a Polish house in the new town. We organized the household and prepared sleeping quarters. Each one of us took his belongings from home and came to live in the apartment, which we named Kibbutz.

The Hechalutz center sent to us members from Kremenetz, Shumsk and other villages. When the new members arrived, the Jews of Rokitno looked at us in a more positive light. They began to respect us because they felt that the Kibbutz would bring an improvement in the lot of the Diaspora Jews.

Our numbers grew and we did not have enough room in our apartment. After much searching, we found a more convenient place. Shlomo the tailor had tried to build a bathhouse on Messiviche Street and did not finish it. He only erected a skeleton. We renovated the unfinished house and adapted it to our needs.

The Kibbutz rejuvenated the town. It became a meeting place for the youth. They benefited intellectually. The place was full of people in the evenings, especially on Friday nights. They came to listen to lectures and to dance pioneer dances with Hasidic enthusiasm.

The exotic atmosphere of the Kibbutz caused curiosity. Young people, who were used to drinking tea from delicate cups, felt a special flavor in drinking tea in aluminum and clay cups. There was competition among them to see who would be first to use these cups.

Our visitors especially relished our hit song, which became an anthem of Hechalutz. It was the “Ani Maamin” of the movement:
“Pioneer, pioneer, am I
Without clothes and shoes
Without any herring
I did not know from where I came
And I did not ask for much
There is work, there is no work
I did not give up
I already forgot my family
Moshe, Hanna, Devora –
These are my brother and sisters
All the Hora dancers
A one and a two
Day and night
Boy will dance with girl.”

The Depression Years in Hechalutz

In 1926 after several years of existence of the Kibbutz, some members, I among them, were approved for Aliyah. They did go, but I was forced to postpone my trip because my documents were not in order. The authorities did not allow me to leave Poland. Weeks and months passed until one fine day the British Mandate government did not allow anyone to come. “Stop immigration!”

The news we received from Eretz Yisrael was not encouraging. Many of the people who came with the Gravsky group for economic reasons, now left due to the poor economy in the country. Even Rokitno had its own returnees. They were Zeidel Binder and his son Moshe. All this contributed to a lowering in the image of the Zionist movement in 1927-28 and one heard voices of despair and helplessness.

I waited for the gates to reopen. In time, there was a change in the Hachshara group. It amalgamated with Kibbutz Klesov and was now called the “Rokitno Division”. The mood was dark and sad. However, we had been educated in Brenner's motto- “in spite of everything” and we had a strong belief that one day things would improve. We managed to overcome the difficulties and we continued with our Zionist mission.

At the beginning of 1928, I went to Klesov with Shimon Gendelman. Benny Marshak, one of the organizers, commissioned me to direct the new members in their work and in kibbutz ideology. Our motto was: “Work is our life. It will save us from all trouble”.

In due time, the chances for Aliyah improved. Pressured by the Zionist organization and the Zionist Congress, the British government was forced to reopen the gates. This news blew like a fresh wind and caused a great reawakening in the Zionist movement. The preparatory kibbutzim grew and hundreds of members joined. The emissaries from Eretz Israel came to visit and formed strong ties with them. They came to guide, to encourage and to prepare. The visitors were Ben Ari and Tzizling from Eyn Harod and Eliahu Dubkin, Berginsky and Pinchas Kozlovsky from Hechalutz headquarters (now Pinchas Sapir, Minister of Finance).

I recall an interesting episode with Tzizling. He came off the train in Sarny, a large man dressed like Tolstoy in white pants and a peasant shirt. He looked suspicious to the police, ever wary for security reasons. He was asked to come for questioning, but the British passport calmed them down immediately. They had no common language because Tzizling announced that he only spoke Hebrew (he did, of course, speak other languages). The police had no choice but to find someone, in the middle of the night, who could speak Hebrew. Naturally, in Sarny, it was not difficult to find such a Jew to act as translator. After a short while, Tzizling was released and arrived in Klesov.

At the end of Tzizling's visit there was in Klesov, a large kibbutz of hundreds waiting for Aliyah. As the members were approved, the kibbutz was almost completely emptied of veterans and in their place arrived new members who were not as knowledgeable in the “Hechalutz” beliefs or the labor movement. The kibbutz was forced to organize a core of veterans whose mission was to prepare Zionist youth groups for Aliyah. I was fortunate to be one of these veterans, but not for long. In May 1929, I was called up to the Polish army and was due to go on active duty in two months. This was a good reason for me to be approved for Aliyah.

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