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The Zionist Movement {Cont.}

[Page 62]

The “Hechalutz” Branch and its Activities
prior to the Holocaust

Haim Shteinman (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

When the first members of the Rokitno branch of “Hechalutz” made Aliyah in 1928, its activities were curtailed. However, our youth- mostly Zionist- knew how to overcome the decrease in numbers. Soon, enthusiasm was rampant, especially among the older youth who were searching for a social framework, which they had not found in other movements in Rokitno. They looked for ways of achieving the goals of “Hechalutz”. This meant preparation for and subsequent Aliyah.

The members: Yakov Lifshitz, Haya Berezovsky, Genia Tuchman, Reuven Frital and Haya Lifshitz got busy. They formed the lively nucleus which dedicated itself to revive the branch and to reorganize it in a Zionist bent. They were successful and attracted 60 new members. They were prepared to absorb even more members.

They rented a hall for everyday work. Other active members who were in the Klesov and Tomshograd kibbutzim near Rokitno assisted those responsible.

During that time, the branch stopped being a dream and became a reality. There were two reasons for this: spiritual and material. In the few years since the founding of “Hechalutz” in our town, there was an important ideological change.

“Hechalutz” became a part of life. Slowly, the older youths and their parents began to understand that “Hechalutz” was not only a question of existence for them and for the whole nation. The serious economic breakdown in the 30's, especially at the end of the decade, which caused a lowering in the standard of life of the Jewish merchants, also served as an impetus for the youth groups to join “Hechalutz”.

Thus we find the “Hechalutz” branch in our town in the 30's as an absorption center for young people from the surrounding areas. They all desire to absorb the pioneer ideology, to prepare themselves for Aliyah.

As the branch grew, there were many people who put its activities at the top of the agenda. Among them were: Israel Lifshitz, Shoshana Finkelstein, Zissel Meirson, Esther Shuster, Breindel Tendler and others. On a cultural level were also active Itzhak Waldman, Zvi Eisenstein, David Eidelman and Ronka Greber. They were all members of “Hashomer Hatzair” who joined the Hechalutz activities according to directives from their headquarters.

The branch was active at all levels of Zionist work in town – the distribution of shekalim, and collection of money for workers of Eretz Yisrael, the League for the Workers of Eretz Yisrael and all the national funds.

“Hechalutz” Branch in Rokitno in 1932
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As part of the branch activities, there were Friday night events with questions and answers, guest lectures on events in Eretz Yisrael and in the Zionist movement. The branch utilized the services of the Klosov kibbutz members who often were invited to come. Emissaries from headquarters also visited when they were in the area. These visits encouraged the members because they would receive first-hand information. Among these visitors were Itzhak Tabankin, Feivish Bendersky (Ben Dor), Bankover, Berginsky, and Benny Marshak, a most popular figure.

The branch encouraged the members to learn a trade, to study Hebrew and to read the movement newspapers- Haatid, Davar, Hapoel Hatzair. In the center was the need for self-fulfillment within the framework of the kibbutz. The majority of the members did make Aliyah. Many are scattered today in various kibbutzim in our country.

The branch also absorbed, due to their small numbers, the members of Haoved. These were older people with families. They had different trades and wished to continue with them in Eretz Yisrael. They integrated well into the branch activities. A few of them came to Eretz Yisrael and live among us.

[Page 65]

“Hashomer Hatzair”

This article was written by the graduates of Hashomer Hatzair in Rokitno:

Ruth Baum [Reis] Asher Binder Hanna Gelfand
Ruchama Gelfand [Oliker] Ronka Rosenstein [Greber] Shulamit Grinshpan [Honig]
Hanan Hatzuvi [Trigun] Aharon Heruti [Freierman] Itzhak Waldman z”l
Yitzhak Litvak Penina Fuchsman [Ortreger] Shmaryahu Kravi [Korobochka]
translated by Ala Gamulka

The early Days of the Rokitno Branch

rok65.jpg [KB 9] The creator and founder of the “Hashomer Hatzair” branch in our town was David Shtern, a young and dynamic teacher from Koritz. He taught music and physical education in the Tarbut School in Rokitno. In 1926, even when the school was still in the women's section of the synagogue in the old town, he organized a student choir. He began to teach a new Torah, the way of scouting and physical education among the book stands, Mishna tomes and ancient scrolls. He believed in the motto: “A healthy soul in a healthy body”.

“Hashomer Hatzair” in Rokitno was built on pure nationalism and Zionism. The teacher Shtern told us that throughout Poland a scout movement existed called “Hashomer Hatzair”. Its main tenet was a return to Zion and it prepares its members for Aliyah.

The teacher Shtern formed the first scout group called “Gur Aryeh Yehudah”. It consisted of two groups: “Brener” for boys and “Dror” for girls. It was the organized pioneering Zionist youth movement in our town. The first to respond to Shtern and to found the “Hashomer Hatzair” branch in Rokitno were:
  1. The brothers David and Shlomo Eidelman
  2. Misha Berezovsky (he died while trying to reach Palestine during the Holocaust)
  3. Hershel Gutnik (killed during World War II in France)
  4. Liova Golod
  5. Ronka Greber
  6. Batya Grinshpan, z’l,
  7. Aryeh Wolfin
  8. Syoma Weiner
  9. the Hammer sisters
  10. Hanan Trigun
  11. Hanna Lifshitz
  12. Israel Lifshitz (transferred to “Hechalutz”)
  13. Zissel Meirson, z”l (transferred to “Hechalutz”)
  14. Israel Kek (transferred to Betar)
  15. Yechiel Shohet (transferred to “Hechalutz”)
  16. Haim Shteinman
  17. Aharon Burd, z”l.

The main educational activity was learning scouting. Shtern spoke of Baden-Powell (founder of the scout movement) and read to us chapters from his book “Scouting”. We learned all the details of camping.

Since there was no hall, we met in the women's section in the synagogue in the “old town”. In summer, we went to the forest on the railroad in the direction of Ostoki where a hill served as a central location for the youth. Nature walks were a permanent part of our education. On Tisha B'Av, we went on an overnight trip to the village of Osnitzek. We set up a camp between the river and the cemetery. At night we built a fire and we sat around it. The feeling of camaraderie was forged on these trips. The atmosphere was festive and we sang songs of our land. We felt that we were members of one nation and that we had a common language. We were all involved in one idea: redemption of our land. When we saw the growing fields and the carpets of flowers, we wished each other to live to see the same sights in Eretz Yisrael.

The founding of the branch did not run into any opposition from the parents. The fact that the movement focused on the redemption of the land and involved the youth in powerful desires for the homeland did not worry the parents. On the contrary, they liked these ideas and they were certain that our paths would cross and that we followed in their footsteps. Our dream coincided with their Zionist thoughts.

The fact that our meetings were held in the women's section served as a defense mechanism since no one would suspect that these boys and girls would do any wrong. Our parents saw us as children playing games who would change their minds when they grew up.

However, they did not realize that in these childish games were hidden ideological explosives that would burst and bring changes in the ordinary old lives. This new generation had as its motto the words of the poet David Shimonovitz:
“Do not listen, my son, to your father
 Nor lend an ear to your mother.”

Gur Aryeh Yehudah Group in 1926
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The excellent conditions that prevailed from the early days served as a “hot house” for the growth and development of our branch. In addition, it must be mentioned that in those days, the Yiddishists, Bundists or Communists in our town did not compete with the Zionist movement. In other places this rivalry caused many difficulties and cultural wars. We did not have to struggle to overcome problems because they did not exist.

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An Activity of the Senior Group in Rokitno Forest, 1928

Under these favorable conditions, the elite of the youth of our town joined us. They wished for refinement, simplicity and modesty. We did not create anything from nothing. The first members had been prepared for new ideas by their wonderful teachers in the Tarbut School. They had instilled in them a love for Hebrew, the nation and the land. Reading Bialik's poems like “The Town of Killing” sowed in them seeds of rebellion. The school was the receptacle from which the “Hashomer Hatzair” in Rokitno was watered. This was a pure well from which arose the wonderful human element that became our movement.

The members wore a uniform: gray shirt, khaki pants, gray hat with a blue and white stripe and an orange brim. The scouts and the cubs wore on their shoulders insignias representing their group. The cubs had a green necktie and the scouts- a blue one. The seniors wore a black necktie. When they moved from group to group and from level to level, they changed their neckties at a festive commemoration. This usually took place on Lag B'omer, which was officially “Hashomer Hatzair” day. All formal activities happened on that day.

The Crystallization of the Branch and its Contribution to Zionist Life in Town

When Shtern left Rokitno, two members of Hashomer Hatzair settled in our town in 1928-29. One, from Alexandria, was called Zvi Finkelstein and the other, Binyamin Zaltzbuch, from Rovno, who was an official in Volyn headquarters (they are both in Israel now). Zaltzbuch was very active in the movement and participated in several executive meetings in Malkin.

These two members integrated well into our work and contributed greatly to the development of the branch.

Every member had to follow the “Ten Commandments” which were the mainstay of the movement.

“Hatikvah” and “Techezakna” were the main anthems, but each level had its own hymn.
The cubs' hymn was:
One, two
Three, four
Brothers, we swear…

The scouts' hymn was:
Be prepared, Shomer,
For honest activities
You have a difficult
Route to follow
Courage will lead to happiness
Be prepared and remember your documents

The hymn of the senior group was Yaakov Cohen's song:
“We arise and sing”

Although the branch grew continuously, it still did not have its own hall and it wandered from home to home – those of Avraham Golod, Berezovsky, David Kleiman, Moshe Wolf Horman, Shuster and others. We saluted each other in the street, one member to another or the counselors. The salute was accompanied by the motto: “Be strong!” The reply was always: Be strong and become stronger!” While saluting three fingers would be thrust forward, representing the three main principles of our education: one people, one homeland, one language.

During that time, our branch was evident in the Zionist and cultural lives in town. We always had a representative in every institution involved in propagating the Hebrew language and in any activity for the land. We were very active in the Zionist funds so that most of the activity for these funds was done by our members. We helped in collecting funds for the school and for the League of Workers in Eretz Yisrael.

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Hashomer Hatzair In Rokitno In 1928

The members of our branch were nurtured on activities for the Jewish National Fund. They excelled in the collection of donations and in the emptying of the boxes. We instituted the blue box in every home. Every month, the members of the branch would be sent to empty the boxes. This was a permanent activity. We had a trusted friend in every synagogue. Whenever someone was called up to the Torah, he would donate to the Jewish National Fund. Our trusted friend would send us the name of the pledge maker and we would send our members to collect the promised sum.

Even on the eve of Yom Kippur, after Mincha and before the evening meal, our representatives would sit in the synagogue and collect pledges and donations for the Jewish National Fund. At every Jewish National Fund bazaar, our members worked hard. On Purim, our members would dress up and with boxes in their hands, they would collect for the Jewish National fund.

The Transition from Expectation to ideological-political Purpose

In 1928 we ceased being just an expectant group and we became more politically oriented. We began to think of the labor movement and socialism. We received two movement newspapers called “Hashomer Hatzair”. One was published by headquarters in Poland and the other was published by the kibbutz movement in Eretz Yisrael. Thus we obtained information on the labor movement. These newspapers formed our worldview. The movement also published books and pamphlets on educational activities with lesson plans for the counselors at all levels of a branch. The material was prepared with specific instructions.

We began to study the history of the labor and socialist movements. We struggled to understand the “Political Economy” of Bogdanov. Not everything written in the “Communist Manifesto” was clear to us. We believed in the statement: “Workers of the world unite!” This was our main belief since socialism meant internationalism – the unity of all workers. It was the only way to achieve socialism.

In spite of this, our connection to our ancient culture deepened. We were eager to acquire the Hebrew language and speak it. The “Hashomer Hatzair” branch was the only youth movement that held all its activities in Hebrew. The members conversed in Hebrew. They were all nurtured on the Bible and Hebrew literature.

Public Appearances and the Struggles of the Branch

From 1930 on Aharon (Iliosha) Freierman was chairman of the branch. He fulfilled this position for 4 years. We remember this period as a very active time. Iliosha's personality influenced our education. As his disciples, we knew how to appreciate the fact that Iliosha, a graduate of the movement (there were almost no other members his age in the branch), knew how to keep the interest of the youngsters. He persevered and was totally dedicated to representing the branch in the broader Jewish and Zionist community in town. He was our spokesperson whenever necessary.

Our activities grew and we were successful – the best of the town youth.

20th of Tammuz Assembly in 1929
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Our work was well organized. On weekdays, there were group discussions. On Shabbat, without fail, all members showed up. The Shabbat activity was the crowning glory of the everyday activities and it galvanized all the members. The seniors served as counselors at the very young levels. There were regular meetings of the counselors where the planning was done. The counselors had to prepare precise plans. Each activity began with a roll call and the singing of “Techezakna”. The relations between counselors and members were friendly, like those between siblings.

The branch welcomed a new generation, a generation that had decided not to suffer quietly as saints but to change Jewish history. The performances of the members at Lag B'omer parades were impressive and heart rendering. We appeared in white shirts and it was an imposing participation.

On Polish Independence Day, May 3rd, we were forced to participate in a parade in order to show loyalty to the government. We did not have warm relations with the local Polish police since it was quite sensitive to any hint of communism. Our town was close to the Soviet border and the least suspicion led to suppression. It was hinted to the police that “Hashomer Hatzair” was left-leaning and that its ideology was close to that of the Soviets. The detectives kept an eye on us and often we would find their representatives standing near our windows and listening.

The official organization in Warsaw was legal, but it did not have a permit to open branches in other towns. For that reason, we used a different name for our group. Our permit was given to “The Culture and Sport Club of the Zionist Movement in Rokitno – Hashomer Hatzair”.

Our activities grew before the elections to the Zionist Congress. We tried to distribute the largest number of shekels and to bring electors to the polls on Election Day. The elections presented a difficult task. It was after Arlozorov's murder and his tragic death cast a shadow on the election campaigns of the different movements. There were collisions with the local Brit Hehayal and Betar and there was great tension.

The ideological chasm served to deepen our pioneering and socialist spirit. Our road became clearer. We increased our activities in the League of Workers in Eretz Yisrael and “Hechalutz”. Our branch greatly enhanced the influence of “Hechalutz” in Rokitno, especially in educational and cultural spheres.

The graduates of “Hashomer Hatzair” were obligated to become members of “Hechalutz”. The local branch served as a meeting place for these graduates as well as graduates of “Hechalutz” and unaffiliated members.

The thirties – prior to the Holocaust – were uninterrupted growth years for “Hechalutz” branches in all towns and villages and Hachsharot (preparatory kibbutzim) appeared everywhere. Even the local “Hechalutz” branch was filled with youth, mostly older ones. These were people who saw no future for themselves in town and their only solution was Aliyah.

The graduates of “Hashomer Hatzair” were the main organizers of the movement and concentrated on teaching Hebrew in “Hechalutz”.

There was great debate about “mixed preparation”. “Hashomer Hatzair” opposed it because they believed in homogeneous groups made up of people from the same level in the movement. They foresaw a start in the Hachshara and a continuation in an independent kibbutz in Eretz Yisrael.

Berel Frimer Visits
as Representative of Headquarters in 1928
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In the Circle of Preparation and Fulfillment

The movement obligated all its members to join a Hachshara and to make Aliyah. This was the guiding tenet of our Zionist ideology. Anyone who wished to postpone Hachshara for academic reasons was not permitted to do so. Anyone who tried to avoid going on Hachshara had to leave the movement. The only exception was Misha Berezovsky who was the sole support of his frail parents. He became the chairman after Aharon Freierman's Aliyah and he remained in that position until the Soviets came to Rokitno.

Misha did not live to accomplish his great dream of Aliyah and of building a kibbutz in the homeland. We are certain that up to his last moments he never stopped believing that a miracle would occur and that he would join his comrades and do the daily work with them. This was the work for which they prepared in “Hashomer Hatzair” and “Hechalutz”. Misha had great capacity for work and he was a wonderful planner. He was a staunch believer in the movement. He had exceptional energy and devotion. When all his comrades went on Aliyah, he was left alone until the last minute of his life. During the war, he attempted to make Aliyah and he died in Vilna. We will always cherish his memory as that of a dear colleague and an educator.

Many of the graduates of Hashomer Harzair went to various preparatory places in Poland. Most of them made Aliyah and to this day many of them are members of Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim.

The Branch in the last Years of its Existence

In 1935-39, the leadership consisted of Yitzhak Litvak, Betzalel Kek, Aharon Kleiman and Misha Berezovsky who was the chairman. Our activities continued as planned but, unfortunately, difficulties arose. Many members left us – some to Betar. We struggled to stop them, but we were not always successful.

The group of graduates was named after Yosef Trumpeldor who became a symbol of courage and hard work in our eyes. His declaration: “It is good to die for our country!” was one that heightened the enthusiasm and longing for our land. The song about Tel Hai and about Trumpeldor's death conquered our hearts and strengthened our spirit. We remember well the song and its melancholy tune.

During those years, a weeklong camp (Moshava) was organized in the village of Rokitno in the home of Yona Katz. We worked hard to convince our parents to allow us to be away from home for a whole week. Most of the members participated in this Moshava. There were scouting activities and many hikes. We went on an overnight trip to the village of Osnitzek and we pitched tents near the cemetery. We were a little fearful of being in the vicinity of the cemetery, but the fact strengthened us to be prepared for any event. The trip had an educational purpose – to teach us communal living by sharing food brought by all of us.

Some members participated in administrative meetings. One of these, a month long, took place in Dorohosek with the participation of Meir Yeari and Yehudah Guthalf. Our representatives were Yitzhak Litvak, Betzalel Kek and Shifra Finkelstein. In 1937, a winter camp was held in Kremenitz and our Penina Fuchsman attended.

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Scout Trip to Osnitzek in 1931

In the last years before the Holocaust, many difficulties arose in our activities. The public identified us with the left. We had to be very careful. Also, by then we were no longer the only youth movement in Rokitno. There was an active and strong branch of Betar as well as Hapoel Hatzair. We struggled on several fronts. Our battle with Betar was in the open – a struggle between two opposing camps. Each one had its own beliefs, which it defended with vehemence.

The school, the main source for our membership, began to close its doors to us. The teacher Gendelman, who had tremendous influence on the students, became involved in founding “Hanoar Hatzioni”. We were pressed to give up our permit since it was in the name of the Zionist movement. Since it was difficult to obtain another permit, we opposed it with all our might. Time was on our side, since “Hanoar Hatzioni” was not established. It was an unsuccessful attempt.

Branch is dying

When World War II broke out, some of our members were in Hachshara in Radom, Chenstohov, Baranovich or Bialystok. They rushed home and tried to find a way to make Aliyah.

When the Soviets came, we burned all the documents we possessed. We only left the library. The Soviets announced that all Jewish youths must become members of the Komsomol. The response was weak since we all hoped to see Zion.

Vilna was still free and it served as an entry gate for Aliyah. “Hashomer Hatzair” kibbutzim were concentrated there. Yeshayahu Weiner and Adam Rand (from headquarters) asked us to send our members to Vilna. We tried to encourage our members to go there quickly, before it would be too late, but we encountered indecision and parental opposition.

Soon the following members left Rokitno and went to Vilna: Shoshana and Shmaryahu Korobochka, Yehoshua and Dov Eisenstein, Yosef Ivry, Dvora Golovey, Eliezer Shapira, Misha Berezovsky, Bunia and Beba Kutz and Asher Eidelman. Some of them succeeded in reaching Eretz Yisrael and escaping the bitter end which awaited the Jews of Rokitno.

Those members who remained in Rokitno did not pretend that no harm would come to them. They left the killing fields in various ways. Some managed to save themselves and to remain alive after years of wandering in the forests and fighting the enemy as partisans. Many of them fell in this battle with the enemy and their graves are scattered in forests and barren fields.

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