« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Pages 52-93]

My Life in Wolomin

by Yakov Sigalov

When I came to Wolomin for the first time, in 1915, I found there a small, poor Jewish settlement to which I immediately felt an attraction, like the attraction to friendly Jews. In Warsaw I dwelled in an assimilated society, partly among good Polish people, but deep in my heart I felt a desire for authentic Jews. My grandfather's spirit lived within me. He was a gabbai for R' Dudl Talner, and in me lived the melodies that I used to hear from my father at home. In our shtetl of Galavanyevsk, near Uman, people really knew how to sing. People sang zemiros at melaveh–malkes and at the third Shabbos meal, only Talner Chasidim sang with more zest, with more fire, with joy, and with pleasure.

There were also melodies filled with longing. My grandfather said, “The soul desires to return to its roots.” Although I was still a child, these words and the melodies engraved themselves in my memory and my spirit, and when I arrived in Wolomin and encountered true Jewish souls, the longing in my father's Talner and Chabad melodies was revived in me, even though they differed from those of the Polish Chasidim.

Among the first Jews with whom I interacted in Wolomin was R' Nehamiah Mandelberg, whose appearance and bearing called for immediate respect. It was a pleasure to speak with him. Among the prominent householders were Brandes, Shtrawboym, and Goldstein, and among the Chasidim I was close with Moyshe Grodzhitzky and Yankel Margolis, and Boym (whose son lives in Tel Aviv). All were fine people with Jewish ways, merchants with open minds and everyday wisdom.

All day I was occupied with my affairs, with the foundry that I started, and I had to deal with workers, with suppliers. In the evenings I traveled back to Warsaw. But sometimes in the evening I would walk by a school where the teacher taught Torah to children. Also the windows of the beis hamedrash were open and I heard people chanting the Gemara. Young men were sitting around tables, deep in study, chanting, some softly, some in full voice. I stood there for a time as if I had been chained and could not move from the spot. I felt pulled toward the beis hamedrash as though my roots were there, from which I had been torn away.

Memories of my birthplace came to me, as did various stories that people told about the shul land the beis hamedrash, about the souls of holy tzaddikim who came there in the nights, carrying a flaming sefer–Torah. Angels and seraphim would gather. The tzaddikim would pray, the angels would praise God, and the seraphim would say, “Holy, holy…”

 

The Spiritual Environment

Wolomin, that little shtetl that then had no more than two streets, Warsaw Street and Koshchelne Street, showed itself to be holy with Torah and good deeds. The air was full of music. Even the birds accompanied the Gemara melodies of the devoted young men.

In those minutes I regretted that I was not one of those devoted young men who dwelt with their whole being in the higher realms, in the beautiful world of song and elevated morality.

The whistle of the train that every evening took me back to Warsaw, where I had my permanent apartment in a very different milieu, assimilated and Polish, aroused me from these thoughts. People there had different attitudes toward life. People there persuaded themselves that they were miles from the shtetl, that they attained a higher culture, and that they had a better understanding of great ideas.

In that milieu people spoke only Polish. They wondered how I, a Russian Jew, knew such good Polish. I ran into the same question as I became acquainted with the Polish intelligentsia in Wolomin. The former general Markovsky, Dr. Tshaplitzki's father–in–law, who liked to sit and talk with me, described his heroic deeds and worked to demonstrate his aristocratic distinctiveness and Polish honor in the Polish language. From my frequent encounters with the Polish intelligentsia in Warsaw, my ability in the language was enriched, which sent the general into ecstasy. I noted on his lips a melancholy smile. “Ah so,” he said, “you give the Polish language a certain richness, and your accent is nothing like a Jew's.”

In truth, he was not only impressed by my Polish. More than my language, he wondered at the national pride that I openly demonstrated. In our talks I often had occasion to discuss the beauty of the authentic Jewish environment in the shtetl. Regardless that Wolomin was so close to Warsaw, the shtetl had a full and unique sense of itself, and it presented a special ability to fashion a human personality. Despite the constant hustle and bustle to earn an income, it had a spiritual Jewish air. The influence of Jewish Wolomin spread to the surrounding shtetls, places where there were only single or a few families.

 

The Jewish Home

The Jewish home in Wolomin was an organized cultural–kingdom: thus should be people behave, this should people do, or not do. The children and infants were not philosophers or theologians, did no speculating, but they were far from being spoiled or neglected. The father's authority was tremendous. Young and old all felt the obligations of Judaism. The same fate bound them together and tied them to the same yoke.

The Poles did not always want to encourage us. They wanted to show that the cheder was a medieval educational institution. But it sufficed to show them the people who had grown up in the cheder to silence them. Despite all his prejudices, the Pole had great respect for such Jews as Nehemiah Mandelberg, Dovid Goldshteyn, and others, whom he saw as excellent people with sharp minds and a good deal of wisdom.

In Wolomin the Jews spoke primarily Yiddish. Was this not because they were proud? This was an internalized pride, for which they could give no accounting. It was difficult at first to explain to that same Polish general: how could Yiddish be spoken with pride? But gradually he began to pay attention to my words. In flowery Polish I explained to him that in my home we, too, had spoken Yiddish. Children to whom people speak in a foreign tongue grow up with a poor language, even if the language that people speak to them is rich and beautiful and has created a rich culture. Such children are destined to be emotionally bereft.

I have long known the poetry of Miczkiewicz and Slovotzki, and I showed him what a fine appreciation Yiddish–speaking children can have for poetry, for the beauty of language, and for art and culture in general.

This and similar conversations I had also with other Polish intelligentsia in the shtetl, with the structural engineer Tchaikovsky, with Dr. Czaplitzki, with Cafiovitsch, the head of the merchants' organization, who was later one of the major organizers of the anti–Jewish boycott under the motto “Sva do svega,” but who himself bought all his merchandise from the Jewish merchant Yechiel–Mayer Tchachnavyetzki and then sold them to other Polish merchants.

But in those early years no Pole thought about a boycott, although the anti–Semitism that came from Warsaw also affected the Poles of Wolomin. The poison of the Jew–hater Szwientachovski and from Dmovski made its way among the different layers of the Polish population. There were some who had a Russian orientation. In the manifesto of Nikolai Nikolaievitch, the czar's uncle, the high commander of the Russian military, they saw their triumph. The manifesto called the Polish people to help in the war against Germany, the historical enemy of the Slavic people. The manifesto declared that the Polish people should remember the times of Grunwald and strike the German enemy. Then victory would bring the realization of the striving of the Polish people for a national rebirth, with the condition that the rights of the minorities should not be changed.

The Polish National–Democrats interpreted this as an invitation to unify divided Poland. They held that the paragraph about minorities referred to White Russians and Ukrainians. The newspaper “Dva Grasha” came out with an article that argued that the manifesto did not refer to the Jews, who relied only on the good will of the Poles. The news that came from cities where the Russians had triumphed told of pogroms, killings, and destruction. In Congress–Poland stories began to spread about Jewish treason, that Jews were spying on behalf of the Germans, giving them signals and information through secret telephones. Every wire was thought to be a secret telephone. Higher society in Warsaw took these stories and magnified them. These were the same people who before the war incited the Poles with the information that the Jews supported the Russians. Now they screamed that the Jews helped the Germans. Jews, they said, hated the Poles and joined up with all the enemies of Poland.

 

The Jews of Wolomin Take in Refugees

Over the Jews flowed waves of severe persecutions, expulsions, arrests, hangings, and confinements. Warsaw was full of refugees who fled either from the Russians or from the Germans. This stream of refugees laid a heavy burden on the Warsaw community. Many of the refugees fled to surrounding shtetls, and some came to Wolomin.

The Jews of Wolomin received the refugees with the warmth of merciful people. People arranged housing for them with Jewish families and organized all kinds of help for them.

The Polish Central Committee in Warsaw declined to help Jews, but in Wolomin we were successful in receiving the support of progressive Poles, who understood that the anti–Semitic propaganda the Russians, who eagerly accepted the stories of Jewish espionage and who avenged their defeats on the battlefields.

The secret Zionist committee that had formed in Warsaw, undertook an energetic information project to counter the false rumors. Special envoys were sent to the Russian and Polish progressive intelligence forces to demonstrate how false were the paths on which the Poles had wandered.

With my whole youthful fire, I took part in this activity in my section of Wolomin, helping the refugees and showing the Poles how foolish it was to associate the Jews with espionage. This was no simple thing, because the Polish nationalists believed all the latest rumors. Later they raised alarms that the Jews in Russia damaged the interests of Poland because they believed that Poland was imbued with anti–Semitism. Therefore they said that the Jews would darken Poland's reputation in the eyes of the Left. I sought aid from the followers of Pilsudski, but they were silent. It did not matter that they had fought the Polish nationalists and their Russian orientation. They saw that the rumors of Jews and espionage were successful and turned their attention from the Russians and declared that they were not interested in the activities of Pilsudski's legions, which had been organized in the occupied areas.

When the Germans took Warsaw, the underground organizations emerged and took the rudder, began to openly propagandize their German–Austrian orientation. At first the Jews welcomed the German military, hoping that life would improve. The German language sounded familiar, but soon the Poles accused the Jews of having sympathy for Russia…The German conquerors, however, took no note of the rumors. They were victorious. Officers and generals were quartered in rich Jewish homes. Also subordinate officers also gladly lived with Jews, because they could more easily communicate with the Jews.

After a period of vacillation, the German civil government gave up the thought of turning the Polish Jews into an instrument of Germanization and of political influence for Germany. At the same time, they came to the conclusion that they should fashion a Polish government that should be connected with the part of Europe that was led by Germany. But the Jews had to benefit from favorable conditions for their cultural development and for their activities in the cause of social safety. Thus began the process of handing over power into the hands of the official Polish agents. The first step in this direction was the establishment of self–government in the cities, which was based on the agreement of all the citizens in the country.

As soon as this elective process began, the need for a united front of Poles and Jews was proclaimed. The Jews remembered well the fourth Russian Duma and feared anti–Semitic unrest if they went to the polls alone. They feared the loss of the power that they had gained in various districts. The Zionist organization was for a united front and Jews in many places therefore had to resign from their offices.

So it appeared in Warsaw and also in Wolomin, where I agreed to the urging of the rabbi to run for office and was elected to the Wolomin city council.

 

The First Jews in the Foundry

The compromises into which the Jews entered did not stop the Poles from their anti–Semitic agitation against Jewish businesses. We therefore often had to be on guard to protect the interests of the Jewish merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen.

Also, in the factory I had to fight a battle against the Polish workers, who did not want to allow Jewish workers in the foundry. They acted against six Jews, whom I had put to work and who encountered stubborn opposition from the Poles.

I quickly called a meeting of all the workers. Some of the them were really nervy and repeated the words of the anti–Semitic agitators about the danger that confronted Poland as a result of the large number of Jews who control country's economy and displace the Poles from their positions. But there were some who supported my appearance. I wholeheartedly rejected every indication of discrimination, pointed out the senselessness of the anti–Semitic words and rumors that were used by malevolent politicians. I made them understand as clearly as possible that I stood with the clever and progressive workers who understood how awful such malevolent anti–Semitism was and who will fight with all their strength for the rights of Jewish laborers.

It often happened that when the police arrested a Jew, who was caught smuggling meat to Warsaw or doing some other crime, the police would take further action and lead a home inspection. Too often there were false arrests and I was called on to intervene. Usually I succeeded in convincing the powers that be of the arrested one's innocence.

It was not easy dealing with the Poles all the times I worked with them. “The Jews are working with the Germans,” Markovski wanted to convince me. “They dealt with them. They have good relations with the Germans. They don't fight for a free Poland.” But he had to be silent and roll his eyes when I showed him the woods that Polish workers had cut down for the German and helped them load the wood onto the cars of long trains. The wood was going to the front for German military use, for the German rear. Thousands of Polish workers were thereby employed and no one objected.

The success of the Russian Revolution, the overthrow of the Romanovs and the declaration of the temporary Russian government that it recognized Polish self–government hastened the process of turning over power in the country to the Poles. They formed a Polish government with Jan Kochoszewski [?] at its head. His hatred of Jews dated from the times when thanks to Jewish voices he lost the election to the Fourth Duma. He quickly announced that a solution had to be found to the Jewish problem. But he avoided clarifying how the search for a solution should be conducted. But we felt sure that the solution would not be to the good of the Jews.

Meanwhile the American Expeditionary Army came to France, and Germany, after a hard struggle, surrendered. The new German government freed Pilsudski from the Magdeburg Prison and he returned to Warsaw. Soon the signal was given for a decisive action. In Lublin was proclaimed the establishment of a Polish government as the culmination of a temporary regime that was made up of socialists and workers. In Warsaw, Pilsudski assumed power and mobilized the members of the secret military organization P.A.V. and disarmed the German soldiers. They did not resist and voluntarily gave their arms to Pilsudski's followers. There were cases when individual German soldiers surrendered their weapons in the streets of Warsaw to young men that they encountered by chance, even minors, who made fun of them. But already in the early days of the Polish liberation, Poles began beating Jews in the streets of Warsaw, and this activity spread even to Wolomin.

 

“Beat the Jews!”

The organizers of the anti–Jewish excesses wanted to show the Jews that they were in their hands and they could no longer count on any strength to protect them. The Jews in Wolomin, just like the Jews in Warsaw, were not prepared for this development and had not organized any self–defense, and the Polish youth simply ran wild, openly grabbing Jewish pedestrians and beating them. Their motto was, “Long live Pilsudski, beat the Jews.!”

Among the representatives of the new power in Wolomin were followers of Pilsudski and the Endecja [the National Democratic Party, a rightist, anti–Semitic party], and there was the danger that both sides would compete in oppressing the Jews. The mood was strained. The Endecja screamed that Bolshevism was led by Jews. The Poles who had been repatriated from Russia, told frightening tales about the Jewish Bolsheviks, and these stories further poisoned the air in the Jewish cities and shtetls. People felt this particularly sharply in Wolomin, where the Endecja had special strength.

The Jews in Wolomin felt oppressed, discriminated against, and unsure about the future. Markowski, the rightist leader in the national council, although he and I had coexisted well personally, did everything he could politically to further the aims of his party. He gave a clear accounting that in the air was the distinct possibility of a civil war between Pilsudski's socialist followers and the Endecja, who had mobilized all their strength, called mass gatherings, and in their propaganda stressed the Jewish moment. The conquering powers supported Paderewski and Dmowski because they feared that Pilsudski might follow the path of the Russian Revolution.

Finally this convinced the Pilsudski camp to enter a compromise with Paerewski, Dmowski, and Korfanty. Maratshewski's government resigned and in its place came Paderewski, who had gained the confidence of the Americans and they had promised him help. The socialists and the radical peasants had pulled back. A few of Pilsudski's followers remained in the government.

This compromise also had an effect on the attitude toward the Jews. I then intended that the Polish councilors of various parties, like others in the Polish intelligentsia who had influence over the populace, should receive information that was not published in the Polish newspapers, though one could read it between the lines. I directed much attention to gathering reports from the foreign delegations from the conquering countries who sought to help Poland both economically and militarily. Among them were influential Jews, and they raised the questions of equal rights for the Jewish minority. This restrained the anti–Semitic tendencies in the government and in the Polish parliament.

The Endecja in Wolomin, who in the beginning had spoken openly about suppressing the rights of the Jews, came to understand that in these new conditions their slogan was out–of–date.

 

Battle for Jewish Rights

From the first days of my work in the Wolomin national–council I therefore fought for Jewish rights. I missed no opportunity to speak out about any decree that was directed against the Jewish inhabitants to weaken their status and to eject them from their already poor economic position.

There were, however, moments when I was helpless, especially when the decrees came from above, from the government in Warsaw, which feared that the shtetls, where Jews were in the majority, would cause power in the national council to fall into Jewish hands. The government therefore spread the idea of giving more to the little villages that were totally Polish. The Endecja in Wolomin took up this idea so that the Jews would have less representation in the national council. From a half, it became a third.

There arose a problem of the “LItvaks.” This is what people called the Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Russia that the Tsarist government had “imposed on” Poland, joining them together. The Endecja created this myth about a hundred thousand such Jews in Poland. Later they began to believe in it and they infected all the other parties with it.

Also in Wolomin Markowitsch's and Wojciechowski's people began to badger the Jews who came from Russia and sought the right to become citizens. Among the most active was Woiciechowski, former postmaster general in Wolomin.

Several times I had to intervene in such these matters. The problem also existed in Warsaw and other cities. It resonated as well outside the country, and thanks to the help of influential Jews pressure was put on Poland to accept the supplementary treaty along with the peace treaty. This treaty established as a principle that the Jews, who were citizens of the parts of the kingdoms that Poland had taken over, had the right to become Polish citizens.

When I met with representatives of the Polish parties, the Endecja and the socialists, they tried to take out their anger on me. They often repeated the accusations of the Polish side that the Jews had besmirched the name of Poland to foreigners. The Jews were guilty of making people regard Poland as a backward nation, without European culture, without a national tradition: a land that did not know how to treat properly its minorities. They accused me of being one of those who promoted stories of anti–Semitism and pogroms.

Dr. Tschoplitzki often said to me: “Poles are a magnanimous people, and you Jews accuse us of things that we don't do. You make a problem out of every incident and raise a cry throughout the world. You live here in Wolomin as if in the Garden of Eden. Who bothers you?”

My policy in discussions with the Polish community leaders was not to allow them to make me lose my poise or become angry. Fully under control and with a hint of a smile I answered him: “I hold you to your word, Doctor. You will soon have the opportunity to show your magnanimity in relation to the Jews.”

The supplementary treaty, which Poland was forced to accept, was not published in the legal code, so that it should not have internal legal power and could not be used as a foundation for the equal rights of the Jews. The majority of the Sejm [the Polish parliament] twisted the idea and made a formal ruling: whereas the “Litvaks,” as they called the naïve Polish Jews, had settled in Poland at the time of the Russian occupation, for them Poland was a foreign land, occupied, and therefore they had to register in special evidence–books in order to demonstrate that they acknowledged the distinctiveness of Poland. If they did not do so, they thereby declared their foreignness in the country and therefore could not become citizens. The current minister of the interior, Woiciechowski, from the peasant leaders in Congress Poland, wanted to create a stratum of Jews who were not citizens but residents who had all the duties but none of the rights of citizens.

Also people tried to create difficulties for me because I was a Russian citizen and therefore they wanted to close my factory in Wolomin, regardless of the fact that the place, together with the factory building, belonged to my father, who named it after his son–in–law, Wolf Krafman. When the war broke out, my brother–in–law moved the machinery to Ekaterinoslav, which is today called Dnieptopetrovsk. On this basis, when I came of age I took over the factory and established the iron foundry.

 

The Disputed Franchise

After the Poles took power, the Wolomin village leader Orlovsky did not want to give me the franchise for the foundry. One should note that in general Orlovsky, along with his assistant Fiatrovsky, was tolerant toward the Jews.

For a long time I suffered with this problem of the law, for anyone who was occupied with community activities for three years automatically became a Polish citizen, with all the rights of a citizen. So my many years of activity in Wolomin came to my aid, as did another consideration, that I had chaired a special commission. I was awarded the franchise.

The Jewish deputies in the Sjem led a spirited campaign against this law, but they won nothing except a little relief. In Wolomin the Endecja several times tried to raise this problem in the national assembly. But to my aid came Dr. Tschoplitski, from whom I had asked for the Polish magnanimity of which he had boasted.

The question of citizenship was left for later, after the peace treaty with Soviet Russia, according to which Poland took parts of the Pale of Settlement, in the north and south of Congress Poland. The same Tschoplitski said to me, half–proudly, half–sarcastically, “You see, six hundred thousand ‘Litvaks” have become Polish citizens…Will the Jews appreciate the generosity of the Polish people?”

The terror against the Jews, which began with the awakening of Poland, actually never stopped. The Halertshikes [?] would attack Jews and shave or pull out their beards and side–curls, often along with pieces of flesh. All signs pointed to a “hidden hand” that organized such happenings. The police took no action and did not defend the Jews. The higher powers also took no strong measures. They denied that these were organized attacks. They called them “pranks” by soldiers

Such things happened also in the streets of Wolomin, in the depot, and in the trains. There were days when it was dangerous for a Jew with a beard and side–curls to appear in the street.

When the war with the Red army began, the affliction became worse. Anti–Semitic agitation in the military was rampant and had as its purpose to portray the Russian Bolshevist as a Jew or as someone sent and supported by the Jews. Trotsky became the symbol of Russian communism. The Polish soldiers who passed through Wolomin distributed caricatures of Trotsky as a Mephisto sitting on a pile of heads and smiling sarcastically and self–satisfied. In Wolomin, as in many other towns, there were reverberations from the shooting of the Plotzk rabbi as a spy.

 

False Accusations

Once again stories against the Jews began to circulate among Wolomin's Polish population, stories connecting them to the enemy through underground telephones for transmitting military secrets. Again people concocted rumors about Jewish traitors and about the joy with which Jews greeted the knowledge that the Red army would take all of Poland and would come to Wolomin. The Polish councilmen still tried to be considerate and in my presence did not repeat the accusations. Still, I felt the pogrom–feeling. It created a mob psychology, which affected everyone: to rob, to burn, to murder. They knew that people did so in other towns.

In those days I gave an accounting of the great danger. There were some people who begged me that I should not get too involved, that I should stay for a few weeks in Warsaw. In the big city, they thought, there would be less danger. But I felt that my presence in Wolomin was necessary and I tried to engage more with the Polish community leaders and direct our conversations toward the situation of the Jewish population. At first it was difficult for them to say openly to me what they thought about the Jews, but gradually they opened their mouths and spoke about settling accounts. I listened attentively to the different variations of the collective slanders and malice. From contempt and derision they turned to anger and threats.

Their response was no surprise to me and I never lost my poise, but calmly and in a dignified way I showed them that typifying a people as traitors and only secondarily as moral is arbitrary, and also that even good people give little thought to how much they offend with such awkward generalizations. When I began to list the names of Wolomin Jews whom everyone knew to be excellent and moral people, some brought up Bialystok, among other cities in White Russia, where Jews shot at Polish soldiers or poured hot water from the roofs onto passing soldiers.

Collective slander and collective malice were a curse at that time. Collective malice requires a collective enemy. The whole Jewish people was considered responsible for the defeats of the Polish military. Hatred is hooliganism moralized, and hooliganism is in the first rank of tools to be used against better people, against a weaker community. If a people form a cult of hooliganism, they initiate their own downfall, no matter how large and strong their country may be.

All of these thoughts I expressed in my conversations with the Poles, among whom were stubborn members of the Endecja, and they lowered their heads. One of them tried to use the usual anti–Semitic trope “If all Jews were like you…” I told them how hateful it is to hear such words from educated people who see with their own eyes the lives of their Jewish neighbors, who would take part, with all their strength, in the struggle against a common enemy. In Warsaw, young Jewish students would willingly have joined the Polish army, but the regiments declared that they would not fight alongside the Jews, whom they considered as communists and enemies of Poland.

 

Discrimination

The state of Jewish security in the first years of the new Poland was quite bad. In the Sejm the Jewish representatives, led by Yitzchak Grinboym, conducted an unceasing struggle against the anti–Semitic policies of the government. After the victory over the Red army, the anti–Semitism was a bit weakened; the terror inflicted by the army and by mobs declined. But it did not end completely. The anti–Semites redoubled their efforts to expel Jews from their economic positions.

This was all reflected, in a smaller way, in Wolomin. Such high taxes were imposed on Jewish merchants that they could barely pay them. Such discrimination was overt. Jewish merchants and shopkeepers were audited, suffered confiscations, and were placed in the highest bracket for paying taxes.

Polish officials did all of this under the guise of alleged legality. Seeing what kind of catastrophes this behavior could cause, I devoted myself intensively to studying the laws and administrative writings so that I could fight against every violation of the laws by the officials in the various government and municipal offices. In a number of cases I was successful. If I had not known how to conduct this business considerately, to give attention to the pitiful state of the Jewish merchant, I would have demanded that the officials stick strictly to the laws and by–laws, which often contained paragraphs devoted to the welfare of the Jews, ordering that Jews be treated no worse than Christian merchants.

In the course of my work in the Wolomin city council, I stood by the principles and aims that I had set forth: to fight against discrimination against the Jewish residents, to oppose unjust taxes, to look after the needs of the Jewish populace, to support Jewish institutions in the same proportion as the Polish. From the beginning I did not want to allow my work to become mere intercession. In the name of what was right, of what the constitution had guaranteed to minorities, I fought against every individual injustice and against injustice in general.

The Sejm and the Polish government were forced to include in the constitution paragraphs that had been imposed by the peace treaty. But as soon as they had done so, their practical interpretations turned those paragraphs into empty words. So it was with the election laws, which had not limited the rights of the Jews, but the election districts were divided in such a way that the Jews could have no more than four or five representatives in the Sejm. If the Jews formed a bloc with the other minorities in order to ensure a larger representation in proportion to their population in the country, they would have provoked the anger and hatred of the people of Wolomin. “You have shown again that you are our enemies”–Markovski said to me when the press published the treaty. Even more bitter was the anger when in the first election for the Polish president the bloc united the parties on the left. As a result, Narutowicz, who was later murdered, was elected.

 

Jewish Life–A Thorn in the Eyes of Jew Haters

In those days, when I appeared in the national council, the Endecja councilmen greeted me with anger and complaints, yelling that it was unacceptable that a minority, supported by Jews, should rule in Poland. This was an assault on the higher interests of the Polish people.

“You are blind with hatred,” I answered them, “and you do not recognize how the hatred harms yourselves and the interests of the country.” I illustrated my arguments with facts both from my town and from other cities in Poland where Jews helped to build the country, the industry, the whole economy.

However, in those circumstances anti–Semitism was the deciding factor in all issues that related to Jews. Actually, the higher authorities were aware of the great harm that anti–Semitism caused in both the political and economic development of the country. There was even a moment when they sought a way to bring about a modus Vivendi with the Jews and they began to hold negotiations with the Jewish representatives in the Sejm, but they were incapable of upholding the small assurances that they had given. This took place in the later years. In the meantime, anti–Semitism flourished in all its forms and embittered the lives of the Jews. Even more than in the big cities, it was felt by the Jews in the little shtetls, where Jewish life was a thorn in the eye of the enemies of Israel.

Together with learning the laws and administrative writings I also learned the story of the Polish economy, and in my presentations I often had occasion to cite examples from this history. I used every opportunity to enlighten the Polish intelligentsia in Wolomin about how much Poland should take an interest in the abilities of its Jewish citizens. In the eighteenth century Poland was the most backward country in Europe. An exception was the Balkan countries that were under Turkish rule. Poland was backward even in comparison to Russia, which was further from central Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia had its own industry and a class of industrial bourgeoisie and rich merchants. The great merchant class had extended its activities into the southern regions that Russia had taken from Turkey. At the same time, Poland was mired in internal political conflicts, suffering a moral and cultural decline, and weakened militarily, the rebellions of the Ukrainians had continued without cease since the Chmielnitzki rebellion in the mid–seventeenth century. Over eighty–five percent of the population of Poland was engaged in agricultural work. Not more than five percent was engaged in industry, business, and production. The remaining ten percent were in the military, the civil service, or the clergy, along with loafers, prisoners, and beggars. In economic terms, the most backward part of Poland was the Warsaw area. The greatest economic area there was alcohol production.

In that era, Wolomin was still a village. Since over thirty–six percent of the Jewish population in the duchy of Warsaw lived in villages, occupied with business, with buildings and workshops, teachers and clergy were not more than two percent of the employed. The situation of the peasants in the village and of the workers in the city was miserable. A feudal lifestyle ruled the land. However, rather than freeing themselves from the feudal regime, freeing up the creative strengths of the country, using Jewish energy, Jewish dynamism, their talents and connections with Western Europe, the Poles went to war with…the Jews.

“Are not the Jews, then, the most appropriate target for a joint war for Poland's economic development?” I asked the Wolomin Endecja councilmen and showed them the great usefulness that Jews brought in the era of industrialization of Poland and the rapid development of commerce in the nineteenth century. The economy at that time was almost separate from politics, and although the Jews at that time were not citizens with full rights, that did not prevent them from taking a leading role in industrial and financial developments, which played a central role in the economic development of all of Congress Poland. The Jews were the first to bring the initiative, the talent, and also international connections that helped mobilize the necessary capital for developing the country's economy.

“See what the Jews have made of Warsaw,” I shouted in a discussion with the Endecjas. “From the most backward city in Europe it has become one of the most beautiful. Anyone who knows Polish history knows how great a role the Jews have played in the development of Poland.”

They knew that this was the truth. They saw it, too, in Wolomin, but jealousy and hate were stronger than logic. After the war, Poland had become weak and poor and subject to great dangers. And it really needed Jewish initiative.

 

A Home in Bleak Fields

At that time Jewish refugees began to stream to Poland from the Ukraine and central Russia. The greatest stream flowed toward Warsaw, but the city was closed to them. The city council feared the influx of Jewish refugees, even though they were only in transit, with the intention of continuing their flight, mostly to America and South America.

The leaders of the Jewish community in Warsaw felt responsible for the exile of these Jewish refugees, but despite all their efforts, they could not break through the wall of hatred. In regard to the smaller towns, too, the Endecja members in the national assembly stood opposed to the admission of Jewish refugees from Russia.

In an attempt to counter this attitude in the Wolomin council, the community leaders in Warsaw asked me to undertake a project to allow the refugees entrance into Wolomin.

I quickly began to deal with the Endecja councilmen, expecting that the greatest opposition would come from them. Markowski, whom I approached first because I knew he had the greatest influence, at first angrily opposed my proposal. His first words were, “What? We don't already have enough Zhid–commies?”

It seemed like I was confronting an iron wall of Endecja hatred for Jews and Bolsheviks, a wall that could not be broken through. At that moment I felt like I wanted to leave him and seek understanding from other councilmen and to form with them a majority voice in the national assembly, where I intended to place the matter on the agenda. But our conversation went on. I spoke of the exile of the eternal wanderers who could find no friendly welcome on Polish soil. Despite the fact that they were fleeing from Communist oppression, people called them communists, not understanding that they were united in the battle against the communist camp and they wanted no more that a place to rest as they fled from the Ukrainian murderers, to regain their strength, to take care of formalities and then continue wandering, seeking a coast where they could anchor and build a home in bleak fields.

Suddenly I noticed a muscle move on his military countenance. But he remained silent. I decided to appeal to his practical sense. At that time in Wolomin several Christian businesses had opened dealing in food and other commodities. They benefited from a variety of privileges, sponsored by the Endecja, in an attempt to supplant the Jewish merchants and shopkeepers. This attempt did not succeed because the Christian merchants could not compete with the Jews and the Polish customers preferred to buy at the lower prices offered by Jews. I depicted for him the revival that such a mass of refugees would bring to commerce. They would come not to settle, not to open their own businesses, but while they were here they would buy from the local merchants and would be a gold mine for the local economy.

After a longer discussion, I finally got his agreement, but when the matter was discussed in the city council, to my great surprise, opposition came from the side of the socialist councilmen of the PPS. Their opposition to admitting refugees was motivated by the fear of shortages that would be caused by the influx of so many people.

They were, however, in the minority, while a majority of voices agreed to allow the Jewish refugees to come to Wolomin.

 

Jewish Refugees Bring New Life

Several thousand refugees thus came to Wolomin, and the Jews welcomed them with the greatest warmth. Many lived in houses that had been abandoned during the World War. The people of Wolomin welcomed others into their own apartments and shared their homes with them, doing whatever they could to help the newcomers find a temporary rest.

It became clear that that rest would not last a few weeks or months. Everyone estimated that it would last for years, until they received papers that would allow them to move on. We, the leaders of the Jewish community in Wolomin, did everything we could to fashion a favorable environment.

Among the refugees who came to Wolomin were many interesting people who had a long history of communal work. Among them were some who had fought for Jewish rights in Czarist Russia and, later, among the Bolsheviks, sacrificing themselves to their work.

During those years when these Jews were in Wolomin, they brought life to the shtetl. Their experience was instructive for the Jewish leaders in Wolomin. From them we learned everyday wisdom, tact, and enthusiasm to revive the economy of our shtetl.

I can't remember everyone's name, but even now I remember many conversations, descriptions and tales about their experiences and about their community work. I, like the other community leaders in Wolomin, learned much from them. One of the leading Zionists from Russia described for me a scene that played out at a conference of Jewish community leaders soon after the February Revolution in 1917: the first democratic government had just rescinded all the restrictions and decrees against the Jews. It seemed that a peaceful time of independence was beginning for the Jewish population. In this context, one of the participants in the conference declared, “Now our work is done!” But immediately one of the Russian Zionist called out from his seat with full determination, “For us the work is only now beginning!”

The community leaders of Wolomin knew how right that Zionist activist was. The Zionists were the first victims of the ongoing stormy developments. At first the Bolsheviks were preoccupied by their own problems, and it seemed that they gave no thought to the Zionists, but almost immediately there began a war against the Jewish counter–revolution, and attacks commenced against Zionists throughout Russia, everywhere that Jews lived. The greatest fury was directed against the Jews in Moscow and Kiev. The Commissariat for Nationalistic Questions, which was then under the leadership of Stalin, distributed a circular in which Hebrew was declared a counter–revolutionary language. It was forbidden for children and young people to learn Hebrew. Systematic accusations against the Zionists as “counter–revolutionaries” and as spies for England began to appear. House searches and arrests were carried out. All Zionist organizations in the Kiev district were shut down. Zionist leaders were sentenced to long prison terms, even without trials.

 

Committee Leaders

One of the refugees who settled here in Wolomin was Greenberg, who, in the time of Kerensky's government, was the head of the community in Kiev. When I think about him, I picture a man who had powerfully and for many years immersed himself in Jewish tradition and community activities.. He was full of Jewish wisdom and Jewish folklore. He was completely suited to lead the Jewish refugee committee that we had organized in Wolomin. However, since he lacked Polish citizenship, he could not serve as the leader of any organization. It was therefore necessary that I serve as the official chairman of the committee, but in fact he was the soul of the whole committee. His brother was, on his wife's side, a relative of the banker Shereshevski, and he remained in Wolomin for his whole life. His daughter was the famous singer Vera Green.

Working together with Greenberg was for me a university education. His mind was always awake and active and he was a total Jew, a total mentsch, with a thousand examples of how our ancestors survived troubles, persecutions, and evil decrees, how they lived and thought. He quickly recognized our Polish neighbors, particularly the ways in which they lurked around Jews like vicious wolves in the night. He had a fighting spirit, which seemed to hide under the comforting Jewish folk sayings that fell from his lips. He reacted to everything and had no fear for his life. Through all his days he struggled heroically with life, with the historic hatred for the Jewish people, with the difficult conditions of the bloody revolution, with the Bolshevik hatred for Judaism and with the anti–Semitism that flourished among the Polish people.

Among the leading figures on the committee was also Gorenshteyn, the former community head in Proskurov, a Jewish with a quick mind, cautious but trusting, with a warm Jewish heart.

There were also among the refugees yet other dear Jews with a developing flair for community work. Unfortunately I cannot remember their names, but the memory of their self–sacrificing generosity still lives in my memory. Even more than I recall the hearts, the thoughts, and the deeds of these people, I know that I bound myself to them; and this binding gave wings to my work and my struggle that I undertook to arrange their affairs and to shape the proper atmosphere for their life in the shtetl.

Soon after the first weeks of the refugees' arrival, one of the parties in the city council demanded that the refugees be expelled. They were motivated by the scarcities of goods, which really existed. The influx of thousands of people resulted in scarcities of products and of articles of daily use. The merchants consequently raised prices, which first affected the workers. There was a first hint that there would be unrest in the shtetl.

And it is also true that among the Jewish poor murmuring and complaints began because of the scarcities. But soon after the first conversations with them, everyone quickly came to an understanding and the complaints ceased.

 

The First Cooperative

We therefore had to come up with a plan to fight those scarcities. At a meeting of the refugee committee, Greenberg proposed a plan to found a cooperative that would take smaller profits and in this way dictate the prices at the markets, not allowing the prices to be raised on necessities. As a proponent of cooperation, I found Greenberg's proposal close to my heart.

Gifted with both initiative and energy, Greenberg undertook to make his thought a reality, and in a short time the cooperative was established.

The shtetl soon revived. Money regained its value. The murmuring and complaining of the Polish workers and the poor came to a halt. On the other hand, the Polish owners of the food shops went around with bowed heads, though a little while earlier they had made a profit by raising prices. Now they had to lower the prices because of the cooperative. Now the cooperative dealt in excellent products, which brought in customers.

In the shtetl people quickly recognized the excellent quality of the products, the outstanding merchandise. The cooperative grew, and the bigger the turnover, the easier it became to lower prices.

The effect of the cooperative was that life in Wolomin became easier, as it was in the nearby city of Warsaw..

Warsaw at that time was not only a center for small industry and workshops, in which many Jews worked. At the same time, Warsaw had become the center through which nearly half of the business of Congress Poland was conducted. The large Jewish merchants used Jewish employees, who, like the Jewish workers, were badly paid and were a lot less expensive than Polish workers.

It seemed different in Wolomin, where Jews worked in all the factories and were treated just like the Polish workers. Morally they profited from the full confidence of the factory owners.

In Warsaw I was often required to negotiate with the owners, who did not willingly take on Jewish workers and who often dismissed workers from their positions in order to take on Polish workers. They thought the Jewish worker was too smart and calculated the profits of the factory, seeking to lighten the labor and increase the wages at the expense of the boss, while showing no humility. The Christian workers showed respect for the boss not only in the factory where they worked but also when they met in the street, bowing and stepping aside, while the Jew offered not even a “Good morning.”

More than once I became irritated when I heard such words about Jews. From my experiences in Wolomin I knew the Jews to be industrious workers. The Jewish factory owners in Wolomin did not expect humility from either their Jewish or their Polish workers, but they received respect and gratitude. The Wolomin Jews understood how to estimate the earnings of the Jewish factory owners in terms of reviving industry in the shtetl and helping to create the impression of growth and construction.

Things grew worse with the Polish workers and overseers, who often showed their anti–Semitism, their ill will toward their Jewish colleagues. The overseers did not want to teach skills to the Jewish workers. We did not know how to force the overseers, because they often became threatening due to the shortage of specialists.

A special problem was working on Shabbos. But in my time there was not a in Wolomin a single Jew who had to work in the factory on Shabbos. The boss of the factory created no difficulties. It hit him in his pocketbook, because he was left with no more than five workers.

Certainly the stream of refugees, whom the Polish populace had so feared, brought with them a revival. Small businesses and workshops developed, which strengthened our ties with Warsaw.

 

Restored Houses and New Houses

In Wolomin at that time there were many ruined buildings that were abandoned by the Germans and the Russians. People renovated and restored them, and there were also many new houses which were constructed by Jewish contractors. The Jewish entrepreneurial spirit was aroused. Wolomin excelled also in an awakening business life. There were a variety of associations and institutions to help those in need.

There were also a few Zionists, but at first they lacked organized activities. They existed as if in the era of “shivas Tzion,” the first form of the modern Zionist movement, which the “Litvaks” brought to Warsaw. A few Jews in Wolomin read the “Hazefirah,” which Nahum Sokolov edited. In the beis–hamedrish there was even a conflict between the Chasidim and a few young men who were taken with Zionism.

At that time I often met with Yitzchak Grinboym, with Hartman, with Dr. Levita and we spoke about organizing Zionist activities in Wolomin. Their words are engraved in my memory: that the struggle of Polish Jewry is in fact a struggle against retreat, which had no prospect of winning, and the highest priority is not to allow ourselves to be crushed by Polish anti–Semitism. The war of Polish Jewry is a Zionist war. If we wanted to create a sovereign fatherland in Eretz Yisroel, we had to lead the struggle of Polish Jewry, which was the largest Jewish settlement in Europe, and therefore we had to fight for the national goals of the Polish Jew, not allowing him to be overcome by Polish anti–Semitism.

Consequently I proceeded to lead in organizing and cementing the Zionistically inclined Jews in Wolomin, both old and young. The organization went by the name of “Tarbus.”

 

The First Community Election

In 1925, when the order went out that Jews should conduct elections for the community, I received official instructions from Yitzchak Grinboym to organize the election activities in Wolomin with the goal of strengthening the Zionist influence in the community.

Like a disciplined member, I undertook the task with my whole youthful energy and idealism. At a time when Zionism was already strong in Warsaw, lively and vital, our organization in Wolomin was poor enough. Most of the Jewish population were sympathetic to the Chasidim, to the religious Jews, and the Bund. For them, Zionism was a movement that had rebelled against the reality in which they felt anchored. Truly, there were some who showed courtesy and even respect to our call for redemption, for great deeds. But they did not perceive in us the strength to realize those deeds, and they therefore clung to the old ways of life.

In Wolomin, that way of life was orthodox. The whole administration was in the hands of the rabbi and a group of leading citizens who helped him keep the books. No one controlled them and no one was interested in how the municipal administration was conducted.

Being occupied with the merchants' association that I had formed, I took almost no interest in the municipal administration. Chasidic Jews also belonged to the merchants' association. On the managing committee were outstanding leading citizens, like Shpiegelman, the owner of a tannery, Itshe–Meyer Markusfeld, a wood–merchant, and others from the Ger and Alexanader Chasidim who belonged to the Agudas Yisroel. From the misnagdim and the unaffiliated, the most notable was R' Nehamiah Mandelberg, an excellent man to whose words people paid close attention. The Ger Chasidim had the most influence in town, who were led by R' Moyshe Grodzhitzki. From the Alexander Chasidim there was Mattes Teyblus.

When the election activities began, they were thoroughly discussed in our merchants' association. We had to make clear that it was essential to elect people with a worldly education who would be capable of representing us externally, so that the community could present a disciplined strength, which would reflect the Jewish settlement in the town.

I began to enlist active Zionists in community affairs, but meanwhile I was notified that in the beis–hamedrash certain leading citizens intended to nominate me as a candidate for the community administration. At first they met much opposition from the congregation, whose opposition was motivated by the fact that I was not religious, that I violated Shabbos.

My supporters, however, did not give up and demanded that the opposition bring proof that I violated Shabbos. No one could bring such proof. No one had ever seen me violate Shabbos in public. From my earliest years, I had been careful not to offend religious feelings.

This struggle went on behind my back. No one approached me officially. Only later did I learn the course of the roiling action that my backers conducted without my knowledge. A delegation travelled to consult with Rabbi R' Itshe–Meyer Levin, who was involved with the politics of the Ger Chasidim. The Ger Chasidim consulted with him about whether they should nominate me as a member of the council despite my being a Zionist.

R' Yitzchak–Meyer Levin, I was given to understand, could not decide on a clear response. On one side the Chasidim urged the usefulness of choosing me for the Jewish populace and for the Jewish merchants. But on the other side it was difficult for him to give a clear approval to select a Zionist in the community. He therefore hinted, “See what the other Jews do and do the same thing.”

This was a hint that on the part of the rabbi there was no objection to choosing me as representative on the Wolomin Jewish council.

Thus came the first election for the Jewish community, the first organized community in Wolomin. For the first time, the Wolomin Jews were able to choose their own representatives, four representatives and a chairman, , who would guide the economic and community life. The representatives, with the approval of the rabbi, chose me as chairman.

Of the ten thousand Jews who lived in Wolomin, about three thousand could vote in the election. All who took part in the Jewish life of Poland found a warm welcome in Wolomin, and then came the influx of Russian Jews, most of whom were energetic, motivated, and good exemplars and gave the shtetl color and dynamism.

Around Wolomin were many villages that constituted a large population who, during the war, lacked clothing and shoes, as well as other necessities. Wolomin's Jews became the suppliers for the peasant population and also the buyers of their agricultural products.

 

The First Zionist Organization

The first Zionist organization, the Tarbus, worked hard to create a real community among the Jews of Wolomin. It undertook cultural activities. Young people held spirited debates about problems in literature and culture and over national questions. Speakers came from Warsaw and delivered lectures that interested the Jewish young people. They organized evenings when there were lectures from members of the Keren Hayisod or from other Zionist organizations. Mr. Einshteyn from Keren Hayisod in Warsaw also came.

Initiating these activities in the community was not easy. We established a meeting house on Mikveh Street and gradually began to integrate all segments of the Jewish community.

The work appeared to be more difficult and complicated than we had thought. I had the idea of creating an ad hoc group of ten members who were recommended by the council members. Although they had no public voice, they gave a greater sense of cooperation. These ad hoc representatives demonstrated community responsibility. At their head were Moyshe Grodzhitzki, Mattes Teyblum, Shpiegelman, and Nehamiah Mandelberg.

The new community managing committee paid special attention to matters of hygiene. Its first focus was the mikveh, which we undertook to reconstruct and beautify.

 

The Talmud Torah

Another focal point was the Talmud Torah, which was led by Goldvasser. He was one of the five teachers at that time. Like one of the ten ad hoc committee members, Goldvasser understood how to consider the special problems that confronted the Talmud Torah, and he always met the committee with open ears and willingness to help them understand. Goldvasser's daughter lives in Israel.

This willingness to clarify the problems of Jewish life in the shtetl was also felt in other areas. It also created a working relationship with the clergy. Monthly payments were established for the rabbi and the slaughterers. The rabbi, R' Volf Bergazen, often took part in our meetings and showed interest in our work of determining the variety of problems.

 

Linas Hatzedek and Bikur Cholim

Like all Jewish shtetls, Wolomin had a whole array of helping organizations that displayed a characteristic warmth. At the head of such organizations was Amchal–Yidn, who showed such warmth in their work. So, too, was the group “Linas ha–tzedek.” The members of this group went nightly to visit the ill and care for their needs, from prescriptions to the need for a bed. One should not forget that many people in Wolomin lived in wretched apartments. Members of the group went to those apartments to bring aid to the ill.

Other touching help activities were conducted by the groups “Bikur cholim,” “Hachnesses kallah,” and “Hachnesses–orchim.” Their organizers and members were simple people with warm Jewish hearts. They often came to the community seeking help for others, and although the community's budget could not support every item, I did all I could to support the poor. I promoted in the council subsidies for institutions and support for poor individuals.

In principle, every Jewish inhabitant was supposed to pay a special tax for the community. So, too, did those who did not live in Wolomin but had real property. Those people actually did pay. At the same time, we exempted from paying those who were known to work for a living.

In Wolomin, people used to give a great deal of charity to Jewish causes and donate to Jewish societies. Writers would arrive or rabbis with their treatises, and no one ever went away empty handed.

 

Factories and Glassworks

In Wolomin there were factories and glassworks that belonged to Jewish owners, and we would levy heavy taxes on them. For the most part, they showed understanding of our needs and paid regularly. But there were also cases of opposition, when some refused to meet the obligations that the community had laid on them. Then I had to intervene personally, to speak to their consciences, to show them the responsibilities of the community for those who had arrived in need. I cannot remember a single time when my words fell on deaf ears.

There was in a Wolomin a glasswork factory that was co–owned by Flanzreich and Ringlevski, whose name was really Ringleblum. During the war he had worked as my agent. Later on he met a Polish governess. There was mutual love. He abandoned Judaism and married her. And it paid off for him. Her father was the director of the state monopoly and gave his son–in–law the concession for making bottles for the monopoly.

For this business of collecting bottles, Ringleblum–Ringlevski took on as his partner Yishayahu Flalnzreich. The business went well. They made a lot of money and eventually bought the glassworks that had been standing empty. Other glassworks followed.

In collecting the community tax from Flanzreich, we encountered a big problem. His annual tax amounted to three thousand zlotys, which he claimed was too much. His partner in the glassworks was the apostate Ringlevski, who did not belong to the Jewish community, and therefore the entire amount fell to him.

Flanzreich was the director and owner of the huge factory. He, a native of Vilna, brought up in Moscow, had organized in Wolomin a huge factory before the First World War. When the war broke out, they moved back to Moscow. Later they returned, and as a result of our discussions, he showed great understanding of business matters. That understanding was strengthened when we began to undertake Zionist activities.

Zalkin was then the owner of the tannery, Shpiegelman and Lifshitz of the brickyard, and there were others whom I taxed heavily, having explained to them how great was their duty to bear this yoke for the needy in the Jewish community.

Understand that this did not come easily to me. At first I encountered opposition because this was such a big demand as an addition to the taxes from the city, from the government. Their opposition came as no surprise, but I explained to them how vital it was to complete the building of the Talmud Torah, which needed several thousand zlotys.

I devoted a lot of attention to Flanzreich. I succeeded in having a talk with him, because I had known his father, had done business with them when they had dealt in scrap iron and cast iron that they sold to the factories that had been established in 1916. They helped their father with his business.

They were the most respectable merchants of cast iron. And surely that respectability helped him advance, until he was quite rich and built up his partnership with Ringlevski.

I remember that we once met on the train to Warsaw. He sat down in the car next to me and began to complain that it was not fair for the community organization to tax him so heavily. He appealed to my sense of justice and asked me to put myself in his place, since his apostate partner would not contribute to the Jewish community.

I let him talk and then gave him to understand the difficult economic situation of the Jewish community in Wolomin, where there was such great Jewish poverty. The sharp, hard expression on his face began slowly to relax. A good–natured light appeared in his eyes. I saw clearly how his Jewish feelings flickered and aroused his curiosity about the workings of the Jewish community in the shtetl. He asked me questions, and I answered, clarified, and explained to him the work of the special segments of community life, the battle against rising anti–Semitism, and the struggle for physical and spiritual survival.

The conversation lasted until we descended from the train, left the station, and walked in the streets of Warsaw. It seemed as if the Jew, who all his days had devoted himself to business and to working, had suddenly opened his eyes and seen before him another world, a world of spirituality, a higher sphere that held the power of Jewish existence.

He no longer complained about the high taxes. When I said that with his money he helped establish the Talmud Torah and in one of the classrooms there would be a plaque inscribed with his name, his eyes lit up and I saw the change that overcame him. His promise to help sounded sincere.

He kept to that promise. We often discussed with rich Jews the dreams of the Hibat Tzion and Jewish national feelings. There were some who held those to be dangerous dreams for the Jews of Poland. In the early days of Poland's rebirth, many thought that democracy and tolerance would flourish. Those for whom things went well became rich and all doors were open for them.

Flanzreich's case was not unique, and he showed the conditions under which we came to build the Talmud Torah. The law was that every member of the Jewish community must pay the community tax. But I figured that in Wolomin there were many Jews who could not pay. Clearly I could not take upon myself to be in charge of the taxes, and therefore I called together the whole council, among whom were representatives of every stratum so that they knew every inhabitant and could assess the ability of each individual, small sums and large, so that we could put together a budget like a real community.

The collecting of the taxes I suggested we turn over to the government official Yakubian, who collected both the national and the city taxes. My suggestion was accepted, but the official was not eager to come collecting from the Jews after collecting all the other taxes. Many of Wolomin's Jews did not know that paying the community taxes was a governmental law and at first they laughed at the community's documents. Yakubian had no sense, and if someone did not pay, he seized that person's Shabbos candlesticks or other items that he found in their home. Understandably, the first reaction of the Jews was to come running to me in my factory with moans and groans: “What gives? Why did they take my Shabbos candlesticks?”

I immediately understood that tragedies could be brewing, so I quickly ordered the government official to return the confiscated items. I began to acquaint him with the situations of certain Jewish inhabitants and showed him that there truly were some who could not pay even the smallest taxes. A middle–aged woman asked me, “Pan Sigalov, what should I do, buy shoes for my children who go barefoot or pay the taxes?” I answered, “Buy shoes for the children.”

Shortly thereafter I assembled the council, presented them with the problem and explained that we had not correctly calculated the ability of the taxpayers. Voices were heard saying that my estimate was wrong, that the people who came complaining to me actually had the ability to pay the minimal taxes.

 

Reforms in the Community Administration

As time passed, I saw the necessity for reforming the structure of the community administration. The bookkeeper for the community, Krasutski, was a partner in a mill, and I maintained that in his place should be someone who was unemployed, like Sapershtein, a good bookkeeper. Krasutski was understanding and gave up his place for Sapershtein.

Such cases occurred often in the shtetl and thanks to cooperative efforts the Jews of Wolomin showed real understanding for the administrative demands of the Jewish community.

These demands led me to change the structure of community revenues. We succeeded in carrying out the principle of oversight for ritual slaughtering, which brought in enough revenue to cover the expenses of the clergy. This increased the revenue of the community.

I also had to settle conflicts, most of all with the butchers. There was even a lawsuit over a butcher who assaulted me. They gave him a huge fine, but in response I declared that I forgave the assault. This caused great joy. People threw a huge Kiddush and there was peace between the community and the butchers; and consequently a larger percentage of Jewish inhabitants were freed from paying the community taxes without harming the budget.

A question arose about hiring an official rabbi. In truth, at first I was against it. I feared it would not fit into our budget. We could hardly afford to subsidize various cultural activities led by Zionist organizations, as well as by the Bund, and they had become a real support for the community.

Jews in Wolomin, as in other towns in Poland, had great hopes he spoke for the victory of Pilsudski's military coup d'etat, which had ended the power of the Endecja and their allies on the right. But after the victory, events began to develop in another direction. Pilsudski himself did not want to become president on the basis of the constitution. The Sejm was not dissolved. Professor Moscicki was elected president. Professor Bartel became prime minister. In his speech describing his program, he talked about a change in attitudes toward minorities, assuring that the regime would not employ any anti–Semitic methods in the economy, because they would be harmful to the whole country. Many Jews saw here the announcement of a new era for the Jewish population.

Mild winds for the Jews blew in the ministries and offices, which were quickly felt in daily life. Still, there were some who did not want to hear about Zionism. They had no love for Eretz Yisroel. What kind of Jew has no love for Zion? But even in hard times they thought more about America and other lands. The most fervent love for Eretz Yisroel was shown by the youth.

The good times in Poland did not last long. The anti–Semitism that had never really disappeared, again showed its face, grew strong in the high schools and burst forth in the towns and shtetls, and it did not bypass Wolomin.

At that time I often met with Yitzchak Grinboym, who used to speak out in the Sejm with sharp words. In private conversation, he predicted harder times. He encouraged me to lead an array of Zionist activities in Wolomin. He saw this as the only way to rescue the Jewish people.

The fact that Wolomin was so close to Warsaw, tied to the big city both economically and socially, had both positive and negative aspects. Wolomin's Jews were not small–town people, having in their thoughts and actions something of the zest of the big city, but at the same time people in Wolomin felt every political shift and the steps that were taken in the economic war against the Jews, which later received the open approval of the prime minister, General Sklodkovski, with his well–known slogan: “Economic war against the Jews–by all means.”

January, 1943, marked the understanding between Poland and Hitler's Germany. After Pilsudski's death in 1935, the attachment to Hitler's Germany became even stronger. It was not long before Jews felt the effects. Anti–Semitic agitation increased, and the Jews in Wolomin became the victims of an economic boycott. The Jews became impoverished, and the resources of the Jewish community shrunk from day to day. In the air it seemed like dark clouds were gathering in the Polish skies.

 

The Onset of Zionist Activities

Quite soon we began fundraising campaigns for Keren Hayisod, and although we were a small group of Zionists, we collected large sums. Keren Hayisod was one of the most important campaigns in Wolomin.

Finally we took steps to build the Tarbus building, for which we eventually organized a minyan for prayers, with a cantor who had a good voice, a real performer, so that the finest Jews of the shtetl came to pray, among them Dimant, Zalkin from Odessa, and other big shots who loved to hear the cantor pray and sing. On holidays, these big shots promised large donations for the Zionist causes.

On holidays we were also joined for prayers by the factory owners who lived in Warsaw but had villas in Wolomin. There were also progressive Jews, men who shaved their beards, and those who had not prayed for an endless number of Shabboses and week days.

In the thirties, a training program for young pioneers to Israel, both male and female, was formed, thanks to my allowing them to work in my foundry. Some of them also worked elsewhere. This program also influenced the beis–hamedrash boys, who began to think about undertaking more physical labor so that they would be prepared to make aliyah to Eretz Yisroel.

Members of the Agudah came to me complaining that I was ruining the Chasidic young men. Thanks to my understanding of religious Jews, it was difficult for me to accept these complaints. I answered one of them, “Remember, there will come a time when you will recall the hard work that is being done for Eretz Yisroel.”

So it happened when in a short time people in Wolomin took up communist activities, which also drew the young Chasidim. Opposition to the communist slogans was led by those who had been involved in Zionist activities. A large number of them, consequently, remained alive because they fulfilled their goal of making aliyah to Eretz Yisroel.

There was in Wolomin a rich Jew, Asman, who had a large business. When we would ask him for a donation for Keren Hayisod, he complained, “Will the goyim take me to Eretz Yisroel?”

The upshot was that his son ran away from home, joined the pioneer program, and made aliyah to Eretz Yisroel, where he did the hardest labors, building highways, carting manure. Today in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem there are synagogues, Shaarei–Tzedek and others, that were built from Asman's contributions to Eretz Yisroel and Keren Kayemes.

In Yisroel there are pioneers from the metal industry who learned their trade in my foundry in Wolomin. When my foundry budrned down and I became director of Dimant's metal factory, I also initiated Jewish young men in the work of the factory. I later met them in Tel Aviv and in Haifa, some as workers in a factory and others as owners of their own metalworks.

Not many are left alive from the beautiful Jewish community of Wolomin. Most of them live in Yisroel. They are employed in various sectors of business and labor, and it gives me great satisfaction to meet them and to feel the uniqueness of the Wolomin Jew that reminds us of the holy martyrs.

Today, years later, as we dwell in our fatherland, putting roots into our new reality, we turn to our memories with sorrow and moaning, but with tremendous love for the old places, for the past, as bitter as it may have been. The bitter memories are as holy for us as those that are beautiful and exalted.

 

Wol093.jpg
R' Haim Levita, ofer Setam [scribe]
Wrote Torah scrolls for synagogues in Wolomin and the area and for Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin

 

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Wołomin, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Jason Hallgarten

Copyright © 1999-2022 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 10 Mar 2019 by LA