Sholom Aleichem believed that before Jews could return to the Jewish land, they had to “return to the Jewish People.” It was an idea that struck a chord with Jews throughout Eastern Europe.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of young people, Jews and Christians alike, joined youth groups, clubs, unions and other organizations that sprang up throughout Poland. These groups gave members a sense of purpose and satisfied their yearning to belong.
One of the earliest of these groups in Poland was the General Union of Jewish Workers, a socialist party known as the Bund. It attracted thousands of young Jewish workingwomen and men. Members had their own schools, holidays, literature, and meeting places. A member described the group’s headquarters in Warsaw as a “beehive” with “meetings going on in all the rooms, the choir was rehearsing, the reading room was filled with people; one could hardly pass through the hallways.”
There were similar clubs in almost every village, town, and city. Borukh Yismakh grew up in Vishkov, a small community near Warsaw where politics often went hand-in-hand with sports. Every Jewish political party had not only its own schools and libraries but also its own soccer team. Players put aside their differences only when they played against a Polish team. “Then Maccabi and Gwiazda were in complete solidarity,” writes Yismakh. He looked back with particular pride at a trip his club took in the late 1920s:
Gwiazda (nearly the entire group), consisting of the men’s section, the women’s section, and the youth section, all in their own uniforms and bearing their sports equipment, marched from the center of town to the railroad station, from where they traveled to Poplava Station, and finally, in full uniform, into the town of Rozhan. Our arrival in Rozhan set off a virtual revolution. It was a pious town, which wasn’t used to seeing gangs of young men, young women, and children, who were dressed like soldiers but weren’t soldiers. The Jews ran to their rabbi to ask what was to be done about us. The rabbi decided that since it was just before the Sabbath, we were to be given a warm reception. We enjoyed ourselves that Saturday and Sunday. Monday evening, when we returned, a large crowd awaited us, and our march into town was a magnificent demonstration of Jewish strength and organization. 1
Yismakh also recalled a time when the Jewish clubs banded together against a gang of Poles who disrupted quiet evening strolls with shouts of “Jews to Palestine.” Jews who went out for a walk, Yismakh writes, “knew there were strong hands among them, ready to ward off any attack. There were times when we had to use our fists against hooligans who refused to calm down and go home. Our procedure was to first take them in hand and suggest that they stop, since they were bound to be unsuccessful this time anyway. Sometimes we managed to avoid further struggle; other times we had to punish them, and give them a taste of the water in the gutter, where we left them to sober up.” The strategy worked until the “hooligans” turned to the police for help. As tensions mounted, the self-defense group had to disband. As Yismakh put it, “We were capable of defending ourselves against hooligans, but we were no match for the police.”2
- 1 : Borukh Yismakh, “Sports Clubs and Self-Defense” in From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry, ed. and trans. Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyrain (Schocken Books, 1983), 62.
- 2 : Ibid., 63.
- 3 : Quoted in Nechama Tec, In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (Oxford University Press, 1990), 14.
- 4 : Alfred Doeblin, Journey to Poland, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (Paragon House, 1991)