A Yearning to Belong

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)

Connection Questions

How important is it to you to “look right”? To “act right”? Fit in? How do you feel when you don’t belong? How does it affect the way you think of yourself? The way others think of you? Who is most vulnerable to issues related to “in” and “out” group behavior: adolescents or young children?
What role did sports play in Poland during the 1920s? What role do sports play in the United States today? Why do you think rivalries disappear when there is a “common enemy”?

One young Jew recalls that he joined a Zionist youth group without giving much thought to the decision, but the group soon played a “dominant role” in his life:

Akiva tried to instill in us an altruistic philosophy, an altruistic outlook that we were asked to apply to both Jews and non-Jews. . . . My home life, my parents, served as models for behavior, as examples for me to imitate. They were not offering me any education in a formal way. This I received from Akiva, and a large part of it had to do with a special philosophy of life. I had a home but I also had a second home. . . .Every day I would go out, every evening I would come back late. But I was not unique in this respect. Others lived like this too. 3

What did his group provide that neither family nor teachers could offer?

After visiting the many “national” schools in Poland in the 1920s, Alfred Doeblin, a German writer of Jewish descent, expressed disappointment and sorrow:

They sit here in the schools, Ukrainians, Jews, White Russians, and whoever else. Their nations are torn apart. They are not permitted to develop as they wish. And now everything is twisted and wrong. They close themselves off, are spiritually overheated. And obsessed, obsessed. . . . Oh, all the hundred little languages! And history. I know how “history” is taught: megalomania is coupled with ignorance. I know how “freedom” is taught: with hatred toward the neighbor. National consciousness, national unconsciousness. . . .4

Education can help individuals learn to see the world from someone else’s perspective. To what extent did schools Doeblin describes break isolation? To what extent did they increase isolation? How did the youth groups help young people get to know one another? To what extent did they reinforce separation?

In reflecting on the effects of the nationalism he observed in Poland and in Germany, Alfred Doeblin wrote, “Who will gush over a nation—one is forced to say it—and not prefer turning his back on it today rather than tomorrow, if it practices slavery, if it does not do justice, if the people there know each other only in order to climb over each other? One loves a nation and a country for the sake of their values”. What does it mean to love a nation for the sake of its values? How is that different from those who believe “my country, right or wrong”? How is it different from those who believe “my country may it always be in the right, and if in the wrong, may I help to set it right”? Where do you stand on the issue?

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