Translated from the original in Yiddish by Jacob and son David Rothbart
In Two Parts:
Part One -
Gombin: Committee Meeting of the "Bund"
It was late spring in the year 1905. The grain was tall in the fields and soon ready for the harvest. It was mid-month and the moon was full, brilliantly revealing the slender stalks of rye, wheat, oats and barley. The stars twinkled in the sky. It was a most bewitching of Polish spring nights.
It befell on this night that a meeting was arranged for the leaders of our clandestine Gombin Jewish self-defense brigade. We agreed to meet outside the town near the windmill in the direction of Stzerbna, which was out the Langer Gass (Long Street), past the yatkes (butcher shops) and Resky's orchard; beyond the straw-roofed stodoles (barns) of the Polish "obivateles" and across the fertile fields to the windmill.
There began the "Stzerbner" highway which rambled through many villages, actually bypassing Stzerbna, turned left at the village of Yuleshev and down to the valley of the Vistula River.
The defense council was called to consider a matter of prime urgency. For some time rumors had circulated that a mob of Polish ruffians, many of them from Stzerbna, was planning a pogrom against the Jews of Gombin. The Stzerbna poirim (peasants) were tall and powerful and exceptionally anti-semitic. Now it was reported to us that they had set a definite date for the pogrom to begin.
We had good reason to hold our meetings in the concealment of woods and fields. Self- defense was one of our functions that fit in with a broader scheme. We were a group of youngsters who had caught the winds of revolutionary unrest that swept all the lands ruled by the Russian Czar. We were stirred by the polemic of Marx and the promise of socialism.
Our vigilance was threefold: First, against the police and their spies; then for our Polish neighbors, themselves downtrodden, who would both knowingly and unknowingly reveal to the Russians any happenings such as illegal assemblies; third, for our own Jewish elders who piously believed that "only God can help us." They admonished us to stay out of trouble until "Meshiach" (Messiah) will come and save us from all evil including pogroms. But we were determined activists. We were well aware of the terrible pogroms against the Jews at Kishinev, Bessarabia, in 1903, and at the White Russian city of Homell in 1904. In the latter instance, news of a spirited Jewish defense traveled far and inspired many groups such as ours to organize. We knew of the battle at "The Iron Gate," a market place in Warsaw where tough Jewish tradesmen repulsed an onslaught of "pogromchikes", in fact beat them so badly that many barely escaped with their lives.
We knew that Gombin was not immune from similar experiences. Local Polish woodcutters and others who performed manual services for Jews openly pointed to fancy candlesticks and other objects of value. "See," they would say, "that is what I will take from you when the pogrom begins!"
Why was the village of Stzerbna especially a hotbed of anti-Semites? That is hard to know for sure. Jews had done them no wrong. They were devout Catholics, so we could only conclude that their interpretation of the medieval catechisms stimulated great hostility toward Jews. A Jewish peddler passing through their town was likely to be greeted by a barrage of stones. He was lucky if he avoided serious injury. The peddlers learned to set up a ruse when they had to enter a place like Stzerbna. They would immediately ask directions to a different village, thereby bringing upon themselves the lesser mischief of merely being misled. Once out of sight, they knew in which direction to resume their journey.
Our present meeting was restricted to comrades who could be trusted with secret information. We were anxious that there should not be the slightest chance of a leak in the defense strategy that we would work out As well as my memory carries me back to that meeting, the names of the participating chaverim and chaveres (male friends and female friends) are: Elihu Leizer Tyber, Melech Tadelis, Leibele "Fisher-the-baker's," Saltcha Wolfovich, Chayale Shtoltsman, Mindel Wolman, myself and perhaps a few I can't remember (I ask forbearance for names I may have missed). This meeting had added significance, as it turned out, for it led to our early recognition by the Jewish community as a movement of worthy purpose and direction.
When we were all assembled at the windmill, we filed onto a narrow path toward a small clearing where we opened the meeting. There was a good stand of barley around us and we thought we were well concealed. We proceeded to lay out our plans, with primary and contingent courses of defense maneuvers. We discussed all proposals thoroughly and reached firm and final decisions. We were in high spirits, inspired both by our noble mission and the enchantment of the glorious night. We were intoxicated by the fresh air, the shimmering stars, the moonlight glowing upon the blooms of wild flowers that mingled with the grain.
It grew late and we prepared to return home.
Suddenly we heard from a distance the sound of shouting and running toward our direction. The commotion grew louder as the distance closed and we could make out a man yelling "Zlodjayu! Zlodjaiyu! Zlodjaiyu!"-- Thieves! Thieves! Thieves!
The girls scattered deep into the high barley. The men all remained in place. The man came closer, still hollering "Zlodjaiyu!" and by his side ran a big menacing dog barking loudly. Very strangely, the dog made no effort to attack us. All he did was prance about and bark. Maybe the dog had more sense than his master, for if he had attacked we could not have restrained someone of our group from shooting him. We were each armed with a loaded revolver in our back pocket.
One of us spoke up: "Why are you shouting like that, tchloviek! (peasant man); don't you see that there are no thieves around here? Can't you understand that mlodozsch (youth) came out to play on such a beautiful night!"
While we argued with the peasant one of our girls, Mindel, appeared from the field. She stood beside us and angrily began to scold the man: "Don't you see that chloptses and dzievchinkes (boys and girls) are out to play on such a beautiful night? Who needs your viatrick (windmill) with the flour in it!"
Mindel was a fearless girl with a sharp tongue that had the ring of authority. The peasant drew aback at her verbal assault and calmed down. "You don't know," he said ponderously, "what kind of thievery goes on around here. They steal whole bags of flour from my viatrick. They make me poor, those sons of a dog!
Mindel resumed her scolding: "You better go home in peace to your kobyetta (wife). Go back to sleep and have sweet dreams!"
At this the incident ended, but the man could hardly wait to come into town early the next morning and tell everybody that young Jewish chloptzes and dzievchinkes had been cavorting last night in his field by the viatrick.
For several days the Jews of Gombin had been living in fear. Many Polish people spoke openly of the dreaded day that was near. Some Jews scoffed at the reports of an impending pogrom. "You will see, there will be nothing," they said. We of THE BUND self-defense brigade did not rely on gossip, pessimistic or otherwise. We went about the strain of preparing for decisive action. Our need for reliable information was vital, and we probed in many directions.
We obtained information both from common peasants and more sophisticated sources. Among the latter was a Polish physician and his wife who had established themselves in Gombin just a few years earlier. They were followers of the "P.P.S." (Polish SocialParty) and we considered them to be among our most trustworthy friends. The P.P.S. did not have a branch in Gombin. The socialistic organization known as THE BUND was the Jewish parallel of the P.P.S. and drew the attention and sympathy of the enlightened doctor and his wife. From them we learned what was going on at City Hall among the Czarist chenovikes. We learned that the burgomeister (mayor) was a Polish patriot who secretly sympathized with us. We were constantly in touch with the doctor's wife, and her precise reports from the burgomeister and others verified the date that was set for the pogrom to begin.
At our strategy meeting several days earlier we had not only formulated our plans but had also appraised the possibilities of being aided by others outside of our membership. There were in Gombin Jewish toughs who hung around the marketplace. Some were powerful giants who would assuredly come to our aid if we called on them for help. One of them was "Avremele." He was not tall in stature, but his prowess was legendary. It was said of him that "his belly had an iron rim," and no man could stand up to him. There was a story that one day a gang of peasants got drunk and went looking for Jews to beat up. Avremele broke off the wooden tongue of a wagon and when he finished with them many lay half dead on the ground. The rest, bruised and bloody, fled in terror. We did not wish to ally ourselves with such characters but we were sure that they would be on our side when trouble started. We knew that we could also count on the Jewish butchers, verovnikes (who loaded wagons), fish handlers and the like.
In the middle of the night before the fated day, we sent for help from the strong Jewish self-defense organization at Plotsk. Two of our comrades rode off hastily on the fifteen-mile trip in a rented wagon with two swift horses.
Now, something of our strategy: We expected that the Stzerbner poirim (peasants) would be the ones who would start the pogrom. We calculated that they would enter town from behind the yatkes (butcher shops). We plotted to waylay them at the edge of town and prevent them from entering. We hoped to surprise them from ambush by posting a strong platoon in concealed positions at the stodoles (barns). We would also patrol other roads that led from Stzerbna and head them off in case they chose a different route.
I doubt that after sixty years I can recall all of the happenings of that day. Just recently, in the spring of 1966, my good friend and lantsman (native townsman) Sam Rafel of New Jersey wrote and asked me to describe my role while riding on a white horse. I was amazed that anyone after all this time would remember such details, and in fact I did not remember whether the horse was brown, white or another color.
THE DAY did finally arrive. Our comrades were on their feet at daybreak. Each member went immediately to his assigned station. One problem was that we needed horses. Where would we get them? Our answer was simple and forthright. Some of us went into the street and wherever we came across a Jewish owned horse and wagon, we requested that the rig be turned over to us on the spot. None refused us, though it was usually their most precious possession, providing the means by which they earned a livelihood. We must have looked grim and determined and not to be denied. Also, it seems that everybody wanted to be helpful that day.
We sent out patrols to maintain liaison between our spread out positions to inform us quickly where fighting took place and help was needed.
Until mid-day we patrolled the streets and roads and manned our positions in poised expectation. All of a sudden there arose a loud noise. People started shouting and running in great excitement. We heard the piercing clatter of ironbound wagon wheels clanking over the cobblestone streets as there came into our midst two wagons loaded with members of the Plotsk self-defense brigade who had come in response to our call. They were "armed to the teeth."
Our joy was unlimited. We felt as heroes under siege, elated at the arrival of reinforcements. Our morale was sky-high. We began to feel that now we were in command of the town.
And where were the three or four policemen of the town? This remains a mystery to this day. Even Burra, the grober strajnik (fat policeman) who was a devoted Czarist puppet and always showed up where he wasn't invited, was nowhere in evidence. His downfall came in July of 1906 when extreme left-wing members of the Polish P.P.S. went gunning for anyone in a Czarist uniform. When they entered Gombin, they came across Burra at the marketplace and shot him immediately.
The day of the expected pogrom ended with no sign of an adversary. As it turned out, the Polish hooligans had been scared off. Some of our preparations could not have been hidden. The Poles were not deaf. They could hear our shooting practice in the woods where we tried to develop accuracy by shooting at bushes and at the crotch of tree limbs. This class of Polish pogrom makers did not have firearms at this time. They prudently postponed their ambitious project to a time when they could do their dirty work in more favorable circumstances.
Our Jewish townsfolk were astonished by all that happened that day. We were, after all, a group of youngsters barely out of our teens, posturing with youthful courage and chutspa (nerve) to confront a foe of potentially far greater numbers and strength. But our elders too were jubilant at the outcome and felt with us that a great victory had been won for all the Jews of Gombin.
Later that afternoon we called a mass meeting for that evening to celebrate. One of our comrades lived in one of the brick mansions fronting the marketplace. It had one of the largest salons (formal room) in Gombin. His parents were out of town at the time. There were, without exaggeration, hundreds of people gathered that evening in Yosele Bernstein's opulent dwelling. Hundreds more could not get in. They were packed in to hear the speaker, Moshe Varsha. Most of the people who came had never before attended any meetings of our illegal organization, but the speaker's reputation as an orator was already well known.
That evening Moshe Varsha reached the heights of inspiration. He delivered a talk that left a strong impression on the audience. The dramatic events of the day, together with the rousing celebration in the evening, threw a new light on our organization and activities. From that day on we gained many new members and our movement grew like "oif haven" (as the rise of yeast in baking). This continued until 1906 when the Czarist government imposed new repressions, which in turn created a changing character in the reaction that spread over the land.
I remember three names of members of the Plotsk self-defense group. One was Moshe Varsha, whose advanced learning and logic spawned a stream of brilliant ideas that he expressed most eloquently. Later he became known in American literary circles. Another was Leibush Makower, who was a healthy, overgrown bocher (young man). He later emigrated to San Francisco where he became a government employee. I met him there in 1919. We spent the day together and reminisced. The third was named Gusjig, also an educated, logical young man whose later whereabouts I never knew.
Shortly after these upheavals took place and I arrived in America, some curious twists occurred. In 1907, while I was living with my uncle Shmuel, my father's brother, in Newark, New Jersey, I had two visitors. I was not at home when a well-dressed lady knocked at the door and asked for me. My uncle regarded her with suspicion and ignored the address where she could be reached. At least he was able to identify her for me. She was the Polish doctor's wife from Gombin. The second visit was from a man I had known as a Polish policeman in Gombin. He told me that after his colleague Burra was Shot, he abandoned his uniform and departed in a hurry. He found employment at an iron factory in Newark and was saving to bring over his family. He talked with me for a couple of hours, much of it spent apologizing for having spied on us, but heassured me that as a good Polish patriot he did not report all he knew to his Czarist superiors.
Now, a few words in conclusion. The self-defense movement that Jewish youth organized in the years between 1903 and 1906 in all Russian-ruled localities that had a large number of Jewish inhabitants began a new epoch in Jewish life. No longer would the threat of persecution be responded to with nothing but passive horror and resignation! This was the challenge of the times.
The landsleit (townsfolk) of the small town of Gombin can be forever proud of having taken part in rising to the challenge of this historic era.
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