My First Teacher in World Affairs
A group of Bundist Gombiners in New York , 1907
My First Teacher in World Affairs, Shmuel Mayer Pitel was my first cousin, my mother's brother's son. He visited for the first time my hometown, Gombin, Poland.
My mother, with her two brothers, Abraham and Joseph Pitel, and her sisters, Roysa and Leah, were all located in the vicinity of Gombin. Other relatives of my mother also lived there. One summer they all expected the visit of Shmuel Mayer, the only son of my mother's brother Hersh.
Shmuel Mayer's mother died right after she gave birth to him. His father, Hersh, did not know what to do with the infant child. His brother-in-law, Shmuel Mayer's uncle, offered to take over the raising of the child and promised to do so in the best way possible. Shmuel's father gave him his permission. A short time after that, Hersh died. The child was left an all around orphan. But the promise of his uncle was realized.
In the early twenties, the great Yiddish writer, Sholom Asch, wrote a drama called "God of revenge". This drama made a big hit as soon as it was published. It got popular not only on the Yiddish stage of that time, but also and mainly on the German stage conducted by the great conductor Reinhardt. This drama also made a big hit when it was played on the Jewish stage in America.
Sholom Asch describes a Jewish type of the underworld. His wife gave birth to a little girl. He decided to raise his only daughter in the nicest manner and most decent way he could. He would also keep the child away from his and his wife's friends and life.
He hired special nurses and educators to raise4 the child in the most ideal way. That child was kept by him and his wife as if she was the holy bible written down in scrolls and put in an ark. The father and mother did everything in their power to realize that dream of raising their only child.
The result in the drama was that when the child matured, all their dreams failed. Their adult girl became attracted to their dirty life of the underworld. They had fully failed and God took revenge of their miserable occupation.
A similar situation arose to Shmuel Mayer's uncle, although his nephew was not a girl, but a boy. And the result here was not of any kind of revenge, but turned out in a different way entirely.
Shmuel Mayer was raised by his uncle who was a member of the underworld. It was in the same manner as was written in Asch's drama, "God of Revenge". None of his friends could get near enough even to look at his nephew. He hired the best teachers in Jewish and Polish. And the child was brought up like a beautiful flower raised in hothouse. When the child grew up to the age of fifteen, his uncle sent him to a fine Polish high school in order to get a secular education together with his Jewish one.
For the American reader, it would be difficult to understand the general situation at that time in Poland. Poland was than under the occupation of the Russian Czar. Russia tried everything possible to assimilate all the inhabitants of the big land into the Russian system and culture.
In Poland there existed in one of the strongest secret underground, the largest party among a number of smaller ones. It was called the P.P.S., Polish Party of Socialism. Their greatest immediate aim was to overthrow the Russian occupation and to get Poland's independence back along with the background of socialism.
The activities of the P.P.S. were varied. One of them was to organize besides the Polish masses. They also wanted to pull into their party Jews, Germans, and other nationalities who lived in Poland. One of their important aims was to work in the high schools, colleges and universities.
Shmuel Mayer was a good student in general/ He soon took over the lines of the Polish party, the P.P.S.
Of that time and a little later, I am not aware of the relationship between him and his uncle and his later development still remains to me a secret.
Shmuel Mayer, when he came to Gombin to visit all of his father's relatives, was at the age of between fifteen and sixteen years old. I was a little over twelve years old. He came to Gombin for a vacation in the late spring.
On the first Saturday after Shmuel Mayer arrived in Gombin, I was off cheder (school). I offered to take him around to show him all of Gombin and the surroundings. The weather was most beautiful. It was full of sunshine and odors from the fields full of all kinds of grains in the east and also from the pine woods toward the west. I took him east first to show him the fields which were filled with golden wheat, rye, barley, oats, and others. When we came to the stacks of grain, I felt very enthusiastic about all the fields filled with all kinds of food. A short time later it would be cut, brought into the barns, thrashed, and put into sacks to be sold all over, including the big city of Warsaw. There they have a lot of stores filled with grains and milled into flour. From there it would go to the bakeries and nourish the population. I can just imagine the children who were brought up in Warsaw in the Gzsylov or the iron gate section of the food items, who have no idea how all the food of agricultural content looked before it got there. Children who were born in those marketing sections like my cousin, Shmuel Mayer, thought that good rye bread was grown and that red apples, and plums in an orchard always looked that way. Their conceptions of fruit and other foods was probably to go into a fruit store and buy bread at a bakery.
My cousin was already sixteen years old and never saw those fields packed with all sorts of eatables. So I asked him when we got around those grain fields, "How do you like that, Shmuel Mayer?" He answered me, "Oh, it's beautiful grass growing around here." I said to him, "Grass? What do you mean? Those are not grass fields. A little later I'll take you to a clover and also to a field of green pasture where grass is grown and there you will see a herd of cows and sheep." I began telling him the difference between a field of golden wheat and the darker stocks of rye and the color of other grains. It seemed that I, his younger cousin knew so much more than he did about all those things. I also remarked to him, "You see what God can do to an agricultural section to give the earth a proper proportion. We have rain in time and sunshine in other natural means in order to have prosperous products. All this that you can see here growing is the result." After I told him that, he began answering me also in a form of a teacher. He asked me, "What do you think about rain and how it falls down, or thunder or lightening? Do you think that God does that?" I answered him, "About God is a secret that I don't know whether he sends down rain or other natural activities. As far as I am concerned, God does all these things himself. How it's done, I don't know." My father brought passages from all kinds of Jewish teachings and on certain points, his sarcastic smile left his face. I found myself in a discussion which I never expected to get into with my big, nice looking cousin from Warsaw. The first lesson of this day was finished.
On later occasions, Shmuel Mayer got in deeper discussions with me and some of his arguments I really was unable to answer. This kind of teaching that my cousin applied to me went on for almost the full month that he remained in Gombin.
About two or three years later, in my correspondence with him, he induced me to leave my small provincial life and come to Warsaw where I would see and learn about a new world.
He was the first one waiting for me when I arrived on the steamboat which was called the "Stateck". He took me to his quarters at once although I had three uncles and my father's sister, Chanele, who lived there. And they probably would have accepted me more comfortably than to have been on my own with Shmuel Mayer's help.
The dayafter my arrival, I left my small, self-built trunk with Shmuel Mayer and went out to hunt for a job.
A short time later, I went to see my Uncle Mendel and he told me to come to his apartment on Smtosze Street. From there on, for three or more years, I lived with him. In his house I found a different atmosphere and relationship with all my uncles and aunts and their children. Eventually my close relationship with my cousin Shmuel Mayer faded away and almost disappeared altogether.
One thing of my many experiences in Warsaw had a great deal to do with forming my different ideas and beliefs of what's going on in Jewish life and also general ideas. Every Saturday morning my Uncle Mendel belonged to a discussion group of about twenty or thirty people. They got together in private homes. Those discussions opened my mind and some of them I never forgot.
All the time that I lived in Warsaw many things happened and I learned a lot. I'm not going to bring all that into this short story. But one thing I must mention now is that being all those years in Warsaw, I broke away from the influence of the P.P.S. way of thinking. There I became a member the Jewish Socialist Bund.
On every holiday I had to visit my small town of Gombin, especially on the holiday of Pesach. In spite of all my ideas, I could not break away from the beautiful sedarim that my father celebrated mostly with invited relatives or poor strangers on those occasions.
Another very important thing was that during my occasional visits to Gombin, I found am organization which I belonged to and believed in. This was the party of the Jewish Socialist Bund. This party was greatly influential in Gombin until the time of 1939 when Hitler, curse his name. And his Nazi gang ran over my home town and that whole section of Poland and destroyed everything.
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