PRUZHANY YZKOR BOOK
FOCAL POINTS OF ZIONISM IN OUR TOWN
By: Joseph Friedlaender
There is no doubt at all that for the most part, Pruzana was a Zionist town. Alongside the other movements of the Bund, the Communists and other leftwing or popular circles, which all centered around Yiddishism whose focal point was the Y.L. Peretz Yiddish school, there was a large Zionist movement in our town that embraced educational institutions, and other activities carried out by the political parties and various organizations. They mobilized masses for the general Zionist struggles linked with the events in Eretz-Israel and the World Zionist movement in many large meetings. The work for the Jewish National Fund, particularly the emptying of the boxes (which collected money) in many homes, brought the Zionist message to numerous Jews and drew them closer to the enterprise of national revival. They became, as it were, partners in Zionist action and regarded the young men and women doing the job as the emissaries of the national movement who were bound to the construction of Eretz-Israel in the most material form.
When did Zionism start in Pruzana? The answer is in the remote period at the end of the 19th century, when the Hovevei Zion movement flowered in Russia and Lithuania. The Jews of our town were part of Russian Jewry. The breaches that the Enlightenment made, and the national social movements in its wake, in the religious-traditional patterns of life, did not pass by Pruzana Jewry. At that time, Lovers of Zion embraced only a few Jews of each town and town let, and Pruzana was no exception. Money was collected and sent to the Zionist committee in Odessa: as far back as 1884, portraits of Moses Montefiore were sold in our town. They were produced by Hovevei Zion on the initiative of Shefer (Shaul Pinchas Rabinovitcz). In the summer of 1899, delegates of Pruzana participated in the Zionist Conference of Vilna, which preceded the Third Zionist Congress. The "official" Rabbi Kantorshtchik served as one of the secretaries. The Zionists of our town not only maintained ties with Odessa, but also with the correspondence centre in Kishinev in 1898. Yosef Babitsch wrote reports about the harassment of Zionist activity by ultra-religious Jews.
The current was not large, but it flowed slowly and made a mark in the consciousness of small circles. There are no reports of big conflicts between the guardians of religious belief and Zionism, as occurred in many towns and villages. Perhaps the personality of Rabbi Eliyahu Feinstein contributed to this because religious fanaticism was not one of his many qualities. It has been said that one of the reasons for his refusal to accept the respectable rabbinate of Jerusalem, which he was offered twice, was his reluctance to come into confrontation with the religious extremists in the Holy City. The Lovers of Zion movement in our town, like many other cities, was the custom of intellectuals and rich people, who were few in number.
The First World War naturally put a stop to all public work. However, immediately afterwards, Zionist activity revived in the wake of the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. It should not be forgotten that the October Revolution almost coincided with the Declaration and both aroused considerable response among the Jewish public. The Appeal Fund of Redemption that was held in Pruzana inspired many Jews to contribute jewels and precious ornaments in a great outpouring of volunteering, as described elsewhere in the Pinkas. But the main burden of Zionist work was placed on the education system and many Hebrew teachers ensured that a lot of pupils grew up in the illumination of Zionist ideals. The Melamed (educator) Rabbi Haim Falman ran a Cheder which not only provided its pupils with deep knowledge of the Hebrew language and of the sources of Judaism, but also with much love of Eretz Israel and Jewish culture. Rabbi Haim was an intellectual and master teacher who knew how to win his pupils' attention. He instilled Jewish consciousness fully and whoever managed to study in his "Cheder" and imbibe from his teaching, became a Jewish nationalist and Zionist for the rest of his life.
The Hebrew school "Yavneh", which was opened on the initiative of Eliyahu Gelman and his friends, continued this tradition. As part of the Tarbut educational system, it did a lot for Zionist and Hebrew education, which it provided to hundreds of children. There is no need to recall the economic and social struggles that the school endured from beginning to end. The teachers, who worked in the most difficult conditions, regarded their work as an important national mission and they carried it out with devotion. In addition to providing knowledge, their main concern was to form generations of nationalist Jews, linked to Eretz Israel and the Hebrew language and culture, and who regarded their future as lying in the remote homeland. For many years, the school was housed in the home of the priest in one of the side streets and it did not have the conditions necessary for its development. However, the devotion of the teachers and the band of workers who aided them, overcame the hostility of the authorities, the lack of resources and the tough circumstances. Thanks to them, the institution became the creative home of national consciousness in our town, which taught doctrine and provided certificates whether for pupils who became teachers working in Hebrew education in the Diaspora or for pupils who became partisans or carried out other missions.
In 1926, the "A.D. Gordon Hebrew Gymnasium" was opened. It started in stages: each year, another class was opened, until it was full from the fourth to the eighth grades. In those years, it formed one of the ten Hebrew secondary schools in Poland. Pruzana was the smallest of the towns that set up similar institutions, such as Vilna, Bialystock, Brisk, Rovne, Kovel etc. This miracle occurred thanks to the initiative of the teachers and functionaries, so that Pruzana did what many other Zionist workers in lots of cities did not even dream about. This is a sign and an example of the town's Zionism and of the national-Hebrew spirit that imbued many Jews.
It was the second gymnasium in the town after the Polish government high school. Its existence was based on a school fee, and was practically without public support. Parents squinted in order to give their children a Hebrew secondary education. Again, it was the teachers and the Zionist workers who worried about maintaining the institution and they succeeded. The secondary school lasted until the Second World War, educated many pupils from the town and its environs and enriched the educational and national commitment of the students. Evidence of this are the pupils who survived the Holocaust, a living and sad testimony to the many pupils who were killed.
In addition, mention should be made of the public library associated with "Tarbut" and all the cultural and information activity connected with it that included not only loaning of books, but also the maintenance of lecture-series and studies which embraced many people who were remote from books. The circle of national institutions included many people for whom Zionism as an expression of Jewish national renaissance, became an ideology. Another circle was opened by the various youth movements: Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia, Hehalutz, Hehaluz Hatzair, Freiheit, Beitar and the political parties: Hitachdut, the General Zionists, Mizrachi and the Revisionists. In the beginning, the members of the youth movements came from the pupils of "Yavneh" and the Hebrew secondary school. However, they spread into a wider circle, including many youths who did not manage to study at school and went to work when they were young. The Zionist mission inspired many young people to join the pioneering movements, undergo training and immigrate to Eretz Israel.
Many Pruzana citizens, who followed this path and were saved from the terror of destruction, are still alive with us and they remember well the work of the youth movement they belonged to. They preserve the memory of their members and instructors, who toiled out of Zionist idealism to provide their students with the initial concepts of Zionism and Jewish culture. The youth movements complemented the work of the educational institutions and brought the Salvationist Zionist message to the poorer classes. The Jewish national movement embraced many young people and directed their steps towards Zion. Some of them immigrated or wandered across the ocean, while others found their death among the martyrs of Pruzana.
The Jewish National Funds: Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod served as financial and perhaps even spiritual means for strengthening the personal involvement of the contributor in the general struggle for the redemption of Israel. Homes that were not touched by Hebrew education or the youth movements, were brought into Zionist influence by the appeals. There were also bazaars etc., which served the same purpose.
Finally, there was the weekly "Pruzaner Shtyme," which began appearing in April 1932. It may be that the reason for its establishment was the "Pruzaner Lebn", which served the Yiddish public in our town. But this reason does not in any way diminish its role as an expression of nationalist Pruzana. Its editors MOSHE GRUNWALD and AVRAHAM EREZ served their readers in the town and abroad with their articles and propaganda. It is to the credit of our town that it produced two such weeklies that expressed the views and moods of the two camps that existed: the Zionists and the Yiddishists. They weekly served the Zionist cause well and reached readers which the other circles did not get to.
The Zionist activity provided further proof that Pruzana was a "mother city" in Israel. In retrospect, the whole picture has become clear and it has been proved that the stand of Pruzana Jews in the Holocaust, in the Ghetto, in the Judenrat, in the underground, in the forests, in Auschwitz, in the refugee camps in Germany -in all the Seven Departments of Hell through which East European Jewry passed in World War Two- was based in no small and perhaps in very large measure on the Zionist-Hebrew education and Jewish, national, historical roots. Had the Holocaust not occurred and the existence of Pruzana Jewry had been prolonged as in many other Kehillot, the results of that education would have taken completely different forms. However, in the light of the terrible experience, which our forefathers and brethren underwent in Pruzana, it can be said that the national actions that began with a few Hovevei Zion people over 80 years ago and multiplied bearing fruit in the inter-War years, including all the numerous work in education, information etc. contributed their due share in the history of Pruzana Jews and their terrible end.
At the end of a long history of 500 years of Jewish existence in Pruzana, Zionist ideology played an important role, not only as regards its Eretz-Israel aspect; also its "present work", which was accepted by the Zionists as far back as the Helsingfors conference at the beginning of the century, was the legacy of Zionist activists. They fought the town council, the “ Kehilla ” committee, public and cultural institutions for their ideals. At the time of general elections for the Sjem (the Polish Parliament) they knew how to mobilize voters for the Zionist lists, whether in the framework of the national minorities block or in the framework of other lists. The Zionists were alive to all the events in the Jewish population and reacted as required. There were ideological struggles with the Yiddishists or anti-Zionist camp, sometimes carried out with fanaticism. It should not be forgotten that these inter-block events occurred in the Jewish street and side-streets, while the economic and social stranglehold on its survival tightened around its neck. The fight for a "piece of bread" was difficult and the anti-Jewish policies of the Polish authorities in the “Thirties” intensified. Zionism had to stand at the gate and its functionaries and activists indeed carried out their duty and recorded a splendid page in the history of the “ Kehilla ” and its struggles for survival and for a new Jewish Centre in Eretz-Israel.