Moses Mandelmann: The library and “Yiddishe Kunst”

During the German occupation in World War I, there were only two Jewish cultural institutions in Siedlce: the Yiddishe library and the “Yiddishe Kunst” company – Yiddish Art. The library was established in 1901 in the home of scholar Y. Goldwasser, who held a bookcase underground. He did not even know who the readers were. The books were distributed in various circles, in secret meetings. A few years later, the library became legal and turned into a private enterprise, named after Mordecai Meir Landau, brother in law of a local activist, head of the community Yitzhak Nahum Weintroib. The library under Zionist influence. The librarian was Asher Lioornt, who also engaged in fundraising for the Jewish National Fund and handled other Zionist affairs. However, in its early days the library was not properly organized. The opening hours were not fixed, the catalogs were not up-to-date and inaccurate, and it was hard to find the desired book.

The company “Yiddishe Kunst” and its full name: “a literary-musical company of Yiddish culture” was founded in 1910, along with other cultural circles, were established in many cities and towns in Russia. The famous circles were: “Nightingales”, “Lira”, “Harp”, “Dramatic Art” and more. Special popular classes were “Nightingale” in Warsaw and Lodz. Warsaw had lively cultural evenings and Lodz had intense musical-literary activities. Due to this, Siedlce “Yiddishe Kunst” was called the “Nightingale” (Hazamir). But in the heat of speech the speakers omitted the letter at the beginning of the name, and the last letter. Thus the “Nightingale” (Hazamir) turned to “zoma “. “Do not go Zoma” is the name of a skit written by the author from Siedlce – JacoTenenboim, which was shown on stage, and directed by the author with great success.

Both the library and the “Yiddishe Kunst” were always under the scrutiny of the Tsarist police and gendarmerie, of course. Every new book purchased, even published in a legal way, had to go through the censorship of the police. It had the power to approve it for the general public. Similarly, the sponsors of any event had to submit a detailed and precise program of all literary-musical event, even the most innocent, to the District Governor’s Office for approval. Police and gendarmes were frequent “guests” in both the various cultural institutions and public activists in the city. These people knew in advance when to “disappear” in order to avoid arrest, usually before 1st of May or similar days prone to trouble.

The Jewish community also pursued anyone who dared to come to the library, and replace a book, not to mention the “zoma” audience, where people were smoking on Saturday and young men and women were dancing together, God forbid! Under these conditions it was impossible to conduct publicity and propaganda activities among the Jews, thus minimizing the number of loyal activists and making cultural institutions barely exist. The library could rarely afford to purchase new books, and repairing damaged books was not in the budget at all.

1912 found the activity of the “Yiddishe Kunst” virtually paralyzed, and now the company stood on the brink of elimination. However, a group of young men who had just left the Study of the Gemara, devoted themselves energetically to a courageous act – to try and unite the two institutions. After much effort they managed to unite the library with “Yiddishe Kunst”. The boys’ still in Hasidic attaire, established a library committee, whose members were: Abraham Hoberman, Volvole Friedman, Asher Livrant, David Aiizenberg and me, and later Berl Tze’rnobroda. A thorough examination of the books and their propriety was done, the dates for the exchange of books were determined, and the amount of the subscription fees was determined. A section for books in Polish was established, which added to the books in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian, this was taken care of by the women who joined the commity: Rachel Edelstein-Barge (for a while – a senior teacher in-state schools, and on the independence of Poland – representative of the Bund in the city council of Siedlce), Gola Halberstadt (died in the prime of life), Tirtza Zucker (tortured to death by the Germans in Paris), Bracha Shapira and Bronia Goldbrg-Glazovska.

We, the library operators, were, of course, also addicted to reading. We clung to the bookstore as thirsty for water. In a trembling of fear, lest we would be noticed, we would sneak into the library and behind locked doors we literally ‘swallowed’ the books. We have forgotten everything that has been done around us and lived in other worlds, imaginary and poetic.

We worked with great enthusiasm. Every new book we purchased was a holiday. For a few years, until the German occupation, the library grew and developed greatly. Hundreds of books have been added to it, and we were able to collect a few hundred rubles, widely used in the rehabilitation of “Yiddishe Kunst”.

During the German occupation of the First World War, Polish Jews saw the Germans as liberators. The ceaseless decrees and harassment of the Czarist military authorities, the uprooting of Jewish communities and settlements, the expulsion of tens of thousands to remote places, the kidnapping of people and public officials and their holding as hostages, the constant fear of physical and spiritual disturbances, the looting and plundering of Jewish property, and, in general, the abhorrent hatred of the locals against the Jews, made us friendly towards the Germans. The Jews felt relieved. We, the Jewish youth, felt liberated as soon as the Czarist cables fell from us. In view of the great changes that have taken place, combined with the undressing of the long Capote, we’ve stripped down outdated perceptions of Judaism and naively stood with hands wide open, believing that the whole world is ours!

As early as the early days of the German occupation, we rented a large building on 66 Warsaw Street, which had previously served as a club for Russian officers. We were planning to house the library and the center of “Yiddishe Kunst” there, hoping for a large Jewish culture center that will coordinate the activities of literary, dramatic and musical activities, and will also include a library and a reading room. Within a few months the company had about 450 members, and a few months later we rented the entire house, all three floors. Now we had seventeen large rooms, including two large halls that could accommodate several hundred people.

While private homes were generally cold and dark during the war, the “Yiddishe Kunst” shed its light on half the street and inside was warm and cheerful. On Saturdays, from the night of the Sabbath until Saturday night, hundreds of spectators – friends and acquaintances – enjoyed various cultural events and the house was full of life. The German authorities, military and civilian alike, regarded our operation with great appreciation. Senior German officers, who behaved with dignity and courtesy, were regular guests. More than once – the governor himself, or other seniors, have sent warm congratulations for events celebrated. A ticket to the show at the “Yiddishe Kunst” served as an approval to be on the street at curfew times.

The good reputation of “Yiddishe Kunst” has reached the ears of the Polish population as well, and the company has taken place in important historical-political events.

On May 3rd 1916, after almost 150 years of enslavement, the Poles were given the possibility of celebrating the national holiday – Constitution Day of 1771. A joint committee of Poles and Jews, was formed to organize the celebrations, with Siedlce’s “Yiddishe Kunst” among the active participants. A festive procession of all the people of the city and surrounding communities took place, along with representatives of social, religious and cultural organizations. The “Yiddishe Kunst” was represented by Joseph Rozenzomen , Abraham Zigelwaks, Abraham Grinshpan (later executed under a verdict of the military Pole court because of the plot during the Russian occupation in 1920), Shaul Zobrobitz’ (later served as an engineer at the power station of Moscow), Iehiel Iblon and myself . We wore blue-and-white bands on our sleeves with the Star-of- David and our club name in Yiddish and Latin letters embodied on it.

The procession started at the new church square at Daluege Street, and stopped near the “Yiddishe Kunst” location. The procession included dozens of gods, sacred icons and flags and was led by senior members of the Church and the Polish aristocracy. On one porch stood a big choir, and on another one – the orchestra, and both played and sang the Polish national anthem, “God Save Poland” and “The Nightingale”‘s marching song: “Sing, Sing”. The speakers gave speeches about the common destiny that links Jews and Poles in Poland for many centuries. Indeed, it was a day of “brotherly love”.

During the autumn of 1916 first elections were held for Siedlce City Council. Selections were made using “couriers” – predefined groups, according to social status, economic or ethnic. The sixth group was of the common people.

Strong political disagreements were not even present then. We set a goal to get as many Jewish representatives as possible into the city council. We have established an Election Committee which included Zionists, Bundists, Folkists and Orthodox alike. And so they met in the “Yiddishe Kunst” building – Gur and Kocek Hasidim with Hartglas the Zionist, and Bundists Niimrk and fishman with  Altshuler and Endelmann the Folkists .

“Yiddishe Kunst” representatives joined the campaign with great enthusiasm. The victory was sensational: Of the 24 council members – 14 seats were won. During elections day, when he learned we already won 12 delegates, Hartglas came from the elections headquarters and asked: “Gentlemen, stop. We already have enough!”. But we wanted to show the Poles we will not stop until the last minute – and we achieved an absolute majority. Our prestige was elevetaed among both the Jewish and the general population, of course. The name “Yiddishe Kunst” in Siedlce has exceeded beyond the city limits, has come to the attention of the entire Polish Jews, and all important writers, actors and singers, aspired to perform with us.

The journalist S”Y Stofnitzki has given a series of lecture at the podium of “Yiddishe Kunst”, setting, for the first time, the basic guidelines of the Jewish People’s Party, and sometime later grouped these lectures in his book “The Way to the people”. Lectures of Hilel Tzeitlin held a more philosophical-religious nature. Others that have enriched our life were: H.D. Nomberg, Noah Frilotzki , Dr. Iehoshua Gotlib, Iosef Heftman , Shlomo Mendelson and many others. M. Kipnis and Zmora Zeligfeld has spread the Yiddish singing, a major innovation, in a series of concerts, and the energetic composer Bannesman has managed the musical and vocal classes for several years.

One Saturday night in 1917, after the Russian Revolution, when S”Y Stofnitzki spoke with youthful vigor before a packed hall about “parties and movements in the Jewish street”, Leo Belmont, the converted Polish writer has entered the hall. He was supposed to lecture that evening about “Czarism and Revolution”, and was curious to know how to engage in such matters among the Jews, in Yiddish jargon. He listened intently to the debaters, and after the lecture warmly shook hands with Stofnitzki and stated that he understood everything and was very impressed by the high level of discussion and deep understanding of the problems, and found it hard to believe that simple folks were also able to carry such civilized discussion debating social and political problems, and even using “Jargon”.

The contribution of “Yiddishe Kunst” to the Siedlce Jewish education system was already told in the previous chapter.

Here I will mention that the literary section, under the direction of Jacob Tenenboim, Fannie Radak, David Naimark , Jacob Fishman, Iechiel Groman and myself, has conducted systematic activities for many years. Musical activity was also expanded. The choir, conducted by Josef Zonshein, consisted of 50 singers. A string Orchestra, and one of brass and one of mandolins, included about 120 people. Orchestras appeared on summer evenings in the city park, conducted by Eliahoo Shpielman, who was replaced, after his demise by Aharon Shfilifidl , and later by Bensman the composer.

The dramatic club, managed and directed by Jacob Tenenboim, included about 30 people and began its way showing short sketches. Later on the amateur actors moved on to complete plays, dramas and three acts comedies. Positive reviews were published even in Warsaw newspapers

The extensive activity commenced until the outbreak of the Poland-Russia war, in the summer of 1920. The Reaction and Polish hooligans ravaged “Yiddishe Kunst” and other cultural institutions in Siedlce .

In 1921 “Yiddishe Kunst” and the library has moved to a smaller building, at the end of Daluege Street and Sandoba alley. The small place could not enable cultural activities as we knew in the past, but the library, however, has greatly increased. In 1926, to mark the half jubilee of the library we had a big celebration: lectures by important writers who came to Siedlce from all over Poland were held in the large hall. Great singers and musicians performed a concert to the delight of the culture savvy audience.

In 1933, when the Jewish school closed, “Yiddishe Kunst” rented  its building in 62 Warsaw Street and turned it to a club of entertainment and games. The library was kept carefully: no Hebrew or Yiddishe  book was missing, and even Polish readers found they desired. What happened to the “Yiddishe Kunst” and the library during the third destruction? Probably the same fate as all the treasures of Jewish Poland – all were doomed to fire and extinction.