Friday 13 October 2017


            The pen name of Yoysef Izbitski, he was born in Brisk (Brest), Lithuania, the son of a lock mechanic in the state’s railway workshop who was fired from his job because he was of Jewish origins.  He received a traditional Jewish education, and his parents hoped that he would grow up to be a rabbi.  When he was twelve years old, they also began to have him study Russian and other secular subjects.  In his youth he was entranced by the ideas of “Ḥibat Tsiyon” (Love of Zion), but not for long—at age seventeen he had joined a socialist organization which in Brisk bore the nickname “Tsar-bale-khaim” (Compassion for living things).  This group was probably significant, for in 1897, when preparations were being made for the founding conference of the Bund, the pioneer of the Bund, Aleksander Kremer, visited Brisk and informed this group of the preparatory meeting.  There was no delegate at this conference in Vilna from Brisk, for because of the police, the group fell apart, and Mikhalevitsh—who would surely have been the delegate to the conference—was compelled to flee from Brisk.  He came to Warsaw and there became one of the leading figures in the newly arisen movement.  From Warsaw he was sent by the Bund to Bialystok, where a strike was then underway among 10,000 Jewish textile workers.  This just followed the arrest by the police chief Zubatov of a large number of Bundists.  The most important leaders of the movement were all in the prisons, and it was impossible in the city to do anything for the striking laborers.  Mikhalevitsh then left for Vilna, penned a call there to the Bialystok workers, and had it printed in the Bund’s publishing house.  During the intermediate days of Sukkot, 1898, he served as a delegate to the second conference of the Bund in Kovno, and from that point he became one of the most important writers in the underground press of the movement.  He wrote for Arbayter shtime (Workers’ voice), and when the Bialystok committee of the Bund set to publish the serial Der byalistoker arbayter (The Bialystok worker), he carried out the entire undertaking: he assembled the work in his apartment, and he prepared all the editorial material (articles and notices) for the issue.  When everything was ready to go to the printer, the print shop was discovered and Mikhalevitsh had no choice but to flee.  For a time he lived in hiding with a landholder in the Belovezh Forest, where in the interim he worked as a teacher for the children of the landlord.  This issue of Der byalistoker arbayter appeared abroad (April 1899).  He then returned to Warsaw and rose to the leadership of the movement.  He also met Y. L. Perets there, and together they planned to revive the discontinued Yontef-bletlekh (Holidays sheets) and convert them into a periodical which would serve the ideals of socialism and modern Jewish culture.  Included on the aforementioned editorial board for the Yontef-bletlekh, in addition to Perets, Mikhalevitsh, and Rakhmiel Vaynshteyn, was also Mikhl Rubinshteyn, Dr. Gershon Levin, and Yankev Dinezon.  Perets’s arrest disrupted this undertaking.  Mikhalevitsh then became the initiator and main contributor to Der varshever arbayter (The Warsaw worker), which the Warsaw committee of the Bund began to publish.  He was living in Warsaw on a false passport, was recognized by a Tsarist spy, and was arrested.  After spending sixteen months in the Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel, in Pawiak Prison, and in Radom Prison, he was dispatched under police custody initially to Chernigov (Chernihiv) and then to Poltava, but in August 1901 he returned to Bialystok, helped organize and lead the Tanners’ Union, and became the chief editor of Der kempfer (The fighter), organ of the Tanners’ Union.  At the same time he contributed work to the organ of the Brush Union, Der veker (The alarm), and prepared the jubilee issue (25) of Arbayter shtime.  On March 1, 1903, he was arrested in Minsk at a meeting on the anniversary of the assassination of Alexander III, and—after spending time in various prisons—on April 7, 1904 he was sentenced to five years of exile to the far North in the distant village of Mezen, Arkhangelsk district.  He escaped, however, from exile, and in early 1905 he was again at the center of revolutionary events.  The central committee of the party entrusted him with organizing the sixth conference of the Bund, which actually took place in his covert apartment in Dvinsk (Daugavpils).  In 1906 when he returned from the Sixth Congress of the Bund in Berne, Switzerland, he was once again arrested, thrown into the Warsaw Citadel, and in the summer of 1906 again sentenced to five years banishment to the distant North.  And, again this time, Mikhalevitsh escaped, came to Vilna, was sent on to Kiev to direct the Bund’s election campaign to the Second Duma (late 1906), and once again was arrested and quickly released.  In 1907 he was a delegate to the London congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party.  He contributed to the legal Bundist newspaper publications: Di folkstsaytung (The people’s newspaper), Di hofnung (The hope), and Der morgnshtern (The morning star), which published his articles on the role and tasks of the Jewish community.  In April 1909 he was arrested in Berdichev and sent for three years to the Arkhangelsk region.  Due to the state of his health (acute tuberculosis in the lungs), he received permission in 1912 from the authorities to go abroad for treatment.  In December 1912 he was a Bund delegate to the international socialist congress in Basel.  That summer (1912) he returned to Russia and settled in St. Petersburg, where he was a member of the editorial board of the Bundist serial Di tsayt (The times).  In the first year of WWI, he visited a string of large cities, established contact with the rebuilt Bundist organization, and was a representative of the Bund to the inter-party “council” of socialist parties (Bund, Polish Socialist Party, and Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) in Warsaw.  When the Germans were approaching Warsaw, he made his way to St. Petersburg and from there to Vilna, where over the course of the years of occupation (1915-1916) he lived under his own name, Yoysef Izbitski, and developed intensive community-political activities, as well as in the school and cultural movement, which he would later continue in independent Poland.  He was one of the most beloved speakers in the “Universitet far ale” (University for everyone)—he was, to be sure, a formidable Yiddish orator.  He served as the first chair (1916) of the Vilna Yiddish writers’ union.  The German occupation authorities did not willingly tolerate his community work and had him arrested, but with the intervention of the social democratic deputies in the German parliament, Philipp Scheidemann and Eduard David, the arrest was superseded with a sort of “internment” in Otwock, near Warsaw.
            When Poland gained independence (1918), a new chapter in Mikhalevitsh’s dynamic activities opened.  There was no single field of Jewish community-political and cultural-educational work at which he would fail to stand at the center.  He was co-editor of the entire Bundist press in Poland, wrote editorials, articles about people and historical events, ideological-programmatic treatments of principal party issues, literary surveys and theater reviews, and chapters of memoirs from his life as a violent revolutionary.  He also wrote under such pen names as: A Groer, Bal-Bris, Beynish, Teatral, Y. A-ki, Der Zelber, Mikhail, and An Alter Bakanter.  He wrote up important chapters in the history of the Jewish labor movement for the anthologies: “Erev bund” (On the eve of the Bund), in Der royter pinkes (The red records), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1921); “Geheyme drukerayen” (Secret publishers), in Arbeter luekh (Workers’ calendar) (Warsaw, 1922); and “Dos royte yor 1905” (That red year of 1905), in Arbeter luekh (Warsaw, 1926); among others.  Aside from his unfailing contributions to the party press, he also placed work in publications of the Central Jewish School Organization (Tsisho) and sent articles in to Tsukunft (Future) in New York as well.  In book form: Unzer program (Our program) (Warsaw: Yidish, 1918); Zikhroynes fun a yidishn sotsyalist, vol. 1: 1892-1902 (Memoirs of a Jewish socialist, vol. 1, 1892-1902) (Warsaw: Lebns-fragn, 1920), 156 pp.; vol. 2: 1902-1905 (2nd printing, Warsaw, 1923), 165 pp.; vol. 3: 1905-1909 (Warsaw: Lebnsfragn, 1921), 180 pp.—reprinted several times thereafter.  He also prepared a fourth volume, chapters from which were published separately in: Folkstsaytung and his Sotsyologishe etyudn un politishe skitsn (Sociological studies and political sketches) (Warsaw: Yidish, early 1920s), 186 pp.  On the tenth anniversary of his death (1938), the central committee of the Bund brought out a collection of his articles under the title Geshtaltn un perzenlekhkeytn, gezamlte artiklen vegn denker un tuer fun der arbeter-bavegung (Figures and personalities, collected articles on thinkers and leaders of the labor movement) (Warsaw, 1938), 198 pp.  In 1939 the publisher “Kultur lige” (Culture league), with assistance from the Khmurner Fund in Tsisho in Poland, published a volume of his articles entitled Literatur un kamf, zamlung fun artiklen far shul un yugnt (Literature and struggle, collection of articles for school and young people), with a biography of him, written by Kh. Sh. Kazdan (Warsaw, 1939), 258 pp.  His very first literary works, his translation from Russian, using the pseudonym Bal-Bris, of A. Bogdanov’s Politishe ekonomye (Political economy) (Warsaw: Bildung, 1904) needs to be noted.  When a unified Tsisho, after long preparations and consolidation of a series of sectors of the secular Jewish school group, was established in Poland, Mikhalevitsh at the first conference (June 1921) was elected chairman of the central organization—a position which he held with esteem and appreciation until his death.  Over the period 1923-1924, he was in the United States on assignment from Warsaw Tsisho.  He was also a member of the executive of the Jewish community of Warsaw, which turned to him thousands of times for help, advice, and the like.  All quarters of society invested confidence in him, and he was beloved by all.  His death provoked sadness for the entire Jewish population of Warsaw.  Over 50,000 persons attended his funeral, as well as hundreds of delegations from distant towns in Poland.

Mikhalevitsh surrounded by young women in Lublin

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; P. Anman, “Di ershte bundishe legale tsaytungen” (The first legal Bundist newspapers), in 25 yor—zamlbukh (Anthology at 25) (Warsaw, 1922); Anman, in Royte pinkes (Red records), vol. 2 (Warsaw, 1924), pp. 14-17; Y. Kharlash, in Naye vegn (Riga) (November 1928); N. A. Tan, B. mikhalevitsh (yoysef izbitski) (B. Mikhalevitsh, Yoysef Izbitski) (Warsaw: Sotsyalistishe yugnt-biblyotek, 1928); H. Erlikh, in Der veker (Vilna) (November 30, 1929); Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), part 1 (Vilna, 1929), p. 230; N. A. Bukhbinder, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeter-bavegung in rusland, loyt nit-gedrukte arkhiṿ-materyaln (The history of the Jewish labor movement in Russia, according to unpublished archival materials) (Vilna, 1931), see index; Yefim Yeshurin, ed., Zamlbukh vilne (Anthology on Vilna) (New York, 1935), see index; Avrom-Volf Yasni, Geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeter-bavegung in lodzh (History of the Jewish labor movement in Lodz) (Lodz, 1937); Kh. L. Poznanski, Memuarn fun a bundist (Memoirs of a Bundist) (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 236, 283; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, “Byografye” (Biography), in Literatur un kamf, zamlung fun artiklen far shul un yugnt (Literature and struggle, collection of articles for school and young people) (Warsaw, 1939); Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; Kazdan, Mentshn fun gayst un mut (Men of spirit and courage) (Buenos Aires, 1962), see index; Historishe shriftn fun yivo (Vilna-Paris) 3 (1939), see index; Hillel Kats-Blum, Zikhroynes fun a bundist (Memoirs of a Bundist) (New York, 1940), p. 57; Y. Pat, Beynish mikhalevitsh, a byografye (Beynish Mikhalevitsh, a biography) (New York: Workmen’s Circle, 1941); Pat, in the anthology Arkadi (Arkady) (New York, 1942), see index; R. Abramovitsh, In tsvey revolutsyes, di geshikhte fun a dor (In two revolutions, the history of a generation) (New York, 1944), p. 299; A. Litvak, in Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings) (New York, 1945), pp. 210-23; Z. Segalovitsh, Tlomatske 13, fun farbrentn nekhtn (13 Tłomackie St., of scorched yesterdays) (Buenos Aires, 1946); Y. Sh. Herts, Di geshikhte fun a yugnt (The history of a youth) (New York, 1946); Herts, Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung in amerike (The Jewish socialist movement in America) (New York, 1954), see index; John Mill, Pyonern un boyern (Pioneers and builders), vol. 1 (New York, 1946), vol. 2 (New York, 1949), see index; Meylekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 2 (Montreal, 1947); Khayim Leyb Fuks, in Unzer shtime (Paris) (November 13-14, 1948); Kh. Lif, Hasifrut haidit betargum ivri (Yiddish literature in Hebrew translation) (Tel Aviv, 1949); Sloyme mendelson bukh (Volume for Shloyme Mendelson) (New York, 1949); Beynish mikhalevitsh gedenk-bukh (Memorial volume for Beynish Mikhalevitsh) (Buenos Aires, 1951), 302 pp.; Sh. Rozhanski, in Di idishe tsaytung (Buenos Aires) (May 6, 1951); G. Aronson, in Tsukunft (New York) (November 1961); Frants Kurski, Gezamlte shriftn (Collected works) (New York, 1952), see index; H. Abramovitsh, in Unzer shtime (Paris) (May 28, 1952); D. Neymark, in Forverts (New York) (December 28, 1952); Dr. L. Zhitnitski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (November 20, 1953); Entsiklopediya shel galuyot, brisk delita (Encyclopedia of the Diaspora, Brisk, Lithuania) (Tel Aviv, 1954), see index; B. Shefner, Novolipye 7, zikhroynes un eseyen (Nowolipie 7, memoirs and essays) (Buenos Aires, 1955), see index; B. Kutsher, Geven amol varshe (As Warsaw once was) (Paris, 1955), see index; B. Y. Rozen, Portretn (Portraits) (Buenos Aires, 1956), pp. 129-30; Leo Bernshteyn, Ershte shprotsungen (First sprouts) (Buenos Aires, 1956), see index; Avrom der Tate, Bleter fun mayn yugnt (Pages from my youth) (New York, 1959), see index; Di geshikhte fun bund (The history of the Bund), vol. 1 (New York, 1960), vol. 2 (New York, 1962), see index; Varshe (Warsaw) (Tel Aviv, 1961), see index.
Mortkhe-Velvl Bernshteyn

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