The Jewish Labor Unions

Revolutionary Unrest and the Bund
Pinsk, Belarus

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As early as the 1880's there was a small group of Jewish students with revolutionary ideas. This group disbanded after a short time after being discovered by the police. The spirit of revolt against the political and social order increased with the development of industry and an industrial proletariat. In a book written recently in the Soviet Union we read that as early as 1800 - 95 there were some ten strikes in Pinsk, the largest one being in 1893 in the railroad workshops. 500 workers went on strike for a week.

In the late 1890's small groups were formed among the Jewish workers for the purpose of reading illegal literature. With the increase of the revolutionary unrest Jewish youths joined the Russian Revolutionary Parties, the Social Democratic Party (S.D.) and the Social Revolutionary Party (S.R.). For the most part the Jewish youth was attracted to the "Brothers and Sisters", i.e. the Bund, which had followers as early as 1899. On May 1st, 1900, some 100 workers wearing red neckties gathered in one of the town's forests. They raised a red flag on which slogans were written demanding an eight-hour work day and political freedom. However, the Bund's activities only began to be felt in 1901; in 1905 it became a decisive force in the city.

Pinsk served as fertile ground for the Bund's activities at least until 1903, since the city was almost entirely Jewish. The few policemen that were in the city could be bribed; and since the great majority of the factory workers were young men and women with low salaries and poor working conditions they soon found themselves engaged in revolutionary activity. It should be noted, however, that the Bund movement did not grow of its own accord but largely because of propagandists and organizers from the outside who succeeded in rousing enthusiasm for the idea of "a new life" in the hearts of the working youth who until then had felt neglected and inferior.

The first strike of Jewish workers in the city was apparently in 1899. In 1901 there were several strikes in workshops and in the match factory. As a result several workshops shortened the work-day to 10-12 hours. In the same year the first arrests of Bund activists were carried out. Pinsk emigrants from New York sent 100 dollars to save those arrested from expulsion to Siberia. As a result of these arrests an organization was established in New York which called itself the "Radical Men of Pinsk" (Pinsker Radikaler) whose main goal was to aid the Bund in the old home town. In the autumn of 1901 M. Lieber, one of the leaders of the Bund, came to Pinsk for the purpose of drawing the intelligentsia of the youth into the movement, a task at which he succeeded up to a point.

In 1902 the organizational framework of the Bund in Pinsk was set up. A committee was established and the members of the Bund were organized into groups of 20, according to their intellectual qualification. Each group was led by a member of the committee. In this manner all members of the Bund were placed under the supervision of the committee, which delegated to itself the authority to organize strikes. The committee from time to time organized meetings of workers in a particular occupation and supplied speakers. From the autumn of that year the city experienced rising tension. A strike which broke out in a shoe-making shop caused the arrest of 12 workers, and brought about terrorist actions in revenge. Workers poured acid on the shop owner, badly burning his eyes.

A breach soon became evident between the Bundists and those who had gone over to the Minsk type of Poalei Zion, leading to an ideological conflict. Bundist propaganda attacked Zionism and religion. In the spring of 1903 Kolya Teper arrived in Pinsk, where Zionism had taken root. Teper had previously been a Zionist and one of Achad Haam's followers. After joining the Bund he became one of their most gifted propagandists. An illegal public debate was held between him and Chaim Weizmann and Rubenchik, who was one of Poalei Zion's spokesmen. Later a mass meeting was held in one of the forests near the city and his speech there drew a large audience. His arrest, along with others, as a result of this meeting, gave Pinsk youths a chance to show their strength. They broke through the door of the jail near the police station and released Teper and the others (April 18, 1903). Further arrests followed. Eleven persons were tried and six were subsequently sentenced to various terms in prison. Yet the movement grew. The strikes in the workshops increased and a strike was held in the candle factory. The Russian authorities found it necessary to infiltrate an agent provocateur named Arnadsky into the directorate of the Bund. He was one of the agent provocateurs most dangerous in the entire Bund movement and was instrumental in the arrest of many of the city's Bund members. On October 18, 1903 he was bludgeoned to death in a back alley by three youths. This brought about the detention of many people who were brutally beaten and then transferred to the prison in Minsk. Three of them were sentenced to long prison terms and the others were placed under police surveillance.

As a result of the Arnadsky affair the city's Bund movement began to decline. Active members fled. The fear of planted agents was so great that Bundist Aharon David Parokhodnik was murdered without any evidence against him. May 1, 1904 in Pinsk passed without any strikes or protest marches, though workers in many other cities did strike. Interest in the Bund was renewed in the summer of 1904 with the rise of revolutionary activity all over Russia as a result of the War with Japan. At the end of 1904 a new organizer from Bund headquarters gave renewed impetus to the organization in Pinsk. At the same time youngsters below the age of 15 organized themselves into the Young Bund.


From the Pinsk Historical Volume: History of the Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1941 (Volume 1).
Excerpted from the "History of the Jews of Pinsk: 1881-1941,"written by Professor Aazriel Shohat . Courtesy of The Jewish Community of Pinsk.




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