Jewish youth movements in Eastern Europe, particularly in the interwar period, achieved extraordinary strength, numbers, and influence as a result of a number of interelated contemporaneous factors, in addition to the particularly pressured conditions under which, for example, all of Polish Jewry lived. Factors included the tremendous expansion of state education (school attendance became mandatory in Galicia in 1867, and in all of Poland after World War I); the postponement of employment and marriage to a more advanced age; the new psychological and educational theories that recognized childhood and adolescence as stages of life with needs distinct from those of adulthood; and the undermining of traditional religious values, which in turn empowered young people to propose their own solutions to social and national problems.
Precursors of the youth movements, in the form of Jewish young peoples’ groups and organizations, emerged in limited form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The growth and forms of major Jewish youth movements during the second decade of the twentieth century, however, came partly as a result of broader European trends. In Russia, the Bund had an amorphous youth movement, Der Kleyner Bund, which was founded in 1901. In various parts of tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were Zionist—and for the most part socialist—student organizations such as Ha-Teḥiyah and Tse‘ire Tsiyon. It was the combination of the efforts of Tse‘ire Tsiyon among Jewish youth in eastern Galicia and the strong influence of the scouting movement in Poland, beginning in 1911, that ultimately led to the establishment of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir in 1915.
Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir certificate of membership in good standing for Yokheved Lipa, Chişinău (Kishinev), Romania (now in Moldova), 1922. She is wished a pleasant journey and that she would fulfill her obligations to the Jewish people (am ha-‘ivri). (YIVO)
It is not coincidental that the first Jewish youth movement in Polish lands was born in Galicia, the meeting place of German and Polish culture. The first members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir became even more closely acquainted with German culture when many of them fled to Austria during World War I, and it was from that culture that they absorbed the ideas of the Wandervogel movement. The Wandervogel philosophy called for an independent culture of youth that rejected the bourgeois values of the older generation and discovered the world anew through small groups of young people who hiked, sang, played sports, and talked about life together, under the guidance and inspiration of charismatic counselors. Another important source of influence was the scouting movement established in England by Robert Baden-Powell, whose book Scouting for Boys (1908) enjoyed enormous success on the continent and was translated into Polish in 1911. From Baden-Powell, the Jewish movement took the idea of quasi-military discipline and structure, which was intended to inculcate values such as obedience, self-sacrifice, and group solidarity.
The blatantly nationalistic character of the Polish scouting movement (and of Polish society in general at the time) was to some extent responsible for the creation of Jewish youth movements. With the establishment of a dictatorial regime in Poland following the coup led by Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1926, primary and high school students were prohibited from engaging in youth movement activities. Nevertheless, a number of semilegal and illegal organizations—often with left-wing orientations—continued to exist. Jewish youth movements thrived despite interference from school administrators, the police, and political authorities. Expulsion from school was a threat for those belonging to Communist organizations or those suspected of being close to them, such as members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir.
Major Movements and Subdivisions
Members of the local branch of Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth organization, Sokoly, Poland, 1935. (Upper right) A girl holds a document or newspaper titled Ha-Medinah (The State). (YIVO)
The Jewish youth movements in interwar Poland may be placed into four main categories based on ideology. The first included Zionists of various stripes. At the margin of this category stood such groups as Yugnt, the youth movement of Left Po‘ale Tsiyon, whose ideology was often more socialist than Zionist. He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsa‘ir, and Gordonia, along with Betar, were more clearly aligned with Zionism. To a limited extent, Tseirey Agudas Yisroel could also be classified as Zionist. A second category consisted of cultural autonomists and holders of similar outlooks, such as Sejmism and Folkism—including Tsukunft (the Bund youth movement) and Bin (Bee), founded by Max Weinreich; a third group was made of Communists; and a fourth of assimilationists, some of whose leaders believed that Jews should obtain full civil rights in Poland without forfeiting identity and ethnic solidarity. Two student groups that established youth movements for high school pupils belonged to this last category—Żagiew (Torch) and Zjednoczenie (Unity). Nevertheless, in order to fully understand the youth movement phenomenon, other factors that did not correspond to political and ideological classification must be taken into account.
The first of these factors was educational philosophy. Movements of a scouting character aimed to make youth independent; by contrast, the politically oriented movements existed to recruit for adult political parties or philosophies. Thus Betar, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir—at least in their early years—and Bin resembled one another in that they stood apart from political parties, while the Communist youth movement, Tsukunft, Yugnt, and even Gordonia and He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsa‘ir were closely linked to their parent movements. To be sure, these distinctions were not entirely clear-cut, and most movements manifested elements of both tendencies.
Debates over issues of social class were common to most of the movements. In many organizations, especially the Zionist pioneering groups, there was ongoing tension between two fundamental outlooks. Some desired to create a broad base of support—in other words, to attract as many members as possible by not setting criteria for acceptance into the movement. Others sought to cultivate a select, avant-garde elite. Very often, the distinction came down to the question of whether to accept only students or also working youth and/or those with only elementary education or even less. This tension was most evident, on an ideological level, in the socialist Zionist movements—for example, in the differences between the broad-based He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsa‘ir, which prepared youngsters for membership in the He-Ḥaluts movement, and Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir.
Members of the soccer team of the Kaunas branch of Betar, 1930s. (Jabotinsky Institute, courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives)
For various reasons, differences in this area became less acute toward the end of the 1920s, even though the self-image of each group and the ideological distinctions between movements changed negligibly. Moreover, movements that had very similar ideological platforms continued to coexist because of divergent practice regarding policies governing new members, and through this to form the structures of settlement in Palestine. Thus, the main difference between Gordonia, which sought broad membership, and Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, which was more selective, had to do with membership criteria—although their socialist philosophies also differed somewhat—and two fairly similar movements affiliated with the General Zionists, the elite Akiva and the more populist Ha-Shomer ha-Tsiyoni, also diverged on this question. Two Revisionist youth movements were also active simultaneously: ostensibly they disagreed on the ideological question of whether or not to secede from the Zionist Organization, but in fact the main justification for the separate existence of Me’ir Grossman’s group, Masada, alongside Betar was the selective social makeup of the former, which only accepted secondary school students.
Similar factors influenced the independent existence of two religious youth movements affiliated with Tse‘ire Mizraḥi: Ha-Shomer ha-Dati, which was “populist” (active mainly in eastern and Congress Poland) and Bene Akiva (in eastern Galicia and Łódź), which was more elitist. The ideological differences in membership policy paralleled, either fully or in part, differences of regional mentality.
The viability of the youth movements was also influenced by such factors as regional location, gender, and age divisions and limits.
The Second Polish Republic, founded in 1918, was made up of three main entities: Congress Poland, Galicia, and northeastern Poland (Kresy). Western and eastern Galicia (today western Ukraine
) were considered distinct for historical reasons. Regional differences, which had great significance in terms of Jewish culture, made themselves felt in the youth movements. Until the end of the period under discussion, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir was divided into two administrative structures—one in Galicia, the other in Congress Poland
. Galician Dror
united with Frayhayt, its sister organization in Congress Poland, only in 1938.
Members of Tsukunft, a youth movement of the Bund, putting up election posters in Baranowicze, Poland (now Baranavichy, Bel.), ca. 1930. (YIVO)
Some movements concentrated their activities largely or even entirely in a single area. He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsa‘ir and Tsukunft were based very largely in Kresy, even though both spread to other regions. Akiva developed in western Galicia, and its attempt to join forces with Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni in eastern Galicia failed.
Although most movements maintained separate activities only for younger boys and girls, the religious youth movements of Agudas Yisroel
retained separation between the sexes at an older age. The boys’ group of Agudas Yisroel was called Pirkhey Agudas Yisroel, and the girls’ group was Basye; the group for adolescent boys was Tseirey Agudas Yisroel, and for adolescent girls it was Bnos Agudas Yisroel. Ha-Shomer ha-Dati also had groups for older and younger girls: Beruryah and Beruryah ha-Tse‘irah. However, in Mizraḥi the separation was not always maintained, so that Bene Akiva had joint activities for both sexes.
Classic divisions in scouting movements distinguished three age groups—ages 9–13; ages 13–16 (scouts); and ages 16–18. The strongly political youth movements, however, had just two age groups, with passage into the adult movement held up as the ultimate goal. Some movements separated the age groups into two distinct sections—the illegal Communist youth movement offered the Pioneer children’s movement, and the Bund had the SKIF (Sotsyalistisher Kinder Farband; Union of Socialist Children) children’s organization, to which one belonged until age 16. Children’s movements of Agudas Yisroel were for youngsters under 14.
Links to Larger Organizations
A complex relationship existed between youth movements and the network of Jewish schools of various affiliations. School systems included Tarbut and the bilingual (Hebrew and Polish) gymnasia, which leaned toward Zionism; the Central Yiddish Schools Organization (TSYSHO), dominated by the Bund; Borokhov, which belonged to TSYSHO and was run by Left Po‘ale Tsiyon; Shul Kult of Right Po‘ale Tsiyon; Yavneh and Taḥkemoni of Mizraḥi; and Ḥorev and Beys Yankev, of Agudas Yisroel.
“Fascism must be smashed.” Cover of Yugnt shtime (Voice of the Youth), a mimeographed underground Yiddish newspaper put out by the Bund’s youth group Tsukunft, Warsaw ghetto, January–February 1941. (YIVO)
In the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox schools, membership in the corresponding youth groups was assumed. In Beys Yankev, for example, no real distinction was made between school or coursework and the Agudas Yisroel girls’ organizations. In Tarbut and the bilingual gymnasia, particularly in the upper grades, students tended to join the select Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, while many Talmud Torah pupils became part of Betar. However, regional factors also played an important role in the choice of movement: in Łódź, for example, Gordonia was popular among gymnasium students—perhaps because the organization had its headquarters in the town.
Nevertheless, in Tarbut schools, especially in the more conservative small towns, teachers did not always look positively on students’ participation in youth movements, fearing a spirit of rebellion and its consequences for the authorities. Study in TSYSHO schools led most students naturally to SKIF and Tsukunft, partly because the warm relationships created by teachers in this network awakened a sort of “intimate commitment” to the party’s youth movement.
Youth group members were also drawn ultimately to large unions. Jewish workers and apprentices in Poland were usually organized for professional struggle, and the Bund and illegal Communist movements were at the forefront of this fight. Activities of young people in workers’ associations and unions in different sectors marked a continuation of their youth movement activities. Very often there were strong similarities between the youthful group experiences and the battles workers fought over professional, political, and cultural issues. Youth movement members carried, as well, a sense of mission and risk, which they brought to demonstrations and other forms of agitation.
“The shomer is the pioneer of the renaissance of his people, his language, and his homeland.” Hebrew poster. Poland. One of a series of posters on the “ten commandments” of the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir movement. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
Because the subject of the relationship between youth movements and parties is a vast topic, our discussion is confined to the connection between the Zionist youth organizations and the pioneering He-Ḥaluts movement. He-Ḥaluts provided training (hakhsharah) for those intending to settle in Palestine as physical laborers, and it determined the ratio of such pioneers in immigration quotas. Four basic types of attitude toward He-Ḥaluts existed in the various movements: first, some (He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsa‘ir, Dror-Frayhayt) saw He-Ḥaluts as their ultimate goal, with members joining when they were old enough; second, some retained their independence as separate movements with their own educational approaches and activities but joined with He-Ḥaluts to prepare for immigration and settlement in Palestine (thus Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir after 1928 and Gordonia after 1929); third, some, including Mizraḥi and the General Zionists, established rival pioneering organizations: He-Ḥaluts ha-Mizraḥi (for Ha-Shomer ha-Dati, Bene Akiva), He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsiyoni (for Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni); and fourth, some rejected or were openly hostile to He-Ḥaluts, either because of a preference for ongoing work in the Diaspora or because they had a different vision of the type of society that should be established in the Land of Israel (thus Betar).
Youth Movements outside Poland
Beyond the boundaries of Poland—in the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria—virtually the only active Jewish youth movements were Zionist: Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, Gordonia, He-Ḥaluts ha-Tsa‘ir, Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni, Akiva, and Betar. There were only two instances in which the Polish Zionist Youth Movements were affected by developments that occurred in other countries: the He-Ḥaluts movement in Russia (founded in 1917 and dismantled by Soviet authorities in 1928) influenced the nature and character of the same movement in Poland by placing emphasis upon immigration to Palestine and agricultural settlement there, and by its opposition to cultivating an autonomous youth culture. The Betar youth movement originated in Latvia in 1925, and was followed only later by its Polish counterpart. In all other cases, the above-named countries’ youth movements were formed a number of years after they had already attracted a following in Poland, and they viewed the Polish organizations as exemplary models upon which they were dependent for educational resources. (In Czechoslovakia, the El-Al Blau Weiss [Blue White] youth movement operated under the influence of its sister organization in Germany, which provided it with educational guidance.)
Vladimir Jabotinsky (with eyeglasses) and members of the Betar youth movement, Lublin, 1930. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
Beginning in the late 1920s (and in Hungary and Bulgaria even earlier), East European governments were turned into dictatorships or semidictatorships. Consequently, youth activities during those years were carried out under very restrictive conditions, sometimes in secret. In certain cases, as in Hungary, youth organizations were treated with hostility even by established Jewish institutions that feared backlash from the authorities.
As was the case in Poland, during the interwar years Romania and Czechoslovakia contained a number of ethnic regions, causing each of these states to be culturally and linguistically heterogeneous (Czechoslovakia included the Czech region, Slovakia, and Carpathian Rus’; Romania contained the Regat, Bucovina, Bessarabia, and Transylvania; in 1938, the province of Transylvania was returned to Hungary). As a result, certain youth movements set up branches in only one or two regions, with activities shaped by the cultural features of that specific area. On many occasions, disparate regional branches of a movement were united as national movements only at a much later stage, during the mid- or late 1930s.
A significant portion of youth movements sprouted from organizations that held very weak educational or civic philosophies, and it was only much later, at a very gradual pace, and after much internal debate and bitter controversy, that these movements were able to adopt the specific Zionist ideology associated with their parent world organization. The strengthening of these movements took place mainly in the 1930s, coinciding with worsening economic conditions and a growing threat to Jewish life so that the main focus of activities at that time was more upon practical training and preparation for immigration to Palestine and less with ideological instruction and local cultural events.
Postwar Youth Movements in Poland
Youth movements in Poland had always been committed to educational practice, to playing an active role in vocational organizations, and to providing assistance to ordinary people on an everyday basis. During the Holocaust period they were active in self-help organizations that were set up in the ghettos and camps. When the organizations concluded that European Jewry was destined for total annihilation, they played a central role in organizing insurgent activity and, as they saw it, defending the honor of the Jewish people. These movements included Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, Dror, Tsukunft, Ha-No‘ar Ha-Tsiyoni, Akiva, and Betar.
Arayn in Tsukunft” (Join the Tsukunft). Polish/Yiddish poster, Warsaw, 1930s. Artwork by H. Cyna. Tsukunft (Future) was a youth movement of the Jewish Labor Bund. The slogan can also be read as "Into the Future. (YIVO)
Members of the Zionist youth movements also played a significant role in promoting clandestine and illegal immigration to Palestine between 1934 and 1944. After Poland was liberated from Nazi occupation and after the repatriation of nearly 200,000 Polish Jews who had escaped to the Soviet Union during the war, members of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir and Dror (including the leadership of the ghettos, who had returned from Soviet territory, as well as emissaries from Palestine) helped to establish children’s homes and training centers for children and youth (mainly in lower Silesia), which provided education and prepared the survivors for immigration to Palestine. Youth movements were also instrumental, largely through offering payments, in obtaining the release of Jewish children from monasteries and from Christian families where they had been living in hiding during the war years. Zionist youth movements also played a pivotal role in the smuggling of tens of thousands of Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovakian Jews across borders on their way to Palestine.
The Bund, which bitterly opposed Zionist youth movements, and which argued with them over the path Polish Jewry should adopt in the postwar years, reestablished its youth movement, Tsukunft, at the end of 1945. This movement attracted hundreds of members, but was fatally undermined by the absence of a significant Yiddish-speaking community.
Gershon Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916–1939 (Jerusalem, 1996), pp. 118–177; Joseph Elichai, Ha-Mizraḥi u-tenu‘at torah va-‘avodah be-Polin, 1928–1939 (Jerusalem, 2001), pp. 149–182; Jacob Sholem Hertz, Di geshikhte fun a Yugnt: Der kleyner Bund; Yugnt-Bund-Tsukunft in Poyln (New York, 1946); Zvi Lamm, Youth Takes the Lead: The Inception of Jewish Youth Movements in Europe, trans. Sionah Kronfeld-Honig, ed. Rochelle Mass (Givat Haviva, Isr., 2004); Joseph Lichten, “Notes on the Assimilation and Acculturation of Jews in Poland,” in The Jews in Poland, ed. Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk, and Antony Polonsky, pp. 107–129 (Oxford, 1986); Ya‘akov Margalit, Gordonyah be-Polin (Ḥuldah, Isr., 1980); Matityahu Mintz, Ḥavle ne‘urim: Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-shomerit, 1911–1921 (Jerusalem, 1995); Jaff Schatz, The Generation: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Communities in Poland (Berkeley, 1991).