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Tribute to Boris Katzman

December 10, 1933
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Boris Katzman, leader in the Jewish self-defense movements in Europe and in colonization plans in Palestine, died in the colony his father helped found, Rehoboth, Wednesday, at the age of 59.

A few words from Jerusalem record the passing of one of the most fascinating personalities in the modern Zionist movement. The name of Boris Katzman rarely appeared in the press. It is not distinguished for any specific contribution to the cause of Zionism. But to a small circle of friends—scattered in Vienna, Berlin, New York and in Palestine—he was a glowing intellectual and spiritual influence and will never be forgotten. He was the finest specimen of Zionist chivalry and zeal produced by Russian Jewry of the past generation. He had the spirit of the legendary D’Artagnan. He was the carrier of an incandescent enthusiasm which was infectious. He was not only the exponent of an ideal, but its living embodiment.

The glow of majesty which Theodor Herzl reflected in a public manner for public purposes, Katzman carried with him in every turn of intimate Zionist friendship. He despised the Galuth savagely; despised its servility and physical deformity; and therefore threw off all the habits of the Galuth and acted as he imagined a free Jew should act, with loyalties only toward the living Jewish nationality which, being repudiated, he had to reject in every act and thought of his life.


Boris Katzman was born in the Ukraine. He was the son of a well-to-do land-owner and contractor who was one of the earliest supporters of the Chovevei Zion movement, and one of the founders of the colony of Rehoboth. When the time came for Boris to enter a Russian university, he refused to accept the conditions imposed on Jewish students, and left for Vienna where he matriculated at the Vienna University. There he was one of the founders of the Kadimah, the Jewish Student Organization in which Theodor Herzl found a great deal of support. As a student, Katzman soon acquired notoriety through his active resistance to the discriminations practiced upon Jewish students. He precipitated brawls in the classroom upon the least provocation, challenged anti-Semitic students to duels, organized the Jewish students for self-defense, and managed, in a brief time, to bring about his dismissal from the University for breaches of discipline. To this day, in Vienna, the Jewish Student Organizations are regaled with legends of the audacity of this “wild Russian.” After his dismissal from the University, he went to Rehoboth and worked as a field hand, but was laid down with malaria and had to return home. He came under the influence of Theodor Herzl, and, together with a classmate, Buchmil, who later became an engineer, he helped to organize the first Zionist Congress, going from town to town urging the election of delegates. He was a delegate to the first Zionist Congress himself.

Later, he entered the University of Montpelier in France, and graduated as an agricultural chemist. He decided to come to America in order to do practical work in his profession and to prepare himself for service in Palestine. All the plans of his life related to Palestine. And although it took him many years before he finally found himself in Palestine, there was not a day he spent in exile which was not devoted to thought and act for his ideal.


For about fifteen years he was with us in the United States. For a time he secured positions in sugar factories in Cuba and in West New York, at the Battle Creek Sanatarium but always his Zionist obsessions and pre-occupations brought him back to the Jewish field, the center of which was New York.

He was not a speaker; he fumbled all the languages he knew (Russian, Yiddish, German, French and Hebrew), but, although in a sense a stammerer and inarticulate, he could make his thought known and felt by the fiery power and deep sincerity of his argument, the obstinacy of his argument, the obstinacy of his dissents, and the essential rationality of his ideas. Scores of the younger Zionists, mature and active now, were deeply impressed by the charm of Katzman’s manner and by the logic of his views, and whatever they have of intellectual character in Zionist work may be traced to their intercourse with him. He knew how to listen and when to shout, and time was of no consequence to him once the discussion began.


He was a party to almost every activity of the Zionist movement, practically from the period of the Turkish constitutional reform up to the period of the Keren Hayesod. Once his obsession was that in order to prove Palestine as the logical solution of the Jewish problem, it was necessary to have a soil map made of all of Palestine so that one might know, with scientific accuracy, how many hundreds of thousands of Jews the land could absorb. The plan would have involved several million dollars and would have taken probably a decade to execute. Some of us tried to persuade Katzman to begin the realization of his plan in segments and, although money was secured for initiating the work, he was adamant in refusing to go ahead unless there was an undertaking, on the part of responsible bodies, to furnish all the funds the plan required.

Subsequently, the soil map proposal was abandoned temporarily, and Katzman worked out a plan for reducing the lime shale in certain sections of Palestine to lime and oil, which, according to his calculations, could be manufactured at a lesser cost than these articles could be produced elsewhere. The lime shale proposal interested Mr. Justice Brandeis, who later provided the funds necessary for making the experiment.


While Katzman was with us, he was a worker in the Kishenev relief effort and a strong supporter of the self-defense movement. He argued in many circles against acceptance of the Turkish Constitution, and helped to check the movement sponsored by Dr. Judah L. Magnes to accept the granting of a constitution by Turkey as the realization of the Zionist aim. He worked with us in organizing the American Jewish Congress in 1915. And when the clash came about with the Keren Hayesod, he supported, in all the discussions in which he participated, the principle of the authority of the Zionist Congress and of the prior right of the Keren Hayesod as the fund-raising instrument of the Congress.

When he finally went to Palestine to execute the plan for which Mr. Justice Brandeis assumed a financial interest, all his wanderings were at an end. He had never been at home with us and seemed never to have much baggage, although he was the father of two children whom he later took with him to Palestine. When he went to Palestine, he took possession of his father’s estate in Rehoboth. In spite of the fact that he gave the impression of being a Bohemian, careless about dress and about money, he was an expert mechanic, a thrifty husbandman, and was capable of living with a frugality which was amazing. His home at Rehoboth was the center of pilgrimages by many of his friends from all parts of the world. He made the farm at Rehoboth a model of thrift and scientific experiment.


He was a man of striking appearance. He was tall, with a well-knit body, always lean and springy. His face recorded the struggles and enthusiasms of his life, and crowned by a mass of grey hair in recent years, he made the impression of unbounded energy and fiery audacity. He had the charm of simplicity and truth, and always gave the impression of hunting for converts to his ideals, never satisfied until he had accomplished his purpose.

The original pioneers of every movement seem to be cast in a mold which the movement itself soon destroys, and such pioneers are never created in the later years of a movement’s life. Boris Katzman was the authentic first-cast of the modern pioneer in the Zionist movement. Those who were privileged to come in contact with him will never lose the vision of Zionism which he thrust within the range of their mortal experience. And the gathering of the memories he has left behind him will constitute a book which may one day become the legend of one of the heroes of the Jewish Renaissance.

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