Ostroleka, an ancient settlement, located on the Narev River and near a large forest, was founded in the 14th Century. The city was elevated to the category of a city by the local Mazavsher Duke, and it thrived. Certain rights and privileges of use were granted. A bath, a barber shop and fairs are mentioned. There is no evidence of Jewish residents when the city was founded.
After its incorporation into the Kingdom of Poland [early to mid-16th century?], the city was raised to the status of a starastve [county] and into a lifelong lease to King Bono, who decreed in 1552 the relationship that would exist between the inhabitants and the staraste[county executive], whose name was Mik. The citizens were given certain work freedoms [e.g. not required to work as peasants];allowed to go without permits, nor did they have to pay tribute to the staraste in the form of beer, etc. However they were required to provide him with chickens on holidays. They were allowed to cut dry wood from non-productive trees, and use it for heating.
Historians wrote in 1564, that in 1563 all the 334 houses in Ostroleka completely burned to the ground and then rebuilt.
In 1578 new laws were decreed for the guild.
Sigmund the Third established written regulations in 1622 concerning merchants and the brewing trade, all of which were written in Polish by the elders of the guilds. August the Third, in the privileges of 1745, pronounced or allowed religious freedom to the Jews as well as the Christians, and also required respect to visitors. Travelling was forbidden prior to the completion of morning prayers. Also prohibited was the buying or selling anything before 8 A.M. Also as to the buying of grain and other life-sustaining goods, the city people had advance warning ahead of outsiders and particularly ahead of Jews. For the greater need of the city, three additional fairs were established.
On April 25, 1826 a special decree restricted Jews to living within certain quarters of the city, except that wealthy Jews who paid taxes were allowed to buy land and live in areas forbidden to the ordinary Jew. By 1827 the Jewish population had grown to 496 out of a total population of 3, 030. By 1857 Jews numbered 1, 128 out of a total population of 3371 [33.5%]. In 1862 this law was voided and Jews were allowed to live in all quarters of the city and they were also permitted, from that time on, to buy baths and to buy various other good things. During this time the Jewish population grew, helped by those coming into the city from neighboring little towns.
Circa 1865-1867, Ostroleka was the provincial capital in the Palatzkergubernia[province of the Russian Empire]. In the city there were 192 homes, 2 horse-stables, a courthouse, the provincial chief's office, the forest official, a salt storage facility, a hospital, post office elementary and girl's schools and 6 fairs were held there every year. The province at that time had seven cities: Andzsheyev, Brock, Tshizshev, Mishenitze, Nur, Ostrolenka and Ostrow. Other provincial facilities were 7 elementary schools, a police court, 23 breweries, 10 turpentine factories, 12 watermills and 50 windmills. Also in the province were 39, 831 head of cattle, an amber mine and 83, 967 inhabitants, of which 11, 040 were Jews.
By 1897 the Jewish population grew to 4, 564 out of a total population of 7, 965 [57.3%].
With the outbreak of WW1, Ostroleka suffered. Due to its proximity to the battlefield, Ostroleka was the first to be destroyed. In 1915, the Russians left the town and burned it down, leaving only 8-10 houses standing. Many Jews fled the city upon the defeat of the Russian military. Many became homeless in White Russia and many others settled in nearby cities such as Ostrow, Warsaw and others.
In 1916, under German occupation, people started returning to the city, finding ruins, but started rebuilding..Relations between the Jews and the occupying Germans was good, particularly because their Yiddish was so close to the German language. Some rebirth occurred, but the Kehilah was never restored to its former standing. In 1921 [not all Jews had yet returned] the Jewish population was 3352 [36.7% of the total population]. Because of the fallen state of the city and economic pressure on the Jews throughout Poland in the 20's and 30's migration of the Jews increased.
By 1924, the Jewish community was counted into the larger community, and they had a managing committee membership of 8 in a city council of 12. The last election was held in 1936.The chairman of this managing committee was Mendl Gedanken (a general Zionist), Vice-Chairman was Wolf Leib Barshtsh (Agudah), and the members were: Ally Bayuk (Labor Zionist), Notte Barman (Artisans), Itzhak Rosanowitz (Mizrachi), Shloime Rutski (Agudah), I.Shafran (Rightist Labor Zionist), and Abraham Piastetshni. The meetings of the council were peaceful.
The kehilah staff consisted of the Rabbi, his representatives, 3 schochets [ritual slaughterers] and 6 clerks. The kehilah had religious society institutions such as a talmud torah, a Yeshiva and a khevra-kedusha [burial society].
In 1931 the Jewish population was 4, 291 and in 1939, 4, 900.
Jews from Ostroleka were active in the resistance movements in the Vilna and Baranovickie ghettos. Some also joined the partisans and fought in Puczcza Naliboki and surrounding area.
We don't know exactly when Ostroleka was first formed as a shtot[city] but the first indications appear in the 16th Century when Baleslav the Second divided his realm amongst his sons. Old documents indicate that the Ostroleka portion went to Ziemavicz the Third. In 1502, Conrad Mazavietski set up guilds. In 1563 a terrible fire broke out which destroyed almost the entire city.
Old documents from 1826 provide evidence that Ostroleka was a poor shtetl[small town] of 316 houses, of which only 15 were of masonry, and the population was 2562 (including 480 Jews, of which 142 were employed in agriculture-the others in handwork or trade). From other writings we see that most all handwork and trade was by the Jews. In town there was an amber factory. Townspeople by profession were: 24 bakers, 3 millers, 3 furriers, 3 hatmakers, 33 shoemakers, 11 potters, 17 butchers, 17 tailors, 7 kesslers [boilermakers], 3 locksmiths, 3 hatband makers, 2 turners, 1 clockmaker, 1 knitter, 2 glaziers, 2 merchants, 9 shopkeepers, etc.
Ostroleka developed strongly in the years 1878-1896 when they began building Polish Czarist military facilities in the area. Further development occurred when the railroad came to Ostroleka.
In 1860 there were 192 houses in Ostroleka with a Jewish population of 1130 out of a total of 3460.
By 1895 the general population was up to 7776 (the number of Jews and houses is not known).
The significant growth of the Jewish population between 1825 and 1860 raises the question of whether the Jewish population lived together in one neighborhood of the city and where? What part did the Jews play in the life of the city? And what effect did this growth have on the building of the city?
We have at our disposal various sources concerning the population figures, such as Jews in Ostroleka and the Compensation for Injuries after the War of 1843 and the Geographic-Mathematic Dictionary by M.Vizchovski.
Although the counts may not agree with each other, there is nothing to undermine the numbers. There was an unquestioned growth after the Polish revolt of 1830-31. From all of our information available about the Jewish population of Ostroleka, we can say that its participation in city life and in the history of the city had two clear self-evident stages: a. Before the revolt and after. As to the stage before the revolt, we know little about the count and position of the Jewish population in the different periods of the history of the city. Nevertheless it must be said that at the end of the 18th century there was a decided change in wealth and employment. Supported by ethnographic material, we firmly believe that they had at their disposal greater monetary means and they stepped out, on the threshold between the 18th and the 19th Century, as a factor in the investments in agriculture and the installation of water-dams on the Amulev and other tributaries of the Narev. And also as to the placing and development of water-mills and bleacher? places, blacksmith shops, etc. At the end of the 18th C. there were small and medium Jewish financiers from Ostroleka, who were tied in with world industries. We have information that they were actively financing industry. At the same time, Jews worked at making and transporting tar, making potash and charcoal, transporting timber over the rivers and even explored for and mined amber. It is without any doubt, that this category of the Jewish population had to have played a significant role in gentry of the city and of the entire region.
Independent of this category of the Jewish population, there existed also in Ostroleka wide layers of small shopkeepers and craftsmen. In the city they formed the great majority of the Jewish population, but we cannot say what percentage [of the Jewish population] they were.
On the basis of certain documents, we can establish that, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th C., their activity was tied in with both the city and the surrounding villages, producing articles for daily use (various kinds of ropes, combing and reworking wool, making hats, candles, soap, etc.). They sold their wares house-to-house, or bartered with the village population, mostly for tallow and honey.
The significant growth in Jewish population after the revolt was a phenomenon with many aspects. Although the growth of the Jewish population in the city was tied into the growth of the capitalist system of the country, this phenomenon had its own specific features which were of minor interest in the historical past of the city.
Let me add, that once the border between Prussia and Russia was set, Ostroleka became an important center where there developed a widespread business of smuggling men, horses, haberdashery and other goods. In the period from 1830-1864 that revenues, of the Jewish population who were involved with smuggling, reached such a significant scale that they were even reflected in official statistics.
Now another question arises, just how did growth in the Jewish population reflect in the growth plans of the city? What a pertinent beginning, when particular sections of the city were parceled out for the Jews. If even in the last 20 years of the previous century there had existed a plan to create a distinct partition between the Jewish and the Christian populations, we don't know how extensive that was. Based on the plans for the building of the city at the end of the previous century and on the regulatory-project of 1878-1886 and also on the plan for the building of the present-day city, we firmly believe that the Jewish population lived in close quarters on the cross-streets between the market [place] and the fairgrounds, and down Kilinski St. and in the region of the milk market. Beyond that street, and in the direction of the church, the border of the Jewish quarter jutted out in many places. The eastern border was Varinski St. The Jewish population did not grow much to the south.
In 1915 the city had a population of 14, 000, of which 6, 000 were Jews.
During the German occupation [World War 1] there were also these schools: a three-class school for Polish children (2 teachers), one Jewish school and 30 kheders [Hebrew primary schools].
A separate tragic event occurred in the history of Ostroleka in the years 1939-1945. The war and the German occupation brought to the city the elimination of the entire Jewish population, the destruction of the entire business and operating apparatus of the city, a scolding and persecution of the Christian population, and the incorporation of the city within the borders of the Third Reich under the name Sharfenviza[?] The greatest toll of buidings, those which formerly served as school places, and institutions that were tightly bound with the Polish state, were rebuilt and converted to industrial useages. The small wooden houses, which formerly housed the poorest Jewish population were burned down and the area flattened.
I remember a wagon and two horses at our door with cushions and other household items plus the meager good things that we could salvage.
This was a fearful picture for a child of 9 - hundreds of wagons, others on foot with their meager packs on their shoulders, fear-filled faces, sick people. Others who could not make it on their own were aided by people who had wagons - no compensation was asked for. And so this stretched out on the dirt road to Ostrow. A similar fate fell on hundreds of other shtetls.
For a year we wandered, and we heard that our town was burned down, with a very few houses left standing. Fortunately those who returned to Ostroleka found refuge in the famous Benedans barracks.
My family had found refuge in Lomza where we stayed until our return to Ostroleka. All of us rode into town in a wagon. A light rain was falling - what we saw was chimneys, broken houses and walls and balconies hanging by a hair. We drove to the shul gas [Synagogue Street] where we used to live, right opposite the great shul. As we drove into the street we saw the ruins, including our house. We all stood in front of our house, sobbing. This picture repeated itself for every returning family.
The first night, I remember, my eyes never closed. The wind whistled through the cracks. The next morning I went into the street and found friends who had also returned. People who had buried things for safekeeping, before the evacuation, were digging.
And so, little by little, our shtetl returned to life. Relations between the Germans and the Jews were good. Stores began to reopen. Workshops began to operate, and those who had a little cash slowly rebuilt their homes. Also at that time, a great iron bridge was built over the Narev, which put a lot of people to work. (The old wood bridge had been destroyed.) Political parties and cultural groups began reorganizing.
The German occupiers trusted the Jewish residents over the Christians because of the similarity between the German language and the Yiddish and most Jews spoke German as well. After all, what is German, but a bad Yiddish!. Soon there were Jewish militiamen.
I remember very much the yashkelikhe. In one room was the library with several large beautiful siddur (Prayer book) bookcases and Itzhak Lev was the librarian. Soon the two rooms were filled with youngsters seeking books, discussing books, etc. A choir was organized, a drama section formed and soon the ruins did not bother us as much. In the evenings, everyone, storekeepers, maids, et al went to their clubs or to the synagogue for classes. We began to seek lecturers. The theater was full of people. Different troups and artists sought out our shtetls, for instance Anna Jacobowitz, Avrum Itzhak Kaminsky and Julius Adler.
Aside from the efforts of the various political groups, work was going on for worthwhile causes such as the communal kitchen, which served 100 lunches a day to the needy. There were Jews who had income but there were many poor Jews. Help was arranged for the sick. The peoples kitchen help entertained the poor with amateur shows. Young people's groups met also in private homes.
In 1918 when the Germans left Poland and the Poles took back the regime, a war broke out with the Bolshevists. Things then took a turn for the worse. Jewish youth were then mobilized into the army thus depriving Jewish families of their young sons and sources of income.
The United States was the only supporter of Poland and its Jews. The Jews had to look out for themselves.
Although no democratic election was held, personable and energetic townspeople, including Velvel Chacek, oversaw the community and its needs, but it was not an easy task. The Jewish group did not have its own building. Meetings were held in members' homes. Nobody had official standing. Rebuilding had commenced, and amongst the first things was the re-establishment of the Zionist groups and the library. Another problem was the buying of wheat, particularly Passover wheat.
A large emigration to Israel (then called Eretz-Israel or Palestine) occurred which weakened the Zionist leadership. Their successors were not agreeable to upholding that which their predecessors had built up. However news that followed from Eretz-Israel was not good - joblessness and Arab problems. Bad news was published daily about life under the British mandate government.
Because of the bad news from Israel the Bund grew stronger in Ostroleka. Many people returned from Eretz-Israel and became active in the Bund.
It was not long before there was again destruction of our lives. That was the Bolshevist invasion of Poland in 1920. As always, the Jews were first in the fire. The Russian Red Army quickly left Poland, and the Polish regime, especially the anti-semites (never missing in Poland) took revenge against the Jews, but through it all, the youth tried to live a normal life.
I recall an evening, at the Gutman family's house, which was a fateful time in my personal life. It was an ordinary evening, when I and a group of other youths were spending a social evening at that house, having discussions, singing as a group, etc., when we heard something very familiar outside. Police had surrounded the house and proceeded to arrest all of us and brought us to City Hall. We had to spend the night at the police station - we were accused of communism and the singing of Bolshevik songs. But the inquiry against us showed that this was a lie and we were released. This incident cast fear in the entire shtetl. I started reading about leaving Poland, but my parents felt I was too young to go out into the big world alone - that I should continue my education and to learn a trade. But I was straining to make Aliyah to Israel. I agreed to learn the locksmith trade in Lomza, but I vowed to get my passport preparatory to making Aliyah.
More than 13 years have passed since I left Ostroleka. The tie with my family was by mail. Some friends who also made aliyah but returned to Ostroleka met their eventual fate with those who had remained behind.
One of my friends who made Aliyah and remained was David Lev, with whom I was very close. He and I both joined the Haganah. I joined a theatrical group in Tel Aviv and David worked as a locksmith in Jerusalem. We kept in touch, but in 1929, I found his name in a Haganah obituary notice! At that time many of my friends returned to Ostroleka.
In 1934 my theater group traveled to Europe for guest performances. After performances in Paris, London, Brussels, and in cities in Italy and Switzerland, we went to Poland. It was 12 midnight when we arrived at the border. My compatriots went on to Warsaw and I headed to Ostroleka. I spent the night in Lomza, wiring home that I would be there the next morning.
During the hours that I spent strolling the streets of Lomza, they appeared provincial as opposed to my childhood recollection that they were very, very important.
All the way to Ostroleka my eyes never strayed from gazing at the tiny villages we passed through. Getting closer to Ostroleka I recognized the prison on the right side, which Jewish children used to dodge with fear, not to pass there. On the left the large sports arena, which looked a lot larger than when I left after World War 1. Also the public school where I spent my younger years looked better to me.
Soon I saw a great crowd of people, friends, and acquaintances and family members who welcomed me warmly. Unfortunately I could not tarry longer than 3 days because my show was opening in Warsaw. But in those few days I found that the city was rebuilt more beautiful than previous, the streets paved with cobblestones - but the youth were impatient and nervous. Everyone spoke of Eretz-Israel, America, Argentina, Uruguay. Those who had travel money were envied.
The reviews of our show went to the Jewish and Polish press in all the cities of the Province including Ostroleka. I was asked to do the show in Ostroleka, which I did, alone - without the rest of the troupe. The proceeds went to assist those who needed money to travel to Eretz-Israel.
My last day in Ostroleka was Simchat-Torah. It was a cheerful time.
So I remember my beloved Ostroleka.
Ostroleka was one of the cities in Poland which had its balebatim[gentry]; populated by several thousand Jewish families (who made up 50% of the population). They lived as one big family. Even with the controversies that occurred concerning things such as a Rabbi, a shokhet [ritual slaughterer], kehila [official community organization] elections, or even about a bathhouse attendant in the modern mikveh [ritual bath] or sweatbath, and also about the gabbais [synagogue wardens] and societies. These disputes were like family arguments - as soon as the battle ended, peace was quickly restored. The reason was quite plain: there were no outstanding divisions between groups. Seldom did anyone desecrate the Sabbath.
Two things were watched closely: one was the eruv [wire strung on circumference of the town to classify it as an enclosed private property in which objects could be carried on the Sabbath]; and the second was the bakers, who should not put up the tsholent [traditional Sabbath day meal] after the Sabbath began. There was no doubt about keeping kosher - you could eat in any house without concern. Marital fidelity was conformed to, even in the most liberal homes. The so-called free men wore stiff collars and pressed trousers. In my time I can recall three such people - two full and one half . The two free Jews clean-shaven, while the third trimmed his beard - and all three wore short coats. Those were the doctor, the pharmacist and the lawyer.
Ostroleka was known as a center for Torah study and Hassidism. Ostroleka had the large synagogue where we prayed on the Sabbath and on holidays. Also on the same grounds was the synagogue where we prayed on other days - the entire day that is - beginning at daybreak until 1 P.M. After that, the afternoon prayer, and without stopping, right into evening service. And so it stretched right into the night.
In this synagogue there was a place called the community room where one learned Hebrew. Ignorants who did not know a face from a letter did not exist. There were respected town proprietors, one of whom was Reb Mordecai Farber, a scholarly Jew, who operated a paint business with his wife. He only had a few hours to help in the factory. He led lessons for young craftsmen and dealers. Three generations would take his lessons at a time. Some of his students learned Hebrew themselves. Generally there was no craftsman that did not seek out any of his three daily lessons.
In my time there were about 100 kest-kinder who were being supported by their in-laws. For the most part these youngsters took their lessons in the Hassidic shtiblakh. All the Hassids were scholars. Many of them became distinguished Rabbis. Among the well-known Hassids were: Velvel Naskes, Ben Zion Tsukravitz, Leizer Mintz, Avrum Milinarzewitch, Mendel Zukor, Shlomo Sapir, Shmuel Baruch Landau and others.
I want to mention one Ostrolenker character and several episodes which have remained in my thoughts.
Our town was blessed with important, earnest personalities who did much for the city. But there were also leydikgeyers [loafers] who strongly interested the town with their daily activities that we all knew about. For instance, Pinia Gedanken and Dan Kahan, who did practically nothing in the past years, except for a little brokering or saying kaddish for the departed. But their major profession was to liven things up in the town. These two were always together, strolling the streets. They were always looking to do their pranks - and if you look, you find.
Ostroleka had its master-builders - one was Abraham Aaron the bricklayer, who left for Israel in 1924-25 with his son. Then came Leibl Korman (nicknamed Leibl Trotsky for reasons unknown). At that time they may have meant that without him, no houses could be built. He was a tall Jew, and always I remember him coming onto building sites. He impressed me when he built Moshe Shafran's house, always bustling. He also built the new mikveh- and after that he becme unapproachable. But he had on this job, Reb Pinchas Gingold (my father - a great pedant) who kept his eye on the job.
Ostroleka had its town wise-man, Moshe Sechtani (where he got such a name, I do not know) who was a son of Reb Feivel-Leib Hertz who played doctor to many Ostroleka Jews. He was good at applying cups and other traditional remedies. He would listen to a sick person's heart in a primitive manner and made do with remedies even if they were not strictly kosher from a medical standpoint. He always carried with him simple first-aid materials. When someone, for instance, got a sore throat which needed to be swabbed, he always had cotton with him. And which house did not have a stick to wrap it on? He would dip that into the iodine and the sick person was helped immediately. He also determined whether the sick one neededbankes [heated cups applied to the skin] or whether he just needed to be smeared with a poultice. They used to consult with him also to determine whether to call a doctor when the situation became serious. It was said that he had some medical experience gained while assigned to a Russian Army hospital in his younger days. He accepted as payment whatever they could pay - and offered help again even when the families could give him nothing but blessings.
Sechtani, the son, by contrast, was called the courier who conveyed sensation and news, many that even the babies knew already! But nothing slipped by him!
Also in Ostroleka there were many original family names, such as :Ha-Tovo, Adon Alom, Tefillin, Mlad, Yismekh and others.
Here I want to mention someone from the family Yismekh, who was one of my best buddies, Shmuel Leibel Yismekh, whose trade was watchmaking, which was his family's trade.He was a good craftsman. He was active in the rightist Poale Tsion [Labor Zionist] organization and in politics. He was a good person, had a good heart, always sought fairness and truth. He worked for organized society life in Ostroleka. He brought his help to the needy with dedication and good will. His brother, Chaim (now in America), another whose name I forget, Antshul (a hatmaker), and his two sisters were Labor Zionists.
I want to recall here also a water-carrier whose name was Benjamin. He was a tall Jew, with broad shoulders, and a black beard. He looked like one of the legendary thirty-six righteous men. He never knew what it meant to offend anyone. When he finished his water-bearing, he would go the synagogue for evening prayers and to study with Mordecai (the dyer) Eglovitch, who taught everyone there. Every day he would make every minyan, morning to night. He led a righteous life. I do not know his eventual fate!
Now, in recalling honest and observant Jews, I am reminded of another such Jew that I must mention: Velvel Chaim Melach, also called Velvel thepletter [raffler. The legend about him concerns the raffling of books (such as the Bible). His wealth was his (not small) family. He was a son of the Torah, completely withdrawn from the world. One who could never believe that evil could exist in the world. Never felt sorry for himself and always gave to the community.
Of the Ostrolenker melamdim [Hebrew teachers] only two of my teachers remain in my thoughts and I remember them with great respect and esteem. They were David Lichtenstein and Meyer-Yankl Blumenkrantz. David L. was at that time a very young man who had outstanding talent to influence his students to participate and to learn. It was a pleasure to sit in kheder. Later he became a businessman and things were not bad for him. Meyer-Yankl B. was my last Hebrew school teacher. I say my last, but even after I had started to work at my trade, I used to go to him for a lesson in the Talmud every morning before going to work. He was without a bad thought for anyone, and with so much understanding about children. Hitting was never seen in his class. When we children did not care to learn, his manner was not to do anything at the moment except to continue to study the Gemora by himself and soon we tired of doing nothing. Then he would say, You don't want to study? So it's no, but don't stop me from studying! Understand that this bothered us greatly and, all as one, we resumed our Gemora. Summers, in the great heat, he would allow us to go to the river for a swim. He lived near a mill which was close to the river, and when we returned refreshed he would not resume teaching. He was an older man with a lot of patience and feeling for his students.
There were many Jews who took an active part in Ostroleka's secular life, and in its Jewish life in particular, but let me remind you of just one of them. He was someone I knew quite well, and understand I knew his path well - Chaim Pinchas Gingold, my father! A person we can say, who lived in Ostroleka from birth till death. He was at one time a mohel[one who performs circumcisions] and also a member of the khevra-kedusha[burial society]. He was always ready for the community - there comes, for instance, a Jew from a small village who needs to have a bris [circumcision] performed on a Sabbath. It might be the greatest frost or the worst rainstorm, he would get into his wagon and drive to the village. He was also a councilman in the City Hall. He was also a representative of the Agudath.
After the first World War, when a Joint [Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish relief agency] kitchen was set up to feed the poor, he threw himself into the task, making certain it functioned as it should. His first concern was fairness, and then pity, that is why he was not always understood when he asked equal help for all. Nobody could change his principles about life - not even his own wife. He was very active in the Kehilahand in other things. He showed his talent in building the great synagogue, the Talmud-Torah [charity school] and the mikveh. Here he demonstrated excellent concepts in the field of building. He did not allow cheating. The builders were careful because of his scrutiny of the work. Later he became more active in Jewish life in the town and became involved in conflicts which he handled with a strong hand. Who does not remember the famous conflict over slaughtering - he was everywhere making sure there was no abuse. He made that Sabbath-guests had food to eat. He would not go home until all matters were settled.
Then after World War I, my father formed a committee of shtibl-mentshen(and good chums of my father's) that included my father, Chaim Elkes and Velvel Chacek* and they established a no-interest-loan office especially for the members, to which each shtibl member had to contribute one zloty per week. Everyone had to pay, but the poor had to pay only 20 grozen per week. Jews could get loans for up to 100 zlotys, and were allowed to pay off in small amounts. This office existed for as long as I can remember. Later, younger people took it over. One of these was Leibl Bartsh.
While I tell you about my father, I would like to say a few words about my mother, Yehudis [Judith] Gingold, who was, according to my opinion, the opposite of my father. For her charity came first, then came fairness. In her I saw the image of a person who gave a lot to charity and helped many needy people. I, as the youngest in the house, often had to execute her charitable assignments, especially on Fridays when it was a market day in town, which was an exciting day. While she answered questions for customers, we children had to pack up Sabbath food packages according to a prepared list. On special holidays things were more hectic - these were her special charity seasons and we had to put together extra lists of needy folk to provide with matzo, wine, etc. along with small sums of money. I was the mitzva messenger and often the bearer of money. So she gave much of her life for charity and good deeds.
I need to mention here also an interesting case of a Yom Kippur Week occurrence which took place in the house of Mendel and Yosef Zukor. In 1920 the Russian-Polish War commenced, and again Ostroleka was in the midst of things. The Russians chased the Poles into the old Market place. An incident occurred where a brick fell off the Zukor house during a rainstorm and hit a Polish soldier. Mendel and Asher-Motel Zukor were arrested. Later, two gendarmes came to the house - the fate of Ostroleka Jewry was in their hands. They took others for investigation 'Where did you hide your red flag, and the other bricks?' they asked. Tani Zukor (a sister of mine) told them to search the house. Neither flags nor bricks were found, but they uncovered various kinds of goods and valuable materials. The gendarmes helped themselves to this stuff and eventually the two prisoners were released.
However, this was not the end of this affair. The next day it was announced that the city had to be evacuated - again!. A delegation was formed and the townspeople were able to buy their release from this edict.
I would like to say a few words about Chaim Elkes. He was a mentsh, always ready to do a favor. He was the first to provide money for the shtibeldikerloan organization, so that loans could be made even before the weekly payments started coming in. The abovementioned Leibl Bartsh was also very much loved by the Jews in the town because of his consistent readiness to do favors. He was conspicuous in the younger group because of his talent as a community leader. I think he became either President or Vice-President of the kehila after I left Ostroleka.
Let me also mention here the interesting story of the American Jew (who was not from Ostroleka, but his parents were buried there), who left a great sum of money to the Kehila to found an interest-free loan society. I can't recall his name (but I believe it may have been Bloom or Chaibloom and was related to Garzeltshani the Reader). He returned one year to visit family. As a guest, he was allowed to pray in the synagogue, but he declined. On Saturday he called the proprietors to come together in the Rabbi's house and let it be known that he was going to give a large sum of money to the Kehila. There was great excitement in town! As soon as the word got out an organization was started that would provide interest-free loans for everyone.The amount was $5, 000. Besides that he gave $1, 000 for a park in the cemetery where his parents were buried. Another $1, 000 to complete the great synagogue. He sent money to the bank every year, but in later years he became impoverished and could not keep up his donations.
Parties, organizations, etc. all existed on the Jewish streets and also to be found were Zionists, the Bund, Labor Zionists, Mizrachi, Agudath, Hashomer-Hatzair, and many youth organizations. When I remember Hashomer-Hatzair, I think of Pesach Hochberg. When that organization was in its infancy, both in the world and in Ostroleka, (it was called a sports organization in Ostroleka) and needed an older patron, he came to their aid.
Lastly, I want to recall two Ostrolenkers who (just as Pinia and Dan) used to make merry in town. But these were two youngsters who had a talent for theater. I mean Hertzka Sayika and Ally Bayuk, who performed at every town event. Who can forget their reviews, their sketches, and their songs which all Ostrolenkers sang.
Without an end, faces come to my mind - faces of friends, acquaintances and family who all beg: MEMORIALIZE US!, who call out, TAKE REVENGE FOR OUR ANNIHILATION!.
Let my tales be a reminder for them all!
*CHACEK was my father's family name. D.S.
The sounds of my father teaching students was heard by our neighbors day and night.
The neighbors were of many types: Hassidic Jews, country types, business types and common people also. For years they lived in our courtyard. First I will tell you about the neighbors who lived closest to our apartment. Two of the neighbors were knowns as Fat Henik and Fat Faige, as everyone on the street called them, because of their size. They had a business selling sausage and other meats, all of which contributed to their size (which in turn was inherited by their children).
He, Reb Henik, was a well known meat dealer and chicken exporter. Once our yard was overrun by his chickens, and often it was a slaughter yard. I left Ostroleka upon the outbreak of World War 1 (along with thousands of others) and then lost track of this family.
The second neighbor, who bordered on my zeyde's apartment which faced the beautiful synagogue, was Reb Shimon Landau, the scribe who made his living inscribing Torahs, megilas and tefilin. He was a quiet Hassidic Jew. His house was always quiet, except when he had a drink and did a Hassidic dance; then he became a different man, talkative and merry. Yei-yeidideihe would sing. He and his whole family were murdered by the Nazis (except for one daughter who had emigrated to Canada).
Next to the Hassid was the apartment of the Liachavitz family - my uncle Niske and my aunt Neshke who had a two-room apartment. My uncle was a quiet man who worked in Mendl Bialy's sawmill as a manager. My aunt was a bren[full of fire!], very involved in the community, and always ready to do a favor.
Next was the home of the shoemaker (can't remember his name) - a stubborn, quiet man, a country type who never wanted to quote a price for his work: Let me do it and we will see he would say. At times he would ask customers what they wanted to pay, and he would accept that.
Next was Reb Itzhak Isaac, the cigarette maker and his wife Reizel who was always sickly. He was a Hassid with no children, but was raising a nephew as his own. He also worked with metal. He coughed a lot. He and his wife died during WW1.
Opposite him was Avrumel Shlafmitz, the wine-maker, who was also a Hassid, with a house full of children, who could barely make a living from his trade. He died of a terrible sickness before WW1.
I forget the names of many other neighbors, but one I remember well was Reb Moshe Hersh, the baker. He lived close to the the Gypsy St. side. He was thin, short, with eyes which shone with charity. He was called the baker because he stood on the street with his baked goods. He had no wife (she died young of a bad sickness, they said). Except for the hours at work (selling bread at the New Market), he was bent over heavy books, day and night. He studied quietly, not out loud. His house was full of pipesmoke, mixed with the smell of fresh bread. When you entered his house you knew that here lived a bright Jew. He was understood by my father, who gave him great respect. They were raised together and my father would visit him from time to time. At times he would visit us for a Hassidic shmues[chat] - often late into into the night. I loved to visit him also.
During World War 1, when the Ostrolenkers had to leave the city because of a Russian order, and the city was already burning on all sides due to the bombardment and from fires set by the military, the above Reb Moshe Hersh, fell ill (he never called a doctor, nor did he take any medicine), and did not want to leave the city. They tried to convince him to evacuate, but he said, God is everywhere, even in the greatest danger! But this is how Reb Moshe the believer paid with his life. We left the city and moved to a distant place (Charvin, I think) where the threat was not yet great. In the morning, to our surprise, we saw Reb Moshe coming towards us in a cloud of dust, dragging himself with all of his remaining strength. In a glance you could see a dark face which was no longer aglow and had a look of death. He could hardly smile (it was his last) when he saw my father. He did not have enough strength to say a word. He was carrying his bedding on his back; he dropped it to the ground and took a step towards my father, who was offering him something to restore his strength. But by the next morning, Reb Moshe was dead.
After such an operation, everyone would go outside to put out the fires. Some flights resulted in no damage - these were obviously lookout flights. We the children loved watching an air battle between airplanes with guns shooting. We also took pleasure in watching the many soldiers, singing their Russian songs as they marched, seemingly without end, through our streets towards the front. This continued for some time.
Before Pesach, 1915, when the town was preparing for the seder nights with the necessary cups of wine and the four questions, I was attending to a couple of things for the house and also for myself. Just as I got to where I was going, I heard a terrible bang, so bad that the earth seemed to shake. With my heart pounding, I ran to hide. The first bomb hit with an unusual power very close to me. That was evident because the impact blew out all the glass from a nearby house. After this, another blast shook all the houses around me. And so, one after another, the blasts were getting stronger, they were deafening. The bombardment went on for about two hours, with very short lapses, during which you could hear their buzzing. It was a big attack and it was obvious that they wanted to destroy the city.
Ostroleka, right from the beginning of the war, was a strategic place. Newspapers wrote about the military that guarded the city and about the many soldiers who came throught the city going to the front. The Narev River was mentioned without end because of its strategic significance for the city and the front which stretched out to the East Prussian border and farther. There were decisive battles fought near the city. Therefore the bombardments were understandable. These were designed to obstruct the military supplies and to destroy the military buildings around the city. The population was not warned and a great panic ensued and everyone starting thinking about evacuation. At the seders everyone sat afraid and embittered. A fifth question was added to the seder: What do we put on and where do we go?. The press alarmed everyone with loud, alarming headlines: 100 Bombs Hit Ostroleka! German Airplanes Cause Destruction in the City!
And so went the days of Pesach; this was the beginning of the end.
Within a few months the front came closer to the city (soon after the Samsonov disaster), and artillery shrapnel was falling on the streets of Ostroleka. It was around Tisha-B'Av when the Russian military issued a decree that all inhabitants must leave the city. After they left, the Russians put a match to the houses.
Reb Moshe Aaron, who was the eldest son, was the best known to me because he would often come to see my father, who was one of his shtibl chums. He earned a reputation as a shokhet in the area of our town. He was a fiery Hassid. He was a very virtuous man and put an emphasis on learning Torah. In his freetime he was always seen with a book in his hand. In any case, Reb Moshe Aaron Kahan was never found sitting without looking at the pages of a holy book.
Once, on a fast day, he saw Hersh Isaac, one of his sons (a good friend of mine, now in America, a cantor-shokhet, and a Jewish community leader) hanging around, not studying. How come? Why are you not studying? He answered, It is a fast day and I do not have the strength. His father answered quickly, Aha, you are looking for an excuse; go eat something and start studying.
Because of the war years and the emigration movement which overtook Poland during those years, Reb Moshe's family spread out all over the world - 2 sons (both shokhets and cantors) and 4 daughters in America, 2 daughters in Brazil and 2 daughters in Soviet-Russia. His wife died later in Lomza. One son and one daughter were killed by the Nazis in Poland.
The other sons were well known shokhets, mohels and scholars, and they were: Yosef Velvel, Avrum Simcha, Joshua Baruch, Chaim Berl and Mordecai-Mendl.
It is interesting to note that even a son-in-law was a shokhet. That was Reb Naftali Friedman, who was a shokhet in Ostroleka for his entire life until he was murdered by the Nazis.
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