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English Section

 

Wasilkow Roots

 

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Emblem of Wasilkow
Elk's Head

 

The town of Wasilkow is situated eight kilometres north–west of the great Jewish city of Bialystok. The township stands in the vicinity of partly hilly and partly swampy lands in the Podlaske lowlands, between the rivers Suprasl and Czarni, and belongs to the Bialystok district.

The history of Wasilkow can be read from the inscriptions on the tombstones in cemeteries that are located not far from the city. The name Wasilkow was known as early as 1528. In the year 1566, King Zigmund Augustus directed Grzegorz Wolowicz to designate an area of land for the town of Wasilkow, with borders laid down between the Podlaske and Trocki districts. In the same year, King Zigmund–Augustus conferred upon Wasilkow the title and privileges of a city according to the Magdeburger laws, and a year later, he built a church for the Christian population.

Wasilkow, with two hamlets and the villages of Dombrowke and Stuszianka were designated non–independent districts that were to be leased to the highly regarded Royal Engineer, Chiap Bratfus and the official head clerk, Lukasz Gurnicki. By 1665, the city had expanded to about 4780 acres (126 Wluk) with a corn mill, nine streets, a market and a suburb called Wulki.

The town dwellers and peasants of Wasilkow district sought protection from the King from the heavy taxes imposed by governors of the area. The conflict continued for a long time, until 1739, when the town received from King Zigmund, the so

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called “letter of protection” that ensured the rights of the citizens of the town against the policies of the governors (“starosta”). The governors were forced to strictly adhere to the recognised rights. In the year 1781, for example, King Stanislaw August forbade the Governor I. Kruszewski from imposing higher taxes than those that had previously been set.

In 1781 Wasilkow consisted of 115 families. By 1795 it belonged to the Grodna district and, during the Prussian reign, (1749–1795) to the Bialystok district. In 1799, Wasilkow was still a small town with a population of 891. In 1807 it was incorporated into Russia and was part of the Grodna district. In fact, in all periods of Prussian rule, Wasilkow belonged to the Bialystok district and in all periods under the Russians, to the Grodno district.

In 1860 Wasilkow had 212 houses and 677 people living in them. A more rapid expansion, in all respects, took place after the famous November 1830 uprising which subsequently resulted in the detachment of a part of Poland from the Russian Empire and the establishment of the so–called Polish Crown (the Polish Kingdom) with limited autonomy. Borders were set up with Customs authorities to regulate the trade between Russia and the Polish kingdom. This aided the growth of industry, trade and particularly the development of the textile industry.

By 1860, there was a population of 1381 in Wasilkow with several textile factories, two tanneries and a mill with a large number of hand weaving looms. By 1890, there were eleven factories, 508 houses and a population of 3335.

At the outset of the twentieth century, there was a steep decline in production and employment and in all branches of industry, particularly in the production of heavy fabric (sukno–tuch). In 1910, there were only three factories operating in Wasilkow. Between the first and second world wars, we note a stable growth in overall

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production, with periodical crises best reflected in the growth patterns of the population: in 1931: 4,801; in 1939: 5,127. Parallel to the growth industry and population is the growth of the role of the trade union movement and the demand of various associations for better working conditions. It is worth mentioning the hard working conditions that existed in the Wasilkow textile industry such as long working hours and low pay. This led to strikes in the years 1885, 1887, 1905 and 1933.

 

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Magistrate – City Consul of Wasilkow

 


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The History of the Jews in Wasilkow

At the time of the establishment of Wasilkow in 1566, a few families of Jews were already living there. During the period of the 30–year War (1618–1648) the number of Jews increased greatly due to the expulsion of Jews from Germany. Some of them settled in the areas of Bialystok, Chroszcz, Suprasyl and Wasilkow.

In 1760, the number of Jews in Wasilkow was 138. In 1799, the number of Jews reached 280 according to the figures of the census conducted by the Prussian authorities. In 1807, Wasilkow, a part of the Russian Empire, numbered 677 inhabitants – the majority of them Jews. There is a marked increase in the Jewish population in 1847 thanks to the development of the textile and timber industries in the region. In 1860, Wasilkow numbered 1381 inhabitants; they were divided into the following religious denominations: Russian–Orthodox 65; Evangelists 19; Catholics 817 and Jews 480.

That makes the Jews 35% of the population in general.

In 1891, there were 508 timber houses, 2 brick houses and 51 business premises. The general population reached 3335. (1770 makes 1625 females). By the year 1897, the population numbers already increased to 3880 of which 1470 were Jews (approximately 38% of the population).

The Jews took a great part in the commercial and industrial life of the city. Even in the 18th century, in the year 1765, a Jewish merchant, Moshke Herszowicz from Wasilkow, imported goods to the value of 1700 zlotys which at that time was a large sum of money. It is also documented in the same Custom's declaration that Jewish merchants from Wasilkow, Grodek and Zabludow, exported large quantities of hops, being an import–export commodity.

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The Jewish living quarters were concentrated around the market area in the northern part of the township and along Bialystocker Street. The name of the street was changed several times.

In the 17th century, a Jewish prayer house was already in existence. In the 18th century, the prayer house was demolished and a wooden synagogue was built in its place.

 

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The Wooden Synagogue
Pen sketch of Wasilkover Synagogue

 

In 1809, a new section was built for women with a separate entrance. A roofed foyer was also added for people to spend some time during the reading of the Torah and for talks and discussions.

The Wasilkow synagogue was quite alike in construction to the Synagogue of the Bialystok–Grodziensk style which was built in Sokolka, Sidra, Janowa, Sobotkin and other places. The two–level roof was covered with shingles. Around the roof, an ornamental border in art crafted timber, with frieze coloured lead light windows. The Holy Ark (ornkoydesh) containing the Torah scrolls was elevated by stairs which led up from the pulpit where the Chazan prayed and chanted. The bannisters were beautifully crafted.

The choir assisted from the steps. Various painted lions symbolized the strength of the faith as well as inscriptions from the Bible. In the middle of the shul was the Belemer (Bima) where the reader chanted sections of the

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Parchment Torah. This small area was also raised with steps on both sides. Around it was a balustrade of ornamental iron. There was beautiful harmony of construction in the altar, the niches, the walls, ceilings and light.

With the growth of the Jewish population, three more Beth Hamidrashim were built. In 1806, the so–called Great Beth HaMidrash, the “Urach–Chaim”, Beth HaMidrash was built, in 1880 the (Kleiner B.M.) and in 1895, the Chai Adam Beth HaMidrash was built.

Avram Barasz and Beryl Kawenoky were the founders of the Beth HaMidrash “Chaey–Adam” which was started in 1895 and finished in 1896. The structure was a mixture of bricks and timber. Half circle windows, a gable roof gave the shul a very attractive look. In these pages, there is a sketch of the Beth HaMidrash and the plan as submitted to the Department of Geology and Geodesy in Grodno. These were made available by Mr. Anthony Rudolf who lives in London. His grandmother came from Wasilkow in 1911.

Mr. Rudolf has a great sentiment for history of our town although he knows no Yiddish at all. This proves that the interest for one's roots is bound to the historical continuation of our people. Many thanks to Mr. Rudolf for collecting and donating the valuable material for this Memorial Book of our town.

All Synagogues were built with care and great love of detail where local craftsmen could express their skills in the intricacy of wood carvings and elegance in design.

Three Jewish cemeteries existed at that time. By now, only one survives and

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is in a state of total neglect.

The Nazis destroyed archives, documents, diaries, etc., which would have helped us a lot to write a more thorough history of Wasilkow Jewry. However, it is possible to state on the basis of retrieved documents that a Jewish (Kehile) community existed already in 1694. They even had certain privileges. The towns of Tiktin and Grodno had claims to Wasilkow, but the town was incorporated into the Bialystok area Authority in the 18th century. So were: Zabludow, Choroszcz, Michalowa, Knizin, Jaszynowka, Grudek, Adelsk, Sokolka and Janowa. A great fire broke out in Wasilkow in 1895. Half of the town was burnt down. The Bialystok Jewish Community assisted with substantial funds after the fire.

 

Economic conditions

The economic life of Wasilkow depended upon the

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Geographical proximity to the industrial centre of Bialystok.

Life was not easy at all for our people in Wasilkow. A lot of poverty and a constant struggle to survive. People made a living out of handcrafts, small trade and market; transport (that is usually carrying heavy loads on their backs) and few had road houses for peasants coming to town but were in great danger of their lives. Some grew a few potatoes and vegetables in their backyards, a few had a cow or a goat for milk. So there was a little cheese and butter for the children.

In the early thirties of this century, many Jews kept cows, goats, cultivated small areas for vegetables, but as the economy developed, more and more turned to other occupations. At the outbreak of war in 1939, there was an old man, Pinie Werniker who was still looking after his garden and selling his produce to the locals.

Wasilkow was on the main road Warsaw–Bialystok–Wilno–St.Petersburg (Russia). Therefore, peasants, travellers and small traders used to stop and spend a little time in town. As Bialystok progressed, so did communication with surrounding villages. Wasilkow benefited from the great flow of produce from the country to Bialystok. Some of our people would purchase goods from peasants and then sell to wholesalers in Bialystok to make out a living.

There were a few wealthy merchants. Brothers Litvin (Brutchkes), Ydl Zadworanski (Maldivan) who lived on the outskirts, Getzl Rubin, Artzik Minkin, Zorach Ratowiecki and a few others. They

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would deliver to distant townships; Sokolka, Grodno, and Krinka, various wheats, corn, oats, pighair, skins, etc., barley, peas, flax, cattle, sheep and goats.

In autumn, the custom was to load the cellars in each house with potatoes, cabbages and cucumbers. The cabbages were finely sliced and pickled in barrels. Flagons were filled with blackberries or raspberries with plenty of sugar to preserve them. The juices were often used as medicines in case of illness. Another favourite was fried strawberries.

One cannot forget the custom of feeding geese in order to use the fat and the flesh in severe winters as well as use the feathers for pillows and eiderdowns. Who can forget the delicious taste of “grivn” – goose cracklings as mother melted them down with onions?

This was the way to carry on with the household in the most economical way and keep the family happy via their pleasantly satisfied bellies. This way, the traditions and family unity were kept for the future.

 

The Road Inns. The “Kretchmies”

The old style road inn catered for peasants, their horse–driven long carts, wealthy people, coaches and their horses. In modern times, buses took over most of the transport yet there was still a lot of trade going with horse driven carts. The largest and best old–style inn was Jehuda Modawans. A huge timber barn without an attic. Often snow or rain got through the roof shingles. No floor. The earth and mud covered with straw, cleared once in two or three years.

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twenty to twenty–five carts and horses could be accommodated there.

The inn was the small wooden house next to the barn where the peasants were able to purchase hot tea, chicory coffee, pickled herrings, sausage and vodka. One found a warm spot in the winter when the cold reached minus 30 degrees. They slept on wooden benches, tables, on the bare floor or on their carts near their produce and their horses.

After old Moldawan death, his daughter Malka took over. She was a hefty woman. Her mother Chaja assisted her. Malka married a man whom she thought would be a great help in the business. Unfortunately, he was an incorrigible gambler, playing cards most of the time. The business was running down. The warm room on these frosty nights attracted the peasants to a game of cards.

So were some neighbours like Avromke the baker, Motke Mishkin's son–in–law, Awremtche Shtabinski, Eliea–Elkone Shapiro. The first that got heated quickly would fight for little reason – the last, gambled large amounts to scare off his co–players. The gambling ended only when Avromke's wife came screaming and crying or when Malke woke up, grabbed a broom and chased the no–gooders out.

The second inn in the town belonged to Itche Mishkin, called the “Pig Biter” (chaser baiser). As a young fellow, he bet one of the town's smart alecks that he could bite off a pig's tail. He won the bet but stayed with the nickname. Mishkin's barn was smaller than Modawans, so was the house. As he was getting old and frail, the business was running

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down. His daughter Frume, a very short woman, helped as much as she could but to no avail. His eldest son Berl became a timber merchant, quite a snob and he wouldn't even enter his father's barn that was full of rubbish. The younger son Chaim also became a merchant after finishing high school. He wouldn't hear of helping father. So, fewer and fewer came to this inn. Some peasants used to spend nights in the centre of town if unable to get into the barns.

Near Pinie the gardener's house, Meir Inker's shop and Pudlasha's bakery.

About two hundred metres from the Cerkiew, the Russian Orthodox Church. The Polish Catholic Church was quite a distance away. This annoyed the Poles. They tried now and again to liquidate the Cerkiew and move their church to the centre of town.

On the way to town, some peasants used to stop at Rubin Shapiro's bakery. Ruwke's shop catered for hot tea, cold meats, hot breads, herrings and spirits. The boss was actually Ruwke's wife Faigl, a tall and good looking woman who could handle any peasant getting nasty or refusing to pay the bill. There were a few other food shops. Archik the Greek, Minkin, Moshe–Koik's, Judl Zadworanski, etc.

In between the wars, various shops opened in the centre of town selling drinks, savouries, beer and alcohol, cakes and sweets. The owners of small pubs were Saria Lipstein, Pesach Stolnicki, Tashemowicz, Hershke Polak, and Tewl Kamien.

Popular sweet shops (Cukiernie) belonged to Chaim Czapnik (the Roshennoer) Pesls, Yankl Lipstein's (Glowacki),

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Baila Rabinowicz the daughter of Sulke the Kvasnik's, Abraham Polak, Shlomo Kane. Tea rooms belonged to Judl Zadworanski, Esther Litwin. The Polish owners of liquor rooms were: Krzywiec, Franciszek Biechowski, Dombrowski, Szymaski and others.

 

Craftsmen and Handcrafts

Most Jewish people worked their lands when Israel and Judea were independent Kingdoms. They looked after flocks of sheep, cattle, camels, horses, goats and various poultry. Orchards covered large areas as well as live trees. The tradition was carried on after the temple was destroyed and Jerusalem burnt.

Jewish settlers took up land in Poland right from the beginning. There is an amount of documentation to prove this. Even names of some villages show that Jews attached themselves to the Polish earth. Szmidkow, Moshkow, Lazarze, Zydowies, Yudendorff and others.

Jews arriving from the West founded commercial centres and factories. Jews from the East, many descendants of the Khazars, were specialists in silk weaving, tanning skins, furriers, glass production, silversmiths, etc.

From Silesia, Jews were known as expert weavers, bricklayers, builders, butchers, tailors, etc. Many settled near noblemen's fortresses. Together with Christian craftsmen, they supplied merchants and markets with their products. Jews contributed to the development of industry and the Polish economy thanks to their expertise especially in weaving, glass products, fur and skin production, copper and trade products and even in

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fruit orchards.

At certain times 90% of production was done by Jews. Polish craftsmen were angered so they formed guilds which restricted the numbers of Jewish craftsmen by instigating “exams”. These exams were designed to cut the numbers of Jewish workers. There was a most colourful array of tradesmen in Wasilkow, nearly 100% Jewish.

The town situated on the main road Warsaw–St.Petersburg naturally developed as a centre of all trades. People with various characteristics, habits and customs influenced by their trades, formed a most interesting field for study and observation.

 

Blacksmiths

As mentioned before, motorized transport came but most goods were still carried in peasant's long horse–driven carts.

This of course called for work to be done by skilled blacksmiths. Horseshoes, wheel rims, repairs to carts, spokes in wheels, all sorts of catering for vehicles and horses. The roads were primitive causing a lot of wear and tear.

Itche Sztabinski and his five sons worked a blacksmith's shop near the town. Itche looked very good with his Franz Joseph beard and good posture. He was the reader and singer of prayers in the small shul – Beth Midrash. While an excellent tradesman, he could be bad tempered and get heated for any little reason.

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As a boy he had the misfortune of having cut 5 fingers off his brother's hand while chopping firewood.

His brother Mulke didn't talk to him for years after that. His eldest son Moishke immigrated to Argentina to look for greener pastures. Itches' second son David was another hot tempered specimen.

He married a girl from a nearby township. Soon after the wedding, he got a mania that his new wife wanted to poison him. She did everything possible to convince him how wrong he was. She ate in front of him the meals she cooked but he was incurable. Finally, they parted.

Another blacksmith was Mordche Maler “Mokele”. He was so short that he looked like a circus dwarf. His wife was, however, a tall and beautiful titan. Mokele could walk under the horse's belly unbent and do the horseshoes. A skilled man, the peasants liked him. At times, his sons Hershel and Alter used to assist in the shop.

Another blacksmith shop near the windmill belonged to Aron Shapiro, Shmul Yoke's son. A respectable bearded man, he kept his family quiet and dignified.

His youngest son Elie left for Argentina in 1936. He worked there as a weaver, made a little money and returned in 1938 to take his beloved Miriam – Mirl Rabinowicz to Argentina. Elie did not make it with his beloved Miriam. They got caught up with others when war broke out. They most likely lost their lives in Treblinka.

Yosl Mosiondz worked his shop with his son David in the street near Shepsl the

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tailor's house. He worked very hard all his life. His second son Laibl took up carpentry in Bialystok. He didn't fancy his father's trade.

There was Israel Loshitzki, a first class tradesman. A progressive man who liked to read, especially newspapers. He was in partnership with Yosl Mosiondz but later started his own shop at the market opposite the Carkiev.

Nearby was a house that belonged to Velvl the teacher. When a house is mentioned in this book, one must not think in terms of villas in America or Australia. Nothing like it. Israel had a White Russian labourer who learned to speak Yiddish perfectly.

There was a Polish blacksmith, Pan Butchkko at Bialystok Street near the wooden bridge. He had little work not being a great expert but the propaganda “support your own, boycott the Jews” brought him some customers.

 

Bakers

There were a good few bakeries in Wasilkow. One must note that everything was done by hand. No machinery whatsoever. Every bakery catered for the local people around them. They had no delivery trucks to shops or eating places. The variety of baked goods was good. Each bakery developed specialities over the years. Srolki Serejski's was known for his bread rolls, croissants, dinner rolls, horse–shoe rolls, various cakes, egg loaves – chales, etc.

The best in town, Serejski's bakery, was in the narrow street behind Shieyes “Der Kvasnik” Lemonade Factory. He also had a retail market outlet next to

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The pharmacist Godlewski in Bialystok Street. Israel Press, called Srolke Butlarz, baked the tastiest plaited bread. His bakery was built of bricks at the market square near Meir Inkiers shop.

Chackel (Hatzkel) Neche's bakery at Bialystok street offered a beautiful variety of breads. Next door was Itchke's butcher shop. Rubin – Rubin Shapir– owned the large bake house, tea room and general store near the town.

Mendl Perlman, an expert baker, employed quite a few people. His bake house was next to Shmulke's, the butcher. A splendid business went to ruin when Mendl got old and could no longer work. One of his sons Jacob – Elie, married and had to work with his wife in her piece goods shop. She was not well either. The other son Motl, a very smart and presentable man, left the town to live in the capital Warsaw. Mendl's daughter, Nechama, managed the bakery for some time after Mendl died. She married a man and both decided to change to a soda water factory.

Brocha Press owned the bakery at Bialystok street opposite Neumans' brick building, later called Bielozor's building. She worked with her sons and daughter Rachel. The eldest son, Chaim, immigrated to Canada. Later, the youngest son Laibl followed him. Another son, Srolke, got married and opened his own bakery at the market square.

Shmulke became a foreman in a textile factory in Bialystok. The result was the liquidation of Brocha Press's bakery a few years before World War II.

Laizer Mazur's bakery was situated behind Mendl's. His products were not so popular so he switched over

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to cakes, torts, biscuits – many done with chocolate topping and some ornamental designs. This went on right to the outbreak of the war in 1939.

It is worthy to note the number of women who managed bakeries in Wasilkow as they became widows. Braina Owsay had a bakery behind Rosa Spektor's shop. Her unmarried daughter worked with her. They had a good constant clientele. Mrs Kaplan's bakery was very well known for her specialties. Small cakes and egg loaves with melted sugar through them. They were selling quickly in the mornings.

All bakeries were Jewish owned until a German arrived a few years before the war. He rented part of Gershon Galand's house in Koscielna street. A great number of Poles switched over to him as they could not stomach the Jew's successes. The German was far from being an expert. He naturally joined up with the Nazis when they arrived. He was given the job to agitate local Germans to leave the area before the Russians would take charge.

 

Shoe Makers and Boot Repairers

New shoes were a luxury for many people. Therefore, repairs and patching provided many jobs. Mostly small income was derived from the trade yet Wasilkow repairers did not do too badly.

They were dignified and respected. Moshe Aron Spektor, called Mosharn, was a tall impressive Jew, clean and with a longish beard. He often spoke on matters pertaining to the communities' affairs and needs. He owned his own house at the Shul – court. His attic was occupied by Moshe the Shames – the

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beadle from the great Shul (synagogue). Mosharn was a good tradesman. He employed a Pole which was unusual. The house was about 20 metres from the great Shul.

One son, Peisach, was known as one of the founders of Zionism in town. The daughter Riva joined a dramatic theatre group. Children and adults preferred not to go near the Shul, so near to Mosharn's place. A rumour was spread that at twelve midnight, all the souls of the dead gathered there and one could hear their voices behind the timber.

Another boot repairer was Chatzkl Chanatzki, called Chatscke for short. A well–built man with a short French beard, he looked good. A constant shul goer, he had his permanent seat there but life was no pleasure as he stammered badly. It took a long time to get a word out of him. More unfortunate for him was the suicide by hanging of his youngest daughter Chave 18years of age. She was quite good looking. The whole town was shaken with this tragic event. A special commission arrived from Bialystok. A post–mortem was performed which as is known, is not accepted by religious Jews. Suicide and post–mortems mean that the body cannot be buried within Jewish cemeteries.

Reb Chalzkl carried on the repairs with his son Aron. On Fridays they would finish work early as their duty was to be in the shul before the first start appeared. Greeting the Sabbath as King Solomon said was like greeting the queen.

Nisl Grushkin, called the Ciechanowtzer boot maker, had his workroom next to Mordchai Maler's blacksmith shop. Grushkin was a great worker producing new shoes. His daughter

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Sheine – Riva, was one of the most beautiful girls in town. Two sons studied in Hebrew college “Tachkemoni”, later changed to Yawneh college. Grushkin was the first Jew to be shot by the Nazis when the ghetto was formed. His body was taken from Yakim street.

Laible Viltchek, a boot repairer, represented the growing number of the young intelligentsia. He worked at his parents' house at Swistopol. Not a terrific tradesman, he made up by being active in community affairs. Shoeman the “dreamer” (holem) lived in a dilapidated small house all in cobwebs. The time came to pull down this old structure and Josl Mosioudz built a new little house.

The largest and oldest shoe factory belonged to Faiwl Judowski. At the market, he employed a few men and some apprentices. They produced new shoes for shops. The place was founded before World War I. When Faiwl died, the factory was liquidated.

Shoe–men and repairers owned their own modest houses where room was made to work.

 

Shoe Top Makers

Only two of them were in Wasilkow. They competed against one another until one left to live in Bialystok. He was good at his trade. He occupied half the house where later, Godlewski the pharmacist took over.

The one that remained was Simchah – Sarah the humpback's son–in–law. Simchah was not much of a tradesman. His tops would not fit so the boot makers had to take orders to Bialystok. Simchah could hardly make a living.

While most workshops were owned by Jews, this trade

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Of making shoe tops eventually was taken over by the Polish craftsmen. Many of them made good quality products.

Many Jewish clients flocked to the Polish maker Sawiniswski in Yakimer street.

 

Tailors

The true and pious must eat only Kosher meats. Woven or knitted fabrics must also be Kosher as certain mixtures are prohibited. Therefore, butchering and tailoring were basic, essential trades in the lives of the Jewish people.

Jewish tailors were essential to the preservation of the faith. Over hundreds of years, this profession entered the books of literature, poetry and music. Many jokes and stories relate to tailors' lives. “I am a little tailor from Danzig, oi Danzig. That's the way a tailor sews”. Etc.

When young, Abraham Shnaider the tailor managed the largest workshop in Wasilkow with many employees and apprentices.

Abraham's wife died suddenly. He lost his good health. Bad asthma kept wearing him down. He often looked into the holy books. Many thought he was secretly a Lamed Vovnik. That is a saintly man who would give his good shoes to a barefooted man on the coldest day in winter. He looked indeed like a saint with his white beard. Abraham passed away when the Jews were chased into the ghetto by the Nazis.

Shepsl Winik, called Deaf Shepsl, was a good tailor and had lots of work but he didn't know how to organize his work. He was typical of the kind of tradesman:

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“Boot makers walking bare, tailors wearing rags”.

Shepsl's son Avreml worked with him. The two daughters were helping out yet little income came in. He took on work for three years in advance. Dates for fittings could not be kept. No one knew when the garment would be finished. Tailors were regarded as liars. They always had excuses – many rather strange.

Laibl Lentshiner, called Laibl the Shmatnik (the ragman) was a good tradesman. One day, the chief of the post office – a Pole – ordered a special jacket of black satin. He was a very tall man of about 2.20 metres. Six months before Yankl Lipstein the weaver ordered a long black satin coat as worn on Sabbath. When the Postal chief arrived to try on his jacket, it was not even cut. Nevertheless, Laibl coolly grabbed the long Sabbath coat to try on. It fitted. That gave him time to cut out the jacket and try it on the short man Lipstein the weaver.

Meilach Koton from Losiniec was a quiet character. He had his workroom at Velvel the teacher's house. Meilach preferred to work for non–Jews because he drank a good deal. Jews were not very tolerant to drunks.

In his youth, he walked from village to village sewing and patching for peasants. Tailoring was all done by hand. He learned to drink home–made brews with the villagers. His son Moshe, a respectable man, had no influence on his father. He could not change his father's habits.

Other tailors, Zaidke from Janove – a quiet man; brothers Yosl and Yankl Lentchiner, one very good one in Pesl's house, another from Stawisko

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resided at Shifra Ratwecka's house.

 

Butchers

This is a trade strictly connected to laws and rules according to the Holy Scriptures. The saying goes: “there is no beginning or an end to interpreting the Torah – same with the meat trade”. Experts must know every bit of carcass since some have to be removed, some perfectly useful parts are for sale to non–Jews and only certain parts are Kosher.

The wealthiest kosher butcher in Wasilkow was Shmulke Perelstein. His house was one of the few brick homes. There was a well in the yard for their own use, a rare luxury. Even the street was called informally 'Shmulke the butcher's street'. One must understand that a kosher slaughter man is a man of learning, of good habits, observant and ranking nearly equal with the Rabbi. He was a well–built man, radiating strength and confidence. He dressed in the old style of Russian Hasid's (cap).

Shale's wife, Rachel, was tall, broad–shouldered. A great saleswoman, her motto was to sell and sell for cash or on credit. She would knock on doors to remind the late comers. No refrigeration, no ice chests – people had to buy meats fresh without delay.

Members of the family assisted in the enterprise. The sons Yowl, Chine and Itzel, the eldest son–in–law, Chain were strong muscular men able to work hard and return in kind to anyone who would molest them.

All of them perished at the hands of the Nazi murder gangs and Polish anti–Semites whose hands were awash with Jewish blood.

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Shmulke had a reserved seat in the great Beth–Midrash.

The second kosher butcher was Itchke Perlstein – no relative to the previous. His house on the main street had a balcony around it without balustrade or bannister. One could easily fall over and break a limb. Itchke attended regularly the Shul – Chai–Adam, at the rear of the great Shul.

His wife Shaina got very stout, possibly because she could not bear any more children after her first seven. These were all healthy, good looking, bright, interested in community affairs and world affairs. None of them wanted to work in the meat trade. Everyone belonged to a different political group.

The eldest son Chaim was in Poalei Zion. He married a girl from Yashinowka and settled there. Chone was a fiery communist, Malka with the general Zionist; Nisl in the Bund, Shimon – General Zionists, AlHamishmar later joined labour–Zionists. Hayele was a member of Zuknuft and Yosl was in Beitar. However, they respected one another and kept peace in their parents' home.

Outside, things were a little different. Reb Itche was a prominent citizen. A reader and chanter of the holy book in Shul and occasionally, administrator of the shul.

Reb Berl Biber owned the meat shop in Tevel Kamien's Street, separated from the residence. They usually were together. Getting older, Reb Berl handed over the business to his son Pesach, preferring to study with his co–religionists the holy books, the gemarah.

Shlomo Shlachter's shop was next to the Jewish midwife

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Mrs. Sternfeld. Shlomo was rather average. His living room was next to the shop, an area occupied by his wife, sister–in–law but without children.

Motke Nishkin's shop was in the front room of his little house. He concentrated more on buying and selling cattle.

Yankel Sokolowicz, called Yankl Basia's or Zeidke's, owned the newly built shop opposite Mulke Shtabinski's house. Years before the family Bielaus lived there. Yankl was one of the younger generation of Kosher butchers with their own characteristics. He was the only Jew from Wasilkow who escaped the Nazi trap. With the help of some righteous gentiles, he survived the war and the holocaust.

Faiwele Fisher also had a newly built shop. He was regarded as one of the wild ones.

Mordchai Shlachter had his shop in Hertzek Gelers house at Bialystok Street. There was Aron Shimon's too. Here, people used to buy their cattle and calves from neighbouring villages and seldom at markets.

One had to get set–up early in the morning, buy the animal or two, then get to the Jewish slaughter house near town and not far from the Jewish cemetery.

The abattoir was most primitive. The scripture reader – “Chazan” – was the ritual slaughterer. He had to pray first. The Rabbi made the decision as to whether there was a blemish on the carcass.

The meat traders were regarded with greater respect than others. They were better off. They were strong, healthy men and worked mighty hard. From buying, transporting along peasant's carts,

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sometimes the cow would break away, run and damage somebody's garden, then attend to the slaughter, carry quarters weighing a hundred kilograms and finally selling to fussy, choosy yet golden–hearted women.

 

Horse and Cart drivers – “Balagoles”

Lots of people were making a living out of carting goods mainly by horse and cart. The cart sides were like long ladders placed sideways on the cart chassis. Carting was done between Wasilkow and Bialystok but many travelled longer distances up to 100km to Sokolka, Skidel, Krinki, Grodno and other places.

Some journeys took 3 to 6 days. These journeys were not always safe. In 1926, the unexpected happened when the carter Efraim Froitchik and his son Moishke travelled home, they were stopped in the Bukshtel forest by two bandits. A bayonet placed in Moishke's heart, he died the next day.

Cartage expanded with the development of the timber and textile industries. Groups of specialized carters formed naturally. One catered to Bialystok factories, another to shops, travellers and some to knitters.

Textile factories employed many carters. While goods had to be cut and finished for export, there were huge cases and timber containers of all sorts and various sizes. Wasilkow weavers were supplied with yarns and weaving goods, so were merchants and shops. Carting took long hours and arduous work.

A few Polish men took up the trade. The Jewish “Balagoles” were not regarded as inferior. Many of them were dignified,

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and respectable citizens. Some worthy of remembering were the 4 brothers Moed, Mazikim, Jacob, Efroitchik, Niske and Faiwke.

Everyone had quite a few children. The children followed the profession. Fiwke had no children. His wife Etl was a teacher and later a letter writer for those unable to write to their relatives in America.

Other carters were: brother Yechiel and Fiwl Inker, Yoske Mielnicki and Chain, Berl Spektor, Meir Wilczek, Elie Spektor who lived near the town – Elie the apzhirik–bedraggled. Zelik Spektor and his father Jankl's Henie and his sons Henach and Nachum. They loved their father greatly. They would jump into a fire for him. Jankl was temperamental and quick–thinking. One day, he called out to the boys: “We're off to America. Pack up”. They immigrated, stayed a while in the states, then Yankl decided to return to Poland. The boys were painting a house. They had to throw away the brushes, pack again and the three returned to Wasilkow and their horse and cart.

During the later thirties, some buses appeared on the roads. One of the carters sold his horse and cart and bought a bus which he drove right to the outbreak of the war.

Some butchers owned carts and horses for their needs. Many took out their horses in the evening to pastures along the road – the council property – and thus saved on feed. Good feed was past Trillings' factory and the Water works. One had to watch a horse until 2 or 3 in the morning.

 

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Shops and their keepers

One should write shops and merchants. Wasilkow shopkeepers derived from little from their businesses which they could hardly be called Merchants. Many could not afford new shoes or new clothing. Yet each family would possess a white table cloth for Sabbath and silver plated candlestick stands. Mothers have to light candles on Friday nights and pray with their daughters for peace, bread and for averting danger. The Gentles resented the “Rich Jews” for the above luxuries.

As mentioned before, Jews really strived to live off the land but many noblemen in the middle ages compelled Jews to run liquor inns so they could sell their liquors to peasants and other products from the Noblemen's enterprises. Some Jews were even compelled to hold the keys to the churches and cerkievs as some paps and priests were too drunk on occasions.

Pogroms and insecurity compelled Jews to convert into cash and easily carried valuables in case of expulsion from a given area. Confiscation of Jewish property took place quite often.

Wasilkow had a greater proportion of Jewish shops than other towns like Zabludow, Suprasle and other. Some days, army regiments marched along Bialystok Road. They stopped for 15 to 30 minutes. The 42nd infantry regiment, the 10th cavalry regiment and the 14th division of the artillery regiment were amongst those that stopped. They were good customers. Shops emptied in no time.

We must not forget the names of Craftsmen and Shopkeepers of Wasilkow such as: Chaim Czapnik, G. Polak, G.Czapnik, Masha

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Chienkes, Bielaus, Lapshins, Press, Avraham Polak, Ester Lipstein, Shlomo Cohen, Reize Spektor, Moshe Batlais, Dovid Batlai, Braina Ovsei, Herzke Barikan the ginger, Tsvl Kamien, Shiftra Ratowiecki, Esther–Riva Gotlieb, Dovid and Meir Litvin, Lajzer Mazur, Mendl Perlman, Vlevel Shneider, B.Srolusz, Nachum Leizor, Botkowski, Kailetchkes near the baths, Chatzkl Neches, Avram Shternshus, Pesls, Sarah Minies, Getzl Rubin, Chaim Bachrach, Judl Sheitlis from Grodno, Motke Farber, Meir Inker, Srolk Press, Sz Weis, Mindele Lewin, Shimon the innkeeper, Sarie Liptstein, Beila Rabinowicz, Falk near the shul, Lupatchiches, Mirke Katz, Peisach Stolnicki, Kaplanicha, Israel Serejski, Ruben Shapiro, Judl Zadwaranski, Artzik Minkin, Moishke Rolak, Stein, Tashemowicz and others that were liquidated and forgotten.

Not included in the list above were furriers, watchmakers, dyers, bookbinders and harness makers.

During the twenties, a group of Poles decided to develop their own merchandising movement. Some leaders of the “Falcons Sokol” organisation gathered at the council house near the orchard.

One time, this house belonged to the church. Eventually this became the Peoples' House. During Czarist times, these were the Council chambers. The secretary was “Gospodin” Czechowicz (Pr. Tchehovitch). He adjusted quickly to the new Polish regime and continued in his job until he was finally removed so as to allow a Pole to carry on.

The Falcons and the peasant groups opened a store called “United Villages” store

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(Zjednoczenie). The purpose was to supply tools, machinery and fertilisers. It actually became a general store. The council did not charge them any rent.

The purpose was to deprive Jews of customers.

Like most state enterprises, this one soon ran down. Prices were high, little variety and the service was bad. Anti–Jewish propaganda could not bring in customers. The Polish and White Russian clients returned to the Jewish shops.

 

wase035.jpg
A part from Mark

 

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Holy days and Sabbath days

Getting ready for the holy Sabbath started on Thursdays. Women washed and ironed clothes for the family so they would be dressed cleanly on the holy day. Food had to be bought and prepared especially the traditional “Chulent”. As no lighting of fires was allowed on Sabbath, this large pot of potatoes, barley and vegetables had to be kept hot at the nearest bake house.

The children had to take the well–marked chulent pots to the baker and then collect them on the Saturday. Woe to the child who picked up the wrong one with inferior contents therein.

The most delicious parts were the goose necks filled with a tasty filling of fatty meat, onion and garlic. Inside the pot and on top of the potatoes and barley was a dish of baked pudding made of carrots, plums and rice or noodles.

The baker's rules were very strict. The chulent pots had to be in on time on Friday. The oven could not be opened for late–comers. This deadline rule was adhered to better than the railway timetable.

Moishe the beadle from the Great Shul (synagogue) signalled the oncoming Sabbath on Friday afternoon, by standing in the middle of Bialystok Street and calling out three times at the top of his voice: “Yiden – to the shul”. After that, shops were shut; work tables covered and weaving looms were stopped. Even a few who were secular conformed to the customs.

Friday evening holiness spread over the town. People bathed, dressed themselves up and walked to the Shul. Mothers

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lit the candles, covered their eyes with their hands and murmured the appropriate prayers. Strangers in town were invited to partake in the Sabbath meal after shul. Some would spend the night at their hosts' modest home. Sabbath was a complete day of rest until the Soviet army arrived in 1939.

In these last years before the war, the young preferred to congregate in the Shul's courtyard rather than stand praying inside. This was the time for chatting and discussions.

After Sabbath chulent and pudding–kugel, people used to go to some lovely places for fresh air after a week's hard work and worries. Yakimes one kilometre away was popular. There was a nice meadow near a watermill and a lake with lots of water–lilies that stretched as far as the “Tchugunka” under the railway line and on to Suchonia village. This property belonged to Pan Pilkowski the miller. There was a large swing and boats could be hired.

Another popular place was Jurowce, some 2–3 kilometres from town. There were pine trees galore and a lovely aroma of the Knishin forest further on. A large mansion deep in the woods once belonged to a Russian baron. The river Suprasl cut through the area and flowed past a village where food could be bought, such as milk, yoghurt, cream and extra tasty black bread.

Jewish people used to walk there from as far as Bialystok. Other men used to go to Shul in the afternoons to study the scriptures while the children waited for the “Havdalah”which is the lighting of the coloured plaited candles, signifying the end of the holy Sabbath. Each boy

[Page 38]

would have a sip from the silver cup after the chazn chanted the prayer. Sabbath ended when the first star appeared. Many went back to work and the holy enchantment disappeared for another six days.

 

The days of penitence – September or October

These days started with the New Year according to the Jewish moon calendar. They consisted of serious self–criticism, prayers and penitence. These days, everyone's fate is decided and confirmed in heaven for the following year. The atmosphere is sombre; children realize the seriousness of the time.

Wrongdoers know that the severest punishment will come from heaven if they are not forgiven. The only consolation for the people praying, fasting, even flagellating themselves, is the food.

Special good, tasty things are served. So the coming year will be great and sweet. Before the holy day, women go to the cemeteries to pray near the graves of their loved ones. The chazan, far from being a wealthy man, gets a few coins for chanting the special prayers for the deceased.

Even Sara Katchke, the bath attendant, made a little money. She had a hundred professions but never enough to eat. On the two days of New Year and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – all Shuls, Beth–Midrashin and Shtibls (little prayer houses) were full. Women, who were not obliged by ritual, flocked to every possible place where there were prayers and chanting.

There was a place for the poor who couldn't afford permanent or reserved seats. Rivers of tears flowed as there was never a

[Page 39]

time of plenty nor safety for the Jewish people of these parts.

In the afternoon of the first day of New Year, the parents took their children for “Tashlegh” to the river to say the prayers that all their sins would disappear in the deep waters and be forgiven. “It is better to take refuge in the lord than to rely on nobles”.

 

Yom Kippur

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which is the holiest day in the year, many Jewish men subjected themselves to flagellating to pay for their sins.

All prayer houses and shuls including the sections reserved for women were full and overflowing.

Men wore the white death shrouds and black and white prayer shawls. The reader and prayer chanter in the same clothing was surrounded by men carrying the holy Torah scrolls.

Reb Tevie Kamien led the Kol Nidrei prayers in the great Beit HaMidrash. Cantor Kewalski and his choir sang in the Great Shul (Synagogue). The atmosphere was unbelievably sombre, holy, as if the heavens had opened to the cries and prayers of the Jewish men and women.

It was as if the Messiah was coming any day. There was some hope where room for hope was no more. The evening signalled the start of the 24 hour total fast. Some men would use a pinch of strong tobacco to smell for relief, or drops of ammonia and valerian.

 

Succos – Tabernacles

There were eight joyous holy days. Most homes had especially constructed verandas without ceilings, so the roof tiles could be

[Page 40]

Removed and replaced with greenery, grasses, etc. This commemorated the shelters built quickly and dismantled when our forefathers moved on in the desert of Egypt on the way to the Promised Land. Meals had to be eaten in the succos.

On these days, a palm leaf and citrus fruit used to be carried to shul for blessings to be recited. Children had to pick some twigs which were also used during prayers.

During one night called “Hoshana Rabah”, people recited the Bible believing that the prayers during this night would be particularly successful.

 

Simchas Torah

The last day of succos is the day of joy and happiness, for having the Holy Scriptures, the Torah. Dancing with holy scrolls went on inside and outside the shuls. Some drank strong drink to reach an even higher level of exultation with the fervour of their faith in the Lord.

One of the most enthusiastic was Vehuda Dreier. He had a few drinks and offered some to others. He did his best to amuse and cheer up the people around him. Quite the scholar, he never missed daily prayers and study of the Torah. He was also a good wood turner. The peasants liked his spinning wheels, reels, winders for weaving shirts, sheets, blouses and even long coats.

All holidays were of special significance to the children as they would grow and carry on the customs and the faith.

 

Chanukah

There are eight days or rather evenings when candles are lit. The menorah or candle stand is

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placed near the window for everybody to see the believers. The days are for work. The candles are lit in the evenings, prayers are chanted and sung.

Chanukah is to commemorate the great victory. When the temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by enemies and then won back, cleansed and a little sacred oil was found sufficient for one night, this oil miraculously burnt for eight nights. There were days when we straightened our backs and raised our heads, proud of our armies that conquered the Greek–Suria (the idolaters). We were then more courageous to repel the Polish hoodlums who kept harassing us.

Many literary chapters, songs and compositions were written pertaining to Chanukah in Hebrew and Yiddish. Children got ready for this holiday long before in the Tachkemoni – Yavneh and Sholem Aleichem Schools.

In our school, the teacher, Mr. Landinski, taught us songs. We had to stay back after lessons. Landinski played a miniature accordion. He also taught single or group recitations.

The Zionist organization used to arrange a Chanukah bazaar every year for the J.N.F. weeknights but not on Friday. This was a time of freezing nights and tons of snow covered the roads, roofs and fields.

Next to the wood stove, men sat playing cards, dominoes or spinning tops. Children played games; women brought hot potato cakes, goose crackles and hot sweet tea. We sang: “Candles, so beautifully, telling us stories of a past never forgotten, of a land where we were free”.

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Purim

Purim is a one day holiday, yet a working day. The evening before, Jews go to Shuls where the “Megillah” is read. The story is of Jews in Persia in the middle ages when a tyrant minister Haman decided to annihilate all the Jews. Queen Ester was able to survive to convince King Ahasuerus that her people should be saved. Children had great fun in Shul. They had to make as much noise as possible when Haman's name was mentioned. Specially made “Wooden noise makers” were used.

In the old times pantomimes were performed. Boys and girls used to dress up in oriental garb acting all parts in the Queen Ester story. There were plays about Joseph, David and Goliath. In the years before World War II, children used to dress up for this holiday, knock on doors and sing “Purim is today, give us a few cents and we shall go away”.

Every holiday has its food specialties and so did Purim which was called Haman cakes. They were tastily baked triangle bags full of poppy seeds and honey.

 

Pesach – Passover

Perhaps the most beautiful and most joyous of all the holidays, Pesach usually fell in April, coinciding with the northern spring after a severe winter. The holiday commemorated the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the forty year march through the desert (Sinai). It commemorates the Lord's gift of the Torah and the Ten Commandments and finally, the entry into the Promised Land.

The day before the eight days of celebrations, all leaven bread had to be cleared and taken to the

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bath boiler to be burnt. Any remaining crumbs had to be searched for with a lit candle and swept up with a goose feather. Cleaning of homes, washing dirt spots, re-arranging things, painting, etc. was done with a great gusto. Only Passover dishes, crockery and cutlery could be used for these eight days. Wine and mead were home-made having matured through the winter months.

“Matzos” unleavened bread was the only bread eaten. Many baked these themselves and neighbours assisted in the holy task. During these holidays, goodwill reigned in families. Relatives and friends used to visit one another.

Bakeries known for their “matzos” were Elia Spektor, Gutka and Bob Rubens.

The first two nights of Passover were celebrated in every Jewish home, religious or not. Traditionally, the youngest son must chant the 4 questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we only eat unleavened bread? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we lean when eating”?

During the feast, a cup of wine is filled for the Prophet Elijah to partake. At a certain stage, the front door is open for the imaginary prophet to enter and a prayer is said with great solemnity. He calls and has a sip of wine, blesses the household and moves on to the next neighbour. Every child is convinced that some wine has been drunk.

After shul, children played with peanuts and chestnuts. The star custom of painting eggs was taken up. They played “knock the eggs'. If the Russian orthodox Easter happened to coincide, the

[Page 44]

boys and girls of both faiths played with eggs near the “Cerkev”. The Bielo- Russians used eggs (“smolarkesi”) filled with tar so our children lost the game.

Passover contributed a good deal to the economy of the place and surroundings. Wood for baking was delivered for eight weeks prior to the holidays. Women were employed for the specialized jobs of kneading, grooving and trimming the “matzos”.

Wasilkow was known for the quality of its products. Carts full of baskets of matzos were transported to Bialystok.

The great Gaon (scholar) Raphael Gordon himself had authority over baking and delivery. He employed men of learning to watch over every phase of production. One of these was Yehuda Dreier, another Berl – Jacob Moses, the beadles' son-in-law. He was also the cantor and reader in the Great Shul.

Over the years, some people became well known for their skills and speed as the matzo season was very short. Such were: Chona Polak, Chaim Kokatch, Ratowiecki, Shia Sokolowicz, Ischor Sztabinski, Ischor Gorfain, Joel Spektor and others.

Every bakery tried their hardest to get the skilled to work year-after-year. One of the best was Shike Polak. After his death, his sons Chone and Avreml took over. During the 6-8 week Matzo season, every bakery employed 18 females, a watchman, two apprentices and 7-8 others. This helped the needy a little.

Some evil-minded gentiles spread rumours that Jews used human blood for baking matzos, preferably

[Page 45]

children trapped for this purpose. Some clergymen in the middle ages kept spreading this legend. There are people who believe this even now because the Nazis took up the vilification. In fact only unleavened flour and plain water must be used – no other ingredient whatsoever.

The bakeries had to safeguard themselves – only Jews were allowed inside. Gentile children tried hard to get in so as to get a few tasty freshly baked matzos.

There was a case when the community got very worried: Young Simcha Rabinowicz, Rubin's son, was employed as an apprentice at Polak's bakery. He smeared a gentile boy's face with soot from the oven. Just a child's prank. The boy ran away crying. People were prepared for the worst. Soon after, the Poles would arrive and slaughter the lot. Nothing happened! All was well again.

 

Lag Ba'Omer

This is a one-day holiday, as if made for the younger folk only. Indeed, it is a day dedicated to the memory of 12,000 students of Rabbi Akiwa who perished during the 32 days of pestilence. It was the time of Roman occupation of Jerusalem. There were no more deaths on the 33rd day. So the day is celebrated with joy and picnics.

The day also coincides with the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's death – regarded as the writer of the holy book “Zohar”. Before his death, he divulged some secret interpretations of the “Kabalah” to his students. To this very day, pilgrims travel to the Rabbi's grave in Miron, Israel. They cover the roof of the grave

[Page 46]

with a pile of wood, lit a fire and then sing and dance all night.

In most Jewish communities, Lag Ba'omer is the children's holiday. All schools have entertainment instead of classes. Wasilkow children spent the day mainly at the Jurowcer forest. All were nicely dressed, cleaned with knapsacks full of food for the day. They marched army-fashion, singing. Some carried white and blue flags with the Star of David.

Jewry definitely proclaimed their feelings for Zionism and Zion. One of the most effective groups was BRIT-TRUMPELDOR. They wore smartly cut khaki uniforms; scout shorts, white and blue ties and peaked caps. Each of the held a specially carved stock. In front of the column, a large flag was held. This was a rather long march, well past the railway line.

Once in the woods, people went on to collect blackberries, raspberries and flowers for mum.

The teachers used to explain the history of the holiday. An important aspect of the day was that Jewish children from the State Schools could attend. They got little Jewish education in the government schools.

Parents and friends waited for the young to return from the forest. They applauded the marchers – so the day ended joyously and happily, reassured that Jews would survive and return to Zion again.

Every survivor of Wasilkow will remember the wonderful Lag Ba'omer days which he or she enjoyed in the years gone by.

 

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