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[Page 57]

City Life

Ostrolenka, Pre-World War I to 1939

 

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A Look at the City

Before World War I, the population of Ostrolenka numbered approximately 13,000-14,000 inhabitants, Jews and Christians. In 1909-1910, the average number of Jews reached six thousand and a few hundred people. After World War I, when the city was almost completely destroyed, and only part of it rebuilt, and many inhabitants had not yet returned from their travels in foreign countries – the number of inhabitants decreased greatly. With time, when the city was rebuilt and aspired to reach its previous status, the number of inhabitants increased. According to the last population census, we assume in 1939, when World War II broke out, the number of Jewish inhabitants reached 5,000, and did not reach its previous promising development.

The Narew River and the forts around the city made it an important strategic point in wartime. Indeed, near Ostrolenka's forts, where the Poles held ceremonies on their national holidays, bloody battles took place, such as during the Polish Rebellion in 1831 and others. Ostrolenka is located approximately 100 kilometers east of Warsaw and 36 kilometers west of Lomza, which was the regional city at the time of the Tsarist Russian regime.

Around Ostrolenka are spread cities and towns, suburbs, villages and estates – Lomza, Ostrow-Mazowiecki, Rozan, Goworowo, Miastkowa, Troszyn, Czerwin, Rzekun, Kaczyny, Grabowo, Dylewo, Antonie, Olszewo, Kadzidla, Myszyniec, Kordowa, Nozowe, Zyraniec, Sadykierz, Lazek, Lenczysk, Wojciechowice and others. All these places (except for Lomza, then Ostrow, and Rozan) were connected to Ostrolenka organically, and for all the years belonged to its county (Pobiat).

Ostrolenka is surrounded by many forests, such as the Czarnowiecki Forest (about eight kilometers from the city), Chudecki Forest (approximately the same distance), Dylewo and Kadzidla Forests (approximately 15 kilometers) and others. It had two train stations: a primary station, Kaczyny (5 kilometers from the city), from which trains departed to Warsaw, Bialystok and other cities; Grabowo – primarily a cargo station, which transported goods and also passengers via Zabieleno and Nowo Wies to Chorzel. There was also a small train on a narrow track. Its station of origin was near the forts and it traveled via Lazek, Dylewo and Kadzidla. Its terminal city was Myszyniec. All these places had close commercial, cultural and social connections with Ostrolenka.

Every Tuesday, a market was held in the city. A fair was held once a month, and large fairs were held four times a year on Wednesdays.

Usually, the inhabitants supported themselves by labor and small trade. The city did not have factories or manufacturing workshops, except for two flour mills: one called Motor, owned by Icka Sojka (in partnership with Jankel-Dawid Leszcz and Menachem Czapnikiewicz), and the water mill of Kolanski in Olszewo. At Bialy's sawmill was a water mill and a few small wind mills. The Jews of Ostrolenka supported themselves mainly by trade – for the most part, retail stores and wholesalers, who brought train cars of grain, salt, flour and kerosene from Russia. At the time of the Russian regime, the city supported itself mainly from the army: in the Benedon army base there were encamped two infantry regiments, Muromski – Regiment 21 and Niznogorodzki – Regiment 22, as well as a cavalry regiment of an engineering corps company. In the days of the Polish regime, as well, Ostrolenka was an army city: the 5th Cavalry Regiment, the 12th Unit of heavy cannons, and the 22nd Infantry Regiment. The reason was the strategic location of the city near the border with eastern Prussia, and the crossroads between the Lomza and Plock districts, which branch out in the direction of the capital city, Warsaw. In the entire area, there were many places populated by the army.

Jewish life in the city was usually concentrated in the center, where most of the Jews, and only a few Christian families, lived. The non-Jewish population lived in the area of Lenczysk, Czarnowiecki, Borave, Wojciechowice and Kaczyny. The houses on the main streets, such as the Old Market, Lomza Street and the Ostrowy Road, were mostly stone houses; the others were wooden houses.

When Poland became independent, the Polish regime stabilized, and stone houses built on the ruins of old buildings appeared in these areas. The names of the streets were changed: Synagogue Street became Kilinskiego Street, Gypsy Street was named after Berek Joselewicz, the Old Market (Stari Rinek) became the 3rd of May Street, etc. The streets were paved with round,

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unwrought stones. In Ostrolenka, there were Jews who paved streets with stone, among them Chaim Nowinski and Awraham Kugel, who worked in this profession until an advanced age, and others.

Popular places for strolling were Lomza Road, where the municipal garden was situated opposite the big prison house; Plantach in the area of Benedon; across the bridge, near “the forts”, there the young people of Ostrolenka spun dreams of youth…

On the Ostrolenka Road stood the Russian church, and near it, houses of Jews, among them the house of Eisenberg, the houses of the ice cream makers, the brothers Berel and Herszel Gordon, the house of Mordechaj the Baker, and others. After a time, the Poles turned the Russian church into an agricultural school. There was a water reservoir on Lenczysk Street, and the entire city drew water from it by means of two pumps: one in the old market, and the second in the new market, where daily commerce was carried on, even on days that were not market days. The water drawers brought water from these two pumps, and sometimes drew water from the river. Most of the city's people used water from the well of Motel Machlijesa, as it was known as clear, good-tasting water.

The water carriers were Chaim-Icze, Chaim Szrejter, Tall Beniamin and others. Near the bridge over the Narew River, the sale of fish was conducted every day of the week. On Sabbath and holiday eves, the noise and tumult of the buyers and the housewives mingled with the cries of the fishermen. The fishermen were Fajwel, Chackel, Reuwen Icchak and Szlomo Dorfman. Grain trade also held an important place in Ostrolenka, and was carried on, for the most part, in the pig market. The major grain merchants were Lejzer Nowominski, Berel Zabludowicz, Chaim-Dawid Zamelson, Awraham Chacek and others.

The textile trade, as well, was important. Until 1914, major textile wholesalers were Awraham-Nachum Lejberman, Chackel Kupferminc, Lejzer Mintz, Noah Karlinski, Naftali Cwi Iwri, Sojka; and later on, Josel Litwer, Mendel Cuker, Mosze Blachowicz, Mendel Gedanken and others.

Merchants with large or average-sized food businesses (1914) were Mosze Szafran, Nachum Tobjasz, Szmaia Bomasz, Awraham Mlynarzewicz (Awraham Giszes), and later on, Chaim (the son-in-law of Awraham-Nachum Lejberman), Menachem Frydman, Mosze Lejb Skrobacz, Herszel Szperling, Drewkowicz, Lejb Sredni.

Considerable leather, iron and wine trade was also carried on in the city. The main leather merchants were Motel Skornik, Chaim Elkes, Mosze Noske and Szlomo Jabek. The great iron merchants were Gerszon Makowski, Szmuel Tanchum and, later, Chackel Zylbersztejn, Motel Thylim, Chaim Szymon and others. Wine merchants: Welwel Chacek, Hercke Haltarz and others. Michel Sarniewicz, Lejbel Skrobacz and Mosze Sarniewicz owned large paint stores in Ostrolenka. The owner of the big gold and jewelry store was Noske Jabek. It should be noted that during the years between the two World Wars, some of the merchants mentioned here were thought of as the richest people in our city.

Among all the branches of trade, there was one called “shpieliterei”. These were people who were given to the grace of God. That is, there was no obligation towards them. From businessmen in our city, the shpielterim received orders for merchandise from suppliers in cities, such as Warsaw, Bialystok, Lodz, Tomaszow, and other industrial cities. In exchange for this service, they received percentages from the factory owners, as well as from the merchants who placed orders. The shpielterim were Jechiel Rozenbojm, Awrejmel Calka, the son of Masza the teacher, and others. Small merchants did this work by themselves, and thus provided a livelihood for the owners of wagons and carriages, who transported them and their merchandise back and forth to the train station in Kaczyny. Who did no know these carters? There was Turek, Chaim Greger, Josel Pandry, Motel Jakres and Icze-Meir, who refused to drive to the train station in Kaczyny with less than a minyan [prayer quorum of ten people] of passengers. Once it happened, that until he gathered his “minyan”, he missed the train. In time, when automobiles appeared, the carters' income declined. But there were yearnings for carriages. In comparison to traveling by bus, packed in “like herrings”, with the unpleasant smell of gasoline, you felt like a king, gliding along in a quiet carriage with rubber tires, with clean, groomed horses and the rhythmic clip-clop of their hooves.

Because of Ostrolenka's nearness to Germany's eastern border, it served as a commercial meeting point, if not officially, primarily for export. The city's large fairs drew Jewish merchants from near and far, even from Kolno, Grajewa, Szczuczyna, Jedwabne, etc.

In times of war, as well, Ostrolenka was an important strategic point. It was destroyed more than once, but later rebuilt. Therefore, it always gave the

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impression of a new, clean city. The population, which left it when battles took place in it, always returned, after undergoing hardship, suffering and wandering. There always remained, as a “zecher le churban” [a remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temple], a few old houses here and there, and the barracks of Benedon. Most of the city was rebuilt. It should be noted that one of the places razed to its foundations in World War I, and not rebuilt, was the big synagogue. Only its brick foundation, a single wall and pillars remained. Before World War I, this synagogue was known as a very magnificent building. It enchanted with its beauty and aroused a special feeling of sanctity in everyone and, at night, it imposed fear. It was only used for prayer on the Sabbath. Prayers were held daily in the big study hall, which was rebuilt.

At the synagogue, mostly the common people prayed, those “of the people”. Among them were warmhearted Jews, well-known public figures, and even the more erudite. I would like to mention the names of some constant worshipers here, as a memorial to their pure souls, all holy and departed: Reuwen Icchak Dorfman, Berel Garda, Aszer Goldfarb, Chaim Ber the Ritual Slaughterer, Szmuel Mosze Krymkiewicz, Jakow Krymkiewicz, Mendel Krymkiewicz, Melin, Josef Mejrann, Josef Dyskent, Chaim Ajzenberg, Aron Jakow Margalit, Welwel Benedon, Bercie Benedon, Ajzyk Benedon, Chackel Gilda, Chackel Rozan, Fajwel Finkelsztejn, Lejbcze Lazer Ajzenstejn, Icze Lazer, Pesach Hochberg, Chaim Nadborny, Jehuda Nadborny, Icchak Grynszpan, Josef Margalit, Israel Fish (tailor), Icchak Szmuelewicz, Icchak Jehuda Nadborny, Welwel Chmiel, Meir Chmiel, Israel Chmiel, Szlomo Perla, Mosze Dawid Calka, Mosze Rubinsztejn, Jechezkel Kupferminc, Jakow Welwel Rozenblum and others.

We cannot understand why, among the buildings serving religious and secular purposes rebuilt after World War I, the big synagogue was nearly the only one not rebuilt. Why?!

As has been said, Ostrolenka was a pure Jewish city. Christians were only seen in its streets on market days, or on Sundays and their holidays, when they came to the church to pray. On other days, Ostrolenka looked like a big Jewish family. The only Christians found in the city were officials of the municipality and the regional administration. But these, too, resided outside the city.

Ostrolenka was not a rich city, as it had no natural resources. The wealthy could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Despite this, its Jews maintained all institutions and organizations by themselves. As mentioned, the Jewish population supported itself generally by crafts and small trade. On Tuesdays and Fridays, merchants displayed their wares on stands, selling them to those who came to the city. Farmers from nearby villages brought their own produce for sale: butter, eggs, fowl and all sorts of vegetables. After selling their wares, they went to all the stores and stands and bought whatever they required.

Ostrolenka was usually a quiet city. Only on market days, in the fervor of buying and selling, the quiet was disturbed, the atmosphere became heated, and voices and arguments boomed. In the pig market, the Christians dominated the stands with their merchandise: statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and all sorts of other games and Christian ritual articles. On the other side were rows of tin and clay housewares, plants, etc. A bit further on – the stands of the Jews, and on them kerchiefs, socks, sewing notions and fabrics. Tailors displayed ready-made clothing in two rows, which formed a sort of boulevard; others – shoemakers in two rows, one of Jews, the second, Gentiles; further on – stands of fresh bread. And after all these – Gentiles with wagons full of pigs, as well as cows and calves for sale.

Ostrolenka's major commerce was always in the hands of the Jews. The Christians were primarily customers. Between the two World Wars, at the time of the Polish regime, and especially in the last years before World War II broke out, more and more Polish merchants appeared, opening large stores. Using anti-Semitic slogans, they tried to take the place of the Jews in their principal vocation – trade. As the war drew closer, the situation became more serious. The famous Polish slogan, “We – only our people!”, acquired threatening dimensions. More than once it was connected with mortal danger, and sometimes with victims. In this area, wild competition raged, not only in lowered prices, but in malicious anti-Semitic incitement. The threat that hung over the Jews indeed descended upon them! The Nazi Satan erased the Jewish lives in Ostrolenka, together with the lives of Jews all over Poland.

Y.I.

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3rd May Square, now General Bem Square
(the Old Market)

The City Hall
 
(Ostrow Street) 11 Listopada (now Glowackiego)

 

ost060d.jpg
Lomza Street, now Kostuszko

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A group of workers at the beer factory:
from the right, Sara Zusman, Y.D. Grynberg, Mosze Aron Sojka,
B.Z. Pianko, Perel Pianko, Chana Chmiel, Szlomo Zusman
 
A group of workers at the soda factory,
owned by Sztern, Zusman, Pianko

 

ost063c.jpg
A group of Ostrolenkans near a passenger bus, “Ostrolenka Warsaw”,
with the owner of the bus: Herzek Gerczak (fifth from the right)

 

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