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[Page 209]

The Culture and Way of Life of the Town

 

Mulling over Memories of Sokółka

Benjamin Dombrowski

Translated by Selwyn Rose

I day-dream and I see before me the past, the daily life of Sokółka, the people and the children, the schools, the synagogues and Batei-Midrash, the teachers and the instructors, the Zionist organizations, the charity institutions, everything – gone and is no more…

In my vision memories from my childhood appear, I remember the pleasant corner of the “Schulhof” from where echoed the clear voices of our children. The 'big' Synagogue, the 'old' Beit Ha-Midrash, the 'new' Beit Ha-Midrash, the Talmud Torah, the “Culture” school – everything concentrated and centered in one spiritual corner of town. The heart of the casual passer-by in the courtyard of the synagogues will swell with joy. Children learning, playing games, doing physical exercises. For many years, Yudel the Teacher of Odelsk, a good and honest man taught in the Talmud Torah. All his efforts were invested in explaining to us the Torah and its interpretations. The Shtabiner teacher will not be forgotten; a pleasant and elegant man, his speech easy-going and his manner considered; everything about him spoke of respect. There was music in his teaching of the Tanach, soul-penetrating music. On Shabbat there were tests on the lessons learned that week. Last but not least, Rabbi Haim the “Accoucheur” Yerushevsk. Heaven help the lad who sinned; who didn't listen or played around. The teacher didn't say much – just beckoned with his finger and the boy already understood the meaning, walked to the teacher who had a small chair placed in front of him, ready for disturbances. With a plea for pardon, he pulled down his trousers to receive his punishment. Heaven help the boy who refused to answer the “call to judgment”, or diverted his attention instead of rehearsing the week's Torah portion; when it came to “home-time” the Rabbi would tweak the boy's ear until it turned red. The Mashgiach was Shmuel Cohen – pleasant and polite in fulfilling his duties. The teachers: Kaplan and Kollek and the secretary, Kashden.

I recall our walk at midnight for “Selichot”, in order to hear the Hazzan Shapira who stood in front of the Ark accompanied by the choir, among whom was Salla Krawitz whose voice was so rich and deep.

Simchat-Torah. The congregation meets in the synagogue. A picture of a dancing circle, jumping emotionally engrossed in singing “Purify our hearts that we may be fit to worship thee”, spreading through the whole room. The singers displayed all their elevated joy and happiness in their stormy singing and dancing. The children dancing round with lighted candles stuck in the top of candied apples or waving little toy, make-believe Torah scrolls and the Hazzan repeating the phrase: “Help the poor and save us, we beseech Thee.” After the Torah had been carried round the synagogue several times we walked to the Karlin synagogue where the dancing and singing had not yet finished – they had barely started.

Purim in the synagogue, when the story of Esther is read we waited impatiently for each mention of the arch-villain, Haman. Each time his name was mentioned we all, like trained soldiers, stamped our feet and swung the special “Purim rattles” to drown out his name in the deafening noise we all created. Even the adults, embarrassed to make noise like little children, hit the floor with their walking-sticks or slammed their folding desk-tops to add to the noise. The Reader was forced on occasion to stop his reading and wait for the noise to subside a little before continuing, and when he started again and came to the name “Haman ben Hammadatha the Agagite” the stormy deafening noise again broke out. At home the table was laid for festivals, festival candles on a table piled high with tasty foods and drinks, lentils, chick-peas and “Homan-Taschen” – Haman's ears, memorials of the miracle of Purim and its villain, with the meal according to tradition.

In my youth, I prayed at the “Shulhan Aruch” on Ulitzki Street. Among the congregation was the prayer-reader Zelig the Tile-Maker, owner of a restaurant on Białystok Street, Moshe the old Sexton, the Torah-reader Yosef Mareinner the owner of a tool-shop on Post Street, Ya'acov the Cobbler – who taught Talmud between the afternoon and evening prayers and Zelig Blumenthal the Mohel. The same Prayer-reader, Zelig the Tile-maker, when he got to the new season prayer – “Shehechianu” on “Kol Nidrei” he would raise his hands on high pleading for mercy and the congregation would find themselves in tears from the sweetness of his voice and the deep emotion he evoked within them. He prayed with great devotion and poured out his heart before his Creator. People stood stunned at his voice.

On Friday evenings, we, the children of Sokółka, felt a difference in the air. “I am black but comely”, I am black all the week and comely on Shabbat. With the closing of the shops it is time to hurry. “The sun is above the oaks”. A different spirit began to move; it was if we all had different faces. In the Heder, at home, in the synagogue, the feeling of approaching Shabbat penetrated into every corner where life was; movement ceased, silence hovered over the streets.

When we grew up we were given a Siddur with large letters and we had now the obligation of praying. I remember my father would go every year to a rest-home in Szyszki. He would be joined by a quorum of men also recuperating. Rabbi Shimshon Katznellenbogen and others. The Torah reader was Rabbi Eliyahu Pinchas Shapira, and it happened that there was no Torah in the village. My father got up and walked by night all the way back to Sokółka and brought a Sefer-Torah – a distance of 5 miles there and back.

Our situation at home was difficult. My mother became head of the family and sent my father to a convalescent home at Otvosk for his own health and for the good of the family; worry was not a problem for her, there wasn't a single task that she shirked, certainly nothing that could be achieved by flesh and blood.

But the Reaper passed over all…


[Page 211]

The Shteibl of the Kotzk Hassidim

Yekutiel Khinski

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Between sunset and sunset in the Shteibl the Hassidim sit and partake of “Ha-Se'udah Ha-Shlishit”.

We, the Hassidim children, like my cousin, Avraham'el and Yekutiel Schaikass*, Menachem and Yisroel'keh, the sons of Rabbi Yosef Haim the Teacher (all of whom have passed on), and Mosh'el, and Avram'el – sons of preachers, and myself, would all sit on the steps of the synagogue, which had not yet been completed, and tell each other stories about devils and ghosts and hell and that after the evening prayer they light the stoves and put all the evil ones into boiling pitch, because on Shabbat – hell also rests.

In the Batei-Midrash and in the “Tiferet Bachurim” they had already finished the evening prayer but in the Shtiebel they were still singing the hymns in order to add to the Holy Sabbath from the secular week. On Saturday nights, especially during the winter, they would come to the Shtiebel to take part together in the meal of “Melaveh Malka” (“Accompanying the 'Queen'” – Shabbat) with singing and dancing with the Hassidim.

On 22nd Shevat (around February), the memorial day of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, they would sit until late into the night relating stories and miracles and wonders concerning Rabbi Mendeli and the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Aryeh Leib the son of Sarah - by the way – drinking cognac as well as singing and dancing.

On Shabbatot and Festivals in the morning they would sit and study, or go to the mikveh, and afterwards would begin to pray intently, joyfully with hymns and. On Rosh- Hashana they would finish praying between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. On Kol-Nidrei they would strew straw all over the floors of the Shtiebel and most of the Hassidim would remain all night in the Shtiebel reading Psalms, studying and in-between times snatching a short sleep or just dozing.

On Succoth, the festival of rejoicing and “drawing water” for the Temple, “Simchat-Torah” - all attended by joyful singing, hymns and dancing throughout the night and all the next day, Several of the Hassidim of Kotzk in Sokółka come to my memory: my uncle, Rabbi Aharon Hirsch a strict Jew, a scholar, a confirmed Hassid and a Shofar-blower on Rosh-Hashana. He was the treasurer of the Shtiebel. Every Friday he prepared the candles, filling the cups with oil, covering the tables with pristine white cloths. He allowed no one to do that work, for him it was a “Mitzvah” and an honoring of the Shabbat or Festival.

My father and Teacher, Rabbi Moshe (Z”L), who was also known as Rabbi Moshe Yekutiels or Rabbi Moshe Ha-Hassid, a gentle-souled person, a wise scholar, sitting day and night studying Torah, either openly or in secret. Visited the ritual bath every day before prayers, my mother, (May she have peace), managed her shop and my father helped very little except on market days.

My uncle Rabbi Shaike (Ya'acov-Shalom) (Z”L), ran to do good deeds or give secret gifts to whoever was in need; he was one of the founders of the “Leinat Tsedek” charity organization and many other associations.

Rabbi Feivel Kramer (Z”L), An educated, erudite Jew, inspector, public official, member of the Community Committee.

Rabbi Itz'keh Yentis (Z”L), a tall man and treasurer of the Talmud Torah. Rabbi Yosef Haim, Teacher (Z”L), A wise student and teacher of Gemara and explanations.

Rabbi Yehoshua the Slaughterer, Rabbi BeZ”Lel (Z”L), the Prayer Reader of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and other festivals, with his pleasant voice his prayers were sweet and Holy. He was a member of the community council representing “Agudat Yisroel”.

Rabbi Mordecai Hermann (Z”L), affluent and polished. His sons were the only ones in the community to wear long caftans and a “Warsaw” hat. He was also the prayer leader for Schachrit during the Days of Awe and festivals.

Rabbi Yehiel Meyer Warman (Z”L), Rabbi Mordecai Drisbiatzki (Z”L), Rabbi Avigdor Goldberg (Z”L), scholar and member of the community committee and representative of “Agudat Yisroel” and his son Hatzkel was a member as representative of “The Bund”; Rabbi Kalman Haim the preacher (Z”L), an erudite Jew, honest and modest (his son Maitess) is a Military Rabbi in the U.S.), Rabbi Meyer Wahnch (Z”L), Rabbi Avraham Kraant, (Z”L), an honest good-hearted Jew and many, many others where members of the Kotzker Shtiebel.

 

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Flower Day of the Government School - 1918

 

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A memorial Flower Day in honor of Dr. Yehiel Czelnov

 

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Flower Day in Sokółka

 

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Flower Day in Sokółka for the benefit of “Leinat Tsedek”

 

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The Committee for Keren Kayemet Le-Yisrael in Sokółka

 

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The Management Committee of the Gemilut Hasedim in session


[Page 219]

The “Suburb”

Zippora Schmidt-Weissbol

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Zabrod is the name of the suburb, to the south-east of the town, that was settled mainly by the Gentiles and only a few Jewish families – a mere handful that didn't reach ten in number – dwelt there. The distance between the suburb and the center of town was not great but the railroad tracks ran between them and cut us off from there. During the day we didn't feel the distance so much but as evening approached the suburb sank into darkness and became a world unto itself. To return home from town, in the evening, was not very comfortable. We had to pass through the area of the synagogues, the lamp-lights that illuminated Białystok Street didn't reach there. The area seemed desolate and deserted. During our young childhood we had absorbed many stories about demons and ghosts and dead people in that area, and they accompanied us whenever we passed through there. When we reached the tracks things changed a bit. The fear that had been only imaginary now became real and prescient: packs of dogs had the run of the streets and chased us. Occasionally we came across a drunken Gentile and there were all kinds of pit-falls on the way. So we tried to get home early and if someone was forced to stay late, never returned home alone but always with an escort.

The second house on the hill, an ordinary wooden one with outside walls was where we lived. In front of the house was a little flower garden. The railroad tracks passed only about 30 meters away. Trains passed by at fixed hours – once towards Białystok and then towards Grodno. It was interesting to stand and watch them go by and we tried not to miss the event. We would even tell each other about the arrivals. There were special experiences in the suburb – different from town. During the winter the whole area was covered in snow and it was as if everything and everyone was hibernating and in summer it was humming with life and covered with greenery.


In those far-off days…

Eda Levine-Gershoni

Translated by Selwyn Rose

  1. Flag-day in Sokółka, Flower Day – collections for causes. Couples go marching through town collecting for the Keren Kayemet. I went into a shop with my partner and the owner turned to her customers and pointing at us, said in a sneering voice: “You see! These little ones want to drag me to Palestine!”

    After some years that same woman immigrated to Palestine and lived many happy years there with her family.

  2. A big women's meeting. A short while after the publishing of the Balfour Declaration. Intense excitement and we want to exploit it. We announced a collection of jewelry, silver and gold ornaments. The hall was full from wall to wall. One-by-one people came up onto the stage, women and youngsters all with something in their hand to donate. One very old lady came up and with shaking hands offered her sole family heirloom – a pair of silver Shabbat candlesticks, the sole remnant of her “Golden age”. “For the sake of our Holy Land nothing is too much,” she whispered.

  3. An Evening of Questions and Answers. “Young Zion”, “The Bund” were in conflict. On to the stage comes Elka Katzenellenbogen (Z”L) and with her powerful, convincingly reasoned argument attempted to prove to us that there is no hope for our dreams regarding the Homeland becoming a reality, nor for the dead Hebrew language, that we, apparently, intended to speak.

    Who will wipe the dust from your eyes, so that you see your beloved son is among those who made the dreams a reality?


[Page 220]

Motel'eh the Water-carrier

Gedaliyahu Weismann

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Monday, the traditional market in Sokółka. In keeping with all the other towns in Poland, Sokółka also suffered from the fear of disturbances and fear of looting and damage to shops and property belonging to the Jews. The farmers from the farms in the surrounding area, who came to the market, brought chickens, eggs, potatoes, a variety of beans and peas and lentils, pears apples, even pigs' hair for industry, horses and cattle. The trade in livestock was between farmers. The deal was invariably concluded over a drink at the bar run by Mattas whose establishment was opposite the large open area which constituted the “cattle-market” of Sokółka. On Market days the Jewish shops were full of farmers, buying, selling, plowshares, nails, building materials, dresses, trousers, handkerchiefs and hats. The hands of cobblers and smithies were full of work or the completion of orders. This day gave the Jews of Sokółka their sustenance for the whole week including meat and fish for Shabbat. On this day the bars were full and the farmers often drank to excess. The bar-keepers in Sokółka were respected people like BeZ”Lel, an honest man and a Hassid from Kotzk. Mattas the Barman, an ordinary man who loved to perform charity anonymously. Khatzkil Amdoraski's bar was the biggest and most respected to the residents of Sokółka and the visiting farmers and as it happens it was from there that disturbances usually began. After long negotiations between farmers and after having drunk more than their fill of vodka and felt on top of the world, bottles – full and empty – began to fly or were smashed over heads, injuring one another, stabbing each other, hundreds of farmers gathered together and two opposing camps were created. In the meantime the farmers robbed the Jewish shops taking whatever came to hand without paying. The Jews closed their shops. The policeman arrived but he refused to do anything for fear of being attacked himself. Then came Mottel the son of Haim the Water-carrier, whom everyone respected because of his ready and competent fists that had several times felled people.

Through him, matters were soon resolved and peace returned.


[Page 221]

The Gentile Houses' Fires

Gedaliyahu Weismann

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Every night there were fires in Sokółka. Just when we had gone to bed and just as we were falling asleep – a fire started up, the heavens glared with reflected flames. All the fires were outside the town in the Gentiles' houses. Sometimes in the north, sometimes south, east or west. Thus it was every night; never was there a fire in a Jewish home. What did it mean? Rumors were spread that the Jews were setting fire to the Gentile homes and granaries. Of course this caused panic and fear in the Jewish community. The priests, on Sundays, preached sermons in their churches defaming the traitorous Jews and on Monday, the traditional market day in Sokółka, the Gentiles came from all the farms in the area and began mocking the Jews. They entered the shops, took goods without paying; Jewish property became fair game. The situation was tense, no one knew how the day would proceed and end.

But a miracle occurred. One day, a hand written notice was found on hundreds of doors, signed by a well-known Gentile, thief and murderer, who murdered only his own people.

He was taking vengeance on them for reporting him to the authorities asking them to arrest him. He threatened to burn down all their houses.

Thus ended the incident that could have turned into a tragedy for the Jews of Sokółka.

 

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