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[Pages 231 - 236]

Part Two

Our Town

A Town Also Has a Body and Soul

By HaRav Aharon Reuven Charney (Bayonne)

Rav Aharon Reuven Charney, of Blessed Memory
Rav Aharon Reuven Charney,
of Blessed Memory

Just as Man has a body and soul, so do cities and countries. A man's body will die and become dust. The soul will not, for it is eternal and exalted, especially when the man's life was virtuous.

Jewish Sokoly was destroyed physically, but its soul lives on. The soul of our precious town is great and exalted. A mountain appears higher from a distance than it does from nearby. In my youth, I lived in Sokoly and I did not grasp its greatness. After I left it, and Hashem Yitborach wanted me to build my small world in the cities of the world at large, such as London, Birmingham, Boston, New York, and Bayonne, I began to think of the town of my birth, Sokoly, and to appreciate its importance. I praised the L-rd that I was born and educated there. Naturally, Sokoly was also afflicted with defects, but the reasons for them were the exile, the lack of security, and the poverty that prevailed. Our dear town was a symbol of love for the Torah and its learning. In all of the cities, large and small, where I have lived during my life, I have not found a comparable number of so many Torah scholars as there were in Sokoly.

The hope and desire of the parents were that their sons would be Torah scholars, and they prayed to Hashem that He would send bridegrooms to their daughters who were decent and scholarly. A greater number of the young men of Sokoly learned in yeshivot than in other nearby towns. The voice of Torah echoed through the Beit Midrash in Sokoly. On Shabbat, all of the tables in the Batei Midrash were surrounded by those learning. The melodies of [learning] Gemarra from the old Beit Midrash could be heard in the marketplace and in the cities of the town. With the arrival of the shadows of evening, the voice of the regular leader of the prayers, Leishke Dinhas-Goldin, split the air, as he stood before the congregation and recited the chapter of psalms before the evening prayer: “Ashrei temimei derech, haholchim beTorat Hashem” [Happy are those who walk upright in the way of the L-rd], and immediately afterwards, “VeHu rachum, mechaper avon velo yashchit” [and He is merciful, He will forgive sin and will not destroy].

A significant number of rabbis came from Sokoly. Rabbi Yudel Menches studied day and night, and he was honored with the position of Rabbi of the nearby town of Ciechanowiec. I personally was not acquainted with Rabbi Yudel Menches, but his rabbinate was connected to me. What happened was:

The Rabbi of Sokoly, Rav Menachem Yonah, of blessed memory, was a Torah scholar and a righteous man. That is how people referred to him, and they would frequently turn to him with questions about their personal matters. All of them believed that every word coming from his holy mouth would materialize. In his judgments on Torah matters, the losing side always refrained from appealing the verdict, because of the warning or reprimand written in the Mishna: “…and be careful with the coals of Torah scholars…”

In Sokoly, as in most of the European communities, the function of Sandak belonged to the Rabbi. I was born on Rosh Chodesh Sivan [the first day of the month of Sivan]. My brit mila [circumcision ceremony], therefore, took place on the day after the Shavuot holiday. It is customary to hold the ceremony during the hours of the morning. By chance, Rav Yudel Menches left Sokoly that day to receive the position of Rabbi in Ciechanowiec, and all of the people of the town, headed by the Rabbi, accompanied Rab Yudel to the edge of town. For that reason, my brit mila ceremony was delayed. When the guests arrived at our house, the hour already was late.

Rabbi Menachem Yonah, of blessed memory, then approached my mother, and said to her, “The parents of the baby should please not be upset about the delay of the brit mila ceremony because, at that very moment, one Rabbi left the town, and a second Rabbi entered it. G-d willing, your son will be a Rabbi in Israel.”

I heard these words from my mother, and she was certain that the blessing of the holy righteous Rabbi would be fulfilled.

The Rabbi of Wizna, Rabbi Betzalel, of blessed memory, was also from Sokoly. When I learned in the Wizna Yeshiva, my friends and I were accustomed to go to hear Torah [lectures] from the Rabbi, and I was deeply impressed by his words of wisdom.

The Story os a Horseman and a Forgotten Talit

Rabbi Yaakov Semioticzky, of blessed memory, the son of the famous commentator from Sokoly, Rabbi Hershel Aharon Yonas, of blessed memory, became the Rabbi of Gac [Getz]. I still see the picture before me, how the people of the town, young and old, headed by Rabbi Avraham Epstein, went out to accompany the young Rabbi Yaakov Semioticzky to the Kruczewa train station. It was Friday morning. Little Alterke, Rabbi Yaakov Semioticzky's father-in-law, also went out with his son-in-law to Gac, which is in the Lomza region.

Suddenly, Alterke remembered that he had forgotten to take his tallit with him. And how could a Jew go on a trip without his tallit; especially the father-in-law of the Rabbi? And how could the matter be justified?!

Rav Hershel, the Rabbi's father, the commentator, a learned and wise man, turned to Alterke and said, “A Jew always has to have his tallit with him. It is needed by those who are alive and, G-d forbid, by a Jew whose time has come to give a report to the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He…”

What to do? Moshe Borowitz jumped in with a suggestion, Abba Borowitz with another suggestion, and Avrahamel Borowitz with a further suggestion. Actually, there was no suggestion that would help. Then someone among the crowd suggested sending a fast rider on a galloping horse to Sokoly to bring the tallit before the train would leave. And that is what happened. They immediately found a horseman, who jumped onto his strong horse and disappeared at a gallop in the direction of Sokoly. The crowd remained in place, tense, and expectant. Would the tallit arrive at the right time? Or would it come a few seconds too late?

And here, the train has arrived at the station, stopping its heavy puffing for a moment, and the first whistle sliced through the air. The crowd also stopped breathing, at the end of its patience. The second whistle was heard…Oy, oy, what will happen in the end?

At that moment, the returning horseman was seen, with the tallit in his hand. A sigh of relief burst from the mouths of the crowd, ecstatic, full of satisfaction and admiration. Praise and thanks to G-d, the Creator of the world.

The station manager, a friend of the Borowitzes and Little Alterke, blew the whistle for the third time, and the train started to move, at the exact moment that Alterke stretched out his arms and embraced his precious treasure – the tallit – with love almost with tears of joy.

The event was the talk of Sokoly that day and the next, like the miracle of the exodus from Egypt.

On the way back from Kruczewa, all of them spoke about the pleasure that Reb Hershel Aharon, the father of the young Rabbi, had from his son, who was ensured a secure, respectable income for himself and his family for a long time, like a type of kingdom that passes from sons to grandsons.

A Luxurious Chariot, Harnessed to Horses of Fire

When I came home, my beloved Mother, of blessed memory, said to me: “Do you see, my son, that Torah is better than any merchandise!”

In Sokoly, he was a genius, and his name was praised among the wise men of Poland and Lithuania. This was the Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Brill, of blessed memory, the son of Meirke's Pesach. He was very well-versed in Gemara and the commentaries, and had a fantastic memory. It was enough to point at a certain place in the Gemara and ask him what word was written exactly in that place on page 10. Rav Avraham Yaakov would always answer specifically and would never give a wrong answer. Wealthy men hinted to him that they wanted him to marry their daughters.

I remember that once a luxurious chariot, harnessed to two strong horses, horses of fire, passed through Sokoly, and in it sat two Jews having a majestic appearance. The chariot made a great impression in the town and crowds came outside to look at the unusual sight. Many people looked out of their windows to see this wonder and to find out what was happening outside. The chariot stopped next to the home of Meirke's Pesach, and out came a wealthy man from Warsaw and his friend, a Torah scholar, for the purpose of testing the knowledge of the genius Avraham Yaakov.

Everyone immediately knew that the prospective father-in-law was prepared to pay thousands of rubles as a dowry and permanent financial support (kest). There was no longer any doubt among the crowd, that Torah is better than any merchandise, and happy are those who learn it with diligence. Fathers and mothers prayed that their daughters would be provided with bridegrooms who were learned scholars.

Rav Avraham Yaakov rejected the match, and, as is known, he later became the son-in-law of Rav Itzele from Poniewiez [Panevezys, Lithuania], of blessed memory.

The truth of the matter is, that Rav Avraham Yaakov did not want to be a rabbi in Israel, in spite of his great ability in every way, such as his brilliant talents and wide knowledge, and the merit of his famous father-in-law. In his youth, he wanted to give himself over to matters of trade. After his marriage, he began to manage businesses that flourished on a large scale. During the period of World War I, he and his family were in Russia, and he acquired a wealth of millions of rubles. The Bolsheviks who came into power took all of his possessions away from him. With difficulty, he managed to leave Russia and arrive in the United States. He lived there for a short time and then he passed away. He was buried in the cemetery of the émigrés from Sokoly in New York. May his soul be bound up in eternal life.

Open Wish, Guarantee of Accomplishment

During the years of my youth, there were two Torah scholars in Sokoly. One, Rav Yisrael son of Itze Goldstein, was talented and a teacher, and the other was Rav Avraham Yitzchak Charney, the son of Shmeinke's Yankel.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak was slow-witted, and the teachers advised him to learn a trade, because he would never be a scholar. But Avraham Yitzchak was stubborn, and said that his soul desired the Torah. He aspired to know and learn a page of gemara by himself.

The yeshiva boys sat and learned in the new Beit Midrash. Avraham Yitzchak asked them to help him and teach him. They agreed, and studied a chapter of gemara with him dozens of times, until he grasped the matter and finally succeeded in forcing section after section into his brain.

He did not feel tired from the excess of learning that continued for many hours of the day and night, and he showed unusual diligence. At a later time, the diligent Avraham Yitzchak traveled to learn in the yeshivot and he left Sokoly for many years.

When he returned, after a long time, he was well-versed in two tractates of the gemara and was ordained as a rabbi. The saying of Rabbi Akiva, “stones worn by water,” was fulfilled in him. The teachers of Sokoly, when they were moralizing to their students, took Rav Avraham Yitzchak as an example, saying “Look and see! When you want to, and have a desire to learn, you can also gain Torah with a dull head. You work – you find.”

The diligent student, Rav Avraham Yitzchak, married a pleasant girl, a seamstress by profession, in Lomza. She had a lot of proposals for marriage, but she chose Rav Avraham Yitzchak, saying that she preferred to work hard; she should only be privileged to have a scholar for a husband. Here, it is possible to add the verse, “Many daughters are valiant, but you have surpassed them all.”

Shmuelke, Sara Tilka, and their Sons

Our neighbors were a wagon owner named Moshe Avigdor and his wife Traina, with their daughter Sara Tilka and their son-in-law Shmuelke the tailor. Shmuelke the tailor spent most of the years of his life in America. He distanced his place of residence to “the second America”, as the women would say. The city of Chicago was given the name of “the second America,”since most of the people from our town who immigrated to America went to “the first America,” namely, to New York.

Once, Shmuelke the tailor was a wanderer. Shmuelke had two daughters, Hinda and Esther Rachel, and he wanted to take Torah scholars as husbands for them. Thank G-d he succeeded in fulfilling his wishes.

His older daughter, Hinda, married a scholar named Alter Rachekovsky, who owned a large wholesale merchandise company, all thanks to the constant support of his faithful father-in-law Shmuelke in America and his mother-in-law, Sara Tilka. She worked day and night, with all her heart and all her soul, at home and in the store belonging to her daughter and son-in-law.

In my childhood, I had a Rebbe called Mordechai the Maggid, from the town of Czyzewo, who would give Torah lessons upstairs in the old Beit Midrash in Sokoly. The Rebbe, the Maggid, would wake up early before dawn and regularly go to learn gemara with Alter Rachekovsky.

Shmuelke's younger daughter, Esther Rachel, married Rabbi Chaim Shimon David, a Heaven-fearing scholar, who was educated in the Radom Yeshiva. For a time, Rav Chaim Shimon David was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Proskorow Yeshiva in Poland. After pogroms against the Jews in Proskorow, Rabbi Chaim Shimon David immigrated to America. There, he held the position of Rabbi in a town near Chicago.

Rabbi Chaim Shimon David passed away a few years ago, and he left children who had a higher education. His son, Avraham Hyman, finished law school during World War II. He was a major in the chief headquarters of the American Army. Rav Chaim Shimon David's daughter, who also had a higher education, married a man who held a high position in the American government.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Dachovitz, of Blessed Memory

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Dachovitz, a son of our town, became famous in the world of rabbis in America as an exceptional scholar who was pleasant, careful, and active in the community. He wrote many books. Besides these things, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Dachovitz was blessed with good looks. He passed away a few years ago in America, and left two sons and two sons-in-law, all of them rabbis.

Two More Rabbis

I wish to write about two additional vessels of holiness, who left Sokoly for America:
  1. Rabbi Mordechai Savin, a former shamash [sexton] of the new Beit Midrash, a Bible, and Gemara teacher. Rabbi Mordechai reached the United States at the end of World War I. There, he made a living from the ritual slaughter of chickens. He acquired a name for his diligence and those around him appreciated him for his wisdom. He passed away in the United States. May his soul be bound up in eternal life.
  2. Rabbi Nachman Vishnia, of blessed memory, the son-in-law of Rav Yitzchak Schweitzer, the medic from Sokoly. Rav Nachman was one of the special Jews of the previous generation; there is no one like them. Jews like him could grow and develop only in the towns of Poland and Lithuania of the past, such as Vilna, Lomza, Bialystok, Sokoly, Osieczek, and the like.

Photo - Rav Nachman David son of Shmuel Vishnia, Rav Aharon Reuven (Zeidel) Charney,
Rav Chaim Eliezer Tzvi Charney, Rabbanit Miriam Charney

Rabbi Nachman was a scholar, whose books of gemara and mishnayot never left his hands. He was a righteous man and a symbol of completeness: modest, a lover of truth, and a hater of greed; however, he was a proud man. I remember how, when I was still a boy, Rav Nachman would come home on vacation from the army, dressed in a pressed uniform and decorated with a black beard. He immediately would turn to the new Beit Midrash and sit down to learn with diligence. We, the children, loved to surround him and enjoy the pleasant melody of his learning gemara.

When he passed through the street, Nachman amazed everyone with his masculine handsomeness and the wonderful build of his body. Flames of the light of love for everyone sparked from his eyes, revealing his child-like innocence and the goodness of his heart.

In America, Rav Nachman didn't want to make the Torah into an “axe to grind,” and he preferred to work in a shop. At that time, there already was a synagogue for émigrés from Sokoly, by the name of “Congregation Ohavei Shalom, Emigres from Sokoly.” There, they paid attention to, and greatly appreciated, every word that came out of Rav Nachman's mouth.

The Same Tune in the Street, as in Town

When I came to Bayonne, Rav Nachman came to me with a request to find him a job in the rabbinate, because he felt weak and it was hard for him to continue working in the shop. An appropriate job was found for him in my synagogue, and he was privileged to serve there for 25 years. Everyone loved him and he loved them all. People considered it an honor to spend time with Rav Nachman; even the Christians called him “the holy man.” Thus, Rav Nachman acquired completeness in our synagogue, “Congregation Beit Avraham.” At four o'clock in the morning every day, the pleasant music of Rav Nachman learning Gemara were heard, exactly as they had been a long time ago in our town of Sokoly. His pleasant voice enhanced the reading of the Torah and the prayers on the holidays and during the Days of Awe.

And as it had been in Sokoly, when the youthful Rav Nachman would walk through the street, the mothers and grandmothers would wonder at him, saying, “Itza's son-in-law is crowning the street with radiance, bli ayin hara [withhold the evil eye!].”

Two years ago, Rav Nachman became ill. He gave up his position. He spent a lot of time lying in bed, and he was no longer able to go to the synagogue. In spite of his difficult illness, he continued to occupy himself with Torah, prayers, and charity, and he received everyone with kindness. The doctors wondered how Rav Nachman was able to go on, and more than once they asked me my opinion. I told them, “There is an answer to that. People who are modern and free-thinking in their religious outlook cannot understand – this is the strength of faith! Rav Nachman has faith in G-d! 'Everything the Merciful One does, is for good.'”

Rav Nachman never complained. He lay quietly and waited for the moment when the Master of the World would call him. When he lay in the hospital, the nurses said, “Here lies a pious man,” and they served him with great respect.

Rav Nachman got out of his bed to light the third candle of Chanuka. He prayed the evening prayers with devotion, said the blessings on the candles with fervor and happiness that he had merited to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanuka candles. He sang “Maoz Tzur Yeshuati”, got back into his bed, and fell asleep forever, old and full of days. May his soul be bound in eternal life.

Rav Nachman's passing shocked the city of Bayonne. His coffin was placed in the Beit Midrash on the table where he was accustomed to learn Torah. Three rabbis eulogized him. All of them emphasized that a great candle had been extinguished in Bayonne, and that the best Jew of them all had gone from us forever. May his merit protect us and may his soul be bound in eternal life.

It is worth pointing out that Rav Nachman's parents were terribly poor, without the means to pay for their children's education. His mother would wake up at dawn to bring her only cow to pasture and to sell the milk so as to somehow pay for the lessons. So it is no wonder that Jews like Rav Nachman grew up among us.

I will further add that when I arrived in the United States more than thirty years ago, already then I met, on the East Side, a nice congregation of people who had left Sokoly, religious people who were observant of the mitzvot, Jews who observed Shabbat, were careful with kashrut, forbidden foods and family purity. Their sons learned in yeshivot and received a religious higher education as well as secular studies. From them came rabbis and spiritual leaders, who spread out all over America. Their parents brought the love of Torah and the spirit of learning with them from Sokoly. The émigrés from our town even held the annual dinner of the Chevra Kadisha [burial society] as they had done long ago in Sokoly – Meishke the baker's Chevra Kadisha dinner. Emigres from Sokoly and rabbis were invited to the dinner. This was a time for talking about and remembering our past lives. Once, there was, in Sokoly…and there is no more.


[Pages 237 - 239]

My Family

by HaRav Yitzhak Meir Ben-Menachem (Pachiner), of Blessed Memory (Jerusalem)

(from the Introduction to his book “Annals of the King”)

Photo - Rav Nachman David son of Shmuel Vishnia, Rav Aharon Reuven (Zeidel) Charney,
Rav Chaim Eliezer Tzvi Charney, Rabbanit Miriam Charney

Harav Ben-Menachem
Harav Ben-Menachem

My father, HaRav Menachem, son of Zalman Zelig, of blessed memory, was a Torah scholar who was G-d-fearing and an outstanding Chassid. My mother, Rachel, daughter of Alexander Ziskind, of blessed memory, was a modest, good-hearted woman. My parents educated their children with self-sacrifice, in the spirit of Torah, the fear of Heaven, and in good deeds.

My father was very diligent in learning Torah. When he sat down to learn, he was completely immersed in the book.

I would like to tell a curiosity from my youth. My father was a trader of animal and sheepskins, on a wide scale. But the wheel of fortune turned, and our economic situation came upon hard times. Simply, we were pressed [for money] and needy, and the children were hungry. No improvement of this situation was seen on the horizon.

Being freed from business, my father gave himself over entirely to learning Torah. His faith in the Master of the World gave him confidence and strength. Day and night, he was immersed in the Gemara and commentaries. I remember the living picture of my father, sitting in his place in the corner of the old Beit Midrash in Sokoly, the town where I was born. His book is open before him and his face radiates desire and love for Torah. He rises above every distress and hovers in another world, the world of Torah, which is always full of light. He is not broken by our difficult economic situation. On the contrary, he was spiritually elevated and felt purity, holiness, and complete encouragement.

One clear day, a postcard came in the mail to my father, from a well-known industrialist in Vilna [Wilno, Lithuania]. He proposed that my father would supply his factory with animal and sheepskins from Poland. Of course, we regarded that postcard as happiness that had descended to us from the heavens, and the fulfillment of the verse, “The help of G-d is as the winking of an eye.”

The feeling that filled our hearts cannot be described, of joy and the hope that the wheel of fortune had turned again, this time towards the good, and a new period of sustenance and income was opening for us.

Even as a boy, I well understood the sudden change in our condition. My father was still sitting in the Beit Midrash and the news had not yet reached him. My mother asked me to run to bring the postcard to my father. Of course, I ran like and arrow on my errand. When I reached the threshold of the Beit Midrash, my father didn't see me, being immersed in his learning. I was sorry to interrupt him, but my patience gave out and I handed him the postcard. But I was immediately amazed by his cold reaction and his indifference to the entire matter. My father continued to study the Gemara until he finished the subject he was learning.

When he came home, he of course answered the proposal from the Vilna industrialist affirmatively. At that time, our economic situation improved very much and continued for decades until the beginning of the world's Holocaust.

Photo - Pachiner Family

Regarding my father's business in Vilna at that period, it is worth pointing out his respect and attachment to the Torah scholars and geniuses in Vilna, the famous “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. My father occasionally visited Vilna, and after arranging his business matters, as he told me, he enjoyed visiting the famous Gaon [genius] and wise man Rabbi Ozer, of righteous and blessed memory.

His words made a strong, deep impression upon me. I saw that the true purpose of the trips to Vilna was actually the meeting with the gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, of blessed memory. He arranged his business matters on the side, like the fable told by the writer of Chovot Halevavot, about a merchant who would travel to a fair, and incidentally dined there on foods and drinks to his heart's desire. No one would think that the merchant's main purpose was eating to his heart's desire, not his business.

When Hitler's officers invaded the Bialystok region where my parents lived, our family connection was cut off. I found out, only at the end of the War, that my father, of blessed memory, had merited a natural death in his own bed, in holiness and purity. This was in 1942. But the exact date of his death is unknown to me to this very day.

Regarding my dear mother, my two sisters, and two brothers, I did not merit even sorrowful news, like that regarding my father, who died a natural death. My mother, my sisters, my brothers and their children were killed with the rest of the martyrs, may G-d avenge their blood.

My heart is distressed when I remember my brother, Rav Avraham, of blessed memory, who was a G-d-fearing genius in Torah, all of whose deeds were good ones. He did not want to make his Torah into a “shovel to dig with,” and kept away from the rabbinate. He managed his business with honesty in order to support his family. He dedicated every available hour to learning Torah and serving G-d, and interested himself in congregational problems. Occasionally, he would publish his ideas in articles in the Orthodox newspapers. He was sympathetic to everyone he knew in the area, close to and farther away from his place of residence in Ostrowa [Ostrow Mazowiecka]. When the evil legions invaded Poland, he moved to Bialystok, and from there to Slonim. At that time, the connection with him was lost. He himself, his three sons who were learned in Torah, and one of his daughters, were killed with the rest of Israel's holy martyrs, may G-d avenge their blood.

My heart is no less sad when I remember my youngest brother Shmuel, of blessed memory. He was always modest and good-hearted, and ready at any time or season to help others and anyone who needed assistance. In Bialystok, Shmuel was a member of the famous community committee known as “HaTov VeHaMetiv.” Shmuel, of blessed memory, learned with me in the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Radon [Radom], where he absorbed a great deal of Torah and fear of Heaven.

Tears flow from my eyes when I remember my oldest sister, Golda, of blessed memory, an intelligent and good-hearted woman. She and her two daughters were murdered in the Holocaust by Hitler's rioters, may their blood be avenged.

How horrible are the shocks to my soul when I remember my youngest, beloved and lovely sister Chana, of blessed memory. She and her children were killed with the rest of our nation's martyrs, may their blood be avenged.

For these I cry; my eyes shed tears; our destruction is as large as the ocean; the nation of G-d has fallen before our enemies and it is difficult to accept condolences. G-d, Who comforts Zion and builds Jerusalem, Who remembers His nation and paves the way to its redemption, He will bandage all the wounds of our hearts and will end our suffering. And G-d will wipe a tear from every face and they will come redeemed to Zion, with eternal joy and happiness, and those who sleep in the dust will awaken and be happy, and G-d alone is sublime.

Before the publication of this article, to my dismay I received the awful news that my dear sister, Gisha Feinbrun-Pachiner, passed away suddenly. This wise and gentle woman did not have the merit to have children. May her memory, which is precious to our entire family, be engraved in this book. She passed away on Sunday night, the first day of Adar 5717, in Tel Aviv, and was brought to eternal rest that same day, in the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv. May her soul be bound in eternal life.

Photo - Rav Avraham Pachiner; Gisha Feinbrun-Pachiner


[Pages 240 - 243]

A Chain of Memories

by Moshe Dworkin (Bialydworsky) of Blessed Memory (New York)

Moshe Dworkin
Moshe Dworkin

Like every Polish town, our town Sokoly led a way of life that had been established for generations. Even though Sokoly was near the large city of Bialystok, Sokoly had not sufficiently progressed until 1914, in other words, until the beginning of World War I. Unfortunately, we do not have any documents acknowledging how long Sokoly existed, when it was established and how it grew and developed to a population numbering approximately 500 Jewish families, until the time of its destruction. Who were the first pioneers who established and built it? I estimate that the oldest families in Sokoly were Goldin, Yaskolsky, and Sokolowitz.

Most of the Jewish population was comprised of Jewish settlements in the area. The few Jews who previously lived in the villages were forced to flee from the strong anti-Semitic pressure of their non-Jewish neighbors, which, for the most part, ended with robberies, arson, and murder. In a natural way, the Jewish population in Sokoly grew through marriages with Jews from other towns in the region.

And thus, for several generations, Sokoly existed for several generations on sources of income from craftsmen, small merchants, and peddlers. I cannot point out a branch of commerce on which its owners were able to support themselves, except for the owners of shops who sold manufactured goods, who were assisted, for the most part, with interest-free loans and long-term credit. Most of the small merchants supported themselves with a combination of trade and labor. There were cases when a shop-owner was also a teacher of small children. People would regard each other as being their tormentors; each one saw himself as if he were “a poor man looking for crumbs,” which he had inherited from his parents, but nevertheless, almost all of the people of our town lived in peace with each other.

Occasionally, there were ridiculous scenes. When shop-owners were competing, the competitors would pull a buying farmer by his sleeves, one by his right sleeve towards his shop, and the other by his left sleeve. Sometimes curses, insults, and arguments were heard between competitors, but they immediately reconciled.

The economic situation in our town was very poor. Poverty stabbed the eyes: the pitiful houses, the silence of the cemetery prevailing in the streets of the town, all these infused us with a black, bitter spirit. In comparison, in its cultural, religious, and social life, our town painted a completely different picture. In the Batei Midrash, people prayed three times a day and learned Gemara and commentaries. Simple Jews read chapters of Psalms. There were charitable and public institutions. Next to the old Beit Midrash stood the large synagogue. To the right of the synagogue was the tailors' Beit Midrash, and to its left was the new Beit Midrash. Next to the marketplace was the old Beit Midrash, where my father, of blessed memory, was the regular reader of the Torah on the Sabbath and holidays, and of the five Megilot, at the times they were read. Over time, the two, large Batei Midrash were rebuilt and significantly enlarged.

Apart from being places of learning and prayer, the Batei Midrash also served as an exchange for trade and the industrial professions. There, the prices of all kinds of merchandise and various products were determined. More than one contract was arranged and completed there.

The Beit Midrash was also a special place for mediating difficult conflicts between parties. The most efficient method was to delay the [Torah] reading. More than once it happened that the congregation was forced to wait long hours on the Sabbath for the reading of the Torah until the stubborn party finally agreed to go to a din-Torah [rabbinical court] or an arbitrator.

Almost every week, two or three sermonizers or famous preachers would speak in the Batei Midrash. A popular place was behind the stove in the old Beit Midrash, where the local poor and guests would gather. There, also was the well-known hostel of the deaf man of Sokoly. The deaf man would help Moshe Kopel, the shamash, to fuel the stoves in the Beit Midrash during the winter. One of my memories that is especially engraved in my mind, was the night when everyone waited with tense nerves for the verdict in the famous blood-libel case in the annals of Russian Jewry, the [Mendel] Beilis trial.

The hour was already late. That night, sitting around the table in the old Beit Midrash, were Mordechai Aharon Shostak, Shmuel Tzvi Kravitz, Moshe Berel Goldstein, bald Zeev, Yaakov Meir Zelkevitz, Yona Chentkovsky, Avraham Moshe Rachelsky, my father, Mendel Bialydworsky, and Dov Zholty. Around them stood Tzvi Okune, Shilam Rosenovitz, Chaim Surasky, Yeshaya the cobbler, Yisrael Chaim the cobbler, Yisrael Meir Greenspan, Helka the seamstress, and Alter Goldin. The faces of all of them were serious and worried about the fate of all of the Jews, in the event that Beilis would be found guilty.

The Beit Midrash was wrapped in fog. The grease candle, flickering in the hands of the scholar of Sokoly in the old Beit Midrash of those days, Itche, the son of Yona Chenkovsky, who was sitting bent over in front of the Gemara on the stand, added more sadness and grief to the surrounding darkness. The silence was occasionally broken by the monotonous notes of water that dripped unceasingly from the sink hanging on the wall into the water tank standing underneath the sink. Alter, the son of Hinda, the candlemaker, came in without being seen and walked back and forth near the stove, from corner to corner. From nervousness, he smoked cigarettes, one after the other. The night continued, and the hanging kerosene lamp, which had previously shown the last signs of life, suddenly began to dance its last before extinguishing. The Jews around the large table in the Beit Midrash showed no signs of life, as if they had decided among themselves not to move from their places until a miracle would occur and somebody would come to tell them good news. Finally, after midnight, the door of the Bait Midrash burst open, and Avrahamel, the son of Helka the seamstress came running in, with a call of joy, “Beilis is innocent!” In his right hand, he waved a telegram, in which was written, “Beilis is not guilty!!”

Of all of the teachers in Sokoly, especially engraved in my memory is the teacher of the small children, Mordechai Shmuel [Spector]. His cheder included a kitchen and a bedroom with two beds in it. A gray and white goat was tied to one of the beds, not necessarily as a remedy; in any case, the Rebbitzen was childless. Around the walls of the kitchen stood two long benches, on which the children sat and waited their turn to be called, one by one, to the Rebbe and to enter the other room to learn and for prayers. The teacher's young apprentice, Avraham, the son of Yossi Yankel, stood the beginning pupils next to the kitchen table, and pointed with a chip of wood at the letters of the aleph-bet on a large board. When Avraham, accompanied by his chorus of pupils, learned to read segol mem – the sound meh – the goat joined the chorus and bleated, louder than all of them – “meeeeeeh”. Avrahamel, on his part, tried with all his strength to raise his voice over the voice of the goat.

Photo - Mordechai Shmuel Spector's Cheder

According to the ancient custom, the Rebbe's apprentice accompanied the children to the homes of women who had given birth, for Kriat Shma. The children were given chick-peas, seeds, and sweets. As was customary, the apprentice received a double portion, but from love of the children, he shared his portion with them.

Avrahamel was a unique character. He lived in poverty, with very little, but he was happy with his portion and was always ready to share what he had with others. He was a bookbinder by profession, and he always requested a price that was lower than his expenses, so as not, G-d forbid, to exploit his customers. In addition to everything else, he also was a water drawer with regular customers, but he had only a few blessings from all of his jobs and remained poor, happy with his lot.

Behind Mordechai Shmuel's cheder there was a legendary pasture, that the children called “Grotz.” All of the children in Sokoly learned in Mordechai Shmuel's cheder or with his brother, the teacher Yossi Yankel, and both of them lived near the Grotz. There, the children spent the greater part of each day playing. They would stand on their heads, walk on their hands, or crawl on all fours. Other children would roll in the grass, or help to turn a large wheel for the rope-maker, Avrahamke. The Grotz was in a central location in the heart of the town, and Avrahamke would come there with a bag of flax so that the children could help him with his work. The Grotz was also an important arterial road for the adults. It shortened the way to the train station, the bathhouse, and the bathhouse well, where the water was better than the water in town.

Once, when I went to the well, I met Mashale, Chaim Zeev's daughter, pulling a goat by its horns behind her. I asked her where she was going. She answered that the goat was no longer young and it never had a good life. Therefore, she was worried that the goat would not live very much longer and she was taking it to the male goat that belonged to Chaim Leibel the shoemaker, so that at least the next generation would remain after her precious goat. Mashale was very interesting. She was a contestant of Poverty. They both hissed at each other. But in spite of her poverty, she was always dressed in clean clothes, and had a smile on her lips.

That was the appearance of my town and its Jews; and I remain a part of that generation.


[Pages 244-246]

Youth Movements in Sokoly

Dr. Bernard Kahan (Berel Konopiati)

(Santa Susana, CA)

Dr. Bernard Kahan
Dr. Bernard Kahan

Memories of the years 1915-1922, the years of the spring of my life, relate to an important period in the life of our beloved town, Sokoly, particularly the years of the establishment and development of the Zionist movement.

At the beginning of the second year of World War I, on August 16, 1915, the Germans entered Sokoly. Gripped with fear that the Russians, before they left, would burn down the houses, as they had done in neighboring towns, the Jews left their homes on Friday night, some in wagons in the direction of Bialystok and some to the synagogues and Batei Midrash.

The battles continued for three days. After three days of fear, the Germans entered Sokoly. The residents received them with great joy, as if they had brought the redemption. The German conquerors chose Hertzl Gutman as mayor of the town (Burgermeister) and allowed public gatherings, which had been forbidden by the Russians.

In all of Poland, the Jewish youth arose in revival. A desire for cultural and public work arose. Youth groups grew and developed. One of the cultural meetings took place in 1916, on the 30th day after the death of [the famous Jewish writer] Shalom Aleichem, and another in memory of the Jewish writer, [Simeon Samuel] Frug. The meetings and cultural activities of the youth took place in the library on the second floor of Tzvi Finkelstein's house. Eliezer Goldstein and Gedalia Brill excelled in their great love and self-sacrifice for the library.

The desire to organize youth movements was very strong. The writer of these lines remembers very well the first meeting of a small group in the summer of 1916, in the home of Yaakov Borowitz. Among those gathered there were the Hebrew teacher, Chaim Michael Goldin, Breina Ginzberg, Reizel Sokolowitz, and others. At Chaim Michael's suggestion, it was decided there to give the name Pirchei Tzion to the new movement. The writer of these lines was chosen as secretary of the movement. Naftali Goldstein and Yosef Leib Burstein (the son of Pinchas Hershel) were added workers. Most of the youth participated in active Zionist work, such as selling shekels or activities on behalf of Keren Kayemet LeIsrael [Jewish National Fund].

Commemoration of the first anniversary of the death of Dr. [Theodore] Herzl, on the 20th of Tammuz, was properly held for the first time, and the cantor, Reb Leib Chayet, sang E-l Malei Rachamim [prayer for mercy to the deceased].

That summer, the well-known pedagogue and educator, Rafael Gutman, the son of Hertzl Gutman, came for a vacation. Naftali Goldstein and I visited him and invited him to speak at a large meeting in the library on the Ninth of Av [Jewish day of fasting and mourning]. Rafael's speech drew an enormous crowd and made a gigantic impression on those present.

On Chanuka, the youth organized a large, beautiful party at the Polish school on Church Street (Tifla Gasse).

Rafael Gutman was chosen to be the official representative at the Zionist convention in Warsaw. From the older generation, who regarded the Zionist youth activities very sympathetically, Rav Yosef Chervonitz, Rav Pinchas Hirsch Burstein, Rav Leib Chayet, Rav Hertzl Gutman, Rav Zalman Yachnes, Rav Lipnivitz, and Rav Yona Chentkovsky should be mentioned. They were active on behalf of Keren HaYesod and organized a branch of the Mizrachi [religeous Zionist] movement.

After the Balfour Declaration in November of 1917, the Zionist activities grew. Many new members were added. On the committee were Yitzchak Levin, Shmuel Ginzberg, Mottel Shafran, the teacher Zilka Surasky, who spoke beautifully in Hebrew at general meetings. The Zionist movement grew and developed in Sokoly. The youth developed new ideals and called the organization by the name Youth of Zion (as opposed to the general Zionists).

Photo - Shmuel Pachiner, Eliezer Shechupakovitz, Nachman Segal

At the end of the year 1918, when the Germans lost the War and left Poland, the anti-Semitism grew. Most of the youth left Sokoly, some to Lithuania, and some to America. Those who remained in Sokoly belonged to two organizations: Poalei Zion and Youth of Zion.

Leizer [Eliezer] Shechupakovitz and Shmuel Pachiner became new members of Youth of Zion. Afterwards, they became leaders of the movement, and after it was united with the Poalei Zion group, they were active in the leadership.

In the summer of 1919, I was chosen as a representative to the Youth of Zion convention in Warsaw. At that time, Yisrael Marminsky came from Russia. He was chosen to lead the Youth of Zion movement and as the editor of the Bapreiung newspaper.

Kalman Levertovsky made a good impression on the youth of Sokoly. He was one of the leaders of Youth of Zion from Warsaw, and his lectures were extremely interesting. The great scholar and genius, Yitzchak Meir Pachiner, also participated in our meetings and discussions. Kalman made aliya to Eretz Yisrael in 1920, and I heard from the President of the State of Israel, Zalman Shazar, whom I met at the time of his visit to Pittsburgh, that Kalman Levertovsky changed his name to Bar-Lev. I remember the song that Kalman used to sing and that was accepted by the youth, Mein Feigele (My Bird).

I still remember the first verse (author unknown):

My bird blundered
From its mother's nest
It was trapped in a cage
By a stranger's hand

My friend Yitzchak Estrovitz would sing the song in a lyrical and pleasant voice.

At that time, Dr. A. S. Yuris of the Poalei Zion visited Sokoly. He was a famous speaker and intellect, and he left a song, or more correctly, a tune with one word, Julia. This was a Chassidic melody that they sang incessantly with great devotion. By the way, I recall the path of my sins, that after Dr. Yuris' speech at a meeting in the Beit Midrash, my question, as the representative of Youth of Zion, caused a fierce argument and the disbanding of the meeting. In 1923, when I met Dr. Yuris for the second time at a party in Pittsburgh, he reminded me, in a friendly conversation, of that event.

In 1920-21, the Zionist movement in Sokoly grew. New groups were added and I especially remember the active members: Yona Ginzberg, may G-d avenge his blood; Shmuel Borowitz, may he be granted a long life; and Avraham Yitzchak Lev, may he be granted a long life.

In 1922, I left Sokoly. I will always remember the going-away party in the library hall next to Moshe Avraham's house. All of the youth of Sokoly were present, and they blessed me with heart-felt good wishes. When the party was over and we left the hall, it was dawn; “the time had come to say Kriat Shma of the morning prayers.”

Afterwards, I heard that more youth organizations had been established in Sokoly, such as Beitar, Hechalutz, and a Hachshara group.

I will remember the beautiful and intelligent youth of Sokoly during that period for the rest of my life.

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