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[Page 19]

The face of the town

 

Suchowola in recent generations

by Yerukham Levin[1]

 

A. The founding of the town

In the days of the primeval world when the remnants of the Israelite nation wandered to Poland, the Israelite community of Suchowola (situated between Grodno and Bialystok) was founded. It is difficult to pinpoint the date of Suchowola's founding, and even more difficult to determine when Jews first settled there. It is difficult to know how it was established, who its first settlers were and who its Rabbis were.

We have no communal registry, nor a record giving witness to its early builders and caretakers (with the exception of the “Community Register” of the 1920's that was salvaged by its Secretary Mr Isser Smoliar, who now resides in New York). There are memories passed down of those who saw 800(?) year–old gravestones in the old cemetery. And the old wooden Synagogue built in its traditional style was witness too to hundreds of years of settlement in this town.

There is an assumption –and there are those who say it is a time–honoured tradition, that the town members came from nearby and faraway villages, it would appear forced from their homes by their neighbours or by governmental decrees. Memory of this may be witnessed in the names of the townspeople, such as Chaim Dolistaver, Shim'on Riveniyer, Yosske Karpovitcher, Chana Maniushker, Shim'on Brazzaver, Zeidke Koritziner…. the few stone buildings remaining in the town were, it appears, from the time of the Prussian rule of Bialystok and its surroundings in the years 1795–1807. And the ancient Beis Midrash was also privileged to have a stone structure, as was the “Morad” with foundations of an earlier time.

 

B. The populace and its means of livelihood

The economic foundations of the townsfolk were the same as in all townships in Lithuania and Poland: mediation between the villages and the towns: Produce, household items, hides, haberdashery and woven cloth.

The trade in produce had many branches. The town's merchants would procure the produce from the surrounding farmers and would market them on to Germany or Russia. The most prominent of the produce merchants were the brothers Moshe'ke and Hersh'ke Krutsel and Leibe Krutsel (the “Miller).

Household goods: This type of business was the most common, since people bought items one from another and conducted barter–trade with the local farmers.

Only a few people dealt in hides. They were in a good position, where they would bring skins from Wolyn and its close surroundings and pass them to tanners in the town. In the hide trade were Zalman Yaffe, Chaim Lieder, Shalom and Ze'ev Stotshinsky, Chaim Golov, and others.

Tanning: It was mainly the Tatars (gentiles) who dealt in this activity. They lived together in a special lane en route to the Olszanka river. The Tatars left the town with the Russian retreat of the First World War. The Tatars had a firm status in the town: The Postmaster was a Tatar in the time of the Russians.

There were a number of stores dealing in haberdashery and other manufactured goods. Their clientele were the village folk, and the merchandise was procured from Bialystok and from Warsaw. The Jews also were involved with other enterprises such as windmills, water mills, bath houses and so on. There was an advanced horse trade and deals would occur mostly at the fairs.

Artisans such as bakers, shoemakers, tailors, smiths and hairdressers would prosper by the work of their hands and would operate mainly on market days and fairs, when the gentiles held them in high demand.

 

C. The Fair

Market days took place every Thursday, and from this the Jew sourced most of his living for the rest of the week. Besides this, from time to time Fairs would be held, usually on days remembering Christian Saints. The farmers would throng to the town plaza, but first they would attend the church and thereafter turn to buying and selling.

Market days and Fair days were the source of livelihood and profit for the townspeople. The bath houses were full of beer–drinking farmers (locally brewed by Shklar's brewery), as well the local “Kvass” drink, produced by Henia–Rachel Krutsel and her partners.

Occasionally, these days would become violent and riotous that were overcome with considerable difficulty. The proximity of Suchowola to the Prussian border was conducive to the smuggling trade. Smuggling was known in the vernacular as “Turkey trade” (“Indikes”)

Transportation was uncomfortable and stressful. The town maintained trade and cultural ties with Grodno, Bialystok, Sokolka and Goniondz, and transport was entirely by wagon. The main direction was Bialystok. Travellers suffered the slow, lurching movement of the wagons along poor and impassable paths.

The two chief wagon drivers, Reb Moshe Zak and Moshe b'Reb Shmuel–Yitzhak Grimtschanski, may their memory be blessed, made the journey as pleasant as possible. As per their manners and their speech, one was described as a person of halacha [Jewish Law] and the other of agada [legend, storytelling]. The trip would take all night, and at times they would need to sojourn at a lone inn along the way, the “Vietaka”.

The wagons would arrive in Bialystok on Mondays and Thursdays. It was exhilarating to see the Suchowola ex–pats, now citizens of Bilaystok, surrounding the wagons at their terminus at the house of Rachel Matot on Guminer street, hearing news of home.

In the ‘thirties [1930's] transport became mechanised – by bus, and the experiences of wagon travel became only a memory.

 

D. Education and Culture

Amongst the townspeople were to be found some highly educated persons. Suchowola excelled, amongst other towns in the area, in its youths who came to it to be educated. Amongst the earliest were Simcha and Chana Magid, Herzel Chaim Lieder's, Liphshitz, Nissan Shtutz, the midwives Chaike Shtotschinsky and Grona Suchawolsky, the Russian–language teacher Rivtsche Slominski, and others.

There were persons in Suchowola of great Torah learning and religious educators, such as Reb Gershon Stotschinsky, Reb Koppel Magid, and others. Some became published authors known from generation to generation, and these were Reb Moshe Buxenboim, Reb Yaakov Binyamin Yakimovsky, the author of the book “Em Yaakov” – insights in to the Tractate “Berachot” (published Warsaw, 1924), and others.

The Rabbis were giants of their generation whose names were known throughout the Torah world, amongst them were Rabbi Avraham'tchi Einhorn, Rabbi Shabbetai Berlin, Rabbi Yisrael M. Vistinitz. The last Rabbi of the town was Rabbi Shlomo–Tzvi Kalir.

The other “holy vessels” were also pleasant types that left deep impressions in the memories of the townsfolk: The ritual slaughterers Nosske Bura, Alter Mali and lastly Shlomo Amsterdamsky, who was a gentle talmid chacham [heb: religious scholar]and who would welcome every person with a pleasant countenance.

It was a tradition of the people of Suchowola to provide their sons and daughters religious as well as secular education. Each took on himself the burden of Torah and established institutions from which their children would plumb light and understanding. During the First World War they set up “Cheiderim”, somewhere adapted to suit the times. Amongst the educators were persons knowledgeable in Tanach [heb acronym for Torah, Nevi'im Ketuvim, the 24 books Hebrew bible] with all of the commentaries. During weekdays it was not unusual to hear argumentative discourses between two educators strolling in the street on the interpretation of the Even–Ezra or the Malbim [Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra and Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser both well–known Bible commentators] . Their powers in GF”T [heb: Gemara (Talmud), Torah and Halacha (Jewish Law)] were exceedingly strong. Of those worth mentioning: reb Zalman, reb Motta, reb Yaakov Zabban (Felminer), and others.

During the German occupation [1915–1918] new winds blew, and secular education found its rest in Suchowola. At the instigation of the local public institutions, schools were opened for all children free of charge. The language of tuition was Yiddish. These institutions didn't last long, because the German authorities simultaneously opened compulsory schools throughout the province. The saving grace was that the teachers were locally–bred: Babtze the daughter of reb Chaim Liverant, Reizel the daughter of reb Tevel Stotschinsky, and Tzirel Zholtok. As a religious teacher served reb Isser Smoliar, who besides religious subjects also taught his students Hebrew.

During the first German occupation [the First World War] there were numerous institution that were branches of institutions based in Bialystok: “Gruppes fur Yiddishe Literatur un Geshichte. The fifth “Gruppe” of girls particularly excelled.

The institutions operated with the aim of disseminating the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture, amongst them the “Shachar” [heb: dawn](for girls) and the “Techiyya”[heb: resurrection] (for boys), both of which were established by the teacher Meir Bura.

The town was alive and saturated with culture, and the youth took great interest in it.

The library was established at the turn of the century by the local “intelligentsia”: Chaim Gupershtein, Yudel Krutsel (AneRachel's), Leizer Tikotski, Zeidke Shklar, Shmuel–Eizik Frantchuz, and others.

During the times of the Czar [Nicholas II] the library operated illegally and moved from place to place. Its permanent home was that of Sheinke Gupershtein. Once the library expanded it was moved to the house of Tevel Stotchinsky. The library was destroyed by fire in 1926, but with the help of our “landsleit” [Jewish compatriots] in America and Mexico, was rebuilt. In 1935 the library (housing 2,000 books) was taken over by the “Tarbut” organisation.

 

E. Communal leadership and Public life

Communal organisation was not always conducted in unison or in similar ways to that of other Israelite communities. In late 1918, after the revolution in Germany, communal elections were held in every province, and Suchowola was not excluded from this process. Elections were here too fiercely contested: the “Tzeirei Tzion”, the “Mizrahi” and the “Bund”. Over time, and owing to the difficulties in raising communal taxes, the communal committee disintegrated, so the authorities took over the initiative. Communal independence was thus tainted and many of its members made Aliyah to Eretz Israel. In the end a limited committee was formed with key businessmen its members. We fondly remember those persons who contributed the best of their efforts and their time, and these were: Moshe Putiel, Leizer Mendel Grodzinsky, Gershon Maraineh, Leibel Abramovitch, Itamar Nisselkovsky, Shimon Kaleko, Alter Maly, Meir Bura (the Chairman) and Isser Smolar (the Secretary).

In terms of political party activisim, this was no less vigorous than in other places. There were parties and movements, towards the end of the First World War Nissan Shtotz and Reizel Stotchinsk founded the “Tzeirei Tzion” party that encompassed a large portion of the youth and was highly influential in the community. The founders were also delegates in the Southern conference of Lithuanian Zionists in Bialystok (held 21st Av 5677, 9th August 1917). Their influence on communal institutions was strong, and it was they who established the Hebrew School. In later years the party was merged with the “Chalutz” movement.

The “Bund” worker's party was formally established as a local branch in 1918 by teachers and free artisans that happened to be there: The teacher Moshe Katz and the pharmacist Kagen.

Though their membership was limited, they ran extensive campaigns amongst the working classes. Of its leaders should be mentioned: Zeidel Kletzky, Hertzke Khinsky, Berel–Leizer Levin (Smaltz), Zalman–Eli Tepper and Herschel Indursky. Some of these enlisted in the “Revkom” [Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee, the provisional government in areas under Red Army occupation] during the Soviet army invasion (1920).

Suchowola was not welcoming of this movement, so over time its influence waned in the minds of the public.

All those former residents of Suchowola are united in the memories of the community of their birth, the ground from which they sprouted and grew.


  1. Yerukham Levin, of Bialystok, an active member of the Tzeirey Tzion [heb: Young of Zion] and a member of the Jewish Communal committee. Contributed to the “Unzer Leben” newspaper. During the German occupation of 1916–1918 lived in Suchowola (his mother's town) and was involved in the public life of the town. He established the Tzeirey Tzion as well as literary circles, disseminated culture and knowledge and implanted the love of Zion in the hearts of the youth. In 1920 he moved to Kovno [Kaunas, Lithuania] where he worked for the Yiddische Shtimme [Yiddishe Voice] paper and was the Secretary for the Tzeirey Tzion movement in Lithuania. He made Aliyah [heb: emigrated] to Eretz Yisrael [heb:Land of Israel] in 1921, taught for a short period and thence worked for 22 years at the “Davar” newspaper. return


[Page 25]

The Rabbis of Suchowola

 

1. The Rabbi reb Meir–Yonah

The surname of Rabbi Meir–Yonah was Bernitzky and due to mix–ups in certification he was registered in his later years as “Galnovsky”.

He was born in Suchowola in the year 5577 (1816–1817), his father was the Rabbi Av Beit Din [heb: Chief Rabbi of the Rabbinical Court], Rabbi Shlomo Zalman. His father died relatively young, and Rabbi Meir–Yonah was but 18 years old when he took his father's place as one of the Rabbis of Suchowola. After some time R' Meir–Yonah moved to Prozova (in the Velkovisk [Vilkaviškis, Lithuania] district) and served as Town Rabbi there. From there he was appointed Rabbi in Knishin (Bialystok province) and from Knishin he moved to become Rabbi of Svislushtz (Velkovisk province) [Svisloch, Belarus]. In 5632 (1871–72) Rabbi Meir–Yonah was called to replace the Chief Rabbi in Brisk–DeLita [Bresk, Belarus] (after the Gaon Rabbi Zvi–Hitsch Orenstein left Brisk deLita and was banished by the authorities to Galicia, land of his birth). After 18 months in Brisk–deLita he returned to his family in Svislushtz and was active there for approximately another 20 years, where he died on 10th Sivan 5751, in the 73rd year of his life.

Rabbi Meir–Yonah was a renowned genius. He excelled in his considerable knowledge of the Talmud and its commentators, following the method of the Gaon of Vilna: In–depth learning. His name was made praiseworthy in both of his books; “Commentaries on the Book of Splendour” (3 volumes), the book written by the Rabbi Yitzhak bar Aba–Meir (one of the wise sages of France, born in Provence circa 1122, d. 1193 in Marseilles). The “Book of Splendour” was written over the period of 23 years and its contents were: Monetary laws, Kashrut of meat, the Ten Commandments etc. Rabbi Meir–Yonah republished it with his commentaries, the author's biography and various corrections.

The “Book of Splendour” was published with Rabbi Meir–Yonah's commentaries under the title “The new gate” in Vilna in the year 5634 (1873–74). Rabbi Meir–Yonah also complied the book “Har haMoriah” [heb: “Mount Moriah”] on the Rambam [Maimonides], “The Waters of Shiloach” on legends on the tractate “Berachot” ,and “Leil Shimmurim” [Night of watchfulness] on the Haggadah of Pesach [Passover]. In his estate was found in his handwriting an orderly wok dealing with the Tractate “Zeraim” of the Talmud Yerushalmi [heb: Jerusalem Talmud]. All of his books contained many notes and comments.

Rabbi Meir–Yonah also took interest in the workings of the Rabbinate and their communities including some commentaries and notes on the book Ir Tehila [heb: City of Praise] by Rabbi Aryeh–Leib Feinshtein on the community of Brisk deLita. His grandson, the well–known author Yakov Rabinovitch, described Rabbi Meir –Yonah as fanatically strict and zealous, opposed the Hasidic movement and pursued its followers; He was always on the side of the labourers and the poor. He would not answer a greeting for fear of later meeting the person being in his court, similarly he would not address any litigant until their acceptance of judgement, only then would he invite them to sit with him with a pleasant countenance.

As regards Halacha and Dinim [heb: Jewish Law and Judgements], the Rabbi would rely mostly on the rulings of the Rishonim [heb: Torah scholars who lived from approximately the eleventh though the fifteenth–sixteenth centuries] (a saying of his often repeated]: “Akharon [heb: Torah scholar who lived from approximately the sixteenth–seventeenth centuries through the nineteenth century ]– after all I am one of them) . The scholar Yakov Rabinovitch tells the following tale as told by the town's butchers: One on the eve of Passover Rabbi Meir–Yonah sat until morning to find a way to declare a bull recently purchased for 80 Roubles “kosher”. If he was unable to do so, the entire community would have been without meat for Passover. In the morning he bade his attendant call in a group of householders, and together with them and with their agreement declared it to be “kosher”. When one of the householders attempted to back out, Rabbi Yonah struck his leg…

The Jewish butchers used to say about Rabbi Yonah, that during his lifetime they all became wealthy, and after his demise they all became destitute.

After his death there were gentiles who used to sit in judgement before him with Jews, who would add oil to the ner–tamid [heb: eternal light] on his grave. The practise was discovered when, during the days of snow and mud, when the attendant would forget to top up the lamp with fuel he would find it still lit, and when he investigated he saw that Christians passing by were adding the fuel.

Of Rabbi Meir–Yonah's sons worth mentioning are 1) Avraham–Aharon Rabinovitch who was an expert on the Jerusalem Talmud and Rishonim, modest and somewhat learned in secular subjects, who was appointed the Rabbi of Kenishin and who hurredly left the Rabbinate during one night out of fear of being involved in a dispute. R' Avraham–Aharon died in his middle age, and his son was the Sofer [Jewish scribe] Reb Yaakov Rabinovitch. B) Reb Mordechai Shatz, Rabbi of Svislushtz, one of the early members of the Hovevei Tzion movement who bought , through their organisation in Bailystok (Reb Mordecahi's earlier abode), the land on which Petah Tiqwa [city in Israel] now stands.

Though R' Meir–Yonah was not an active supporter of the Hovevei Tzion movement (that began to expand only in his later years) , he was highly respectful of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever [pioneer of Religious Zionism and one of the founders of the Hovevei Zion movement], and when visiting Bialystok would always visit the Rabbi at his home, and was an admirer of his as a Rabbi of great stature.

In the press, and also in “Sefer haAsif” (5654 [1894], Sixth edition, in the chapter Yikra d'shikhvi), a notices in his memory were dedicated, as were in the book “Nahalat Avot” (Rabbi Levi Ovtchiosky, Vilna [Vilnius], 1894), which contains biographies of famous Rabbis, and others.

A further notice was published by the Torah writer Mordekhai Slutsky in the “haTzefira” newspaper 5651 [1891], 1831 no. 148, and also in the “haMelitz” paper, 1891.


[Page 32]

R' Shmuel ben Meir Brumer

By Yosef Halperin

Sava [Aramaic & Hebrew: My grandfather] was an substitute Rabbi in Suchowola, and he went about his work with love and dedication to his holy work. Following are just a few of Sava's blessed attributes that I see in his always–smiling image before me:

Sava had an attachment to working the land, to cowsheds and chicken coops. In his yard he used to grow vegetables and also fruit trees that he planted himself.

In 1929 my family travelled to Suchowola for a holiday. In the cucumber harvest the children picked baby cucumbers from Sava's yard and ate them with much appetite. When Sava caught them red–handed he admonished them, saying: This little cucumber could have grown to seven times its size, and since you have picked them before their time, you have transgressed an explicit negative commandment of the Torah to not commit unnecessary destruction.

Warm and professional closeness existed between Sava z”l [heb acronym for zichrono libracha, may his memory be blessed] and reb Natan the Shochet [heb: ritual slaughterer], who would visit him often at his house. Reb Natan performed ritual circumcisions, and Sava would enter them in the new–borns register on behalf of the authorities. Reb Natan was appointed to perform the commands of the kingdom of Heaven – “And on the eighth day he shall be circumcised”, and Sava would supervise on behalf of the authorities, the kingdom of Earth – and all the soft babes would pass before him and be registered in official Russian with great strictness. At the top of the wall cabinet (Kamoda) was a special draw that contained all of Sava's treasures which he watched over carefully, and access to the “Kanzeleria” was forbidden to all but himself. He would take out the new–borns register, open it on the big table, take his quill pen and enter the name of the new–born when the babe's father would come to register him.

And when the day came to appear before the authorities to enlist, fathers and sons would come to Sava to obtain a certificate from his register. Those fathers whose children who managed to “walk” – that is, emigrate to America – and not present themselves for enlistment, the government would impose a fine of three hundred roubles on each deserter or absentee. There was one incident with one of the town's poor whose three sons had all emigrated to America. The “pristov” (police commissary) came to obtain the fine of three times three hundred roubles and wanted to foreclose on his moveable household items. Sava had to work hard to deal with the authorities to lower the fine. He liked to help anyone in need and performed his acts of charity from the bottom of his heart. His righteousness will stand forever.

 

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