With the snowfall in winter it was piled everywhere in the streets; traffic mechanized and horse-drawn would trample it into ice under the influence of the pervading cold. A special Sport would turn the sloping streets into race-tracks for our sleds. Everyone who was lucky enough to own a sled would take a partner - one of his friends - and they acted together as weights on the sled and they would race together down the slopes of the slippery streets. That's how it was going down. But going up it was all walking and dragging the sled up-hill behind us to get to the top again and slide down at dizzying speed down down.
The responsible position on the sled was the driver. Any slight error and the sled would deviate from its path, turn over and toss its riders off without mercy. No child ever considered the dangers attached to this and the parents never tried to interfere or to warn us. It was clear and understood that we needed to have fun on sled rides but everyone knew quite well that to be the driver of the sled was no give-away task. It was quite necessary to know what to do and to have quick reactions and expertise was absolutely essential and not everyone was up to it.
How was it done this steering on the sled there is no steering-wheel or other mechanism? The specialist, on whose trained leg the precious lives of these one-way travelers relied, sat at the head of the sled had on his right foot a specially sharpened ice-skating boot. He kept this boot on the surface of the ice and directed the boot in the direction he wanted the sled to go. If the driver was inexperienced or slow in his reactions the sled would be directed off to the side of the track and maybe hit a wall. There were those who were expert and could steer the sled using their heavy winter boots with steel horseshoe plates on the heel, digging them into the ice on the way down, first this side and then that side according to need.
The main slide ran from east to west; it started at the top of the slope on the hill and finished behind the school-yard not far from the Talmud Torah. The path was very shiny from being polished all the time by constant use. There were other slides in different places in the village that people used, up and down, hither and thither. There was another system in use where the rider would go solo; he would lie on the sled head-first and guide the sled by wrenching it from side-to-side with his hands where they grasped the front edges of the sled. There was never a serious accident in any of this no broken skulls or even noses. Everything finished up well.
There was another pleasure that we used to have during the winter: when Beinisch the butcher went on his rounds he would hitch his horses to a big upholstered sleigh and together with his own children invite some of us to join him for a ride. We would do a few trips round the town and even a little bit beyond with the tiny little sleigh-bells on the horses' necks tinkling all the way. We would huddle up in our coats, breathing in the refreshing cold air and enjoy the slithery ride and gentle dreams.
Organ grinders!! Whenever I heard those magic words my heart-strings would tremble. As children we didn't have much wonderful music like we heard sometimes from street-players who would carry or wheel their organs, stand them somewhere where they could be seen and heard and collect money from passers-by and operate the organs by turning a handle on the side. And not only was it the music that drew us: the casing of the organ was decorated with all sorts of patterns and pictures and on top was perched a live parrot that also had a job he spoke a word or two in Polish and hopefully took some money in his beak. There were organs that incorporated other mechanical and automatic devices so that when it started working, doors would open and little figures would come out and make some movement or other and perhaps even say a word or two! The whole thing was beyond the imagination of little children and would awaken such surprise in us as to actually stop us breathing.
We had no doubt as little children that those little figures, who shot out of the innards of the box by some magic or other were really alive, wrapping all these simple music boxes in wondrous mystery.
Unfortunately, these organ-grinders didn't live in town, so we saw them very infrequently as they wandered from town to town on their journeys round the world.
The rumors of events and unusual disturbances, deeds of heroism and horror, disasters etc., would sprout wings and give military exercises and maneuvers added content and interest. There is a story of a Polish cavalry soldier who was galloping along on his horse and slid off the saddle, under the belly of the horse and continued along clinging on to the saddle harness. Stories like this turned the maneuvers in our minds, the minds of Jewish children, into an event and fed our imagination.
There was a day when all movement in the streets stopped and everyone drew back before a strange phenomenon: a military convoy was moving along the main road. It was not a demonstration but a tired march, silent, almost threatening with no music it seemed as if it had come a long way. The soldiers were carrying full kit, folded blankets over their back-packs and full military belts. They were marching alongside wagons hitched to horses. The wagons were loaded with arms and ammunition and other stores. Many of the soldiers marched alongside wheeled field artillery pieces and their various additional equipment. Especially conspicuous was the number of farmers' wagons either mobilized or perhaps temporarily commandeered for use by the State during the maneuvers. The most impressive thing about the whole show was the number of farmers themselves, in some cases with their women and children, who were driving the wagons. The simple, ignorant farmers who spoke a poor mixture of Russian and Polish knew nothing about politics and strategy, military problems, and maneuvers and had every reason to abhor with bitterness all this episode - and when the government representatives came and requi-sitioned their very livelihood their horses and wagons - they resisted, complained, cursed, pleaded, and in the end, because they had no option other than to give the wagons, they loaded themselves and their goods and families on the wagons and for the better security of their proper-ty, went with them on the way with aching hearts. Many of the farmers mumbled and grumbled and cursed furiously; a few of them cried.
Once there was a military exercise in which the whole town took part. An order went out from the authorities to stop all work for that day, not to go out of the house and to paste sticky paper on all the windows in a criss-cross pattern. That was in order to minimize injuries in the event of an air attack. Our parents saw that as a curse because of the cross pattern but we were forced to comply and even we, the children, felt our hearts contract with fear and tension. We knew something was about to happen and we expected and waited with great anxiety. We didn't know exactly what was going to happen but we imagined to ourselves that big things were bound to happen like: airplanes dropping fire-and-brimstone, the terrible sound of thunderous explosions that will shake the whole world, the heavens will be covered with smoke and clouds, darkness and gloom over-shadowing all, explosions will occur everywhere and cause frightening shockwaves, fires will break out in many houses in town. But in the meantime, time passed very slowly, the sun continued to shine boringly and quiet reigned supreme. At last one aircraft appeared in place of the hundreds or thousands The sole aircraft passed by overhead without so much as a shower of pamphlets. No fire, no lightning, no noises and no real occurrences. The houses still stood peacefully, as usual. Eventually, we were informed that it was all over finished. We were permitted to go out and to remove the protection from the windows. To return to normal routine the adults sighed with relief but we the children were very angry: was it all for nothing, all that preparation and tension and anxiety? It seemed to us unreal and totally unacceptable
No Jew in the world has ever numbered himself among those who are habitual drinkers or drunkards and who would display themselves on the streets of their town stumbling and staggering, falling, cursing and singing or try to do something stupid or violent.
A shikkerer (a drunkard) is always of great interest and curiosity for us to see, a real attraction. We would rush to see a drunk and to listen to his mutterings at a distance from him for added security. We wanted to know, and to see what would happen, what will he say, what does he intend doing and especially what will happen afterwards? When will the police come to collect him and drag him off to the police station? On the procedure in the police station, we knew nothing, exactly but Itzi the baker told us that he once saw with his own eyes a drunk who had been arrested for causing a disturbance near his bakery he was beaten up somewhat by the policeman injuring his head before being sent on his way
We had very mixed feelings of curiosity and fear about drunks. Their appearances were always unusual events and provoked interest.
The crazy one in our town was Nahum der Meshuggana. He never appeared to be crazy except in the presence of an audience of children that clustered round him and teased him and treated him with disrespect. This Nahum was a quiet man who had an ordinary respectable job. He was a tinker and would go around mending pots and pans, begging for charity and hold a conversation like any normal person in the community. Once an almost Lynching party was conducted in the streets of the town. Tens of children rushed to confront him and calling names. The street reverberated with the endless shouted cat-calls and Nahum eventually lost his temper over the intolerable insults. His face reddened as if with a fever and his eyes flashed with hatred and a lust for revenge. He waved his walking stick in the air shouting and cursing, running towards his tormentors chasing them away. But they immediately returned he seized on some stones complete bricks and ran at them in violent anger wanting to smash their skulls it was an utterly shameful episode.
I didn't see the need to run away when this unholy crusade-like spectacle unfolded in front of me. Nahum was running with this brick in his hand and only I stood near him the whole crowd had disappeared to the four winds. I was very scared but pulled myself together and without moving from the place without fear or an attempt to flee I stopped the unfortunate man's arm in mid-air with the brick still clutched in his hand and before he managed to bring it crashing down on my head our eyes met. I think he recognized me from the times he had visited our house and received some encouraging treatment and charity. When his mind cleared he was able to grasp the fact that I had not been among his tormentors, he stopped and somehow through the fog in is mind a brief flicker of reason shone through and I was saved.
The frequent marches performed by the army in Sokółka made an enchanting impression. The center-piece of all the festive parades was the band that played exciting marches sent the spi-rits soaring; there was nothing in Sokółka's way of life more wonderful giving satisfaction and pleasure, as a parade. The eye enjoyed the endless play of exciting colors, sparkling instruments, impressive uniforms and harmonious energetic marching with the ranks of four perfectly straight the ear absorbed the strident music that pierced the air like stormy waves refreshing the soul it was a superb pleasure and I was enchanted or hypnotized. A well of wonderful hopes sprang up out of nowhere, feeding the drifting, roaming imagination with flights of fancy.
All the parades would pass through the town until they were swallowed up by the barracks where entry was forbidden to civilians and children and there was nothing to do but return home to the gray reality while in my ears I could still hear the lovely sounds echoing and I was totally carried up and away by its influence.
From time to time there would be an official public festival of sorts in the Municipal gardens. The event was for us, the children, a source of great pleasure and enjoyment. The band of the Fire Brigade sat on a raised band-stand with the audience all around Jews, Christians and children of all ages, all as one, while the band played wonderful tunes. The area was filled with people from edge to edge. One rarely knew the reasons for these events, political, or historical which provoked them, but who cared? They were festivals, marches and bands and we, the children accepted it as natural as the falling rain without bothering to ask why except for 3rd May Polish Independence Day that we knew and the festival took place every year in all its pomp and glory.
Polish funerals in town are not to be overlooked because of the parades that took place. All those funerals that took place were special events. Unlike the Jewish funerals dark, black, frightening and depressing, the Polish funerals were carried out in magnificence. There was no hint of black (even the coffin was decorated with ribbon and covered with flowers), no weeping and wailing were heard, no laments and warnings and threats causing the bones to tremble: righ-teousness and charity saves from death, as we had become used to seeing and hearing at our fu-nerals. In contrast at Polish funerals the band would play a funeral march, gentle and sad, touch-ing the heart and provoking feelings of respect.
Sometimes (rarely), our Hebrew Tarbut school would allow itself to invite a band to accompany us on a school parade. I vaguely remember an event such as that and the raised spirits and happiness it brought. I was very happy.
There was one typical detail that was involved with the festival parades: at every opportu-nity, as soon as we heard the first strains of the Polish National Anthem, we knew, we Jewish children, the unwritten law that we were obliged to remove our hats and anyone who refused to do so for religious reasons was required to come to attention and give the military salute (with two fingers). Those who obeyed the law were the trash of our society the children and youth of the Poles. We well knew what we had to do in order to prevent getting beaten up and cursed
I remember the Polish school parades that were held. They were simply little soldiers all dressed up in army uniforms in all details. It was a framework of pre-military training (like Gadna), and we, the children of Israel looked on. We were appalled; our hearts sank within us.
There was one special event that occurred on a Polish festival. On that occasion, the gates of the army barracks just outside of town, were opened to the public and all the children from Polish and the Jewish Tarbut school were taken there for a visit. The event was organized and comprehensive including Polish and Jewish schools as one.
We wandered around among the various buildings and peeped curiously inside. There were long windows reaching from ground-level and through them could be seen some kind of cellar or underground structure. From one of the windows the sound of trumpets could be heard as the soldiers in the band practiced on their instruments. We were all lined up in a copse on the parade ground and marched past a sort of raised platform or stage. Standing on the stage were educated Polish women (sort of public officials), and with a smile, stretched out a hand and offered each child a small gift: a bag of candy and other goodies. We Jewish children were very ashamed and embarrassed; we felt somehow petty at all this kindness and generosity, that they had suddenly decided to shower upon us. We took the bags and hurried home with the booty, not daring to raise our eyes or return a smile and say Thank you. The words stuck in our mouths. It was as if we were dumb: indeed we were children of the Diaspora.
A sorrowful episode occurred from my early school days that remains in my memory. It was one fine spring morning and our teacher had taken us out for a walk as far as the edge of town. We were little children in the first class. Suddenly, while we were standing in one of the squares or courtyards, a Polish woman appeared and began yelling very coarsely at our teacher and waving her arms in the usual dismissive gesture. We clustered together close to our teacher in silent embarrassment like a flock of scared sheep and hung our gazes on our teacher. From what the Polish woman was saying we understood that it was forbidden to us to walk there. It was a very cruel way to relate to a teacher out walking with a group of small children hardly more than babies. Our teacher remained helpless and could only absorb the woman's insulting behavior without daring to reply. With much embarrassment she tried to gather her little frightened flock together we understood clearly that the Polish woman had allowed herself to behave in such an insulting way because we were Jewish. We carried the pain silently within us and never spoke of it.
After some time the school rented an additional building on the edge of town. The area was not entirely Jewish; many trees and gardens were around the house. The Polish students from the government school wore identical caps with a peak that resembled an army cap and there were a few Jews in the school as well. They began to trouble us with contrived accidents by bumping into us, jumping on us and hitting us, threatening us and throwing stones.
The manager of our school approached the manager of the Polish school who apologized but the problem persisted. One day matters reached a head when the whole school was surrounded by these bullies, and students and teachers alike were totally imprisoned, as it were, inside the school building. We ran about inside without daring to go outside and the teachers were afraid just like us. We didn't know how the matter would end. Suddenly there was a drastic change in the situation one of our bigger boys the one who had been the terror of the neigh-borhood and the school but had afterwards quieted down, went out all on his own to meet the attackers who had laid siege to all of us, exchanged some heavy blows with some of them with tremendous courage. This triggered a change in our own attitude and encouraged us to overcome our fear and we went out to help him. Confusion reigned in the ranks of the attackers as they ar-gued that the Jews aren't giving in so easily but are fighting back. The battle was fast and furious for the attackers decided it was better for them to withdraw and to leave us in peace
On the occasion of a festival in school, we were given the task of bringing flowers to school and selling them. The money collected was given to the Keren Kayemet Le-Yisroel. The status of the Keren Kayemet for us was honorable and holy. The K.K.L. was in our eyes the very icon of the national rebirth and ideology building the National Home; we were donating our cents to the K.K.L.
We knew that the pleasant and noble deed we were performing was for the redemption of the Land of Israel and the building of the National Home for the Jewish People. I was never full of leafing through the various pamphlets of the K.K.L. or feasting my eyes on photographs of the scenery of Palestine. We went out, therefore, groups of little national patriots with our deter-mined intention to bring flowers for our dearly beloved K.K.L. in order not to disappoint our teachers. But from where to bring flowers, if not from the neighborhood of the Christians? All round the houses of the Jews there was never a sign of a garden or greenery. And how does one take flowers, if not by stealth, quickly, quietly, so that the owner is not aware of what is happen-ing? We wandered around, a gang of youths chatting among ourselves nervously: the Polish residents looked at us; did they know what we were going to do or not?
Perhaps our mission will succeed or perhaps not but I will remember the feelings of shame and embarrassment that filled our hearts in that unpleasant activity. Externally we discussed it among ourselves from a purely practical point of view but in private each of us cried and hid our faces so that the impassively watching Polish bystanders seeing us stroll by wouldn't detect the shame from our faces
Haya Leah Kaplan
(Recorded by Tsvi Nafkha ZL)
Translated by Selwyn Rose
Generally speaking, our town didn't produce great public and well-known famous people. We were a town of simple Jewish people a Lithuanian village, the Jews following the general customs of Lithuanian Jews. Hassidism did not spread throughout the community only some tens of them were affiliated. Most of them were Mitnagdim, who preferred the Talmud rather than work. Indeed the number of Talmudists was small and many of them were authorized teachers, although many of them turned to study of the Torah as a hobby. Many knew Hebrew. Correspondence between the successful businessmen was always carried out in Hebrew and the date was always referred to by the weekly Torah portion. The education of the children, before the creation of the Heder M'tukan and the schools, was in the Heder, in which the children spent their whole days until 8 or 9 at night during the winter as well. The Heder taught the children not just Torah but also a way of life and good behavior. It happened that if a child misbehaved inappropriately in any way not especially in the Heder but in or around the house, the father, or sometimes the mother, would appear and complain to the teacher and the child would be punished immediately: a few strokes of a belt in front of the class. The belt was always to hand and the child expected punishment; if he was confused between exempt and obliged, or he didn't know exactly the Rabbi's stand on any particular matter, or he allowed himself to run wild outside the Heder, even outside school-time, he would lecture the child with his belt.
When the children finished their legal schooling in the Heder many of them would be sent to continue studying in the Yeshivot. That was considered an honor for the parents. They would spare no effort especially that their children should acquire an appropriate level of knowledge of the Torah. At that time the parents thought that knowledge of the Torah was absolutely essential, and had no other equal.
Sokółka had a Yeshiva at its head was Rabbi Shimshon Katzenellenbogen (ZL). Who throughout many years rigorously taught Torah and not only to the men from Sokółka but also from outside the town; they even came from Polish towns to hear him expound. That wonderful Jew ran the Yeshiva without any budget, there simply wasn't any need: for himself there was no payment as a teacher. The wealthy parents tried to insist with him that he accept some kind of salary but he was firm and replied: The Torah is not sold for money. And, it should be known, Rabbi Shimshon was extremely poor and lived most of his life under great stress. His lunch, which he ate in the Heder consisted of a slice of bread, the tail of a salted fish and water that he drank from a jug in the corner of the room. Rabbi Shimshon used no force to correct his erring pupils nor did he reprove them; he operated on the points system like in school. If one of the students committed an act that could not be overlooked, his punishment was to bring a full bucket of water from the well out of his usual turn to do so.
The Rabbi drew his strength from the well of the Talmud. For all that the topic was more difficult and gave rise to intense interpretation, he would rise above it. We felt within him, that he was floating somehow in upper worlds and took pleasure in the glory of the Shekhina. It was this tranquility of spirit that gave him the strength and courage to overcome all the difficulties in his life.
When the first appearance of Zionism of Hovevei-Zion he immediately joined the Right, and was one of its faithful tools. In the spirit of national Zionism he marched at the head of the ranks. After the death of Herzl it fell on him to eulogize him on 20th Tammuz, every year in the Great Synagogue. He took part in all the Zionist projects from enrolling new holders of the Shekel, to collecting money for the funds. For all collections connected with Palestine, he volunteered and filled with eagerness every task given to him. Sometimes, in pure innocence he caused losses to the funds. It was his way to accept from the donors the amount they suggested and not what the estimations-committee said. He stated: If a Jew tells me that he can't give more than he has offered, we must believe him. A Jew will not lie in order to donate less.
When he was older, he longed to immigrate to Palestine and he asked several of his students to help him do so but there was no possibility of obtaining a certificate for him. Rabbi Shimshon died a short while before the Germans came and he was buried in a Jewish grave.
The public and social life began to develop at a fast rate during the First World War and some of the youth began to wake up. Clubs and libraries were opened. Some of the young people tended to the left towards the Bund and some to the right to Zionism. The terrible war was abandoned by the two factions (to give these parties their due, it should be said that this was a pure ideological issue and those who toiled and engaged in it did not do so in order to get a prize). In the long struggle that ensued, the Zionists won. The first battle was the elections for a democratic community in which over 1600 voters took part. The Zionists received the bigger number of votes and the Bundists remained the minority, even though they had on their side a number of important academicians and in town were hundreds of workers in the leather-factories.
Generally speaking, Sokółka was mainly except during the years 1904-5, the years of the Russian revolution, in which most of the youth was drawn to the revolutionary movement and the joyful hope was in their hearts that the fall of the Tsarist regime would bring freedom also to the Jews - but the Zionist work in town continued. When the Colonial Bank was founded, about 200 shares were sold in Sokółka a share at that time was 10 Roubles. The town took an active part in selling the Zionist Shekel, and was noted for its collections on behalf of the KKL. When the Young Zionists was founded, Zionist activity was significantly widened. The Zionist topic ceased to be the domain of a few educated individuals and became a popular movement.
The Land of Israel began to take on a reality. From 1919-1920 the He-Halutz movement came into being. People began talking about immigration and the realization of personal Zionism. Contributions also began to swell significantly and Sokółka became an icon to be emulated for many other towns even those much bigger. At that time the Redemption Fund was also formed. And here came an official German newsletter printed in Białystok half in Yiddish half in German, bringing the information that in Palestine a Jewish government had been formed and actually naming a few ministers who had been given important posts. The information created great excitement and feelings of joy, hard to describe in the community. To memorialize the event the Young Zionists raised a large Blue-and-White flag on the roof of their meeting house which flew for a few days. The Christian residents and also the governing German authorities interpreted that as a sign that a Jewish state and Jewish government had actually been declared de jure et de facto.
In the light of the belief that a Jewish government was in place, the Zionists declared that it was necessary to collect gold as a basis for the coins that will be minted. They said and did. A pamphlet was produced and distributed calling on the women to relieve themselves of their pre-cious valuables. And in one of the halls in town, they began to come and deposit their engage-ment and wedding rings, ear-rings, gold chains; some of them were family heirlooms from gen-erations back. Within a short time the weight of gold collected came to almost 2 kilograms.
But there came a change in the political landscape. The Germans retreated and the country came under Polish domination and they became involved in a war with the Russians. In the beginning, the Poles met with success and drove the Russians back almost as far as Kiev but the situation reversed itself quite quickly and the hunters became the 'hunted and the Russian army began to come closer to our town. In order to save the gold we had collected we buried a large quantity of it in the ground of one of the courtyards. The Russians arrived in town and be-gan to search the houses and in one of them the treasure was discovered. Negotiations began with the chairman of the Revolutionary Council, who was Jewish, honest and with tendencies to Zionism, regarding returning the gold and it became clear that the gold had never been taken to the government treasury but that one of the clerks had taken the gold for himself and that while the investigation continued, the Russians were defeated near Prague and began to retreat in panic and with them went the gold.
At the same time, together with practical work, there was a development in an important cultural field: the Young Zionists founded the Tarbut Hebrew school movement in which about 300 pupils girls and boys learned. Parents who were without financial resources were not charged tuition fees. The permanent debit was compensated by wealthy public donors, children operating flower-days, flag-days, presentation of plays etc., with all the proceeds going towards the survival of the school. Even the teaching staff were not over-demanding about the timely payment of their salaries because the education of the children in those days was also a question of ideology.
If Sokółka was noted for its donations towards Zionist projects, the town added luster to its fame with its donations to realizing the Zionist ideology. At the close of World War One, a stream of immigration to Palestine began which expanded and grew throughout the inter-war years, even though the general economic situation was not particularly bad. In the beginning it was mainly the young people who went but soon, after some time it was older people as well mainly from the middle-class. Parents also joined their children who were already there. The connection between Sokółka and Palestine became personal, family. There was almost not a single family in Sokółka that did not have someone in Palestine. There is no exaggeration in what we are saying; Sokółka and many had not even heard of her, volunteered people in order to build the land of Israel, relatively speaking, more than any other similar Jewish community. If it were possible to concentrate all of Sokółka's people who are spread throughout the country in one place, we would constitute together with the spirit we have contributed an important and significant constituent in value and consideration.
Jewish Sokółka was totally destroyed; there is not one single living Jewish soul. The thread has been broken for eternity. The few solitary living remnants do not even have the courage to visit there. Only one young person, a Soviet government clerk, visited the town after its liberation from the Germans, and he wrote to his family here that he found the houses in town intact with Poles living in them, wearing the clothes left behind by the Jews who had been transported away. He also visited the cemetery and discovered that it had been plowed over and there was no sign of any grave-stones. He tried to enter into conversation with Gentiles who may know some details but was met with shrugs of the shoulders: Don't know, they didn't see anything, they didn't hear anything.
The facts describe the last days of Jewish Sokółka, taken from the words of Mrs. H.L. Kaplan, the widow of the teacher, Nathaniel Kaplan (ZL), not a few of whose pupils are here in this country. She and her daughter arrived in Palestine 18th July 1946. Before the liberation she had been in Auschwitz, close to the crematoria. She herself survived a selection process 7 times; the examination decided who would still remain alive and who would be sent to the gas-chambers.
One may assume that the factual material is not perfect; after all the terrifying experiences and horrifying visions she carries in her memory, it is hard to expect that she will recall all the details and the facts one by one in perfect order; but what she did give us is sufficient to get a good idea of the great tragedy that befell the Jews of our town, Sokółka.
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