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[Col. 359]

C. Institutions, Societies, Parties

 

Suwalk – a nest of Torah

Moshe Raziel (Rozntal) Jerusalem

Retyped by Kathryn Wallach

In my early childhood I imbibed the special Suwalk House of Learning atmosphere. My best loved games with my friends were playing “House of Learning,” “Hevra Shas”[1], and “Siyum”[2]. And no wonder! My father, of blessed memory, like most Jewish men in Suwalk, spent part of every day in the House of Learning – praying and studying – in the morning, a chapter of Mishnah, and between the afternoon and evening Prayers, a leaf of Gemara. And what boy did not accompany his father to the House of Learning?

 

R' Elivahu Rozntal
Leader and warden of Bet Medrash Hagadol (House of Learning) and Talmud Torah

 

I can still feel that special delight that I used to feel, even when I was quite grown up, upon walking into our large House of Learning between afternoon and evening prayers. Around the big table of the Hevra Shas are the most respected householders, heatedly debating a controversial topic. Their faces are flushed, their eyes sparkle, they are remote from this world, from problems of making a living, and are instead immersed in another world, their home, their club, their be-all and end-all.

At the same time, a few scholars sit by themselves, near the East Wall, swaying over a volume of Gemara on a lectern. Among them are R' Motye Altshuler, of blessed memory, my uncle, R' Avraham Rozntal of blessed memory, and on the other side of the Ark, R' Barulch Roznberg of blessed memory, and other like them. Here too study proceeds with fervor, but with more of an inner fire; here the sparks come from sharp minds rather than from heated hearts.

While the eastern side of the Suwalk House of Learning was occupied by the learned elite, the brilliant scholars of the Hevra Shas, the west belonged to the common folk. They, too, were devoted to study and attended the Eyn Yaakov[3] lesson regularly. Directly opposite the Hevra Shas table, on the other side of the House of Learning, was the Eyn Yaakov table, with packed benches on both sides. Here the lesson was more formal, a rebbe would discourse and the audience would listen. But they did not listen in silence. They asked questions, expressed opinions, and some of the older men would anticipate which passage came next.

As a boy I loved to listen to the Eyn Yaakov lesson. I was attracted to the wonderful pearls of wisdom and the interpretations of Toker Ramaz. He was a dear, kind-hearted Jew, who emigrated to Erets Yisrael and died there a few years later.

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I had just as much Pleasure when I used to pop in to the Hevras Khayotim[4]. There, in my boyhood, the lesson between afternoon and evening prayers was given by R' Zelik Broyzman, of blessed memory. He was a wonderful old gentleman, who knew English and French and world literature. The kloyz[5] was always packed full, and not only with tailors, and we would listen open-mouthed to the Pearls of wisdom spoiken by R' Zelik. It would be so quiet that one could hear a fly buzz. The quiet was disturbed only occasionally by the sound of voices from the Hevra Shas in the House of Learning on one side, and from the Hevra Torah[6] in the same courtyard on the other side.

 

The great Suwalk synagogue after the Holocaust. Entrance to women's gallery from Shul Street. Only roof and walls remain

 

Here is an example of an incident in one of the many small synagogues to illustrate how deeply-rooted Torah was in the minds and hearts of Suwalk Jews.

It was told to me by Rabbi Prays, a man in his late eighties, now living in Jerusalem. It happened about seventy years ago. Rabbi Prays was invited to serve as rabbi of the “Coachman's Kloyz.”[7] Most of the members were coachmen on the Suwalk-Kalvarie-Mariampol-Kovne route. The young rabbi chose the portion of the week for his introductory lecture.

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He prepared his material very well, and since he suspected that the congregation would be familiar with Rashi and Baal Ha-Turim and even possibly Ibn Ezra[8] he based his lecture on the Alshech[9].

While lecturing he noticed a number of men smiling at each other. He took this as a good omen and enthusiastically continued his lecture. When he was through, some of the coachmen came over to him and said, “It seems that we have been very forutunate with our young rabbi. You have memorized Alshech word for word!”

Such was our Suwalk.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Society for the study of Mishnah Return
  2. Celebration upon conclusion of study of a volume of sacred text Return
  3. Commentary on Bible incorporating many legends Return
  4. Tailors' Society Return
  5. Small synagogue Return
  6. Torah Society Return
  7. The bal-agole, coachman, is the stereotype rough-and ready, uncouth, untutored, man in Jewish lore Return
  8. Most popular commentators on the Bible Return
  9. Moses Alshech, 16th century commentator, more obscure than preceding Return

 


[Col. 363]

Suwalk, city of compromise

Shmuel Shori (Shvarts) Jerusalem

Retyped by Kathryn Wallach

Suwalk was a town like all Jewish towns, yet it had something special about it that made it exceptional.

A Jewish town is/blessed with controversies, parties and schisms within parties. Suwalk was an exception. There were no major history-making controversies there. Sometimes there were “words” exchanged in the Bet Hamidrash, differences of opinion regarding the choosing of a rabbi, but there was never any major conflict. Suwalk was a city of compromise, of give-and-take, of decorum. Even the chief rabbi, Rabbi Altman, was known for always suggesting a compromise. Why make a judicial decision if a case could be settled by compromise?

 

Zionists

The Zionist's in Suwalk were not fiercely partisan; Dr. Vaysman, for example, was always calm and composed. “Zionism” he used to say,” is self-evident. “How can you fight for something that needs no explanation? And Dubrovskyv – the principal of the Tarbut school (he came from elsewhere but became well-entrenched in the Suwalk area used to say: “Whether you like it or not, you must be Zionists – and why fight for something that is inevitable – it must come sooner or later…”

Or, for example, take a Zionist like Dr. Starapolski. Good natured, well versed in Bible and Talmud, he was one of the “Zionist personalities” in town. But he was a man of compromise. 'It's better to lead a Sabbath celebration in the Tarbut auditorium than to lead an army to battle.[1]

There was indeed one militant, but he was not a native of Suwalk. That was Efron, the Director of the gymnasie. He belonged to Al Ha-Mishmar, a follower of Grinboym[2]. He thundered when he spoke, always talking about Das Juedisches Folkes – as grammar dictated.[3] But he, too, eventually calmed down in the atmosphere of Suwalk…

[Col. 364]

Bundists – Yidishists

There were a handful of Bundists and Yiddishists in Suwalk, and there was even a Yiddish Folkshul. It also had followers. They used to meet in the Momus cinema to discuss problems relating to the school. The owner of the cinema, Goldshmidt, was involved with the school. But they were hardly a militant group. Suwalk tolerated them as it did the Zionists; variety is the spice of life. Sometimes one felt that if the Yiddishists had not existed, one would have had to invent them.

The spokesman of the so-called progressive element was Yosl Adlson. It is hard to say whether or not he was a Bundist. At any rate, he was anti-Zionist. He played an important role in the community. He used to make biting, ironic comments about the “genteel householders.”

And as long as we're discussing progressives, we must not overlook “Comrade Martshik.” He was a confirmed Bundist. He was always concerned about his neighbors. Whenever he felt that something was awry, he would trot out his tried and true tactics: halt the synagogue services and postpone the reading of the Torah[4] …He would come to the synagogue and have his say. And when Comrade Martshik came to the synagogue there would be no threats. The Jews along the Eastern Wall knew that he would have to be allowed to do his thing…


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Pun on Yiddish expression “firn a tish” – preside over a table. Firn can mean to lead or to drive Return
  2. Yitshak Gruenbaum (1879-1970) Polish Jewish leader, elected to Sejm, champion of minorities in Poland, leader of Al ha-Mishmar Zionist faction Return
  3. Sarcastic, poking fun at use of Germanisms by Efron Return
  4. Traditional Jewish method of righting wrongs, proclaiming a wrong that must be righted Return

 


[Col. 391]

Poale Zion in Suwalk[1]

Leybl Hen

Translated by Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz

Retyped by Genia Hollander

Before World War I (1914) there were no organized Jewish parties playing any role in local Jewish life. We still remember the revolutionary period of 1905 when there were demonstrations, strikes,

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unrest, even expropriations in Suwalk and in the Russian Empire in general. Suwalk had plenty of Jewish workers, especially tanners and fullers who would call strikes. There would be meetings led by Bundists, and many arrests…

 

First Society of Poale Zion in 1905, with “Der Veg” [periodical] in hand
Fourth in second row, former Suwalk banker, Salamianski
[2]

 

But in 1916, under the oppressive German occupation, an intense Jewish social life bloomed, thanks

[Col. 391]

to the presence of a number of students who could not return to Russia to pursue their studies because of the war. The Dramatic Society encouraged cultural activities and also gave cover to the nuclei of the Bund – Poale Zion and Jewish P.P.S [Polish Socialist Party.]

Rehearsals and meetings were held at the home of dry-goods merchant – Rozntsvayg – on Peterberg Prospekt, next to the Gardens. The place was made available through the efforts of a beautiful Bundist who had worked there. She took over the apartment and the business when the Rozntsvaygs fled after the outbreak

[Col. 392]

of the war. These names are inscribed in my memory for the period before 1918. Adleson, the later communal workers, Tsharnes, a Poale Zionist – profoundly knowledgeable, an official in the German City Council; the Poale Zionists – Engineer Trotski (director of the electric station); student Moshe Roznberg, son of Zionist family (now somewhere in Mexico); Zshenia Bramson; the teacher Yisrael ; Reuven Brinman from Ratsk and his brother “Hilik”, (killed in Bet Alfa, Israel during a battle with Arabs); Ella Altshuler and her brother Yablanski, a tailor (killed by the Poles); Hadassah Krasnapolski; Meir Smetshekhovski (photographer); the younger Vilenski; Natan Robinzon (now professor in Haifa Technion); Mendele and Leybush Smolinksi; Taybele Polnitski; Avraham Raykh (Israel) and (Leib?) Kagan.

Of the active Bundists, I remember the names of Remez (now in Chicago); Fushkantser (or Pushkantser); and many others whom I've forgotten. Reuven Brinman from Ratsk and his brother “Hilik”, (killed in Bet Alfa, Israel during a battle with Arabs): Pitluk, a watchmaker: S.Varabaytshik (Shimoni, now a high government official in Israel): Yehudit Finklshteyn (now in

[Col. 393]

Paris): Ella Altshuler and her brother, Yablanski, a sailor (killed by the Poles): Hadassah Krasnapolski: Meir Smetshekhovski (photographer): the younger Vilenski: Natan Robinzon (now professor in Haifa Technion):

[Col. 394]

Mendele and Leybush Smolinski: Taybele Polnitski: Avraham Raykh (Israel) and (Leib?) Kagan.

Of the active Bundists, I remember the names of Remez (now in Chicago): Fushkantser [or Pushkantser]: Glikson, and many others whom I've forgotten.

The Dramatic Society engendered a Literary Section - -,

[Col. 393]

Jewish Dramatic Club in Suwalk. 1917

 

which later gave rise to the workers and Zionist parties. The moving force behind the Dramatic Society was Zevulun Vilenski – the director and impresario, the beloved pal of all the participants. (He is now in Buenos Aires).

There was a communal library – (Grodner Street) but there were also small illegal libraries which distributed illegal party literature. The Linat Hatsedek Society was popular. The young members of Linat Hatsedek started a semi-legal Jewish sick-fund in 1917-1918, managed by Bundists and Poale Zionists.

The war period, 1914-1918 was a difficult and bitter time for Suwalk's Jews. The German occupation shut down the main sources of income, and most of the young men were pressed into forced labour, which

[Col. 394]

was later, no longer forced, but voluntary because there simply was nothing to eat. Large numbers of young men worked as lumberjacks in the [railroad? freight yards?] camps, in the horse hospitals on Kalvarie hill, and Saini highway and in the barrel factory of the German army. There, we youths, had the experience of living together like slaves under the German whip. There our class consciousness was hammered out and there, we discussed the methods and principles of Socialism. One workplace first infiltrated by Jewish youth at that time was the railroad. The Germans did not discriminate against the good Jewish locksmiths and those who would become conductors and brakemen.

In this way, a Jewish working class arose in Suwalk during the war. Together with the local journeymen tailors, cobblers, tanners, fullers [textile workers] and clerks, there were a few thousand of us.

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In 1917, when the might of the German Junkers was undermined, and military discipline weakened, especially after the outbreak of the Russian revolution of February 1917, we started transferring our debates from the Literary Circle of the Dramatic Society, into our work places. The workplaces used to send “delegates” to the Circle and to the sick fund. Later, together with the P.P.S., we created the International Professional Society where the combined Poale Zion demanded, in the manner of that time, “Jewish Professional Sections”.

In 1918, there was a committee of the Suwalk community council which received aid from America – from the “Peoples Relief Committee” and, it seems to me, from the “Joint”. This committee opened a “people's kitchen”, and the first Bundists and Poale Zionists decided to demand representation. At that time, the German soldiers were about to elect a “Soldiers' Council”. The Poale Zion joined with the socialistically oriented German soldiers and negotiated to create a “Workers and Soldiers Council” on the Russian model.

The Bund and Poale Zion began to function as political parties at the home of industrialist Rozntsvayg, as previously mentioned. The Bund tried to rename the “Literary Section” as the “General Jewish Workers Bund” in Suwalk. This led to dissension. Finally, the Poale Zion left the “Section” and with its 120 members, rented a grand big apartment and officially proclaimed itself the “Poale Zion Party in Suwalk”. (1918).

The first step taken by the Party was the creation of a People's University named for the recently deceased Ber Borochov. The Bundists, meanwhile, started evening courses. Election Day for the first democratically elected Community Council in Suwalk, was approaching. The campaign was a stormy one, involved with language struggle (Yiddish vs. Hebrew). One recalls the large assemblies in the Arcadia theatre. The speaker for the Zionist party was the well-known Jacob Robinson, son of a teacher in Suwalk's Government school. The Bund's chief spokesman was Glikson, while Poale Zion received aid from outside: Issaak Platner and Barukh Vinagura from Warsaw and Rozntal from London.

The Workers' Council came to naught, because the Germans banned it. There was even a workers'

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demonstration at that time in Suwalk, which was broken up by the machine guns of the “revolutionary” Germans, and your humble servant and some friends got their first taste of prison.

In 1919, Suwalk prepared to vote for its first elected City Council. Poale Zion demanded general, secret and proportional representation elections, while the P.P.S and the Bund, refused to go along with dicesan elections. They began to talk[3] like General (Josef) Haller [i.e. anti-Semitic grumbling] and Poale Zion started to organize an armed self-defence group.

The leadership of the “Professional Society” was proportionately made up of members of the Bund, Poale Zion and P.P.S. Thanks to the “Professional Society”, an eight-hour working day was installed in Suwalk for the first time on Purim, 1919.

I remember an event of that period. In the struggle between Lithuania and Poland over Suwalk, most of the Jews, including the Poale Zion, were pro-Lithuania. But the Polish Secret Military Organization, P.O.V. [Polska Organizacie Voiskawa ?], undermined this effort. They exploited the transition period and took over power in one day; first, taking over the City Council. They hung up the red shield with the white Polish eagle on the tower of City Hall. We, a bunch of Poale Zionists, quickly tore down the shield. This public act [of defiance] frightened the Jewish population.

Around 1920, there began to be dissension in the ranks of Poale Zion. Two trends crystallized: right and left. The Poale Zion was connected to two centres, Warsaw and Minsk; from which they received literature and periodicals, and both the Minsk leftists and the Warsaw rightists, sent delegates to Suwalk. From Minsk came Pintshuk and from Warsaw came Yudl Levin, the previously mentioned Platner and Vinogura. We received both delegations with the same respect for we were united by Borochovism, and our deep aspirations to leave for Palestine as quickly as possible.

Poale Zion of Suwalk called a wide ranging regional conference on Passover, 1919. The border between Lithuania and Poland was still vague and ill-defined, so delegates were able to come from Grodno, Vilkovishk (Lithuania), Saini, Augustow, Ratzk and even from Bialystok and other places which I forget. The Conference became, in fact, a duel between the delegates from Warsaw and Minsk. They tried to confuse the Poale Zion from Suwalk, who were very unsophisticated in matters of foreign politics. For the group from Suwalk, the most important goal was a working-class Palestine, but for many others, it was the Russian

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revolution, which had made a deep impression. The behaviour of the P.P.S. in Poland, affected us as Jews, since the P.P.S. was the embodiment of the Social-Democratic way. It was a stormy conference, but it concluded peacefully.

The Poale Zion discussions were ended by the violence of the times. After Poland took over control of Suwalk, many Poale Zionists hasted to Lithuania, where they participated in the establishment of the Lithuanian Left Poale Zion Party; its press and its institutions.

 

 
The first Jewish Sport Organization in Suwalk. 1917-1918

[Col. 399]

The first era of Poale Zion activity in Suwalk ended in 1920. From 1920 on, Jewish community activities were carried on as intensively as before. There were Jewish parties of all trends, right and left, Zionists and anti-Zionists. We had folk shules, sport societies, cultural organizations, and a fine Hehalutz movement. All of this flourished thanks to the work of the first pioneers who laid the foundations in the bitter years of the First World War.

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The writer of this essay was very liberal in the use of quotation marks. He also used many localisms and esoteric words and references to events which had to be researched. Return
  2. No indication of whether the count is from left or right Return
  3. Very unclear. Polish word used, of Latin derivation, may also mean elections based on status. I feel that it means diocesan. Also not clear whether Bund agreed reluctantly, or refused outright. Return


[Col. 399]

Zionist Activists

Gedalia Simhoni, Haifa

Translated by Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz

Retyped by Genia Hollander

At the end of the First World War, there began feverish educational activities preceding the elections to the Jewish community councils {kehilot}. The election campaign was led mainly by the leaders of various parties: Jacob Robinson, later the famous Sejm deputy in Lithuania and afterwards, legal advisor to the Israeli delegation to the UN and already, at that time, a fervent Zionist spokesman. Dr. Vaysman, Dr. Starapolski, Shmuel Roznberg and his son Moshe, Sukhovolski, Gutman, Halender, Remblinker, the Aynshtayn brothers, Matsman (all General Zionists), M. Fridman, Lizavski, and other representatives of “Mizrachi”, Avraham Glikson, Martshik (of the “Bund”) and others of the “Poale Zion”, and “Agudah”. They all participated in honest, but heated pre-election meetings.

At that time, almost all of the young Jews belonged to the scouts. When the Lithuanian Minister of War, Zshukas, visited Suwalk in 1917, the Jewish scouts prepared a reception and Jews thronged the highway. When Zshukas asked what he could do for us, the response was: “Give us the means to develop freely”.

During the first years of Polish Suwalk, the Jewish scouts did well. Gradually, they were displaced by the halutsic {pioneering} movement. The first halutism from Suwalk after World War I were: Austern, Fridman, Bakshteyn and others.

The main efforts of “Hehalutz” began after the riots in Yafo and the murder there of Y.H.Brenner in

[Col. 400]

May 1921. Young people streamed into the ranks of “Hehalutz” to prepare themselves for immigration to Palestine. Suwalk was the site of a “Mazkirut mehozit”, a regional secretariat of “Hehalutz”.

In and around Suwalk, there were a number of hakhshara kibbutzim {agricultural training collectives} where young people did hard physical work to prepare for life in Palestine. One's heart rejoiced upon entering the model farm of the German, Herr Reyrat, and “Zielanke” where twelve pioneers from all over Poland were training.

Salamea {Salome?} Binshteyn, the Shtsebraalshank landowner's wife (at that time an assimilated Jew, now a loyal citizen of Israel} and he would leave everything behind and join in your mission. But still we wanted one of our own in his place and we made a “revolution” and took over the management of the Jewish National Fund. Then it was no holds barred. The income doubled and tripled.

Many of these idealistic halutsim and their families became rooted in the soil of Palestine. Today, we find comrades Austern and Fridman in Kibbutz En Harod. Eliyahu Yoselevitsh in En Haoresh. Ovadia Yoselevitsh in Ramat Hakovesh. Zshenia Pigavska (or Figavska) in Ashdot Yaakov, and many more.

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Call to the Community to Celebrate Balfour Declaration Day[1] Happy are we that we have lived to see the day

Jews!

The day is coming for which we have been waiting for almost 2000 years. The Land of Israel has been recognized by the Peace Commission as the National Home of the Jewish People. Jews! 1850 years have passed since our freedom was cruelly taken from us. We were expelled to become wanderers, dispersed and scattered among the nations.

In spite of all the trials and tribulations, and the suffering in the long and bitter exile, we did not cease to hope that the day of our redemption would come and the sun of freedom would shine upon us, and we would get back our old-new land.

It has fallen to our lot to be the last generation of exile and the first generation of redemption. Together with all of Polish Jewry, we shall celebrate on Lag B'Omer[2], the great day on which our prayers will be answered, and we call upon all the Jews of our city to celebrate this great holiday of our people's redemption.

Greatly praised the work of our halutsim in training on her property.

The owner of Moskevshtsizn, the kind-hearted Herr Kirsnianski, of blessed memory, was pleased with the work of our halutsim. He did everything he could to please us as well.

The landowners of Reshka and of the estates around Grayeve, Lomza, Augustow and others were also very interested in the training of our youth.

The young people of Suwalk and environs were inspired by a burning desire for renewal. A youngster who was able to hack and saw two meters of lumber in one day, for the first time in his life, was in seventh heaven. We were proud to open our own carpentry shop in the Old Age Home building where eight young halutsim trained.

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Here, I wish to mention my late father, R'Hayim Dov, of blessed memory, who helped us get the building.

For those who were in charge, there were too few hours in the day. Reading lists of suggestions in one kibbutz, taking care of organizational matters in another kibbutz, organizing courses in Hebrew language; in the history of the labour movements in Palestine, in the geography of Palestine, etc., kept us very busy.

We did not stick to “Hehalutz” matters only. We also participated in the general work of the Zionist movement. We were especially active in working for the Jewish National Fund, and raised a lot of money. However, the local manager of the JNF was not one of us and we resented that because we did 80% of the work, so why should the manager be Berl Zeligzon; a representative of the General Zionists? Never mind that Berl Zeligzon was an outstanding young man who devoted heart and soul to the Jewish National Fund. You could walk into his little store when it was full of customers and say: “Berl, there's a wedding going on and I need a partner {for collecting}”.

On Lag B'Omer, at 10 a.m., there will be festive prayers offered up at the synagogue for the return of our land.

From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., all Jewish shops will be closed.

Houses and balconies belonging to Jews should be decorated appropriately.

All day long, there will be a sale of flowers to benefit the “Redemption Fund”.

Suwalk, 17 Iyar, (5)680{1920}.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Hebrew on right and Yiddish on left with heading in Hebrew. Caption is erroneous. Balfour Declaration was Nov.2,1917. This proclamation refers to San Remo Peace Conference, April 25, 1920, where Great Britain was granted Mandate of Palestine. Return
  2. 33rd day of counting of Omer Return

 

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