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[Col. 567]

The first Jews from Suwalk in New York

Hayim Zeligson

Although it is impossible to know exactly when the first Suwalk Jews came to “Columbus'Medinah”, one can safely assume that it was in the 1860's.

At that time there was a famine in the Suwalk region. Industry and even handicrafts were not yet developed. Jews depended upon trade with farmers, and the farm villages were impoverished. The Jews of Suwalk region began to leave their homes and travel abroad. Emigration was eased by their location near the Prussian border. It was easier for them to leave than it was for Jews in Russian and the Kingdom of Poland.

Hundreds and then thousands of Jews from Suwalk and from the surrounding towns came to America. All classes and strata of Jews were on the move. Many wrote home that it was possible to make a living through peddling or opening small businesses. Such letters inspired artisans, poor shopkeepers and others who lived in poverty in Suwalk and environs and had no hopes for a better income.

One such poor shopkeeper on Yatke Street in Suwalk was the renowned Kasriel Tsevi Sarasohn. In Suwalk, he owned a small paper business with some printing supplies. His brother-in-law, R'Mordekhay Yahalomshteyn, who was very learned and a maskil (who wrote for the Hebrew periodical “HaMagid'), had been persecuted for his enlightened views which were considered atheistic. In 1861, he fled to America.

It is interesting to note here a little known fact. On his way to America, Mordekhay Yahalomshteyn had to stop in London because he did not have the means to continue on his way. He wrote letters to the secretary of R'Moses Montefiore, to the Chief Rabbi of London and to the leaders of the community. His beautifully written letters earned him the needed support to journey on to America.

[Col. 568]

In 1865, Yahalomshteyn wrote to his brother-in-law, R'Kasriel Tsevi Sarasohn, that in America he would be able to make a fine living from the kind of business he had in Suwalk. He might even be able to publish a newspaper. Sarasohn followed his brother-in-law's advice and came to America in 1866. He stayed in New York for only a short time because he was homesick and returned to Suwalk. In 1871 Sarasohn immigrated to America with his entire family and settled there.

These two brothers-in-law became the pioneers of the Yiddish press in America. In 1865, Sarasohn's brother-in-law, Yahalomshteyn, published a newspaper named “Nuy Yorker Idish Tsaytung” which lasted for a very short time.R'Kasriel Sarasohn learned from Yahalomshteyn's failure and published a weekly “Di Idishe Gazeten” in his printing shop on East Broadway, not far from the Jewish cemetery on Chatham Square. In 1885, his “Gazeten” became the “Yudishes Tageblat”. Since at that time the Suwalk Jews considered Yiddish a “jargon”, and that German was more beautiful, they used to speak a kind of German in society and that is why the newspaper was given a German name: “Yudishes Tageblat”.[1]

In 1870, the first Suwalk synagogue was founded in New York named “Mishkan Yisrael-Anshe Suvalk”. For a long time, the synagogue was located on the first floor of 5 East Broadway. Since R'Kasriel Sarasohn was a constant participant in services, he became the president and leader of the congregation. A very active communal worker, he founded, with the help of members of the synagogue, the “Mahzike Talmud Torah” on East Broadway and which exists until the present. The second president of the Talmud Torah was Phillips, who had been a sexton in the Beth HaMidrash in Suwalk.

Later, Sarasohn helped found the Beth Israel Hospital so that our kind of Jews would not have to go the hospitals supported by the German Jews and where kashrut was not observed, because eating non-kosher food was common among German Jews.

At that time, the German Jews started an organization called: “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” to assist newly arrived Jews. Eastern European Jews were treated by the “Yahudim”[2]

[Col. 569]

as if they were beggars and shnorers. Sarasohn felt very badly about this and he helped found a “Hakhnasat Orhim” {inn for strangers, guests} on the old Suwalk system where Jews were treated with respect. The “Yahudim” could not stand this and they tried all kinds of intrigues in order to unite these two organizations under the same name, which is now known for many years as “HIAS”.[3]

At the beginning of the eighties, there was a wave of pogroms in Russia which even affected Poland. The pogrom in Warsaw, which lasted three days and in which 12 Jews were killed, especially frightened the Suwalk Jews. This fear led to mass emigration to America of the Russian-Polish Jews, among them, Jews of Suwalk.

Because of the influx of large numbers of Jews from Suwalk, the synagogue, “MishkanYisrael Anshe Suvalk” became too crowded and plans were made to build a grand synagogue on Christie Street. They went into debt. In order to cover their usual expenses as well as pay their debts, the leaders of the Suwalk synagogue decided to bring over a famous cantor whose name would be a drawing card and thus, they would be able to cover their expenses and pay all the debts.

At that time, there was a cantor in Suwalk name, R'Hayim Vinshel. He was famous in Suwalk and in the surrounding towns, for his fine voice. He had published a volume of Hebrew songs, Nite Namanim. The Suwalk Jews brought him to America. His chanting in the new Suwalk synagogue in New York was very successful. The officers of other synagogues were afraid that their members would desert them and transfer to the Suwalk synagogue. The Kalvarie synagogue, “Hevra Kadisha Bene Anshe Kalvarie” was especially concerned. Therefore, they brought over the famous cantor, R'Yisrael Kuper, as a rival to the new Suwalk cantor.

Thanks to the success of their cantor, R'Hayim Vinshel, the Suwalk synagogue was able to pay its debts and became one of the richest synagogues in New York. It is said that the famous American journalist, Walter Winchell, is a relative of Hayim Vinshel.

[Col. 570]

In 1887 a meeting was called in the Bet Midrash HaGadol of New York of all the local synagogues and study houses to introduce order into matters of kashrut, forbidden and permissible matters, etc. The question was raised of instituting a chief rabbi for New York, for example, R'Meir Leibush Malbim or the Kovne genius, R'Yitshak Elhanan {Spektor}. The representatives from Suwalk, among them, the old banker from Augustow, Yarmulovski, presented as candidate, Rabbi Hillel Liebshits, who was then a rabbi in Suwalk. He was a great scholar and also a worldly man who know many languages, especially German. This was meant to present an opposition to the Reform rabbis who preached in German and did not have a very deep feeling for true Judaism and the laws of what is forbidden and what is permissible.

The proposed candidacy of the Suwalk rabbi pleased everyone. It was decided to write to Rabbi Hillel Liebshits that he should become the chief rabbi of New York. But, Rabbi Liebshits refused the proposal for various reasons he did not list, and the town preacher of Vilne, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (Jacob Joseph) became the chief rabbi of New York.

Many enlightened and intelligent people came from Suwalk at that time via England. Among the newcomers was the maskil Efraim Shpindlman, a member of the Suwalk family which used to manufacture matches and they were called “matchmakers”.

Shpindlman worked for Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals. His brother Yaakov, was the secretary of the Bnai Zion Order for a long time. Together with Louis Lipsky, he organized the “Judeo Life Insurance Company”, which sold “Bar Mitsva” policies and “To life and not to death” policies, printed in the Hebrew alphabet. Later the company was re-organized as the “Eastern Life Insurance Company”, and it still holds a respectable position among insurance companies in America. Yaakov Shpindlman was the secretary of the only truly Jewish “Life Insurance Company” in America until the end of this life.

At that time, the famous Suwalk pedagogue and scholar, Gershon Rozentsvayg {Gerson Rosenzweig} came to America. He worked for the “Yudishes Tageblat” and almost every day, wrote a column in Hebrew entitled “Mikhtamim Mi-yom le-yom”.[4]. Rozenzweig had a restaurant on East Broadway where the Jewish intelligentsia gathered.

[Col. 571]

His “Epigrams” were short and witty and in simple Hebrew. He is also the author of “Masekhet Yanki”.[5]

In 1892 there arrived in New York, R'Berl Leyb Fridman, a disciple of R'Hayim Filipover. Fridman became a rabbi in Rochester. Before that, he was a Hebrew teacher and one of the most active Hoveve Tsiyon[6] and the New York correspondent of the Ha-Tsefira of Warsaw.

As a rabbi in Rochester, N.Y., R'Berl Fridman was very liberal in his interpretation of the Jewish law, basing himself on the teachings of his great rabbi. He was the target of much criticism. At age 75, he died in Indianapolis {sic!}

In the eighties, Morris Rosenfeld came to America. In his youth he had studied tailoring in Suwalk. In America, he became a presser in a clothing factory, where he experienced all of the troubles of the sweatshops of that time. He published his poems in the “Tageblat” and in the “Forward”. He wrote about the bitter suffering of the worker. He quickly became famous as one of the best Jewish folk poets in the world.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scholars and teachers came from Suwalk to America. Dushkin the teacher came to New York with his two sons. He knew Hebrew and the Bible very well. One of his sons, who had studied in Chicago, Dr. Alexander Dushkin, was the president of the Jewish Board of Education in New York and was a professor on the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.[7]. The second son, Shemuel Dushkin, became famous as a violinist. He gave concerts in Carnegie Hall and also in Paris and other world centres.

At the same time, R'Moshe Shterman, called the “Der Verzshbolover”, in Suwalk, came to America. He was a great scholar, expert in Talmud, assistant to the head of the Yeshiva in Suwalk – R'Tsevi Hirsh Reznik, known as R'Hirshl Maytsheter. In New York, Rabbi Shterman became the head of the Yeshiva DeHarl, and one of the chief supervisors in the New York slaughter houses.

Vays, the teacher from Suwalk, a good Hebraist and a maskil, taught Hebrew in New York to rich boys and published a book: “Tiltule Gever”, {Wanderings of a Man} which described events in Suwalk and other places.

[Col. 572]

A few years later, Rabbi Vayl came. He had replaced Rabbi Shterman in the Suwalk Talmud Torah and Yeshiva. He became the supervisor in Rabbi Yitshak Elhanan Yeshiva.

2

The synagogue, “Mishkan Yisrael Anshe Suvalk” founded in 1870, developed successfully. Most of the landslayt from Suwalk and surrounding towns became members, even though “Havra Kadisha Anshe Kalverie” founded already in 1862, tried to get Suwalk landslayt to joint it. However, a conflict broke out between the leaders of “Mishkan Yisrael” and the membership, which led to a split among the landslayt. The result was that some Suwalk landslayt left “Mishkan Yisrael” and founded their own synagogue on Forsyth Street: “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suwvalk”. By using this name they tried to show that not only landslayt from the town of Suwalk but also people from the towns around Suwalk could be among its leaders. One of their presidents came from Psherosle, another from Ratzk and a third from Saini, and so on.

After the split, “Mishkan Yisrael” did not grow any more. It was weakened by the split and also by the big fire it suffered at the end of the nineties. After the fire, the society bought an old Reform Temple for the synagogue at 400 Henry Street.

The synagogue “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suwalk” grew mightily at that time, and became one of the leading synagogues in New York.

For eighteen years, the rabbi of this synagogue was Rabbi Mordekhay Doktor of Suwalk. He was a son-in-law of Krutshenishki. He studied in Vilna, in Ramayle's kloyz, and was ordained by the rabbis of Vilna. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an epidemic of scarlet fever. All three of Rabbi Doktor's children died within a very short time. Not able to bear the pain, Rabbi Doktor decided to leave Suwalk, go to America, and try to build a new life there.

At first, R'Mordekhay was the secretary of “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suwalk” and later became the rabbi.

[Col. 573]

Rabbi Mordekay Doktor wrote a book: “Drashot veNeumim” {Sermons and speeches} in two volumes. The book became the sermon textbook for many rabbis and preachers in the synagogues of America.

With one of their “own” as rabbi, steeped in the Suwalk style of preaching, some of the Suwalk members of the “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suwalk” felt a longing for a Suwalk prayer leader to warm their souls. They decided to bring over R'Asher Rubinshteyn, a fine prayer leader, for a few months. In 1902, R'Asher was already standing at the lectern, thrilling the congregants with his sweet traditional style and his ringing voice. The Jews in the synagogue felt as if they were sitting in their old Beth HaMidrash like in the good old times.

3

What kind of people were the members of Mishkan Yisrael Anshe Suvalk” and “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suwalk”?

One of the members of “MishkanYisrael”, of whom the synagogue members were very proud of, was Judge Rozalski, son of a butcher from Ratzk. In America, he rose to become the judge of the “General Sessions”, {Criminal Court}; something quite rare for a Jewish immigrant. Another important member of the “Mishkan Yisrael” was the previously mentioned Mr.Phillips. In Suwalk, he was a sexton in Beth Midrash, and in America, he became one of the richest shirt manufacturers. His company called itself: «Phillips Joint Corporation”. Even though Mr. Phillips employed people of various nationalities, it was closed on the Sabbath.

The families Roznberg and Gladshteyn were among the most active in “Mishkan Yisrael”, almost until the day it went under.

The members of “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suvalk” were mainly householders, storekeepers and small businessmen. There were also some who had recently become wealthy. One of these was Moshe Livi. His firm bore the name: “Livi and Sons”. It was considered a great thing to be able to wear a suit made by this firm, although not many could afford the high prices.

Shamay Rozntal was also a member of “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suvalk”. The sign on his wine business advertised

[Col. 574]

“Shamay Rozntal and Company from Suvalk”. Others too, did not forget to make known their Suwalk origins on their signs, as for example: “Gotlib Kremer from Suvalk”, “Yitshak Goldberg from Suvalk”, etc. And, if someone was a ritual slaughterer or a circumciser, he would write on his sign the name of his home town, for example: “Avigdor HaKohen Shohet ve-Mohel Mi-Suvalk”.

What happened to those historic synagogues?

The “Mishkan Yisrael” synagogue was sold. The surviving members received part of the money and the rest was donated to “Yeshivat R'Yitshak Elhanan”. The synagogue of “Kol Yisrael Anshe Poylin Mi-Suvalk” was also sold. A Greek church now occupies its site. The members later built another synagogue on 114th Street, where most of them settled at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was a magnificent synagogue, but it suffered the same fate as the synagogue on Forsyth Street; it became a black church, which Father Divine made into his Paradise on earth ….

Thus ends the story of the two big important synagogues built by Jews from Suwalk in New York.

*

Many young Jews from the Suwalk area came to America after the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution years. Many of these newcomers remained in New York. They could not adjust to the many societies and organizations which existed here, and they decided to create a permanent organization where they would feel at home and which could also help its members in time of need and misfortune.

The initiative came from Yaakov Markson, called by his compatriots: “Yankel the wheelwright”. He had a feeling for organizing. When he was a solder in the Czar's army, he organized the Jewish soldiers of his unit in Petersburg to get Passover foods and other Jewish items from the local congregation.

[Col. 575]

Yaakov Markson brought in some of the old timers and newcomers from Suwalk, and, in August of 1905, he organized the Suwalk society under the name: “Independent Suvalker Benevolent Association”. At the time of its founding, the organization had seven members. Its goals were to help its members in time of sickness, misfortunes, and provide a cemetery in which to bury its dead, after one hundred and twenty years.

Some of the people who came in the years 1905-1906, organized themselves as the “Suvalker Young Men's Benevolent Association”. At first, their goal was purely social. They would organize lectures and discussions at their meetings and prepare social pastimes for their members. Soon, however, they began to think about cemetery plots and other benefits for their members. Some of the new immigrants were not pleased with the programs of the “Young Men's Benevolent Association” in the area of cemetery plots and other matters of this kind. There were controversies and the organization disbanded. Some of the members joined the “Independent Suvalker Benevolent Association”.

Among the young people who came to America after the failed Russian revolution, were former members of the “Bund”,

[Col. 576]

the “Poale Tsion” and the “S.S.” (Socialist-Territorialists) and other radical groups. They could not adapt to any of the existing landsmanshaftn that did not have an ideological base. Since they knew that there were members of the “Independent Suvalker Benevolent Association” who were also devoted heart and soul to the revolutionary ideals, they asked Yaakov Markson to found a new organization. Together with a friend of his, L.Kon of Bialystok, who had worked as a tinsmith in Suwalk and was active in the “Bund”, Markson organized a group of around 50 young people into a branch of Workmen's Circle as the “Suvalker Progressive Society Branch 302 Workmen's Circle”. The average age of the members was 18-20. Some of them had never been active politically but joined because their friends did. Many members left because they were not enthusiastic about the Bundist ideology. Others, who found good business opportunities and became wealthy as time went by, left the organization.

[Col. 579]

Some moved to other cities. The remnant joined together with the “Vilkovisher Mariampolier and Kalvarier Branch 300 Workmen's Circle”, whose members came from other cities in the Province of Suwalk. The united branch called itself: “Suvalker Vilkovishker Branch 300 Workmen's Circle”.

In 1922, the women organized the “Suvalker Ladies Auxiliary”. They devoted themselves to the support of Jewish institutions in Suwalk such as the Talmud Torah, Moshav Zekenim, and so on. They also supported some institutions in Erets Yisrael and in America, and helped individual landslayt as well. Their first president was Mrs.Raynshrayber, followed by Mrs. Laub and Mrs.S.Gershen was the last president.

Almost all of the Suwalk organization in New York disbanded in the course of time. The only ones remaining today are the “Independent Suvalker Benevolent Association” and the “Suvalker Branch 300 {of the Workmen's Circle}.

[Cols. 575-576]

Unzer Brentsh {our branch} published by the Suvalker-Vilkovishker Br.300 A.R. {Arbeter Ring=Workmen's Circle}.
Title of journal which the Suwalker-Vilkovishker “Workmen's Circle” Branch 300 published in 1941

 

[Cols. 577-578]

Executives and officers of Suvalker Women's Fareyn in New York, 1955

Sitting right to left: Silive Zeligson, recording secretary. Sivlie Giurshen {sic!}, president. Iva Gladstaun, financial secretary. Y.L.Livi, treasurer. Standing: Mrs.Klaynberg. Helen Vladkovski. S.Mishel. TL.L.Perlshteyn. Gertrud Salinksi. G. Shaynfeld.

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The word for this kind of German is Daytshmerish Return
  2. A term of sarcasm used for German Jews Return
  3. In 1881, the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society was founded and in 1889 the Hakhoses Orkhim. The HEAS was dissolved in 1883 and HIAS was formed in 1892 Return
  4. Epigrams, or hymns from day to day Return
  5. A sarcastic work about America, written as a parody of the Talmud Return
  6. Lovers of Zion Return
  7. He was my teacher in Jerusalem Return


[Col. 579]

Suwalk Landsmanshaft in Israel

Avraham Koyfman, Tel-Aviv

The first refugees from Suwalk began coming to Erets Yisrael in 1944.

Much earlier, we had read in the press the horrible descriptions of what the Nazis were doing to our brothers in Poland and in other countries.

But the stories we heard directly from our landslayt from Suwalk, surpassed any human fantasy with their horror and suffering.

It was clear to us that we had to do something to help those Jews from Suwalk who had managed to reach Erets Yisrael.

It became apparent that we had to create a central committee of Suwalk landslayt in order to organize that relief work better.

Towards this goal, the writer of these lines together with Berl Simenski and Rahel Zilberman-Raykhman called a general founding assembly in the Ohel Shem hall in Tel Aviv.

There were differing opinions on this while matter. Some people were against founding landsmanshaftn. They argued that there was a Jewish Agency here, which would care for everyone. They also argued that giving charity would bring demoralization into the midst of our immigrant brothers.

The majority, however, was for founding a landsmanshaftn because, in this way, we would be able to help the refugees from Suwalk.

Our first call brought 125 Suwalk Jews from every part of the country.

[Col. 580]

The first step taken by the committee was to get in touch with our landslayt all over the world, especially in America, because it was clear to us that without the help of our brothers in America, our plans would not be realized. This was especially true in the later years, when hundreds of Suwalk refugees came to Israel.

Thanks to the relief committee headed by Rabbi David Lifshits, Hayim Zelgson, L.Perlshteyn and Perlo in New York, Shemuel Bernshteyn and Rabbi Pinkus in Chicago, and many others, we were able to help the Suwalk survivors with money, food and clothing.

Most of them came without money or clothing, weakened in body and broken in spirit. The very existence of a committee from Suwalk and environs encouraged and strengthened them.

Some members of the committee had wanted to disband. Their argument is that they had given the new immigrants their first help and that they should not allow them to get used to charity. But the truth of the matter was, that among the newly arrived immigrants, there were old and sick and mentally and physically ill people whose adjustment to a new country would have been much harder without a committee of our landslayt. Therefore, the committee continued in existence.

The committee had done a pretty good job. Many loans were made. Over 160 families received food packages and clothing – some more than once. The help was necessary and it was useful.

Among the active members of the Israel committee were Shelomoh Shulkes and Moshe Goldshteyn.

[Col. 581]

Signatures of Suwalk householders on a certificate for selling hamets in 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust

 

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