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A wedding in the shtetl



The English Part


VISOKA-MOZOVIETSK – WYSOKIE MAZOWIECKI

From Its Beginning to the End of the 19th Century

Visoka Mozovietsk, near the Bruce River, is located seven kilometers from the Shepitova station of the Bialystok-Warsaw line. It is considered one of the oldest settlements in the Mezovia region of Poland, and is mentioned as such as early as the first half of the 13th century (1239).

There is no information on the beginnings of a Jewish settlement "Arba Aratzot" Council in connection with the taxes it was obliged to pay. A document from the year 1752 has been preserved, which is directly concerned with the Visoka Mozovietsk Jewish community. It describes a dispute over the membership of that community, between Tchecbanovitsi and Vengrov, each of them the head of an "area". The quarrel had to do with the right of jurisdiction over the little town. The dispute was brought before the "Arba Aratzot" Council and the judges, Rabbi Yehoshua Levi and Rabbi Berish Segal of Cracow, in the presence of representatives from Tchechanovitsi and Vengrov. Since neither of the two sides could prove the justice of its case, the judges decided that the Visoka Mozovietsk community should belong to neither of them. And, indeed, from then on Visoka Mozovietsk has been an independent community.

One hundred and fifty years later, in the second half of the 19th century, there were 600 Jewish households in Visoka Mozovietsk.

From the Beginning of the 20th Century to the End of World War I

The Jewish population of Visoka Mozovietsk was composed, more or less, of three economic classes:
 

1) Merchants, mainly shopkeepers;
2) Craftsmen;
3) Workers, mainly apprentices of the craftsmen who hoped to become craftsmen in their turn.


* * *

In 1905, the first Russian revolution broke out, but it passed over without leaving any visible effects on the little town, frozen in its old patterns, whose way of life continued as though nothing had happened. But at about the same time, an event took place in Visoka which rocked the inhabitants of the town, Christians and Jews alike, and was to remain etched in their memories for years to come.
This extraordinary event was the famous robbery of the Russian Government Bank, the Kaznochestvo, by members of the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S.) which was headed by Joseph Pilsudski.
The daring robbery, successfully organized and carried out, made a strong impression on Poland in particular, and on other parts of the Russian Empire as well. And the strongest impression of all was upon the residents of the town who were eyewitnesses to the bold and violent deed.

* * *

As in most of the towns of Poland and Lithuania, Jewish life in Visoka Mozovietsk centered around two points:
1) Making a living; and
2) the religious way of life, observed zealously and meticulously.
Contact with the world outside the town was limited to trips made by merchants to the big cities, Bialystok and Warsaw, to buy merchandise, and to the district capital, Lamzja, where the government institutions were centered. In addition, the Hassidim might make a journey to the "rebbes", and the young people, yearning to study Torah, went to Lomzja or to big yeshivas in Lithuania.
Visoka was fortunate in never having been burned down in any conflagration, despite the fact that most of its buildings were of wood. In most of the neighboring villages, fires would break out from time to time, burning large areas to the ground. The old rabbi, the Zaddik, claimed that according to a legend, their town was blessed so that fire could not devour it.

* * *

At the end of the first decade of the present century, and the beginning of the second decade, the Polish nationalist extremists proclaimed a boycott of Jewish places of business. For some reason, it was the fate of Visoka to be one of the first fronts in the war of the anti-Semitic nationalists against Jewish merchants. The local priest was at the head of the wild incitement to a pogrom. This anti-Semitic outbreak was accompanied by acts of violence against the Jews and even murder.

* * *

The years of World War I passed in Visoka without any great shocks. Nevertheless, basic changes did occur, which were to leave their mark on the development of the town in the coming years. Right at the beginning of the war, the town was captured by the Germans who occupied it until the war ended. The Germans, under the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II, did not molest the Jewish population; on the contrary, they granted the Jews rights they had never had under the Tsars. Shortly after the town was captured, the military government was exchanged for civil rule The German civil authorities, middle-aged people, evinced a liberal attitude to the Jews and even befriended Jewish families with whom they maintained close contacts.

It is noteworthy that under the German occupation, public and cultural activities among the Jewish population started to flourish. Activities which had been forbidden under the Russians, at least officially, Zionist societies and secular cultural activities which had been very limited under the Tsars, were now permitted. The younger generation, thirsty for enlightenment, came out in the open and began to develop all kinds of cultural and public activities.

As soon as the ban on Zionist activity was lifted, Zionist organizations started to circulate the idea of a national movement among the young people and other in the Jewish population. The first Zionist society was a branch of the "Tzeirey-Zion". Shortly thereafter, a branch of "Poalei Zion" was established, active mainly among working youth. It spread the ideas of socialistic Zionism, including "hachshara" (preparatory training) and "aliya" (immigration to Eretz Israel).

In the same period, the Maccabi sports organization was established in Visoka. Its first head was a German army man named Meichsner, then serving under the civil authority of the conquering army.

One of the most important cultural activities during this period was the establishment of a public library. For the culture-starved youth it opened a window to the wide world of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, as well as to a wide range of world literature in translation into those two languages. The library also invited outside lecturers and writers to appear, and organized discussion evenings on various literary subjects, with the local people taking part.
Under the German occupation a vital change took place in the field of education as well. No longer was the traditional "heder" the ruling force of the Jewish population; alongside it, modern and progressive educational institutions took their place.
 

BETWEEN THE TWO WORLD WARS

The Economic Situation

The establishment of the autonomous Polish Republic began badly for the three million Jews within its borders. The newly independent Poles celebrated their new authority with pogroms and riots against the Jews.
The Jewish community of Visoka Mozovietsk received its share of the pogroms (in August 1920). The Jewish representatives to the Polish "Saym" (the Polish parliament) protested to the government, and demanded the punishment of the rioters.

* * *

As in all Polish towns, the economy of the Jewish population of Visoka was based on trade and on crafts. The Jews bought the agricultural produce from the peasants in the neighborhood and sold them manufactured products and hand-made products in their turn.

However, relations with the Gentile population were not particularly friendly. Despite the fact that they had close trade relations, with most of the agricultural products being sold to the Jews, while Jewish merchants and craftsmen supplied the peasants with clothing, shoes, kitchen utensils, work implements and tools, and other goods - a mountain of alienation was rising between the two sectors of the population.

An independent Poland established an extremist, nationalistic and anti-Semitic line from the very start, which expressed itself, among other things, in pushing the Jews out of their economic position. The older generation somehow or other adjusted itself to the new reality of a difficult struggle for its daily existence. Jewish youth, however, found itself before a blank wall in the face of the desperate economic situation he acutely anti-Jewish policy taken by the Polish government entire twenty years of the existence of an autonomous Polish nation.

The situation became worse in the 1930's reaching the point where a large portion of the Jewish population was able to survive only thanks to the regular assistance it received from relatives in America.

As a consequence of the hard struggle to make a living, the Jews gradually became aware that things would be easier, if they established n financial their own financial projects based on mutual help. The result was the founding of a cooperative bank, whose participants included both merchants and craftsmen. After a while, however, the merchants split off from the cooperative bank and established a bank of their own. From then on, there were two credit institutions operating in Visoka.

As in all the Eastern European cities and towns, the traditional charitable organizations operated in Visoka, as well as the more modern philanthropic institutions.

Zionist Youth Movements

Zionist youth movements that reached their peak in Eastern n the 1920's and 1930's served as a great stimulus to the development and advancement of the youth of Visoka. In 1927, a branch of "Hashomer Haleumi" was set up; this afterwards became "Hanoar Hazioni", the biggest youth movement in the town. Many of its members studied Hebrew, gave lectures on Zionist subjects, and did practical Zionist work, mainly for the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund). In later years, a "Betar" movement was set up, founded by the Revisionist party.

But the main purpose of the pioneering movements, and to some extent of the Zionist parties as well, was "aliya" - immigration to Israel - and the preparation for it ("hachshara"). Actually, immigration to Israel had begun as early as 1919-1920, though on an individual basis.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the "Hechalutz" organization was founded in Visoka. Its most important project was the establishment of a "hachshara" (training farm) which afterwards became the training center for the entire vicinity.

* * *

Visoka was almost entirely a zionistic town. The tone of public life was set by the Zionist Parties, the most prominent of which were: Pole Zion, Zeirei-Zion, the General Zionists, Mizrachi, and the Revisionist Movement.

Visoka on the Eve of the Holocaust

The political and economic situation of the Jews of Poland deteriorated. Visoka was one of the towns which suffered a pogrom in 1937. Jewish property was looted or destroyed, many Jewish houses were damaged, and 23 persons were injured.

There were Jews who lived under the illusion that the bad situation was a passing thing, a temporary ill wind. But in fact, this phenomenon had deep roots in the total Jewish-Polish situation, a fact that became evident in the years just preceding World War II. Changes in attitude turned up in the market place, in the Polish shops, and in other places. It reached a point where the Jews had the feeling that the Poles were complaining about them living in the town, of their supporting them-selves, of their very existence. It was hard for a Jew of Visoka to accept the new reality, although for a long time it had been possible to sense the approaching storm.

THE HOLOCAUST

At the outbreak of World War II, there were five hundred Jewish families, comprising about 2500 souls, in Visoka Mozovietsk.On September 10th, 1939, the town was captured by the Germans, who set it on fire.
On September 12th, all the Jewish men were herded into the church, where they were kept for three days without food or water. At the end of that time, they were sent to Zembrov. On the way to Zembrov, the weak and weary were shot.
On September 19th, an order was given that by 3 P.M. on the next day, all the Jews of Visoka must be out of town. All the Jews became panic-stricken, because they didn't know where to run to. They ran off with nothing but the clothes on their backs. With the exception of the men who had been taken away earlier, the Jews of Visoka went to the neighboring town and to Bialystok.

On September 26th, 1939, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the Germans withdrew from the eastern regions of Poland, and Visoka passed to Soviet authority. The people who had been expelled from Visoka could now return to their homes, and even those Jews who had been transported to Germany came back.
With the help of the Soviet authorities, the Jewish returnees reconstructed their burned town. It didn't take long, and Visoka again had a Jewish population of 1,100.

On July 24th, 1941, two days after the outbreak of the German-Russian War, the Germans recaptured Visoka. On the very same day, the murderous Nazi regime began its activities. On August 15th, the "Judenrat" received an order that on the next morning, all the Jews must assemble in the marketplace. Everyone was gripped by panic. From information reaching them from other places, they could guess the significance of this gathering. A large portion of the Jewish population ran away from the town.

On August 16th, at the given hour, all the Jews still left in Visoka gathered in the marketplace. For a whole day and night, the weary, resigned people waited there. Only the following day at 7 A.M. did they receive a notification that due to transportation difficulties, the committee was unable to arrive. It was found out afterwards that the real reason the committee didn't come was because it was busy with the expulsion of Jews from other towns.
This first "Action", plus reports from other places that life was more secure in the ghettoes, influenced the heads of the Jewish community to request the authorities to set up a ghetto in Visoka, mainly for fear of pogroms on the part of the local Gentiles. They achieved their ghetto after a great deal of maneuvering.

On November 23rd, 1941, Jews from the neighboring communities in Yablonka, Kulish, Vitong, Dombrova and other places, were sent to the ghetto in Visoka. These Jews, 20,000 people in all, were pushed into the three streets of the ghetto, which were surrounded by barbed wire.

The "Judenrat" (Jewish Community Council) consisted of thirteen members: Alter Zack, Chairman; Avraham Hertz, Fishel Segal; Meir Meisner; Bezalel Tannenbaum; Hirsch-Yitzhak Trostonovitz; David Mazur; Eliahu Vunsover; Bernholtz; Pessah Skobronek; Ya'acov Melnick; Shmuel Isaac Yellin; Tankum Mekulish; and Hava Yellin who served as secretary. Alter Zack and Avraham Hertz were the ghetto representatives to the German authorities.
What did the Jews live from in the ghetto? The oil presses were opened, one by Isaac Kraponsky, and the other by Ephraim Stern, the shoemaker.

The "Judenrat" had to supply workers to the Germans. The first task was to spread sand on the roads. Some of the younger people worked for the "Pritzim" – the big estate owners. Their wages – potatoes and other agricultural products – were passed on to the "Judenrat" which divided the products among all of the Jewish population.
The "Judenrat" organized a soup kitchen, and all the needy, primarily those who had come from the nearby settlements, received a hot meal twice a day. The "Judenrat" and the Jewish police force organized the work in such a way that they were also able to supply food to the Jews from nearby towns, who worked at road-building on the Bialystok - Warsaw and Tiktin road. Although it was very dangerous, they exposed themselves to great risks in order to help others in distress.

With the onset of winter, the Germans sent the young Jewish people to the woods to chop down trees, to cut them into logs and to bring them to the Germans as firewood for heating purposes. As payment for the work, the Jews were permitted to dig up the tree roots for their own use. These roots were passed to the "Judenrat" which divided them as fairly as possible among the inhabitants of the ghetto, to be used for heating and cooking.

The work to which they were sent by the Germans - breaking stones and paving roads – was done as forced labor, and without payment. Food for the workers was supplied by the "Judenrat". Skilled craftsmen and others, who still supported themselves from their own work, would pay an indemnity to the "Judenrat" instead of doing the forced labor. And, as already mentioned, the workers of the agricultural estates gave the food products they received to the "Judenrat", which divided it as best they could. This all made it easier for the "Judenrat" to fulfill its functions. This is the situation that existed until the ghetto was liquidated. The old, the poor and the solitary lived in the fire department building, and existed from the charity fund of the community. The "Judenrat" did its best to keep concentration of large groups of people in any one place to a minimum and arranged for some of the single people to be placed in various homes.

Much courage was shown, and many people put their own lives in danger in the ghetto. Especially noteworthy were Alter Zack, the chairman of the "Judenrat" and his daughter, Dr. Golda Zack. Dr. Golda Zack worked day and night to care for the sick and feeble, receiving no payment whatsoever. She worked over and above her strength, even in the coldest winter nights. As for Alter Zack, he risked his life more than once by standing up to the Germans in order to defend the Jews. Once, when there was an alarm and most of the people ran for their lives, Alter Zack and his son, Yudel, were left all alone in the ghetto. For some reason, the Germans shut their eyes to his impertinence, and didn't punish him, possibly because they had orders not to harm the head of the "Judenrat" in order to prevent unrest among the Jewish population. According to plan, the Jews were to be done away with by stages, and the time had not yet come to get rid of the head of this Jewish community.

Dr. Golda and Alter Zack,
God revenge their blood


On Sunday, November 1st, 1942, some 300 wagons reached Visoka. The Germans explained that the wagons hat been brought for the purpose of transferring saplings for forest planting. It all sounded very suspicious, and some of the residents of the ghetto ran off to the woods the very same evening.

Early on Monday morning, the Jews were ordered out to the marketplace. At that time, the young people were doing roadwork outside the ghetto. The Germans didn't allow the Jews to take anything at all with them, and ordered everyone onto the wagons. The sound of their weeping and their cries must have reached heaven itself. The young people, as mentioned above, were working outside the ghetto on that day and didn't know what was going on there. Suddenly, the German work supervisor appeared and within a few minutes, hundreds of German soldiers arrived on the spot. Hordes of Gentiles turned up too, armed with axes and pitchforks, and waiting for spoils. The Germans ordered the workers onto trucks; not one of them could escape.

At this point, the part played by the local Poles in exterminating the Jewish population should be noted. At times, their cruelty and hatred towards the Jews exceeded that of the Germans. At the same time, one must recall those few saintly individuals who endangered their own lives and hid Jews in secret hiding places on their property and in their yards. Their deeds are none the less praiseworthy, despite the fact that they were well paid in gold, silver and precious stones.
The people deported from the ghetto were brought to the camp in Zembrov, where 17,500 Jews were concentrated. Conditions in the camp were very difficult. The food rations per day, for twelve people, consisted of one loaf of bread weighing about two pounds, and made of bran and chestnut flour. Each person also received half a liter (quart) of a watery, unsalted soup made of rotten potatoes. The death rate in the Zembrov camp reached one hundred persons a day. It was mainly the children and the old people who died.

On January 15th, 1943, the Germans started to evacuate the Zembrov camp. They claimed that the people were being sent off to work. All the sick people in the local hospital were taken off to the Christian cemetery, and were murdered there together.

As for the others, those who could still stand on their own legs, were taken out at night, group by group, and brought to the train station of Chizev on trailers. They were forced onto the trailers in a cruel fashion: they ran under a barrage of blows. By the time they arrived at the train station, many of them froze.

On January 17th, 1943, the 11th of Shvat, 5703, they reached Auschwitz. According to practice, at that extermination camp, the old, the women and children were separated from the younger men. The first group was taken off to the gas chambers right away, while the men who could still be used for work were placed into a blockade work camp.
In general, young women from other cities were also taken off for work details. The women of Visoka had no such luck, not even the young ones. They were sentenced to death in the gas chambers as soon as they reached the infamous extermination camp. Only two young girls from Visoka who were in Auschwitz survived – the Golobradka sisters – because they happened to have been brought from the Pruzjina ghetto.

Rabbi Abraham Jacob Pearlman was the last rabbi of the Visoka Mozovietsk community. Rabbi Pearlman was not only an exceptionally learned man, he was also known for his wisdom, his exceptional personality, his fine manners. During the forty years that he was rabbi of Visoka, he fulfilled his post as spiritual leader of the community with devotion and success. He was known throughout the whole area, and people from neighboring towns turned to him with questions on "halacha" (religious practice) and asked his advice on worldly matters as well.

Rabbi Pearlman remained the shepherd of his flock in the dark days, when infliction rained down upon his followers. He was with them in the Visoka ghetto, in the Zembrov ghetto, and he went to his tragic end in Auschwitz together with the thousands of other Jews from Visoka, who were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis. May their names be erased.

* * *

We shall light a memorial candle to the last chapter in the history of Jewish Visoka, the frightful chapter of the ghetto, in whose confines the Jews were caged in a never-ending nightmare. One wondrous light shone through it all: In the sharing of this insufferable fate which befell the sanctified community of Visoka, in its final days, great acts of personal courage were performed, and devotion and love of Israel of the highest quality were called into being.

The cup of tears overflows… the wound is open and does not heal. One seeks the tiniest sign of comfort, and the heart longs for the retribution of God.

May the names of our holy ones be glorified and sanctified forever.
God will take retribution.


Talmud Torah 1934



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