Translated from Yiddish by Viktor Lewin
Translated to Hebrew and edited by A. Bar-Tana
Translation from English edited by Ada Holtzman and Sandra Krisch
Our shtetl was small. Seldom found on maps, it was far from any major roadway, even far from any rail line. Yet Jewish life thrived there, entrenched for generations as in hundreds of larger and smaller Jewish communities on Polish soil. The catastrophe that befell the Polish Jews, the hysterical, inhumane enemy in our history German Hitlerism did not spare Losice. Our small community was uprooted and destroyed. The majority of the local population, Losicer Jews, were killed in the gas chambers, buried alive, slaughtered, and shot to death.
The few survivors, 100 Losicer Jews in Israel and around the world, without exception lost their nearest and dearest: fathers and mothers, women and men, brothers and sisters, children and babies, as well as everything that could be called home. There is no comfort; each one of us will be accompanied to the grave by pain and hurt. This book should serve as an homage and a tombstone, a reminder of everything we lost, for us, for our children, and for future generations.
We have gathered together everything that Losicers were able to save, reflecting the happiness and the pain of their lives and their deaths. Thus, with eyes overflowing with tears, we see our shtetl with its loved ones, loved ones never to be seen again, ghosts. We do not presume to write history, but rather pages that contain the material for history.
[Pages 8 - 9]
The idea of writing a yizkor book about our slaughtered community arose in 1948, when the first survivors of Losice who had been rescued in Russia, Poland, and Germany came to Israel. We knew immediately that we would face great difficulties untangling memories in order to accomplish the project. So we agreed with the committee of the Losicer landsleit in Israel that we would not focus on the difficulties but would do everything necessary in order to achieve the project. We agreed that the project would depend on us; as survivors, we were obliged to remember the lives and the tragic deaths of the community of Losice.
No historians had written about Losice; there were no books, no encyclopedias. There were hardly any facts or documents about our everyday Losice and its Jews. No newspapers were printed in Losice, about Losice. We therefore foresaw immediately the difficulties in documenting a history of our shtetl, and we knew that we would have to rely upon the memories of the survivors. But it was difficult for us to motivate the Losicer landsleit to write for the book. It took many years until they responded to our inquiries. In April 1958 we came together to dictate the facts for the book, when editorial members Chaim Icel Goldstein and Chaja Rachel Rozenband-Bialikamien were invited to Israel. Then we agreed upon an editorial commission and took to working with the material.
We agreed that we would record the entire history of our shtetl. We collected and wrote down the memories of those who did not themselves write. The result is a picture of Losice during important years in the lives of the survivors. Rabbis, people from the square, the working masses, yeshiva students, workers and merchants they all perished; they were tortured and killed. They do not even have a grave, did not even receive a blessing. Those who were buried and blessed in our old cemetery had their very boxes washed away, and their matzevas ended up opposite the church.
Let these pages be the martyrs' memorial tombstone.
The Losicer landsleit, scattered over many continents and countries, remain a living piece of the shtetl. We have therefore devoted a special part of the book to the Losicer landsleit around the world, our only sorrow being the apathy of large numbers of Losicer landsleit who did not submit any information, despite repeated pleas by the editor.
In assembling the lists of martyrs killed by the Nazis, we agreed that to achieve accuracy we had to keep the lists to a minimum. We repeatedly called for all Losicers to send in the names of relatives who were killed. Those who did not do so have only themselves to blame. We did our work responsibly and with reverence. As the last survivor of my generation from the shtetl, I needed and had to do this. We surely made mistakes, but these were not intentional.
Using our individual strengths and working with the limited available information, we strove to fulfill our obligations to our murdered community and its martyrs.
[Pages 11 - 21]
As a child, when I saw the name of our shtetl in one of Sienkiewicz's stories, I felt very proud. One of Sienkiewicz's heroes later became the magistrate of both Łuków and Łosice. That occurred in the year 1700, and I, as a child, was proud of the age of my shtetl. The reality, however, was that Losice was much older, and one can find references to it in Polish history dating to the 1300s and 1400s. Until 1600, Losice was more a village than a town.
In 1444, the Polish king, Casimir Jagiellon took over Stabil, Węgrów, and the surrounding area. At that time, one could say, Losice was a town of Podlasie, together with familiar neighbouring towns, near and far, such as Sokolów, Ciechanowiec, Melnik, Mordy, Siemiatycze, and others. Factually, however, Losice first became a genuine city at the beginning of the 1600s. In 1505, King Aleksander Jagiellon, in an attempt to end injustice and improve the people's fate, annexed Losice from the Russian and Lithuanian rule of Magdeburg. Aleksander Jagiellon, by a special royal privilege, called for the annual election of a mayor, built a city hall to replace an old shack, established a sheep and wool industry, and permitted the use of all funds collected from the fairs held four times a year to be used for local projects.
It is known that the great royal power from Warsaw had many problems governing the expanse of Podlasie and, other than the royal privileges, the local magistrates ruled with a strong hand and did what they wanted.
The region was poor, and the inhabitants did not have the power to negotiate. They were taxed mercilessly by King Zygmunt the First in 1510, and again by Zygmunt August in 1569. But the Russian encyclopedia tells us about leaders such as Aleksander Minca, who revived Lithuanian customs and doubled taxes. The king punished him for doing this in 1570, by imposing a penalty of 6,000 zlotys, ordering that local commerce be returned to local authorities, and reinstating their royal privileges. The local magistrate and the rebel leader further oppressed the town. This forced the Sejm, which was meeting in Warsaw, to call for a new king. In 1575, King Stefan Batory [1533-1586] reinstated royal privileges to Losice.
The Losicer inhabitants, the Mieszczanes, were loyal to the king and the Sejm parliament, and among them there were surely Jews. In the first half of the 1700s we already read about historical events in Losice that involved rebellions and conflicts between non-Jewish and Jewish inhabitants in the shtetl.
In 1647, King Władysław IV Vasa took note of the poverty of Losice, which had suffered through so many persecutions. He allowed the inhabitants of Losice to become involved in the alcohol business, controling, selling, and distributing alcohol across the entire region. This was a very important privilege, but was not enough to lift them out of their desperate state. Exactly thirty years later, Poland was invaded by Sweden. In order to rebuild from the ruins, the previous royal privileges were restored, one of which was that every Losicer Jew had the right to make and sell alcoholic products in Losice and throughout the land.
In those years we find the first historical references to Jews, who played a major role in the economy of Losice.
It is hard to imagine that a shtetl with annual fairs and markets did not have a Jewish population, but it was, at this time, very small. The Chmielinicki massacres in neighbouring Ukraine in 1648-1649 brought a large number of refugees to Losice, and the Jewish community grew markedly. The Polish encyclopedia dealing with that period of time does not deal with the horrible pogroms and bloodbaths. It does mention, however, that a commercial war between Christian and Jewish merchants occurred in Losice. It is easy to imagine that the newly arrived Jews had stronger relationships with communities nearby and farther away, that they had more mercantile dealings, and that their business was better than that of the local peasantry. The magistrates sympathized with the Jewish merchants, aided their enterprises, allowed the expansion of their dealings, and opposed the anti-Semitic slanders of the Christians. The Christians reported their grievances to the king, claiming that they were being persecuted by the magistrates and the Jewish merchants.
In 1700, King August the Third [1696–1763] ordered the magistrates of Losice to carefully observe the dealings of Jewish merchants. The historical chronicler of the time reports that the magistrates aligned themselves with the Jews and did not bother them, but instead made things easier for them. The conflicts in the shtetl intensified. The later Polish kings, August the Third in 1756, Stanislaw, and August in 1766, once more intervened in the local affairs and enterprises of Losice. A process was brought before the royal court in Warsaw. Losicer Jews were prohibited from handling alcoholic items or were expelled from town for illegal practices. The mediation process was proper. The Losicer peasants were hopeful, but they could not achieve what they wanted.
It is logical to assume that during these times not every Jews in Losice was engaged in the brewery industry. In Losice, as in other Polish towns, there were Jewish tradesmen and artisans; these were the majority in the Jewish community, but they left no records.
Questions are asked: How large was the shtetl? How many inhabitants lived there? How many Jews lived in Losice? How did their numbers compare to those of the Christian population? The numbers we have refer only to the second half of the 18th century, and we lack data about the population of the town before that.
In 1765 there was a widespread census of Jews throughout Poland. The Sejm ordered that the census be taken. Prior to that time, there was only a simple head count of the Jews in Poland conducted by the government. The head count was conducted as follows: two Polish guilder were collected for every man, woman, and child over the age of one. In 1764, using this simple method, 220,000 guilder were collected for the Jews of Poland and 60,000 guilder for Lithuanian Jews. The Sejm decided to undertake a census of all the Jews who had to pay the head tax. The census was conducted in every community by a commission of four people: the head rabbi, a shamash, a Polish butcher, and a leader of the community concerned. The census resulted in a sum of 859,312 guilder for Jews in Poland and 315,298 guilder for Lithuanian Jews.
According to the 1765 census, the number of Jews living in Losice was 482. This census was conducted in a primitive manner, and the Jewish population was interested in giving as little information as possible about the actual number of Jewish inhabitants, in order to avoid the oppressive head tax.
Exact figures about the number of the Jews in Losice and the relationship between their numbers and those of the Christian population are found beginning in the 19th century. From these figures we learn that the number of Jews increased throughout the century, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total population, as this table shows:
In 1827, there were 190 houses in Losice; in 1857, 193 houses, six brick and the rest wooden; in 1862, 193 houses; and in 1884, 208 houses. Included in these figures, which were calculated from the 1857 census, were a wooden church, two watermills, one windmill, a tannery and an oil press. The wooden Jewish synagogue was also taken into account.
We are reminded of the wooden czarkwa (Provoslavic church), which stood opposite the pharmacy on Bialer Street. After 1918 the czarkwa was destroyed; a field is all that remained, along with a number of graves of Provoslavic priests. The Poles claim that the czarkwa was built to demonstrate Russian control over Poland and to disrupt the Catholic population and its old customs. Polish historians have different views. The geographic encyclopedia reports that the first Catholic church was built in Losice during the reign of Zygmunt the First in 1511; the church, a wooden building, was named Holy Zygmunt the First; next to it was built a brick chapel bearing the name of Holy King Stanislaw. This encyclopedia reports that the Russian czarkwa probably existed during an earlier epoch. Losice had its Jewish population and Provoslavic inhabitants, and the town was never purely Catholic, as the Poles would assume.
In the 20th century all the inhabitants prospered, and a professional group developed in Losice. In the thirty-seven years between the last census in 1884 and the first independent population census in freed Poland in 1921, the number of inhabitants grew from 2,610 to 3,888 souls. The Jewish population approximately doubled during this time, from 1,487 to 2,708 souls, and in 1921 it accounted for 69.7% of all the inhabitants.
This growth of the shtetl continued until the catastrophe in which the Jews of Losice were slaughtered.
During this 300-year period of the recorded history of Losice, from the middle of the 17th century to the 20th, the Jews more than once radically altered the economic situation and the social life of the shtetl. The first references to the Jews of Losice were those related to the brewery. The proportion of working class people was much greater than in other Jewish communities in the surrounding regions.
Survivor testimonials from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw indicate that at the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, the size of the Jewish population in Losice was 2,900. Some have suggested that the number was larger.
Historians in the Joint Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw tell us that in March 1940, 900 refugees came to Losice from Kalisz, Błaszki, Ciechocinek, Łódź, and Poznań. Later, more refugees arrived from various towns and villages. In May 1942, three months before the liquidation of Losice's Large Ghetto, 500 Jews from Sarnaki were added to its already crammed streets. Other records suggest that Jewish population figures during the Nazi occupation were: December 1940, nearly 4,000; June 1941, over 4,000; September 1941, 4,600; January 1942, 5,000; June 1942, 5,500.
On August 22, 1942, all those thousands of Losicer Jews were deported and they perished in the gas chambers of Treblinka and thus ended the 300-year history of the Jews of Losice.
[Pages 21 - 26]
Can we forget the mother from whose breast we nursed, or in whose arms we were raised, or in whose hands we saw the first rays of sunlight, or whose lips covered us with warm kisses? So too can we forget the shtetl on whose ground we took our first steps, whose fields and gardens satisfied our hunger, in whose fields on the most memorable spring days we hid in the shadows when the sun was exactly in the middle of the sky, and in whose stormy river we cooled our heated bodies.
Losice was blessed with natural beauty. It was a tiny shtetl encircled by wide, open fields and deep forests. Every field and forest had a name. Every field had different flowers, and every forest had different trees. In the Niemojki and Zakrer forests, tall slender pines grew, their golden heads stretched towards the sky; in the Adenower forests, there were broad, wet marshes, and in the Chaticzer forests young berries grew.
And the fields ? Here is the gleches lanke...
The priest's field held so many happy memories. So many sweet dreams have to this day not been realized, but among the deep grasses they became reality! Later, I see the old Russian priest, with his already long, grey beard, trying to escape from the field; the Jewish youth didn't even dream of moving. How could one leave such a Garden of Eden? How could one leave a field where we bathed all day in the embracing rays of the sun, and where our lives reflected the "stormy" river, the Gai, where one could cool off on a hot day?
A special role was played in Losice by the farm pole nowy (new field), with its two waterfalls, rapids, and large field surrounded by groves of old poplars. How many happy songs were sung here during the summer months! The songs of Losicer Jewish youth mingled with the songs of a variety of birds. Bundists and future leaders would sing songs about work and hardship, songs about freedom and songs about socialism. The Zionist youth would sing their songs of hope for Zion. And when the Communists came it became a contest of whose beliefs were better.
The shtetl could never boast much wealth, even among its wealthier Jews. The workers, especially, often experienced hunger. We should not forget those dear, sweet, hunger-stricken years of our youth. Who had time to think about eating when everything around us bled, when one struggled to survive, when being a party member was more revered than fame? Who failed during the day to fulfil their debt? How good it would have been if one could stretch the days and nights to make them as long as possible; they were all too short. At 1 A.M. peasants around the shtetl had already sunk into a deep sleep, while the Jewish youth were still awake and excited. We practiced for a theatrical play; the choir studied a new song; this was to be a "living newspaper," a kestel evening (special evening of questions and answers on a certain issue), a free exchange concerning the meaning of the Bund and Zionism, a discussion about Zinoviev's 21 Points. And in the quietness of the night the songs came together, matching the shouts of the Jewish youth, far, far, past the square, boasting about the shtetl, where the peasants slept. Not one awakened.
How many sweet memories the Losicers carry with them from those years when Yiddishkeit radiated from every corner! Jewish words and songs accompanied us through our youth. From Michal Hodasas's house, past Welwel Bogacz's, to Yehoszua Gemiczes's these were places known for their intense learning. The light of knowledge shone from these houses. There walked important political figures, cultural and spiritual powers from the Bundists, Zionists, and Communists.
Losice exhibited a strong sense of freedom, but when holidays occurred the whole shtetl felt the holiday spirit. Growing up amid a spirit of atheism, hundreds of Losicer youth were raised as devout Jews, good socialists, and truthful people who showed strong spirit later in life, all around the world. If Moisze Goldstein became a writer, thanks must be given to his upbringing in Losice. Helping Losicers spread the Golden Age of Yiddishkeit, that was how he repaid Losice.
Our fathers and mothers are not there anymore. Gone are those who cared for us, who would kiss us, who would shudder at every step. No longer are there those whose eyes would shine with tears of fear when we were frightened and tears of pain when we were hurt. No longer do we have our brothers and sisters with whom we shared our best years as children and youths, with whom we dreamed and with whom we often thought that in the near, near future a happy morning would dawn for all people. A terrible Nazi windstorm took everyone. Who knew, who could have imagined, the killings by which all of them, our nearest and dearest, would perish?
The shtetl Losice, which fostered in us a belief in G_d, a love for mankind, and a Jewish way of life no longer exists. An angry storm passed through the shtetl, tearing out its roots: Jews and the Jewish way of life. Today, wild grasses grow over Losice's streets and lanes, where no Jewish foot now treads.
I saw Losice for the last time during the first days of 1940. It was already unrecognizable. The streets and lanes were already doubled over with deep sorrow. The houses whispered to each other, as though frightened. A violent wind blew against the metal roofs; the sky was enveloped with thick clouds, and from time to time it rained so heavily that it caused flooding. This made our terrible plight even worse. There was sadness and trembling in Jewish hearts. Everyone felt the same way, that the angel of death swept over the Jewish houses and would begin its slaughter.
[Pages 26 - 31]
Losice is located 130 kilometers from Warsaw, in the middle of the Podlasie region. The town lies five kilometers from the rail station in Niemojki. Our elders told us that during the construction of the rail line from Warsaw to Volkovisk, Russian engineers came to Losice asking for payment of 10,000 rubles to build the train station in the heart of Losice. When this sum was not remitted, they built the train station in Niemojki instead. Upon arrival at Niemojki, trains were met by carriages and special cars driven by Szmilka Zichkes (Aizak), Szalom Mendelko, Israel Iszeio Ginzberg, and others.
The administration of Losice belonged to the Siedlcer Powiat and the Lubliner Voivodship.
Losice was economically and spiritually connected to Mordy, 13 kilometers from Losice; to Sarnaki, 14 kilometers away; Konstantynów, 16 kilometers away; Międzyrzec [Podlaski], 25 kilometers away; Siemiatycze, 23 kilometers away; Siedlce, 30 kilometers away; and Janów Podlaski, 35 kilometers away. These and a few other towns around Losice were linked by the many relatives who lived in them all.
In the center of town was a large four-sided plaza with an open area in the middle. On the plaza there stood only three large brick buildings. Two of these were built parallel to each other and they shared a small street; the third stood at an angle to the other two, in the shape of an inverted L. The three were very near one another. There were wonerful Jewish stores, and there were apartments over the stores. The three buildings were alike, with ten apartments that lacked indoor plumbing. The dwellers would have to relieve themselves near the cemetery, by the river, or by the bath house. By day's end there would be large piles in and around the plaza. Around the plaza, the majority of buildings were two stories and made of brick; these were also filled with stores. Major streets ran from the comers of the plaza.
Siedlcer Street was the start of the roadway to the town of Siedlce, the road to Niemojki, and the main walkway for Losicer youth. On this street one could find the magistrate's office. There was also a large Christian church, the fire station, and the elementary school. On Miedzyrzecer Street one could find the Great Synagogue and the bet midrash. On Bialer Street one could find a large grocery store. Those were the three major streets that had brick houses. The rest of the lanes were: Kosciuszki Street, Szeiniarowar Street, Notewizne Street, Szmolewizne Street, Kilinskiego Street, Polinower Street, and Szpitalne Street.
Behind the church, in the brewery house, was a small town hospital where Dr. Grabowski practiced.
Loved by the whole population, Jews and non-Jews, the Czerwinski was a quiet man, always with a friendly smile on his lips. Our doctor was Dr. Naszilewski, who lived out of town. In addition, for a number of years, there was a Jewish Dr. Zilberman from Galicia, who was an active and friendly Zionist leader.
The economic situation of Losice was closely linked to the farmers of the neighbouring villages. Every second Wednesday was yarid (market day). Starting very early in the morning, hundreds of villagers would come into town with their wagons to set up stalls in the square, and the Jews would put out special stalls with assorted fabrics. The farmers would bring grain, potatoes, fruits, eggs, and hens, as well as cows, sheep, and horses. Everything was for sale. During the day the farmers would sell produce and buy dresses, boots, clothes, and linens. They would bring fabrics from other towns for the Jews. When there was a lull in trading, we hoped we had earned enough to tide us over to the next yarid, two weeks later.
During yarid days there was also enough work for the three Jewish watermills. One belonged to Szlomo Poliakewicz; another, far from Mezriczer Street, to Moisze Rozenboim and Jakob Drazszniewer; Dawid Yagodzszinski's was not far from the bath house. The regional power house was always in Yagodzszinski's mill. At the end of Bialer Street was Niebieski's windmill.
Who from Losice doesn't remember the pump? It stood exactly in the middle of the square. Water would always trickle from it, and after the first frost this would turn into ice. One could go sliding throughout the entire winter in front of all the little shops. Winter, as well as summer, people were always lined up with pails that they would fill with water. The water from the well/pump in the square did not taste good, but it was good for washing and cleaning. Water for cooking was taken from Galach's pump, located on the Tode Gessel (cemetery street) and from Kowal's pump, near Yagodzszinski's mill. Especially good-tasting water came from the pump at the registrar's, next to the magistrate. There was a private pump in Losice which belonged to Szczerbiczkis; he kept it locked and did not allow Jews to draw water from it.
Every family had a water pail. The poorer Jews would start out early in the morning and take only enough water to last the day. The rich would hire water carriers, while others could afford to buy water from the water carriers on Shabbos (Saturday), but on other days had to do the carrying themselves. In Losice, the water carriers were Pity, Moiré, Yiszaja, and later his son, Dawid. They would carry water all day from the pump to rich households, bent over by the burden of the yoke upon their shoulders, with two buckets of water hanging on either side. The water from the town pump was cheaper, while the better-tasting water from pumps farther away was more expensive. Who among us never thought of stealing a bucket of water to bring back to the house?
The large synagogue located on Mezriczer Street was massive and made of red brick. The etchings and paintings on the walls and ceiling were done by the painter Podoliak from Miedzyrzec. Guest cantors from other towns would often pray in the great synagogue. It was also the venue for out-of-town orchestras, like the firemen from Miedzyrzec. The synagogue was the first victim of the Nazi blitzkrieg on September 9, 1939.
Next to the synagogue was the stone bet midrash. The synagogue was empty for most of the day; teaching and praying were done in the bet midrash. From the first minyan at sunrise until sunset, one learned Gemara from the members of the chevra mishnayes. There were always traveling storytellers at the bet midrash. Yosel Ziszkes and Avraham Voda would block the entrance with a table, upon which money was placed to be used for charity.
There was also a smaller bet midrash, Chayei Adam, on Notewizne Street. There were Chassidic prayer houses: Gerer, Kocker, Lubliner, Miedzyrzecer, Partsewer, Janower, and Sokolower. There was also a shoemakers' prayer room off to the side.
All of them are gone, and we will be thinking of them forever.
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