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[Page 236]

Institutions and Enterprises

 

The Kehilla Council

By Arija (Leib) Margolis, Tel-Aviv

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Before the First World War and during the German occupation 1915-1918, the Jews, especially religious Jews were under the control of the dozors. The dozors had the right to decide the amount of the yearly tax paid by the Jewish population. The money was given to the municipal government and it paid the salaries of the religious personnel.

Only a small part of the population voted. Four names would be crossed off, from a list written on pieces of paper. The paper was put into a box controlled by an official of the municipal government. The election would take place in the synagogue and people voted as per the instructions of friends or relatives of the old dozors. There were no political parties in those days.

Votes were cast, counted and the four candidates with the most votes were elected. Usually those elected were not sympathetic to the population, only influential. The procedure changed in 1924 by a special government decree for public, proportional, direct and secret elections for the Jewish Community Council, (known as the kehilla) which replaced the Community Committee.

The communities became self-governing and had the right to a council with special and specific Jewish religious concerns and were directly responsible to the existing régime. The kehilla had the right to hire rabbis, shoykhtim, administer the cemetery and other religious institutions, such as schools and synagogues; collect taxes from the population in order to support all the organizations; work out and implement a budget for the government to approve.

The government had worked out “rules” for the election of the kehilla and Town Council. The main initiator of the plan was Eidelberg, Director of Jewish Affairs at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Religion. He had also worked out the rights of the kehilla and the legal power to go about their business.

In Ostrów Mazowiecka the election for the kehilla, consisting of twelve councilmen, took place in the summer of 1924. To that end, the Governor created a special civil office to run the election.

At that time various Jewish political parties and organized economic organizations already existed and they competed against each other to be elected to the kehilla.

The General Zionists and Mizrahi went with a united list; also competing were Agudas Yisroel and the Artisans' Union. The artisans were really the underdog and had no idea how to run a campaign and their simplicity soon became a question of prestige, as well as economic. The only job the kehilla really had was to concern itself with religious affairs. The Jews went to vote, passionately exercising their rights. The voters had taken the Artisans' Union to heart and elected the following comrades: Hirsz Chaim Desel, Mendel Kozuchowicz and Rubin Wengerka.

The real battle was between the Zionists and Mizrahi on one side and Agudas Yisroel – on the other. All sides targeted the unaffiliated, ordinary Jews.
There were a lot of Hasidic shtiblakh in Ostrowa and it was normal that the religious element would be influenced by the fanatics, as Zionism was a danger to Judaism as far as they were concerned. Mizrahi elected two representatives: Michel Tejtel and Icchok Jakob Podbielewicz. Agudas Yisroel elected seven members: Dawid Lichtensztejn, Meier Leszcz, Abraham Jakob Frydman, Mosze Pokrzywa, Jakob Szwarc, Josef Welwel Rekant and Mosze Meier Gabinet. At the first kehilla meeting, Dawid Lichtensztejn was elected Chairman. At the second kehilla meeting, on the instructions of the government representative, the following were elected to the kehilla committee: General Zionist – Lejb Margolis; Mizrahi – Mordchai Kohn and from the Orthodox – Reb Aron Jasiński, Mosze Jozef Surawicz, Eli Lach, Boruch Zylbersztejn, Icchok Elboim and Jechiel Emert. The committee chairman was Aron Jasiński.

The kehilla began putting things in order, such as: creating a fixed salary for the rabbi and rabbinical judges. They also made new arrangements for the shoykhtim who were doing as they pleased as they thought they were the bosses. The shoykhtim were receiving their salaries directly from the butchers, which was not right. Now they would have to report the number of slaughtered animals to the kehilla, where they would receive a coupon. The same went for fowl. Consequently this from Rabbi gaon Reb Meier Dan Plocki zz”l: “If the new kehilla was created only for the purpose of separating the slaughterer from the butcher – so that the shoykhet will not be paid by the butcher – it is “dayainu” [“it is enough”]. It was not easy for the shoykhtim to live with this; they fought bitterly and even called strikes. There were often lawsuits filed against them in the rabbinical court. I remember one strike when the arbitration of the Łomżer Rabbi, Rabbi Szacki zz”l, was needed. In the end they had to give in to the new order of things.

During the first kehilla's term of office they had to name a new rabbi, after the departure of Rabbi gaon, one of the great men of the era, Reb Meier Dan Plocki zz”l. (After returning from his second journey to America and after he was also named to a post in Warszawa, he became ill with an incurable disease and he never came back to Ostrowa. He died Nisan 5688 [March 1928]). His son-in-law, Rabbi Zylberberg, rabbi in Krasnosielsk, claimed the position, but the town already had an old tradition of naming well-known, great rabbis. It was decided that the son-in-law of the deceased was too young to take the place of his great father-in-law. It was necessary to call on the rabbinical court to decide the matter. The court consisted of three rabbis: the Szmulewisner Rabbi in Warszawa – for the town; the Najszteter rabbi – for Rabbi Zylberberg. Both had to agree on the Rożaner rabbi as the third.

The court proceedings took two weeks and the result was that the town could not be forced to hire Rabbi Zylberberg as the majority wanted a more experienced rabbi. As compensation to the family the town named the son of the deceased rabbi, Rabbi Natan, as second judge in Ostrowa. The town began to search for a candidate for rabbi and the central Agudas suggested Rabbi Reb Zelman Serocki, the Rzeteler rabbi, a small shtetl on the Kres. He was known in Orthodox circles and in Augudas Yisroel political circles.

Serocki was a good speaker and could speak Polish, but he lived far from the capitol Warszawa. The proposed match soon became a political matter. He was a Lithuanian Jew, which was not acceptable to the Hasidim in Ostrowa. Shortly after his arrival in Ostrowa, he left to take over as rabbi in Łuck, which was a larger town. Today old Rabbi Serocki lives in Jerusalem and he heads the “Moetzeh Gdoli HaTorah” of the international orthodox party, Agudas Yisroel. (He arrived in Israel in 1941via Russia, with a certificate.)

The position of Rabbi was open again. There were several candidates. One of them was the Goworower Rabbi – an Amszynower Hasid. Fejwel Zynger was also one of the candidates being considered. Although he was not a rabbi[1], he was the son-in-law of the Amszynower Rabbi, Jozef Kalisz, who had once been our rabbi and a son of the brother-in-law of the Aleksander Rabbi.

After a lot of negotiating and disputes, the kehilla and committee voted on khamishoser bishvat 5690 - 1930 and by a small majority decided on Szraga Fejwel Zynger as special rabbi for our town.

Rabbi Zynger was our rabbi for ten years until the outbreak of the large and cruel Second World War. He stood up to the German murderers numerous times during the short period that he remained in town and later with many thousands of Jews in Slonim, where they lived until 1942 and were murdered there together.

In June 1929, elections were due for the kehilla. The following people were elected: Aron Jasiński, Abraham Pecyner, Abraham Jakob Frydman, Fiszel Blumenkranc, Mordchai Kohn, Menachem Drozdowski, Mosze Meier Gabinet, Mosze Pokrzywa, Meier Korolcik, Hirsz Chaim Desel, Mendel Kozuchowicz and Leibl Wejlach. Chairman of the kehilla was Aron Jasiński.

The kehilla elected the following to the committee: Anszel Knorpel, Jakob Bernholc, Lejbl Margolis, Mosze Raf, Jozef Ber Sztycberg, Jozef Icchok Zajdenberg, Mosze Rozencwajg and Icze Elboim. The chairman of the committee was Anszel Knorpel.

The kehilla was also involved in other Jewish concerns such as preparing for the election to the Town Council in 1927. Later when the municipal councilmen could not agree on a candidate for Vice-Mayor, the kehilla made the decision. It should also be mentioned that for Passover 1926 the kehilla organized a seder for all the soldiers in Komorowo attending the Non-commissioned Officer's school, as well as kosher meals during Passover for over seven hundred men. The military had given us the per diem for each soldier and the kehilla laid out a large sum, as well as the time and effort of the community members. Heading this drive was the writer of this article and the kehilla secretary, Tuwia Makower.

The then rabbi, Reb Meier Plocki, visited the soldier's kitchen and expressed his joy and thanks. Several army officers visited, accompanying a General. They were happy with the organization and cleanliness. They thanked the community for the good deed. It never happened again because the government would not give up the per diem and we could not manage without it.

In later years Passover kitchens were organized in several places. Once, in Tzarist times, the soldiers who were serving in nearby Komorowo, the majority came from Russia, would go to the homes of wealthy men from the botei medrashim and Hasidic shtiblakh. This would also happen on other holidays. Later, after Polish independence, the soldiers did not want to eat in private homes and collective meals were organized for them.

The kehilla also subsidized the Agudas schools “Yesod HaTorah” and “Bes Jakob”, as well as several social institutions such as Linat Hazedek and Khakhnasas Orhim. Aside from religious concerns the kehilla was also the unofficial mediator between the Jewish population and the municipal government. The kehilla was also invited to official government functions, receiving high government officials. Once, the kehilla took part in the opening of the new gymnasia by President Mościcki.

In 1936, a year after I left for Israel, there was another kehilla election. I do not know who the new members were, but I know that the chairman of the kehilla was Izrael Zlotkes and the committee chairman was Anszel Knorpel.

Former members who are now in Israel are Lejb Margolis, Jozef Ber Sztycberg, Benjamin Rubinsztejn and the former kehilla secretary Reb Tuwia Makower.


[Page 240]

In Days Gone By

By Arja (Lejb) Margolis

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Ostrowa distinguished itself in making donations to various charitable institutions, as well as to Yeshivas in Poland and Lithuania.

There was not one stranger who would avoid Ostrowa. The guests had feasts at a Rabbi's, or if a guest arrived on an errand from a Rabbi's court, he was really catered to. Arrangements were made to send him to Hasidic families, as such a messenger would not be allowed to leave empty. When such a stranger arrived – he would be directed to the “gabe” and the “gabe” would give him charity and a coupon good for three meals at a Hasidic home. All the Hasidim were divided according to days of the week. This way every Hasid could have a guest on his day.

A guest must have a place to eat on “Shabes”. If there were more guests, the “gabe” banged the lectern and announced “There are a lot of guests – nobody goes home without a guest”.

For simple guests who went to the houses, there was the society “Khahnasas Orhim” that gave out coupons for meals and a place to sleep in the “Khahnasas Orhim”.


[Page 241]

ost241.jpg
City Hall

The Municpal Government [Town Council]

By Arija Leib Margolis

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

When Congress-Poland belonged to Russia, there were no town or village elections by popular vote. There were only czynowniks [government appointed officials] headed by a so-called Mayor. The population had no right to criticize and had no say. There were no Jewish officials or representatives in this government.

From August 1915 until 11 November 1918, when the Germans occupied Poland during the First World War, they also appointed the municipal officials, the majority of whom were Jewish.

In 1919, under the new Polish government, a law was passed giving independence to the towns. Town councils would be elected[2]. We were not able to take part as candidates in that election, but during the second election in 1927, the Jews were officially represented in the municipal government.

It was clear that the Christian representatives, mainly the so-called Narodowces [members of the National Democratic Party; right wing, anti-Semitic political party whose official name was Endecja] with the pharmacist Ludwik Mieczkowski as leader, did what they wanted, as there was no Jewish representation on the town council. They molested and shamed the Jewish population that for the most part consisted of merchants, small storekeepers and artisans.

First they decided to get rid of the marketplace, the source of the town's economy. They decided to put the new market outside the town centre, on a square that was not meant to be a market place, was too small, unpaved and did not have enough houses to serve the businesses. Christians owned the houses and did not want to rent to Jews. It was the same for booths in the market. The

Jews became aware of this plan after the fact because they were not represented on the town council and had no prior information as to what was planned.

They also passed a law that all artisans must pass a test in Polish and have diplomas[3], but the Jewish artisans were unprepared and had a lot of problems. But taxes those we had to pay.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Russians exiled the well-known Dr. Klaczka to Russia. His sin was being Jewish and a good doctor. Even the Christian population went to him for consultations and remedies, which did not suit the Christian doctors. After the war, Dr. Klaczka wanted to return to Ostrowa because he was well liked by the Jewish population. But the Town Council decided not to give him a permit to return because the Mayor was against it.

The Pharmacist Mieczkowski was known for his false, sweet talk to Jews. He greeted everyone with a smile and at the same time was a stubborn enemy of the Jews, wholeheartedly and sincerely, like all the Poles.

The Jews would no longer be able to hold a market at the old place, because the City Hall would be built on the marketplace and in 1925 they started the building. It was completed in 1927. In 1927 there were elections for the town council and this time the Jews took an active part in the elections in order to correct the fatal mistake they made in 1919.

As mentioned, the elections for the second town council were in 1927. Before the election, during a meeting of the kehilla, the question was raised as to how the largest number of Jewish representatives could be elected. Margolis suggested a committee of three should be selected by the kehilla to prepare for the election and start an election committee that would represent all facets of the population and be responsible for getting the Jewish voters to the polls. The suggestion was agreed to. The committee was chosen as follows: Leib Margolis, Icze Elboim and Boruch Zylbersztejn. At their first meeting Leib Margolis was chosen as chairman.

The task of the election committee first of all was to create a united committee from all the parties. Then to make sure, as far as possible, that there was a united list of all the candidates so that the largest number of Jews possible would be elected to the town council. It took a tremendous effort to create a general block of candidates from the various parties and organizations: General Zionists, Mizrahi, Agudas Yisroel, Artisan Union and Merchant Union. (All the civil elements were represented, except for the Bund. They went with their own list.)

The united block committee, consisting of the five previously mentioned groups, with two people from each group, plus the chairman from the kehilla, as well as the chairman from the united committee in charge of the election, elected Lejbl Margolis as chairman.

Preparing the Jewish population for the election was not easy. First, a copy of the electoral list was needed from the town. Then the Jews who were not already on it had to be enumerated. Each individual on the list had to be contacted as a reminder to exercise his right as a citizen and as a Jew to vote. This way we had full control over every individual. As a result of this work every Jewish citizen went to vote.

Because of this concerted effort, of the of twenty-four councilmen, ten Jews were elected (exactly forty percent Jews from the general population). The following were elected: General Zionists – Lejb Margolis and Abraham Jakob Pokrzywa; MizrachiReb Michel Tejtel; Augudas YisroelReb Zalmen Jozef Nutkiewicz and Reb Anszel Knorpel; Artisans – Moniek (Mosze) Holcman and Szlama Szklaniewicz; Merchants – Mauryc Gutmer and J. Szulc and from the Bund – Meier Sygier.

After the election, during a meeting of the kehilla members, the newly elected town councilmen and the entire election committee expressed their heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the dependable chairman of the united committee – Lejb Margolis. They recognized his devotion in directing the election work of the town council and as a member of the general town committee.

The fourteen Christian councilmen were broken down as follows: eight from the right group, the so-called Narodowces [Endecja] and six from the Polish Socialists [P.P.S.Polska Partia Sozialisticzna].

Without the Jews, neither of the parties had the majority needed to elect the five-man committee consisting of the mayor, vice-mayor and three aldermen. Each party began negotiating with the Jews, and in the end the Jewish councilmen decided to form a coalition with the P.P.S. First, because they would vote for a Jewish vice-mayor – the right would not agree to this. Second, from a political standpoint the Jews were more comfortable with the Socialists. The elected committee was as follows: Mayor – Władisław Leszniewski, a young, earnest and sincere man – one could say a friend of the Jews; Vice-Mayor – Izrael Zlotkes and Alderman – Michel Tejtel.

The Jewish councilmen participated on all committees, worked intensively and fruitfully on behalf of the Jewish population. The attitude of the two populations toward each other became more peaceful. The atmosphere was a little cleaner. The Jews even managed, for the first time in history, to get subsidies in the yearly budget for education institutes and schools such as: Tarbut, Yavneh, “Yesodi HaTorah”, “Beis Yakov” and others.

The new town council and the committee carried out their work in the new building, built on the old market, that had been the heart of the economy for store-keepers, artisans and also the so-called “tandetnikes”.

The relationship between the Christian and Jewish populations was better and the antagonism had subsided. Later, Jews were delegates in several institutions and were invited to different celebrations. Also there was less stress concerning taxes. The guilds accepted Jewish labourers and some had received their diplomas.

I would like to mention the passionate, sincere speech that Mayor Leszniewski made on behalf of the Jews and how he dealt with the first budget that gave subsidies to Jewish schools and institutions. It was a daring speech from a man taking his first steps in the public service arena. In a period of great antagonism between the Christian and Jewish populations, he defended the subsidies. Considering that the Jews were citizens and had equal rights as they were born, brought up there, did not carry out their duties any worse than other citizens and they paid more taxes. The right group did not forgive him for a long time and considered him a traitor. Later they took their revenge. That was one of the reasons that he had to resign.

In general there were new reforms and a lot of important and much needed investments in town, among others, a power plant was built that supplied electricity to the entire town.

The town council did not last two years. The Government, which at that time was the “Non-Party” Party, [BB “Blok-Bezpartinich” – officially BBWR, Non-Party Block for Cooperation with the Government] that persecuted all parties, was not indifferent to the fact that the head of the municipality in the District City of Ostrowa was a sworn representative of the P.P.S. He had an independent policy and did not take the advice of the higher authorities. Their patience ran out when the Mayor, the Socialist Leszniewski, was at the head of the workers demonstration the

 

ost245.jpg
Celebrating the opening of the new electric plant 1929
1. Zelman Jozef Nutkiewicz, 2. Izrael Zlotkes, 3. Abraham Jakob Pokrzywa, between 3 and 4. Mayor
Leszniewski and wife, 5. Lejb Margolis, 6. Michal Tejtel, 7. Judel Szulc, 8. Anszel Knorpel, 9. M. Holcman

 

ost246.jpg
The new electric plant

 

First of May 1929. Immediately after that a decree came out that the town committee was dissolved and the town council had to elect a new committee and a new mayor.

Several men from the Socialist group, together with the representative of the Bund, protested the decree and persuaded the Jews to do the same. The Zionists, Mizrahi and also some of the Artisans and Merchants agreed, but the representatives of Agudas Yisroel did not approve, claiming that one could not go against the government. After many meetings and debates they agreed, except for the representative of the Merchant-Union, who was allied with the government.

Eleven Christian councilors remained who had not resigned. Since twenty-four councilors made up the municipal government, a new election had to be called to elect twelve councilors.

The election was at the end of 1929 and the Jews elected only five councilmen: Leib Margolis, Moniek Holcman and Abraham Wagman – from the Zionists; from Mizrahi – Mordchai Kohn; from Agudas Yisroel – Anszel Knorpel and the Merchant Union – Judel Szulc who had not resigned. All together only six Jewish councilors were elected instead of the previous ten. There was no way that we would have a Jewish Vice-Mayor and we had to be satisfied with one Alderman – Icchok Jakob Podbielewicz.

The Christian councilors were able to elect Jan Zaksiewski – a representative of the so- called Polish nobility. The Vice-Mayor – the director of the P.K.A. – Władisław Meier, and two aldermen. Later the Jews also supported Meier, who was a sincere politician, and always went along with the Jews. It was said that he was actually the leader of the town council. Given his name “Meier”, it was believed that his origin was Jewish, but it was difficult to establish; he never spoke about it.

During his term of office, two Jews were appointed to the Power Commission: Kossower, a technician and Rajgrodski – collector.

Shortly after the election – the government took revenge on the teacher, Holcman. He was not loyal to the government and resigned from his post, so he was sent to Warszawa to teach.

Summer 1930, a year after taking up his position as Alderman, Podbielewicz died suddenly and his seat remained empty.

In 1930, the 500th anniversary of the town was celebrated. The municipal government was involved in several enterprises in which the Jews took part. They also put out a brochure, written by the Mayor Jan Zaksiewski, who thought he was a historian. About the Jews and their contribution to the city, nothing was mentioned, as if they did not even exist. When I put the question to the author, he answered that he did not find any historical material about the Jews and their contribution to life in Ostrowa. The truth was, there was more than enough material available about the Jews at that time.

During the term of the second town council the situation of the Jewish representatives was worse and it was difficult for them to do their work, due to their small number and also because of the Christian group. But, as previously mentioned, Vice-Mayor Meier was actually the boss in the municipal government and also the leader of the ruling party. He was young and dynamic. The Mayor, although an Endek, due to his age and nobility did not decide anything without the consent of his assistant the Vice-Mayor, who understood the need to keep the Jews on his side and helped with Jewish questions.

In 1934 there was another town council election. There were new election laws from the Sanacja [means Return to Helath] leader (the government party BB) Slowek, who was not a great lover of Israel, would not allow the Jews to have a large representation on the town council. The districts were divided in such a way that the Jews could elect a Jewish councilor in only one district, which was in the centre of town where all the Jews lived en masse. The result was that only five Jewish councilors were elected: Lejb Margolis - Zionists, Izrael Zlotkes – Revisionists; Anszel Knorpel – Agudas Yisroel; Michał Podbielewicz – Poalei Zion and Hirsz Jakob Jabka from Mizrahi. The elected Alderman was Mosze Raf, a member of Poalei Zion.

There were not any great things left for the new town council to do. In the summer of 1935, before my aliyah to Israel, I resigned from the council. My position was taken over by a Zionist, Abraham Wagman. At that time one could already feel the beginnings of anti-Semitism in Poland, especially economically. The Jewish councilors made tremendous efforts to alleviate the situation, but without much success.

The Jewish representatives did everything they possibly could, but the situation still became worse. One could feel the beginning of war and ruin in the air – then the destruction arrived.

 

ost248.jpg
Ulica 3go Maja – Mieczkowski's house

 

Footnotes
  1.   Return
  2. The first general election under the new constitution was held in 1922 Return
  3. In 1927 a law was passed requiring artisans (tradesmen) to be licensed. The examinations were in Polish, a language that many Jews were not fluent in and administered by noted anti-Semitic Polish artisans. Many older Jews were experts in their trades and were exempted but could not hire helpers or take on apprentices without a license. As a result many of them went out of business. Return

 

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