“Augustów” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume IV
(Augustów, Poland)

53°51' / 23°00'

Translation of “Augustów” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1989


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Acknowledgments

 

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to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Polin:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume IV, pages 126-130,
published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1989


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[Pages 126-130]

Augustów, Poland
(District of Augustów, Region of Białystok)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Year Population Jews
1765 ? 239
1800 1,525 462
1808 3,549 984
1820 ? 1,167
1827 3,576 1,482
1857 7,998 3,669
1897 9,789? 3,468
1921 8,762 2,261
1931 9,112 2,397

Augustów was founded in the year 1561. King Zygmunt August, for whom Augustów is named, granted it privileges at that time according to the Magdeburg Charter as well as permission to conduct two annual fairs and two market days per week. The city is located near ponds, rivers, and forests. Already from the time of its founding, Augustów served as an important crossroads and a center from where trees were sent by rivers and over land to the port of Danzig. In 1621, Tatar bands pillaged Augustów and took about 500 people captive. Augustów once again suffered an enemy invasion in 1658. The city was often seriously afflicted by fires that broke out there frequently. The first partition of Poland in 1772 left Augustów within the borders of Poland. In the later partitions, Augustów first became part of Prussia, and then returned to the boundaries of the Kingdom of Poland in 1915. Augustów was a district city at that time, and it retained that status until 1866, when it was annexed to the Lomza Guberniya.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the city was conquered by the Germans. However, the Russians returned in 1915, and the city remained under their rule until the end of the war. Augustów served as a commercial center for the surrounding villages. The Augustów Canal, which was opened in 1839, helped significantly with the development of Augustów. The canal served as a waterway for barges and rafts on their way to the Baltic Sea. At the end of the century, after the railway line was laid in Augustów, the canal lost its importance and its role was restricted to that of a waterway for the residents of the area only.

The first Jews settled in Augustów at the time of its founding. We have a document from 1564 stating that a Jewish citizen of Augustów, whose name is not mentioned, received parcel of land from the king as payment for his contribution to the founding of the city. In 1578, King Stefan Batory granted the Jews of Augustów the privilege to work in commerce, crafts, and tavern keeping. We have a document from 1640 listing the Jewish families that lived in Augustów. The Jews played a significant role in the fish trade that developed amongst the fishermen of the ponds of the region. The Jews leased the ponds at certain times, and the fishing was conducted under their supervision. The marketing of the fish was also in their hands. In addition to the commerce and trade, the Jews of Augustów also earned their livelihoods from communications. About 50 Jewish families lived in Augustów toward the end of the 18th century. The Jewish population of Augustów grew during the 19th century, especially between the 1830s and 1860s. During the latter half of the century, the Jews set up three flourmills, one operating by the power of the Augustów Canal; two sawmills, a brick kiln, a tannery whose products were marketed throughout Russia; and a factory for porcelain tiles. From 1868 and onward, a brigade of Russian soldiers camped in Augustów. Their presence enabled the Jews to earn their livelihoods by providing various services. Other Jews served as providers for the army.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Augustów suffered from fires that broke out in the city that burnt down their houses. The economic situation of the Jews after the fires continually worsened. Jews from nearby cities came to their aid. Baron G?nzburg and Moses Montefiore also helped in the reconstruction. Stalls in the streets of the city were set up in the place of the shops that were burnt. A non–insignificant number of Jews earned their livelihoods in the small–scale textile manufacturing that was set up in Augustów and the region at that time. Several also worked in leasing the nearby forests.

Apparently, an organized Jewish community was set up in Augustów already in the second half of the 17th century. This community is noted in the deliberations of the Council of the Four Lands. We can surmise that at that time, the community was subordinate to the larger community of Tyktin. In 1674, the Council of the Four Lands adjudicated a dispute that broke out between the communities of Augustów and Tyktin regarding the synagogue and cemetery. In one protocol of the meeting

[Page 127]

of the council in 1684, the community of Augustów is mentioned once again. The community of Tyktin complained that the community of Augustów did not pay its debts and did not pay what was owed “on account of the fire” that broke out in 1685. The sums imposed upon Augustów as head tax were also mentioned in the annals of the council: the sum was 264 zloty in 1769 and 1796.

In 1827, Jews who were not resident of Augustów were forbidden to settle there for the reason that it was a city in the border district with Prussia. Only those who lived there previously were permitted to continue to live there.

A synagogue was established in Augustów during the 1840s. The Chevra Kadisha Beis Midrash and the Shoemakers' Kloiz were also housed in the synagogue building. There were several other houses of worship in the city, named after the streets upon which they were located, such as the Kloiz of the Butchers (on the Street of the Butchers), and the Kloiz of the Bridge (on the Street of the Bridge). The cemetery was located near the synagogue. A new cemetery, much farther away from the city, was established in the final years of the 19th century.

Rabbi Shalom Shachna was mentioned as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of Augustów during the 1820s. We do not know any details of his life, and we also do not know exactly when he served there. Rabbi Yosef the son of Rabbi Baruch was mentioned as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in 1837. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor Toseftal, who authored books on Maimonides and the Code of Jewish Law, served as rabbi during the 1840s until 1854. He moved from Augustów to Niesuchojeże. Rabbi Yisrael Isser Shapira came in his place. He was a native of Augustów, and authored the Ezrat Yisrael responsa book. In 1870, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak HaLevi served there. He was known as Moshe Idel the Ponovizai, after the name of the city in which he had served previously. He did not last long in his position, as he died that same year. His son–in–law Rabbi Kasriel Nasan was appointed in his place, and served for 52 years, with the exception of the ten years between 1887–1896, when he was forced to leave the city due to a dispute that broke out in the community. During those ten years, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordon, one of the important cantors in his time, who authored the book Dvar Yehuda, served as the rabbi of the city. Rabbi Kasriel returned to his position in 1896 and continued to occupy the rabbinical seat of Augustów until his death in 1921. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordon moved to serve is Ostrów.

From the 1870s until the first years of the 1920s, a government appointed rabbi operated in Augustów, and was responsible for the civic registry of the local Jews. This position was filled by the writer Zev Sperling, who became known for his translation of the books of Jules Verne into Hebrew.

Until the new era, most of the Jewish children of Augustów studied in private cheders of the Talmud Torah that was established by the community. There were 35 teachers in Augustów in 1879. Several of them taught their students the foundations of the Russian Language and arithmetic.

During the 1890s, the Linat Tzedek organization was set up in Augustów. Its purpose was to extend help to poor people who were ill. This was the first social institution that was founded in the city.

During this era, small groups of Hassidim appeared in Augustów. They had their own Beis Midrash that was called the Beis Midrash of the Hassidim.

In the latter part of the 19th century (in 1885), the first Zionist group, called Dorshei Zion, was organized in Augustów. Its influence was small at that time. Zionist activity was illegal, and the organization was forced to operate clandestinely. It conducted its cultural activities under the auspices of the library that was founded at that time.

True political activity began at the beginning of the 20th century. The Bund began to operate in Augustów in 1905. Its members participated in strikes and demonstrations. The Russian authorities arrested several members of the Bund, and almost stopped the activities of the chapter. The activities were only renewed in 1915–1916.

Vibrant activity in the realm of culture and education began in Augustów a short time before the First World War, as well as during the war, after the Germans occupied the city in 1915. The foundations of the modern cheder were laid in 1917. It developed in the post–war years and became a popular school with seven grades. Zionist organizations functioned in Augustów during the First World War, and a chapter of Agudas Yisroel was founded.

During the first months of the war, many Jews left the city and settled temporarily in the towns of the area. The economic situation of the Jews weakened, and the sources of livelihood of the Jewish merchants, shopkeepers, and tradesmen, whose customer base was the agricultural flank of the area, became constricted. The Jewish community of Augustów endured the difficulties by organizing assistance for the needy. A public kitchen was opened, and a charitable fund was founded that assisted merchants and small–scale tradesmen with interest–free loans. The Linat Tzedek organization increased its activities by offering free medical assistance. All of this was assisted by the JOINT and the Augustów natives living in the United States

 

Between the Two World Wars

The Jewish population of Augustów declined in the wake of the events of the war. Many of the refugees of the city did not return to their houses, and the number of people moving to the large cities increased. The percentage of Jews in the general population declined further in the wake of the annexation of several villages to the city. Incidents of persecution of Jews, searches of their houses, and even imprisonment took place with the renewal of the Polish government. However, after the new government consolidated itself in August 1920, the city calmed down, and its residents began the restoration of economic and communal life. The economic situation of the Jews was difficult. Wholesale commerce almost stopped since the city was cut off from the marketplaces of Russia. Augustów conclusively lost its status as a commercial city situated on an important crossroads from west

[Page 128]

to east. With the disappearance of the Russian brigade, an important source of livelihood of the Jewish merchants and tradesmen in Augustów disappeared. Units of the Polish Army that were brought there were unable to use barter as a source of livelihood. In several cases, the local commanders forbade the soldiers and captains from benefiting of the services of the Jewish merchants and tradesmen. In addition, local commerce diminished because of the economic depression that afflicted all of Poland at that time, accompanied by the constant deflation of the prices of agricultural products. Only small–scale commerce and peddling in the villages remained in the hands of the Jews. In the wake of the decline of commerce, the sources of livelihood of the tradesmen and small–scale manufacturers in the hands of the Jews declined. A significant percentage of livelihood earners were permanently unemployed.

During the first post–war years, the JOINT came to the aid of the needy, assisting Jews who wanted to renovate their houses and workshops that were damaged during the wartime. The Cooperative Credit Bank was opened very quickly in 1922 through its support. Its founding was an important event in the lives of those who worked in commerce. Nearly half of the Jewish families in Augustów benefited from loans from the bank. The JOINT also supported the charitable fund that had already been founded during the years of the war. The capital of the fund grew with time to nearly 26,000 zloty. Until 1925, the fund issued 61 loans. The number of loans grew issued by the fund grew after that time. The Jewish merchants and tradesmen organized themselves into their own unions, the main task of which was to give mutual assistance to their members. The natives of Augustów in the United States were also enlisted to help the Jews of the city. They sent generous financial aid to their family members as well as the community in general.

However, whereas the organizational activities of the Jews of Augustów related to improving the economic situation were restricted due to the objective conditions that pervaded there, the local Jews displayed widespread and vibrant activity in the realm of political life. During the inter–war period, chapters of all of the Jewish parties that existed at that time in Poland functioned in Augustów. The full spectrum of Zionists marched at the head of all the parties – General Zionists, Poale Zion, Mizrachi, and Revisionists. The increase in the number of purchasers of the Zionist shekel[1] and voters for the Zionist congresses testify to their increasing influence. The number of voters was 79 for the 14th congress in 1928. The number grew to 143 for the 17th congress in 1931, and jumped to move than 649 for the 20th congress in 1937. There was a small decline, to 523, for the 21st congress in 1939.

During that era, the Zionist youth organizations developed significantly, and the number of their members grew continually. A chapter of Hechalutz was established in 1924. Chapters of Beitar and Hashomer Hatzair were organized in 1927. Mizrachi established is youth organization, Young Mizrachi, in 1930. The number of youths who made aliya after participating in hachshara in the kibbutzim of the area grew. The youth organizations set up small libraries and sporting clubs. A chapter of Agudas Yisroel was set up in 1922. It operated primarily during the time of elections for the community and city council. Agudas Yisrael set up the Beis Yaakov girls' school in 1927.

The Bund had a noticeable influence upon the Jewish community of Augustów. The Bund succeeded in sending delegates to the communal and city councils during the era we are discussing.

The rabbi of Augustów, Kasriel Nasan, who had served for many years in the city (see above), died in 1921. Rabbi Yitzchak Kosowski was chosen to take his place in 1922, and served until 1925. Rabbi Kosowski moved to Volkovisk and from there to Johannesburg, South Africa. Rabbi Azriel Zelig Koslowski, the author of the book “Ein Tzofim” was chosen to replace him. Prior to that, Rabbi Koslowski had served as a rabbinical judge and teacher in Augustów for nearly 50 years. He made aliya to the Land of Israel in 1934. Rabbi Hirsch Leiter was chosen as rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of Augustów a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Rabbi Leiter was the final rabbi of the community, and he perished in the Holocaust.

The Czantum chapter, established in 1920, did a great deal in the city in the area of public health. This organization offered medical assistance primarily to children between the ages of five and seven. Similarly, the activities of the Linat Tzedek organization, which was founded at the end of the 19th century, were renewed. During these years, a Bikur Cholom society was also set up. Both of them were involved in providing medical assistance to the poor of the city.

In light of the many needs, the community organized one–time assistance efforts for the poor. Every year, a Kimcha DePischa[2] campaign took place, benefiting approximately a third of the local Jews.

Most of the children continued to study in private cheders of the Talmud Torah that the community had set up already during the wartime years. The modern cheder that was established in 1917 developed to the point where it became a seven grade public school. In 1917, approximately 230 students studied there.

The Jews attempted to ensure appropriate representation in the city council. A united Jewish list, excluding the Bund, was generally formed for the city council elections, and it earned four or five mandates. The Bund had one mandate on the council. In the final elections for the community council, the Zionist list received one mandate, Mizrachi – one, Poale Zion – one, Revisionist – one, Bund – two, and Agudas Yisroel – two.

A group that prepared to publish a local Yiddish periodical was set up in Augustów in 1939. Only one edition was published. It was called “Augustower Leben” [Augustower Life], and was issued on February 24, 1939.

Throughout all the inter–war years, displays of anti–Semitism from the local authorities as well as Polish anti–Semitic circles took place. The anti–Semitic propaganda increased during the 1930s, and venomous anti–Semitic proclamations were issued periodically. A boycott of Jewish commerce and trade also increased during those years.

[Page 129]

Guards were placed in front of Jewish stores to enforce the boycott. Violent acts perpetrated by anti–Semitic hooligans against Jewish passers–by also occurred. In 1931, many Jews were beaten, and some were severely injured.

 

During the Second World War

On September 1, 1939, German airplanes bombarded the railway station in Augustów. The German Army did not enter Augustów at all throughout in September (according to others, the Germans did enter the city but remained there for only two hours). In accordance with the agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union from August 23, 1939, Augustów was supposed to be included in the Soviet occupation area at the end of September, 1939. The border between the Soviet Union and Germany passed eight kilometers north of Augustów, at the bridge near the village of Szczeberka. During that period, many refugees arrived in the city from places such as Suwalki and Raczki, which remained in the German occupation zone. The Soviet government seized and nationalized the estates, businesses, grain storehouses, shops, sawmills, etc. Most of the Jews of Augustów were employed in the cooperatives that were set up in the city. Several Jews obtained work in Soviet offices and even in the police. The activities of the Jewish organizations and youth organizations ceased. On the other hand, possibilities of studying without restriction opened up for Jewish youths in all the Soviet educational institutions, starting from public schools and ending in upper schools throughout the entire Soviet Union. At the beginning of 1940, a group of Jewish youths were drafted to work in the Ural mines, however some of them escaped and returned to Augustów due to the harsh conditions. In Augustów, they were imprisoned and put on trial by the authorities. Between February and April 1940, former estate and business owners, as well as activists of the national parties, including Jews, were arrested by the N.K.V.D. (Soviet secret police) and deported to penal camps in Siberia. During that same period, the Soviet governments classified Augustów as a border town and emptied it of all the refugees that lived there. The refugees were deported to a distance of 100 kilometers east of the new border. Most of them found places to live near Baranovichi and Slomim. During the period of the German occupation, beginning with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, these Jews met the same fate as the Jews of these places. Most of them perished.

The German army captured Augustów early in the morning of June 22, 1941. The Russians did not put up any resistance. German soldiers killed several Jews on the streets of the city already on that day. Several days after the Germans entered, they began to take people out for mass murder. About 30 people who were imprisoned by the Germans in the former Soviet sanatorium, mainly Jews, were shot to death between June 25 and 27, 1941, apparently by the einsatzgruppen. About ten days later, approximately 100 people were shot, once again apparently primarily Jews. During that period, Gershon Kolnicki and several other Jewish men from that same house were taken out to be murdered in the suburban Jewish cemetery. At the same time the Germans took out all of the invalids of the city to be murdered, including Jews.

On August 15, 1941 (according to others, this took place in July), the Germans murdered most of the Jewish men of Augustów, approximately 800–900 people, in the Szczebra Forest several kilometers north of Augustów. (According to other sources, 1,500 people were murdered, but this number seems exaggerated if we take into account that there were only 3,000 Jews in Augustów in 1939.)

At the end of August or in the autumn months of 1941, a ghetto was built in Baraki, the eastern suburb of Augustów. In that place, between the Augustów Canal and the Netta River, there were wooden bunks in which the workers of the nearby sawmills and their families lived. Approximately 2,000 Jews, mainly women, children, and elderly people, were brought into the ghetto. Apparently, there were no more than 200 men among them. Among the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto were more than 100 Jews who had been removed from their homes in the district of Augustów during the months of July and August 1941. These included the Jews of Lipsk, Sztabin, and Dowspuda. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by the Polish police and two Germans. It was officially forbidden to leave the ghetto, but the ghetto guards were not overly strict, and Jews took advantage of this. The residents of the ghetto had to wear yellow patches on the front of their clothing. Most of the men worked in the sawmills of Augustów and the region. Several mechanics and millers were employed in units of the German Army. The women worked mainly at cleaning the streets of the city, as well as in the offices and homes of the Germans.

In 1942, several groups of young women were sent to work on the railway line of Gajewo. The groups were switched monthly.

Apparently, a Judenrat was set up during this period. It was headed by Kantarowicz, a smith by profession. The primary role of the Judenrat was to provide Jewish workers for forced labor. Five or six Jewish policemen served in the ghetto.

On November 2, 1942, the Germans surrounded the ghetto. All of the Jews inside were transferred by foot and wagon to a transit camp near the village of Bogusza (today Prustiki) near Gajewo. There, every prisoner was given only 100 grams of bread daily as well as thin soup. Many people got sick and died in the camp under these conditions.

The first transport of 5,000 Jews set out from Bogusza to Treblinka in the middle of December 1942. On January 7, 1943, the second transport from Bogusza arrived in Auschwitz. After the selection, the Germans left about 500 men and women in the Auschwitz Camp. With the exception of a few, all of them perished in Auschwitz some time later.

After the liquidation of the ghetto, several Jews who had converted to Christianity several years before the Second World War lived in Augustów with their families. However, in the summer of 1943, the Germans removed them from their houses and shot them to death in the Jewish cemetery. These are there names: the lawyer Jerzy

[Page 130]

Koral, Klimaszewski, Motel Pogomfrej and the wife of the print shop owner Kasziwinski. Two women he abandoned Judaism succeeded in escaping and survived.

In the middle of May 1943, the Germans brought groups of Jews to Augustów who were members of the Sonderkommando 1005[3], whose job was to conceal the traces of the Nazi atrocities. Between 3,000 and 5,000 bodies were burned in two places, the Szabczo Forest and Klowica Forest, where mass murders had taken place near Augustów. Most were of Jewish men, and the rest were Poles and Russians.

From the community of Augustów, with a former population of 3,000 Jews, only several dozen people survived. Five of them hid on the Aryan side. The Jewish houses of worship in Augustów were destroyed, and the cemetery was plowed over.

Bibliography

Yad Vashem Archives M–1/Q–481, M–11/B–37, M–11/B–97, M–11/B–206, TR–10/843, 03/2773, 033/290, M–1/Q–3 (Augustinow).
AMT'Y HM/2182, 2183, HM/3736, HM/3737, HM/6650, HM/6712, HM/7548, HM/7597, HM/7600.
ATZ'M Z–4/3569/III, S–5/1707, S–5/1773, S–5/1801, S–5/1972, S–6/1497, Z–4/1215/20, Z–4/2023, Z–4/2065
Reconstructions ST Foundation 14/1926 AJDC Archives
Pages of Testimony, interviewer and editor Tz. Feror, Kibbutz Lochmei Hagheataot, 5744 / 1984, volume a, pp. 402–405.
Yizkor Book of the Community of Augustów and District, Tel Aviv, 5726 (1966). (Editor: Y. Alexandroni).
Sz. Datner, Sonderkomando 1005, BZ1H, No 4, Warszawa, 1972, p. 72.
Justiz und N.S.–Verbrechen, Sammlong deutscher Straƒurteile, Wegen N.S. Tötungsverbrechen 1945–1966. University Press. Amsterdam 1976 V. XIV pp. 1070130; V XVI pp. 155–168
A. Leszczynski, Żydzi ziemi Bielskiej od potowy 17 w. Do 1795, Wroclaw–Warszawa 1980 pp. 17, 22, 30, 39, 41–42.
“Heint” December 23, 1921, February 21, 1925, January 11, 1928, May 30, 1928, February 28, 1929, May 18, 1930, May 13, 1930, March 28, 1935, January 7, 1937.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Token of membership in the Zionist organization. return
  2. Kimcha DePischa, or Maos Chittin, is a fund set up to assist the poor with Passover supplies. return
  3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonderaktion_1005 return


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