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Translation of Wołkowysk chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Wołkowysk chapter from
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 298-305, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(Regional City in the District of Bialystock)
Translated by Jerrold Landau
History of the City
Wołkowysk is an ancient city approximately 85 kilometers east of Bialystock, situated in a valley surrounded by hills at point where the Wołkowya and Ros rivers join the Neman. According to tradition, during the 11th century it had pagan temples and a fortress that protected the western borders of Kievan Rus. After the breakup of the Kievan Duchy, the settlement was alternately ruled by the princes of Wolhynia and Lithuania. In 1224, Wołkowysk was conquered temporarily by the Tatars. In the middle of the 13th century, it returned to the princes of Lithuania who granted it rights of a city according to the Magdeberg Charter in 1513. Wołkowysk was a district city in the united kingdom of Poland-Lithuania from 1569 to 1795. The city was attacked and greatly damaged with the invasion of the Swedes in 1655, but it was not conquered. The city was destroyed to its foundation in 1662 by the Muscovites (Russians), who expelled the Swedes. It did not recover for many years. Approximately 100 years later, in 1762, there were only 112 houses. However, after that, the renovation took root. By 1792, it already had more than 1,000 houses.
With the third partition of Poland in 1795, Wołkowysk was annexed to Czarist Russia. In 1796, the city was a district city of the District of Slonim, and in 1802 it was annexed to the District of Grodno as a district city. When Napoleon's armies were retreating from Russia in 1812, Wołkowysk was burnt down by the French in a large battle between the Russians and the French. Only a few houses survived. The civic and district institutions moved on a provisional basis to nearby Izabelin (see entry). Wołkowysk remained partly destroyed and with a low population until almost the end of the 19th century. In 1860, there were 492 houses and 3,472 residents. However, when the Grodno-Vilna and Slonim-Bialystock railway lines were built during the 1880s, a train station was built in Wołkowysk, and the economic and demographic growth resumed.
During the First World War, Wołkowysk was conquered by the Germans for a period of three years, from 1915-1918. After the war, it became part of independent Poland. From September 17, 1939, until June 22, 1941, Wołkowysk was under Soviet rule. A large portion of the city was destroyed by German bombardment at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Wołkowysk was liberated in the summer of 1944 by the Red Army after three years of Nazi occupation.
The Jews, Until the end of the First World War
The first Jews settled in Wołkowysk and its environs during the latter half of the 16th century. From a document of 1577, we see that they paid taxes to the kingdom, and in the Ledgers of the State of Lithuania the amounts of tax paid during the years 1680-1693 through the agency of the State Committee are detailed. According to the census of 1766, 1,281 Jews resided in Wołkowysk and several small settlements in the area.
In 1866, a large fire destroyed most of the Jewish houses and communal buildings. However, within a few years, the damage due to the fire was repaired. With the building of the railway station in Wołkowysk at the end of the century, the local economy began to flourish, and both the general and Jewish population rapidly expanded. In the 1890s, the Jewish population reached 5,528, comprising more than half of the general population. Aside from small-scale merchants, some Jews were large-scale merchants and exporters of grain, wood, fruit, and other agricultural products. Aside from commerce, Jews of the city were occupied in many trades and professions -- carpenters, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, locksmiths, hat makers, tailors, shoemakers, butchers, bakers, and others. During the market and fair days,
commercial activity in the city reached its peak. At the end of the 18th century, Jewish entrepreneurs developed small-scale manufacturing in Wołkowysk and established the first workshops for tanning, weaving, and tobacco production, as well as brick kilns, beer breweries, steam driven flour mills, and others. Most of the employees of these enterprises were Jews.
The Jewish community of Wołkowysk was constituted during the 18th century or perhaps even earlier. The first synagogue, constructed of wood, was built in the city during the 18th century. With the passage of time, other synagogues and Beis Midrashes were built. Most of the Jews of Wołkowysk were Misnagdim, but there was also a Hassidic minority in the city. Several renowned rabbis served in the city, which gave the city renown. The first of them whose name we know is Rabbi Avigdor Charif (18th century), who was a relative of Rabbi Elihau the Gaon of Vilna (the Gra). In his time, Rabbi Zecharia Simner, the author of Zecharia (Horodno, 1795) also lived there. In 1762, Rabbi Yisrael Katzenelbogen is mentioned. After Rabbi Avigdor, the following served as rabbis in the community: Rabbi David Katzenelbogen; Rabbi Avraham the author of Amudei Shamayim; Rabbi Binyamin Diskin; Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Lifschitz the author of Brit Yaakov (Warsaw 1876/7) and the student of Rabbi Binyamin Diskin; Rabbi Eliezer Landau the son of Rabbi Pinchas who was also revered by the Christians of the city; Rabbi Yitzchak Isak Chaver the author of the Binyan Olam responsa book, Heraot BaShas, and Beit Yitzchak, one of the great rabbis of Lithuania; Rabbi Yechiel Heller the author of Amudei Or and a German essay on chapters of the Rambam; Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Diskin the son of Rabbi Binyamin, who established a Yeshiva in Wołkowysk in 1887; Rabbi Yehonatan Eliasberg the son of the Chovevei Zion activist Rabbi Mordechai Eliasberg and himself a Zionist activist (several Jews from the city made aliya to the Land of Israel under his influence). His known works are Keshet Yehonatan, Shvil Hazahav, Darchei Horaah, and Sefer Hamidot. After his death in 1899, the community was left without a rabbi for four consecutive years. Rabbi Abba Yaakov Borochow served from 1903-1923. He was the author of the Chevel Yaakov responsa book, and a Mizrachi leader. He made aliya to Jerusalem in 1923. During his time, the local Yeshiva grew, and 300 students studied there.
The tradition of mutual assistance was very well developed among the Jews of Wołkowysk. During the latter half of the 19th century, several new charitable organizations were established, including Malbish Arumim (clothing the naked), Lechem Aniim (bread for the poor), Maot Chittim (money for Passover needs), the charitable fund, and a women's organization. Matzos and other provisions were distributed to the poor prior to Passover in secret, so as not to embarrass those in need. Chevrat Lina assisted solitary and poor sick people with medicine, medical equipment, and by attending at the sickbed. Chevrat Lina was one of the most important institutions in the city during epidemics. In 1898, a Jewish hospital was established in Wołkowysk through the donations of the local philanthropist Nachman Heller. Along with other partners in Wołkowysk and the United States, the donor participated in financing the maintenance. The Bikur Cholim organization concerned itself with providing food for the hospital. In 1909, Feivel Heller donated money to establish an old age home that provided shelter also for solitary elderly people from the region. There were two large fires in Wołkowysk in 1886 and 1908. A voluntary fire brigade was established in 1899 with the backing of the civic authorities. Members of the brigade and its band were Jews. In 1908, a loan and credit fund was set up to serve the needs of the middle and lower middle classes. The sum of its loans reached 300 rubles at the time of the outbreak of the First World War.
The male children of the community had studied in traditional cheders for generations. Some of them would later continue their studies at the local Yeshiva. With the spread of the Haskalah at the end of the 19th century, private teachers appeared. Boys and girls would study Hebrew, Russian, and other general subjects from them. At the end of the 19th century, the community opened up a Talmud Torah for students of poor families, and several Maskilim opened up modern cheders, where Hebrew literature and song, grammar, Bible and a small amount of general studies were taught along with religious studies. At the end of the 19th century, two young people with teaching accreditations founded a Real Jewish Gymnasium. The language of instruction was Russian, and several Christian students also studied there. The Real Gymnasium was closed in 1909 and a government gymnasium for girls was opened in its building, which functioned until the First World War.
In the 1880s, young Jews of Wołkowysk joined the Chibat Zion movement. Many residents of the city joined the Zionist organization after it arose at the end of the century, and in 1902, the Bnei Zion organization was founded. Aside from the Zionists, there were also Socialists and Yiddishists among the Jews of the city, and when the Bund was founded in Vilna in 1897, a chapter of the Bund was founded as well in Wołkowysk. Its members organized strikes of workers. After the first strike, they achieved the abolition of the custom of apprentices and people supported by the owners working on Saturday nights. Aside from the professional battles, the members of the Bund also attempted to impart modern knowledge to the workers by sponsoring courses in Russian language and literature, history, and geography. A drama club was also established.
Many Jews fled to the interior of Russia at the outbreak of the First World War. Wołkowysk was conquered by the Germans in the fall of 1915. When the battles ceased, some of those who fled their homes returned. Economic activity quieted down during the period of German occupation. There was a shortage of basic food supplies in Wołkowysk, with some being distributed by rationing. No small number of Jews tried their hand at smuggling; however, anyone caught was punished severely. Many of the residents of the city, both Jews and gentiles, were conscripted for forced labor. The assistance organizations weakened and the communal activity ceased. After the Jewish hospital was given over to
the army, Jewish ill people were cared for in private homes. The schools in the city were closed, and the children were all obligated by the occupying authorities to study in the German school. Several hours per week were allotted for religious studies for the Jewish students.
The economic situation in the city eased somewhat in 1916. The Jews worked on plots of land that were abandoned by the farmers who had fled to Russia along with the Russian Army. Communal activities were also renewed to some extent. A Hebrew kindergarten was opened in Wołkowysk. The Yiddish drama club resumed its activities, and a Hebrew amateur group called Hazamir was also set up there. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 blew new life into the Zionist activities of the city.
The Jews Between the Two World Wars
At the end of the war, Wołkowysk endured approximately two years of instability. Anti-Semitic legionnaires from the brigades of General Haller disturbed the Jews of the city without anyone intervening. The Jews were again attacked during the war between Poland and the Soviet Union in 1920. With the return of the Polish Army, they were accused of aiding the Bolsheviks. Polish soldiers broke into Jewish homes, beat the women with the butts of their rifles, broke windows, ripped blankets, scattered the feathers in the street, broke furniture, plundered the property, beat Jews in the streets, cut their beards and peyos, and perpetrated other such atrocities. The locale firefighters' brigade played an important role in maintaining law and order and preventing disturbances at that time.
The disturbances had calmed down to a degree by 1921, and the Polish government imposed order. The authorities worked toward the reconstruction of the half-destroyed city and the renewal of economic development. The new city council included ten Jews, including the engineer Efraim Barsz, who worked diligently to combat anti-Semitism in the city while simultaneously taking care of issues of the Jewish community. When he entered his position, Barsz set up the economic apparatus of the community, and obtained 1,500 zloty of funding from the JOINT for rehabilitation of the Jews of the city in return for a commitment by the community to allot a similar sum. The community raised approximately 600 zloty of this sum from local Jews of means. Wołkowysk natives from overseas, Jewish organizations, the local charitable fund that was set up right after the war, and an additional charitable fund that was later set up with deposits from the union of small-scale merchants also participated in the restoration activities. The Jews gradually returned and opened shops and stalls in the market, as well as bakeries, butcher shops, and workshops. At first, the trains were still dedicated to military activities, and the transportation by wagon continued. The Jewish wagon drivers and porters set up their own organization, and brought iron, coal, cement, kerosene, flour and other merchandise to Wołkowysk. A cooperative bank was established in the city in 1926, which supported the charitable funds and granted interest-free loans to the small-scale merchants. Within a decade, its assets reached several million zloty -- and this was during the time of the economic depression when many other banks failed. A cooperative bank of householders and real estate interests was created in the city. The Jews were a decisive factor in the economy of the city. The Kolontaj group -- a partnership of three Jewish merchants who lost their means during the time of the war -- was restored and broadened after the war. At first, this group renewed the operation of three steam-powered flour mills. Later, the partners became involved with growing fruit trees on leased land. They hired an agronomist, and their fruit became famous both within Poland and outside of it. The group then established a dairy whose products were successfully sold throughout the region. Later, they also obtained several sections of forest, where they developed lumber manufacturing and became involved in the marketing and exporting of lumber. The Barsz family had a factory for iron works and machine parts, a large sawmill, and modern flour mills. David Chower consolidated for himself the kerosene, sugar and salt business. Several other Jews were occupied in the growing, production and marketing of tobacco. Aside from the large companies, local Jews also had small-scale enterprises for hide tanning, tiles, porcelain, ovens, soft drinks, brick production, and other such items. Within a few years, brick houses replaced the old wooden houses. This was also a clear sign of the strengthening of the local economy.
However, simultaneous to the wide-branched activity, the Jews were forced to deal with many difficulties, some of which were unique to them. The government of Poland conducted its politics for the benefit of the Polish economy and strengthened its hand against the independent business sector, starting with large and medium scale enterprises and ending with small-scale businesses, shopkeepers with day-to-day difficulties and small-scale tradesmen. The small business owners found it difficult to contend with the heavy taxes that bore no relationship to their income. The tradesmen also had obligations with respect to government permits in the Polish language. At that same time, the government assisted Poles in penetrating to traditional Jewish areas of business, through financial support and favorable conditions. This caused a weakening of the Jews. In 1929, the government turned the tobacco, forest products, and wholesale kerosene, sugar and salt trade into monopolies. These all had been primarily in Jewish hands. Many of the senior employers and workers in these areas emigrated, and the those that remained became unemployed.
During the economic depression of the 1930s, especially during the latter half, the situation of the Jews continued to decline. Their shops were closed one after another, and new Polish shops took their place. This process was accompanied by bitter anti-Semitic incitement. Guards of Endek youths (members of
the ND Polish nationalist party were stationed in front of Jewish businesses to drive away Polish customers. The number of people requiring help from the assistance and charitable organizations constantly grew during this era.
|Jews on a street in Wołkowysk, from Yiddishland by Gerard Silvain|
During those difficult years, the Jews of the city received a great deal of assistance from the large Jewish assistance organizations and veteran charitable organizations, which renewed their activities during the postwar years. The Matan Beseter organization supported Jews who had lost their status and possessions, but still continued to maintain their proper front externally and were embarrassed to ask for help. In 1919, the Chevrat Lina (with its new name Linat Cholim) renewed its activities in Wołkowysk. It opened up an infirmary for those in need, charging a token fee, as well as a pharmacy. In 1927, 6,411 sick people were cared for by the infirmary, and its pharmacy distributed 24,183 portions of medication. The organization sent doctors and nurses on home visits to patients laid up in their beds. With the passage of time, the infirmary of Wołkowysk also added dental care and pediatrics. Later, the TOZ (health organization of Polish Jews) took over all the tasks of Linat Cholim in addition to its roles of caring for children and babies, providing meals for children from underprivileged families, and the maintenance of recuperation homes and summer camps for needy children. TOZ also maintained an infirmary and depot for the care of pregnant women in Wołkowysk. The Jewish hospital of Wołkowysk was also reopened at the end of the war, but the building was confiscated by the city council after a short period. Only after a lengthy deliberation in the civic court and with outside pressure was the hospital returned to the community, half destroyed and in a state of severe neglect. The community of Wołkowysk found it difficult to fund the renovation of the hospital through its own power. Finally, the money was obtained from Wołkowysk natives living in the United States, from the JOINT, and the TOZ. The renovations were completed in 1924, and the expanded hospital was reopened. The expanded hospital had an internal division, a surgical division, a division for women and obstetrics, a children's division, X-ray equipment, and a laboratory. The budget was funded by a partnership of the community, TOZ, and other Jewish bodies. Approximately one fifth of the patients were gentiles.
At the end of the war, there were many Jewish orphans in Wołkowysk who lived on the streets and were hungry for bread. In 1921 a Jewish orphanage was set up in the city, financed by the JOINT and with donations from local Jews and natives of the city in the United States. The city council participated in the budget. The Union of Jewish Women also supported the orphanage and several other institutions. At first, the food in the orphanage was poor, and the children slept on straw mattresses. However, within a brief period, the conditions improved and the budget was balanced. The children of the orphanage studied in the Tarbut School and continued their studies in the Herzlia Gymnasium (see future on) or were sent at age 14 to learn a trade. The old age home also developed further after the war. In 1927, it housed 18 men and 13 women. During the late 1930s, with
the deepening of the economic depression throughout Poland and the worsening of the economic straits of the Jews, the number of families who had difficulty in providing basic necessities for their children increased. In 1937, a daycare for Jewish children opened up in the city, which provided for 60 children up to the age six. The children received meals and toys in the daycare, and were cared for by volunteers. The veteran firefighters' brigade, all of whose members were Jews, as has been mentioned, refurbished its equipment after the war, set new standards of work, and earned a certificate of recognition from the National Firefighters Association of Warsaw. It celebrated 30 years of activity in 1929. By that time, water was already transported by cars rather than wagons. The Poles, whose attempt to exchange the Jewish firefighters for their own had failed, set up their own firefighters' brigade that operated in the new portion of the city.
The community had a central synagogue and five other synagogues that were noted by names, seven Beis Midrashes (study halls), and a Hassidic shtibel. After Rabbi Abba Yaakov Borochow, who made aliya to the Land of Israel in 1923, Rabbi Yitzchak Kosowski, the author of Sabbath and Festivals served in Wołkowysk from 1925 to 1933. The final rabbi of the city was Rabbi Yitzchak Rabinowicz, who perished in the Holocaust along with Rabbi Eliahu Aharon Gryn of Wołkowysk. The head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Yerachmiel Daniel. From among the rabbinical judges in the city, we know of Rabbi Yaakov Avraham Stejn, Rabbi Menachem Yosef Wolk, Rabbi Tovia Rybicki, Rabbi Yaakov Brestowicki, and Rabbi Avraham Pilitonaw (perished in the Holocaust).
During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a great awakening in Zionist activity and general Jewish politics in the city. In 1920, shares of the Zionist bank Treasury of Jewish Settlement (Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim) were sold in Wołkowysk, and a chapter of the General Zionists was founded (which later split up into two factions -- Al Hamishmar led by Yitzchak Grynbaum and Et Livnot). In 1921, a chapter of Hechalutz was founded in Wołkowysk, and after it, a chapter of Tzeirei Zion, most of whose members came from the working intelligentsia. Poale Zion also functioned alongside of them. After it broke apart, most of its members joined the Leftist Poale Zion, and continuing on -- Hitachdut and The League of the Working Land of Israel. In the early 1920s, chapters of Hamizrachi and Hechalutz Hamerkazi (A right wing Zionist group) were set up, and youths went out to agricultural Hachsharah (activities for the preparation for aliya) in the region. The most prominent youth movements in the city were Hechalutz Hatzair, Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia (three of them founded in 1925), and Freiheit (Dror), Kadima, Cherut and Techiya, and Hashomer Hadati. Hashomer Hatzair had a steady Hachsharah program whose members worked in tobacco growing and the sawmill. In 1929, Brit Hatzohar, the Revisionists, the Beitar movement, the Brit Hachayil organization, and a chapter of WIZO operated in the city. The Zionists formed the majority of the community and its leaders, and their influence was noticeable in all areas of life. The Jews of Wołkowysk were very concerned about what was transpiring in the Land of Israel, and they donated to the Zionist funds. In 1929, the Zionist conducted a Lag Baomer parade through the streets of the city with a large number of participants. They carried the blue and white flag and the flag of Poland. No small number of Jews made aliya to the Land of Israel. On the eve of the 17th Zionist Congress, there were 300 payers of the Zionist shekel (token of membership) in Wołkowysk who had the right to vote.
The largest of the non-Zionist parties in the city was the Bund. The youth and children's organizations Zukunft and Skyf operated alongside the Bund. The Bund strengthened during the 1930s, with the growth of the number of Jewish workers. Regional conventions took place in its headquarters, and it had a library with a reading hall for books and newspapers. The Bund received 3,000 votes for the elections to the city council in 1939, entitling it to 3 mandates. There was also an Agudas Yisroel chapter in the city.
The Zionists and non-Zionists were also engaged in cultural and sporting activities. A band, choir, and dramatic club operated out of the Hashomer Hatzair chapter, and many of the members of that movement were involved in various types of sports. A Maccabee sports organization was founded in the city during the 1920s. Its 200 members were involved in various types of sports. Its basketball team played games against Jewish groups from other towns, as well as against Polish groups. Maccabee was also involved in a variety of cultural activities. The Revisionists set up a chapter of the Nordia sports organization, and the Bund set up a chapter of the Morgenstern sports organization. The veteran Hazamir theatrical troupe stood out in the cultural life of the city. The producer and the actors, some of them from Bialystock (see entry), were professional, and the troupe appeared throughout the region. Its income was designated for the orphanage fund, the Linat Cholim society and the old age home. Two Jewish newspapers were published in Wołkowysk -- Volkovisker Leben (1925-1932), and a Yiddish weekly (1927-August 1939).
The Jewish educational network in the city developed greatly after the war. In 1919, a four-year Yiddish school of the Tzisha stream was founded. In 1930, the school also had a kindergarten and a library. Most of the students were children of workers and tradesmen of modest means, and approximately half of them were free from paying tuition fees. Several Hebrew schools were also set up in Wołkowysk. The first of them was opened at the end of the First World War through the efforts of two local teachers. The Polish government did not recognize it, and its budget was met through tuition fees. The Hebrew school also had a kindergarten. The most important Hebrew school was that of the Tarbut network. Even though it also ran as a private school and collected tuition fees, it earned the recognition of the Polish education ministry and its graduates were able to continue their studies in accredited high schools. The Tarbut School had a large Hebrew library, and had great influence on the Zionist life of the city. In 1931, a religious Zionist Hebrew school was opened in the city.
It joined the Yavneh network, and earned a name for its high level and good teachers. Its principal, Dr. Szajb, was chosen for his task through the recommendation of the chairman of the Torah Vaavoda movement of Eastern Galicia. In 1931, the teacher Neuman opened a populist private school called Kadima. The language of instruction at Kadima was Polish, and it supported the official government curriculum, adding in subjects such as Hebrew, Bible, and Jewish history. The old Talmud Torah also existed during those years. Some of the Jewish students studied in the government primary school.
Several Jewish high schools functioned in Wołkowysk. The chief one was the Herzlia Hebrew gymnasium (founded in 1926, and joined the Tarbut network in 1928), which earned government accreditation in 1932. Aside from general subjects, the curriculum included Bible, Mishna, Talmud, Jewish history and Hebrew literature. Students from other towns studied there, and some of them received an exemption from tuition. Some of its graduates later became well known, including: The Haganah commander Eliahu Golomb; the Habima actor Rafael Kletzkin; and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. There was also a Yavneh commercial high school in the city, that earned government accreditation and taught English as a foreign language; as well as a private commercial high school called the TK'A Commercial High School under the supervision of the Broida school network (founded in 1937). Some of the Jewish youths studied in the local government gymnasium.
|The Maccabee basketball team of Wołkowysk
From Wołkowysk: The Story of a Jewish-Zionist Community
During the late 1930s, with the increasing economic pressure and anti-Semitism, there was an increase of the number of people being supported by the assistance organizations, as well as the number of people emigrating, primarily to Latin American countries but also to the United States, to the extent that was possible with its difficult immigration laws. There was also aliya to the Land of Israel, despite the restrictions on aliya by the British Mandatory government.
During the Time of the Second World War
The Red Army entered Wołkowysk on September 17, 1939. The city became crowded with Jewish refugees who had fled from the areas of German occupation in western Poland. Some of the refugees found places in the homes of local Jews, but most of them lived in the synagogue, the Beis Midrashes, and other communal buildings. A military field kitchen was transported to the city square on a daily basis to distribute bread and soup to the refugees. Soviet government officials from Minsk, including many Jews, came to Wołkowysk and reorganized most areas of life. Local Jews as well, especially activists of the Polish Communist underground, were slotted for work in various government tasks. The Soviets nationalized the factories, large private stores and warehouses. The small shops were also closed within a brief period. Government shops were opened in their place. Several Jewish factory owners and large scale merchants were deported to far-off areas of the Soviet Union. Local tradesmen were organized into work cooperatives (artels) by trade. The Soviets opened workshops for the repair of train wagons, and many refugees worked in them, as well as in the factories. Some of the refugees were sent to work in the Soviet Union. All of the parties except for the Communist Party were declared illegal. Many of the local schools were closed, and the Soviet curriculum was imposed upon the others. The Yiddish school of the city reopened after some time, and Yiddish was set as the language of instructions in several other Jewish schools (all of them followed the Soviet curriculum). Later, the government changed the language of instruction from Yiddish to Byelorussian and Russian. Yiddish became a secondary course of study. Unemployment was eliminated during the time of Soviet rule. Most of the Jews were slotted in new positions and jobs. Almost all of them became accustomed to the new conditions.
On June 22, 1941, at the beginning of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans bombarded Wołkowysk. Most of its houses were burnt down, and the Jewish quarter was obliterated as if it never existed. The Jews found refuge in nearby settlements, fields, or the forest. Rabbi Yitzchak Rabinowicz moved with his family to his parents in Szczuczyn, where they all later perished. Wołkowysk was conquered by the Germans on June 29. That same day
Yisrael Cemah was shot in the street, and more Jews were shot on the following days. Local anti-Semites helped the Germans and gave them lists of Jewish Communist activists, who were imprisoned and taken out to be killed. The Jews who fled at the beginning of the bombardment returned to the city in July. They lived in half burnt houses, barns, stables and on the new alley, called the alley of the White House where the Judenrat offices were later located. The Jews were ordered to wear yellow armbands and were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks. They had to mark their houses, and were forbidden to live in the same house as gentiles. Many of them were conscripted to hard labor -- clearing the ruins, digging pits, and other difficult tasks. Later, Jews were also employed in building a sanitarium for German soldiers at the city entrance. At the command of the German authorities, the Jews set up a Judenrat headed by the physician Dr. Yitzchak Wajnberg, and a Jewish police brigade headed by M. Chantow (later, he was replaced by a refugee from Galicia). The members of the Judenrat were diligently concerned about the well-being of the Jews. On the other hand, the police collaborated with the Germans and obeyed all of their commands. In September 1941, the Germans murdered 200 Jews in the Majak factory near Wołkowysk.
Wołkowysk was included in the East Prussian region according to the German governmental partition. When the aktions began in the towns of Byelorussia in the summer of 1942, the Jews of Wołkowysk hoped that the decree would pass over them since they were residents of the German Reich. The fact that no Jews were imprisoned in the city between December 1941 and October 1942 strengthened their feeling of apparent calm. Only the young Jews were not taken by false hopes. A group of youths, including Sara Rubin, banded together already in the spring and made contact with the Soviet partisans in the Zamkowy Forest. Some of them escaped and joined this unit. Other youths joined the underground activities during the summer months. In order to gain information about the partisan activity in the district, the Germans would send pro-Nazi Ukrainians to the forest disguised as Soviet prisoners of war, who would ask to join the partisan units. According to information given over to the S.S., on October 14, 1942, 27 Jewish physicians who secretly tended to partisans, including the head of the Judenrat Dr. Yitzchak Wajnberg, were arrested in Wołkowysk and taken out to be killed in the forest near Izabelin. His deputy Noach Fuks was appointed as the new head of the Judenrat, and Dr. Szadlecki was appointed as the new deputy. In the fall of 1942, a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire was set up in Wołkowysk on two alleys. Jews from towns of the region were brought there along with Jews of Wołkowysk, and the crowding was unbearable.
On November 2, 1942, the Jews of Wołkowysk were transferred to a bunker camp outside of the city in preparation for their deportation to the death camps. The old and the infirm who had difficulty walking were taken out to be killed in Wołkowysk. During the liquidation of the camp, a group of youths escaped to Bialystock and other places. Twenty thousand Jews from the entire district were concentrated into the bunker camp. Most of the residents of the camp died in a typhus epidemic that spread as a result of hunger, crowding, filth and cold. The commander of the camp, Tzirke, summed the head of the Judenrat Noach Fuks and informed him that the bunker camp is only a transfer camp, and within six weeks, the Jews would be sent in transports of 3,000 people to a large, comfortable work camp, as he described it. In the meantime, a list of the names of all the residents of the camp in order to arrange for the distribution of food were demanded from him and the other Judenrat heads. The first large transport of Jews was sent out to the Treblinka Death Camp on November 6, 1942. Approximately 5,000 Jews, mainly from Wołkowysk, and approximately 1,000 from Swisloch (see entry) still remained in the camp. A large group of young people worked in building. The members of the Judenrat headed by Noach Fuks, bribed the German work commanders and requested that they leave 1,700 building workers from Wołkowysk and Swisloch in the camp until August 1943. The Germans demanded from the Judenrat a list of names of the young men and several women without children who would remain working. The men of the Judenrat deliberated greatly over the composition of this list. Among others, it included about 20 members of the Judenrat, Jewish policemen, two physicians, and kitchen workers. Under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo and Judenrat, these people were transferred to dwellings that had become vacant after the first deportations. The rest of the members of the camp joined the transport that left for Treblinka on December 8.
After the departure of the second transport, Tzirka left the camp and left it in the hands of the commander of the local Wehrmacht unit. However, he returned in January 1943. On January 25, he summoned the members of the Judenrat and told them that those deported in the earlier transports were already working in their new place, and that the remainder would be joining them. The members of the Judenrat did not believe him and decided to escape to the Bialystock Ghetto with their family. However, the head of the Jewish police, to whom the internal responsibility of the camp had been transferred that day, opposed the escape with the claim that it was not possible, and imposed house arrest on the members of the Judenrat. Only a few, including two physicians, succeeded in escaping. The next day, January 26, the final transport left the bunker camp and set out for the Auschwitz Death Camp. A selektion was conducted on them immediately after they got of the train. Approximately 130 women and 200 men were separated and sent to work. The rest of the Jews were sent to the gas chambers. When the Red Army approached the area, the workers who still remained in Auschwitz were sent on death marches to concentration camps in Germany. Most of them died from the tribulations of the journey, or were shot. The rest of them worked at backbreaking work until the concentration camps in Germany were also liberated.
A few dozen Jews of Wołkowysk survived until the liberation of the city by the Soviet Army in the summer of 1944, including those who had been deported to the Soviet Union
during the time of Soviet rule, several youths who had escaped to the partisans, a few individuals who had hidden with farmers, and several youths who had been sent to Auschwitz, joined the death marches to Germany, and were liberated at the end of the war.
AYVSh: (Archives of Yad Vashem)
016/365; 03/1288, 3026, 3283, 7012, 7413.
M1/Q/512; M1/E/347; 033/546, 1049, 3567, 4088
M41/2219; M33/860, M31/1518, M11/B/195, 252, 385
JM/5264, 18647, 11269; M49/1930, 1855.
Wołkowysk Yizkor Book, New York, 1949.
Wołkowysk, The Story of a Jewish-Zionist community, edited by K. Lishovitz, Tel Aviv, 1988.
Datner, Eksterminacja ludności żydowskiej w okregu białystockim, BŻIH 60 (1966). pp. 7, 11, 14, 19, 25.
Zablotniak, Szpitale zydowskie we wschodnich regionach Polski miedzy wojennej, BŻIH 162-163 (1992) p. 171.
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