“Suchowola” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VIII
(Suchowola, Poland)

53° 25' / 23° 06'

Translation of “Suchowola” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


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Acknowledgments

 

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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 464-468, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

Translator's note:- This text is a translation and does not clarify or correct any discrepancies in the historic record.


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[Pages 464-468]

Suchowola

(District of Suchowola, region of Bialystok)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Year Population Jews
1768 .. 685 *
1799 959 292
1878 2,292 1,184
1897 3,203 1,944
1921 2,457 1,262
1937 3,103 1,521

* Payers of the head tax, including those of the area (not including clergy and babies under one year old).

Suchowola is located on the Olszanka River, about 30 kilometers northwest of Sokółka and about 50 kilometers north of the district city of Bialystok. It was founded in the 17th century, during the time of the clearing of the forests of northeastern Poland and the settling of new areas. In 1777, King Stanisław August Poniatowski granted Suchowola the status of a city. At the end of the 18th century, it was a regional center of grain commerce. After the third partition of Poland in 1795, Suchowola was included in Prussia. The Prussians continued to develop the city. There were 218 houses and 959 residents in 1799. It was annexed to Russia in 1807. Beer breweries, tanneries and weaving workshops were set up there in the 19th century. Suchowola was conquered by the Germans during the First World War. After three years of occupation (from Autumn 1915 until the end of 1918), it was included in independent Poland. At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, it was annexed to the Soviet Union. It was conquered by the Germans at the end of June 1941. It was liberated by the Soviet Army in the summer of 1944.

 

The Jews Until the End of the First World War

The first Jews settled in Suchowola at the end of the 17th century. In 1698, a privilege writ was granted by King August II permitting them to set up stalls in the market, to work in commerce, and to build houses. There were several large–scale grain merchants in Suchowola. The rest of the people earned their livelihood from small–scale commerce and the trades. During the period of Prussian rule (1795–1807), local commerce developed, and the number of Jewish merchants grew. Grocery stores, haberdasheries, and hide and textile stores were opened in the Jewish living quarter in the market. A new Jewish quarter “Top of the Mountain” was built in the city during the Prussian era. The Prussians lived in the area near the warehouses of the large–scale merchants. In the new quarter, the houses were big and lovely, with tended gardens. Wealthy Jews lived there. The poorer people remained in the old “Slope of the Mountain” neighborhood. This division remained even in this 20th century. Despite the fact that communication and transport was carried out with wagons under difficult topographical conditions, the Jewish merchants opened up commercial connections with cities in the district such as Grodno, Bialystok, Sokółka, and Goniądz (see their entries). The number of Jewish grain merchants who exported local grain to Russia and Germany grew during the 19th century.

After the Prussians left in 1807, the Russians forbade commerce with Prussia. However, many people continued to do so secretly due to the large profits. In 1842, a farmer who worked as a smuggler in the service of a Jewish merchant across the border was captured. When the guards refused to free him in return for a bribe, the farmer killed one of the guards. The Jews refused to turn in the merchant who employed the smuggler to the authorities, and as a reaction, the authorities imprisoned all the Jewish merchants and the majority of the community. During their trial in Petersburg before a judicial committee appointed by the Czar, the farmer pushed down the accused, and he was hospitalized. The Jews were

[Page 465]

freed from prison, but a large fine was imposed on the community for many years. The accused Jewish merchant fled to America, and his house was confiscated. Later, the community bought the house from the authorities and turned it into a Beis Midrash.

During the second half of the 19th century, the Jews of Suchowola developed the hide trade. The hides were imported from Volhynia and sold to the tanners in Suchowola, most of whom were Tatars, and earned large profits. The Tatars left Suchowola at the outbreak of the First World War, and the Jews took their places in the tannery business. The rest of the Jewish tradesmen were tailors, shoemakers, bakers, butchers, carpenters, locksmiths, blacksmiths, glassblowers, and engravers. The wagon drivers of the city were also Jews. Among the Jews, there was still an innkeeper and several flour–mill owners. The market day in the city served as a primary source of livelihood for the small–scale merchants, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and even the innkeepers.

The Jewish community of Suchowola arose at the beginning of the 18th century. At first it was subordinate to the community of Grodno (see entry), but after a few years it gained its independence, and a large wooden synagogue and a Beis Midrash next to it were built. Later, an additional synagogue was built. There were also two Hassidic shtibels in town as well as a minyan of the tradesmen. A Jewish cemetery was opened in Suchowola in the middle of the 19th century. The rabbis of the community known to us before the First World War are Rabbi Shmuel Zalman Branicki; Rabbi Meir Yonah Szac the author of “Shaar Hechadash,” “Petach Hadvir,” and “Har Hamoria,” and other books. He was a zealous opponent of Hassidism who fought against Hassidism (see entry on Svislovich); Rabbi Shabtai Berlin, a descendent of the founder of the Yeshiva of Volozhin (see entry) and the grandfather of the writer and journalist Chaim Yosef Heftman; Rabbi Shmuel the son of Rabbi Meir Burmer; Rabbi Avraham the son of Rabbi Isser Einhorn (he was in Suchowola in 1862, and died in the Land of Israel in 1912); Rabbi Yaakov Binyamin Zeev HaKohen Jakimowski (Riba”z) the author of “Eim Yaakov” (Warsaw, 1904), who was one of the important rabbis of Lithuania; and Rabbi Yisrael Lewendersztejn, who moved from Suchowola to Indura (see entry, perished in the Holocaust).

The children of the community studied in traditional cheders. There was no Talmud Torah in the “Slope of the Mountain” neighborhood, but several teachers collected donations in a pooled fashion and made it possible for the children of the poor people to study in cheders with no tuition fees. Some of the cheder graduates continued their studies in Yeshivas outside of Suchowola. The girls studied Yiddish from the rabbi's wife, and some of them learned to read and write Russian and Polish, and basic arithmetic from private teachers. In the latter half of the 19th century, during the Enlightenment (Haskala) era, a modern cheder was opened in Suchowola, in which they studied Hebrew in Hebrew[1], Russian, and several other secular subjects. Jewish children also began to study in the local public school. No small number of boys and girls continued on to higher studies.

Cultural life also developed greatly during that era. A drama club was formed in Suchowola. The first performance, “The Sale of Joseph,” was performed in 1880, and was received with great enthusiasm. The income from the club was dedicated to the Maos Chittim [Passover charity] committee. In 1906, the reactionary era after the oppression of the 1905 revolution, several Jewish Maskilim clandestinely founded a library, donated some of their own books, and worked for it in a voluntary fashion. As time went on, additional books were purchased using the income of the drama club and the money taken in from lending books to the readers. In the “Top of the Mountain” neighborhood, some of the Jews subscribed to newspapers such as “Hatzefira” and “Der Friend.”

Connection to the Land of Israel was well rooted in the community of Suchowola already before the advent of Zionism. A local family already made aliya to Jerusalem for religious reasons in 1862. At the end of the 1880s, two additional families, apparently members of Chovevei Zion, made aliya, and a young woman made aliya in 1906.

With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Jews were also drafted into the Czarist Army. As the front approached, the local residents were evacuated to Russia by the authorities. Many Jews wandered to Russia on their own accord or fled to nearby villages. When the Germans entered Suchowola at the end of 1915, some of the Jews returned. The local economy was paralyzed during the period of occupation and there was a lack of basic food supplies. Jews and non–Jews were enlisted to forced labor, and were occupied in the building of fortification, digging of trenches, and other hard labor. On account of the want and the famine, Jews also became involved in smuggling and other forbidden trade.

For some time, a Yiddish school had functioned in Suchowola with the permission of the authorities. Students studied there with no tuition fees. However, it was closed when the Germans opened their own public school. The teachers in the German school were primarily Jews, and several hours a week were designated for teaching Hebrew and religion to Jewish children. The Linat Tzedek Organization operated in Suchowola during the war. There was no doctor in the city, but there was a Jewish medic. During the time of the German occupation, communal and cultural life was revised, and clubs for Hebrew, history, Hebrew and Jewish literature, and other subjects were opened. Young Zion (the largest party in the city), Mizrachi, and Bund (albeit with restricted influence) functioned in Suchowola in 1918.

 

Jews Between the Two World Wars

At the end of the war, the area of Bialystok was the site of battles between the armies and semi–military bands. It was captured by the Bolsheviks for a period during the summer of 1920. They were then pushed out by the Polish General Haller. When the Polish soldiers entered the town, they perpetrated attacks against Jews, broke into houses, uprooted doors, pillages property, and beat people. They even murdered Jews and injured others.

[Page 466]

They cut off half of Rabbi Yisrael Justnicz's beard, and did the same to other bearded men who fell into their hands. Local Poles participated in the attacks. On the other hand, some of them assisted their Jewish acquaintances and provided refuge to their children.

After the war, the number of Jews of Suchowola dropped by a third in comparison to the number at the end of the 19th century. This was a result of emigration overseas and escape to Russia during the time of war. After order and security were restored, the Jews began to reconstruct their businesses and sources of livelihood. They received assistance from the American JOINT and relatives overseas. A charitable organization was founded alongside the communal council. Most of the Jews returned to work in small–scale commerce and trades, as during previous period. The rest of them were horse merchants, restaurant owners, two or three owners of old flour–mills, and many wagon drivers (Suchowola was not connected to the railway line). During the 1930s, the Jews set up a bus line out of Suchowola. After the war, the Jews of Suchowola set up a tannery and cement factory. Jewish employees worked in both. The focus of economic activity in the town was the weekly market day. The residents of both Jewish neighborhoods of Suchowola had vegetable gardens near their houses, primarily for personal use. In 1926, a large fire broke down in the “Slope of the Mountain” neighborhood, and tens of Jewish families remained without a roof over their heads. The JOINT came to their aid this time as well.

Photo page 466: Students in front of the Hebrew School of Suchowola. From the photographic archives of Yad Vashem.

After the war, the border between the Soviet Union was closed to the merchants of Poland. For this reason, most of the large–scale grain merchants who based their business on export to Russia disappeared from Suchowola. The rest of the Jews also suffered with their livelihoods, especially due to the decrees imposed by the government of Poland restricting Jewish business. The owners of small businesses bore a heavy tax burden without any relation to their income. Simultaneously, the government encouraged the income of the Poles with benefits for independent business, thereby pushing out Jewish retailers from the marketplace. The government of Poland enacted stringent new decrees in the realm of trade: with regard to permits (requiring fluency in Polish), renovations of food businesses, and others. All of these caused a progressive weakening of the Jews, alongside with increasing unemployment. No small number of Jewish youths and heads of families who gave up on their future in Poland emigrated to overseas countries or made aliya to the Land of Israel.

The community and its institutions reorganized after the war. Elections for the communal councils in the district of Bialystok took place at the end of 1918. In Suchowola, Young Zion, Mizrachi, and Bund took part in these elections. In the wake of the difficulties of collecting taxes from the impoverished Jews, the new communal council was disbanded after some time and became a restricted council of activists. During the 1920s and 1930s, Rabbi Yisrael Justnicz continued his tenure in Suchowola. His brother Rabbi Tzvi Kalir (who perished in the Holocaust) was chosen for the rabbinate after him.

During the 1920s and 1930s, a large awakening of communal and Zionist activities was noticed in Suchowola. The Hatechiya and Hashachar youth movements, organizations in the pattern of Poale Zion (later the left leaning Poale Zion), the New Zionists, and others arose alongside with the existing Young Zion and Mizrachi. The first Zionist youth movement in Suchowola was Hechalutz, followed by Hechalutz Hatzair (Young Hechalutz) – the largest of the youth movements, Hechalutz of the New Zionists, Hashomer Hatzair, and Beitar in 1930. The youths went out to hachshara kibbutzim or obtained work experience from the Jewish farmers of the district. Some of them made aliya to the Land of Israel. The Bund also continued its activities.

Both the Zionists and their Bundist opponents conducted vibrant cultural activity. The Zionists opened the Hebrew School in 1919, which later joined the Tarbut network. It moved to a new building in 1924. Most of the children of the community studied in it. A minority studied in the public elementary school in Suchowola, and a few boys continued to learn in cheders with an updated curriculum. The Jewish library that had been founded in 1906 burnt down in the fire of 1926. However, it was renovated within a short time, and new readers from all the movements joined it. In 1939, the number of books reached 2,000.

[Page 467]

The dedication was marked with great festivity. The longstanding drama club continued to function. It dedicated its income from performances to the assistance organizations and to enriching the library collection.

 

During the Second World War

The Red Army entered Suchowola on September 17, 1939, and imposed Soviet rule. During the first weeks of the war, Jewish refugees from the German occupation region of Poland streamed to Suchowola. The Soviets liquidated private business, and closed or nationalized the enterprises and workshops. They deported two wealthy Jewish businessmen to Siberia. The tradesmen organized work cooperatives (“Artels[2]), and workers who were pushed out of their businesses became involved in new jobs. Young people were employed in the Soviet apparatus. The existence of Zionist Youth movements was banned, but small–scale activity continued clandestinely. The Jewish schools were closed, and all the children of the town were required to study in the public school that followed the Soviet curriculum. Many youths were sent out of Suchowola to continue their studies.

Suchowola was conquered by the German Wehrmacht at the end of June 1941. Nationalist Poles greeted the German soldiers with demonstrations of joy. From among them, the occupiers set up a new, local police force under the command of Mikolski. The policemen were given a free hand to do whatever they wished with the Jews. The first decrees imposed upon the Jews of Suchowola included the obligation of forced labor, the wearing of a white armband with a Star of David (later, it was yellow bands in the shape of a Star of David), a ban on contact with gentiles, and various restrictions on movement. Jews were snatched from the streets and houses for forced labor, and the Germans and local police tortured them in various ways along the way. Most of them were drafted for degrading tasks such as cleaning the streets and public washrooms, as well as for backbreaking work. The first Jew was murdered a few days after the capture of Suchowola. A lad who worked in fixing the road escaped, and when the German guard who was guarding the workers noticed his absence, he ordered his comrades in the group to bring him back immediately or else they would pay with their lives. The mothers of the young workers pleaded with the mother of the worker who escaped to return him. When he returned to his workplace, the guard shot him before the eyes of his mother and comrades.

On Saturday, July 12, 1941 (that received the nickname “Black Sabbath”), the Jews were gathered into the church yard. Polish guards and Gestapo men searched for those who hid themselves and did not show up. Those who were caught were beaten harshly and dragged to the gathering place. The Polish residents of Suchowola gathered in the yard. Some of them were carrying clubs and work implements. At the command of the Germans, they pointed out the Jews that had formerly been Communist activists – at times because of personal accounts rather than a basis in reality. Seventy youths who were accused of Communist activity were separated from the others and forced to pass between two rows of Poles who beat them with clubs until blood flowed. Five of them were murdered, and the rest were hauled to the river by the Poles, who intended to drown them. When they realized that the water was too shallow for this, they took them to the building in the cemetery, sealed its doors, and set it on fire. Those locked inside succeeding in breaking out through the windows and escaped, with the exception of one who was burned to death. The hooligans shot the youths with guns, murdering 12 and injuring several others. Jews who witnessed the deed caught those who were escaping and dragged them into their houses. A group of so–called “Communist” girls were imprisoned in the women's section of the synagogue, where they were tortured, beaten and degraded for two days until they were freed. The rest of the Jews were brought from the church yard to the building of the Hebrew School, where the local guards and German gendarmes tortured them. They cut of the beard of Rabbi Tzvi Kalir, ordered him to kneel down on his knees. They then put a metal bucket over his head, and knocked on the bucket with sticks.

In August, the German military governor gave up his place to a civilian director. The new administration sent policemen to the Jewish houses to fetch fowl, butter, eggs and other necessities that they desired. The Germans appointed a 12–person Judenrat from among the communal activists, and imposed upon it the task of drafting people for forced labor. The workers were supervised by Polish workers, who tortured and beat them. By the end of 1941, the Germans and Polish policemen had murdered seven Jews of Suchowola and injured tens of others.

In February 1942, the Jews were removed from their houses and transferred to the ghetto that was set up in the “Slope of the Mountain” neighborhood. The Jews were forced to build a high wooden fence, topped with barbed wire around the ghetto. Jews of Dąbrowa, Sidra, and Nowy Dwór (see entries) and other towns in the area of Sokółka, about 5,100 souls in total, were crowded into the two and a half streets. Forced labor continued. On account of the tribulations of hunger, the workers smuggled in foodstuffs from outside the ghetto that were bartered from farmers, despite the fact that this was fraught with mortal danger. On account of the crowding, dismal hygienic conditions and hunger, a typhus epidemic broke out in the ghetto, in which hundred perished. In the spring of 1942, Mordechai Tenenbaum, Hershel Rozental, and Miszkinski, the heads of the clandestine Hechalutz organization in the Bialystok (see entry) Ghetto, secretly came to the Suchowola Ghetto and told of the actions of murder in other ghettos and the deportations to the death camps. Not all of the residents of the ghetto believed them. Youths attempted to organize an escape, but the heavy guard made their preparations impossible.

On November 2, 1942, the S.S. and armed Gestapo men surrounded

[Page 468]

the ghetto. The Jews were ordered to prepare to leave on the journey at 2:00 a.m., and to leave behind ill family members in the houses. There were attempts to escape, but most of the escapees were shot. In the darkness of the winter night, the Jews laden with packages moved to the other side of the ghetto yard, where farmers with their wagons were enlisted to transport them. At 4:00 a.m., a caravan of wagons set out in the direction of Grodno (see entry). After traveling for an entire day in the snow and ice, the caravan reached the Kielbasin Transit Camp near Grodno. The Jews of Suchowola were housed in underground ditches in which multi–layers sleeping platforms had been set up. (Regarding the living conditions in the Kielbasin Camp, the thirst, hunger, filth, mildew, cold, and murderous cruel deeds – see entry on Grodno). The cruel camp commander Karl Rintzler tortured primarily the members of the intelligentsia, and often shot them with his own hands. Trains left the Kielbasin Camp daily to the Treblinka and Auschwitz death camps. In January 1943, after most of the residents of the camp had already been deported to the death camps, some Jews of Grodno, Druskininkai (see entry) and Suchowola still remained. They were all transferred to the Grodno Ghetto due to a temporary interruption in the deportations.

After about four weeks, on February 16, 1943, the Grodno Ghetto was liquidated, and the residents, including Jews of Suchowola, were sent to the Auschwitz death camp. They were murdered in the gas chambers, with the exception of a group of youths, mostly former members of the Zionist youth movements, who were selected for work in the camp. With time, they also were murdered or died of hunger. Only one girl from Suchowola survived until the end of the war. At the outbreak of the war, tens of youths of Suchowola were living in various hachsharah kibbutzim in Poland. Some of them were working in various underground organizations in Poland, or in service of the partisans. Reuven Rozenberg, a member of Young Hechalutz, fell as a fighter in the Bialystok Ghetto. Feiga–Tzipora Raviv and Masha Fiszer–Begner of Suchowola both served in the underground Jewish communication network of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Organization of Jewish Fighters – IY'L), and survived. In total, at least 23 Jews of Suchowola survived until the end of the War.

Bibliography

Yad Vashem Archived 03/6655.
Book of Suchowola. Edited by Ch. Steinberg. Encyclopedia of the Diaspora, Jerusalem, 5717, 1957.
Pinkas Krynki. Edited by D. Rabin, Tel Aviv, 1970, page 245.
Datner “Eksterminacja ludności żydowskiego rucha partyzanekiego w okręgu białystockim (1941–1944)”. BZIII 73–76 (1966) pp. 26, 27.
Leszczynski, Żydzi ziem Bielskiej ad polawy XVII w do 1795 p. 80.
Wišniewski, Bożnice Białostoczyzny pp. 191–193.
R.G.P.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. An educational methodology for teaching Hebrew (or any language for that matter) in which the language of instruction is the same as the language being taught. return
  2. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artel return


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