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[Page 165]

Sokółka in the year 1933

Translated by Selwyn Rose

From the day of my immigration to Palestine in 1923 I never stopped missing my old town of Sokółka; there I was born and there I was educated. There I spent the days of my youth. As if my heart prophesied to me that destruction would come upon our town, I determined to fulfill an ambition to see the town where I was born and overcame every obstacle that stood in my path.

It was hard to leave Palestine; as a “Hagana” commander, I instructed a course for officers. At the end of the course, I received a leave and started on my way. I traveled as a tourist on a visit to an exhibition in Lvov.

I visited the exhibition, Zionist institutions, “Halutz” – in every place they welcomed me gracefully. The Jews of Lvov were thirsting for information and to hear about life in Palestine and listened eagerly to me as I told of the country and its construction.

From Lvov, I traveled by way of Warsaw to Białystok. In Białystok I wandered round the streets I knew so well from before I immigrated.

That was on a Monday – the day the market used to take place in Sokółka. That was a day of “redemption” for the Jews of Sokółka – the day that the Jews waited for eagerly all week. I decided to return home that evening, after the market, after the farmers leave town. I started on my way towards Grodno and as evening came, arrived in Sokółka. The meeting with my mother and my brother and sisters I will never forget all the days of my life. My siblings didn't recog-nize me, my mother hugged me and kissed me and didn't stop looking at me. When I left for Pa-lestine, I was a thin, young lad. I had never worked when I was at home and now after 12 years, years of suffering and hard work, in quarries, building roads, in orchards, draining swamps, building and guarding, I was now sun-tanned and muscular – and many other changes had taken place in me. The house filled with friends, relatives and neighbors who came to see me and join in the joyous visit. And I, too felt very happy to have seen such a good day, to see my family and my town Sokółka that I had missed so much.

The townspeople were most interested in the Land of Israel and listened carefully to all I had to tell them about the country. Their eyes glowed like coals and it seemed as if they would all get up as one man. The desire to immigrate took hold in every one of the people.

The following morning I went out to walk round the streets of Sokółka and it seemed to me as if all the houses had become lower or sunk into the ground somewhat. Her streets seemed narrower but not diminished in my eyes. The opposite is true. The connection with my town grew stronger; I wandered the streets enjoying every moment. Everything was so familiar to me; here is the school of the Teacher Kunsht (“Heder M'tukan”) where I had learned; here the school of Mr. Kaplan and here the school of Hillel Levine and Hakoscher. Here is the Talmud Torah, the Heder of Kuznicher the Teacher, the teacher from Rozshinoi. Times had not changed in town. School continued until evening in the winter and the children walked home with the aid of torches. Here is the old synagogue, the new synagogue the big synagogue (“der Shul”), against whose walls we played “Spannewande” and rushed to see the weddings that took place next to the synagogue. How the families danced in front of the happy couple while holding a gigantic cake with all sorts of colored decorations on it, for the pleasure of the bride and groom.

From the “Town Hall” of the theater I arrived at Ulitzer Street and stood next to the Beit Ha-MidrashShulhan Aruch”, where I had learned Gemara and Midrash, the place where I was educated, where I played and where I spent my youth.

But I didn't find the same life in Sokółka, the same “nobility” the same youth that had been there before I had immigrated. Most of the young people had left Sokółka and immigrated to all four corners of the world. The streets of the town were silent and empty, especially in the evening. The economic situation of the Jews was hard. The Polish government bothered them in everything they tried to do. The taxes were burdensome and the profits poor.

I stayed in Sokółka and the surroundings a whole year. I wanted to be there in the summer and the winter – the river frozen solid, the sleighs and the snow-flakes drifting down onto my up-turned face. I saw everything so that I could refresh the sense of belonging to the town. At that time I didn't think of a permanent separation. Our town used to be beautiful and good – few of the townsfolk were wealthy, almost all were hard workers or middle-class, just ordinary people. A happy event was the happiness of everyone in town and when tragedy struck all were participants.

I took my leave of Sokółka, my family, relatives and friends who came to see me off. It didn't occur to me for one moment that I was parting from these good, honorable Jews for ever.


[Page 167]

Ulitzki (The Street)

Yitzhak Kunsht –Amnoti

Translated by Selwyn Rose

One of the streets in Sokółka crossing Białystok Street is Ulitzki Street, the lane in which I grew up and spent my childhood. From Ulitzki there were other small narrow lanes spreading out, like young soft twigs in the spring.

At the beginning of the street an enormous house of a wealthy man drew the attention of everyone who passed by, with its large tall windows and broad verandas. Opposite stood a little toppling house, its roof covered in wooden planks, peeping at the world through sooty windows. In the house lived and worked from morning to late at night the tinsmith Sohnia*.

Close-by stood in all its glory the Beit Ha-Midrash of “Shulhan Aruch”, its high round windows shedding light and brightness down the street. While I looked at the shining light coming out of the windows, I heard the sweet voices of the scholars praying, one of whom was my father (Z”L). From among the regular visitors there, was one whom I remember especially well – Haim Hirsch the old Sexton and treasurer, Prayer and Torah reader who was always there, sitting and studying the Torah.

The courtyard of the Beit Ha-Midrash was next to our house and always spread its warmth, the noise and happiness of the young children whose teacher and educator was my father (Z”L). Their laughter and exuberance filled the street. Alongside nearly every house was a cherry-tree, or a Persian Lilac tree or just decorative garden flowers that spread their perfume and enchanted the soul.

Facing the Beit Ha-Midrash as if suspended in the air, stood the three-storied building of “Little” Pasca, and on Friday nights you knew, from the number of candles shining through the window that it was full of neighbors from wall to wall singing the Sabbath Hymns. Many artisans lived in Ulitzki: cobblers, high quality tailors; tin-smiths in their work-shops, hammers in hand, accompanying their work with their own singing; water-carriers, who refreshed the souls with the water they brought from the wells in the yard of Mrs. Zorkowska.

There were also some mad-men in the street, and a doctor, an attorney, a mid-wife who helps new lives into the world – everyone to his own profession. The street hummed with productive work and the study of Torah. Artisans all, in spite of their daily toil to earn their daily bread, they refused to surrender their daily study period between the afternoon and evening prayers and would sit by the windows studying Mishna.

But sorrow and sadness did not ignore the street for all the funerals of Jewish Sokółka passed along it on the way to the cemetery at the end.


[Page 168]

The Journey to Palestine

Gedaliah Weismann

Translated by Selwyn Rose

After the First World War, Communist Russia attacked Poland and conquered her. A few of the young people in Sokółka tended towards Communism. When the Russians retreated from Poland, fear took hold of the Jewish youth who became scapegoats. In the eyes of the Bolsheviks the Jews were considered Bourgeoisie and sent them to Siberia and in the eyes of the Poles the Jews were suspected Communists and many of the Sokółka Jews were beaten to death.

Many of the young people from the surrounding Polish villages and towns came through Sokółka on their hurried escape from Poland, some to Russia and some to Lithuania until the anger subsided. Myself, and many hundreds like me crossed the border into Lithuania. A few managed to get from Lithuania via Germany to Palestine, but most of them returned to Poland when things became quiet again because in Lithuania it was necessary to hide from the police who hunted down and chased the Jewish refugees.

The Jews of Lithuania gave us hiding places in attics or dark storerooms, because they also were under threat of severe punishment for hiding the refugees in their homes. I returned to Sokółka with one thought in my heart – immigration, to immigrate to Palestine as quickly as possible.

In 1921, towards the end of winter, with the snow beginning to melt, and the ground wet, muddy and slippery, walking difficult, I walked to the railroad station with my parents, on my way to Palestine. At home the parting was sad, my parents cried – they were parting from their son for-ever, they cried, worrying about me, that a tragedy shouldn't befall me in the desolate country surrounded by wild Arabs. They cried and didn't know what they were crying for; they didn't know that the terrible tragedy was creeping up on the Jews who remained in the Diaspora and that the “Pillars of the World” were about to collapse. They didn't know that their fate and destruction was sealed and only in Palestine was there a safe haven for our people.


[Page 169]

The Final Examinations
of the Pedagogical Course in Grodno

M. Tzinowitz

Translated by Selwyn Rose

With the 1905 Russian Revolution there came many changes in the outlook of the Government regarding National education. The liberal administration that existed then intended to expand the network of schools and immediately became aware of the serious lack of qualified teachers and the non-existence of seminars to train them in a short time. They therefore publicized a program to found pedagogic courses in seminars lasting two years alongside elementary schools to train national teachers. The demands on the teachers were not great and the content of the courses reduced.

The officials of “Hevrat Mefizei Haskala” (“The Company for Disseminating Education”), in Grodno and their head Bezalel Yaffe, used that directive and in the name of the company filed for permission to be allowed to found two-year courses, because extra time was needed for Jewish studies, alongside the Government's Jewish elementary school, which filled the necessary qualifications. The head of the school was Katzenellson, a Zionist and a public official for Hebrew education, and a member of the “Heder Metukan” (Grodno). In those days, the Director of the Grodno county schools was a Russian liberal teacher. The public education officials in Grodno were in constant touch with him and relations were good. It was he who gave the license for the “Heder Metukan” to be a school for Torah and certification” and allowed Hebrew as the language of instruction in the school. It was he who recommended to the Ministry of Education the request of “Disseminators” in Grodno. The license was granted in 1906 although the courses started only in autumn 1907.

There was no permission to run the courses in Hebrew although in practice it was Hebrew that predominated in the course. Aharon ben Moshe Kahanstam, who was the manager of the course was also an instructor and programmer and it was he who raised the institution and its students to a high level in their work in Hebrew education. He came to the courses as a general educator and evolved into a Hebrew educator. After some time he stood at the forefront of the fight for Hebrew schools and Hebrew education. The central figure and authority for Hebrew culture, who had the influence to strengthen Hebrew education was Doctor Shalom-Yona Charna He was the first to instruct in Hebrew even in general subjects and when the Russian inspector came he would change immediately to Russian. He took it upon himself and his pupils a heavy load – to be ready at a moment's notice to change from one language to another. The students accepted the situation gladly. They learned Hebrew but also gymnastics, handicrafts, music and drawing. The Hebrew language dominated the courses virtually entirely, especially in the first years.

The official examinations for the candidates of the first course took place in 1909, in the presence of the Government-appointed inspector and the participants were tested in psychology, pedagogy and didactics. All the candidates passed the examinations and the authorities expressed their satisfaction with the results. The wording of the certificates that the Director signed read: “This certificate is recorded in the office of the director of Public Schools in the County of Grodno”, but the certificate had no authority to define the recipient as being qualified as a Government-authorized teacher of Hebrew and general subjects in pursuance of the Minister of Education's declaration. The Minister of Education held back from that step on the special appeal brought before him by the inspector from Odessa, who just happened to be there, not to approve teachers from that course in the county because the courses were approved to give certificates of completion only, while in order to obtain the degree of teacher, the candidates had to be examined before a standing committee at the Russian Institute of Schools, in accordance with the law.

The courses managed to adapt themselves to that as well. The educational authorities in Grodno recognized the value of the course and even honored Kahanstam as a distinguished educator. Because of that, with the help of the “Hevrat Mefizei Haskala”, they succeeded in arranging the final examinations to take place permanently in nearby Sokółka where it was instituted next to the Russian School and the Examining Board for Teachers. The education authorities, for their part, eased up a little on the candidates, taking into account the lessons actually given to pupils during the courses. They also reduced the number of subjects as well. Nearly all the finalists used to pass the official examinations and received the designation “Official Teacher”.[1]

Nevertheless, the entire incident was not yet over. Because the courses only gave an unofficial “Final Certificate” it was decided to emphasize on the certificate the Hebrew aspect. They therefore printed the certificates for the second course in two languages: Hebrew and English. Again, one of the certificates arrived at the County Ministry of Education offices in Odessa and from there came a new accusation: by what authority are the certificates printed in Hebrew alongside the Russian. The Ministry immediately recalled the earlier “sin” from the first course when certificates had been issue with the Government logo - the Royal Eagle - as if they were for full, authorized teachers. The Ministry ordered the course to “repent of its sin” to collect from all the participants their certificates and deposit them with the local office and instruct all the teachers to re-sit the government examinations. As usual Kahanstam had to do that as well and arrange for their re-examination in Sokółka. All of them passed the examinations and returned as full teachers to the school.


[Page 171]

“On me and on my neck”

Benjamin Even

Translated by Selwyn Rose

As we know, there is no expression “and it came to pass” without the inevitable addition of “evil”. The day came when the Chief of Police arrived in Sokółka, a Jew-hater. And how did this hated find expression? Bribes and extortion – he didn't take. People did say, however that his origins were Jewish and his hatred sprang from that he was the grandchild and great grandchild of apostates and brought evidence to prove it. Every pessach he would prepare in his house a package of Matzoth. Can there be a clearer signal than that?

During that same period the appearance of the town was more or less like this: Starting with the big courtyard by the side of the new Beit Ha-Midrash, the “Alte Shul”, and the courtyard of the Talmud Torah, the Shtiebel of Hassidei-Kotzker, up as far as the “Leinat Tsedek” was all one large area. For the hundreds of people praying there and the students in the Talmud Torah there wasn't a single rest-room. The streets of the town – Białystok Street, Grodno Street and the rest of the lanes were unpaved and the sidewalks and the water carrier's goat would occasionally stray into the commercial section, would steal an apple or two from Hanna-Reizel Galkofski or poke his horns into a barrel of salt-fish from Haschke Patztyowa, get beaten and kicked by the children and then return to his own territory and livelihood of delivering water.

Depending on the architectural inclinations of the individual, the Succot in town were of two types: The rich would usually have a fixed Succah with a roof that they would open for the festival. The middle-class, the laborers and all the rest would build their Succot for the period of the festival next to the home. And strangely, instead of building the Succah alongside the house in line with the building, they would place it on the front wall, thus interfering with pedestrians walking up and down, forcing them to step down from the sidewalk. Out of habit and a desire to lengthen the atmosphere of the festival they wouldn't dismantle the Succah immediately after the festival but rather leave them standing for a while continuing to interfere with passers-by.

With the coming of the police chief to town, some new decrees came into force:

  1. In the public areas of the synagogue and the Talmud Torah – rest-rooms must be provided.
  2. Civilization will be introduced to town by constructing proper sidewalks.
  3. To dismantle the Succot from their present position(s) and erect them within the building line of the homes.

After these city ordinances were promulgated came “mourning and moaning” and Sokółka was confused. All attempts to have the orders rescinded came to nothing. There were a few “Collaborators” who began to think that for all that perhaps the police chief was right but they were afraid to take a public stand.

During this storm the contentious topic was argued in the Stiebelech and the synagogues every day of the week and on Sabbaths before the Reading of the Law.

When the argument became too much to bear it was announced that the police chief was insisting on the rest-rooms being built, there was uproar from the congregation. One of the members stood up, a massive man with broad shoulders and a thick voice, declaring loudly:

“Your anger doesn't interest me. Jews of Sokółka, sitting in the dark shadows of the middle-ages, and the Shadow of Death, resisting every little ray of light that brings civilization – I tell you: I promise you that the rest-rooms will be built!”

Thus did the “sons of light” win over the “sons of darkness” in Sokółka.

 

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Raising the flag of the new branch of “Hashomer Ha-Tza'ir” in Sokółka - 1928

 

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“Hashomer Ha-Tza'ir” – Parading through the streets of Sokółka

 

[Page 175]

Lag B'Omer in the Forest of Buchwałów

Tova Putzkover (Gittel Kunsht)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

My father (Z”L) was a teacher and educator and provided children with a general education, the love of mankind and nature melding with the history and heroism of our people. With his competent hand he succeeded in bringing to life before our eyes the land of our fathers in its flowering, the heroism of her sons, willing to sacrifice their lives to protect her.

I remember especially a trip on Lag B'Omer, even though the names and faces are forgotten and blurred with time. Armed with bows and arrows, in remembrance of Rabbi Akiva and his heroic students, we marched out to the forest of Bucholowa, where nature appeared before us in all her beauty, my father seemed more than a teacher and father alone – but as a man.

Full of excitement and emotion, we crossed the streets of Sokółka in loud and cheerful song, with my father leading the way as one of us. In the forest we began to collect dead wood for a bonfire and when it was well alight we all sat around it and my father told us the story of the heroism of the warriors. We saw ourselves as if we were in the forests of the distant Land of Israel, preparing for revolt against the Romans. When my father stopped telling us the story and started with the blessings over the food it was if we had awakened from a delicious sweet wonderful dream. We spread out among the trees full of happiness but suddenly we felt drops of rain. We formed up quickly into rows and made our way back to town. As the rain got worse, we tried to find some shelter under a threshing-floor as we entered town and my father didn't miss the opportunity to tell us about the growth of the grain and the work of the farmer. We longed for the days when we too could plow in the fields of the Land of Israel.

Singing songs and hymns we returned to school and my father didn't stop us from running a little wild because he understood children and their need to let loose after an exciting experience.

My father loved his pupils and understood their spirit. He would merge Torah with pleasure and in the games, provide knowledge for the children to absorb and awaken in their hearts lofty and worthwhile ambitions.


Snippets of Memories

Yitzhak Benjamin Even

Translated by Selwyn Rose

There were many factories in Sokółka that processed skins for leather. Hundreds worked there and most of them were revolutionaries. When a propagandist came to town, in 1903-1904 it was necessary to find a secret place where he could hold his lecture. One of the possible places was a copse of pine trees, outside town where people would sometimes congregate on Saturday afternoons. When the police got to know about the meeting place they had the trees cut down. One of the policemen, Zharkhowitz, would make trouble for the workers who were known revolutionaries and he would appear at all the meetings. It was decided to get rid of him and one Sunday, when he was returning home from work, they shot him and a few hours later he died of his wounds. It happens that on the same day he had an argument with two non-Jewish young men and he said before he died that it was they who shot him. They stood trial and were sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment.

On one occasion when there was a strike, one of the strike-breakers was dragged running, up and down the street and beaten badly and also died of his wounds.

*

Every year, after Succot, there was a general conscription in the surrounding area. It was predestined that as soon as they reached Sokółka, they got drunk and became rowdy, throwing stones at the windows of Jewish homes and beating up Jews they found on the streets. Early evening, the Jews closed the shutters on the windows and shut the shops. It happened that the recruits got drunk and began to run wild, beating Jews. We had some Jews who knew how to defend themselves. They went out onto the streets and in an encounter with the mob, a recruit was killed. This enraged the recruits even more and the town marshal, who was on good relations with the Jews, came to try and control matters. He gave orders to gather all the recruits together in one place and not to allow them into town. In this way disturbances against the Jews were prevented. That same night the youngster who had killed the recruit went to America.

*

On Pentecost – the Christian festival – the Catholics would hold a religious parade through the streets of the town and erect a Triumphal Arch. In 1911, before the parade, there was a rumor that they intended to turn the parade into a pogrom against the Jews. Attempts were made through the town marshal and he sent a troop of cavalry who maintained order.

*

There were some weird characters roaming around Sokółka – the remnants of Cantonists who had been taken in their childhood into the Tsarist army and returned after 25 years service. Their names were:

  1. Shayer Barivanzcyk – he served 25 years in the Tsars' army and for what? He was a drummer! When he returned he became a porter and helped the Sexton in the synagogue.

  2. Aaron Mikhailowitz – served 25 years in the Tsar's army – Lonely without a wife and childless. With no fixed livelihood, the authorities offered him a job on condition he converted but he refused.

  3. Sharri Wolwoi – 25 years in the Tsar's army. When he returned from Moscow to Sokółka he walked around with a chain round his neck on which was a key. When he was asked what it was for, he said he had left 1,500 Roubles in a safe in Moscow and took the key with him.

  4. Avrami “The Soldier” – while still a child, he was kidnapped into the army and stayed there for 25 years. At night-time he would tell us stories on the life of the Jewish children who had been taken to the army and would look after the horses of the farmers in the fields.


[Page 177]

Musings and Memories

Ya'acov Wohlgill

Translated by Selwyn Rose

It is true that I immigrated to Palestine a few months before the outbreak of the WWII, so I didn't experience the fiery furnace, tortures and troubles as did my brethren - my fellow Jews who arrived after the war and had experienced the terrible fear of death with every step.

Indeed even before they arrived, the first echoes and information was trickling through on what was happening, we couldn't imagine to ourselves what was happening to our fellow Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

It seems to me, that all of us resembled refugees and survivors. All our brethren who found this safe haven, all of us were saved from the valley of death, destruction and torture.

I remember the endless debates and arguments, from early morning until late at night, between us – the proud bearers of the Zionist ideas – and those who were opposed to it, who would not participate in the revival of the National Home, to be with us – a nation like all the other nations.

It is worth pointing out that the Zionist Federation in our Jewish town of Sokółka and its parties, movements and branches, always had the upper hand in the debates. As one of the students – and later as an active member, I recall the “Golden Age” of the branches and cells of “Hashomer Ha-Tza'ir”, “He-Halutz Ha-Tza'ir”, “He-Halutz” and to a large degree also the party of the Right-wing. All of them hummed like a hive with children, young people and adults who were all trained in the direction of fulfilling the dream. Quite a few made it to the safe shores of the Land of Israel.

We will not forget the big and positive role played by our teachers and educators of the “Culture” school in town, whose educational target led towards the fulfilling of the ideology.

The adaptation of the fathers of families, the burden they shouldered in providing for their families was hard. The slogan – “revolt of the sons” meant preparation for immigration. There were also those who broke under the control of their parents and found only bitterness.

With feelings of respect and admiration, we recall the tens of activists (we called them 'fanatics'), who donated their time day and night to organizing the cultural activities in branches of the movement. Between them were the people who were oppressed by the worry of financing everything and in spite of their own private worries, guiding them on the way to building the homeland.

And the activists in the charity and social assistance institutions? Who will count their numbers? Constant awareness and endless work seethed in Sokółka as in hundreds of other similar settlements. It is sad that they have all passed away and are no more. We will remember them forever and unite with their memory.


[Page 179]

To my Family

Chaya Shaked

Translated by Selwyn Rose

In 1938 I came to Sokółka to say farewell to my father and family before immigrating to Palestine. The street was deserted, the youth – some had moved to other places, some had immigrated to Palestine. The neighborhood in which I had spent my youth had become orphaned. The street where I had lived lay between the railroad and Krynki Lane. At the end of the street was the stream and the bridge and beyond that the road to the army barracks. On the way there were many small villages among them the forest of Szyszki. Who doesn't remember and who never visited Szyszki Forest? The Jews of Sokółka would send everyone who needed fresh air to Szyszki Forest during the summer months, to rest and to relax. Either sick or broken – during the summer that was the place to go and spend time – in Szyszki - people ill with consumption and heart problems or just exhausted. On Saturdays their families would come as well to breathe the fresh air and amuse themselves on the swings.

 

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“The Theater Building” in Janova near Sokółka – “Tarbut” Drama
Group taking part in the production of the “Gentleman Bandit”

 

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The first truck in Sokółka – a Ford flat-bed, owned by Lasztowski (sitting on the wing)
The members of the “Tarbut” Drama Group on their way to Janova for a performance

 

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Reuven and Rivka Stein and their children at their summer home in Shiski

 

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Frau Schashke Stein, the mother of our book
committee secretary, Mrs. Esther Mishkinski

 

During the summer the children would play on the banks of the stream, perhaps fishing for little fish with their nets. At Rosh Hashana the Jews from the suburb would come here for “Tashlich”. In winter the stream also served as a playground; then we would come and skate on the ice or slide down on sledges from the top of the bridge as far as the railroad tracks. This is where my parents' home stood – alone among the houses of the Gentiles. I remember the fear I felt from these “trash”. On the way to school they would throw stones at me or set their dogs on me. All the years of my youth the fear stayed with me and yet, for all that the street was surrounded by hostile Gentiles, the days of my childhood were pleasant and full of joy and gladness for a child.

Market day in Sokółka – a great day for us the children: wagons loaded down with life-giving produce for bartering and exchange, shouts and screams from every direction and corner. The street was alive with excitement the eyes captivated by the colors, the blue skies and the green fields.

Krynki Lane was beautiful; there were no palaces of luxurious mansions – just poor little houses and cabins, some of them thatched. But the around it was a refreshing - spirit an atmosphere. On festival days and the Days of Awe its character was multi-faceted. The synagogue in the “suburb” that on ordinary days of the year was almost unnoticed – standing on its own, isolated from the main Jewish quarter – suddenly dressed itself in Holy elegant glory, its walls whitened, its roof rising high and its Holy Ark all sparkling golden glitter and the congregation around adorned in their best Holy “keitel” and prayer-shawls and shod in fine shoes or slippers, seeming almost like mourners. The music of prayers introduced a note of sadness and melancholy in our hearts. On Yom Kippur the synagogue was packed from wall to wall, the Jewish congregation trembling and vibrating with the intensity of the heart-breaking prayers, beating their breasts with each “for the sin I have committed…….”. From the women's section the sound of crying. Lighted candles embedded in sand, the congregation exhausted from the fast. Then suddenly the sound of the Shofar “Next year in Jerusalem!”

We had a drama group in Sokółka and I was one of the participants. We would meet nearly every even-ing in the attic of Gold-gleid's house and learn our parts for the prod-uction. The preparation was intensive. The “theater” was filled from wall to wall. The group's name was known outside of town as well: we played in Janów and all the revenues were ear-marked for the Keren Kayemet. Many years have passed since I was in Sokółka but the longing is deeply entrenched from my distant childhood.


[Page 184]

A Page of Memories from
My Childhood During World War One

Bezalel Dunski

Translated by Selwyn Rose

On 9th Av – (28th July) 1914 World War One began. In Sokółka as in all Russian towns large posters appeared announcing mobilization. Groups of people stood around together reading the order to report that had suddenly come upon us, laying fear and confusion. The anxiety was great and everyone understood that the war was going to destroy families, separate people from one another and lead to a life of misery. Having no option, all those who were liable obeyed the order. Every man asked in his heart “Why are we, the Jews going to war?” and in the bosom of the family even dared to ask the question out loud. I remember how the garrison, stationed permanently in the barracks on the way to Szyszki, went to the front passing through town singing with their band. The Jewish congregation decided to concentrate in the street to wave farewell to the Jewish soldiers, citizens of Sokółka. Torah scrolls had been brought from all the synagogues and used by Mattas the bartender to bless all the Jewish troops for a rapid victory. Every Jewish soldier fell out of his rank and kissed the Torah with tears in his eyes. They all took the same opportunity to part once again from their wives and children, and children from their fathers. With heavy hearts there was anxiety for the coming days.

It was very hot that same day, the sun was burning but in spite of it all a very large crowd had gathered to part from the soldiers, men, women and children. As a 14 year-old I was impressed by the uniforms, and heavy equipment carried by the marchers, by the folded blanket on the shoulders, a copper or brass pot tied to the corner, the trench spade, heavy black boots, their backpack full of a soldier's needs and in addition to all – his long Russian rifle. My mind foretold evil, doubts gnawed at my heart.

Four by four, the marches passed before us and we continued alongside them unable to break away; we joined them and kept them company along the way.

*

Sokółka slowly came to terms with the situation and before long we began to feel the shortage of essential supplies. The support of the family fell on the womenfolk while the children, as usual, continued with their daily games.

During the war, the people of Sokółka were divided into two camps: those who sided with the Germans and those with the Russians. Politics and strategy were decided between the walls of the New Beit Ha-Midrash. Mr. Altear, the Sexton, used to chase us away shouting and cursing: “Lay-a-bouts! Good-for-nothings! So, you also know about politics? Clear off out of here!!” He never managed to get the better of us.

The front approached Sokółka. After a two-day battle, we were captured by the Germans.

The Germans became entrenched, fortified and began to govern with a heavy hand the social and economic life of the town. Most of the produce of the country-side was sent to Germany and – as in all the conquered territory, ration-cards were issued to all the citizens. We had to stand in long queues to get flour to make bread and frozen potatoes distributed in the name of the Community Council by Mr. Shmuel Kahn (Z”L). A few of the children snuck out to the surrounding farms and villages and under cover of darkness managed to bring a little food home. A few others worked with the Germans and they received a few supplies. Thus somehow we managed to lessen the effects of the shortages; the second worry was the young people. As a result of the war we grew up without proper education or a profession or trade that we could build our futures on. So our biggest worry was the children on whom the future was built.

Once, on Saturday, I found a “chumash” of my father's with some World Zionist Federation shekels. I asked him what they were for. My father sent me to Mr. Katzenellenbogen who explained to me. He also gave me some Zionist pamphlets to read. Our young people woke up and began to look for a suitable meeting-place. In the beginning we argued and debated on the topics in small groups and tried to think of ways of creating a youth organization which would bring all the young people “under one roof”.

In the debates and arguments it became clear that some of the youth were guided by those close to “The Bund” and “pacifists” who were connected with the “Yiddish Literary Society of Sokółka”. At one of the debates it was suggested to create a general organization called “The Youth Society of Sokółka” that would operate in Yiddish. Most of the active membership couldn't agree and the idea fell through. We agreed to create a separate youth organization. There were many reservations and searches for suitable formats to overcome the divergence of opinions and to blend an educational and social content in the spirit of Zionism. We invited veteran Zionist figures, who were active in the underground during the Russian regime, like Mr. Yisrael Lipczer, Ridzhi and Tsvi Judovski. We asked for their help and they gladly agreed. Together with them we decided to create a Zionist youth organization named “Kadima”. For myself, I came to the conclusion that I must be an active participant together with those that want to create a Zionist youth organization that will train young people and prepare them for immigration to Palestine. The slogan was: “Kadima”, its objectives: general and Hebrew development.

Kadima” came into being illegally under German rule, up until the revolution, and with the end of the war in 1918 under Polish rule; the Palestine Office of Sokółka began to organize groups of youngsters for immigration to Palestine. Most of the youngsters at that time succeeded, but only with great difficulty to get through the training, to immigrate and put down roots during the British mandate and most of them took part in the War of Independence for the State of Israel.


[Page 186]

In the Twilight Hours

Menachem Zaharoni

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Once again I will peep with the eyes of childhood at the road that twists and turns from Krynki to Sokółka.

Along that road I accompanied hundreds of others as a child, excited and with a throbbing heart, pioneers on their way to Palestine. There were way-stations along their route and the first of them was Sokółka where the strange outside world began and from where the trains rushed to far distant places. We would drag many weary hours along the road with horse and wagon, sometimes even walking alongside climbing a hill; on the wagon, large wooden, double-walled crates - the hiding place of illegal weapons – wobbling from side to side; all the time the noise of squeaking wheels with us urging the sweating horses forward.

This would all happen during the afternoon hours and continue for hours of slow walking and excited conversation. At twilight we would part from the immigrants and return to town along the darkened road. The people excited, hearts nervously throbbing and choking with longing.

I was at the age of my Bar-Mitzvah when I went to relatives in Sokółka. We traveled across a dreary, sad landscape of fields of thin wheat and sand-dunes, copses of pine trees exuding scented resin and rivulets running almost dry, past dilapidated houses with thatched roofs and an aura of smokiness around them…we arrived at Sokółka, the beginning of another world. There was about it the smell of a large city, a rail-road station; sidewalks along the roadway, but the houses were similar to the houses of my home town and the atmosphere in the streets was not strange.

Perhaps it was the big clean house – the house of my aunt Shosh'ke and uncle Gamliel -with its wide courtyard that caused it and the poor little house of my uncle Haim and his wife. And perhaps – the simple relationship, the “neighborliness” between people, that began with a stroll round the streets of the town.

Eventually “civilization” conquered Krynki and the wheels of buses began to run on the road with the challenge before them of getting to the Great Metropolis – to Białystok. And it did: the world became that little bit smaller. Sokółka from now on just a temporary station, and was seen from the windows of the rail-cars racing by. But for the pioneers, Sokółka remained their station of departure and the trains continued to run from there. No longer did those who remained accompany their friends who were immigrating on the long road. It was not possible to run alongside the wheels of a speeding bus!

Since then, the emotional parting took place in the market square, the starting place of the bus that goes to the main station, to Sokółka. It seems that now, the explanation for the emotional partings, hand-shakes, heaving hearts and jealous looks of longing was clear. It was not only a longing for a lovely life in the far-off homeland. It was a passion of those condemned to annihilation, an echo of a verdict that oppressed from somewhere deep in the unconscious.

I knew two houses in Sokółka: one was of my uncle Gamliel, who was seen in my eyes as the epitome of wealth and easy living. There was something about the house itself that echoed its owner, my uncle Gamliel – tall, dignified appearance, welcoming guests with arresting warmth and my aunt Shosh'ke, joyful and warm- and good-hearted rushing with a quiet cry of greeting to all who approach her, her small gold earrings sparkling with every movement of her head.

The second house: the house of my uncle Haim, small with the signs of troubles and distress evident everywhere – on the walls, on the floors, on the old, stained benches of the pupils, in the small room where he taught Torah to his pupils. Heavy in his movements, breathing with difficulty, he was in a hurry to clean his spectacles in order to see who was approaching him and to greet him with a warm smile that would spread all over his full face and trimmed beard. From her small room to one side my aunt would slowly come, sickly, thin and short, leaning on her cane but with a wan smile on her lips.

Uncle Haim was a sociable and man and a friendly conversationalist - perhaps because of his time spent alone. But it's doubtful if he shared his deepest thoughts. He had repressed dreams, silent dreams of academia and a beautiful world. But all his dreams became ashes and dust in his distress and disappointment in the fight for simple survival. All that was left for him was the world of books, a wide sea that he began sailing upon in his youth and was determined never to reach the opposite shore.

I saw my uncle agile and happy only when he was cavorting in the river near Sokółka for he was indeed an accomplished swimmer. There he would forget his wrestles of the day, his small dark room and his pupils. But his ship never seemed to sail far from the gray shores of his life in town.

In that small dark room his children, Lazer and Meryl were educated. Here they would listen to their father's stories on festivals and days of mourning and fasting and here sat Lazer in a dark corner, his thin meager body hidden, listening on the 9th of Av by the light of a candle, to the legends of the destruction of the Temple. Afterwards he would burst out of his corner crying and raging, fists clenched in anger shouting in Yiddish: “Oy vey tsu der Volk” – “Oh, how terrible for the people” that the Land of Israel and its Temple were destroyed.

Later on he was a member of “Hashomer Hatza'ir”, cultured, a graduate of his school and educated at Warsaw University. Weak, physically thin and small, he joined a course for pioneers. Totally dedicated and consumed by the fire of idealism that devoured him entirely. But when his approval to immigrate came through a whole bundle of troubles beset him. He left his family and set out by train for Warsaw. There his fate awaited him: his immigration to Palestine was delayed at the last moment because the doctors had discovered a fault in his lungs. He struggled with his fate and fought for his right to immigrate but in the meantime his comrades had gone on and he was alone. He returned to Sokółka and to the University in Warsaw. What happened to him in the depths of his soul I do not know. He later told me he abandoned Zionism: disappoint-ment, echoes from his friends about their bitter struggles in Petah-Tikva for a crust of bread and the fevers they suffered there and a friend who was killed. Perhaps the poverty and distress of his father's house…Lazer got caught in another current and was captured by the “Sitra Achra” – Communism.

After the Second World War broke out, with the Soviet take-over, he was installed as inspector of schools in the county, as an educated and cultured man. Only a few faint echoes reached us in Israel about him but rumor has it that he quickly became disillusioned with the new ideology that he had embraced so fervently. He also gave voice to his thoughts forcefully and in a loud voice. Since then no trace of him has been found and from long before the jackboots of the Nazis were heard in Sokółka it was almost certain he had perished somewhere exiled among the snowy wastes of the far north.

And Meryl – her education she received in her father's house and in a 'foreign' school. Small of stature, thin-bodied, quiet and modest in her manners and demands on life, she knew sometimes to be joyful and happy, when her gray eyes were uncertain about being joyful, she herself was hurt. She was not pretty, her lips were full, her brow high. She was sharp-tongued when occasion demanded. But above all she was very gifted with a poetic, sensitive soul. Later I got to know her from close up when she was a student at the Hebrew Beit Ha-Midrash for teachers “Culture” in Grodno. Who can tell which way the wind will blow? From the house of my uncle Haim the Hebrew, where she could barely get one simple sentence in Polish out of her mouth, she became a young woman completely enamored of Polish song and the songs of Poland, to the extent that she knew all the tiny nuances of the Polish tongue.

She was an expert of the Polish language, eloquently declaiming and reading, and Hebrew was for her a second language.

And what happened to you when the lights became occluded? Did your eyes still remember to wink audaciously?

While writing these words, I had hours of unanimity with you, dear unforgettable ones, a time of opportunity to tell my children about you and about your lives and to shed a tear over your ashes strewn by the four winds of the earth. Come! Let us together remember your lives. Perhaps we will succeed in penetrating the souls of our children with a touch of your lives that were lost in so untimely a fashion.


[Pages 191-192]

Memory of Kolonia Izaaka

By Menuchah Shmilovitz (née Eckstein)

Translation from Hebrew by Irwin Keller

Small was “Kolonia Izaaka”. She was never accorded a place on the map of the world. And in vain would we look for her now. Indeed the Nazis took pains to obliterate her from the face of the earth.

Even so, they did not succeed. The few sparks that remain of this little village continue to illuminate the darkness of her past…

I was five when my parents uprooted and immigrated with their daughters to the land of our forefathers, in the year 1935. In the years that followed I didn't find in myself the courage to confess my sin: my shame in revealing to anyone that I was a daughter of the “Kolonia”. To those who inquired as to the place of my birth, I was accustomed to answering that I was born in Bialystok. I held on to this with great authority, because I didn't have the strength to reveal my secrets.

Now I confess: A daughter of “Kolonia Izaaka” am I!

The little village rises from the mists of oblivion and demands to be brought to life again, and suddenly here I am on the “main” street. Indeed she only had one street – there were no side streets. Two lines of trees upright along her single street; upright as the Jews who lived in their shade – a tree in front of each house. The entire village was bathed in green.

Atop the surrounding hills spread forests on the horizon, shrouded in mist. I always had a vague fear looking at them; my parents used to tell us about the goyim that lived in them. I was tiny at the time, but the word goy would already give me a shudder.

A special smell would waft from the house of Vicenty– the only gentile neighbor I remember well.

The residents of the single road of the “Kolonia” – not the few gentiles that lived on it – are the ones who sank their stamp into the village. Great Jews lived in it, whose roots grasped deeply in the earth, and whose eyes were always lifted to their Father in Heaven. With the sweat of their brow they brought forth bread from the earth. They plowed their fields, planted, harvested and tended their fruit. In their calloused hands, every clod of earth became a flowering garden of delight. Those same hands held the siddur, and they prayed to God with complete faith that their crops may flourish.

I am reminded of the green meadow, where Father, may his memory be a blessing, used to transport our fruit. I loved to accompany Father, to pluck a blade of sorrel with which to stretch out on the grass. I would listen hours upon hours to Father's stories about the wars of Nikolai the Second, wondrous stories of battles that I could not understand.

In my imagination I stroll down the single road of “Kolonia” and see the Jews. They mix together in my brain; only a few would I know to call by name. But they are so close to me.

Here is old Chaneh-Bashe. She wasn't a relative of mine, but I was born on the day her mother died and I was thus called by her name. I loved her and my lot was good. She would hide sugar cubes for me in her white apron, and she would give them to me when I would pass by her house. She would also tuck away slices of white bread that she brought me from Sokolka. And she loved to tell me the stories of ghosts and goblins that she knew so well.

We used to come to her house in the long winter nights when my mother and father would go to Sokolka to sell their produce. I am reminded of the good deed she would do for us on stormy nights, when lightning and thunder streaked across the dark of the sky. She would lay us all down – six girls – in her wide bed, and read us Krias Hashema. She kept a special prayer for times like those, and we were commanded to repeat after her word for word. In vain would we now look for that prayer in a siddur.

Many days I spent eagerly watching for the same wagon in the distance. And as soon as it appeared, we children would run from far off to greet it. In that wagon my dear parents returned, bringing from Sokolka all sorts of good things – herring, bagels and more.

But there were days when the road concealed a mysterious terror. That would be upon hearing the din of an automobile: all of us, the little ones and the big ones alike, would run for our lives indoors and lock the door. Only when the car would disappear would we race out to study the tracks its wheels left deep in the dust of the road. We feared lest the eye of this “demon” behold us.

Before our departure for Eretz Yisrael, with the first light of dawn, the entire village got up and came to accompany us. Everyone walked the Sokolka road, plodding along after the horse-drawn wagon, which held all the members of our family with our possessions.

In remembering my “Kolonia”, dear Liba comes to mind – my cousin and age-mate. In the last evening when we parted from you all, my dears, the two of us disappeared from the crowd and went out to sit alone on the steps of the house. We sat there sadly and prayed.

It was a simple life of great people on that single road that was called “Kolonia Izaaka.”

 

sok194.jpg
The Hebrew “Kolonia Schula”

 

[Page 197]

Moshe Mishkinski

Translated by Selwyn Rose

 

sok197.jpg
Moshe Mishkinski

 

Even though I have lived in our Holy and historic land for more than twenty-five years, I know Sokółka thanks to my dear companion and partner in life, Esther (née Stein), Sokółka is etched in my memory and engraved so deeply on my heart, that I can see her literally before my eyes. I see before me the Jewish town, so special in its own way, idyllic, clean and happy with the broad market at its center, with the clean streets and lanes around about. I can see the Batei-Midrash and the beautiful prayer-rooms – the old and the new, the “Haderim”, the schools, the Christian Church, factories, shops and work-shops. Like all the other pre-war Polish towns and villages with a small difference, like all the European countries in general and especially east-Europe during that period, Sokółka was full to overflowing with Jews, quarrelsome and educated, doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers – Jews all! Industrialists and traders, shopkeepers and peddlers, artisans and laborers and also a small number of youngsters studying and in college. Both the youth and adults, as usual, were involved in various organizations – associations, Zionist and non-Zionist parties. The Jewish population of Sokółka, well-rooted in town many generations, was the dynamic strength of the town; the Jews were the local initiators, the founders, the builders and the developers of trade, industry and artisanship. Sokółka was particularly well-known for its leather trade and factories. My late father-in-law, Gamliel Stein (Z”L), who, from his youth was connected with the leather industry, had roots in leather stretching back through his father and grandfather and beyond, was a master-tanner, accomplished trader and business man, polite and honest. The Stein family was one of the pioneers of the leather industry in Poland and was known beyond its borders. And this little town, full of Jewish grace was exterminated and wiped off the face of the earth together with all the other towns and villages by the murderous Hitlerite Nazi flood in such a terribly cruel and catastrophic manner the world had ever seen.

I remember my last visit to Sokółka, before leaving for Palestine. It was the parting visit from my in-laws. I sat in the magnificent home of my father-in-law Gamliel Stein (Z”L). It was a typical house of a Jewish industrialist of the previous generation: a long house with many rooms, beautifully furnished in good taste and spotlessly clean, standing in number 1 Garbarska street looking out over a wonderful scene of aromatic green fields, trimmed lawns and forests. It was a real Jewish home, national-religious and traditional all at the same time. They were a Jewish family whose doors were wide open to the needy and suffering, whose hands were stretched forth to aid every individual and the public as a whole. Their children they sent to Yeshivot, to school, to gymnasia, seminaries and universities. It was the type of Jewish home that one finds now only with great difficulty.

I especially recall from that same evening of parting when we were sitting as a small tight circle of the closest family members, with Savta Nechama (May she rest in peace), at its head; a remarkable woman, full of wisdom acquired throughout her life, a woman of vast generosity. We sat and conversed comfortably by the light of the setting sun which bathed the whole scene in its ruddy glow, gradually dispatching the colors of daytime into the shadows and with its last dying caressing rays onto the heads of our family and on the street. It was as if the dying sun poured over us the family, a pleasant drowsiness. Thus we sat until late into the night and talked about many different topics and problems facing us, as we planned and programmed our future meeting in the holy land of our fathers – Palestine – and on our lives together as one big happy family in that land. To our great sadness and tragedy, it was not to be.

In me especially, that same sunset and the beautiful rising moon that appeared in the evening sky, awoke many memories: memories of similar happy unforgettable days and nights of visits in Esther's warm pleasant home, the “pearl” of the town, memories of the same magnificent times when we sat together weaving our dreams of our future, dreams of ideals and splendor, of a life of freedom and happiness. In those days our hearts and our souls beat as one, like some marvelous symphony, of walking together hand-in-hand with one heart through our lives together towards our future. And that same evening of parting, when I was looking at the setting sun nothing seemed further from the realms of possibility than that in a relatively short time a reaper would arise and pass through the land – and that virtually the entire dear Jewish population of Europe would be cut down, sinking into oblivion in such a cruel fashion, that vibrant, multi-capable, dynamic people, rich in its spiritual and material wealth – caught up in the Holocaust. Six-million souls, Jews, holy and pure, young and old, men women and children - over a million children, all of them murdered simply because they were Jews. Destroyed in cold blood by murderers, by a satanic organization, terrible and evil, a third of the Jewish population of the world; thus did the world repay the Jewish people for having given it its culture and faith; for having granted it its wisdom and richness of spirit; for having produced and developed world trade and industry; for having enriched not only its economic and financial lives but also its humanitarian and socio-cultural, diplomatic life; for having contributed outstandingly to science, literature. And when you stop to wonder on all of that, don't you want to burst out in sadness and grief with the shouted question: THIS THE TORAH AND THIS ITS WAGES???!!!

In the twenty years that have elapsed since the terrible blood-bath, after World War Two, our people have become enriched, to our great tragedy, with a unique bibliography, a library of inhuman suffering, of torture and agonies, that has no equal in world history and no language known to man that can adequately describe the horrors in all their awfulness. And even though the present epigraphy already contains hundreds of volumes in many different languages, everything that is described within them is merely a drop in the ocean, the tip of the iceberg compared to the animal cruelty, the barbaric and hair-curling methods used by the murdering German nation in order to eliminate and destroy a third of our people – innocent men, women and children – all for the one simple crime that they were Jews – six million of the magnificent Jews of Europe.

I shall never forget the blessings and good wishes that we received from our dear and beloved parents (Z”L), in reply to the wires that I sent them when my Esther gave birth (B'Mazal Tov) to our first-born son, Yashovam (may his light illuminate), who, by the way, has already successfully completed with great success, two degree courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Pharmacy and Chemistry. And was then accepted at the university as an assistant and within that framework is now preparing his doctorate. They also survived to know their first Israeli grandchild by the photographs I sent them of his little walks in his stroller along the shore where he took a great interest in the ships sailing to and fro. But to our great sorrow our mutual dreams of all coming together again in our Holy Land did not come to fruition and to our great tragedy, they were not among those who were allowed on the ships coming to these shores of our Homeland. When our daughter Hanna'leh was born (In a Good Hour), who, by the way, has already completed Gymnasium and Conservatory and is completing her studies in the arts – drawing and sculpture, etc., there was no one left to wire.

May these lines serve as their tombstone and memorial for the unknown graves of my beloved father, the righteous pure-souled enthusiastic Zionist the learned and discriminatingly educated Rabbi Eliezer Ze'ev Mishkinski, and the grave of my dear beloved mother, the righteous, honest, gentle-souled noble-spirited, Bat-Sheva, my unforgettable parents (May their Memories be for a Blessing). Similarly, on the unknown graves of my respected and honored father-in-law and mother-in-law, Rabbi Gamliel and Shosh'ke Stein (May the Lord create their replacements) – of my beloved and dear brother-in-law, Haim, handsome, good-hearted, with a great natural intelligence, who was one of the major factors of the national Zionist youth of Polish Jewry before the cataclysm – before the terrible Holocaust, and also the unknown grave of my dear beloved sister-in-law, the flowering young Sonia'leh (May the Lord create her replacement).

May these lines be a memorial never-to-be-extinguished candle to the memory of them all a memorial to their pure and Holy Souls; they are all engraved deeply in my heart and inscribed on my soul, standing before my eyes and always in my thoughts. I will think of them and remember them.

May Their Souls Be Bound Up In An Everlasting Bond Of Life.

B”H Tel-Aviv 9th Av 5725

 

sok199a.jpg
 
sok199b.jpg
My mother and teacher, the Righteous Bat Sheva
(May her soul be in paradise),
the daughter of Rabbi Ezriel Zelig Kiwarski
(May the Righteous be remembered for a Blessing)
 
My father and teacher Rabbi Eliezer Ze'ev
(Only the Lord can replace him),
the son of Avraham Mishkinski

 


Footnote:

  1. Aaron Kroun in the book “Lithuanian Jewry” 1959. Return

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