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[Page 21]

Chronicles of the Jews of Sokółka

From its beginnings to the First World War

(Chapters of History)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Chapter One

In the Dim Light of History

M.S. Geshuri

What is the purpose of history? - Towns a thousand years old in Lithuania – Sokółka a satellite-town[a] of Grodno the “Metropolis” – towns both veteran and new-born.- Sokółka “pioneer-town” of the Jews of Grodno.- Jews of “a state within a state”.- Jewish geography on the map of Lithuania – on the banks of the Neman and the Sokółka rivers.

The history of Sokółka? The sad fact is that her history was one of faithful tradition, the costly reality of being a Jew in the eastern regions of Europe. An atmosphere of bygone times permeated the family homes - antiques, gold and silver articles, tooled leather pouches filled with ancient documents, contracts from princes and nobles, tax receipts from the days of Napoleon with promissory notes from barons, ministers and estate owners. There were also note-books and registers in the municipal offices and old castles; but a historical narrative commencing at the beginning, which would clarify everything that had occurred, never existed in our areas. Registers and documents that had existed – were lost in the turmoil of the disturbances and damage to Jewish property that was plundered by the rioters and the saboteurs.

Jewish Sokółka didn't resemble other towns in Lithuania and Poland that were able to number the years of their existence as Jewish communities in Jubilees or centuries – even a millennium in some cases. Lithuania's Brest had a recorded history of one thousand years – it was the first of the Lithuanian communities that were refugees from Germany (in the 10th and 11th centuries), established in compliance with a license issued by Duke Witold at the end of the 14th century. The number of its residents grew and exceeded that of all the other communities in Lithuania. Pinsk similarly boasted a license confirming its 1,000 year existence. Even Troki preened itself by virtue of its Jews (Karaites), being the first of the Jews in the whole of Lithuania.

Sokółka nestled in the shadow of another ancient city in Lithuania – the city of Grodno, the Metropolis of the satellite “daughters” - new-born and veteran villages clustered near and far. Sokółka was not counted among them because of two of its attributes: its seniority - it had existed for hundreds of years as an out-of-the-way village, and as a village and place of settlement of the Jews - and later as a regional town.

Near-by Grodno shone with a splendid reputation wherein resided dukes and princes and from where they ruled over domains and territories near and far. Grodno enjoyed a reputation as a shining example like Kraków from where Jewish pioneers went out to neighboring villages. Nevertheless Jewish Grodno was a good example of the process of Jewish settlement in Lithuania and Poland, and within it Jewish Sokółka[1]. In the beginning the community was based in the nearby major governing town. When the population grew and the community suffered from overcrowding, several families moved to a local area and founded a “satellite” community that was under the control of the metropolis and paying, through her, the royal taxes needed for the running of the Beth-Din and other community institutions. In time the newer settlement expanded and developed and became a community independent of its origins.

As a representative example of the first Jewish communities in the Principality of Lithuania one can cite the community of Tyczyn, founded by a group of Jews from Grodno, and almost certainly most of its residents were from the same area. There was a Jewish presence in Tyczyn in 1522. It was private property - the estate of a respected Lithuanian landowner, a notable Albert Gasztołd by name. This same landowner sought to encourage population of his settlement in order to increase his incomes and he decided to introduce Jews. Ten Jews from Grodno (known to the Jews as Hurodna), were the pioneers of the settlement. The landowner gave them space for living quarters, workshops, a synagogue and a burial ground, promising them judicial autonomy, complete freedom of trade and no taxes for three years. In addition he named the remaining Jews as “suitable” for settling in the town; suitable – except those “rebelling against the kingdom”. The conditions in Tyczyn were indeed good from several angles. The attitude of the owner was encouraging, trade – internal and external – prospered, and the town grew. After a hundred years it was one of the important communities in Lithuania, and a bone of contention between two national councils erupted in the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania – the Council of Communities in Lithuania and the Great Sejm in Poland; both of them claimed authority in Tyczyn, each claiming exclusive control. The dispute continued for decades and while the two councils were still at each other's throats, a new dispute broke out between Tyczyn and Grodno concerning the control over a few other communities that had been established in the intervening years: Zabłudów, Horodec, Choroszcz and later also Wasilków. The Lithuanian council sided with Grodno while the Polish council sided with Tyczyn. The argument continued for a hundred years. Both sides turned to litigation and the situation demanded the intervention of both the Beth-Din and civil courts. By the beginning of the 18th century, the dispute had still not been settled.

A similar history applied for the city of Jewish Białystok, which was noted for the great settlement-industrial project of its Jewish citizen-builders. The lord of the manor, the Polish Count Branicki, sitting in his magnificent palace, looking around him at the marshy brackish lake, the pathless, gloomy, depressing surroundings and the impoverished, hungry peasant farmers, dreamed of turning his unprofitable, run-down estate into a profitable Jewish village. He invited Jewish settlers and built small premises for shops, huts for dwelling-places and a small synagogue for prayers. Legend has it he also donated a fat duck to each of them for Sabbath dinner. And they, only a short time before, were living in nearby Białystok “next door to Tyczyn” as local stall-holders and small grocers, experts in patching ragged clothes. In giving them the opportunity, they turned their little town into a large city – a “Metropolis in Israel”. Białystok had its beginnings in 1749 and by the time of its destruction under the Nazis there were 40,000 Jews living there, commanding the textile industry which spread over the surrounding towns: Supraśl, Gródek, Wasilków and Krynki[2].

The Jewish community in Sokółka was established through the initiative of the Grodno Jews during a period of economic depression and unemployment among the townspeople, while the population of Grodno was recovering economically and widening its boundaries beyond the town. Sokółka was not the first of its kind. Earlier on, other towns together with the Jews of Grodno had received some improvement and relief from newly leveled approach roads.

Jews dwelt side-by-side with the Lithuanians and the Poles, and in the towns and cities constituted a sort of “state within a state” rather than a separate identity of two towns. Each and every town in Lithuania and Poland contained a small-scale, concentrated version of Jewish history and description like an endless scroll of the unfolding events of the passing generations in the region.

For these countries there was a geographical history spreading over a large area with many different 'dots' strewn throughout. Within these dots on the map were smaller dots - these were the Jewish communities and settlements within them. The ruling classes warred among themselves, conquering and winning, changing governments, creating and eradicating states endlessly. Authorities were divided among themselves. The various orthodox sects - Catholics, the Pravoslavs and the “Uniates” were in conflict with each other. But the Jews had a different demographic geography in those areas; occasionally ripped to shreds at the hands of the dominating authorities, but continuing their existence as completely Jewish by nation and faith.

Much water has flowed down the Neman and Sokółda since then and many fissures carved into its earth. The chronicles describe the thorny path and the Jewish heroes of Lithuania and Poland and illustrate their powerful love of life, their stubbornness and their wonderful lives.

 

Chapter Two

Sokółka, offspring of Grodno

Sokółka, daughter of Grodno. – Elevation to regional city. – The Jewish community of Grodno[b]. – Her rights and reputation. - Expulsion of Jews from Grodno, all of Lithuania and their return. – Jewish artisans in Grodno. – Jewish streets and houses. – New communities in Grodno District. - “Leading Committees in the State of Lithuania”. – The first Jews in Sokółka. – Overlapping of Committees in Grodno community. – The conflict between towns over Hegemony. – The modest, quiet Sokółka.

Grodno and Sokółka – both of them stamped with the die of their Jewishness; both of them with large Jewish populations. But the difference between them was startling. Grodno could pride herself with the knowledge of her respected “lineage” as a city of “pedigree” and tradition; in contrast Sokółka was a small town, a district town as against a regional capital at the time of the Russian conquest. Sokółka was almost without importance. Except for the sole fact that because of political circumstances that existed at the time of the Polish revolution of Kościuszko, Sokółka was raised to the level of regional capital. Sokółka gave rise to no men of stature, no business men of known reputation, no public or political party figures, writers, researchers, cantors or rabbis. Sokółka's dependence on Grodno caused its history, at that time, to be bound up and merged together with Grodno and the general annals of the Jews of Lithuania.

At the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries, there were Jewish communities in four cities: Brest, Grodno, Troki and £ask. The Duke of the region was Witold, ruling from 1386 until 1430, who did much for the settlement of Jews in Lithuania. The rights he granted the Jews in the first years of his rule were to establish a judicial, social and political structure of the Jews of Lithuania for a long period and most of the Jews of Lithuania were concentrated in the three towns Brest, Troki and Grodno[3].

With the rise of Witold as ruler of the Principality, so rose the importance of Grodno. In 1389, Witold granted the Jews of Grodno a Bill of Rights. According to this document they were permitted to sell intoxicating liquors in their homes on payment of a license fee and to trade in the markets and shops just like any of the other citizens.

They were also permitted to engage freely in any trade or profession, to purchase livestock for their needs and to acquire houses, fields and land for sowing and pasture. The Bill released the Jews from paying taxes on the synagogue and the cemetery.

But in 1495 the ruling Prince Aleksander the Jagiellonian, exiled all the Jews from Lithuania and the Jews of Grodno, together with their unfortunate brothers, found refuge in neighboring Poland. In 1503, Alexander, the King of Poland cancelled the exile decree and allowed the Jews to return and also to claim the return of their assets, property and the debts owing to them[4].

Grodno's community expanded and grew during the 16th century. In 1547, the Polish king, Zygmund August confirmed the Bill of Rights that had been granted by Witold in 1389 (the Bill had been reconfirmed by King Jan Kasimierz in 1655 and also by Stanislaw Poniatowski in 1785). At the same time the numbers of artisans in the town grew and among them were found tailors, furriers and hatters working for the farmers. For an annual fee to the Tsars, the artisans were allowed to ply their trade and sell their products in the market or in their shops.

The influence of Grodno on the Jewish community was significant especially during the period of internal autonomy that they now had. When the communities of Lithuania seceded from the “The Great Sejm” in 1623 and established the “Council of Four Lands” it became the leading institution of Jewish life in the State – it was one of three main communities in the State (Brest, Pinsk, Grodno – later, they were joined by Vilna and Sloszk[5]).

Sokółka is not mentioned among the new communities established in the region of Grodno.

There is no way of knowing if a community existed officially in the town because of the small number of Jews who were capable of establishing the necessary communal institutions. The Jews of Sokółka always turned to Grodno for its needs. It is known that Sokółka already existed as a village in the 15th century and that Jewish settlement was not forbidden. It is equally certain that the Jews would not have missed the opportunity to come and settle, and find a living there as traders and artisans but, apparently, there were no leaders or businessmen among them able to protect themselves or their interests in the various central public institutions[6].

The name of Sokółka is not as conspicuous as the names of other towns and villages that maintained contact with the “The Great Sejm” nor with the “Council of Four Lands” that began its existence in 1623, or with the “Chief Councils of the States of Lithuania”, as does the name of nearby Krynki. Indeed, from an investigation of the names of towns and villages that maintained contact with these councils it appears that the province of the town Sokółka was at the center of things. Nevertheless, it seems attention was not turned on Sokółka because of its immediate association to Grodno itself, which also represented the towns affiliated to it and which Grodno defended. In the disputes between the communities of Tyczyn and Grodno concerning control over the surrounding towns, Tyczyn was in conflict with Grodno for control of the region.

Jewish Sokółka was modest and not given to chasing after publicity and honor though, without doubt, it paid its taxes, like all the other communities, through the community of Grodno. Perhaps that is the explanation why, on the map of the “Council of Four Lands” Sokółka is not seen. Nevertheless Sokółka is found on the four maps of the congregations of Lithuanian Jews[7].

 

Chapter Three

The Chronicles and Evolution of Sokółka

The establishment of Sokółka - Its land: Crown property - Ancient churches erected by Zygmunt August. – The occupations of the first of the Jews. – Fixed market and fair days. – Evolution from village to town. – Anton Tyzenhaus - development of Sokółka. - Remembered as a benefactor in its development. – The banks of the river Sokółka. – Metamorphosis with the division of Poland. – The Jews under the Prussian yoke. – Jewish Constitution of Friedrich the Great. – Reaction of Rabbis and businessmen to the Kaliczeva Conference. – Sokółka under Russian rule. - Elevation of Sokółka to regional Capital.

Sokółka was founded in the 15th century together with twenty other villages all at the same time. As a village Sokółka belonged to Crown Estates, in the Grodno economic framework, and its citizens were obliged to occupy themselves in chicken-farming, while the residents of the neighboring village, Sowaczinka* were obliged to raise dogs.

Polish historians indicate that a Catholic church was erected in Sokółka in 1564 on the orders of king Zygmunt August, consecrated to St. Anthony - a wooden building. In 1779 the church burned down and only in 1848 the priest Kryshczyn erected a church, the inside of which is considered very beautiful, to replace it[8].

The village of Sokółka was founded when the kingdom of Lithuania united with that of Poland. Jewish communities in the lands of Lithuania at that time also existed in Brest, Grodno, Troki, Łuck, Ludmir and Kiev. But there is some basis to suppose that other small and large communities also existed in other towns. A number of Jews were also dispersed among other villages and there is no way of knowing if Jews lived then in Sokółka as farmers and pedlars.

It is reasonable to assume that the Jewish community of Sokółka enjoyed the typical privileges granted by Duke Witold to the Jews of Grodno in 1389, from the beginning of its existence, by which he permitted them to indulge in trade both in shop and street, without interference, equally with the citizens of the town. Jews were permitted to engage in agriculture, pasturage and to acquire further acreage paying taxes just like the other citizens. The economic life of the Jews of Lithuania was different to that of the Jews of Poland. On the one hand, the weak development of the country caused the Jews to become engaged extensively in the various branches of agriculture and farming which became their main occupation, as it was to most of the town's citizens, while on the other hand they had no motive to engage in trade and commerce, and the town-citizens and nobles were not politically strong enough to curtail the rights of the Jews as was the case in neighboring Poland.

It should be pointed out that wealthy Jews invested in farms and perforce were involved in agriculture. They would acquire complete villages from the Duke for a certain one-time down payment[9], and sometimes even several villages at the same time, together with pasture-land, fish ponds shops and so on. The Jews would acquire land-holdings from the nobles or they would obtain them with a mortgage or loan. The farms would pass to the hands of the Jews together with the farmers who were working there. The Jews held the farms the same as the “landowners” who preceded them. A few of the bigger landowners among the Jews also filled the role of settlers in Lithuania: there are recorded incidents of Jews receiving vacant land from the Duke and bringing Jews onto the land and it is possible that there is a connection between the settling of Sokółka, together with other villages and the rights of the Jews to trading[10] in the villages. Indeed, especially in respect of Sokółka, what little we know of her is based on legend.

Also missing are details of the rights granted to Sokółka like other towns. We know that in the town there were certain days in the week when markets were held and three fairs annually but it is not known who was the king who granted these rights. Market day was every Monday and on three days each year a fair was held (23rd April, 25th July and 29th September).

Only from the second half of the 18th century do we begin to get more details on Sokółka; from then on Sokółka's status changed from village to town. This important event occurred at the end of the18th century. It was not at the hands of kings and princes but by the action of the Starosta of Grodno and the treasurer of Lithuania Anton Tyzenhaus (1762-1785) whose advancement came from King Poniatowski. He was the patron of Sokółka and he deserves a mention.

Tyzenhaus was appointed Starosta of Grodno; he tried to revive the failing town. He encouraged trade, paved roads, made the river Neman navigable, drained the marshes in the area and founded professional schools, cultural institutions and industrial factories, among them a printing house. For that enterprise in 1785 he brought from Sokoły to Sokółka the master of the printing art in Lithuania, Rabbi Nahum, a type-caster from Grodno, in Galicia. The first book that came off the press was “Jacob's Offspring”, a commentary on the Psalms, written by a Rabbi from Vishtinetz and Rabbi Yaakov bar Haim Ha-Cohen (1788). Also printed was the first newspaper in Grodno the “Grodno Gazette”. In order to teach a group of Jews financial book-keeping, in 1772 he brought a German from Nurnberg. He told them those skills would enable the traders to introduce German efficiency and order into their businesses. Tyzenhaus founded a “School of Midwifery”. In the second half of the 18th century he was the first to introduce in the name of the government of Poland, the textile industry to the area, in Horodets on the banks of the Neman, near Grodno. He also founded factories of considerable compass with government support which invested resources in bringing specialists from abroad for that purpose.

Tyzenhaus's relationship towards the Jews was one of hatred; he saw them as a source of extorting money. King Poniatowski appointed him as the tax agent of the Grodno community but he deceived both the king and the population and stole funds and interest to the value of 92,000 Roubles during 14 years (until 1782). He converted the whole fortune to his own use. He also fraudulently converted to his own use foreign currency and fell into debt. He borrowed money and failed to make good. He created many enemies who hated him and fought against him until they succeeded in ousting him from office. His industrial enterprises fell into bankruptcy and the specialists brought from abroad left Poland and nothing remains from all his projects[11].

Because of the closeness of Sokółka to Grodno, this same Tyzenhaus noticed it and saw it as a place suited to his plans. He elevated Sokółka to the status of a town, created there an excellent market and introduced fine Jewish artisans, thus, de facto, confirming the Jewish community of Sokółka which had already existed previously. Once its status was confirmed the population grew – Jewish as well as Christian – and its economic health improved[12].

Several evolutions occurred to Sokółka previously, during the period of the independent Republic of Poland. The town was in the province of Troki in the county of Grodno and within its economic sphere. The town was situated on the banks of the river Sokółka which had once flowed into the river Supraśl. In 1765 there were 522 Jews living in Sokółka and the surrounding area. Life carried on there, as it did in the rest of the towns and villages, without much happening; indeed the hand of fate rested lightly on it, in contrast to the chaos spreading throughout Poland.

With the Third Partition of Poland at the hands of her neighbors the entire region of Podlaskie passed to the control of Prussia and an immediate reorganization took place in the whole area. The name of the Poland-Lithuanian region was changed to New East-Prussia. In this new region dwelt a population half-a-million souls. Sokółka, together with all the western part of the Grodno area passed to the Prussians and remained so until “The Treaty of Łomża.”

During the 12 years of its rule the Prussian government did much to develop the area and improve it economically. On the other hand, they laid a heavy and cruel hand on the Jewish residents of the area, strangling their freedom and restricting their rights. Poland levied a poll-tax, an income important to Poland that they collected from the Jews; the Germans doubled the tax. And lastly, on the 17th April 1797, in Berlin, Friedrich-Wilhelm II introduced a “Jewish Regulations” bill (Jüden Regelmant) whose intention was to “control the undesirable Jews” in the new areas. The preamble to the document stated: “In so far as it is known to us that the number of Jews in the conquered territories is greater than in our other Christian areas, and they cause damage to our other loyal Christian subjects with their trade, and they exist only by virtue of their devious means, in order to remove this evil and at the same time to improve their situation, we deem it wise and necessary to secure and organize with 'regulations' on how to behave and how to act.” These “Jewish Regulations”, included a condensed extract from “Regulating the Jews”, that Friedrich II (known as “the Great” and “the Philosopher”), published and was saturated with poisonous anti-Semitism and hatred in every sentence[13].

These regulations awakened fear and fright among the Jews of the new Prussian state. They perceived it as a collection of old evil racism from the middle-ages, whose intention was to cause a holocaust to come upon Jewish religious and economic life, to recognize the Christian population as the only masters and owners of the land and to perceive the Jews as strangers, as exploiters and the source of unpleasantness, requiring restriction of their activities in the country and its trade. The intention was to transfer the Jews from the countryside to the town, and even forbid them to peddle in the countryside, to purchase land from a farmer or to trade in the exchange of goods and produce. Specifically, the regulations placed a strangle-hold on the aorta of Jewish life in the Diaspora, bringing to the point of collapse the entire communal structure that had developed and become entrenched in Poland for hundreds of years. The Jewish communal organization provided the Jews with the possibility of standing against disturbances, persecution and racism. The Jewish community acted as a kind of fortress – a fence against destruction and assimilation and it was this that enabled the Jew to protect his national and religious character and live an independent life. The regulations cancelled the independent nature of the community and placed all the religious functions under the control of the Christian churches and municipalities.

Jews from within and without the region felt that the pillars of Judaism had collapsed. But the leading rabbis and public figures, with faith in miracles, were not disheartened. On 30th August 1797, they all met in Kaliszkowce (Kalisz region), to devise means of protecting themselves from the restrictive measures affecting the fate of a Jewish population numbering more than 160,000 souls.

In fact the Prussians didn't enjoy their domination for long: Napoleon Bonaparte's star was rising and at the Battle of Jena (Germany), he conquered the legions of Prussia and even took Berlin, and the Prussian government was forced to flee to Memel. The Poles were full of joy at the coming of their “redeemer”. From 1806-1807, the Poles throughout Poland were expectant with an atmosphere of hope and began organizing a Polish army. They knew the French were coming. Suddenly the Prussian legions began leaving the region and the French arrived to be received with great joy by the entire population. At the same time the Peace conference of Tylża was convened and in compliance with Article 9 of the protocol that was signed on 7th July 1807, the whole region of Lithuania was transferred to Russia in order to create a natural border between the Principality of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Russia. Thus after 12 years of Prussian rule Lithuania passed to the control of Russia.

The defunct county of Białystok, according to article 9, of the Treaty of Tylża, was divided into two: one part the counties of Łomża, Serijai, Mariampol and others passed to Warsaw and the other part – the counties of Białystok, Bielsk, Sokółka and Dereczyn passed to Russia and was known as “Białystok County”. In order to activate the territorial division a special council was convened[14].

On the 15th July 1807 Russian forces entered the territory of Lithuania. The Prussian government again changed to a foreign one. On the 27th October Aleksander I issued a declaration to the whole of Lithuania in Russian and Polish in which he promised that all the residents will retain their rights. The Jews refused to believe the declaration because of their knowledge of Russian government's attitude to Jews in the past.

A few years passed and 1812 approached. The Poles consoled themselves with new hopes. On the eve of war, the Russian government increased its vigilance and declared a state of war throughout the entire territory. After a while, French battalions crossed the border into Russia and the Russian army retreated. After the capture of Vilna, Napoleon organized the liberated territory, convening a temporary government in Lithuania which included Sokółka. The happ-iness lasted only a short time because on 26th December 1812 the Russians returned to Lithuania without bloodshed. In the days of the Napoleonic war the Russian general, Davidov, who didn't trust Poland, transferred control of the town to the Jews.

After the county of Białystok was ceded to Russia in 1807, Sokółka was named the County town while Grodno was made regional capital in 1801.

 

Chapter Four

Sokółka and the County under the Russian Government

A mixed population.- Residual cadre of Mongol regiments.- Complete mosques.- Rejection of the “Prussian Regulations” of Jews.- Russia inherits the Prussian decrees.- Sokółka a rail junction between Grodno and Białystok.- Industry and workshops sustaining the town.- Development of a stock exchange.- Synagogue for Jewish artisans.- When was the Jewish community established?- Lack of Community records.- Foundations of the community.

The population of Sokółka and the county was made up of different faiths and ethnic groups: Lithuanians, Poles, Pravoslavs, Tatars and Jews. The Tatars arrived with the Mongol hordes that conquered all the territories belonging at that time to Russia and China. They even conquered parts of Poland and approached Berlin, the Prussian capital. The Mongols, who retreated to Mongolia after every invasion of foreign lands, left behind many who remained in the countries conquered by the Russians, including Lithuania, whose peoples were related to the Mongols. Close in ethnicity and language, they are called Tatars and remained faithful to their religion, believers in Mohammed, praying in mosques.

At the Congress of Vienna, the conquering Russian government received the remainder of the territory of Poland and Lithuania and with them the region of Grodno and Sokółka, the regional capital. She also received from the Prussians the inheritance of the “Prussian Regulations” of the Jews, which in practice were not put into effect. The regulations did not achieve their aim for different reasons, but especially because of opposition from the non-Jewish population. But their influence remained real towards the Jews under the Russian regime for upwards of a hundred years, because these “regulations” were used as a guide to the Russian government on how to treat the Jewish communities that came under their domination in Poland and Lithuania, and they were valid in the great and powerful Russian dominion especially the time of Nikolai the First. In comparing Russian decrees on the Jews with the “Prussian Regulations” they are found to be nothing more than a copy of the original. The “Prussian Regulations” were used as a source for all the special restrictions and laws that were decreed against the Jews in Russia. The Russian minister, Derzhavin, used the format as in the “Prussian Regulations”[15] and as observed by Herzen[16] all the attributes of the Russian government carried the stamp of Prussia – even the military ranks, the police and the uniforms are all taken from them. In any case the regulations against the Jews from 17th April 1797 were used as a “foundation” for solving the Jewish problem in Russia; regulations that touched every Jew in Russia and also fell upon Sokółka.

The Jews of Sokółka came to terms with the situation understanding “they were in exile” and they continued to exist in a state of debasement and suppression from the government. The Christian population occupied itself mainly with agriculture while the Jews with small trades and artisanship, only a few of them in agriculture. The railway from Warsaw to St. Petersburg passed Sokółka only about 100 miles south-west of Grodno - about half-way on the road between Grodno and Białystok- and about 125 miles from Warsaw, at a height of 765 feet above sea-level. Sokółka is situated between the stations of Czarnaweiś and Kuźnica. The industry in the town was not large and in 1877 was reduced by six small factories employing nine workers (a brewery, a candle-maker, three furriers and a porcelain factory). In the heart of the town were two main streets: Grodno and Białystok. Close to them was a large square in the center of which rose a church surrounded by a railing. Apart from these two streets there were six small side lanes.

With the development of industry in Białystok a few furriers opened up in Sokółka and Krynki. Afterwards, year by year more factories processing furs were opened in Białystok, Sokółka, Zabłudów and Mścisław[17], which grew into large concerns. Before the First World War there were about 200 factories in the Grodno region dealing in furs, employing about 6,000 people, many Jews among them. Other branches of artisanship were to be found with most of them in the hands of Jews, not only in Sokółka but also in the rest of the towns of the region and in Grodno.

Jewish artisanship had been well-established in the towns of Lithuania for generations with a commendable record of achievements. The religious life influenced the artisans; there were synagogues established by and for the various trades. In almost every town were found religious study-houses of tailors, cobblers, hatters, carpenters, builders, glaziers, street-pavers, wagoners, coach-drivers, bakers, butchers, water-carriers and others. The artisans fulfilled an important function in the life of the community, in the election of public dignitaries, rabbis, ritual slaughterers, inspectors and cantors; all these personages needed to take the artisans into account in every important event and consider their needs[18].

There is no information on Sokółka concerning the beginning of the Jewish presence in the town, neither is it known when the Jewish community was founded, the degree of dependence of the local towns on Grodno, when the first rabbi was installed or what his name was or his birth-place. No written record has been found concerning the community of Sokółka or of any trade organization from which we could discern the lives of the community. It is possible that there was in existence some kind of record in the hands of Jewish notables, such as sextons and other public dignitaries and during the years of the terrible Holocaust of the Nazis they were destroyed and lost together with those who held them. There is no way that the Jewish community in the town, already numbering 522 Jews in 1765, during the era of the Polish Republic, behaved differently to all other towns and Jewish communities near and far, without institutions and records, without guiding hands and leaders. Every Jewish community in “Israel” was based on three things: on the Torah (Study houses and Yeshivot), on work (the artisans), and on the charitable institutions, on justice and payment of state taxes.

The basic institutions, like the synagogue, cemeteries and study-houses, were in existence in Sokółka for a long time but nothing is known concerning them, their founders, supporters or those who managed and cared for them.

Indeed the Jews of Sokółka felt themselves better in comparison with other communities because the town was a regional capital and had a reputation as a place of culture and learning, of local government whose hand was spread over towns and villages and whose concern were good management and governance. But in so far as academic literature is concerned and Zionism, almost no trace is found, even though there were educated and intelligent Jews, mixed into the less-cultured population, who maintained contact with the authorities and central state institutions.

 

Chapter Five

Rabbis and the Rabbinate in Sokółka

Shared Rabbis of Sokółka and its suburbs.- degree of influence exercised by the Rabbis.- The large number of Rabbis in Sokółka.- Rabbi Mankes “While Poland rebelled”.-Rabbi Shraga-Feival Sarna.- Białystok supplies rabbis to Sokółka.- The Rabbi Tsvi-Hirsch son of the baker R' Shalom.- Rabbi Yossele the Miracle-worker.- Rabbi Moshe-Yehuda Rabinowitz who moved to Grodno.- Rabbi Yitzhak Schuster, the last Levi, born in Sokółka, Rabbi Meyer Marcus.

One can suppose that it was because of limited budgets that Sokółka did not instal at first a permanent Rabbi of her own, but that one Rabbi would serve several communities, and that he would serve the communities on different days of the week. In any event, we know that in Sokółka there were Rabbis of the town and also Rabbis who served other communities and there are also names of Rabbis who sat in Sokółka but whose influence spread far to other places.

During the period of decline in the communities of Germany, Poland and Lithuania, after “the Great Sejm” was dissolved, the Rabbi became almost the sole influence in the public life of every town. Just as the Rabbi needed the backing of the community, so the community needed a Rabbi who would deal with their public and religious affairs. It seems the Rabbis of Sokółka didn't find much satisfaction in serving the needs of Sokółka and sought to transfer to other better established Rabbinates. From this stems the large number of names we have for Rabbis of Sokółka over a relatively short space of time. Clearly, from the lack of details it is difficult to be precise as to chronological details of Sokółka's Rabbis and the years during which they served.

Rabbi Dover Menkes, ben Rabbi Mordecai, who was born in Białystok, served as Rabbi in Sokółka and from there transferred to Zhitomir. In his book “A Branch of the Fathers' Tree”, on the four sections of “Shulhan Aruch” (Zhitomir – 1899), speaking of his family, he relates that during his early years he was a Rabbi in Sokółka “….at the time of the Polish rebellion”, the last Polish rebellion against Russia was in 1862. His family was among the known families in Białystok.

Among the grave-stones in Białystok graveyard are those of Rabbis serving different towns. One is the grave of Rabbi Shraga-Feivel Sarna, who officiated as Rabbi in many towns: Sienno, Popolda*, Ostrów, Horodoc and also Sokółka, without identifying which years. He was born 1826 and died 1892. He published new interpretations of the Torah in magazine columns and gave his approval to some authors. In a foreword to “Or Matok” (sweet light), by Rabbi Yisrael Benjamin Lavi, he mentions: “……….Shraga-Feivel of Sokółka and Sienno and now a Rabbi in Horodoc.” There are those who claim he was known as a miracle worker and people would come from afar to be blessed by him[19].

Białystok supplied many Rabbis to different communities including Sokółka. The Rabbi Tsvi-Hirsch, the son of the baker Rabbi Shalom from the neighborhood of Haneikas* in Białystok, was a Rabbi in several towns: Białystok, Korczew*, Mściśław, (district of Mohilow) and Sokółka, author of “Binyan Shalom” (Vilna 1892) and “Tosephet Shabbat” (Warsaw 1881). It is not known when he served in Sokółka.

The most beloved Rabbi who served in Sokółka was Rabbi Yossele, student of the Gaon, Rabbi Duvid'l from Mir and close friend of the noted Gaon, Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spector of Kovno, who during his life won for himself a significant reputation for his learning and died around 1920. He owned an impressive and praiseworthy library. He served in several towns: Forstaadt (Grodno), Bereza Kartuska , Byten, Sokółka and lastly Zabłudów, and many came to him from far and near on frequent occasions for advice on matters. In all the places in which he served, he was listened to with awed righteousness. Both Jews and Christians knew of many legends concerning him and would tell of his marvels. He radiated charm and friendship to the children of the Heder and on Shabbatot he would go to the Heder to test the children and “…pinch their cheeks”. A protective “tent” was erected over his grave in the old cemetery of Zabłudów.

Before the last Rabbi, who was killed in the Holocaust, the Rabbinate of Sokółka was occupied by Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Rabinowitz who was deeply involved in the needs of the community and well-liked by them as a “man of the people” and a pleasant conversation. But like his predecessors, he was not too comfortable in Sokółka and was known to be a candidate for the Rabbinate of Suwałk in 1913 after the death of their Rabbi, the Gaon, Rabbi Moshe BeZ”Lel Luria. Eventually he became the Rabbi in Grodno where he had many admiring disciples who gathered in his shadow and clustered round him. He officiated in Grodno until his death.

There were also natives of Sokółka itself who became Rabbis in their home town. Rabbi Meyer, the son of Rabbi Shimon Marcus who was born in Sokółka in 1839. In his youth he came to Białystok and studied at the Yeshiva with great dedication and when he completed his studies for the Rabbanut in the Beit Hamidrash in Vilna returned to Sokółka and was selected as Government Rabbi by the authorities. Later he was installed as Communal Rabbi in Navahrudak after the death of Rabbi Shlomo Z”Lman Bendt, the Rabbi of Białystok, whom he replaced. He also officiated as religious teacher in Russian at the Reali School. In the synagogue he delivered his sermons in Russian in the presence of government inspectors and was an active member of all the communal institutions among the first of “Hovevei Zion” spreading its ideologies, among the leaders of charity and benevolent institutions, he was active for 34 years, passing away at 61 on 17 Nissan, 1900 in Białystok where he rests in honor.

sok032.jpg
Rabbi Shmuel Stavrowski

  Rabbi Shmuel Stavrowski officiated as Rabbi outside his town. He was a great scholar but declined to use his knowledge of the Torah. He turned to business, banking and trade and was considered one of the great traders in the area and treated with great respect. In old age, he became the Rabbi of Mścisław near Volkovysk. He was born in Sidra but lived in Sokółka a great many years and was thought to have been born there[20].

The last Rabbi of Sokółka was Rabbi Yitzhak Schuster. In his youth he studied at the Białystok Yeshiva where he earned the reputation of having a phenomenal memory. He knew several of the sections of the Mishna by heart. He was the son-in-law of Rabbi Nachum Greenhaus (1865-1906), the Rabbi from Troki, near Vilna. He was a member of “Hovevei Zion” from his youth and was influenced by the views of the two Rabbis “Rishon le-Zion” Rabbi Tsvi Kalischer and Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher of Grodziec. He considered, like them, that it was necessary to work for the settlement of the land of Israel and that the redemption would come about naturally. He was active as a religious Zionist and among the founders of the “Mizrachi” movement, and together with Rabbi Y. Reines of Lydda became a head of that movement. He was invited to become Rabbi in many places but his heart was in Sokółka. Rabbi Meyer, the Rabbi of Korelitz, the brother-in-law of Rabbi Greenhaus, traveled many times to Sokółka and debated with the community council, eventually coming to an agreement with them and Rabbi Schuster moved there in 1907. He was at the same time a great Rabbi but also an extremely active one. He instructed and ordained many talented prodigies, was active in “Agudat Yisrael”, took part in various congresses and committees and his influence on the town and its surroundings was considerable. There was no public matter that was not brought to him for consideration and he willingly responded to all who came. For more than forty years he sat on the Rabbanut of Sokółka. He perished at the hands of the Nazis.

 

Chapter Six

The Population of Sokółka, the Town and the Surroundings

Population census in Sokółka.- The census in the years 1867 1878.- State of the town in the 1897 census.- The Sokółka region and its boundaries.- a country of hills, sand and clay, between the rivers Neman and Vistula.- a mixture of peoples.- 10 synagogues and 18 prayer-halls in the region.- 611 settlements in the region, a road-junction on the rail-road.- an old synagogue.- Sokółka offers help to the Jews of Grodno.- the inclination to Haskala among the Jews of Sokółka.

We know something of the number of Jews in Sokółka at the time of the division of Poland because at that time there were censuses taken from time to time. The Russians didn't carry them out because they were not certain of their victory over the Poles and they were not able to persuade the rebels to do so.

After the final rebellion of the Poles in 1867, there were 458 houses (14 built of stone) and 3814 residents, 10 synagogues and four Jewish prayer houses (of which 3 were stone built), 8 wood stores and 6 shops (3 of them stone), a post office and a telegraph office, a rail-road station, school and 153 artisans. The city income in 1869 was 3,646 Roubles. There was little trade and what there was, was very small.

In 1878 there were 17 stone houses in Sokółka and 450 wooden homes, 3431 residents of whom 411 were Pravoslavs, 1433 Catholics, 18 Evangelists, 1543 Jews and 26 Moslems.

According to the census of 1897 in the county of Sokółka there were more than 110,000 residents, of whom 13,500 were Jews. The number includes the 8,000 residents of Sokółka itself, of whom 2,848 were Jews. The region of Sokółka was bounded on the north-west by the district of Suwałki, in the east by Grodno, in the south-east by Białystok and according to the count made by Captain Strilbitzki Sokółka spread over an area of 26-47 square miles.

The area was hilly. The hills which were rectangular in the center of the area created the water-shed between the Neman and the Vistula. They didn't reach a great height above the surrounding countryside. The highest point was behind the village of Kostinitz and reached 777 feet, and in Sokółka itself 765 feet above sea-level. Most of the ground was sand or mixed sand and clay while in the valleys loose black earth into which one sank slightly. The western area of the county was mainly sediment from the Vistula and the smaller eastern part, from the Neman. Beyond that the important streams belonged to the Vistula drainage area, and they are the Bóbr, the Supraśl and the Sokółda which flows through Sokółka itself. Generally the rivers are not navigable or sailable. What few lakes there are, are quite small. Those that are in the vicinity of Sokółka flow into the Sokółda. There is much marshland throughout the county, especially in the valley of the Sokółda. Forests were not plentiful in the area. In 1877 there were 47,361 trees, that is to say 20.1% of the total area. In 1869 there were 56,000 – 20%. The trees were mainly oak, firs, terebinth, pine and poplars.

According to the details from 1878 the number of residents in the region, together with Sokółka and the other towns, reached 85,672, while without including the towns the number was 70,842 souls. Among them are numbered 265 nobles, 10 Praboslav priests, 4 Catholics, 2 Moslems, 4 traders, 2474 artisans, 57,532 tenant farmers on government land, 446 settlers, 6884 farm owners, 113 military personnel, 3213 soldiers on leave, unemployed and others, 52 foreigners and 54 of miscellaneous status.

According to religions the number of residents in the county that same year (excluding Sokółka and the towns), reached 18,515 Praboslavs, 50,351 Catholics, 8 Evangelists, 1,603 Jews and 365 Moslems.

In 1879 there were 10 synagogues (2 of them stone), 18 prayer-halls (5 of stone), 15 Praboslav churches, 12 Catholic churches and one mosque. The Poles constituted the major segment of the population (48,000), followed by the Lithuanians (7,000), greater Russians (4,000).

There were 611 populated places in the county, and of them were 9 towns (Dąbrowa, Janów, Korycin, Kuźnica, Nowy Dwór, Odelsk, Sidra, Wasilków and Sucha Wola), 350 farms and villages and 252 small settlements. Of these places, in 292 dwelt less than 25 people, in 114 of them between 25-50, in 118 from 51-100, in 83 – between 101-500 and only in four of them were there more than 500 souls. Their main means of support was agriculture and the farming and processing of flax; they sowed cereals, oats and barley. Sheep-farming was well developed. In 1878 there were 41 factories employing 265 workers, of which: 7 factories engaged in wool-weaving (122 employees), 3 spinning-mills (56 workers), 2 wineries (11 workers), 10 breweries (26 workers), a saw-mill (6 workers), 10 furriers (25 workers), 5 bleaching factories (11 workers) and 3 tile factories (3 workers). From an administrative point, we will divide the region into three provinces and 13 communities. The provincial offices were located in Kosienice, Sucha Wola and Wasilków. The communities (or rural districts), belonging to Kosienice were: Kruhlany, Makówlany, Gazhivinia and Kaimynai; and to Sucha Wola: the villages Bagna, Trofimówka, Ostra Góra, Nowa Wola and Romanówka; and Wasilków: the villages Czarnaweiś, Ostrów, Kamenyuki, and Zborzhitza. Concerning transportation – the rail-road Warsaw-St Petersburg crosses the Sokółka region from the south west to the south east serving the stations Czarnaweiś, Sokółka and Kosienice and that line included a connection for Grodno and Białystok. The main families of the nobility in the Sokółka region were: Zawitowski, Dovnarowitz, Terpiłowski, Bachra and Bar[21].

Sokółka boasted a wooden synagogue which was an excellent example of popular Jewish construction with a reputation for its simple architectural design that spread far and wide and not only among the Jewish population. The building succeeded in merging the local building styles with Jewish-Romantic style of “A worker doing Holy work”, whose creation was to beautify the House of God, to elevate and adorn the Most-High's dwelling place.

The synagogue was burned and nothing remains to remind us of anything of its architecture or its religious artifacts.

Sokółka was one of the towns that extended aid to the Jews of Grodno after the great fire that overtook it in 1885 and caused extensive damage to the Jews. The Jews contributed 150 Pod (about 4,800 lbs) of bread[22].

The status “Regional capital” conferred on Sokółka influenced the Jews as well, causing them to “climb out of the depths” of the Jewish Torah and look beyond somewhat. The tendency towards the “Haskala” movement was, apparently, stronger than in other towns in the area.

 

Chapter Seven

Peace Reigns between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim in Sokółka

“Kloizim” of the Hassidim in Sokółka.- Hassidei-Karlin and Kozcak in the town.- the debate on Hassidism in the area.- “Between a rock and a hard place” Pinsk and Karlin.- The argument in nearby Amdur.- Between popular Vohlyn and Educated Lithuania.- Rabbi Aharon “The Great” of Karlin and his pupil in Amdur.- The influence of the “Ba'al Shem Tov” in the area.- Rabbi Yehiel Margalit, “The Righteous”, Rabbi of Grodno.- The Hassidim of Amdur in Sokółka.- Sokółka.- Transfer of the disciples of “The Gaon of Vilna” Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Z”Lman, and his opponents.

Before the outbreak of World War II which brought the Holocaust to Poland and Lithuania, there dwelt in Sokółka two branches of the Hassidim each with their respective “Shtiebel” – that of Karlin in the “Schulhof” and the other – Koczak. It is likely that there were other prayer-houses belonging to the dynasties of other Hassidim, especially in Lithuania; Amdur and Scharshuv*, Słonim and Kobriń, these, together with Zionist reinforcements weakened the Hassidim. The youth rushed to the Zionist societies and only a few remained faithful to the Hassidic movement, which at that time was a fighting movement in Sokółka.

However, there were times when all the communities in Lithuania, Sokółka and the surroundings as well, were well-springs of contention regarding Hassidism. There were those who insulted Hassidism, while others praised it.

The “war” between Hassidism and Mitnagdim broke out half-way through the 18th century among the Jewish population of Lithuania, between Pinsk the “senior” and its sister-city Karlin. Acts in this stormy drama which were enacted in the Pinsk-Karlin region reached Grodno-Amdur[23] (or Indorra), about nine miles from Sokółka and was the “headquarters” of the Hassid Rabbi Haim-Chaikel and his disciples.

Pinsk and Karlin were situated, for the purpose of this discussion, on the borders of two different centers: the Popular Vohlyn, center of the post-Ba'al Shem Tov era and the home of the Maggid of Mezeritsch, Rabbi Dov Ber, and the academic Lithuania the “Mitnagdim” of the Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Molina. These two “monoliths” clashed, and “fought for survival”. Pinsk and Karlin divided between themselves these “worlds” and Karlin was the first “bridge-head” for the Hassidim in Lithuania.

After the appearance of the Maggid of Mezeritsch a new light shone on Karlin and Pinsk – the light of Hassidism. In the early days of Hassidism a new star arose in Karlin – that of Rabbi Aharon “The Great”, head of the Karlin dynasty. The Torah of the Ba'al Shem Tov on the threefold love: God, Torah and Israel, was also his Torah. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who officiated for a short while as Rabbi in Pinsk, united all three as the “love of Israel”, Rabbi Shneur Z”Lman from Liadi had his own slogan - “love of Torah” and Rabbi Aharon the Great, founded his world on the love and fear of God. Rabbi Aharon the Great, “consumed by his own zealous fire” in the words of his disciples, founded the “Karlin dynasty” which prospered and spread, conquering Poland, taking the walls of Lithuania and creating the Karlinian slogan: “Song and joyfulness, enthusiasm and women, togetherness and cleaving to Righteousness.” The ritual “Shalosh Se'udot” (“three meals” of Sabbath), with the twilight of Saturday, the “Melaveh-Malka” of the end of the Sabbath, were hours of great joy, happiness and spiritual elevation. Enthusiastic singing broke out in the Jewish street. That singing still echoes today crossing borders, traversing oceans and adding color to every wildly danced Hora and every Jewish singer. That was Karlin.

Pinsk – Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak dwelt there for some time that “lover of Israel” who composed a revised Kaddish – the new one. Pinsk objected, was intolerant - and he was expelled from the town. After him came the period of Rabbi Avigdor the brave fighter and daring zealot against Hassidism. The world shook. He dispatched letters to the Tsar and the Senate. He went to St Petersburg and dragged the State into the conflict. It was he who turned the Karlinians to a synonym of abuse and ridicule, he who wrote accusing letters to the authorities and went to them exhorting them to extirpate the heretical Hassidim at the roots,. But he was defeated. Karlin which was absorbed by Pinsk conquered her “mistress” and adversary. Karlin and its neighbor, Amdur, became the center of the dispute between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim for more than thirty years. The influence of the Ba'al Shem Tov was very great in Lithuania until1746 when it was able to install Rabbi Yehiel Margalit as Rabbi in Grodno[24].

Parallel with Karlin an attempt was made to create another center of Hassidism in Lithuania in the town of Amdur, the closest to the “main community” Grodno, and beyond Sokółka. It was tried by Rabbi Haim-Chaikel of Amdur, a student of the great Maggid of Mezeritsch, but the branch in Amdur didn't manage to survive very long but some literature from the branch exists from the time of the dispute.

Rabbi Haim-Chaikel Margalit bar Rabbi Shmuel was a scholar in the town of Amdur and studied Hassidic Torah in Karlin. After the death of his Rabbi, the Maggid of Mezeritsch he raised for himself a “House of Righteousness” in Amdur and preached there without license to the Hassidim of the region of his settlement. In 1785 the “war” between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim was reignited. There can be no doubt that Rabbi Haim-Chaikel and his disciples were the cause. But his status in Amdur remained secure.

In the town of Zelwa, also in the county of Grodno and near to Amdur, on market days, on which the residents of Lithuania took part, a boycott was declared against the Hassidim by the Gaon of the “Holy Community” of Grodno, who was also the regional Rabbi. But there were Mitnagdim in Grodno who fought against the Hassidim and impeded the steps taken by the Rabbi of Amdur. One document quotes “……Rabbi Hirsch bar Issar from Grodno…” who recorded the names of all those who wanted to travel to the “Holy Community of Minsk” (to Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk) and the Mitnagdim obstructed their journey.

The Rabbi of Amdur composed a book “Life and Graciousness” - a collection of sermons on rabbinical decisions from the great scholars of the past and from the “Zohar”. Rabbi Haim-Chaikel died in Amdur in 1787 and his son Rabbi Shmuel inherited his chair in Amdur[25].

Hassidism was well developed in Amdur. The Amdur Hassid house was used as a center for minyanim of the Hassidim who lived in the town and clustered round in the shadow of various Rabbis. These were the Hassidim of Słonin, Kobryn, Karlin, Kock and even Novominsk. Rabbi Haim-Chaikel placed a disciple there Rabbi Moshe from Scharschov, who sat in that town, also in the Grodno region, and was an asset to the Amdur dynasty.

The towns of Amdur, Zelva and so on, and those whose names in the war between the sides are not remembered, were in the vicinity of Sokółka. But there is no doubt that the delegates who were sent from here to there and hither and yon, to Vilna - the center of the resistance - passed through Sokółka, and would have quartered in the homes of “Our People” and they would have prepared the ground for the Hassidim in Sokółka itself. And even though they did not succeed in “conquering” all the settlement – they caused the Hassidim's “ship” to “anchor” in Sokółka and it struck deep roots there. The emergence of Hassidism in Sokółka remained within the realms of propaganda but the opening of Hassidic prayer-houses in town clearly demonstrates that Hassidim existed there, without us knowing the founders' or supporters' names.

 

Chapter Eight

Sokółka in the eyes of visitors

Tourists' view.- The unseen Sokółka.- Memoirs of a Jewish tourist to Sokółka.- Shelves of Mishna in Jewish homes.- Pictures of the great Geonim of Israel on the walls.- The pictures of “ Remember the Destruction”.- The home town of Scholars and Intelligentsia, of writers and poets.- Keeping the old life-style.- Day-to-day life for generations.- The end of Nazism.

In the diaries and memoirs of tourists and scholars they mention in passing the life of Jews in the small villages and towns spread across Russia and Poland and opinions are divided; there are those who see them in a positive light and those in which one can discern the face of anti-Semitism. The books tell of the life of the Jews in isolated towns in Poland. Sokółka wasn't mentioned by name or even by inference.

A few years ago, Sokółka was recalled in a monograph by Michael Cohen about the towns in the region of Grodno that were destroyed[26]. We get an idea from this of Jewish life in Sokółka which was similar to Jewish life in all the towns spread across Lithuania, and the remains that one feels the writer succeeded in wresting from their records. Of Sokółka he recorded: “In my youth before I left my homeland to immigrate to Argentina, I chanced to visit now and again, a few towns in the region of Grodno, like – Odelsk, Dąbrowa, Zlodowa, Lunna, Sokółka, Skidal, Kużnica and Krynki. I visited Sokółka more often, and there I saw in almost every Jewish home a bookcase in the center of the home from which a set of Gemarot sparkling in gold lettering…In many houses I found shelves of books in Hebrew and Yiddish and foreign languages on topics not connected with faith and tradition but subjects on literature and science. There were even a few houses that had shelves next to the Gemarot with “columns” that gave to the house a sense of being a small Beit Midrash.

When I opened a Jewish door, even in the meanest lane or alley, close by was a synagogue, or occasionally a mikva, where the artisans, tailors, and cobblers would congregate, the light would illuminate portraits on the walls of Moshe and Aaron, of Moshe Rabbenu, his face radiating light, with the Tablets of the Law in his left hand and the staff with which he parted the Red Sea in the right; and Aaron the Priest with the Urim and Thummim on his chest and the Holy incense pan with the incense smoke arising from it. And close-by both of them was a picture of the Gaon of Vilna, sitting wrapped in his tallit and tefillin: in his left hand he holds a book and in his right a goose-feather with which he writes on vellum.

In other homes of Jews there was on the walls one large picture with the 39 greatest Jewish Geonim grouped round a central picture of the Rambam. One could also see other, historical pictures – “the Miracle of Hanukkah”, in which Mattityahu the High Priest pours holy olive oil from a jug that was closed and sealed – into the cups of the Hannukiah, and standing around him the Hasmoneans with their spears in their hands…..or a picture of Ahasuerus and Esther; or a picture depicting the “Inquisition in Spain” with a Jew being burned at the Auto-da-fé…….it was also possible to see in many Jewish homes the picture of Moses Montefiore dressed in his noble attire.

These pictures, so well-known in Israel, like date-palms in the desert were seen on the walls of Jewish houses in the towns of Lithuania, Grodno region, in which during the entire year from Erev Passover to Erev Passover, the Hannukiah was used by spiders to spin their webs and the atmosphere was filled with melancholy, gloomy and depressing as if with dark clouds, until every wall seemed nothing more than a “memorial to the destruction”; ……..the shining Jewish eye that saw around it in Russia oppression of Israel, the whip of the task-master, decrees, distress and poverty awakened to the vision of these pictures and a return to a time of pleasantness and hope from looking at the pictures of our great Jewish past. Jewish children already in their young years absorbed the holy light from looking at the pictures together with Jewish sorrow and with Jewish awareness, and the seeds of hope and the end of days were sown in the heart of the young generation and carried all the days of their lives until old age…

And what is the reason that all these towns in the region of Grodno brought forth such a large number of scholars, intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, men of science and Yeshiva students, masters of Torah and culture. And on the other hand – there were so many pioneers – men and women – who went through the period of agricultural and economics training with the intention of emigrating to the land of their fathers, to rebuild it and extract it from its desolation.

The Lithuanian Jews of the Grodno region were materially poor but spiritually rich. Most were very spiritual, idealistic full of enthusiasm and wonder and with unimaginable courage continued the dynastic reputation of the generations and fortified the existence of our faith.

And when the name of Grodno itself, that, thanks to its Jews was crowned with the title “City and Metropolis in Israel”, the rest of the towns in the region were also full to overflowing with Judaism, the small towns – and among them Sokółka – preserved the Jewish way of life and its behavior and stood guard over the Jewish persona; as long as the Jewish community was small – so were the special policies of Jewish spiritualism excelled, conspicuous and strong and the Jewish-traditional world merged with the cultural and spiritual world.

The faces were lean like old parchment, glowing like sparks with light from distant worlds, from worlds on high. They, who filled the whole house of Israel, even during the most difficult times, illuminated the pillars of fire on the road from which they did not turn aside. The faces were furrowed with poverty and fear, agonies and disturbances. But faith was not lost, the trust in a good future, and the light of the future were the faces of the joyful, the hopeful and the talented.

Thus life continued generation after generation, for hundreds of years. The historic disturbances were not enough to destroy the fixed way of life; it stood many generations. But not forever was it immune. – The Nazi war brought a tragedy to the world and its culture. The Nazi monster brought to ruins the values of hundreds of years. The evil hand was victorious.”

 

Chapter Nine

The Zionist Movement in Sokółka

The awakening of Love of Zion.- The beginning of Zionism in Sokółka (1897).- Society of “Lovers of Zion”, young Zionists and the girl Zionists in Sokółka.- the spreading of the Zionist culture Hebrew papers in the town.- Sokółka Zionists at the Drozganik meeting.- City notables in the committees.- Sokółka Jews elected to the Duma.- Courses in Sokółka.

The idea of the return of Jews to the Land of Israel and the gathering in of the exiles awakened naturally in the 'thirties of the 19th century in various countries including Lithuania. The urge to strengthen ties with the Land of Israel came in 1872 under the initiative of Rabbi Menachem-Mendel Halperin of Grodno. A congress was held there of delegates from the branches of “Hovevei-Zion” from Białystok, Łomża and other towns, and they founded in Grodno a society named “Seekers of Zion and Jerusalem”. Societies of this nature were founded in other cities and towns as well. The Jews of Lithuania were aware of events in Palestine and the problems of settling the country; they were involved and took part in all activities directed to the settling of the country. There were those who hurried to realize their assets and personally immigrated.

Hovevei-Zion” achieved much publicity in Vilna and Białystok which were among the first and most important in Lithuania and Russia generally. The Jews of Sokółka did not take part in the first Congresses and meetings. It was only with the development of the Zionist societies in Lithuania (1897-1903), that the Jews of Sokółka woke up and became active.[27]

In 1898 the “Zionist Center for Correspondence” in Kishinev was in communication with 19 societies in the region of Grodno and among them is mentioned the name “Sokółka”.

There were three societies: “Hovevei Zion”, “Young Zionists” and “Daughters of Zion”. The tasks placed upon the societies were: a widening of the movement by the distribution of the (Zionist) “Shekel”, shares of “Wealth of Jewish settlement” (Colonial Bank), the collection of donations for the Jewish National Fund and the “Odessa Committee” of Hovevei Zion and the collection of books for the national library in Jerusalem.

There were a number of people of means in Sokóùka who wished to purchase land in Palestine investing between Ł6,000- Ł10,000. Among them was a farmer whose livelihood was working the land and whose hope was Palestine; he actually lost hundreds of Roubles in the purchasing of the land. The Societies were involved in education and culture as well. Hebrew papers were distributed in the town: “Ha-Tsfira” (The Siren) 15 copies, “Ha-Zman” (The Times – Vilna) 2, “Ha-Shaliach” (The Delegate) 1, Roszbit 4. Also distributed were the poster “Kadima” (Forwards) in two languages and the magazine “Koffika-Bibilioteque” (The Penny Library). Apart from the books and magazines also included was important information and propaganda on the Zionist heritage. The circulars were printed in Hebrew and Yiddish and read in the Societies and sometimes exhibited on the notice-boards of the synagogue.

Verbal propaganda was propagated in speeches and lectures, among them popular speakers and “Maggidim” – talented expositors who traveled from town to town, exciting the audiences and society founders.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 and the reaction that followed it caused many changes in the lives of the Lithuanian Jews. Apart from the repression of the Zionist movement, the State's regime adversely affected the already lowered economic situation. The massive emigration to the United States emptied the towns, especially of their younger generations. After the revolutionary year, many began to return to the Zionist organizations. Many of them reorganized themselves under the name “Young Zionists” and began to dissociate themselves from the general Zionist organization. In the regional Zionist congress that was convened by the county committee Druskienniki in the county of Smorgon and coded “wedding” (Council), 23 delegates took part coming from 11 towns: Grodno, Białystok, Bresk, Slonim, Sokółka, Skidal, Lunna, Wołkowysk, Horodok, Bielsk and Druskienniki. At the Zionist Conference that took place in the Vilna area in 1900, Ya'acov Goldstein and Shimshon Katznelbergen represented Sokółka. The Society of Zionist Youth of Sokółka printed their correspondence as “The Society of Zionist Youth in Sokółka” with a Magen David centrally placed. The usual signatories of the letters were Yisroel Lipczer, or Tsvi Kobalski or Tsvi Judowski, the address of the Society was M. Warmann

In 1909, a considerable sum of money was collected in Sokółka for the Jewish National Fund. The Zionists would make a collection between 8-10 times a year in one of the houses of a society member. There was an attempt to open a public meeting-room and representations were made to the Minister of the county for permission[28].

As is known after the “bloody year” of 1905, the Czarist government agreed to invite the “People's Choice” to the Duma. The Jews of Sokółka took part in the elections for four of the “Dumas”. The active Zionist, Ya'acov Goldstein was elected to the first, to the second, Dr. Blumenfeld and Mr. H. Y. Epstein (Arthur Dukes), to the third Dr. Blumenfeld and to the fourth Eliezer Ushkawitz (orthodox).

The pedagogical courses that were founded in Grodno as preparation for qualified teachers to give instruction in Hebrew and general studies were intended to give expression to the official target of the “Society for Spreading Education” who had founded the courses financed by the Jewish Colonization Association. In practice, the courses strove to educate the already Hebrew-cultured teacher, and teach him tradition in the spirit of the national ideals of our people as demanded of the movement to revival of the generation. The Russian educational bodies in Grodno the County capital recognized the value of the courses and even respected Kahanstam, the noted educationalist, but difficulties arose concerning the arrangement for the examinations of the candidates.

With the help of the “Spreaders of Education” successful arrangements were made for the candidates on a permanent basis in Sokółka not far from Grodno where, next to the Russian school was housed the Examining council for the teacher's degree. The governing teachers' bodies also helped by making some concessions to the candidates: they took into account the lessons given by the candidates during their courses, they shortened the course by a few subjects, etc. Nearly all those who finished the course passed the official examinations and received their degrees officially as “teachers”[29].

Nevertheless, in spite of it all, the incident was not over: because the courses gave only an unofficial final-certificate, it was decided to emphasize the Hebrew aspect and the certificates for the second course were printed in two languages – Russian and Hebrew. When such a certificate arrived at Odessa, a new charge arose – by what authority was Hebrew printed next to the Russian? Co-incidentally, they remembered in the ministry the old “sin” of the granting of certification for the first course with the royal Russian eagle emblem on it as if it were fully official and genuine. The Ministry ordered the courses to “atone” for the “crime”, to collect from all the participants the certificates and to deposit them with the local Direktiron and for those teachers to be required to undergo government examination as normal. Kahanstam, the course director was also required to take the examination and the tests were carried out in Sokółka. All of them passed the examination and returned to school.

It was possible to accept just three students each year for the courses. The students signed an agreement to teach for a number of years in the school but in fact almost all of them became teachers for their entire lives. They founded for themselves an association for mutual help etc. The members assisted each other both materially and spiritually. From the material point of view the courses were quite difficult with exhausting work day and night. For all that, their quarters were filled with a contented atmosphere; their years of study in their eyes the happiest years of their lives. They felt they were participating of a lofty creation for themselves and for the people.

The Jews of Sokółka perceived the courses as if they took place in Sokółka.

 

Chapter Ten

The Odelsk Community

Odelsk - Odzilisk in Polish. - Town established in 16th century.- The epigram “Organized like Odelsk”.- The Jewish community grew slowly: Jewish folklore in Odelsk, Synagogue from the 17th century.- Christian criticism on lack of guard for the synagogue.- The town attached to the Sokółka region – triple population in town.- Rabbi Mordecai Arieh-Leib in Odelsk

In dictionaries and maps the town is listed as Odzilisk, a town on the banks of the river Odła. It was founded in the first half of the 16th century by Queen Bona granting the town rights of trade and taxes. Early on it belonged to the county of Troki and was attached to the economic area of Grodno. There was a Catholic church in the town erected by Zygmund III in 1660. Odelsk was the source of the (uncomplimentary) saying: to be…“Organized like Odelsk”[30] Odelsk is near the railroad from Grodno to Wokowysk. The area is hilly but bare of trees. In 1800 there were 172 houses[31]. The Jewish community grew very slowly. The local residents found it difficult indeed to complete the first minyan and it wasn't easy.

The Jewish community in Odelsk was proud of its old synagogue (from the 17th century), which was built of wood. It is known that after the destructions, wars and disturbances, fires and wood-rot, the number of wooden synagogues diminished significantly and here a synagogue is preserved that awakens great interest among seekers after Jewish architecture - by Christians as well as Jews - who interested themselves and invested much important research. But the Local Jews didn't know – or care, for some reason – to preserve the sanctified remains. The synagogue was used as a storage dump for potatoes which took up half the floor. Expensive embroideries rolled around the floor; the Bimah was broken and part of it had been used for firewood. The Curator of the State Museum in Grodno, Judkowski (a Pole), displayed considerable interest in Jewish antiquities. He found the synagogue in a sad state of disrepair; “……. the roof beams were rotten and the entire roof in a state of disintegration. Inside the building was very dirty. The beautiful Ark is delicately hand-carved and considered highly artistic – it, too, was in a dilapidated condition. In general the synagogue was collapsing and there was no one in the town with the expertise to deal with the antique Jewish relic – even more so a religious one. The situation is scandalous.” Thus was the spoken reaction of a Christian[32], when he saw the synagogue in ruins.

After the conquest of Poland and Lithuania by Russia, Odelsk was administratively attached to the county of Sokółka. In 1886 there were 1346 souls (657 men, 689 women), and in that number were included 6 Pravoslavs, 1242 Catholics, 98 Jews.

There was a Jewish school in town. All 274 of the town's homes were built of wood. When counted in 1897 there were 234 Jews in town – 16% of the general population.

Because of poverty, the local Jewish population could not afford to maintain a Rabbi of their own all the time, and they needed Rabbis from the surrounding area. It was only when the community began to grow that they began to acquire for themselves religious articles. The names of the Rabbis who served the community before 1904 are not known. That was the year that Rabbi Mordecai Arieh-Lev was installed with Rabbi Avraham-Tsvi as deputy. He was born in 1880 in Kleszczele[33].

A number of Jews survived the Nazi Holocaust and some of them are in Israel.

 


Footnotes:

  1. The organized Jewish settlement in the town was about two-hundred years old but Sokółka the village, existed some hundreds of years prior to that, with a few isolated, unorganized Jews. Unfortunately for them nothing is known about them and historically there is no chronicled evidence except for the most sketchy of rumors. In order to chronicle the story of Sokółka and its Jewish community, I had to search available literature and newspapers very thoroughly. My search was not in vain. And this is the first result of my work. I have shown here “there is a source”. This is my reply to future critics. Return
  2. In archive documents the town is referred to as 'Grodno'. In Polish the name is 'Grodno'. In Hebrew common usage has determined it is spelt as 'Grodna'. It also appears as Hrodno in Russian Return

 

  1. On historical Grodno and its community – see “A City of Heroes” by S.A. Friedenstein (Vilna – 1880) and “City Streets” Shlomo Z”Lman Horowitz. Return
  2. There is a wealth of material on Tyczyn and Białystok in the 2 volumes “Białystok notebook”, edited by the writer A.S. Hirschberg, and also in the book Henryk Moszczyński (in Polish), Białystok 1933. Return
  3. “Lithuanian Jewry” published by 'Am Ha-sefer, ltd.' 1920. Return
  4. See the entry 'Grodno' in the 'Hebrew Encyclopedia'. Return
  5. This according to the calculations of the Christian scholar, the Russian Sergei Braschadski, who investigated the archives concerning the chronicles of the Jews. Return
  6. The Jews of Lithuania were known for their excellence in the knowledge of Torah greater than that of other Jews and wherever they went the Torah went with them. Because of this zealous interest, Lithuanian Jewry spread the Torah of Israel among its many people. From this came scholars, Rabbis, Cantors and synagogue sextons. Not found among them, however, are ordinary folk serving the synagogues. Return
  7. The maps are to be found at the beginning of the book “Jews of Lithuania”. Return
  8. The Christians knew to document accurately the dates of the founding of their churches and to record even unimportant details. Only the Jews of Poland and Lithuania established their synagogues and public institutions without recording historical details. It is therefore impossible for us with any accuracy to tell when the old synagogue was founded. Return
  9. In Lithuanian this payment was called a “head-tax” Return
  10. See “The Jews in Poland” by Raphael Mahler. Return
  11. The Tyzenhaus “affair” is mentioned books on the history of Grodno and regarding his relationship to the Jews see Friedenstein's “City of Heroes”. Return
  12. Vide “Geographic Lexicon” of the Kingdom of Poland. Return
  13. The full version of the regulations was published in “Białystok notebook” and also in various memorial books from survivors the towns in that area. The regulations caused much anger outside Poland and Prussia, especially in western countries but none of them reacted by expressing an opinion. Return
  14. Vide “Białystok Notebook” Return
  15. Also the opinion of the historian Shimon Dubonov in his book “Chronicles of the Jewish People” Return
  16. “Kolokol” (“The Bell”) Issue 63 October 1854. Return
  17. Vide the memoirs of Ya'acov Frankel “Haim Frankel (his father) Pioneer of the Fur Industry in Lithuania”, in the collection “Lithuania” (Yiddish), edited by Dr. Mendel Sudarski, and published by “Kultur-Gesellshcaft of the Lithuanian Jews.” Return
  18. The Polish geographical index gives very little information on Sokółka the town and the area. There is hardly any information in the rest of the reference books and encyclopedias. Even the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia (“ABrestiya Encyclopedia” edited by Dr. Y.L. Katzenelson) brings almost no information on Sokółka. Return
  19. “Białystok notebook” contains much information on Rabbis born in Białystok who also served in Sokółka. Return
  20. Rabbi Shmuel ben Yisrael-Arieh was born in 1870 in the village of Sidra close to Sokółka. He studied in the Yeshiva of Radin-Wolzhin and was known as “the prodigy of Sidra”. In 1892 he moved to Sokółka. His house was the council house of the local Rabbis. He was a devoted Zionist heart and soul and took part in Zionist congresses. He was a contributor to the journal “Hochmat Yisroel” published in Odessa by Rabbi Annelman. In 1926 he went to officiate as Rabbi in Mścisław. In 1935 he went to officiate as a “Righteous teacher” in Grodno. In every place he was an active Zionist and functioned as a delegate for the Jewish National Fund. On one occasion he was warned by the rabbinical authorities that if he didn't cease his Zionist activities he would be removed from the “Association of Rabbis”. He replied that work for the redemption of the land of Israel was permitted even on the Sabbath. Return
  21. Vide “The Geographical Map of Poland” Return
  22. “Ha-melitz” (“The Advocate”) Petersburg Issue 42, 19 June 1885 Return
  23. Vide the books “The Melody and Dance of Hassidism”, vol. ii (published by “Netzach”, Tel-Aviv, 1953, p. 131), and in the book “Lithuanian Hassidism” by Dr. Ze'ev Rabinowitz (The Bialik Institute, Jerusalem, 1961), in the chapter “Amdur Hassidism”. Return
  24. In “City of Heroes” by Friedenstein, (p. 54) it is told that Rabbi Yehiel Margalit sat previously in Karaka and was a student of the Ba'al Shem Tov and in books “that during the life of the Ba'al Shem Tov and in the community of Hassidim” it is told that the Ba'al Shem Tov himself brought him and raised him to the chair of the Rabbanut of Grodno in the year 1746, and he died there in the year 1751. The book quotes the inscription on his tombstone in the cemetery in Grodno Return
  25. A book of his remains: “Responsa- Shmuel”. Besides bearing the honored title of “Our Master and teacher” he was also chairman of the Beit-Din. Return
  26. Monograph “Gradner Opgeklangen” (Yiddish), Buenos Aires, 1955/6. Return
  27. The documents of Lev Yaffe are found in the archives of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem. He was a resident of Grodno. In the files I found correspondence between him and the Zionists of Sokółka. I take this opportunity to thank Dr. Yisrael Klausner of the Zionist Archives for his assistance in locating material on Sokółka Zionists. Return
  28. Together with the material found in the Archive files of L. Yaffe I also referred to Dr. Klausner's “Hivat Zion in Lithuania” (p. 489). Return
  29. Vide “The pedagogic courses in Grodno” by Aaron Kroon in the book “Lithuanian Jews” Return
  30. Vide the Geographical dictionary of Poland, Warsaw, 1886 Vol. 7 p. 376 Return
  31. Vide “The Great Encyclopedia” in Russian, Petersburg, 1904 Vol. 17, according to which there were in town: a municipal hospital, two military hospitals, a synagogue, dairy, 15 factories employing 157 workers Return
  32. The newspaper “Das Nayeh LebenReturn
  33. Vide “My Tent is there” S.L. Gottlieb, Pinsk Return

 

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