« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 123]

The First World War

Translated by Selwyn Rose

 

1. The Separation

In 1914, when the First World War broke out and heavy clouds covered the heavens, people started walking around, gripped by fear and worries. Husbands separated from their wives, fathers from their sons and sons from their parents. Young people hurried to the recruitment offices with their parents with one prayer on their lips: that they be released from service. The Jews, who were deprived of their rights by the Russian government, whose lives and property were considered ownerless, had no interest in taking up arms on behalf of Russia. All efforts were considered legitimate in avoiding conscription. Many young people made themselves out to be dumb or crippled in some way; a few even endangered their lives by undertaking extreme measures to present a deformed appearance – anything just to stay out of the army. There were young people who didn't sleep at nights, nor ate, but lived on dry meat in order to lose weight and before leaving for the recruitment office drank strong black coffee to increase their heart rate, and as a last resort – money solved many problems by way of bribes to the recruitment officer who released the young Jews.

The young men who were not released by the mobilization authorities and were found fit for service were sent to the absorption camp outside town on the road to Krynki where they received their uniforms and underwent basic military training and were formed into an urban battalion called “Der Ullitzkavolk” meaning of mixed ethnic origins – Christians and Jews from the surrounding area of Sokółka and the villages around – most of them Poles.

On the day that the battalion left for the front all the shops closed. All the townsfolk went to the Białystok-Grodno high-road to say farewell to the sons of Sokółka on their way to the front at Augustov. There was no transport for them; they went marching. In those days there were no automobiles in the service of the army. The elders of the town with Rabbi Schuster at their head, went to the Białystok Road next to the house of the widow Zlatta, a Sefer Torah in their arms, to say farewell to the marching soldiers on their way to the front. From both sides of the street the Jews of Sokółka stood taking leave of their loved-ones with crying and wailing. In their hearts and mouths one prayer: that they should see each other again in this life. At the head of the battalion on horse-back rode the commanding officer, broad-shouldered with a long black beard.

 

sok123a.jpg
 
sok123b.jpg
The first radio amateur enthusiast in Sokółka, Bezalel
Kruglik, with his own self-designed and built radio

(Photograph from the Polish national press article printed in 1930)
 
Jewish soldiers from Sokółka
in the Polish army at home on leave

 

Sitting erect, he saluted the Rabbi and the Sifrei-Torah together with the town dignitaries. Behind him came the military band playing marches, then the battalion and lastly the service wagons – equipment, field-kitchen, horses, etc.

 

2. The Retreat of the Russian Army

The Russian authority was rotten to the core: instead of preparing themselves for war against enemies from outside, they were engaged in a self-destructive internecine struggle and not a few gave expression to their anti-Semitic and Jew-hating opinions, looking for ways and means to embitter even more the Jews' existence. The Russians found themselves unready for battle. The Germans struck along the whole front and the Russian Army's retreat from its own borders began.

The front approached Sokółka, and Sokółka turned into one large army camp; the whole town became full of Russian soldiers; in every house and courtyard dwelt soldiers. The streets thronged with them. All the Jewish schools, the Talmudei-Torah, synagogues – all commandeered. The Christian-Polish churches and schools were not taken over. The wild Cossacks spread fear among the Jews of Sokółka, forcing them to open their shops on Shabbat, taking by force the youngsters to perform all different kinds of work and generally embittered the Jews' lives unmercifully. Decree followed decree; a poster on the walls calling the Jews to surrender to the authorities all utensils made of copper. Gripped by fear, the Jews obeyed, giving up their precious Shabbat candlesticks and Shabbat hot-water boilers, shower-heads and even the door handles. The authorities stripped the synagogues of the candlesticks, bowls, lamp-stands – anything and everything made of metal – all for the war industry.

A second order came forcing everyone who was not mobilized to report immediately to the police from where they were to be sent, on foot, to the front, driving cattle for the soldiers' sustenance. Every young person sought some kind of tactic to avoid going, including bribes – very much a known ploy in Russian life. But many youngsters were conscripted and sent with cattle to the front. The Russian army was chased and retreated before the advancing, conquering German army town after town, village after village. The echo of the thundering artillery reached Sokółka; at night the skies were red with the reflection of the fires from the front. The Jews of Sokółka were overjoyed with gladness as the day of their freedom approached. The day of redemption, the end of Russian rule, was near. The Russian army retreated, the troops in the army camp retreated to Grodno. One could still hear the groaning of the injured Russians being transported on two-wheeled carriages. The wild Cossacks could be seen running away in near-panic. Outside the town the rear-guard covered the escape of the main body of troops. On Friday evening, at midnight, a loud explosion was heard and in the morning we discovered that the Russians had detonated the bridge over the railroad near the Balkan Mountains. On Saturday the Russians began looting the Jewish shops, breaking windows and doors, taking everything they could lay their hands on. Fear of death descended upon the Jews of Sokółka. Everyone hid in the cellars of their houses. Terrified, depressed and hungry the Jews of Sokółka sat huddled together in their hiding places waiting for the day of redemption. On Sunday morning in the year 1915 the German army entered Sokółka. People breathed a sigh of relief. People crept out of their hiding- places feeling themselves released with the danger of death gone. The Russians managed to kill two Jews from the battalion that they caught on the way.

 

3. The Capture of Sokółka by the German Army

In 1915 Sokółka was captured by the German Army which advanced as three spear-heads. One group entered on the main Białystok high road, the second along the railroad and the third by way of the Jewish cemetery. The whole town gave praises and thanksgiving to the heavens for freeing them from the murdering Russian Cossacks. The townspeople received the Germans with great joy and gladness. They thronged the streets feeling free and without fear. The German army treated the Jews in a friendly fashion, visited their homes bringing bread, jelly and chocolate candy and the town rejoiced. The Russian army retrenched on the banks of the river Nieman at Grodno and our town once again became one large army camp. The town was full of the German army; German soldiers were quartered in every house. They treated their hosts well and with respect. In contrast to the Russians, who quartered their soldiers in the synagogues and Jewish schools, the German army behaved with great respect, and did no damage to the Jewish Holy institutions. After the conquest of Grodno and Vilna, the German army left Sokółka, leaving only a small garrison and a German police force. The police commandant created a civil police made almost entirely of Jews with just a few Christians. Haim Leibke Reiskind was installed as commander of the civil police and under his command were constables both Jewish and Christians – with no uniforms and no arms, just a green arm band on the sleeve of their coat, with the letters C.P. (civil police) imprinted on it. The Police Station was in the house of Broida, facing the Russian church.

The “honeymoon” with the German conquest didn't last long. The townspeople began to feel the German heel, the hunger began to bite. It was impossible to obtain supplies of anything. The shops were empty; the farmers didn't come to town with their produce. The factories were silent and unproductive. Rationing was introduced. The public received rationing-cards with insufficient quotas. Bread was distributed but only sufficient for one meal, as was the ration of potatoes and flour. Long hours were spent just queuing to get the tiny rations. Clothing and material were non-existent, shoes – don't even mention them. In time wooden shoes were introduced to replace leather soles. Kerosene was unheard of so carbide was used which itself was difficult to obtain. Many families sat in the dark without illumination, unable to obtain carbide. The Germans were all over the area and hunger spread with great strides, people drifted about like shadows – hungry. Contagious diseases spread; epidemics of typhus and dysentery. Many died from lack of suitable treatment and medication. The situation hit everyone but mostly the unemployed. A black-market opened up and began to flourish and what made things worse was the Germans introduced a poll-tax on the population and there was nothing to pay them with. People wandered around in despair and saw no way open to them to continue living and many of them were forced to use the black market. They bought from the farmers and the German soldiers; they took supplies to Białystok, getting better prices. But the German regime was very bad; two of the police officers, Yaschinski and Gronoful, spread fear everywhere over the people of Sokółka. The fate of anyone caught dealing on the black-market was bitter indeed.

But the hunger breached all barriers; day-after-day, with the dawn many of the Jews left town for the villages round about to buy a little flour and potatoes. They walked through the fields far from the roads in order not to get caught by the police Yaschinski and Gronoful who rode on horses patrolling up and down the roads looking for “prey”. In the evening the Jews returned from the farmers laden with a few potatoes and flour using a route away from the roadways and the pleasure at home was intense that they had managed to bring a little food home safely but with pounding hearts at not getting caught. After the harvest when the farmers finished reaping and collecting the produce from the fields, the children went to glean the fields of ears of corn and potatoes that got left behind. They would go to the forest as well, to hunt for mushrooms and blackberries. The hardship and miseries didn't end with the hunger. The Germans, who stole the horses, the cattle and everything they could lay their hands on began to rob the forests as well – they began logging the trees and sending them back to Germany. They mobilized the workers from the conquered territories and took them for heavy labor – in effect – forced labor. They took some of our youngsters as well and sent them for hard labor in the forests of Białowieża and there they worked them hard and fed them tiny rations that were insufficient to sustain them. A few of them managed to escape from the work and the hunger. Indeed the Jews of America did not forget their Russian and Polish brethren in their hard times and supported them with everything. They sent clothes, shoes, food, flour, sugar; they opened two kitchens for the congregation of Sokółka, one of them for the children, in the home of Yankel the butcher in Ulitzki Street and the other for adults in the home of Mrs. Mintz. A crèche was opened as well. The support from the United States saved many souls throughout the entire conquered territory.

 

4. The Community Council Elections

During the period of Russian domination, there were no public bodies elected to represent the Jewish community. The Jewish institutions - synagogues, mikva and Talmud Torah existed at the expense of the owners, and the religious artifacts and the Rabbi at the head, all received “meat-tax” from the butchers who sold kosher meat. With the German conquest the Sokółka Jewish community re-awakened, like all of the conquered territory, to cultural life. Groups that were newly founded – or re-founded - included various political parties, “The Youth Federation”, “Young Zionists”, “Ha-Mercaz” “Forwards” “Flowers of Zion”, “Freedom and Resurrection”, “ Literary Society”, “The Bund”, “Youth Society” “Ha-Mizrachi”, “Poalei-Tzedek”. They started preparations for elections to the community council. Permission for the list was granted by the governing authorities. Most of the parties in Sokółka were Zionist. The only anti-Zionist one was “The Bund” which stood strongly and courageously against Zionism and Hebrew. But its influence was weak. The decisive elements in Jewish Sokółka were the national Zionists and the traditionalists. “The Bund” tried to penetrate the working public, the poor and incite them against them against Zionism and against the Land of Israel and because a great many of the workers were religious artisans and traditionalists, they founded a religious workers' party under the banner “Poalei-Tsedek”. At the head of the party stood Isaac the hatter, Moshe Berl, the tailor, Shmuel-Hirsch the tailor and Heikel the cobbler. Just before the elections a new list appeared. The “Non-Aligned Workers' Party” standing against “The Bund”. Head of the list stood Meyer Yulewitz and Meyer Schreiberman. There was a lot of propaganda leading up to the elections: meetings, speeches, and promises to worry about the Jewish settlement and to supply its needs. The meetings were held in the synagogue and out in the open, there were mutual defamations and endless arguments, all the town was in a ferment.

In spite of the fact that “The Bund” party was anti-religious they adopted as a slogan “The Five Books of Moses; vote for number five on the list.” In the old synagogue where the workers prayed, the speakers, Meyer Yulewitz and Meyer Schreiberman, addressed the meeting asking them to vote for the “Non-Aligned Workers' Party” - listed number 10. The Zionists' number was 6.

All the walls were covered in propaganda party-posters with the party's number prominently displayed. Everyone was mobilized for propaganda work, even the goats and sheep of Haim the water-carrier were coerced into action: the animals were decorated and covered with colored political posters and a big prominent number 6 – the Zionists number on the lists and the poor animals wandered round the streets of Sokółka – accompanied, of course, by children who also took an active part in the elections. The Jews of Sokółka, like all the Jews throughout the conquered territory, fought for control of the community which was, after all a fight to control the Jewish Street. In its hands would be all the elements of assistance from America and education. “The Bund” was interested in secular education, the Zionists in Nationalism and the religious in traditional adherence, so every party fought strongly for control of the community. The Jews of Sokółka, most of whom were Zionists didn't disappoint their representatives, a committee was appointed with a Zionist majority. “The Bund” lost the campaign. The rest of the parties attained only a few delegates.

 

5. German Schools

The Germans, drunk with victory, never thought the day would come when they would have to evacuate the areas they had conquered. One of the means they visualized as a solid foundation for disseminating German culture was through German schools. In Sokółka they made efforts to spread the German language in all aspects of daily life. They opened German schools on the “Obligatory schooling” system. The Jews of Sokółka received the decree concerning the German schools with bitterness and anger. The religious and nationalist people could not come to terms with the decree that meant their children would be cut off from their traditional learning. But they were helpless in the face of the German decree. According to the authorities they had to close all the Jewish schools, “Haderim”, “Talmudei-Torah” and send their children to German schools.

The German school-house was in the Russian army camp, outside the town on the road to Krynki. The Germans commandeered all the school equipment from the Jewish schools – the benches, the desks and the blackboards and the chairs. The townspeople could not come to terms with the decree and continued to educate their children and teach Torah and religion to the town's children without benches and desks.

Two German schools were opened. One was for the Jewish children and the other for Christian children. The manager of the school was Borkowski. He was not from Sokółka, and was the son-in-law of Meyer Buvrik. He opened courses in Hebrew and introduced the love of Zion into the German school. In every lesson he introduced a song, in German, and also songs in Hebrew and Yiddish.

 

 
sok123c.jpg
 
Inspector Paschek, the German School Manager
 

 

The overall inspector of the schools was a German officer, named Paschek. A fat, broad-shouldered man, with a round red face with small eyes and dressed in military uniform, a sword dangling at his side. He seemed to present a threat to all the children in the school. Bitter was the fate of any child who fell into his hands. He showed no mercy. He hit mercilessly with a whip that he always carried in his hand. The inspector was not present at every lesson; he would come only in the mornings, receive a report from the teachers, sometimes testing the children on their knowledge of German.

The presence of threat and bitterness was the pedagogic norm; not only did Inspector Paschek beat the children, the teachers did so as well using a stick or cane across the fingers or on the palm of the hand. Sometimes they would pull ears or slap faces or leave a child sequestered in a small room alone for the entire lesson. The discipline in the schools was very strict and the tension was very high among the pupils. The children sat erect, the palms of their hands flat down on the desk, the fingers straight and tense. In place of notebooks, black slates in a wooden frame were used with colored pencils.

The lessons and the exercises were conducted in a military style, by numbers. On number one, lower the hands and grasp the wooden frame of the slate with two hands and wait for number two; on number two remove the slate from the desk and present it with both hands holding the frame; number three – immediately place the slate on the desk with the hands and fingers straight. The Germans were very strict concerning matters of order and cleanliness but less on the content of the lessons. Every week the pupils were taken to the military bath-house for a shower.

There were three divisions in the school: the lower- middle- and upper-schools, all according to age. The studies were superficial and much time was spent on learning the German alphabet – a whole year in effect. Understandably, the children didn't show much interest in the studies. The curriculum included reading, writing and math, German history, music and exercises in tidiness and order, games and a little religion. There was also a little work in gardening. The parents of a child who didn't turn up in the morning for class would be fined 2 Marks, a large sum for them. Therefore there was one ambition and that was to get away from the walls of the school by any means - and all and any means were acceptable. A pupil who reached the age of 14 was released from school if he had confirmation from an artisan that he was being employed to learn a trade. Thus the pupils began to drop out of the school one after the other. In time the school was transferred to inside the town on three separate places. The lower school moved to the house of Krischavski facing the fire-house, the middle-school moved to the house of the Russian teacher, Smuliak, on the other side of the railroad and the upper-school moved to the end of the Grodno Road. The general Inspector of the County, Paschek, died in Sokółka; he caught an infectious disease from his lover, the Christian teacher and they both died and Paschek's coffin was transferred to Germany.

The teachers' names: the head teacher- Borkowski; Greenhaus - brother-in-law of Rabbi Schuster (not from Sokółka). The remaining teachers were from Sokółka: The teacher Mazor; Rahel Zwardinski (now in America); Sheina-Haya Stein-Bonim (now in Israel); Pnina Wilanski-Cantor; Bilha Bublik (from Grodno); Elka Katzenellenbogen; Dina Lichtenstein; Eda Levine (now in Israel).

 

6. The Drama Society

Until the German invasion there were no politically active parties in Sokółka, no clubs and no theater. Occasionally a group of performers from elsewhere would appear, sometimes the schoolchildren got together in a private house or in the school itself and presented “The Sale of Joseph” or “Hanna and Her Seven Sons”. With the entry of the Germans the “Literary Society”, “Ha-Mercaz”, “Young Zion”, “Forward”, and also a drama section were established - The Drama Society. The participants were all local amateurs. Among them were some real talents. As time passed they began to present many productions on the stage.

The first production was presented at the Russian Municipal College facing the Polish church, in the wide corridor where they erected a stage and put on “The Slaughter” and “The Corpse” and the rest of the productions under the direction of the Białystok actor Schwarz. After some time the productions took place in the hall used by the “Literary Society” in the home of Elyakam Rabinowitz and also in “The Town Hall” which belonged to the Municipality.

The youth of Sokółka, who thirsted for culture and theater filled the hall to overflowing and it was necessary to increase the number of performances in order to give everyone a chance to see the production.

The Drama Society was unable to present many productions, because every play required much preparation and rehearsals. They put on a production for every festival: “Herzl Meyuhas”, “The Thieves”, “Hassia the Orphan”, “Der Shtummer Hatan”, “Gott, Mentsch Und Teivel”, “Der Darpes-Yung”, etc.

There were frequent visits from a group from Warsaw and they presented “The Dybbuk”, “Galt, Leiber und Schander”, “Ya'acov and Rahel”, “Der Mamma's Traran”, “Kol Nidrei”, “Das Finta lo Yidd'n” and more. At every performance the theater was packed from wall to wall and it is worth pointing out that the performance in Sokółka was not simply a theater performance – a routine event – every performance turned into a sleepless night, a day to remember; for these days the youth of Sokółka waited excitedly; they were evenings full of pleasure and interest.

Every performance began with the coming of evening and ended after midnight. The shows awoke intense feelings of pleasure and excitement and raised the spirits in the hearts of the youth. At every interval between one act and the next was a long period of waiting that was not wasted by the young people. A violinist played waltzes, a “flying post” was played, a series of lotteries, there was a buffet available and everyone waited eagerly for the continuation. In time we had two drama groups in Sokółka, one a Zionist and the other a “Literary Society” group run by “The Bund” people. Both of them were amateur groups and among them some real talent. Among those of the Zionist group were: Sheina-Haya Stein-Bonim, Kappelyuschnik, Hannya Stanislavski, Rivka Shapira, Moshe Shapira, Fashke Shtudnik, Itzka Blumenthal, Leibe Shtudnik, Ester Piker Attil Judovski, Solobeiczyk. The “Literary Society” group had: Wawaeh Nordwind, Elke Katzenellenbogen, Moshe Moshe Katzenellenbogen, Meyer Stein, Dvora Nordwind, Avraham Friedberg.

 

 
sok123d.jpg
 
Scene from “The Corpse”
 

 

 
sok123e.jpg
 
The “Literary Society” Drama Group of Sokółka
 

sok123f.jpg
 
sok123g.jpg

 

sok123h.jpg
 
sok123i.jpg
Actors of the “Tarbut” Dramatic Society of
Sokółka in the production of “The Verdict”

From right to left:Yekutiel Goldgleid, Fania
Tykchynska and Benjamin Lazdach
 
Members of the Sokółka Dramatic Society
“Tarbut” in the production of “The Verdict”
in the Polish army at home on leave

 

 
sok123j.jpg

 

 
sok123k.jpg
 
A scene from “Hassia the Orphan”
 

 

sok123l.jpg
 
sok123m.jpg
Meir Stein
 
Devora Nordwind

 

 
sok123n.jpg

 

7. The End of German Domination

In the year 1918 the end came to German domination of the conquered territories, with the outbreak of the socialist revolution in Germany as the German workers seized control of the Government. Complete confusion reigned in the army, the soldiers decorated their hats with red bands. An Army Council was created of officers and men and there was complete equality between them. The Poles who had been driving for independence but had failed in their fight against Czarist Russia saw their opportunity and exploited the utter confusion of the German military and the revolution in Germany, to fulfill their age-old dream and create a Polish state in all the conquered territories. But as long as the German army was encamped on Polish soil there was no way they could realize their dream. The German army was armed to the teeth and it was not easy to shake off the powerful grip that they held on the conquered territories, or the fear of the population. The Poles exploited the opportunity given them and together with the lowered morale of the German Army they pounced on the German arsenals in Warsaw, disarmed the gar-risoned soldiers killing many of them, and those that remained fled for their lives from Warsaw leaving all the military equipment and war materiel behind them for the Poles. The Poles created an army for themselves organizing their Staff Headquarters in Warsaw, seconding from Silesia many officers who had served in the German Army. A civil war erupted; the orders from the German Staff were not obeyed, the Polish Staff in Warsaw exploited the confusion and issued orders in German to all the captured territories in the name of the German Army in Berlin, and to Sokółka, that the German army must release all the German-held territories and turn over their arms to the controlling Poles in the area. The German Military Council was dumbfounded by the strange order – to evacuate Sokółka without their arms? The Poles will slaughter them on the way back to Germany! In Sokółka dead silence, intense anxiety for what may be coming, the unknown. The Jews of Sokółka understood well the Polish authorities and they well knew Polish people – that they were thirsty for Jewish blood. More than once the Jews of Sokółka had been threatened by the Poles with slaughter if they gained control. They waited for the day of vengeance. The fear of death gripped the town. A delegation from the community council approached the German Military Council and requested that a number of Jews be installed as armed police to defend their community from the blood-thirsty Poles. The request was denied and, moreover, the Germans even assisted in the formation of a Polish police force. The officer placed in charge of the Polish police was a lawyer name Straaz who lived in Kuryły. The Polish police took control of Sokółka. The German army prepared to withdraw as required by the order received from Staff-Headquarters. They packed their belongings and were ready to transfer their weapons to the Poles and set out on their way home. In the meantime the Polish farmers from the near-by villages raided the arsenals in the camp on the way to Krynki, stealing the horses, clothing and supplies without resistance from the army. Nevertheless, information came to the German army that the order previously received from the General Staff in Warsaw was a forgery and that the aim of the Polish army was to mislead them into giving up the town and surrendering all their weapons. The Germans quickly woke up to the situation, desperate and embarrassed, regained control, arrested a few of the Polish police and executed them. The remainder escaped from Sokółka and saved their skins.

On Monday, market day, as usual, hundreds of farmers came into town to sell their produce and make their own purchases for the week. But the German army, raging over the robberies and the deception that they had fallen prey to, closed all the approaches to town and all the lanes leading to the villages and put up road-blocks under rigid control. The military police, with Gronopol and Laschynski at their head fell upon the farmers in Sokółka's streets and beat them up severely. The Germans showed no mercy and Polish blood flowed in the streets like water. The Poles fled from courtyard to courtyard, from street to street looking for places to hide from the German soldiers. After the Germans had spent their anger on the Polish population and taken their vengeance, the road-blocks were opened and the farmers allowed to leave the town. Wounded and humiliated, the farmers fled to their villages. The German military authorities saw the Jews as faithful friends and formed a Jewish militia, mostly armed with rifles, and order in town was passed to the hands of the Jewish community who carried out the job with dedication and thoroughness. The Sokółka Jews sighed with relief but the joy didn't last long. The German army immediately began withdrawing from the conquered territories and returned to Germany. In the meantime, with the help of the British and French governments, an organized, armed and equipped Polish army was formed and began to advance and reoccupy the country evacuated and deserted by the Germans. When the rumor of the occupation of Białystok arrived, and that the Polish army was about to enter Sokółka, the Jews realized that the bitter day of conquest was coming. The fear of death again gripped the Jewish community of the town. The Germans prepared to leave town with their arms and equipment. Fear of the Germans gripped the Poles as well and they dared not touch the Jews until the Germans left town.

 

8. The Polish Capture of Sokółka

The Polish army entered Sokółka on a freight-train, unopposed, with music and singing. The Polish population was overjoyed – the Jews worried about what was going to happen.

The Polish soldiers were not appropriately dressed and equipped – many were bare-footed, not uniformly dressed. The army was a sorry sight and not very impressive; a few of them had German uniforms and others civilian clothes. The Polish soldiers spread out through the streets of Sokółka robbed all the Jews they found of their shoes, leaving them barefoot. No Jew dared to oppose them, for fear of his life. The Commandant of the town ordered the community council to supply shoes and uniforms to the Polish army. The Jews accepted the order and filled the demands to the letter. Members of the council went from house to house collecting the money and supplied the Polish army with all that they had demanded, if only it didn't cost Jewish lives. The Polish population, thirsting for Jewish blood, incited the Polish soldiers to pillage and murder. A Christian, named Burboriky an oppressor of the Jews, tall and mustached, with bearded cheeks and the face of a murderer, lived on the edge of town on the road to Krynki, the other side of the railroad. Near him lived a Jew named Blumenthal, a grocery shop-owner. The murderer found an opportunity to take revenge on his Jewish neighbor, denounced him as a communist to the Polish military police. Without any investigation the militia dragged Blumenthal from his house and not far from there, near the railroad station, they shot him to death on the spot, guilty of no crime whatsoever. The body of the martyr lay outside and no permission was granted to give him a proper funeral. Only after the militia had defiled the body was the martyr's body given to the Hevra Kaddisha for proper burial. The Jewish townspeople came to the funeral to pay their last respects and the shops were closed, work stopped and all the Jewish population mourned the man who had “Sanctified the Name”.

 

9. The Polish Army Advances into Russian Territory

In equipping the Polish army, the British and French were planning on the Polish fighting against the Bolsheviks. The Communists had not yet organized themselves adequately after the revolution and the Polish army exploited the opportunity and began advancing into Ukraine. The communist army retreated, chased by the Poles, drunk on victory conquering on their way town after town. On a road drenched with Jewish blood the crusade neared the city of Kiev. Then - a turning-point; the Polish army, that had advanced far too quickly found itself without military supply lines. The front lines were far from the supply bases. In those days there were no trans-port vehicles in the country and everything for the front had to be transported by horse-drawn wagons. The Polish army, left without food, equipment and all supplies, was unable to maintain its position and began to retreat from the front in panic, chased by the Russian Marshal Budyon-ny and his cavalrymen. The beaten and chased Polish army took it out on the Jews robbing and torturing them, cutting and plucking the beards of the aged and helpless men, with the flesh and shedding innocent Jewish blood. The Russian Communist army loped after the Polish army and the front approached Sokółka and the retreating Polish army entered the town. Most of the army was composed of “Haller's Army” which fell upon the Jews and vented all their rage upon them. The fear of death again gripped the Jews in town. The shops closed and everyone hid inside their homes and cellars. The beaten Polish army went wild in the streets, broke into the shops, beating the Jews and screaming at them. Oppressed, terrified and hungry, the Jews cowered in their hiding places. The fear and threat of death grew as evening approached. The total darkness tore at the nerves. The sounds of a military convoy grew near and a shouted order was heard: “Halt!” Wild shouting was heard and soldiers screaming: “Damned Jews, open the doors,” and immediately shots were heard, the smashing of doors of shops and houses, the breaking of glass and dreadful shouts from the Jews: “Gewalt, gewalt! Help!” There was no one there to help; the town was at the mercy of the rioters. Trembling with fear the Jews sat in their hiding places. To their great relief and happiness they heard the convoy move on out of town. But then they heard a second convoy moving in – and again a pogrom. Terrifying scenes took place in the town. Windows were shattered, goods and possessions strewn all over the streets, robbery and greed and wild screams: “Damned Jews!”

The fear destroyed the people of Sokółka and they awaited the day of redemption – the entry of the Red Army.

When they heard the thunder of the artillery and the rattle of machine-gun fire, the people understood that the rule of Poland was nearing its end, the day of salvation was near. Suddenly flames and smoke covered the heavens. It seemed as if the whole town was going up in flames, houses were burning and there was no one to put out the fires.

After the Polish army fled Sokółka, the town fireman rushed to extinguish the fires and after a great struggle and almost super-human dedication they succeeded in controlling the fires. Before the Poles finally left Sokółka they managed to murder another 4 Jews – Farber “Der Kishka Macher”, Aaronowski, Walianski, and a Jewish soldier not from Sokółka.

 

10. The Capture of Sokółka in 1919 by the Russian Communist Army

When the Russian Communist army re-entered Sokółka, the Jews breathed a sigh of relief. They left their hiding places and came out into the open breathing fresh clean air, feeling themselves free. The threat of death had fled.

Even so, there were some Jews who were not entirely content with the idea of Communist rule – especially the owners of the leather factories, the shop-owners who feared for their economic status and the orthodox Jews who had heard of the religious unsettlement in Russia, but, on the other hand everyone was satisfied that they had gotten rid of the Polish army and they felt they could be a little more certain of their lives; the fear of death no longer hovered over them. The Communists who entered the town immediately started on the organization of the civilian institutions of the town – the workers' union and the police. A Jewish Commissar was installed named Dischko. The Chairman of the “Revolutionary Council” was also a Jew – Hirschel Forman (now in Canada). The youth joined the police force which was armed with rifles.

There was a noticeable lack of supplies in the town; the farmers didn't come into town with their produce and there were no potatoes to find anywhere, no flour and no bread. The hunger was real and painful. The shops were empty; the Polish army had robbed them of everything they had and what they were unable to steal they destroyed.

 

11. The Russian Army Retreats

Communist rule in town lasted about a month. Afterwards began a panic-stricken withdrawal. First the Russians chased the Poles from Kiev right up as far as the Warsaw suburbs. Then began a surprising turn-around: the Russian army began a hurried retreat, the Poles, drunk on victory pursued them at speed, taking town after town, village after village and got to the approaches of Sokółka. Yet again the fear of death struck through the hearts of the Jews who now knew all about the horrific acts of the Poles – the terrible slaughter in Pinsk and Vilna, on the summary execution of the best of the Jewish community who they stood up against a wall in the towns and simply shot them, totally innocent of any crime. Escapes began; the first to try to escape were the very same Jews who had held government posts. In the middle of the night they were woken up and urged hurriedly to escape. A hurried scurrying about began towards Grodno. The roads were teeming with refugees. From the near-by towns as well, marching towards Grodno – all of them wanted to escape but not all of them could do so on foot for such long distances. Panic and fear once again had gripped the Jew of Sokółka. A few of the youth – those who didn't have government posts joined the escapees from fear of the Poles and the still fresh memories of what they had done.

The following day the Russian army began moving back from the front, through the town streets, tired, broken and worn-out, escaping in panic-stricken flight and not in military order but like rabble. The streets and roadways were crammed with hungry soldiers, torn and ragged, bare-foot, in motley clothing, Balaclava helmets, store-bought hats – even top-hats – on their heads, begging for bread and water, the Russian army retreated towards Grodno and the town became “empty” of soldiers. Occasionally an orderly platoon appeared, on horse-back reconnoitering – sometimes Russian, sometimes Polish who stole whatever came to hand. From fear of the Polish army the Jews hid in their houses, in the cellars and attics. The fear and dread again gripped the Jewish community. Just before dawn the Polish army came. The soldiers shooting their rifles in the air, running down the length of the streets, next to the houses, breaking into shops, knocking on doors; they broke into the houses and robbed them of everything that came to hand.

And again the fear and dread of death fell upon the townsfolk. The Poles screamed at the Jews, hounding them to work, beating up the Jewish workers with horrifying brutality.

Every day, Jews who had been caught in searches by the military police were taken to work under the control of Polish soldiers. It was forced labor without pay. The Poles especially captured the younger people.

The youngsters were gripped with fear and terror day and night. They hid, hoping not to be caught by the militia and the employers who beat the Jews cruelly and sadistically. Hunger was also endemic and distressing. The farmers didn't bring their produce, no products were available even for money. After the capture of Grodno and Vilna by the Polish army the front moved farther away from Sokółka. The army left town and the control passed to the hands of the Polish civil police. Life began again to enter some kind of order. The railroad started running trains again, the shops and factories opened. The farmers began coming into town with their produce and the Jews of Sokółka renewed their work and their trading.

 

12. The Balfour Declaration

Sokółka was known as a bastion of Zionism. After the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist movement became even stronger. From time to time a Zionist propaganda specialist would appear in town and deliver a speech, as a delegate of the province's central Zionist committee. He would deliver his speech in the synagogue, in front of the Ark and the Zionist message penetrated deep into the hearts of Sokółka's Jews.

 

 
sok123o.jpg
 
Reading the “Balfour Declaration” in the newspaper
 

 

With the good news of the “Balfour Declaration” the town dressed itself in its festival finery. The town was joyous with happiness. No words can describe the soul-uplifting feeling and raised spirits that gripped the Jews of Sokółka. The Land of Israel for the Jewish people! The Jews of Russia and Poland. Downtrodden, suppressed, a target for contempt and ridicule among the nations who saw them as a scapegoat, suddenly straightened their backs and stood up straight.

The dream then of every Jew was to immigrate to Palestine and live there. And when the gates of Palestine opened, the youth of Sokółka left their parents and their parents' home and immigrated to Palestine to become ground-breaking pioneers.

When rumors of the Declaration arrived the Zionist youth of the town dressed up in the Zionist colors – a white hat with a blue band, white trousers and a blue shirt – an expression of love of the Zionist flag of the Land of Israel. The Blue-and-White flag with the Star of David in the center was raised on the clubhouse of the “Young Zionists” and “Ha-Mercaz” that was in located in Itzik Eisen's house in Białystok Street. The singing of “Hatikva”, “Ness Ziona” and “Holdfast” burst forth from the house. In Białystok Street group after group crushed together and the one topic of conversation was the “Balfour Declaration”. The Zionist Federation in Sokółka turned the event into massive national festival, declaring it a work-free day; the shops closed, the artisans stopped working, the wagon drivers rested their horses. The Jews congregated in the synagogues for a great national gathering. The school-children together with their parents appeared in military rows of four wearing home-made colored hats, fashioned by the children themselves. David-Yitzhak and his orchestra claimed a place on the Bimah of the synagogue playing nationalist songs. And all present split the air with their raised voices and inexhaustible excitement. The biggest excitement came with the singing of the hope “To return to the Land of our Fathers” – the dream of every Jew. The meeting opened with a speech by the great leader of “Ha-Mercaz” in Sokółka, Yisrael Lipczer (Z”L), who spoke with excitement and soul-stirring enthusiasm. The synagogue was full from wall to wall; artisans, shopkeepers and just ordinary Jews ran to hear about “the Land of Israel” everyone listened tense with excitement and faith in the lofty and wonderful hopes for the rebirth of the people of the Land of Israel.

 

13. A Profile of Yisrael Lipczer

I would not be fulfilling my obligation to these pages of the history of the Holy community of Sokółka if I were not to recall something of the life of the distinguished leader Yisrael Lipczer (Z”L), who worked so hard and long for the sake of the Land of Israel and who educated

 

 
sok123p.jpg
 
Malka and Yisrael Lipczer
 

 

 
sok123q.jpg
 
Members of He-Halutz say farewell to the Lipczer family
and friends on their departure for Palestine
 

 

and imbued the young Zionists with the love of that land and who disseminated Zionism among the Jews of the town. He was a forthright and honest man and devoted his life to Zionism. He was the life force of Sokółka and his fame preceded him wherever he went. He spoke with great eloquence and was an example for the youth of the town, his home was open to all the youth of the town. When the gates of Palestine opened, he liquidated his business his photographic studio and immigrated to the Land of Israel in spite of his advancing age. He settled in Haifa and here, too as in Sokółka, his home was open to every immigrant from our town. Yisrael and his wife, Malka (Z”L), interested themselves in the condition of immigrants from Sokółka and every immigrant who chanced to be in Haifa from all corners of the country found a night's lodging, a meal, advice and guidance. May they both be remembered for a blessing.

 

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Sokółka, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Lance Ackerfeld

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 3 Nov 2012 by LA