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[Pages 224 - 228]

Memories of My Life in Sokoly

by HaRav Yosef Rosenblum, of Blessed Memory

Harav Yosef Rosenblum
Harav Yosef Rosenblum

Until the War broke out on September 1, 1939, the Jewish population of Sokoly numbered 1800 souls. Today, January 1, 1943, I summarize a tragic list of the loss and destruction of half of the Jews of my town, who are dear to me: 850 people were uprooted and sent to unknown destinations [and] 650 souls were destroyed, separated from their large families and transported to the Bialystok Ghetto. Approximately 150 people were shot to death.

The town of Sokoly is a train stop on the Bialystok-Lomza line. Most of the residents, Jews, dealt in crafts and trade on a significant level, and the Poles, and even the Germans, were not able to hide their positive appreciation of them.

On Tuesday, Rosh Chodesh Elul, September 12, 1939, Sokoly fell into the hands of the Germans. That day, an officer came to my house and took me to the superior military authority, in the city. Knowing the fate of the rabbis in other cities, I understood that I should be prepared for a “long road,” and I took my tefillin with me.

The soldier asked me, among other questions, whether I had any weapon with me. Thus, we arrived at the parting of the ways. The Jews accompanied me with looks of fear and worry.

To my surprise, I was received with “appreciation” at the headquarters. They asked me questions about the relations between the Jews and the Poles, and at the end, they informed me that they were appointing me as the representative of the majority of the population of the town, responsible for public order and quiet. I tried to explain that I could take responsibility for the Jewish community, and I even dared to suggest that they appoint one of the men of the church as the representative of the Christians. Even though they well understood my motivation, they still insisted on their opinion.

When I returned home, I informed the residents of this calming information, estimating that all of the bad things were behind us. In this situation, the Jews began to prepare for the Rosh Hashana holiday.
Suddenly, on that same day, Germans, accompanied by Paul Schweithauer, a local German (Volksdeutsch) went from door to door of all the houses and arrested all males between the ages of 15 – 60.

They also came to my house, but the crying of my small children apparently deterred them, and they didn't harm me. However, we heard a round of shots, following which I saw from the windows that pillars of smoke and tongues of flame were breaking out all over the town. Many houses in the center were on fire. The anxiety and panic in the hearts of the Jews grew and spread. The Germans brought the prisoners to the edge of the town and pushed them into a house that was under construction. Many people fled to the fields and orchards outside the town, my family and I among them. After a night of wandering in fear and trembling, I came out of my hiding place, full of disappointment and pain. To my surprise, people came to meet me with the news that they had been freed from their imprisonment and sent home.

However, there was a sad harvest of blood that night. Three Jews were shot in the street: Kalman Okune, aged 70, Alter Novak, aged 60, and Alter Slodky, aged 50. The martyrs were brought to burial in a common grave in the cemetery. Dozens of Jews were wounded and died after that, with great suffering, among them: Avraham Yosef Shapira, Chaitze Allenberg, and Chaim Dachowitz from the village. Thirty houses of the village belonging to Jews went up in flames. Fifty families remained without a roof over their heads, among them residents of Sokoly and people from outside who found temporary shelter in our town. A lot of household possessions were fuel to the flames.

There were different versions of the reasons for the fire. One of them was based on an argument and blows between German soldiers and Polish shop owners. In the village of Lachy, three Germans were killed and they were buried in the churchyard. The burning of the houses in Sokoly was apparently revenge and a warning to the Poles to restrain themselves and surrender to the regime. Another version said that the Germans set the houses on fire in order to light their way on a dark night.

I wish to point out that not all of the Germans showed cruelty. Among them were some who tried to extinguish the fire and to assist the victims. Testimony of this is provided by the event that a German soldier took care of the wounded Chaitze Allenberg and tried to ease her suffering.

In a relative way, our situation was easier, compared to the suffering of neighboring towns, such as Wysokie Mazowieckie and Lomza.

The Germans stayed in Sokoly for twelve days, from the 11th until Yom Kippur, 23 September 1939. These twelve days would perhaps remain in memory as being unique, if it were not for the tragic events that were to take place in the future, especially in 1942, which put all of the evil that preceded them in the shade.

Meanwhile, we in Sokoly were in constant panic and fear of what would happen. The children cried and wailed if a German was seen in the area. In sorrow, I remember that the parents made their children afraid by threatening them that if they didn't stop crying, they would call a German.

A few Germans went from house to house and confiscated leather and fabric merchandise. Others of them took everything that reached their hands, and of course they did not reject jewelry, cash, clothing or underwear. The robbers ran here and there, carrying with them suitcases and baskets full of possessions and valuables. They were not deterred from searching in bedding, or dirty laundry, or from conducting personal body searches of men and women alike. Sometimes the Germans conducted sudden searches at night, with the excuse that the Jews were shooting from the windows. Actually, they were traitors to their own racial laws and pestered the Jewish girls. Only the screams of the girls could drive away their attackers, who were afraid that their superiors would know the matter. All of these things spread terror and a constant feeling of a lack of safety among the Jews.

On Sunday, September 17, 1939, many refugees streamed into Sokoly from Wysokie-Mazowieckie. Following the opposition of the Polish police to the German soldiers, the latter set the entire town on fire. The youth, 90% of whom were Jews, were arrested and held under terrible conditions. They were later sent to Lomza, a distance of 42 kilometers, and locked inside the walls of a German church, again under terrible conditions and abuse. Not all of those who were expelled reached Lomza. The weaker ones collapsed on the way, having no remaining strength, and the Germans shot them. The elderly men, women, and children in Wysokie Mazowieckie were brought to two large buildings that remained after the fire, and the same day they were expelled from the town. Some of them went to the neighboring town of Zambrow, some to Bialystok, and the rest came to us, to Sokoly. This was the fate of 3,000 Jewish souls, who remained naked and lacking everything. Among these homeless ones was the renowned, elderly Rabbi Perlman from Wysokie Mazowieckie.

The people of Sokoly warm-heartedly received their brothers and shared their experiences. More or less, all of them were acclimatized with housing and food. Many of the newcomers remained in Sokoly until the destruction (liquidation) of the Jewish town and were expelled together with us to the Bialystok camp.

On the second day of Rosh Hashana, the entrances to the synagogue were closed, because of fear of what would happen. Congregations of Jews prayed in private homes, and even fulfilled the commandment of blowing the shofar, but they blew it inside closets so that the sound of the shofar would not be heard outside. During these few days, I was in contact with the Volksdeutsch whom I mentioned above, and I was able to deny all kinds of rumors that spread in the street.

On the 20th and 21st of September, 1939, rumors were flying about a German-Soviet agreement. The matter aroused feeling among the people, but nobody knew how to guess which of the two of them would remain in control of our town, Sokoly. During those fateful days, we did indeed see movement of the German army, retreating.

On Friday, September 22, Erev Yom Kippur, a long line of wagons hitched to horses passed through Sokoly, and in them were German soldiers. It appeared that they were preparing to camp there. They immediately began to arrest young people to work at evacuating a number of buildings, among them the synagogue and a number of batei Midrash. Here, I wish to point out a rare occurrence. After the Mincha prayer, I saw from my window a number of Jews approaching my house, with Torah scrolls in their arms, accompanied by a German lieutenant.

Panic and trembling seized my body, especially since a moment before a Jew had entered the courtyard of my house with a bundle of straw on his shoulder. At that moment, I estimated that an Auto de Fe was about to take place, in other words, that they were going to burn the Torah scrolls. They had already done this horrible thing in the town of Rutki-Kossaki. There, they threw the Torah scrolls on a pile of straw and bedspreads and set them on fire, in public.

To my great amazement, the officer politely turned to me and asked if I am “Herr Rabiner” (Mr. Rabbi)? His request calmed me very much and I immediately felt confidence and appreciation of the fifty-year-old German. The officer explained to me that he knew that these were the holy books of Moses and that they were holy everywhere in the world. Since the men of the army would sleep that night in the synagogue building, he found it correct to bring them to the rabbi and give them to him until tomorrow, after his men would go out of there and leave the city.

I expressed my feelings of thanks to the German officer and asked him if I was allowed to shake his hand in appreciation, something that was forbidden to a Jew under the racial laws. In answer, he innocently stretched out his hand to me with a heartfelt smile, and I, on my part, added my good wishes. A Jew named Tannenbaum, from Wysokie Mazowiecki, was present at this meeting, and he requested that the German officer tell him his name so that he would be remembered in the history of the Sokoly community - for his good deed. The German hesitated and answered that there is no need to remember his name, but he hoped to be a worthy person, according to the Law of Moses. Accompanied by blessings from those present, the German left my house.

Only the Living G-d knows what happed to those Torah scrolls and if they remained abandoned after Sokoly was emptied of its Jews and remained Judenrein.

For that entire Yom Kippur night, the retreating Germans robbed everything that came to their hands, and again fear and panic set in, in the hearts of the Jews.

The Yom Kippur prayers were secretly conducted in my house, and after the Musaf prayer, the congregation found out that a German army officer had informed the Polish mayor of the town of a general withdrawal from Sokoly.
A civil militia was immediately established, [comprised] of Jews and Poles alike. On Monday, September 25, 1939, the 12th of Tishrei, 5700, the soldiers of the Red Army entered Sokoly and received authority over the town after the few, but incomparably difficult and terrible, days of the evil and cruel German regime.

I will refrain from describing the period of the Soviet regime. I wish to add more regarding the pain caused us by the news and rumors that reached our ears from other towns and places that fell into the hands of the Germans.

The situation of the Jews of Ostrow was especially sad. The refugees that reached Sokoly told us about the abuses and the degradation of humanity. The Jews were kidnapped in the streets and forced to clean toilets with their hands, and even to lick feces. The evil ones threw Jews into barrels of cold water and forced them to stand in the water, which reached their necks, for long hours. They set a curfew at six o'clock in the evening, and in order to mislead the Jews, they called them to assemble and held them until the late hours of the night and only then ordered them to go home. This involved the danger of death, and more than a few victims fell. Rabbi Singer from Ostrow was shot to death during a killing that was conducted in Slonim.

For the second time, Sokoly fell into the hands of the Germans on 29 Sivan, June 24, 1941. The Poles happily welcomed them with flowers. During the first days after their entry it was still quiet and only the vanguard of the army was in the town. But the troubles began quickly. Large army units passed the town, and as was their custom, they didn't forget to harm the Jews.

The Poles also did not sit idly, inciting the Germans and pointing out Jews [to them]. The kidnapping of Jews for work did not yet constitute a danger, if not for the abuse, the degradation, and the beatings that were poured out on their heads.

The evil ones came to my house a number of times. Here and there, I was able to hide. Once, I admitted that I am the Rabbi of the town, and they let me alone. But young Poles pointed me out and the Germans dragged me outside one Sunday and forced me and another Jew named Shimon Tabak to clean the gutter of the street. I had to take off my clothes and remain only in my trousers. While they lashed us over our heads with a whip, Shimon Tabak was ordered to fill my hat with dirt and mud, and I had to empty the hat from time to time. And that wasn't sufficient. They brought me to the nearby churchyard, which was full of people who had gathered there after the prayers. They sat me down and cut off my beard, with the scorn and mockery of those who were present. After that, they poured pitchers of cold water over me without stopping, so that I would not be able to breathe or sigh. I began to shout and scream bitterly.

Then, they sat the Jew Yaakov Midler, who was crazy and mentally ill, on my lap, gave a whip to another Jew, and forced him to whip the body of the crazy man without mercy. The German even “instructed” him how to beat him.

Who knows how much longer they would have abused us, if it were not for a pouring rain that started to fall and that is what saved us. They again brought me to clean the gutters of the street as I had done previously, and later [they forced me] to unload trucks along with other Jews. While we were unloading, they did not stop beating and whipping us with a whip that whistled over our heads and injured every part of our bodies.

Suddenly, one of the Germans approached me, handed a telephone receiver to me, and commanded me to bless Stalin. I have no doubt that the Poles incited the German against me, and they therefore had a lot of enjoyment from the abuse. I asked the German something, and in response he beat me severely and took me to a nearby barn to shoot me. I begged him to have pity on me, but in vain. He stood me with my face to the wall and I heard the sounds of the pistol. I felt that these were the last moments of my life. Fortunately, other Germans prevented him from carrying out his scheme and thus I was rescued from death.

Many Jews also experienced a chain of troubles, physical torture, and degradation all the way down to the ground. Later, we found out that in comparison to other places, we, the Jews of Sokoly, came out in one piece. The towns of Jedwabne, Stawiski and Radziwillow, suffered a lot more than we did. There, it was mainly the Poles who went wild and they did the work of the Germans no worse than they did it themselves. They drove the Jews into barns and set them on fire with them inside. The Jews were burned alive, in sanctification of G-d's name.

The fate of mass murder also passed over Sokoly. This was not the situation in Tiktin and Rutki-Kossaki There, most of the Jews lost their lives, thanks to the Poles who helped the Germans with enjoyment, and even encouraged them, to commit mass murder.

A local Volksdeutsch named Marshal [Marshlak], who was appointed mayor of our town by the regime, saved us from [much suffering]. During the periods of the Polish and Soviet regimes, the man lived in a poor hut behind the town with his family. With the first withdrawal of the Germans following the agreement with the Soviets, all of the local Volksdeutschers went with them back to their homeland, Germany. Marshlak remained in the place and then became an important personality, in other words, enlightened – above all, as a German.

Fate ran on, and Marshlak loved money and never refused anything offered him. This was to our benefit, and he saved the Jews more than once from ruin and death. As fate would have it, the town's army officer, by the name of Wagner, also was kind to the Jews, being a liberal man and one of the righteous of the world. By the way, even Wagner put out his hand for a bribe more than once, and the Jews regularly filled his hands when they saw that doing so was a lifesaver for them.

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