Online edition (April 2011) newly revised and edited from the English print edition (2004), comprising Chapter One of the Sokoly Yizkorbook
(Hebrew ed., 1975) with grateful acknowledgement to Rachel Lobel of Jerusalem for her editorial advice. ABD
On September 1, 1939 the German army invaded Poland, and the world Holocaust began. Prior to that, no one believed that the danger was so near and that it would reach such proportions of horror.
Ten days after the war started, bloodthirsty German soldiers burst into our town, Sokoly, and immediately began a mad rampage. Guided by young Poles, they passed through the homes of the Jews and abducted the leaders of the community, in particular, the Rabbi and the shochtim (ritual kosher-slaughterers). They abused the captives and cruelly tortured them. They pulled out the hairs of the Rabbi's beard and payot (side-curls), and his face ran with blood. They stripped him of his clothing and, when he was barefoot and almost naked, they forced him to jump and dance under a flood of well-aimed strikes of a whip on his exposed back. At the end, they forced him to wash their vehicles.
The Germans pushed a frightened crowd of screaming and shouting Jews into the old synagogue and threatened to burn it down with them inside. Thus, they kept their captives terrified to death for many long hours.
The Germans burnt the nearby district city, Wysokie Mazowieckie, on the day they entered it, and not a single Jew was left there. The people who were burnt out of Mazowieckie came to Sokoly to seek shelter. But the day after their arrival, the Germans also burnt down two main streets of Jewish homes in Sokoly: Tiktin [Tykocin] Street and Gonasoweki Street. While the flames reached towards the heavens, the soldiers rushed around in the streets of the town like hunting dogs and abducted Jews along with the possessions that they had rescued from their burning homes. Again, they gathered hundreds of Jews and filled the Christian church with them as well as a house that was under construction near the Bialystok road. Among the crowd there also were a few Christians and even a young priest. The Germans threatened to take revenge on the prisoners for the killing of three of their soldier companions by Poles in the village of Lachy (three kilometers from Sokoly). Because of this, they burned down the village of Lachy and murdered a few farmers, but without the addition of Jewish victims they did not regard their revenge as complete.
Thus, about 500 imprisoned Jews lay in fear of death all that night. Whenever a door opened, the people trembled and their hearts beat faster, lest their end had arrived. Cries and painful wails were heard, that they would never again see their children, their wives and their dear ones, and take leave of them before they were sacrificed.
At 7:00 in the morning, the door was opened and a few Germans entered. They ordered the prisoners to get up and form lines according to age: lines from age 30 and upward, after them from age 20 and upward, and at the end, boys up to the age of 20. At the beginning, all of them thought that they would be shot according to the order of the lines. With broken hearts, parents separated from their children; brothers from brothers. Unexpectedly, to their surprise, all the lines were released. The purpose of the Germans was to cause terror and fear among the people. With indescribable joy, all of them ran to their relatives to spread the news that, praise G-d, they were rescued from death.
When they had gone only a few steps away, the joy ended. Alter Slodky was lying in the middle of the street, next to the two-story house, in a puddle of his own blood.
Regarding Alter Slodky: he was a vigilant man, attached to and active in the community. His intelligence was outstanding, and he always had a parable, joke, or slogan appropriate to the conversation. His black beard, encircling his face, was always neat and combed. Alter was a talented merchant; he supplied flour, salt, sugar, and oil to shop owners and bakers at wholesale. He also had a general store, where he sold housewares, decorative items, and all kinds of candles. In his yard were a horse and a wagon, which he used for his business. His three sons were employed in bringing merchandise from Bialystok, and they traveled around to the landowners' courts and the flour mills in the villages.
On the High Holy Days, it was Alter's custom to serve, without any compensation, as the chazzan (cantor) for the Musaf prayer in the large beit midrash [house of study and prayer]. His voice was agreeable and his singing added much pleasure to the prayers.
Now, Alter Slodky is no more. His body lies in the street, split and blood-soaked.
At a distance of a few steps away from Alter Slodky lies the old bachelor, Chaim Pelchok the fisherman, seriously wounded in his stomach. This is Pelchok, who supplied the Jewish residents of Sokoly with live fish for Sabbaths and holidays. We dedicate a few lines to his image:
On Sabbath and holiday eves, in the early hours of the morning, Pelchok would bring a wagon full of fish to the market in our town, and would call out loudly: Women live, flopping fish! Dozens of women, with bowls in their hands, would hurry out from all directions and push to buy the live, flopping fish. There were women who sat and waited from midnight in the fish market, worried that they would be late, Heaven forbid, and would not be able to get live fish in honor of the holy Sabbath. The noise and tumult among the women was immeasurable. They surrounded Pelchok's wagon like bees. But Chaim knew how to stand up to all of them. With one look he encompassed the entire crowd of women. He knew his customers well; he knew their weaknesses and their tastes. He knew who paid in cash and who took credit.
He hurried to weigh the fish and record sales in his book, while telling jokes with his clever tongue. He calmed discontented women, exchanging one fish for another, to the satisfaction of all of them.
Now, Chaim Pelchok lies on the main road, curled up in agony, seriously wounded, and struggling with the Angel of Death. His sister stands at his side, tearfully begging the Jews who are approaching to take him into the house. There is no stretcher. Eight Jews carried Chaim Pelchok in their arms. The victim bitterly cried out: Jews, have mercy on me, let me die quickly, I cannot bear the suffering. They laid him in bed. It was shocking to hear him crying from his horrible suffering.
A few minutes later, it became known that there were additional sacrifices that night. Alter Novak was a 60-year-old learned Jew, a former Telshe Yeshiva student, who was always happy and of high spirits. In the beit midrash, he would learn Torah with the yeshiva boys and kollel students. During prayers, he did not allow the congregation to talk. He used to check whether the tsitsiot [fringed undergarment]of the children's small tallitot [prayer shawl] were kosher. He watched over the boys of bar-mitzva age and took care to see that they put on tefillin according to the requirements of the Shulchan Aruch. It was his custom to severely criticize rabbis and famous authorities, and to disqualify their opinions.
Alter frequently went around in the villages in order to buy bargains, and it was his custom to joke around with the farmers. He took his only cow, which had a single horn, to pasture in abandoned places, because he wasn't able to give it to a shepherd. While he watched the cow, he would study a book or read a newspaper that he got from his neighbors. The evenings he would spend in the beit midrash.
Now, it is all over. Alter is no more!
The scorched body of the new rabbi of the Mishnayot group, Rav Kalman Yankel, lay at some distance. He was a quiet and honest Jew. He lived in an apartment with his youngest married daughter, his son-in-law, and his grandson. The family numbered five souls, who lived from the permanent support of their sons in America.
Being free from the worries of income, and being a person who was satisfied with very little, Rav Kalman's favorite occupation was to prepare a chapter of Mishnayot for his students and for the minyan [quorum of ten men] of worshippers.
In the evenings, Rav Kalman would read chapters of Mishnayot to his students and the minyan, and would explain complications in a simple way that was understood by everyone. He loved to tell his students about fascinating deeds of the holy men and miracle workers. The community would lick their fingers from their Rabbi's stories. His group of students grew and grew. Jews who were known previously as simple Jews who had until then not dared to look into a book of Mishnayot, joined them. The Rabbi added to their fortitude and faith, and they became enthusiastic students who were able to learn and study the chapters by themselves.
Alas and alack! Of Rav Kalman Yankel, only his scorched bones and a pile of dust remained.
The next sacrifice was Rav Avraham Yossel [Shapira] (the son-in-law of Moshe Yossel), who lay seriously wounded on the stones of the street. He was a kollel student with a patriarchal beard, a completely righteous, Heaven-fearing man, one of the 36 righteous ones [Lamed Vovnikim], who never stopped studying day and night.
From dawn until late at night, he would sit in the new beit midrash, in his father-in-law's seat at the corner of the wall on the eastern side, and learn Gemara. In his pleasant voice, he would explain to himself all the difficult passages, paragraphs in Yoreh Deah, Choshen HaMishpat, and the Rambam, as if he were teaching others. He stopped learning only to pray in the minyan. He refrained from ordinary conversation with anyone, because this was wasting time from Torah. He did not get involved, and was not interested, in conversations that took place near him on the subjects of war, politics, or turbulent events and daily matters. For him, there existed only the world of learning Torah and serving G-d.
He taught in order to support himself and his wife, but only a limited number of students, for a few hours a day. He and his wife, who was modest like he was, were satisfied with little, with bread and water, and they did not bear any jealousy towards anyone. On market days, Rav Avraham Yossel would stop learning for a little while and go out shopping for such things as a quarter of a sack of potatoes, which would suffice for the Sabbath and the rest of the week, and ten bundles of wood for heating the house on cold days and for cooking.
A completely righteous man, he accepted with love the agony of his death; after all, he was no better than the ten martyrs, from Rabbi Akiva to Chananya ben Tradyon.
Rav Avraham Yossel hovered between life and death for a long time, until G-d answered his pleas and death released him from his suffering.
Another sacrifice to the Germans' brutality was a young, 20-year-old woman, Chaicha, the daughter of Baruch [Allenberg], the Shamash of the new beit midrash. She was an innocent and proper daughter of Israel.
Among the wounded that night were many Jews, who suffered for many long months afterwards until their wounds were healed. Among those seriously wounded were Avraham Yitzhak Lev and his [older] brother Mendel, the sons of Shmuel [Lev], the Shob.
After the horrible night of hell mentioned above, a stream of Jewish refugees from burnt-down Wysokie Mazowieckie flowed into Sokoly in order to find shelter and a roof over their heads. Many houses in Sokoly also went up in flames during those days. The lack of housing grew, and in spite of this all the refugees were absorbed among us, including even those who continued to flow in from the towns on the German border: Grabau, Kolno, Stawisk, Jedwabne, Mesenich, and more. Those who came settled mainly in the portion of Sokoly that had not been burnt. We were forced to live in crowded conditions, three or four families in one small apartment. One bed was used for several people, and many slept on the floor.
At the beginning, somehow there was peace in the houses, but little by little, the occupants began to quarrel and argue among themselves, even brothers and sisters and relatives. It was especially difficult for them to compromise with regard to sharing the kitchen. One family was required to wait patiently until the family before them finished cooking. Fuel and food were acquired with a great deal of effort, bordering on danger to life. There is no doubt that the true woman of the house felt herself entitled to be more aggressive and to drive her neighbors and good friends, or relatives who were dear to her, out of her house. This was a double hell, inside the house and outside .
The day after the night of horrors, a series of searches began. German gangs commandeered Jewish houses and went from house to house, searching for gold, jewelry, leather, manufactured merchandise, bed linen, and other expensive possessions, which, for the most part, were hidden.
With the help of Polish informers, former friends of the faithful Moshkim, [from the word Moses, i.e., Jews] who knew the hiding places of their Jewish friends, the Germans uncovered hidden cellars, false walls, double attics, in whose spaces goods and jewelry were hidden.
Among other things, at the home of Itzele [Roseman], the son of Yisrael Chaim, the belt-maker, they found a not-insignificant inventory of leather, shoes, and merchandise. Even in the houses of the poorest Jews, the Germans found something to steal and rob.
In the evening, the Polish goyim brought the Germans to Jewish girls. A few of them were raped. A great and bitter panic arose. The girls hid in barns, in attics and in cellars. A few of them succeeded in escaping to the villages, to the homes of farmers they knew. That night the Jews did not lie down to sleep; they sat on their packed possessions, which they had not yet had a chance to unpack after the night of the fire. All of them lived in constant fear that the Nazis would come and burn down the houses that remained after the first fire. Young men hid themselves and looked out through the cracks [in the walls] to see if they could see a German in the distance. The Germans kidnapped young Jews for manual labor and sadistic brutality.
In the streets of the town center and the marketplace, in the places where Germans were always around, not a single Jew was to be found. Even in the quiet lanes, the Jews would crawl on all fours, hugging against the walls and looking in all directions to make sure that the angels of terror were not in the vicinity.
During the nights, the din and whistling of the German military vehicles spread panic and the fear of death. It appeared that all seven gates leading down to hell had been opened and that the angels of terror went out in demonic bands, surrounding the wretched Jews, whose G-d had forgotten them. The tense situation continued thus for 12 days, from before Rosh Hashana until the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur, the Jews gathered in secret minyanim, and in choked, heart-rending voices, like the conversos in Spain, they conducted the prayers while looking out of the windows towards the street, to see whether the murderers were approaching.
At the hour of the Unetana Tokef prayer, the women in the women's section of the synagogue sobbed out loud and the men were forced to stop the prayer in order to quiet them.
Suddenly, two youths came running into the large minyan, with the news: The Germans have left Sokoly! They have already taken down their field telephone we expect the Soviets to enter Sokoly
The entire congregation looked in wonder at the young men who brought the news, and it was hard for them to believe what they were hearing; these things are miraculous .
The youths told everyone that they heard about an agreement between the Germans and the Soviets, according to which part of the conquered territory in Poland would be evacuated and handed over to the Russians. The knowledge that the Germans had retreated, revived the spirit of life. All those present raised their heads. Heaven and earth rejoiced. In one moment, the entire world changed from darkness to light and from sadness to joy.
In the congregation, the conversation turned to the relationship between the Soviets and the Jews. The Neila prayer in the Rabbi's minyan was conducted properly as it had been in prior years, while sensing the miracles and wonders that G-d had done for us. Yom Kippur ended in joy and with a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed in words. The devout Jews believed that they had benefited from the merit of the righteous, elderly, brilliant scholar, HaRav Rabbi Avraham Epstein, who was still living, and that G-d had heard his prayers and supplications.
HaRav Epstein suffered paralysis when he reached the age of 70, and he was not able to walk. A wheelchair was arranged for him so that he would be able to move from place to place. While sitting in his chair, the Rabbi received visitors for two hours every day. The elderly Rabbi passed away in 1940.
The next day, soldiers of the Red Army entered the town. The people of Sokoly, from the biggest to the smallest, from the youngest to the oldest, men, women and children, all went out to the streets to greet the liberating soldiers. The Jews received the Reds with shouts of joy and enthusiasm. In comparison, the Poles stood disappointed. There were Jews among the soldiers. They talked with the citizens of the town and told them about life in the Soviet Union. Near the houses stood groups of Jews, among them shop owners, craftsmen and merchants, who asked about the chances for our people under Soviet rule.
Pessimists argued that for adults who observed tradition, it would be difficult to become adapted to the new regime. Private trade in Russia was thought to be speculation, subject to punishment. A profession and trade are hard to learn in old age. The elderly are not suited at all to hard labor. It is a rule with the Soviets that whoever doesn't work, doesn't eat .
In comparison, the optimists argued: Don't worry. The demon isn't as terrible as they are describing him a Jew will become accustomed, will adapt himself and will accommodate himself to any condition in the world. We won't, G-d forbid, die of hunger, and we have nothing to lose. It is so good that we are rid of the accursed Germans, and far be it from us to pine for the lifestyle we had before the war, under the Polish regime.
The life of the Jews in Sokoly in recent years, before World War II, was bitter. Danger threatened the Jew when he walked in the street, and how much more so in the villages, or outside the town. The Polish goyim threw stones at the Jews. Next to the Jewish shops stood gangs of young Polish ruffians or Pikatniks, clubs and cudgels in their hands, and they did not allow Christians to enter Jewish stores to shop, or to order work from a Jewish craftsman.
Occasionally, during market and fair days, the mob would break windows in Jewish houses. They destroyed Jewish kiosks, destroyed or stole the merchandise, and took any kerosene they found, used to heat the houses and businesses of the wealthy. And so, after morning prayers, they attacked Rav Alter the Preacher from the old beit midrash. A straight and honest Jew who never argued with anyone, he earned a living through his own labor and a bit of support from his relatives in America. He would spend hours every day in the beit midrash in prayer, reciting psalms, and learning. One fine day Rav Alter was going home from the beit midrash and [on the way] they murdered him.
The hooligans disappeared. There was no justice and no judge. Peddlers and rag sellers, who would go around in the villages and supply the farmers with household needs, were endangering their lives every day. More than once, Jews returned from the villages brutality beaten and injured by malicious goyim.
After the Red Army established itself in our town, the political bosses and organizers arrived: various commissars, the new civil administration, and organizers of town and village councils. They accepted [both] Jews and Poles as functionaries in all the institutions, without discrimination. For the most part, young Jewish women were hired as secretaries.
After some time, storekeepers and craftsmen were required to obtain business permits, at the price of a small payment. They were instructed to open their places of business and to sell everything at the prices that had existed before the War broke out. The value of the Polish zloty was set to equal the Russian ruble.
The storekeepers did not like these instructions, and they avoided them, managing their businesses to their own advantage. Trade with the farmers increased. The craftsmen were exchanging their products for food.
The wholesalers, Alter Rachekovsky and Yaakov Ginzburg, were unable to hide all the merchandise in their possession in the shop and storerooms, because buyers did not come to them. They sold damaged and old goods wholesale in the exchange trade, since this was an opportunity to get rid of them.
A short time later, government shops were opened and it was possible to purchase cheap goods, but these were rationed in amounts for personal use, and it was forbidden to make purchases for others. Long lines formed along the length of the street, and, to the extent that the sold products were the more important ones, such as clothing and food, many people joined the lines. The lines began to form at dawn and even at midnight, not being deterred by strong winds, storms, and bitter cold. Quarrels and arguments frequently burst out in the lines, even leading to blows, because of an insolent fellow who had pushed his way into a more forward position. In such instances, the police had to intervene to restore order.
For the most part, large families succeeded in profiting from the lines, because they brought a number of people to stand in line simultaneously, and even sent their children to Bialystok to stand in line there, so as to obtain various kinds of products. At that time, there was no danger in smuggling goods from Bialystok to Sokoly, and it was easy to bribe the police who were guards at the train station and at the crossroads. After a few months, the prospects for smuggling lessened, along with the prospects for trading by exchange.
Very slowly, life entered orderly channels. Merchandise began to be sold in exchange for Polish and Russian money, and almost all the people of Sokoly were employed.
There were two, steam-operated flour mills in Sokoly. One mill, on Tiktin Street, belonged to Shabtil [Shabtai] Esterovitz, and the other, on Gonasoweki Street, next to the new cemetery, belonged to the Pole, Krinski. Krinski bought the lot from Eliezer Rosenovitz and there he built a flour mill and an electric power station. The Soviets nationalized both mills and temporarily left their owners as managers of the plants, after adding assistants, secretaries, cashiers, and workers.
The Soviets also brought in new functionaries to manage the train station, the post office, and the telephone company, leaving one or two of the prior officials as foremen.
In rationing bread, one-half kilo per person was allocated in exchange for tickets, at the official price of 85 kopeks per kilo. At that time, there were five bakers working in Sokoly: Alter Radzilovsky (Moisoky), Dina Burstein, Hershel Olsha, Yechiel Somovitz, and Yisrael Hirshman, the Melamed. The five of them worked cooperatively. Flour, wood, and yeast were supplied to them at government prices.
The Soviets began to solve the housing problem according to their own methods. First, they nationalized the large houses belonging to both Jews and Christians, leaving their owners one or at most two rooms, according to the number of people in their families. Later, they nationalized the houses of the Endekes [members of the NDK, the Polish National Democratic Party, who supported the Germans and anti-Semitic acts] and whose owners had fled from the Soviets, along with public buildings such as the municipality, the village council, the fire station, the hall belonging to the Christian church, the courthouse, the school, the bathhouse, etc.
They quickly conducted inspections of these buildings, according to engineering plans. They requisitioned one beit midrash and synagogue building from the Jewish Religious Council. At the request of Rabbi Yosef Rosenblum, the Soviets allowed the Jews to keep the large beit midrash. The pious Jews showed satisfaction with this arrangement, because prior to this, they had thought and also had heard that the Soviets would persecute the Jews with regard to religious matters. Now, they found out that it was possible to compromise on the subject and somehow bear the situation.
In the middle-sized houses, the residents paid rent to a government official; the amount of rent paid was dependent on the resident's position and status. Self-employed merchants and workers paid more than laborers and clerks. The estimation of the assessments was done on the basis of permits from the municipality and the place of employment.
After repairs and improvements were made to the public buildings, new shops were opened and a sick fund and pharmacies were put into operation. Following these, a theatre, cinema, libraries, reading halls, schools and clubs were opened. The medical staff received a government salary and served the public without payment. The pharmacies sold drugs at low prices.
Warehouses were opened for gathering crops from the farmers and from the residents of the settlements, who were obligated to sell a portion of their produce to the government at a low price. The village councils each kept a card index, including details regarding the dimensions of the fields and orchards, the number of cattle, sheep and poultry. More warehouses were opened for storing animal skins, milk, butter, cheese, eggs and even wool and linen.
The municipal functionaries were mostly Jews. Their salaries ranged between 150 and 600 rubles per month. In order to be accepted for a government position, one had to be politically kosher in the eyes of the local political bosses. The Lapchinsky family had special rights. The members of this family set their sights on important positions; they were glorified because of the distinction of their brother Chaim, who had rotted in prison for four years because of his Communist activities when he was a student at the Teachers Seminary in Bialystok.
However, when there was a lack of, and need for, officials, a bourgeois or former capitalist would also be appointed.
During the second year of the Soviet occupation, all the private shops in Sokoly were closed, as were those in the entire surrounding area. This was not caused by an economic crisis, but rather by the Treasury's imposition of heavy taxes. The shop owners were required to return their permits to the Treasury Office and to officially testify that they were liquidating their businesses. It is surprising that, though it appeared otherwise, the economic situation of the middle-class and small merchants during the Soviet occupation was better than it had been during the Polish regime before the War. It is true that officially, the Soviets proclaimed war on speculators, but they actually did not intervene in the citizens' business; they did not conduct searches and they did not harm the merchants.
The Soviet soldiers craved all kinds of merchandise, and they were very thankful when the merchants sold to them. Thus, unofficial trading flourished and there was plenty of income.
In spite of everything mentioned above, a shadow hovered above the heads of the populace. Arrests and imprisonments began; following denouncements, single persons and entire families were driven out and exiled to far-away places in Russia. Any suspicion, or a single denouncement, was sufficient for a person to be imprisoned. This happened, for example, to the former head of the community, Palek Goldstein. He was accused, as it were, of imposing heavy taxes on workers and extorting large sums from the public through a government loan that he imposed on the citizens during the last year before the War, with the help of the police and through pressure tactics. Palek was put in prison in Bialystok and from there sent to Russia.
In this manner, they also imprisoned and exiled Yona Zilberstein, the former head of the Beitar [Revisionist Youth] unit in Sokoly, Beitar being, in their eyes, a fascist party. Following this imprisonment, four members of the family of Label Zilberstein, a successful merchant before the War, were sent to Russia. He used to send boxcars full of chickens and eggs to Warsaw and other cities. He also had a business fattening geese.
To the list of those sent to Russia were added: the teacher Avraham Wasserman and Gedalia Slodky's family, which numbered five souls. Gedalia Slodky was the owner of a metal shop in Sokoly. His entire guilt was that one of his sons, Michael, had fled abroad through Lithuania.
Mendel Fleer, a cattle dealer and wholesale meat supplier, was in line to be exiled. He would sort out cattle for ritual slaughter and send them to be transported in boxcars. Once they found an animal in his possession without a veterinarian's stamp. He was immediately arrested and exiled to Russia.
The imprisonments and exiles had a bitter influence on the local Jews. Later, under the evil Nazi regime, all the Jews envied those who had been imprisoned and exiled to the Soviet Union.
The rabbis and shochtim worried that they would not have any income, because they did not have permission to legally manage the religious institutions, and the butchers had returned their permits and closed the butcher shops because of the heavy taxes imposed upon them by the regime. In spite of everything, the results were the opposite. The rabbis, the shochtim and the butchers made larger profits during the Soviet occupation than they had before the War.
The rabbis and shochtim supported themselves by slaughtering chickens, which was a free occupation, as well as from the slaughter of large and small animals, which was partially legal. In the slaughter of animals, the rabbis and shochtim were equal partners, and the butchers, who did not have business permits, cooperated with the farmers, who had the right to slaughter their cattle and sell the meat to customers without a business permit. They needed a veterinarian's stamp on the meat, as well as a permit from the village council stating that the animal had not been stolen. Only then, was the farmer entitled to slaughter the animal as he wished and sell the meat to the Jews.The butchers took advantage of the opportunity and bought animals from the farmers, which they then slaughtered in the kosher slaughterhouse, and they sold the meat in the presence of the farmers; some of it was sold in Sokoly and the rest was taken to Bialystok for sale in the meat market, or to a Jewish butcher. Such trade was legal, the farmer taking the Jewish expert as his assistant.
During the Polish regime before the War, Jewish shop owners and craftsmen were persecuted, subject to trials and punishments for transgressions under the trading laws. In comparison to the trade that existed during the time of the Endekes [NDKs], the Jewish merchants felt freer under the Soviet occupation, even though they were legally subject to heavy punishment.
When the Jews entered the large beit midrash in Sokoly in the mornings and evenings, they did not feel as if they were under the Soviet regime of which they had been so afraid. The beit midrash was always full of groups praying together, minyan after minyan, as it had been in the past. In the evenings, all the tables were occupied by those learning Gemara. The Rabbi sat next to one of the tables and gave lessons in the Daf Yomi [daily, set pages of learning]to the Gemara Society. Next to another table, a Rav taught a chapter of Mishna to his students in the Mishnayot Society. In front of a third table, a famous teacher from Wysokie Mazowieckie taught a page of Gemara to his students from another Gemara Society. Behind the stoves and between the benches sat simple, innocent Jews, who talked to each other about various issues of the day; sometimes they told stories about the past.
But young men were almost never seen in the beit midrash, except for those who were retarded. Youths who wasted time, who were empty-headed and irresponsible like they were before World War II, were almost non-existent now. Whoever was talented was easily able to find work in an office, the shops, a factory, or other institutions, or else they were occupied in privately smuggling merchandise.
The permanent Yeshiva students in Sokoly, those who, in the years before the War, had filled the batei midrash and were busy day and night with Torah and service, were now seen in the beit midrash only infrequently, mostly on the Sabbath, because they sat at home all week, seriously studying Russian grammar and various Russian textbooks. Similarly, with the assistance of teachers, they also learned accounting and bookkeeping so that they would be able to find employment in these professions and be able to take their day of rest on the Sabbath instead of on Sundays. The holiness of the Sabbath was still felt everywhere, as it had been in the past. Thus, this era continued until June 22, 1941.
On Saturday night, June 21, 1941, the youths of Sokoly, of both sexes, were entertained at a dance in the hall at the fire station. The Russian army commanders and officers enjoyed themselves there until late into the night. After midnight, the youths went to sleep, not knowing that this was their last entertainment.
Sunday morning, the neighbors woke each other in order to pass along the news that during the night, the Germans had bombed the bridge near Malkin and made a lot of noise shooting rounds of ammunition on the Bialystok Road. A lot of people were injured-- some of them Jews.
For a few minutes, great confusion arose. Hearts began to beat faster; had a war begun between Russia and Germany?! We thought that we already were rid of the Germans forever!
Many residents came to [Moshe] Maik, who owned and repaired radios, to hear the news. At the time [of the beginning of the War], there had been only two radios among the Jewish population of Sokoly, one belonging to Mendel Fleer and one to Alter Ginzburg, but the Germans had confiscated them at the time they first entered Sokoly.
Moshe Maik turned on the radio, and Hitler's speech to the German Army and Molotov's speech to the Russian nation were heard. By means of the radio, the Jews were informed that the Germans had already conquered a large area of the Polish-Russian territory and the Russian Army had dispersed and was conquered; thousands had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Molotov's last words, that Hitler would inherit the downfall of Napoleon in Russia, were of small comfort to the listeners. Now the destruction would begin.
Chaim Somovitz (the son of Yechiel Somovitz, the baker) said, We are already lost, and we can no longer depend on miracles, like the first time .
Then, we had no idea of the cruelty and barbarity of the Germans. The experiences we had at the time the barbaric soldiers entered the first time, when they stayed only 12 days, were enough to impose panic, confusion and fear of death upon us.
The optimists still comforted themselves with the hope that danger was still far away. They said, if a small country like Poland could hold out for two weeks before it was conquered by the Germans, then even more so, how would it be possible for them to conquer White Russia and the Ukraine any faster?!
But immediately many others came and told us that the Germans had bombed the Russian airport in Wysokie Mazowieckie and burned up all the airplanes that were there. Many injured Russian pilots were brought to Sokoly, and about two thousand Russian soldiers that were in Sokoly fled. Only a few soldiers remained in order to burn and destroy all the warehouses.
We were also told about horrible, heart-rending sights: about the last parting of the senior Russian officers from their families; about the crying and wailing of the wives and children of the Russian officers, who wanted to take some possessions with them, things that they would never be able to get in Russia, and now they did not have any room to take their precious treasures with them. There wasn't even room in the vehicles for their children who were squeezed and crowded in like sardines in a can. They argued and quarreled with each other over a more comfortable place in the vehicle.
The Commissar of the town, the managers and senior officials of all the institutions in Sokoly, were ensured of comfortable means of travel. In spite of this, they rented additional wagons to transport their possessions, at least to Bialystok.
Good-hearted Poles broke into shops and warehouses no less than the hoodlums, and they stole entire stocks of merchandise and all the possessions that they came across. They loaded wagons with sacks of sugar, manufactured goods, shoes and expensive possessions. There also were Jews who carried leftovers from the officers' empty houses. Towards evening of that same day, the Jews began to pack their possessions and hide some of them in pits under the floors, and in other secret locations. During the night, rumors spread that the Germans had already reached Wysokie Mazowieckie, and it was estimated that they would reach Sokoly at any time.
The next day at dawn, German tanks invaded Sokoly. A wagon, loaded with the possessions of Nissel Lapchinsky, who had been the chief manager of the cooperatives and stores under the Russian regime, stood on Bathhouse Street. From fear of the Germans, Nissel fled with his family to Bialystok.
At noon, a senior Soviet officer by the name of Kaposta was still seen in the streets of the town. This man later became famous as General Kaposta, the leader of the partisans in the Baranowicz forests. That day, Kaposta arrived in a vehicle in order to transport the soldiers whom he had left there until the last minute. He even wanted to take his possessions from his apartment in Shlomo Leibel Itzkovsky's house, but he had come too late. The place had already been broken into and robbed. Tsippa Sarnovitz, and her father, the locksmith Alter Sarnovitz, were among those who escaped from Sokoly.
With the re-invasion of Sokoly by the Germans, panic and confusion arose. During the first week, there still was no civilian rule. Many military vehicles, tanks, and artillery filled the streets and rushed through without a pause. They had been in the town for only a few hours, but this was sufficient for them to reveal their sadistic and cruel characters and satanic souls towards the Jews. With the help of gangs of Polish youths, they dragged the most important Jews of the town from their homes and forced them to wash a military vehicle under a hail of blows and whiplashes. Thus, it was decreed that our Rabbi, HaRav Yosef Rosenblum, was also among those who were tortured. The barbarians stripped the clothing off their victims and lashed them with rubber whips. They also pulled out their beards along with the skin, and forced them to sing and dance. This hell lasted for two hours.
During the night, gangs of young Poles brought Nazis to the houses where there were young Jewish girls, and again there were cases of rape.
Before the German Amstkommissar arrived in Sokoly, a Polish lawyer, Manikowski, organized a temporary town committee and militia. They requested that the Jews also participate in service in the militia, but they did not find any volunteers. In matters of economic administration, the Jews cooperated with Manikowski and contributed their share in organizing supplies, mainly in baking bread for the Jewish population, who constituted two-thirds of the town.
The Jews chose a committee that prepared an exact list of the people according to streets, and they rationed one-half loaf of bread (one kilo) per day per person. There was no change in the price of bread, which remained the same as it had been before the war. The bread was baked and distributed in three locations. At the beginning, long lines formed. As time passed, the distribution was better organized and there was enough for everyone.
Twenty elderly people arrived in Sokoly. They had previously been moved by the Soviets from a home for the elderly in Bialystok to the landowner's palace in the village of Mazury, where they had arranged a pension for the elderly. Now, the Poles drove the elderly people out of the palace before the Germans had time to locate themselves. The old people arrived in Sokoly. Among them were some disabled and deformed persons. The Jews of Sokoly housed them in the Beitar Club and in the beit midrash. Every home supplied them with food except for the portions of bread that were allocated to each person who lived in the town.
Most of the youths hid, the boys from fear of being kidnapped for forced labor, and the girls from fear of rape. Bearded Jews were afraid that their beards would be ripped from their faces along with the flesh.
Information arrived from Bialystok that Nissel Lapchinsky had committed suicide by hanging himself. In Sokoly, they thought this was crazy. All of them were amazed how a young, intelligent man like Nissel could allow himself to leave his young wife and 6-year-old son. His wife was due to give birth in the near future. It is true that we can always expect dangers to life, but a living person has hopes of living through all the bad times.
Later, the Jews of Sokoly began to regard Nissel's act as one of courage and wisdom. This way, he prevented himself from the suffering and the atrocities that later visited the Jews of the town. He did not see with his own eyes how infants were pulled from their mothers' arms and shattered against the walls of the houses. He did not pass through the path of suffering on the way to the gas chambers. But only a few were able to do what Nissel did.
It became known that on the first day of their invasion into Bialystok, the Germans, with the help of young Poles, seized and imprisoned 2500 Jews in the great synagogue and set it on fire.
While the synagogue was going up in flames, gangs of Germans and wild Poles kidnapped Jews from streets near the synagogue and threw them into the flames.
A rumor came from the village of Trzeszczyn [Trestin] that the Germans had gathered over 1000 young Jews who were able to work and shot them to death. After two days, a rumor came from Bialystok that they had arrested more than 5000 Jews and sent them, apparently, to be killed. Among the 5000 Jews sent to be slaughtered were Yitzhak Morashkevitz, owner of a large ironworks on Surazi Street in Bialystok. His wife Sirkeh (the daughter of Moshe [Tzvi] Hershel Seines the painter) came with her children to her parents in Sokoly after her husband was exiled. The families of those exiled from Bialystok paid thousands of dollars and gold in order to find out where the exiled were sent, but these efforts did not succeed.
The heads of the Gestapo in Bialystok demanded that the Judenrat [the local Jewish council] supply five kilograms of gold, suits of clothing and boots. Following that order, the Judenrat began to gather gold rings and necklaces from the women in order to cope with these extortionary demands.
The Kommandant immediately demanded that he be provided with an additional ten kilograms of gold within three days, lest all the Jews be expelled from Bialystok. All these rumors caused enormous panic in Sokoly.
Eight days after the Germans entered Sokoly, a German Kommandant and accompanying gendarmes arrived. The Kommandant immediately called for representatives of the Jews to come to him. A delegation was sent, headed by Alter Ginzburg. The Kommandant gave Alter Ginzburg the job of organizing the local Jewish council (Judenrat) in Sokoly, whose task would be to meticulously carry out the Germans' orders. The Judenrat would bear responsibility for the actions of the Jews and would have complete jurisdiction over the local Jewish population.
In addition, the Kommandant demanded that a list be made of all the merchandise in the possession of the Jews. Gold, silver and jewelry must be given to the Kommandancy. He warned that searches would be made, and anyone found in possession of gold, silver, valuable jewelry and unlisted merchandise would be sentenced to death. He also ordered the Jews, as well as the Christians, to hand in weapons, radio parts and other objects that were left behind by the Soviets. Any delay in fulfilling these orders would be punished by death.
Upon hearing these orders, all the Jews were seized by trembling and fear of death. In almost every house there were possessions that had to be immediately handed over to the Kommandant. What to do? Hand them in? There would be nothing from which to make a living. Not hand them in? This was the danger of death. Nobody knew what to decide. Life was in great danger in any case, and nobody would dare to declare what was in his possession and hand it over to the Kommandancy, especially when jewelry and valuables had been hidden.
The Jews established the Judenrat with great difficulty. Nobody wanted to take the dangerous responsibility upon himself. Slowly, the town's communal workers, led by HaRav Rabbi Yosef Rosenblum, succeeded in establishing a Judenrat, at first with only ten members including: Yechezkel Czerbonicz, Alter Ginzburg, Yona Ginzburg, Yisrael Maik, Leibel Okune, Chaim Yehoshua Olsha, Zeidel Rachekovsky, Eliezer Rosenovitz, and Aharki Zholty. Later it was expanded to include: Alter Makowsky, Shlomo Rosachatchky, Moshe Lipa Shulmeister, and Yankel Surasky. The Rabbi and scholar, HaRav Rosenblum was then included only as an honorary member.
Every member of the Judenrat had a specific task, and all of them worked energetically and with dedication, recognizing their responsibility under the difficult situation of the time.
Yechezkel Czerbonicz, with the assistance of Yaakov Janovitz, handled the matter of workers for unskilled labor. Yechezkel had previously been a witty fabric merchant, having energy and a quick mind. Yaakov (Avraham Borowitz's son-in-law) was the owner of a shoe store and well-versed in Torah.
The Chairman, Alter Ginzburg, owned a leather goods and shoe shop. His wife was a dentist. Alter was an educated, polite, and pleasant person.
Yona Ginzburg and Eliezer Rosenovitz supplied the Germans with various merchandise from Bialystok. Eliezer was known for his overgrown mustache and straight posture, like a Polish squire. He owned about 30 threshing sledges, fields and large houses. He was the friend and advisor of Advocate Manikowski, the former mayor. Both of them conducted business of wide proportions. Rosenovitz supplied the bakers with flour and wood from his wagon, in accordance with an official permit.
Yisrael Maik and Yankel [Yaakov] the shoemaker supplied leather and boots to the regime. Yisrael Maik was a watchmaker and goldsmith, and before the War, his wife Dina managed a hotel and a restaurant. Yisrael was intelligent and proud, and he was a friend of government officials, especially of the local courthouse judge, Jaruzelsky. He was accustomed to helping his friends and acquaintances with charity and mediation. Both Jews and Christians, in the town and its surroundings, liked and honored him. Yankel the shoemaker (the second husband of Josefa Kanchika) was a good and prosperous craftsman.
Chaim Yehoshua Olsha was in charge of organizing professionals and workers for the construction trades, and the supply of materials and tools for work. He knew how to organize himself under the Germans' demands and to satisfy their wishes.
The list of the Committee further included:
Dr. Makowsky, the nephew of Little Alterke;
Leibel Okune, who was the owner of a fabric store;
Zeidel Rachekovsky, who was a good speaker;
Shlomo Rosachatchky (Meir Halpern's son-in-law), who was the owner of a haberdashery shop; an intelligent and cheerful man with a sense of humor. He used to tell many jokes and witticisms;
Moshe Lipa Shulmeister (David Borowitz's son-in-law), a student in the Volozhin Yeshiva, owner of a grocery, who loved to argue regarding political matters; and
Yankel Surasky the blacksmith, a wise and enlightened man in public matters; and
Aharki Zholty, who was a wood merchant and a relative of Judge Jaruzelsky. In their youth, Aharki and Jaruzelsky were faithful friends and they always spent time together. Aharki had a large and beautiful house in Sokoly.
After a few days, searches began. The first searches were conducted by gendarmes with the assistance of the translator, Zekankan. He was a Polish Christian with a sharp little beard, and that is why they called him Zekankan [little beard]. Only a few of the residents of Sokoly knew that the Zekankan had previously lived in a small hut (a clay house) in the woods near a village close to Sokoly, and made house slippers out of rags to sell. His wife and children would gather blueberries or mushrooms and travel to the city to sell them. In September of 1939, when the war broke out between Germany and Poland, and after the first invasion of the Germans into Sokoly, the Zekankan accompanied the officers of the occupying German army as a translator. He spoke fluent German.
At that time, the Zekankan brought a radio receiver to Moshe Maik to be repaired. He took the opportunity to tell Moshe that a few years ago he had been an officer in the Austrian army. He suggested that Moshe Maik turn to him for help if he needed anything, because he had a lot of protektzia with the Germans. But just then, Moshe did not need him.
A short time later, the Soviets entered Sokoly and the Zekankan was no longer to be seen. Later, when the Germans re-entered Sokoly, the Zekankan again appeared as a translator for the Germans and he accompanied the gendarmes on all their searches. They went from house to house among the Jews and took anything that they liked and put it with their personal things.
During these searches, a great miracle happened to Michael Maik, who was saved from death because of the influence of the Zekankan who was grateful to Moshe Maik for repairing his radio free of charge. What happened was as follows:
Before World War II, the brothers Yisrael and Michael Maik remodeled their old house which they had inherited from their father. The war broke out just when the inspection of their new house had been completed. When the Soviets invaded Sokoly, they turned the Maik brothers' house into a hospital. When the Soviets left Sokoly, Michael Maik installed a lock on the door of the house, out of concern that someone would seize the house, since Jewish property was subject to anarchy.
When the Germans came to search the locked Maik house, they were told that Michael Maik had the key. They called Michael and ordered him to open the house. During the search, the Germans found a picture of Stalin and various documents in the Russian language. The Germans began to suspect that Michael Maik, the owner of the house, was a Soviet agent. One of the gendarmes was ready to shoot him, but at that point, the Zekankan intervened on his behalf, arguing that he knew Michael well as an honest and respectable man and so the Germans freed him.
When the first searches were completed, many Jews told of miracles that happened to them during the searches. They were sorry that the Germans had taken valuables and possessions that they had inherited and that had been passed down to them through the generations.
Besides the ordinary searches, Jew-hating Polish informers also conducted searches. With their help, the Germans found hidden merchandise. Simultaneously, burglaries and robberies were carried out by criminals of the underworld.
In addition to all of the above, there were imprisonments following denouncements. It was sufficient for someone to denounce a Polish Jew as being a Communist or active in a Soviet project, and the Germans would imprison the person. In this manner, dozens of young men and women were imprisoned and were expecting to receive a death sentence. This happened in all the nearby towns. Relatives of the prisoners were mourning their dear ones who had been sentenced to death. When they took Shmulke Weinstein, the painter, out from the attic of the Maik house on Bathhouse Street, his wife Rachel wailed spasmodic, heart-rending cries, until the German guards below took pity upon her and comforted her that soon they would release her husband. The fact that the Germans did nothing to the dozens of Jews whom they arrested was thanks to the Zekankan, whom the Germans regarded as an important person.
During the German occupation, the Zekankan moved from a small hut in the forest to a luxury apartment with splendid furniture¯taken, of course, from Jewish ownership. The Zekankan was also known by the name Marshlek. Even though the Jews of Sokoly regarded the Zekankan as a German agent, he apparently was not anti-Semitic, but he did love to receive bribes.
In comparison with the Zekankan, it became evident at the time of the German occupation that the lawyer Manikowski, who had been the mayor of Sokoly during the Polish regime before the War and had then been regarded as a lover of Israel, was a fervent anti-Semite. He drove many Jews from their apartments and installed Christian tenants in their stead. He threatened to prepare a ghetto for the Jews in the near future.
A short time after that, the Zekankan, or Marshlek, was appointed as mayor of the town in place of Manikowski. The Zekankan calmed down the Jews in Sokoly. All the Jews who had been sitting in prison for several weeks and were already regarded as lost, were now freed, thanks to the Zekankan, the new mayor. Meir Charney (the son of Zusli, the tailor), who had been in danger of death, was finally freed from imprisonment.
When the order was issued that the residents must register in the municipality office and receive an identity card, lest they lose the right to live in Sokoly, all the Jews returned from hiding at their friends' homes in the villages in anticipation of the entry of the Germans.
The Judenrat prepared a list of Jews who were able to work. Every day, the Poles would choose young Jews to go to work. The weak, or those who were granted special rights by the Judenrat, were sent to various other jobs as required. In the beginning, they sent workers to repair the roads. This time, they did not kidnap Jews for forced labor as they had done during the first few weeks, but rather employed them in easy jobs in the town and only for a few hours.
One day a group of workers was sent to the Wysokie [Mazowieckie] Road in a truck. When the workers were on their way home towards evening, the truck overturned on the slope of the road near the village of Mazury. Most of the Jews were lightly injured, but one of them, Nachum Trotsky, was killed.
Nachum Trotsky was an orphan, without a father and mother since his childhood. He would go from door to door on Fridays, together with his stepsister, who was called Pekka. She was a fat girl who suffered from epilepsy. They went from house to house in order to collect food for Sabbath. Eventually, Nachum separated from his sister, and each of them would go separately from house to house.
Nachum Trotsky supported himself by saying Tehillim at the side of the deceased before burial, from carrying the bier and covering, and from bringing these items back from the cemetery. On the Sabbath and Festival eves, he would run through the streets and loudly proclaim, Home owners to the bathhouse! During a funeral he would run and cry, Mitzva for the dead! Mainly during the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of Repentance, Jews from the neighboring villages and towns would come to the cemetery in Sokoly every day (except on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays) to memorialize their departed ones. The people from Lapy also buried their dead in the Sokoly cemetery. Trotsky and Pekka would sit all day in a tent at the cemetery collecting donations from the visitors.
When Trotsky grew up and had amassed a bit of money, he married a girl from Ostrow Mazowiecka where he was employed transporting milk for sale. Trotsky did not adapt to his job. He returned to Sokoly after two years. He did not miss a single theatre performance.
After the traffic accident in Mazury, 30 workers were missing from the list of workers. The Germans demanded that the Judenrat provide a large number of agricultural workers for the landowners' courts, such as Mazury, Recz, Stachowiczki, Krzywe, and more.
Jews were employed at the train station to load and unload coal, weapons, and ammunition; they widened the train track; cut down trees in the forests; and worked in [forced] labor gangs in the city. All these jobs required a great number of workers, and the Judenrat was obligated to enlarge its list of those who were able to work. Until then, workers had been listed up to the age of 40. Now, the Judenrat was obligated to register workers up to the age of 60, and almost all the elderly and aged came to register.
Rumors arrived from neighboring villages that the Germans were killing the elderly, the weak, and the sick.
There was a disturbance in the Judenrat regarding unfair distribution of work. The Judenrat was accused of discriminating among the people. Some were sent to hard labor and some to easy jobs. One group of workers received an order to go to work every day, and another group worked only twice a week. There also were those who were privileged and were exempt from going to forced labor.
In this situation, Rabbi Rosenblum called a meeting of those who were fit to work. He reminded them that the situation was difficult and that saving our lives depended on our work. In other towns, the Germans had killed most of the Jews or, in the best instance, drove some of them into a ghetto. Therefore, it was obligatory for every able-bodied person to volunteer to work. It should be remembered that in exchange for work, a person rescues himself and his family from death, and as much as the amount of work increases, so does the chance of remaining alive. Whoever avoids forced labor should be fined. Whoever receives a notice from the Judenrat must appear immediately. The Judenrat will classify the workers into levels appropriate to their age and health and will take sole supporters into consideration. It is essential to support the families.
In the beginning, all the people summoned to work by the Judenrat would gather next to the home of Alter Ginzburg, the head of the Judenrat, where the names of the workers were read out from the lists. The secretary recorded the names of missing workers who were listed and did not show up, and afterwards the Judenrat conducted an investigation as to the reason for their absence. Whoever did not have a justified reason was fined. After the reading of the names, the workers were organized into groups. The first ones were the groups for hard labor and work in distant locations. The Christian work managers assisted in doing this.
Azorowski, who in the past had been the overseer of the railroad, along with his two sons and other work managers, would wait for the Jewish workers, and everyone they chose to work was obligated to listen to them and go. They sent groups of workers, most of them permanently employed, to the nationalized landowners' courts. Some of them would sleep in the locations where they worked, because it was difficult to go home every evening and come back the next day at dawn. The elderly and weaker workers were sent to relatively easy jobs in Sokoly.
About 200 workers from Sokoly would travel to the town of Lapy to work in the Dapu train factory. These 200 workers got up every morning before dawn and marched to the Krzyzewo [Wypychy] train station at 5:30 a.m. From there, a special train took them to their workplaces at the Dapu factory in Lapy. At 7:00 p.m. the workers returned home to Sokoly in the same train.
Once, while the names of the workers were being read out in front of Chairman Alter Ginzburg's house, a German came running and began to lash the groups of workers with a rubber whip on their heads and faces. In fear and panic, all the workers ran away in every direction. Chairman Ginzburg submissively turned to the German whipper and explained to him that according to the Amstkommissar's orders, he was to organize the workers, divide them into groups by profession, and send them to their workplaces in accordance with the orders received. The German used the excuse that it was late and that the workers had to be at their workplaces to begin work at 6:00. The Chairman answered that according to the orders of the Amstkommissar, the workers were to begin at 7:00. The German whipmaster had no connection with the forced labor of the Jewish workers, but, being a bloodthirsty murderer, he could not bear to see Jews alive. When the German hooligan went away, the workers returned to Ginzburg, and the transport of the workers to their jobs was properly carried out. From that day onward, the workers assembled inside the Judenrat hall. After that, they found two apartments, belonging to Fraidel Golche and Yosha Sarbrulow, to use.
At that time, additional decrees were issued against the Jews, among them: (1) the badge of shame [a yellow marker to segregate Jews from non-Jews which later took the form of a star of David]; (2) expulsion of Jews from their homes; (3) confiscation of furniture and household goods; (4) raising of taxes and special levies. These messages of Job caused fear and trembling in every Jewish heart.
At the beginning, the Germans ordered Jews of both sexes, from the age of 12, to wear white ribbons on their right arms. After all of them had prepared the white ribbons, they were used only for a short time. After that, the Germans issued an order to change the badges of shame. Instead of round white ribbons, they had to wear two Jewish stars and write the word Jew in the center of each one, in black ink and in block letters. Any Jew who was caught without the badge of shame was cruelly beaten and had to pay a fine of ten marks.
The right to expel a Jew from his apartment was given not only to Germans, but also to the Polish militia who served the Germans, to the local council, and even to any ordinary Christian.
The Christian shoemaker of Sokoly, Kanofka, an apparently quiet and innocent man, figured that instead of always sitting on his shoemaker's bench and sweating out his work for a life of poverty, he could choose the life of a prince from Jewish booty. So what did Kanofka the shoemaker do? He left his shoemaker's bench and became a policeman in the militia.
Yechiel Blustein's beautiful and comfortable apartment, with its fancy furniture, appealed to him. Kanofka had a document issued by the Amstkommissar, stating that he had the right to confiscate the apartment and furniture belonging to Yechiel Blustein and take them for himself. Yechiel was forced to ask another Jew to give him shelter and a roof over his head.
The Polish carpenter Dworkowski did the same thing. He was tired of carpentry work and desired the luxury apartment belonging to Mordechai Surasky the grain merchant (the son of the blacksmith Moshe Yitzhak Surasky). Dworkowski copied Kanofka. He became a policeman in the militia and had a document issued by the Amstkommissar, confiscating for himself Mordechai Surasky's magnificent and spacious apartment with all its luxurious furniture and utensils, including even the wood for heating. Thus, Dworkowski robbed Mordechai Surasky of everything he had.
Dworkowski the carpenter did even more than his predecessor Kanofka. He exploited his special rights to rob the Jews of abandoned property. He asked the Amstkommissar for permission to search the houses of the Jews in order to steal whatever appealed to him.
During one of his searches at the home of a rag peddler who had received packages from his relatives in America before the War, Dworkowski found a box in a corner under a closet full of hundreds of dollars that the peddler had saved to buy an apartment. The Germans had burned down the peddler's former house at the time of their first invasion in September 1939. The peddler was dressed in rags and lived on a pittance. All his money and possessions fell into the hands of Dworkowski and his collaborators.
Polish militia police began to expel Jews from their apartments. The shop owners and craftsmen were not far behind them. Farmers forcefully entered Jewish shops, homes, restaurants, and cafes. After they drove out the owners, they stole the equipment and possessions.
Polish tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and locksmiths drove the Jews out of their workshops and stole their livelihoods from them. A villager who worked in his youth as an apprentice to a Jewish milliner, but never dealt in the trade, did not hesitate to drive out his teacher, Yitzhak Koschevsky, and take his machines, the tools, and all the equipment and materials for himself. Koschevsky tried to compromise with the robber, and for a significant amount of money the villager agreed to concede the matter. It later became known that this Pole joined up with a Jewish milliner in another town for the purpose of carrying out a similar transaction with German approval.
Again, it is told that a village barber wanted to open a barbershop in Sokoly, and had his eye on the apartment belonging to Alter Ginzburg, the Chairman of the Judenrat. By scheming, the hooligan obtained written permission from the Germans to take over two large rooms and a shop, with all the equipment, in Alter's house. He stole the equipment for the barbershop, such as mirrors, chairs, and the like, from Meir Gozbonda the barber.
Thus, Polish laundresses, chimney sweeps, gamblers, robbers, the unemployed and simply reckless and irresponsible people settled in the homes of the Jews. They moved into comfortable and spacious Jewish houses, while those they expelled, along with their large families of many children, were crowded into single rooms. There even were cases of two or three such families being crowded together into a stable.
The Germans and the Polish police customarily conducted visits to the homes of affluent Jews, where they chose furniture and beautiful household utensils and confiscated them for themselves. Later, they forced the Judenrat to confiscate household items hand these over to them on a specific date and at an exact time. In case of refusal or delay, the Germans threatened to send the entire Jewish population to be killed.
The Judenrat supplied the four Germans who seized the large house belonging to the wealthy wood merchant Aharki Zholty with the nicest furniture in town along with bedding, expensive curtains, kitchen utensils, and all kinds of objects. It is worth adding that before the war, in addition to the owner of that house and his family, other families had also lived there. During the Soviet occupation, senior officers and the military doctor had lived in the house with their families.
The Germans expanded Aharki's house by demolishing the houses around it. Thus, the house that belonged to Itzele [Yitzhak] Roseman, the son of Yisrael Roseman the beltmaker; the house and smithy of Tuvia Goldberg the blacksmith; the house of Yechezkel Morashkevitz, who owned a metal shop, and the cowsheds and warehouses that were in the courtyards around Aharki's house were all destroyed. Dozens of Jews were employed in the demolition work. After the demolition was completed, the Germans obligated the Judenrat to build a stable for their horses and large garages for their vehicles, and to enclose the entire area, including the new buildings, with a fence. The house had to be plastered. They built a tall watchtower on the roof, and Aharki's house became a palace. All in all, four single gendarmes lived in the house.
That wasn't enough. The Amstkommissar, his secretary and his translator, who were living in the house of Eliezer Rosenovitz; the three overseers of the railway; the Mayor Marshlek, the Zekankan; the manager of the dairy and the functionaries of the public railway also had to be supplied with whatever they wanted. Occasionally, there were threats of death by shooting.
A certain functionary, Boltz, of the Krzyzewo [Wypychy] railway was not sufficiently satisfied with the household utensils and expensive set of plates decorated with gold flowers that he received from the Judenrat. Boltz was boiling with anger and screamed horribly that they were comparing him to a Jew. How did they dare to serve rubbish to a Russian or a Pole?! The Chairman of the Judenrat, Alter Ginzburg, was so upset by Boltz's threats that he was afraid that the crazy German would shoot him.
The Germans' caprices were crazy. For example, they requested caracul fur, fox fur and seal fur, cameras, and anything they could think of. The Judenrat tried to obtain objects that were not available in Sokoly from the ghetto in Bialystok. The [community's] financial resources were not sufficient to cover the fantastic costs [of these items], and therefore the Judenrat was forced to raise money by taking all kinds of drastic measures, including searching houses where they thought people were hiding foreign currency. They asked for voluntary donations or sworn declarations that no foreign currency was being hidden.
As stated above, every Jew was burdened with taxes, according to the exact list prepared by the assessors under strict supervision. And so, our brothers, the sons of Israel, paid more than they were able to pay, each one doing so with the knowledge that with his money he was redeeming himself and his family from exile and death.
Besides ordinary taxes, the Judenrat required the monthly payment of a head tax and an apartment tax, whether the person owned an apartment or was only a secondary occupant. It was necessary to carry an identity card and a work card, for both of which a certain amount had to be paid. In this manner, the Judenrat acquired a fund that would enable it to fulfill the frequent demands of its oppressors, as well as independent management costs.
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