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[Col. 359]

C. Institutions, Societies, Parties

 

Suwalk – a nest of Torah

Moshe Raziel (Rozntal) Jerusalem

Retyped by Kathryn Wallach

In my early childhood I imbibed the special Suwalk House of Learning atmosphere. My best loved games with my friends were playing “House of Learning,” “Hevra Shas”[1], and “Siyum”[2]. And no wonder! My father, of blessed memory, like most Jewish men in Suwalk, spent part of every day in the House of Learning – praying and studying – in the morning, a chapter of Mishnah, and between the afternoon and evening Prayers, a leaf of Gemara. And what boy did not accompany his father to the House of Learning?

 

R' Elivahu Rozntal
Leader and warden of Bet Medrash Hagadol (House of Learning) and Talmud Torah

 

I can still feel that special delight that I used to feel, even when I was quite grown up, upon walking into our large House of Learning between afternoon and evening prayers. Around the big table of the Hevra Shas are the most respected householders, heatedly debating a controversial topic. Their faces are flushed, their eyes sparkle, they are remote from this world, from problems of making a living, and are instead immersed in another world, their home, their club, their be-all and end-all.

At the same time, a few scholars sit by themselves, near the East Wall, swaying over a volume of Gemara on a lectern. Among them are R' Motye Altshuler, of blessed memory, my uncle, R' Avraham Rozntal of blessed memory, and on the other side of the Ark, R' Barulch Roznberg of blessed memory, and other like them. Here too study proceeds with fervor, but with more of an inner fire; here the sparks come from sharp minds rather than from heated hearts.

While the eastern side of the Suwalk House of Learning was occupied by the learned elite, the brilliant scholars of the Hevra Shas, the west belonged to the common folk. They, too, were devoted to study and attended the Eyn Yaakov[3] lesson regularly. Directly opposite the Hevra Shas table, on the other side of the House of Learning, was the Eyn Yaakov table, with packed benches on both sides. Here the lesson was more formal, a rebbe would discourse and the audience would listen. But they did not listen in silence. They asked questions, expressed opinions, and some of the older men would anticipate which passage came next.

As a boy I loved to listen to the Eyn Yaakov lesson. I was attracted to the wonderful pearls of wisdom and the interpretations of Toker Ramaz. He was a dear, kind-hearted Jew, who emigrated to Erets Yisrael and died there a few years later.

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I had just as much Pleasure when I used to pop in to the Hevras Khayotim[4]. There, in my boyhood, the lesson between afternoon and evening prayers was given by R' Zelik Broyzman, of blessed memory. He was a wonderful old gentleman, who knew English and French and world literature. The kloyz[5] was always packed full, and not only with tailors, and we would listen open-mouthed to the Pearls of wisdom spoiken by R' Zelik. It would be so quiet that one could hear a fly buzz. The quiet was disturbed only occasionally by the sound of voices from the Hevra Shas in the House of Learning on one side, and from the Hevra Torah[6] in the same courtyard on the other side.

 

The great Suwalk synagogue after the Holocaust. Entrance to women's gallery from Shul Street. Only roof and walls remain

 

Here is an example of an incident in one of the many small synagogues to illustrate how deeply-rooted Torah was in the minds and hearts of Suwalk Jews.

It was told to me by Rabbi Prays, a man in his late eighties, now living in Jerusalem. It happened about seventy years ago. Rabbi Prays was invited to serve as rabbi of the “Coachman's Kloyz.”[7] Most of the members were coachmen on the Suwalk-Kalvarie-Mariampol-Kovne route. The young rabbi chose the portion of the week for his introductory lecture.

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He prepared his material very well, and since he suspected that the congregation would be familiar with Rashi and Baal Ha-Turim and even possibly Ibn Ezra[8] he based his lecture on the Alshech[9].

While lecturing he noticed a number of men smiling at each other. He took this as a good omen and enthusiastically continued his lecture. When he was through, some of the coachmen came over to him and said, “It seems that we have been very forutunate with our young rabbi. You have memorized Alshech word for word!”

Such was our Suwalk.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Society for the study of Mishnah Return
  2. Celebration upon conclusion of study of a volume of sacred text Return
  3. Commentary on Bible incorporating many legends Return
  4. Tailors' Society Return
  5. Small synagogue Return
  6. Torah Society Return
  7. The bal-agole, coachman, is the stereotype rough-and ready, uncouth, untutored, man in Jewish lore Return
  8. Most popular commentators on the Bible Return
  9. Moses Alshech, 16th century commentator, more obscure than preceding Return

 


[Col. 363]

Suwalk, city of compromise

Shmuel Shori (Shvarts) Jerusalem

Retyped by Kathryn Wallach

Suwalk was a town like all Jewish towns, yet it had something special about it that made it exceptional.

A Jewish town is/blessed with controversies, parties and schisms within parties. Suwalk was an exception. There were no major history-making controversies there. Sometimes there were “words” exchanged in the Bet Hamidrash, differences of opinion regarding the choosing of a rabbi, but there was never any major conflict. Suwalk was a city of compromise, of give-and-take, of decorum. Even the chief rabbi, Rabbi Altman, was known for always suggesting a compromise. Why make a judicial decision if a case could be settled by compromise?

 

Zionists

The Zionist's in Suwalk were not fiercely partisan; Dr. Vaysman, for example, was always calm and composed. “Zionism” he used to say,” is self-evident. “How can you fight for something that needs no explanation? And Dubrovskyv – the principal of the Tarbut school (he came from elsewhere but became well-entrenched in the Suwalk area used to say: “Whether you like it or not, you must be Zionists – and why fight for something that is inevitable – it must come sooner or later…”

Or, for example, take a Zionist like Dr. Starapolski. Good natured, well versed in Bible and Talmud, he was one of the “Zionist personalities” in town. But he was a man of compromise. 'It's better to lead a Sabbath celebration in the Tarbut auditorium than to lead an army to battle.[1]

There was indeed one militant, but he was not a native of Suwalk. That was Efron, the Director of the gymnasie. He belonged to Al Ha-Mishmar, a follower of Grinboym[2]. He thundered when he spoke, always talking about Das Juedisches Folkes – as grammar dictated.[3] But he, too, eventually calmed down in the atmosphere of Suwalk…

[Col. 364]

Bundists – Yidishists

There were a handful of Bundists and Yiddishists in Suwalk, and there was even a Yiddish Folkshul. It also had followers. They used to meet in the Momus cinema to discuss problems relating to the school. The owner of the cinema, Goldshmidt, was involved with the school. But they were hardly a militant group. Suwalk tolerated them as it did the Zionists; variety is the spice of life. Sometimes one felt that if the Yiddishists had not existed, one would have had to invent them.

The spokesman of the so-called progressive element was Yosl Adlson. It is hard to say whether or not he was a Bundist. At any rate, he was anti-Zionist. He played an important role in the community. He used to make biting, ironic comments about the “genteel householders.”

And as long as we're discussing progressives, we must not overlook “Comrade Martshik.” He was a confirmed Bundist. He was always concerned about his neighbors. Whenever he felt that something was awry, he would trot out his tried and true tactics: halt the synagogue services and postpone the reading of the Torah[4] …He would come to the synagogue and have his say. And when Comrade Martshik came to the synagogue there would be no threats. The Jews along the Eastern Wall knew that he would have to be allowed to do his thing…

 

Hasidim in Suwalk

Even the Hasidim in Suwalk were lukewarm. Only on Simhat Torah did they wax enthusiastic. There were only two or three Hasidim – the tombstone engraver and the supervisor of the Talmud Torah. The tombstone engraver confined his Hasidic behaviour to wearing Hasidic headgear and refrained from binding on phylacteries during the Intermediate Days of holidays … the supervisor of the Talmud Torah, R'Hayim Leyb Bakhrakh was, in contrast, an active Hasid. On Simhat Torah, he would liven up the misnagdim town.[5] He would sing with great spirit a song that was half German: “May all our enemies -, go to hell”, and the

[Col. 365]

Misnagdim would chime in: “To hell with all our enemies”.. and even R'Hayim Mendl Fridman, one of the calm, quiet Eastern Wall Jew, would smile his agreement.

Just plain folks.

[Col. 366]

Suwalk, like all Jewish towns, had interesting types who added colour to the town. Of special note were the water carriers and the butchers. They generally avoided involvement in communal affairs. But if strong-arm tactics were needed, especially against a wicked gentile, they would be on the watch to preserve Jewish self-respect.

The street of the butchers did no militate against the street of the synagogue. They co-existed in peace. As we had said – a city of compromise.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Pun on Yiddish expression “firn a tish” – preside over a table. Firn can mean to lead or to drive Return
  2. Yitshak Gruenbaum (1879-1970) Polish Jewish leader, elected to Sejm, champion of minorities in Poland, leader of Al ha-Mishmar Zionist faction Return
  3. Sarcastic, poking fun at use of Germanisms by Efron Return
  4. Traditional Jewish method of righting wrongs, proclaiming a wrong that must be righted Return
  5. Misnagdim – opposes – so-called because their opposition to Hasidism, were traditionally Litvaks, scholars, cold, dour, skeptics, etc. The archetypical misnagid exists in I.L. Peretz' famous story: “If not higher” Return

 


[Col. 365-366]

The Yeshiva crowd in Suwalk[1]

Rabbi Yehoash Zavoznitski

Suwalk was famous for its scholars and learned laymen. There were well organized Hevrot Shas where laymen sat and studied Gemara together every evening. All the groups studied the same tractate simultaneously. After seven years of study, they would celebrate the completion of the Gemara with great ceremony where the rabbi would say the Hadran[2]

The holders of the rabbinic chair in Suwalk were well known throughout Poland and Lithuania. There had been great geniuses whose glory had shown forth at the celebrations on conclusion of the study of the entire Talmud. These moments of glory encouraged the youngsters who attended the Talmud Torah and Yeshiva. After graduation, many students went on to one or another of the great Lithuanian yeshivas.

And so it went for generations… but I wish to write about Yeshiva people in the period between the two World Wars.

In 5681 (1921), the rabbi was Rabbi Aharon Bakst, one of the great geniuses of the generation. A great ethicist, preacher and teacher, and found of yeshivas. He founded and headed a yeshiva in Suwalk called the “kibbutz”[3] which met in the Hevra Medrash kloyz. Most of the young men who studied at this yeshiva were out-of-towners. The Suwalk boys went out-of-town so they would not be distracted by home problems.

[Col. 366]

They would come home for the holidays of Passover and Sukkot. They would get together at the Hevra Torah kloyz and discuss Torah, compare notes on what they had studied of Talmud and Ethics during their semester away.

Recalling the Hevra Torah kloyz where I used to pray, I wish to say a few eulogistic words about those who prayed there.

Hevra Torah was open all day, from early morning until late at night. People would sit and study Gemara and Mishnah and read Psalms. R'Levi Yitshak Gelbard, head of the Hevra and rabbi of the Hevra Shas kloyz until World War II, was a great scholar and very diligent in his study habits. He had completed the entire Talmud many times and was thoroughly versed in it.

R'Yaakov Ayzn, who often substituted for him, would come to the kloyz whenever he could study by himself. He was the warden of the Hevra Torah.

R'Shlomo Midlinski, ritual slaughterer in Suwalk, was a faithful attendant at prayers in the kloyz and sat and studied there for many hours.

Among the worshippers one should mention, R'Mendl Bagan, a scholar who knew the Mishnah and commentaries. R.Moshe Kravtsinski, for many years warden and head of the Hevra Shas and Hevra Mishnayes; R'Avraham Yaakov Ha-Kohen Kaplan, a teacher of Talmud for many years; R'Avraham Sukhavalski, ritual slaughterer in Suwalk;

[Col. 367]

R.Oser Aynhor; R'Aba Goldblat; R'Elkanah Glatshteyn; R'Alter Stalarski; R'Refael Shteygman – the bookseller; Yaakov Levin – the Talmud Torah teacher R'Moshe Berlis; R'Barukh Lerner; R'Yosef Zef; R'Yehoshua Mlotek and others.

My uncle, R'Tsevi-Hirsh, son of Rabbi Avraham Moshe Abavits, the former rabbi of Psherosle, was also a worshipper. He was a dedicated communal worker – for the Yeshiva committee; for Kupat R'Meir Baal Ha-Mes[4] for Kolel Suwalk in Jerusalem[5], and for other charitable institutions. His son, R'Avraham Moshe also volunteered much of his time to the synagogue; set up a Hevra Tikun Seforim, whose goal it was to increase the

[Col. 368]

Numbers of holy books in the kloyz so that the Yeshiva students who used to congregate in the kloyz between semesters, would have enough texts.

All of these fine Jews were killed in Lukov together with many of their landslayt.

The yeshiva students sought spiritual sustenance even during their semester breaks. They would make a celebration and talk there of Torah and Ethics, sing melodies and zmirot[6] which would arouse enthusiasm from onlookers as well as participants.

 

A group of Yeshiva people from Suwalk
Sitting right to left: Rabbi Yoash Zavoznitski[7] (New York); Rabbi Eber Gradovski; Rabbi Aryeh Leyb Krivoy; Rabbi Mordekhay Eilander-Ilan (Israel); Rabbi Yisrael Dumbelski; Rabbi Mordekhay Gershon Pinkovitsh; Rabbi Yehoshua Kobronski
Standing: Rabbi Yitshak Pruzhnevski (Switzerland); Brener (Chicago); Rabbi Moshe Gradovski; Rabbi Yehudah Opnheym; Rabbi Hyam Lerner; Rabbi Moshe Panimunski; David Feferman; Gelbord

[Col. 367]

The Yeshiva students had a natural bond to the rabbis of the city and on the holidays, they would often visit the religious court judges, R'Binyamin Magentsa and R'Moshe Altman. When Rabbi Yosef Yoselevitsh was the head of the religious court, they would often visit him especially on the Sabbath and holidays when the rabbi would inspire them with his novella[8] and ethical sermons.

R'Mordekhay Magentsa was very influential in strengthening the role of Torah. Together with the Yeshiva students, he developed an important campaign for spreading the knowledge of Torah. They encouraged young boys who had completed their studies at the Talmud Torah to continue in the Yeshivas. R'Mordekhay Magentsa provided them with the wherewithal to set out into foreign territory.

When Rabbi Yoselevitsh's son-in-law, Rabbi David Lifshits, inherited the office of chief judge of the religious court, he kept the spiritual centre of the Yeshiva students in the same place, at the rabbi's home.

The atmosphere in Poland between the two World Wars, when many young Jews were caught up in foreign ideologies, was fraught with danger for youngsters who were not in Yeshivas.

[Col. 369]

They might grow away from Jewish observance. Therefore, the Suwalk Yeshiva students had a strong outreach programme for strengthening religion. They founded a youth organization called: “Tiferet Bahurim” where every evening a chapter of Mishnah, Shulhan Arukh[9] and the portion of the week were studied. They also prepared Sabbath and post-Sabbath celebrations[10] with songs and melodies and discussions. Most of the members of Tiferet Bahurin were working men and clerks.

Tiferet Bahurim was founded upon the initiative of Rabbi Yosef Yoselevitsh and it remained under the leadership of his son-in-law, David Lifshits, may he live for many good days, amen.

 

The Rabbi's House

 

One of the founders and workers for “Tiferet Bahurim” was Rabbi Avraham Eber Gradovski, a student of the Lomza Yeshiva. He was a good organizer and a fine speaker. He would often deliver lectures for the Suwalk householders on various occasions.

His older brother, R'Hayim Gradovski, one of the well-known leaders of Suwalk youth, was a co-founder and participant in Tiferet Bahurim.

His younger brother, Rabbi Moshe Gradovski was also a student in the Lomza Yeshiva, who excelled in scholarship and piety.

The Gradovskis were great-grandchildren of the famous rabbi of Ladzey, R'Avraham Eber, author of Mahazeh Avraham and Even Lev. R'Hayim Zalman and R'Moshe were killed in Lithuania.

Also among the spiritual leaders of Tiferet Bahurim were Rabbi Betsalel Goldberg, son-in-law of R'Moshe Aranovski, a student of the Bialystok Yeshiva – Bet Yosef – and also a great scholar and speaker

[Col. 370]

later rabbi in Tshervonibor, near Lomza and Rabbi Aharon Kaltman, dean of the Suwalk yeshiva next to the Talmud Torah.

Finally, I must mention Rabbi Yehuda Yaakov Tsimerman. Who did not know this beloved Jew! He studied in the Kolel[11] attached to Rabbi Bakst's “kibbutz”. Later, he taught in the Suwalk yeshiva and became one of the spiritual leaders of Tiferet Bahurim. Rabbi Tsimerman organized the Hevra Shas in Aranzon's kloyz. He organized the Hevra Mahazike Hadat to propagate the idea of Sabbath observance and the other foundations of Judaism. He had a wonderful talent as a public speaker and would preach with great fire. One of the activities of the Mahazike Hadat was to organize Onegey Shabat[12] in town. This filled a need and attracted many people to the Hevra Torah kloyz, where they were held. Everyone was heartened by the beautiful Sabbath songs and Hasidic melodies which resounded in the air.

The secretary of Mahazike was Aharon (Artsikl) Pinkovski, an original type who was inspired by Rabbi Tsimerman and became his student in the Hevra Shas in Arason's Kloyz. He was a locksmith, a wonderful young man and a friend of the Yeshiva boys.

The rabbi of Suwalk, Rabbi David Lifshits, founded a Yeshiva in the Hevra Torah kloyz which lasted until the Holocaust. The Head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Skopski had studied in the Yeshivas of Grodno and Mir and had married a girl from Filipowe. Rabbi Skopski remained in Kashedar, Lithuania, under the Germans. According to reports, he died there along with other refugees from Suwalk. His family was killed in Lukov.

The Yeshiva crowd was also involved in providing for the holiday needs of the Jewish soldiers in the Suwalk garrison. For one whole year just before the Holocaust, there was a kosher kitchen for those Jewish soldiers who did not wish to eat army food. Every day; kosher dinners were served to them in the mess halls. R'Yitshak Kviat son of the Piesk Rabbi, and son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Altman, was instrumental in this project.

Thus the people associated with the Yeshivas wrote a beautiful page in the history of Jewish Suwalk.

Here are some more names of martyrs who came from Yeshiva backgrounds:

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Rabbi Aryeh Kreyvan, a student of the Radin Yeshiva, whose father, R'Yosef, was the sexton of Aronson's kloyz.

Eliezer Piekarski, student of the Radin Yeshiva.

Rabbi Hayim, son of Tsevi Abavits, student of Lomza Yeshivz, died in Vilkovishk, Lithuania.

Hayim Barukh Lerner, student of Lomza and Kletsk Yeshivas.

Rabbi Yisrael, son of R'Hayim ha-Kohen Dumbelski, student of Grodno Yeshiva.

Rabbi Yehuda, son of R'Avraham Opnhaym, student of Grodno Yeshiva, died in Knove Ghetto.

Rabbi Yehoshua, son of R'Moshe Aharon ha-Kohen Kabranski, student of Grodno Yeshiva.

Rabbi Meir, son of R'Avraham Opnhaym, student of Lomza Yeshiva.

[Col. 372]

Meir, son of R'Barukh Lerner, from Radin Yeshiva.

Meir, son of R'Ozer Serevianski, from Mir Yeshiva, died in Lithuania during the war.

Moshe Panimunski from Grodno Yeshiva.

Rabbi Shmuel Libling, from Grodno Yeshiva, married to a girl from Punsk.

Brothers R'Shmuel and Rabbi Zalman, sons of R'Shimon Berman, from the Yeshivas of Grodno and Kletsk.

Brothers Krasnopolski from Lomza Yeshiva.

Rabbi Yaakov, son of R'Aryeh Leyb Zilbershteybn, from Baranovitsh, Mir and Korets Yeshivas.

R'Gershon, son of R'Nehemiah Pinkovits, studied in Grodno Yeshiva.

Brothers Yosef and Reuven Kushel from Punsk, students at Lomza Yeshiva.

R'Finhas Shapira.

Landoy and Kovalski.

R'David Feferman and brother R'Leyb.

Rabbi Aharon ha-Kohen Vilkovski.

Yehudah Gustman and Aharon Sobl, students in Grodno Yeshiva.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. He uses the word: “Torah youth” used in its Hebrew form, “Beney Torah” in Israel and in the U.S. to mean very Orthodox Yeshiva trained men who may or may not be ordained, may or may not practice as rabbis, but lead a pious life of above average quality. In New York, one hears the expression: “Yeshiveshe crowd” or “Yeshiva crowd”, where reference to Yeshiva University is usually implicitly not intended! Return
  2. Encore! Phrase said upon completion of tractate so that study would begin again Return
  3. Kibbutz” – communal settlement actually derives from the older use of the word to describe a group of students following a rabbi, most notably, “Kibbutz Uman” followers of R'Makhman of Bratslav Return
  4. Rabbi Meir Baal Na-Nes was one of the rabbis of the Mishnah whose tomb near Tiberias became a place of pilgrimage. Pushkes, charity boxes bearing his name, were distributed throughout the Jewish Diaspora and the moneys collected went to various charities in Palestine Return
  5. Kolel Suwalk – Jews from Suwalk who lived in Palestine, usually Jerusalem, and were supported by contributions from their compatriots Return
  6. Passages from the liturgy that was sung to various melodies on Sabbath and holidays Return
  7. His first name is spelled somewhat differently from the way it is in his byline Return
  8. Ingenious new interpretations of scripture Return
  9. Code of Laws Return
  10. Oneg Shabbath – enjoyment of the Sabbath, on the Sabbath; Melave Malkah – escorting the queen, as the Sabbath ends Return
  11. Study group for young married men, supported by communal funds Return
  12. Sabbath celebrations Return

 


[Col. 371-372]

The Revolution Years

Hayim Zeligson

It started as far back as the time of the Russo-Japanese War. News from the front would come to Suwalk via telegrams, printed in the local government press. These telegrams reported only victories of the Czarist army and about thousands of Japanese soldiers and officers being taken prisoner.

People did not have great faith in the veracity of these reports but they had no other source of news. They did not know what was really happening at the front. The truth was suddenly revealed in a few lines in a telegram reporting the fall of Port Arthur and the retreat of the Russian army. All of a sudden, proclamations signed by the “Suwalk Jewish Labour Bund” were found stuck in the doors of shops and houses. They announced that since the

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Czarist army had been defeated by the small Japanese – the time had come for the Jewish workers of Suwalk to unite with the working class of all of Russia, to throw off the chains of slavery and, together with all proletarians, free themselves from the yoke of the corrupt Czarist government. The proclamations concluded with these words: “Down with oppressors of Jews! Down with Capitalism! Down with the Czarist regime”, and, “Down with Nicholas the Last”. “Long live the Jewish Labour Bund of Russia, Poland and Lithuania”.

We school boys enjoyed reading the high-flown phrases and words like “proletariat”, “capitalism” and “The Jewish Labour Bund Lives!” We collected the proclamations and carefully hid them in barns and attics.

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We envied the big boys who wore the “blouses” with various coloured sashes. On Saturday evenings we would see these young men and women in the Municipal Park. The ones in blue blouses with red sashes belonged to the Bund. The red blouses were worn by members of the S.R. (Socialist Revolutionaires), while brown blouses with red sashes were worn by Poale Zion and S.S.[1]

Saturday afternoons they would all go rowing in the river. The different coloured blouses and sashes in separate groups of boats. I can still see in my mind's eye the colourfully attired members of the various parties on the boats, shouting back and forth to each other.

Besides the grown-up Bund, there was also a “Junior Bund” in Suwalk, consisting of 12-15 year old boys of the poorer class. They were mostly apprentices who were too young to join the adult Bund. But the boys were well organized and trained in fighting for freedom and equality. They would walk along the sidewalks carrying big sticks and scaring all the children. Their task was to track down Czarist spies who might have infiltrated the meetings and discussions of the parties.

One Sabbath evening, the head of the Suwalk Yeshiva, R'Hirshl Maytsheter, known in town as “the Slonimer”, went for a stroll near the park with his friend, R'Avraham Yitshak Polatshek, the well-known scholar and Gemara teacher who prepared students for entry into the Yeshiva. As they strolled along they discussed a difficult point of Torah scholarship. Since R'Hirshl Maytsheter was very near-sighted, he stooped down and strained his eyes to see whether the boys hanging around the Main Street might be his students. The boys were, however, the “Junior Bund” gang. Seeing how this man was straining to identify them, they decided that these two men were

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Czarist spies. The word went out to prepare clubs for beating them up. Fortunately, the baker, a Bund member, suddenly appeared – saw what the gang was planning – yelled at them to get out of there.

The writer of these lines, already in America at the time of the incident, heard the story from that same Khone, the baker, now in New York – one of the last Mohicans of the Suwalk Bund. He is a sick old man, but his memory is so fresh that talking to this writer, he relived all the details of those heroic years of the Bund in Suwalk.

Khone was one of the founders of the Bundist Party in Suwalk. He told me how in 1902, he, Yankel the wheelwright, Sarah Leya the dressmaker, Khemke[2] Kalvareyski, Itshke Rozendorf, Moyshke from Slonim, Avraham-Hirshke Glatshteyn – the tanner, Grushkin, Aharon Sheynman – the banker's son, Frankl the {deserter's}son, Pakhutski the Sibirniks (so-called because his father participated in the Polish uprising of the 1860's and exiled to Siberia), Firdman's son from the Colonial Exchange, Moyshke Ribatski, Zeligman – son of the Government Rabbi[3] Khone'ke Golub, Rivke the daughter of the blacksmith, Iserke – son of the tailor, Niske “Boyele”, exiled to Siberia for shooting a

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janitor and other revolutionaries got together in an illegal place in Zerakh – the cobbler's attic. But the meeting was raided by the police, who arrested all the participants.

 

Niske Dubovski (“Boyele”)

 

After they were freed from jail, Aharon Sheynman proposed that they meet on Saturday afternoon in his father's bank, when the bank was closed, because the police would never dream of investigating then. His proposal was accepted. It was there, in Sheynman's bank, that the first strike of tanners and bakers was organized.

The police left no stone unturned to find the organizers. Khone was the first to be arrested. Khone's employer, Barukh the baker was a liberal person with a fine character and he did all he could to help his employee. Moshe-David, Barukh's son, used to come to visit Khone in jail. Khone confided in Moshe-David that he was a vigorous opponent of those who marched around with revolvers in their pockets, calling themselves expropriators who declared that the bourgeoisie must be forced to give monetary support to the party of the revolution. He advised Moshe-David to tell his father not to withhold money from the organization to support the strikers because he might be shot. After he was freed, Khone found bullet holes in R'Barukh's bakery.

In order to frighten the Jewish bourgeoisie, two members of the Bund came to the big Suwalk synagogue one Sabbath to speak to the congregation about the revolution. There was uproar and to restore order, the Bundists fired shots into the air. Everyone panicked.

Jews wrapped in their prayer shawls ran out onto the streets. The police came but in the hullabaloo, the two Bundists vanished.

And so it went, until the first Russian revolution of 1905. Posters appeared announcing a Suwalk Bund meeting

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in the Municipal Park. At the same time, pasted on to the posters were calls to a Poale Zion meeting but in another corner of the park.

These posters were put up on the streets near the synagogue on Yatke Street, near the entrance gates of the park, and elsewhere. Posters in Yiddish were something new. In the evenings, the orchestra of the Suwalk Fire Company, mostly Poles and members of the P.P.S. (Polish Socialist Party) played songs in the park and the Polish hymn – “Yeshtshe polsko nie zginela” (Poland is not yet defeated).[4]

A day after the Czarist manifesto of 17th October, 1905,[5] the Suwalk proletariat had its first open demonstration.

Yosef Khatskel Zeligman, son of the Government Rabbi, in his university student's uniform, led the parade. Every so often he would turn round and give the command: “Comrades – stay calm! We are marching to the railroad station to halt transportation. Down with Nicholas!” The shouted response was: “Down with bribe takers!”

Suwalk had never seen such a parade. The entire main street was lit up and everyone felt a breath of freedom. Soon, there would be an end to all of the troubles of the Jews.

This joy lasted all of three days. On the fourth day after the Czar's declaration, the revolution drowned in blood. Soldiers appeared and a state of emergency was declared. All government posters bore the warning that anyone caught removing them would be imprisoned for three months.

FInklshteyn, the coppersmith, lived behind the synagogue. His children were involved in the revolutionary movement. His fourteen-year-old son, read the declarations about the state of emergency, was upset and, without much thought, ripped off the poster. Ivantshik the janitor saw this – ran over to him and grabbed him by the collar.

[Col. 377]

His please and cries were of no avail. The youngster was put in jail and his mother, her eyes swollen from weeping, carried food to him every day.

Rumours began circulating that there would be a pogrom in Suwalk since there were pogroms in other cities at the time. All kinds of strange characters made their appearance: bearded Russian Orthodox priests – young hooligans and other suspicious types. They came to defend the Fatherland and the Czar.[6]

Suwalk Jews knew the warning signs. They had heard about such defences of the Fatherland and the Czar in Bialystok, Minsk, Homel, Yelizavetgrad and other towns of the Pale of Settlement. They were terror stricken and decided to send a delegation to the Governor of Suwalk to beg for mercy so that he prevents a pogrom in the city.

The delegation consisted of the Rabbi of Suwalk – R'Tuvyah Katsenelenboygn and the Government Rabbi Zeligman. When the delegation appeared before the Governor, he asked Zelgman: “who is this man?” (meaning R'Tevele Katsenelenboygn). “This man is my assistant” Zeligman replied. This meant that the great scholar and author was Zeligman's assistant.

The Governor promised to protect the Jews. The Knights of the Czar and the Fatherland {i.e. Black Hundreds} would be permitted to march through the city but soldiers would be posted to prevent a pogrom. The Jews were somewhat calmed. But the Jewish working class did not rely on the Governor's promises and organized a self-defence group. The workers of Augustow, Saini and nearby towns were invited to join. They came to Suwalk, those self-defence members from Augustow, with their revolvers and bottles of vitriol, ready to defend Jewish honour. They were quartered in the Hoveve Zion building. Other groups were stationed in other houses, and in this manner, they waited for the parade of the Black Hundreds.

The day came. The Governor kept his promise. The Sixth Dragoon Regiment was stationed along the length of the parade route. The priests carried a large portrait of the Czar and screamed:

[Col. 378]

“Beat the Jews, Save Russia!”

But, there was no one to beat. The Rabbi had commanded that all Jews remain at home throughout the parade. The well-organized youths of the self-defence group had nothing to do. The priests and the hooligans completed their long march on the main street, then went off to a side street down from the synagogue to get back to the highway, and so ended the parade. The sinister plan of the Black Hundreds to ferment a pogrom in Suwalk failed.

What happened to these radicals from Suwalk? To this question, Khone the baker responded thus:

Yankel the wheelwright married Sarah-Leya the dressmaker and came to America where he became active in the community. He was known as Yaakov Markson. For many years, he was the secretary of the Independent Suwalk Benevolent Association, and for a long time, he was secretary of the Augustow Branch 77 of Workmen's Circle. He was very loyal to his comrades. Although he was not religious, he had the greatest respect for rabbis and scholars. When Rabbi David Lifshits, the last Rabbi of Suwalk, came to America after the Holocaust, Yaakov Markson became one of his most devoted supporters. There was great sorrow among Suwalk landsleit when he died.

Nehemia'ke[7] Kalvareyski, who was much wanted by the police in Czarist Russia, came to America and opened a dry goods business in Pennsylvania. Moshe Ribatski, who calls himself Fisher in America, founded the Fisher-Gross Ladies Wear firm. Velvl Pakhutski became a worker on the Jewish Daily Forward in New York.

Rivke, the blacksmith's daughter and active in Poale Zion, married the well-known journalist, William Zuckerman in London. Moshe'ke from Slonim, a successful businessman in America,

[Col. 379]

could not wean himself from his youthful dreams of revolution. For many years he was the official U.S. representative of Soviet Book Publishers.

Aharon Sheynman, son of the banker, went to the Soviet Union. He became an assistant to the Soviet Finance Commissar. He was sent to the United States to arrange a loan for the Bolshevik government. Here, he saw a free world and lost his desire to return to the USSSR. He left America for Berlin where he presumably died. He had been sentenced to death in abstention by the Bolsheviks.

David'ke the tanner's son, died at the beginning of 1903. Since it was the first death in the Bund, his comrades wanted to carry the corpse to the cemetery rather than have it taken by horse and wagon. For this, they needed the agreement of the burial society. Yankel the wheelwright asked the Dayan, R'Binyamin Magentsa for permission, but the Dayan decided that the deceased

[Col. 380]

Was not a great man and could not be so escorted. Yankel the wheelwright responded that he had indeed been a great man and whether or not R'Binyamin Magentsa allowed it, the Bund had decided to do so. R'Yayim Pivovarski, the chief warden of the burial society told his people not to deal with the corpse. The threats and warnings of the Bundists prevailed and the burial society relented. In the cemetery, some of his comrades eulogized the dead man at the open grave. The conclusion was: “Davidke! You are not dead. You are alive, but the electricity has gone”.

Therefore, when Yankel the wheelwright had yortsayt[8] and went to lead the prayers in the tailors' kloyz, the Dayan, R'Binyamin Magentsa, did not allow him to do so saying that such “gentiles” who did not have souls, only electricity, should not lead the prayers.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Zionist Socialists called Socialist Territorialists in the U.S. Return
  2. The “ke” at the end of some names are diminutives. They were very young. Return
  3. The Russian Government appointed men with advanced education as Government Rabbis. They were not always ordained and Jews did not view them as rabbinic authorities. But they functioned as religious representatives to the Government. Shalom Aleichem was one for a time. Return
  4. My transliteration into Latin alphabet of Yiddish transliteration of Polish. Return
  5. Guaranteeing the basic freedom of all citizens. Return
  6. Probably members of the Black Hundreds. Return
  7. There is internal inconsistency in the spelling of names – sometimes one, and then another nickname is used. I have kept to the text Return
  8. Anniversary of death of close relative. Return

 

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