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[Col. 643]

Suwalk in 1957

Hanah Altshuler

Close to the outbreak of the Second World War, many Suwalk Jews thought about fleeing from Suwalk. They knew that in every new war, Suwalk would be among the first victim because it was not far from the German border. Not everyone had the strength to leave behind their homes and businesses which they had worked to build up for generations. However, some of the Jews of Suwalk saw the threat as so serious and immediate, that they decided to attempt to save themselves from the oncoming Hitlerists. The following people left town on 31st August, 1939 – a day before war broke out: Shemuel Shapira and his family; Zalman Altshuler and his family; Kopl Firdman; the families of Salnitski, Salamianski, Mushkat, Turetski, Broynrat, and some others whose names I do not remember.

My children and I left Suwalk that same day. We came to Volkovisk where some Suwalk families had gone earlier: Yaakov Raygordski; Mendl Salamianski; Didkovski and Igelski.

Some of the 13 Jews who were in Suwalk the summer of 1955
From right to left: Palnitski; Solnitski; Gavriel Reiner (guest from America); Dobe Solnitski; Hanah Altshuler; Sinenski; Kramarski

 

A few weeks after we arrived in Volkovisk, the area came under Soviet rule. In June of 1940, the Soviets sent us to Komaritsi, province of Valagd. In Komaritsi, there were the families of:

[Col. 644]

Zalman Altshuler; Yaakov Raygrodski and Rivkah Salamianski and her children. Mendl Salamianski was killed by bandits on his way from Zelve to Volkovisk, right after the Russians occupied White Russia. We all worked in the forests. We were driven into forests to chop down trees and saw lumber in the coldest frosts when we were hungry and exhausted.

After the agreement between Soviet Russia and Poland made in London, we, as Polish citizens, were freed. We went to Kazakhstan. At first we lived in a kolkhoz, but we were not able to stand the conditions in the kolkhoz, so we moved to the city of Dzshambul, where there were many Polish Jews. In Dzshambul, we read in the newspapers about the massacres of Jews by Hitler. At first we did not want to believe what we read and we thought that the Russians were spreading false reports.

In 1946, we were permitted to return to Poland. It is difficult to describe the pain I felt when I came to Suwalk on 20th May, 1946. The city had not suffered much during the war. There stood the same Jewish houses, but there were no Jews in them. Strangers had taken over everything. “Our inheritance has gone to strangers, our houses to foreigners”. Our brothers and sisters perished in the gas chambers and concentration camps, and blood enemies occupied their property. There was not the same movement in town. No Jewish children with their beautiful sparkling eyes playing in the streets. No Jewish youth on the streets. As we walked by the Jewish houses, it seemed as though we heard a voice demanding justice and calling for vengeance for the spilling of innocent blood.

The following people were in Suwalk: Shelomoh Gutman; Kaleb Khanavits; Kopl Lubavski; Hone Vinitski; Solnitski; Eliezer Sayenski; Engineer Trotski and family; Bela Adelman with her son; Kershkavski; Shelomoh Goldring; Mishkinski; the brothers Kramarski; Mendl Gotlib and Palnitski.

The Nazis had burned up the Bet-HaMidrash, but the synagogue had remained standing for a longer period. The anti-Semites in the Suwalk Magistrate could not rest because of this. With the false excuse that the synagogue was in danger of collapse, they demanded that it be torn down. They especially wanted the

[Col. 645]

Bricks and white tin from the roof, which was not available at that time in Poland. We, the few remaining Jews, came to the Magistrate on a number of occasions and begged them to repair the synagogue so that it would remain standing as a memorial to the thousands of Jews who had once lived in Suwalk. Our please were fruitless and the synagogue was torn down.

At the entrance to the Ezrat Nashim {women's gallery} of the big synagogue after the Holocaust. Kopl Lyubovski[1] and the only child {remaining in town}, Hayale Lifshits, three years old (now in Israel with her parents)

 

The cemetery had been vandalized by the Germans. The fence around it had been taken apart as well. The last Suwalk rabbi, Rabbi David Lifshits, sent us money from America for a new fence and also to set tombstones on the graves of Rabbi Yosef Yoselevitsh; Rabbi Moshe Altman and Rabbi Binyamin Magentsa.

[Col. 646]

Our labours were for nothing. No matter how much we repaired the fence, hooligans would tear it down and upset the new tombstones.

For a short time after I returned to Suwalk, there was a quorum of Jews who met at my home. Our reader was Kaleb Khanavits, who went abroad after the pogrom in Kielce. Shelomoh Gutmanalso left Suwalk at that time. A few years later, Kop Lubavski, Shelomoh Goldring and Kershkavski died – so there was no more quorum.

The tragic death of the Jew from Punsk, Kushel, made a terrible impression on the few surviving Jews in Suwalk. This happened right after we returned from Russia. He went from Suwalk to Bialystok. At a stop, not far from Bialystok, a gang of anti-Semites came into the carriage. When they saw the Jew, they forced him off the train into a field and shot him.

The only happy occasion we celebrated was when Naum Adelson's wife bore him a son, and we had a circumcision ceremony in Suwalk for the first time in fifteen years. A mohel came from Warsaw {for the occasion}.

The thirteen little shops in the Market place
– photographed by G. Reiner in 1955

 

Of the large Jewish pre-war population, there lived in Suwalk in 1957, the following broken-hearted Jews: Four members of the Salnitski family; four of the Adelman family; Mishkinski; Gotlib and Palnitski. M.Mushkat and Vladek Mariampolski, who had held high positions in Communist Poland, had immigrated to Israel some time before.

In 1957, I left my once beloved and dear hometown forever, dead and laid to waste for Jews.

[Col. 647-648]

The newly erected gravestone, after the Holocaust, on the grave of Rabbi Moshe Altman, of blessed memory, the Suwalk dayan[2]
 

The inside of the ruined Ezrat Nashim which consisted of two galleries. The dividing wall, which separated it from the men's synagogue, is broken

The entrance to the Ezrat Nashim of the big synagogue on the Shulgas side

The seal of the Vaad Hakehilah of Suwalk.[3]

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Spelt this way in caption on photo Return
  2. On tombstone in Hebrew: here lies (here is buried) Rabbi, the great scholar, Moshe, son of Shelomoh Zalman Altman, dayan of the congregation of Suwalk, died 8th of Shevat, {5}697{1937}. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of life.
    Since the reproduction is not too clear, I am guessing at some of the words on the tombstone Return
  3. On the seal, there are Polish words and in the centre, in Hebrew, Va'ad Hakehilah BeSuvalk {Suwalk Community Council} Return

 


[Col. 649]

Destruction of Ratzk

Mordekhay Mishel

Ratzk was a quiet, comfortable little town. The Jews had been there for a long time. Although we do not know exactly when Jews first settled there, it is certain that a Jewish community had existed for hundreds of years.

The Jews lived there in the same fashion that they lived in the surrounding small towns. They worked hard all week in stores, granaries or workshops; in the hustle and bustle and concerns of the material world. On the Sabbath, combed, brushed and polished, they devoted themselves to praising the Almighty, some with a “Borkhi nafshi” {a prayer}, some with a “Pirke Avot”, {Ethics of the Fathers}, and some even with the study of a leaf of Talmud.

The Sexton with his drawn-out monotone would announce the arrival of the Holy Sabbath: “Jews, come to the Synagogue”.

Actually, his call was superfluous, for what Jew did not know the time to light candles and the time of sunset?

Ratzk had belonged to a Polish count named Pats for many years. He lived in his estate Dovspuda not far away on the road to Augustow. There, he built a row of grand buildings which were known as the Pats-Palaces. When the Russians conquered Ratzjn they gave the town to its residents. The Russian General Kartsav received the estate Dovspuda. He had a weakness for chess, and from time to time, he would come to Ratsk to play with R'Velvl Stalavski.

This went on for generations – a quiet calm life of simple hardworking Jews, until the black day of September 1, 1939. It was a hot day. The sun was burning and the radio told of another conflagration: “War!”

A dark cloud of dust covered the town. Wagons and automobiles drove by. The Jewish town was filled with suffering and fear. The Jews of Ratzk understood what awaited them.

[Col. 650]

It is Friday evening. After the tumultuous day, the town is half dad. The shutters are closed. The lamps are extinguished. The tables are not set with candles and chalot {challah?}

The synagogue is dark. No electric lights are on. The Bet HaMidrash appears as it does on the Ninth of Av {a fast day}. No one feels like praying. After prayers no one runs home to the merry[1] “Shalom Aleykhem Malakhey Hasharet”. {Sabbath hymn}. But, they all gather in circles and ask each other: “what will be? Where can we go?” The questions remain hanging in the air.

The first planes with swastikas appeared on the Sabbath. Their engines roar overhead. The Ratzk police fire upon them with their rifles, but the flyers pay no attention. Only after the artillery from Augustow Street began to shoot, did they begin bombing. The artillery was stilled immediately. The whole town quivered from the explosions.

Nazi airplanes began to appear from time to time. We waited the arrival of the Germans daily, but they did not come. This uncertainty increased our fears. Some Jews fled and some of those who had fled return to town. The town seemed to be a mousetrap of Jews, and we did not know what to do.

It went on like this until the Nazis came in and started showing their might. They forced the Jews to clean the streets and do other jobs. They promulgated new decrees daily. They squeezed the last groshn out of the Jews – robbed their shops and exhausted their bodies.

The order came suddenly in November, 1939. Jews must leave Ratzk within eight hours. It was dark, cold and rainy. Worn out the hunted Jews plodded through the muddy roads, not knowing where they were going. Some said their deathbed confessions, and others did not even have the strength to think about their fates.

The deathbed confession served them all – all the Jews of the ancient congregation of Ratzk.

 


Translator's Footnote

  1. Mishel wrote in a rather literary fashion, mixing his tenses for effect, and I tried to follow his style Return

 


[Col. 651]

Suwalk is No More

Kalman Abramavits

I was still a young boy when Hitler's hordes invaded Suwalk. I was thrown into the storm of suffering and torment brought upon the Jewish people in Europe by the Nazi murderers while I was still innocent and inexperienced. I lost my innocence in the hellish experiences in ghetto and concentration camp, but I did not lose my love and my longing for my home town. On the contrary, the pictures in my imagination of my childhood home in Suwalk are even clearer and sharper than before. These are pictures of a rich, creative world, which is no more.

I see first of all in my imagination, the big synagogue where we heder boys always gathered. We would meet there on Sabbath and holidays and in the evenings, on weekdays – where else? We boys finished off our prayers likety-split, ran over to each other, and then got closer to the can on the lectern or the bimah, to see the cantor or the reader better. Yosef the Sexton was the obstacle in our eager running around. No matter in which corner of the synagogue we gathered, he appeared. Yosef the Sexton was a learned Jew but he had a severe look in his eyes, and whenever we felt that look fall upon us, we would make a getaway.

The Talmud Torah which I attended is especially unforgettable. My first teacher there was Igelski (we used to call him Malushi), who taught me the alphabet (alef-bet).Igelski was a good teacher, but he did not dislike

[Col. 652]

Pulling a student's ear. We studied Hebrew with the fine Hebraist Tsibelman. Rabbi Tsimerman was my Bible and Talmud teacher. He had an important part in the high standing of the Talmud Torah in the eyes of Suwalk and its vicinity.

We boys had a special fondness for the well at the centre of town. Water would be pumped from the well by the long bent iron handle on the side. At the end of the handle, there was a round iron ball which seemed to plead with us: “Come on children, sit on me and swing”. So the children allowed themselves to be persuaded and one after another, sit on the ball, swing up and down, and the water would noisily spurt up and spill over. This would go on until Yisraele, the water-carrier, would show up and we would run away in all directions.

When did all this happen?

The destruction is so great and reality so bitter that often these memories of the recent past seem to be a distant, distant dream. There was no Suwalk, no dear Jews, no synagogues or study houses, no Jewish children, no Jewish fathers and mothers …

No, it is not the past that is a dream but the present – a fearful, inhuman nightmare …

There is no more Jewish Suwalk. There is no more Jewish life – and there will never be again.

[Col. 653-654]

The “Jewish-identity card” (Jüden-schein) of a girl from Suwalk – Tsile Flaysher, burned up in Maidenek.
{upper right, photo and fingerprints and text in Polish. Lower right, cover of identity card with text in German and Polish}

 

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