Ostrów Mazowiecka

Project Name Translation of “Ostrow-Mazowieck” by Yehudah Leib Levin

Project Leader
Michael B. Richman

JewishGen Yizkor Book Project Manager Lance Ackerfeld

Project Synopsis:

The goal of this project is to translate the Yizkor book, “Ostrow-Mazowieck,” into English and to publish it both online and in print by JewishGen. The book was written by town native Yehudah Leib Levin (d. 1978) and published in Israel by Yad Yahadut Polin, which no longer exists, in 1966. Unlike the much larger, 600+-page Yizkor book on the town that was recently translated and published by JewishGen that was written partly in Yiddish and partly in Hebrew by many authors, Levin's smaller work (164 pages) was written solely by him in Hebrew. While it, too, contains much valuable historical and sociological information, including some photographs, its uniqueness lies in its focus on the large Orthodox community that remained in the increasingly diverse town up until the Holocaust.

Project description

Ostrow-Mazowiecka, known by Jews as Ostroveh, is located some 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, in the province of Mazovia and the county of Lomza, midway between the Polish capital and the industrial city of Bialystok. While long excluded from settling there by the privilege of de non tolerandis Judaeis originally obtained by the Dukes of Mazovia from the King of Poland, Jews began living in the town legally ca. 1765 in the more enlightened period prior to the Kingdom of Poland's first (of three) partitions in 1772. The Jewish population grew rapidly to the point where in the pre-World War I period, its apex, it reached approximately 10,000, about 60% of the total population. Jews were prominent in the area's main commercial enterprises, notably grain and lumber milling, as well as in host of smaller commercial endeavors and occupations. However, in the wake of the dislocations of the war and the rise of a militantly nationalist independent Poland, its population declined somewhat largely due to emigration.

Nevertheless, the community boasted the full range--and then some--of religious, social and political institutions typical of interwar Poland: various hevrot or charitable societies to tend to the sick, the needy, etc.; youth and adult political movements ranging from the secular socialist Bund (and even a few communists!) to Zionist parties of every stripe as well as non-Zionist Agudists; sports, labor and women's organizations; a Jewish public library (the only one in town) created by a veteran group of Maskilim; two weekly newspapers; schools ranging from traditional and updated hadarim and talmudei Torah to modern day schools (both secular and religious) to higher yeshivot; and many houses of worship, both Hassidic shtiblach and Mitnagdic shuls. Given its key location on the cultural border between largely Hassidic Poland and overwhelmingly Mitnagdic Lithuania, the town's religious community was itself split, its leadership traditionally alternating between the two groups. Indeed, the very Yiddish spoken there was a unique mix of the Polish and Lithuanian variants. The Nazi invasion of 1939 saw Ostroveh fall just on the German side of the border with the Soviet zone, to which most of its 7,000 Jews were expelled early on. The remaining 500 or so Jews were shot by the Germans on November 11, 1939, the anniversary of both the end of World War I and of Kristallnacht the year before.

While precious little remains of the Jewish physical presence in town, as recognized by Yad Vashem Ostrow-Mazowiecka is unique in having the most complete records of any Jewish shtetl in Poland, stretching back nearly to its founding. As such a very active group of its descendants, the Ostrow-Mazowiecka Research Family (OMRF), has for years now uncovered, translated and made available online many of these valuable records, and is still in the process of doing so. The Project Coordinator is a co-founder of the OMRF. It is intended for the project to supplement the original text by the addition of an appendix of more recently discovered material (documents, photographs, etc.) to bring the published book up to approximately 200 pages in length, thereby rendering it even more useful to academic researchers, genealogists, descendants and others.

Given the single authorship and one language of the volume, it is felt that it is important to have a single professional translator, rather than a team of volunteers as was the case in the other Yizkor book for the town, so as to maximize the work's accuracy, consistency of style, readability and utility and to ensure the project's timely completion (estimated at one year). The Project Coordinator has already identified such a qualified and interested translator. He is Dr. Gary Schiff, Adjunct Professor of History at Washington College in Maryland and former President of Gratz College in Philadelphia. He is himself a descendant of one of Ostroveh's original and largest Jewish families, the Feinzeigs, and author of a recently published book on Polish Jewish history, which contains a chapter on the town, which he visited, and for which he utilized both Yizkor books. He is fluent in Hebrew. And given his academic background in the subject, will be able to supply explanatory footnotes where necessary. The Project Coordinator will work closely with him in reviewing the translations prior to their periodic submission to JewishGen for posting on line and later to be published in book form. (Joel Alpert, head of that arm of JewishGen, has already committed to its publication.) The Project Coordinator will also undertake a fundraising campaign among the existing network of landsleit from the town as well as others interested in the town, including various descendant groups.

Key Audiences

As the translator can attest, works like this are incredibly valuable for the increasing number of academics doing research on the history and culture of the Jews destroyed by the Holocaust, and not just on the events and mechanics of that tragedy as had largely been the focus earlier. Historian, sociologists, linguists, scholars of religion and other disciplines frequently make use of such material. In addition, serious genealogists, whether professionals or those simply engaged in family research for their own interest, find them invaluable as well, given their biographies, family histories, necrologies and other pertinent information. And anyone traveling to these towns in search of their roots would be well advised to read them in advance as guidebooks to that vanished world.

Project Importance

While all Yizkor books are important to be translated, given their wealth of historical material on their now destroyed Jewish communities, this project has some unusual--if not totally unique--aspects to commend it. First, it is a second Yizkor book on the town, in addition to a much more general one, which offers a somewhat different focus and point of view on the community's history. The two should be read together as complementary sources. Secondly, given the extensive historical resources extant about the town, some of which have already been made available in English by an active group of devotees, this translation will constitute another key resource on a town which in many ways be viewed as a quintessential or model shtetl. Its lively Hassidic/Mitnagdic, Poilishe/Litvishe, religious/secular, Zionist/non-Zionist, modernist/traditionalist make-up provides diversity and interest as well.

Estimated Cost

It is estimated that the entire process will cost $5,000. American donors will be advised of the tax deductibility of their contributions. There are also significant numbers of Ostroveh descendants in Israel and Latin America, who will also be solicited.


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Updated 17 Jan 2014 by LA