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[Pages 104-108]

Our shtetl

by Nakhum Zilberman (Paris)

Translated by Tina Lunson

I can remember what made us Sokolovers proud in the years I was a child: the Jewish participants in Kocskukio's rebellion – Tsalke Abrameles, Yente the bitter's husband, who was a fireman. The second Jewish fireman was Aron Zelig, a cantonist. In my childish view I was both astonished and envious of the fact that they were allowed to do that and that no other Jews in Sokolow were.

Besides that, people in Sokolow never stopped talking about the events during the fifth year (1905), the manifesto that reached from Bzshezshoske into our town for the Polish and Jewish laborers and artisans of the socialist movement.

Among our revolutionaries in that era were several who were famous: Mayer Soreles, Kalman Yekhiel, Shepsl Ferger and Avrom Grinberg “Lesers”. (In our town it was said that he wanted to take over the sugar factory in Pzshezshisk that belonged to the German, Leser.) They also talked about Sore-Mikhal the seamstress who also took part in the revolutionary manifestations of that time.

Among the other stories of the shtetl, I recall a sensational love during which Meyshe-Simkhe Yoels threw vitrol (salt water) into Shvaytser's daughter's face.

We must mention the social appearance of the shtetl: from Rogover and Koze street; from Khayim-Arke's to Khayim Rov's; Nakhum Volf to the “iron head”, where the lane ended, and the accompanying poverty; the shul-heyf [shul or synagogue courtyard] from the poor house to the bath house; the horse market; the few wealthy folks in town, like Butshe Rubenshteyn, and others from whom people would ask for a little chicken broth for the sick people in the poor house.
One Purim when the megile reading fell on a Thursday – a market day – and the poor shopkeepers hurried to the megile reading and neglected to put away the booths, tables and barrels, a group of jokesters went into the market place, took over the stalls, rolled away the barrels and filled up the vestibule of the old besmedresh [study house] with them. And when the “v'yehi khoman” came they began a great battle in their own style, sending the barrels crashing into the study house. The tables were in splinters and they used a piece of the wood to bang on the copper hand-laver. Right after the reading there was a parade of people carrying broken wood from the “vandals”. It was only then that the vendors realized what had happened

After the big fire in Sokolow, when the shtetl had begun to rebuild itself, a guest arrived in town – the meshugener Ben-Tsion. He was then in his thirties, a great scholar, depressive, and sometimes also merry. His depression was supposed to have come from a love, and it is a fact that he never stopped talking and singing about love. Our town was enriched with a collection of songs about events that were strange to us. He had translated many of the songs himself, from Polish. From his repertoire I remember “The priest slept with the land-lady” (primative and romantic); “What will be, my dear, if we marry and have a child, where will we get a crib”; “There in the attic stands a barrel”; “There are hens in the market, thinner than splinters”, a post-yonkiper song; “The postman who carries the news, one receives a good report and another tears kriyas”; “I will meet you at four” (from Moniushka's “Halka”); “Whoever disrupts our love will have foreshortened years”; “If I were a bird I would fly to you”; and others. Our townspeople, wherever they are, will certainly remember the songs. My father was also enchanted by his “shir ha'males” and Khayim Shmuel Rosenboym, the musaf leader in the shul, sang his v'kol ma'aminim to a tune from “Halka” – and all that thanks to Ben Tsion.

The thread continued in our town until the First World War. At Kalman Shepsels (a well-known name), who lived opposite Aron Karpel, near the city market, there was a soda-water factory that belonged to Kalman-Shepsels, and the second part of the store belonged to his son Itskhak-Dovid, who sold snacks and soda-water. (It was more of a kibits-stop than a shop.) Of the frequent guests, enlightened Jews, I remember: Yisroel-Leybush Teyblum, Yisroel Note, Mendl the Rov's son. Yitskhak Dovid himself was a clever Jew. Others who came there were Mordkhe Lukever-Pardiazr, Mordkhe Zalman Vinogura, my father Meyshe Leyzer and Shlapmits. They discussed politics there. We harvested the news from the front from the newspapers and discussed who might or might not win. This was during the First World War. The most interesting conversations.

During the same time, homeless guests come to us from Pinsk. Plain Jews of a high cultural level, scholars and yeshive bokherim [yeshive students] who had an influence on our cultural life. When the Germans took Sokolow in 1915, and Jews began to breathe a little easier, the first Jewish library was founded in Meyshe-Khayim Shpilman's home. The founders were two of the homeless, Betsalel Fridman and Ben-Tsion Goldberg. This began a multi-branched, cultural and national activity. Betsalel Fridman, a teacher, lived at a Polish inn near the city park. My friend and buddy Note Koyfman invited me to buy [the newspapers] “Dos yidishe folk” [The Jewish folk, in Yiddish] and “Ha'tsefira” [the Dawn, in Hebrew], which was no light move. And so, respectable work.

Shleyme Shertsman founded the “Poale-tsion” party. Quickly taking an active part were Ayzik Plotner, Shimen Rubenshteyn, Borekh Vinogura, Itshe Farbiazsh, Note Koyfman, Alter Shuster and Betsalel Fridman. They organized a workers' home with a reading room and a theater hall to seat few hundred people; and then at Aron Karpel's a dramatic section that presented Gordon's “The Wild Man” for the first time. It was amazing how Ayzik Platner, who had never acted in the theater, directed and also acted in the production.

Also memorable were the talented Zelda Rozenboym and Brayndl Rozengart. It was at that same time that the parties (among them also the “Tserey tsion”), started schools and evening courses – with the teacher Holts-heker, and later, Betsalel Fridman and Ben-tsion Goldberg. They also developed the revolutionary party among Jews, in which the Germans perceived an enemy. When for the first time in Sokolow we prepared to celebrate the First of May, the German authority closed the workers' home, some members of the committee were arrested and Shertsman fled. The First of May celebration took place in the forest off the Drogotshin road with our members and youth posted every 20 meters. The gathering was held under the supervision of Shertsman. Suddenly policemen and marshals appeared, we stopped reading the manifesto and began running. Some were arrested and confined in the Sokolow prison.

A conspiratorial and quiet movement arose until the end of the war. The Germans went away, and Poland became independent. The movement revived and the “workers' home” was reopened by Shimen Yosl-Elyes. Betsalel Fridman organized the youth under the leadership of the ”Poaley-tsion”. Members of the first committee included Elye Braverman, Tsvi Bekerman, Rivke Kaver, Motl Rozentsvayg, Malke Shtsherb, Nakhum Zilberman, Yitskhak Valtser. Others joined later. That was the brightest chapter of that time. New cultural activities began among the youth. We were made better with Khayim Neyekh Vinogura, who came back from Austria and spoke about cultural, national and social themes. He founded a youth drama circle that was certainly one of the best in the entire region. Note Koyfman gave lectures and became, because of that, greatly loved.

At that time in Sokolow the Bundist Nekhe Valigura became very active. Nekhe was the daughter of Kahye-Sore Shualkes, who only earned money so she could give it to the movement. She was also active in Warsaw, but starved there and came back to Sokolow where she died after terrible suffering. Before her death she did not want to recite any vidui [confession] but with full consciousness she sang the Bundist “Shvue” anthem. She died on a Friday evening. On shabes all the parties decided that the funeral should take place on Sunday so that everyone could take part in it. A watch was set up so that no one could take her to burial before then. The brothers Shpanke took over the honor guard. Her mother and the religious Jews made a huge fuss. The entire Sokolow youth and all the community resources prepared for the funeral. They covered the wagon with flowers. They carried signs with slogans from all the groups. I recall the slogan of the youth: “A hero fights, sings and falls”.

The train of people moved through a frigid day that cut at the hands of the flag and sign bearers. A militia of members went in advance and called for all the shops to close. The Sokolow Rebi was not pleased, but there was nothing he could do. The parade went from Khayim Rov's past the horse market in the direction of Shelets Street up to the sign-painter Librakh. There, the chorus of the “Workers' Home”, under the direction of Khayim Neyekh Vinogura, was waiting. With song and tears we accompanied her to her eternal rest, “we raise our hands and swear to fight, to fight like you…” Barukh Rozenboym and Alter Shuster spoke at the grave, and I spoke for the youth. Great and small had trudged through the snow to the new cemetery on that frosty day.

The new Polish rulers recognized who the revolutionary powers in town were. Religious Jews could not excuse us for that. It left an unforgettable impression on the whole town. And we, the survivors, will certainly never forget it.

This was the time before I left the shtetl. We were known as the golden thread that pulled further on. It was always my dream to return to the shtetl of my birth – Sokolow Podlaski.


[Page 109]

Sokolov Until the Destruction

by Avrom Beialilev (Givatayim)

Translated by Tina Lunson

The shtetl Sokolov lay dozing among the wide fields of Podliask with its crammed- together little wooden houses, with its big “horse market” and the little market where, every Thursday, thousands of peasants from the surrounding villages and settlements came together with their horses and wagons, pigs, fowl, calves, grain and so on.

Then the tumult of the market would interrupt the idyllic quiet of the shtetl. Jews and Jewesses are busy in their shops and street stalls, bargaining with the peasants – one for a few pounds of salt and fuel, one for white bread, one for herring or other things. Jews move about among the thick jumble of horses and wagons and consider a cow, a calf or a sack of grain on a wagon. Used-clothing women stand with their scraped-together hangers and tables and sell their worked-over goods.

It often happens that drunken peasants try to make merry and overturn a cart of Jewish merchandise, and a judgment is quickly made by paupers, wagon-driver, porters and others at the market. Khaym the “water-head”, Yankele-Mayer “Kret” and others excelled at this. Peace between the sides was most often made in the neighboring tavern.

A Russian overseer rules the town, and he meets with the Jews only when a special blessing for the tsar is due to be recited in the shul. He has no other ties with the Jews. At the time there were no [political] parties, no rebellions or revolutionaries. So the years went by and generations were born and generations went by the way. Jews in the study-house in the winter sit around a warm stove and

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tell one another stories about Napoleon, about the Russian-Turkish War, and most of all, stories and wonders of the Good Jews.

All day the study-house is filled with the melodious voices of young yeshive students and ordinary Jews sitting studying a page of Talmud or of commentaries.

On Friday evening the whole town welcomes in the sabbath at the shul, which is divided into prayer groups in the vestibule, psalm recitors on both sides of the building, and also in the tailors' room. Next door is the study-hall, full of Jews. From every street the strains of lekha doydi waft out: the Ger shtibl, the Aleksander shtibl, Skernivits, Kotsk and others. A queenly welcome to the holy shabes spreads from one corner of the shtetl to the others.

Famous rabbis had occupied the rabbinic seat in Sokolov, but for a long time that seat had not been a paid position because of the great disputes that had been carried on by various influential people. There was even a case when a rabbi was forcibly driven out of town.

An exception was the Rov Rabbi Itsik Zelig Morgenshtern of blessed memory who occupied the rabbinic seat for about 40 years (until after World War I). Besides being the town rabbi he was also Rebi of a group of Hasidim who were his devotees after the death of his father, the Pilever Rov of blessed memory. The Sokolov Rebi was also elected to a rabbinic delegation that traveled to Petersburg; he also founded and directed a yeshive in Sokolov and was active as a delegate to Agudas Yisroel convocations and conferences.

The administration of the Jewish community was then in the hands of the local mayor, who worked with the rabbi and the shul wardens to put together a budget for the religious necessities and placed taxes on the town proprietors accordingly. The general population got no report about what was done in the community administration nor were they interested.

As in many other Jewish communities, Sokolov also found a Jew who was a very generous donor: Shimeon Grudker of blessed memory, who with his own money built a poor-house on Shul Street of which half was designated for poor and indigent crazy people to spend the night and maintain themselves, and the other half served as a Talmud Torah.

A second Jew, Meyshe Malke's or Meyshe Barikhovski, built the new study-house using almost entirely his own means. From

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time to time other families also financially sponsored the writing of a new Torah scroll for the shul or study house, the completion of which was cause for a great celebration, with music, dancing and a feast for a large crowd.

Among the most popular people in town were the “bathers” – Jews who maintained the Jewish community's bod [bath house] and mikve [ritual bath] in good order. What Jew has not gone to the mikve or the bod? Naturally this was a task for the shul wardens to maintain the mikve in a proper condition. When a serious renovation was demanded, the whole town was drawn into the matter.

 

sok111.jpg
Khevre kadishe

 

The khevre kadishe [burial society] was a separate world with its own particular autonomy, headed by a manager elected by his peers. Their orders were sacred. Meyshe Leyzerke's or Meyshe Moshezon of blessed memory, the ladies' tailor who sewed trousseaus for the Sokolov brides, was manager in the Tailors' prayer room. (He also directed the trustees of the khevre kadishe for a long time. ) These activists were prepared for every call, even in the middle of the night, in the terrible cold, in a snowstorm, to attend to their obligations. Excelling in their devotion were: Mayer Rayzman (they used to call him Mayer Kret), Shmaye Tame, Avremele Reyder, Yudl Blakher and others.

Also active in Sokolov was a cooperative lending and savings

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treasury that was operated by its board of directors: Hersh Toybye Ber, Yehoshua Linde, Meyshe Moshezon and others. The bookkeeper was Dovid Ayzik Ber's. And it must be remarked that a group of young people established a khevre lines-hatsedik [temporary housing for the poor] in which the two Jewish medics were involved. Yankev Flinder and Yankev Bikhovski (the latter was later the only Jewish volunteer fireman in the local Polish fire brigade).

At that time in Sokolov there were not yet any secular-school graduates among the Jewish population. The only young man who studied in a gimnazie was one of Yankev Flinder's sons, Yosele Flinder. When he would come home for a holiday in his light-colored overcoat with the silver buttons he drew everyone's attention along with the envy of the Sokolov youth.

Despite the prohibitions from the tsarist authorities, there was a Zionist youth group active in Sokolov, that conducted secret money collections for keren-kayemet l'yisroel [Jewish National Fund] and other undertakings. Zionist meetings took place conspiratorially, in private residences. Young Zionists stood outside the house to watch whether the town police were watching the house too. A Bundist group was active at the same time, whose work was also conducted in secret.

The Jewish population of Sokolov was about 60% artisans: shoemakers (some 100 families), fur coat makers, tailors and so on. The remaining 40% of the population were small merchants, village vendors, teachers and plain paupers.

Even though there had been deep-rooted antisemitism among the Polish population for generations, the relations between the Jews and Poles were close. Early on Sunday morning the village vendors set off with their packs on their shoulders for the surrounding villages, and during the whole week conducted their business with the peasants, spending nights on the fresh hay in the barns or in winter, on the warm clay ovens in the peasant homes. For shabes they returned home to wife and children and brought things with them – perhaps eggs, cheese, potatoes and other vegetables, as well as a little money for a livelihood.

The year 1905 brought to Sokolov too the wave of revolution against the tsar of Russia that had spread throughout the land. Jewish revolutionaries appeared on the Jewish Street, who went around dressed in black blouses and red cravats. One evening, when a demonstration of several thousand people marched through the streets of Sokolov,

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workers from the nearby sugar factory in Pshezdiatke (with participation by Kipietine and Rogov day laborers) were joined by Jewish revolutionaries, some of whom were also flag-bearers. Of those it is worth mentioning Dovid Fridman, Yekhielke Rozenboym (one of Yisroel Itsl the Pauper's sons), Dovid Tenengoym, Kalman Yekhiel Fridman, Sholem and others.

Stormy times swept into the shtetl. Troops of Russian soldiers appeared , and soon we heard reports of a bombing, an assassination attempt on the military commandant in Shedlets; and soon after that, a pogrom against the Jews in Shedlets organized by the tsarist military. Some 50 victims fell. Fear of death gripped the population and many people fled to the villages to known peasants, to wait out the days of unrest. Meanwhile Jewish revolutionaries carried out an assassination attempt on the Sokolov overseer, Kutov.

A few years later (1910) on the morning on erev shavuos, a huge fire broke out in town. A strong wind spread the fire from one end of town to the other, and within a few hours almost the entire town was in flames. A huge number of the burned-out surged through all the streets and lanes, carrying what few belongings they had saved into the Christian quarters, where they placed them temporarily with known peasants, in their homes, in graneries or out in the fields. The quick response of the nearby towns must be noted: from Shedlets, Vengrov, Kosav, Sterdin and other places wagons soon appeared laden with khales, sugar, flour and other food products.

The shtetl began to gradually build itself back, but the shadow of the difficult time, the rent that had been created between the Jewish population and the Polish one during the elections to the Russian Duma when the Jewish population had voted for the folks-deputies of the Polish Democratic Parties and not for the “Endetsye” or noble deputies, had inspired fear and torment for the Jews in Sokolov.

Polish cooperative shops opened one after another, in town and in the villages. The Endek newspaper “Dwa grosze” wrote antisemitic poison, daily calling for the Poles not to buy from Jews. The slogan “only from our own” was spread deep and wide among the Polish masses, and Jewish trade became more threatened every day.

Tishe b'ov 1914 a heavy cloud fell upon the town with the news of the outbreak of World War One. Bad news arrived from

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towns and villages. The tsarist army marked its path with Jewish hangings and blood. Hordes of homeless began to arrive. They were taken in by the aid committee that had been hastily put together, headed by Rakatsh, Binyumin Elenberg, Pinkhas Shternitski, and others. The tred of the Russian troops drew near to Sokolov too and left the town with shooting and looting and so killed 9 Jewish victims. The town was occupied by [Kaiser] Wilhelm's Germans.

The Germans were busy bringing sanitation and order to the town. The Shafran family received the concession for an electric power station and Sokolov got electric lights for the first time. And in city hall – a Jewish councilman, Hershl Grinberg.

Due to the various limitations and requisitions of the military, life got a little harder but the Jews in Sokolov took it as advice. The wheel goes around: whoever had been rich became gradually poorer, and new princes arose. And there were Jewish lads working with the militia.

Social and cultural life ended completely during the German occupation. The old-fashioned way of dressing disappeared. Libraries were built, and unions and parties established. From time to time traveling theater troupes came to town.

The German occupation authority also brought order into the neglected Jewish community, establishing a community statute with provisions for general proportional and secret voting for the council. Wardens were elected: Meyshe Barikhvski, Meyshe Lustigman, Yeshayahu Shafran, Yehoshe Landan and others. The community administration took on an European and democratic character.

The war ended and Poland was autonomous again. The Jews breathed easier with the hope that the new Poland would be democratic… Jews watched the elections of delegates to the sejm (parliament) with great interest. Thanks to the unity with the other national minorities in Poland – Germans, Ukrainians, White Russians and others – the Jews too received considerable number of delegates.

After a short while of Poland's independence Polish antisemitism reappeared, more harsh and brutal than before. The antisemitic press incited at every step and turn. Jews were attacked on the streets and on trains. The Jewish community had to widen its competence in the area of politics too. All the parties began intensive political activity – from the extreme right to the extreme left. The elections to the

[Page 115]

Jewish council were conducted under the signs of the political programs of the parties. Each party fought to win more representative on the Jewish council.

It is worthwhile to mention the names of the council representatives who lived and worked in the various terms of office before the Holocaust: Meyshe Lustigman (“Agude”); Khaym Zilberman, Mendl Lashinski, Motl Shlafmits and Binyumin Rubenshteyn (Zionists); Alter Khaym Kapov, Pinkhas Zernitski, Kshidlover, Shvartsbart, Zindl Lerman and Shakhne Radzinski (“ha'mizrakhi”); Braverman (“Bund”); Avrom Tsitsinski and Avrom Vaynberg (artisan); Dovid Liberman (Left Poale Tsion); Yitskhak Zarembski (Poale Tsion Right).

The rabbinate consisted of: Rov Yitskhak Zelig Morgenshteyn of blessed memory (also the Sokolov Rebi, to whose table came thousands of hasidim from Poland); and the judge Mordkhe Halbershtat of blessed memory, a modest and humble scholar and expert, the principal of the KhaBaD hasidim.

Hitler's poison began to seep into Poland too. The boycott movement against Jews took on ever sharper forms. It came to a situation in 1938 that the Polish antisemites placed pickets by the Jewish shops to prevent Polish customers from going into Jewish stores. On one market day when the town was full of peasants from the entire region a pogrom was carried out. Every Jewish passer-by in the street was beaten; window panes and glass display cases were broken out; Jewish stalls were overturned, and this went on for so long that members of the Jewish administration ran through the back streets to the town administrator to beg for help and protection. An alarm was also sent to the Jewish sejm deputies' club in Warsaw, who then sent out a deputy to investigate and intervene.

These were the first waves of the inundation that hung over Polish Jewry until September 1939 when Hitler's army invaded the town and began their death and destruction.

[Page 116]

sok116.jpg
“Beys-yankev”[1] group in Sokolov


Translator's Footnote

  1. “Beys-yankev” is an orthodox Jewish girls' school system, operated by Agudas Yisroel, offering a formal education to those who had not had such access before.

 

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