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[Col. 493]

Once upon a time

L.Shimoni, Haifa

Once upon a time, there was a city called Suwalk. Like other cities in Luthania; lively, vibrant – a city of Poles, Russians, Letts, Germans and a few tens of thousands of Jews, all mitnagdim, with heads of iron and brains of iron: “other times, other strengths”.

It was a beautiful city, lying between two hills: the Augustow hill and the Kalverie hill, surrounded by thick forests, girdled by a nice Jewish river – the “black Hanah”, and a few kilometres to the east, the famous Vigrer ossuary with its medieval cloister where there were mummies and embalmed monks.

 

The main street, Koskiuszko, once the main highway

 

At the present, Suwalk is criss-crossed by fine streets branching out from the grand Peterburg Street, two kilometres long, with horse chestnut trees, cranberry business and willows, growing along both sides. In the heart of the city, there is a grand park, and a few steps away, Shulgas [Synagogue Street] with the old hundred-year-old buildings of the synagogue, the Bet Midrash and the famous tailors', cobblers”, butchers' and bricklayers' kloyzn, where there was more discussion and politicking than praying. This was a firm mitnagdic centre with only one Hassidic shtibl, where children would follow wonderingly behind a Jew with side locks and a Hassidic hat.

Magistrate - - a large plaza with a Greek Orthodox church and the buildings of the gymnasia – where

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Czar Nicholas's six regiments would parade every holiday, playing music and singing: “Bozhe Tsarya Khrani”,[1] and the workmen - - “Bozhe Tsarya Kharani “ “and bury him”.[2]

The two crooked streets of the town had a thousand charms. The “Dolek” which was thickly populated by Jewish artisans and merchants, and the Vigde Street; with butchers, woodchoppers and Polish workers.

 

Suwalk City Park

 

The plaza where music was played.

Besides the park, with the wide sidewalk where, on the Sabbath, Jews promenaded and Christians on Sundays, my Suwalk also had a grand “Arcadia”, a garden with greenhouses, booths and a wonderful orchard keeper[3]. A lake with little islands and row-boats; - the Augustow forest around the city which, in the springtime, would intoxicate everybody in the area with its paradisiac fragrance.

Jews and gentiles lived together in peace – visited one another, borrowed money from each other, attended each other's weddings and funerals, knew each other's names, joys and woes. A city, which until recent years did not have pogroms, or any other racial riots. A dear city!

Suwalk had a weakness for nicknames, which families carried as though they were heraldic crests. For example: Piorunes? [----], Soltistn (head of village, big shot), Boltrikes (?), Kroytniakes [cabbage?]; “the teachers”, the “hunchbacks”, and so on.

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These nicknames were mixed up and linked up to the most obscure limbs, like climbing plants. It was forbidden to call someone by his nickname to his face, or enmities would arise, which would last for years, and from generation to generation. However, nicknames were used behind peoples' backs. It was simpler and heartier…

There were whole dynasties of artisans deeply rooted in the town for generations. Among them, the locksmiths and mechanics were well known. The “Tsvillings” and the “Daykhs”, to which this writer has the honour of belonging. These were two families tied together by marriage and neighbourhood, well-to-do and poor, who built their world with hammers and pipes, and sent their descendants to all the continents in the world. They had a large representation even in Erets Yisrael.

Suwalk had wonderful Jews, mostly simple, kind, ordinary people whose names have not gone down in history.

Now, after the destruction of Suwalk, let us recall some of these types, so that they may be remembered for a long time.

 

The “Nikolaevski” soldiers

Streletski, a man like an oak tree. His chest covered with medals who spoke Russian like a born-Russian; father of unmarried sons and daughters; wealthy, patriotic, ready to split anyone's head if anything against the Romanvos was said.

looked like a nobleman, was as grey as a dove and, was by nature, as good as a saint. In 1909, in his house, was founded the first Jewish gymnasium in Lithuania (Shvartsman's). He died at age 100.

Gavriel Slup. Very poor; as tall as a pine tree, with a beard like the fragrant hemp, in which citrons are packed. He made clocks with wooden works and invented a wonderful snuff that no chemist in the world could duplicate. He used to carry this snuff around from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur, to revive people who had fainted from fasting. He would hand out the snuff dressed in his white robes, with his head covered by his prayer shawl. Rabbi Tevele Katsenelenboygn used to

Gavriel Slup spoke Yiddish with difficulty and Hebrew, not at all. He knew that one should stand at

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attention like a soldier during the Kedusha prayer and that, when the Torah was taken out of the ark, it should be saluted and instead of :”amen”, one responded with: “Khorosho” “Tshudno” and “Prilitshno”. That when called to the Torah, one stood up straight. He never parted from his medals, or from his big gnarled stick. He loved royalty, like a mother loves her only son. He died like a saint during the Ne'ilah Prayer [closing prayer] on Yom Kippur, in the synagogue after he had distributed his snuff, as usual, straightened out his robe, wrapped himself in his prayer shawl, and when the last shofar blast was blown, he thundered forth “Kotsheno” [learn or study?] – and so ended his 102 years of life – near the open ark in the big Suwalk synagogue.

We had almost a quorum of such “Nikolaevski” soldiers.[4] Now further:

Motye Bok ---. A soldier of the Russo-Japanese war – by trade, a tailor. A professional bachelor with three “George” medals on his chest. Lived on his pension and from patching up clothes [?]. He was a great patriot, wore his soldiers cap with the red badge[5] and used to dye his grey moustache with the intention of possibly marrying someday. His pension amounted to one rubble and 15 kopeks a week, which was distributed in Saini, not in Suwalk, so he would walk there on the twentieth of each month, covering about 80 kilometres on foot. On the Czar's birthday, the cantor and choir were forced to sing the Russian hymn: “Bozshe Tsariya Khrani” before all of the school children and their teachers. On these occasions, Motye Bok would put on his new clothes and his medals and stand at attention together with Gavriel Slup in the same line as the policemen.

I remember how he left Suwalk.

Motye Bok ate only black bread with creamed curds. He ate it with appetite – with relish, “musically” and would sometimes fall asleep in the middle of his meal, then wake up and continue eating. Once, a bunch of practical jokesters in my father's workshop, nailed down his loaf of bread to the table while he was asleep, then woke him up. Motye grabbed the bread then almost fell down in fear. The bread did not move. It was fastened to the table. When he discovered the reason for this, he made this farewell speech to Suwalk:

“Even 'Fonye's' russkies did not treat bread like this at Port Arthur”. Motye tore the bread from the table with trembling hands; broke it into his bowl of creamed curds, ate it up, put on his

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soldier's cap, gathered up the crumbs, kneaded them together, ate them up; pinned on his medals and left – disappearing forever. No trace of him was ever found?

Rebbe Fishl, the “Frenchman”. A man in his eighties. He was a wheat merchant. One of Napoleon's dearest friends that he had ever had in the world. His knowledge of French served the entire city. Rebbe Fishl had been in France in 1871 – until the end of the Paris Commune or rather the French Revolution. He never tired of telling about those glorious bloody days on the streets of Paris. About the Parisian commune and of his personal acquaintances who were part of it. And, one never tired of hearing his stories of the roasted mice which he had eaten to keep body and soul together…Delicate people knew at what point he would begin to tell about the mice and they would make a getaway. But we youngsters would listen to these stories eagerly, and in return, Fishl would give us candies and would let us use his bath houses on the “Black Hannah” for free.

Beynish the “philosopher”. A rich lumber merchant who used to eat candy and read the “Kuzari” during prayers with such devotion that he would burst into song. That is why he was called “the philosopher”.

Moshe Punsker, the feldsher.He had a nasal voice, did not move without his bag which contained his equipment, such as cups [for cupping], a jar of leeches, thermometers, an enema, boards, castor oil, Valerian, bandages. He was the best-loved man in town and according to the doctors; he knew more about medicine that modern doctors with university degrees. I remember well how he helped us in every instance of sickness, not only with medicine, but with wonderful stories which helped us swallow the last drops of the bitterest medicines, and endure the heat of the cups. We do not have such hearty practitioners of folk-medicine any more.

Yehudah the bookbinder. A renowned trench man, who, between books would snatch a game of cards and eat up an entire goose, including the feet, washed down with 5-6 quarts of beer; go to say his afternoon prayers and come home hungry as a horse.

Moshe “Little Fiddle”. In his sixties, a dwarf as small as a six year old. He made his living as a letter writer for [illiterate] maid servants, writing documents at the magistrates and entertaining at celebrations where he would do tricks, such as,

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writing with a pen held between his toes, and would eat colossal quantities of food. He used to explain his appetite this way: In the other world, people would be assembled from parts; organ-by-organ, and there were giant storehouses of hands, feet, heads, bowels, hearts, kidneys, intestines, stomachs, etc. He was put together very small and he was sent to get a stomach. When he went into the stomach storehouse, he saw, hanging from the wall, thousands of stomachs of all sizes. Since he was so small, the only stomach he could reach was the longest one there as he could not reach up to the smallest.

We also had R'Ayzik, the gravedigger, who lived at the cemetery on the other side of the river.

Although only he was the gravedigger, the entire family was called “the gravediggers”, including the grandchildren and in-laws. He was a dear person, with a beautiful white beard; good natured and kind. His house was on the cemetery grounds on the other side of the Taharah-shtibl [where bodies would be cleansed and shrouded in preparation for burial, according to Jewish law]. His door was always open and anybody would be welcome to his household goods, the dresser, the large clock with the wooden works made by Gavriel Slup, the sleeping bench, the cupboard where, behind the glass doors, stood his Passover beakers and his old spice-box, and the pictures of his American relatives on the walls – real “lords”. Two of his sons left “without a fare-thee-well”[6] One was a Bundist; the other a Communist. Nevertheless, they were also nicknamed “the gravediggers” even though they were both tailors – good hearted souls, the two of them.

Since we're talking about the gravedigger, we must also mention one famous member of the Hevra Kadisha, David Punsker. He would take special charge of dead children and put the tiny bodies in the giant pockets of his burnoose, which he wore summer and winter. He was a giant of a man, and when we would meet him on the street, we would step aside – frightened.

We should also mention Sarah the granny. The famous midwife who delivered thousands of children, not with instruments, but with her knobby hands and with the most beautiful folk-tales. When she died, her body was accompanied to the grave by her thousands of “children”, all carrying candles in their hands.

Now we come to R'Moshe the watchmaker. He knew by heart all of the chronicles of the Polish “povstanie”, with all of its heroes and deeds. He would talk and tell stories day and night, until he lost touch

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with the boundaries between fact and fantasy. Once, during the war, a bomb fell not far from his “business”. He was sitting bent over a clock with his magnifying lens on his eye. At the time the bomb fell, he was telling about the famous Jewish “Povstanets”, - Yonah the Fisherman, who used to smuggle arms from Prussia via the rivers and lakes. Because of the shock of the explosion, R'Moshe the watchmaker bit off the tip of his tongue and it fell into the saucer of benzine on his table. Moshe the watchmaker had a special “physiological” approach to clocks. For example, if a solider bought a pocket watch of the “onion” variety and would come the next day and complain “What happened? My watch has stopped”. Moshe would look at him calmly and ask: “Tell me the truth. Didn't you hold it out in the cold?” The Greek[7] would scratch his head and answer: “Tak totshno - - I did”. “So you stupid ox, the watch caught cold!”.

* * *

Christians were mixed and mingled in Jewish life. I must mention one of them named Adam. He was a patcher[8] and worked for the Khanavitshes – the military tailors, who had a widely branched family in Petersburg. Adam spoke Yiddish well, said the blessing over bread, could chant the Kiddush [over wine] and would say the prayer over the tsitsit[9] with the children. When he had a disagreement with Jews, he would avoid the judiciary, but bring his case to the rabbi. “How the rabbi will judge, so is good”.[10]

The Strazshniks (Police) used to come for schnapps and honey cake every Sabbath. I remember how the policeman who used to patrol near our house (near the post office) used to let me polish his gun and teach me the “Torah” of the revolver, and when he would take a nap in our store, we would stand guard [to wake him] if we saw his superior officer approaching.

The mistress of the vice-governor, Madame Tatartshikova, lived on the top storey of our house. She was so close to Jews that through her, we were able to settle all kinds of Jewish affairs in the governor's council and also to get to the “Voyinske Natshalnik”.[11] and redeem Jewish children from the draft with “Katerinkes” (hundred rubble coins).

All the Germans lived in our neighbourhood. Their church was opposite our house and Pastor Ridl was my German teacher. One Sunday, while hunting pigeons, I and another

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brat, threw a rock into a window of the church. The rock fell on the Pastor's prayer book. Can you imagine that 52 years ago, we were able to settle the matter without a pogrom, but only with a simple: “Please forgive us, Herr Pastor”.

Of my melamdim and teachers, I must mention my Rebe named Lerner. A scholarly Jew with an iron head, who knew all of Bialik's poems by heart. He taught Bible, Hebrew literature, arithmetic, grammar, even “nature studies”. In the afternoon, we had a special teacher – a Christian – for Russian and German.

There was another melamed named Burde. He knew Hebrew grammar very well. He would forget to come to prayers. He had an assistant named Reuven, who was exiled in the “fifth year” [1905?] to Siberia. He used to take us children to the Arcadia to swim and taught us to cry out: “Doloy” and only the tune of the Marseillaise, because he did not know the words.

There was a “Heder-me-tukan”[12], where Hebrew was taught in the Hebrew language, and a Jewish gymnasium which did not last long.

There were two trade schools for Jews. The language of instruction was Russian and the teachers, Mariampolski and Robinzon wore hats with cockades and were considered government officials. I attended such a school, which I loved, especially because of my teacher who had studied a great deal of Russian literature and would recite whole chunks of the classics by heart. We used to sing accompanied by a violin and, in 1910, they began the teaching of Yiddish language and writing, two hours a day.

The Ledvinavski's were the maskilim[13] of town; one a bookkeeper – the other a teacher, also my teacher. His house was the home of every rebel. He taught us mathematics, French, Polish and German. Before that war[14], we studied Lithuanian with the Lithuanian teacher, Kubulius, who knew Yiddish better than many present-day Jewish communal leaders.

The Ledvinavski [Ledvinovski] home was a meeting place for “Reds”, gymnasia students, externs[15] and students on leave. There the plans were made for the future liberated world.

Suwalk had a street called “Moshe the Carpenter's street” where the working class concentrated. On one side of the street was the “Mali-Ratsek”, whole quarter of the greatest poverty, the professional beggars, coachmen, poorest artisans and tramps. Not far away were the large leather factories. All of these would spread a bad smell for miles around, but the Jews would argue – “A smell that gives bread is sweet”.

As in a dream, I remember bits and pieces of the fifth year [1905?] when my father had to leave for America and my uncles would hide in our big antique clothes closet. Demonstrations, torchlights, shooting, killings by police and Cossacks, red flags, the Marseillaise, expropriations, riots by the military and the word: “Siberia” filled masses of Jewish homes.

The government rabbi, Zeligman, lived in our house. He was a very well educated, worldly man whom everyone liked and treated with respect. His son, Yosef Khatskel, then a student, (later director of the Riga Bank, of a gymnasium, and editor of “Golos Bielostoko”) was a fiery revolutionary. A sentence from one of his speeches in that year is still in my memory. He thundered forth:

“See how the barbarian Chinese knew how to revolt against the accursed old regime while you, cultured Russians, have not been able to achieve it up to now”.

Such words cut like knives, incited the passions and led to demonstrations and barricades.

Since it was a border town, Suwalk had a large military presence. The well-dressed officers and their ladies, the officials and the large number of government appointees, gave it a certain presence.[16] They knew little of Jews. In addition, the large lumber business, the nearby border, smuggling of contraband, the leather industry and the fisheries, altogether, brought wealth into the town, which grew, was beautified, built up and spread out in length and width.

Various banks sprang up. Private banks of the Shaynmans and the Glikshteyns – the Riga Bank, a Polish commercial bank, a Polish gymnasia was built (the Commerce School), which began to breed the disease of anti-Semitism in the neighbourhood, but which did not infect the general population until the Polish occupation of 1919-1920.

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Until 1918, the cultural centre of town was the library – a room in the community council, where the youth would congregate to borrow Yiddish and Hebrew books, and where the intellectual boys and girls would become acquainted with each other. There was another kind of cultural centre - the newspaper sellers – not far from the church on the Peterburg Street, where people would wait impatiently for the train bearing the “Haynt”, “Moment”, “Birzshevie Viedomosti”, “Retsh”, “Berliner Tageblatt”, and the “Fosishe”.

People used to subscribe to these newspapers in partnership, read them thoroughly and look for hidden meanings even in the advertisements. There were commentators on the political news, like Rabbi Itshe, a fiery German patriot, whose foot had never stepped on German soil even though it was almost next door. His opponent was Khanavits, the military tailor who had the most beautiful daughters in the province, whom he had married off to young men from Peterburg, Jewish “Russkies”, like oak trees who besides “Shema Yisrael”, did not know anything of Jewishness.

When the debate would heat up between these two darling Jews, the crowd would gather around them and each side had its supporters. My father, peace upon him, was on the Russian side and my grandfather, may he have a shining Paradise, was on the German side, and I was neutral, but -----------------

 


Translator's Footnotes

  1. God protect our Czar Return
  2. Obviously there is some special derogatory meaning in the changed pronunciation of the last word, but I don't know Russian or Polish. The first two words mean God & Czar Return
  3. That is what the word seder ---- means, but it does not make too much sense, even though the “Arcadia” is probably a conservatory Return
  4. These were the “cantonists” taken into service as young boys, who began their service at age 18, and served the Czar for 25 years. Many of them died – some were converted to Christianity and only the fit survived Return
  5. Was unable to find word “okolishok in Yiddish or Polish Return
  6. The text reads: “on-a-zayt” which I take to mean: “on-a-zayt-mir gezunt”, which I translated as: “without-a-fare-thee-well”, but the description does not seem to fit. Return
  7. Derogatory word for solider Return
  8. Patched clothing? Return
  9. Ritual fringes Return
  10. Attempt to follow text where word Paskenen, which means make judicial decision, is given as Pashn – Adam's mis-pronunciation Return
  11. I could not find the translation of this Return
  12. A modern Hebrew school Return
  13. Enlightened Jews Return
  14. World War I? Return
  15. Students working for diplomas via examinations Return
  16. Lliterally, patronized taste? Return


[Col. 503]

Melamdim (Teachers)

Moshe Shelomi-Fridman

The experiences of a Jewish household in Poland are those of a world which has been destroyed. But, in my memory, the faces of those who were annihilated and the images of my destroyed home town live again, exalted in love and gentleness.

Here, before my eyes, is the kheyder (primary school) of Gotlib. He was a dardekey melamed (teacher of alef-beys) and we children were deathly afraid of him. He had a thin rod which fell upon our childish hands quite often. Nevertheless, he was a “Jewish bandit”. When a little boy would cry from pain, he would embrace him, hold him close, caress him and calm him with a smile.

Lerner, the melamed (teacher) was his opposite. He taught khumesh (Pentateuch). He was a thin, dark, frail man. He never smiled, but he was gentle and refined. My greatest punishment was a sorrowful glance from his dark eyes. I would feel than as if I were cutting short his span of life. But, this did not stop us smart alecks. We would attack the teacher's goat at every recess and so exhaust and frighten her that she would stop giving milk for hours – and our poor teacher needed it badly.

Lerner lived on Shul-gasse (Synagogue Street). In the same house, there also lived Robinson who would come to the kheyder three times a week to teach us Russian. We hated it, not because of the language, but because of …the dark. On those days when we stayed longer, it was already dark when we left for home. Of course, we each had a lantern with a candle, but what did you do when someone threw a snowball into your lantern and broke it?

Berman had a modern kheyder. He was in the same house where Rubbi Lurie z”l (may his memory be a blessing) had taught Hebrew in Hebrew, Hebrew literature, grammar and Bible. Berman was a blond man with a hot temper and he was always angry. He loved the Bible and his teaching was full of sweetness. Rabbi Berman used to invite us over on Saturday afternoons and have one of us read aloud from children's journals such as Bikurim and Iton Katan. He used to leave the room so that we would fee free, and he would come back only if there was a danger of a fight breaking out.

This teacher was already somewhat influenced by the spirit of modern pedagogy.

 

A kindergarten in Suwalki – at the end of the thirties

 

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Sketches and Episodes

Yehoshua Bakhrakh (Petah Tikvah)

R. Binyamin Magentsa, of blessed memory

He was a small, energetic person, always running around doing good deeds. I remember him from my kheyder days when he used to run in, smile at us and not test us. But he would call the teacher over to a corner and slip him a few gildn [each coin = 15 kopeks] for the Sabbath. He would then run around to all the other teachers who needed financial aid.

R'Binyamin was very concerned about getting strangers home hospitality for the Sabbath. On a Friday afternoon, one could find him all the way on Turme Street leading a guest to somebody's house who had not been at prayers in the big Bet Hamidrash.

Once, a poor woman came to him with a question on kashrut. The hen which she had was treyf. He quietly told his daughter Brayndl to “lend” the woman some of the meat she had prepared for the Sabbath: “Perhaps she has a sick child at home”, he said.

Our dear Moyshele Rozntal, who had been close to him for some time in the work of the aid committee during the war, told me an interesting story about him:

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There was a litigation among three Jews from Psherosle and the entire sum involved was put into escrow with R'Binyamin. One day, one of the litigants slipped into his house and told him, with great sincerity: “Rabbi, we settled the whole matter among ourselves and have cancelled the litigation”.

“Akh, akh”, R'Binyamin rejoiced: “Blessed be God that there is peace among Jews” and with great enthusiasm ran to the bookcase where the money was held and gave the entire sum to the man.

On the following day, the rabbi of Psherosle came to him in bewilderment. The town was in an uproar. How could R'Binyamin have allowed himself to be fooled? How does one give money from escrow to one of the litigants?

R'Binyamin grabbed his head in his hands and began running all over the house, crying to himself: “Lord of the World, has it come to this that one cannot trust the word of a Jew?”

His death made a great impression on Suwalk Jews. The ohel [very large tombstone] was built near that of R'Moshe Batsalel. Many people with heavy hearts shed many tears as they pleaded for the intercession of the saintly man.

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R'Ahron Baksht, of blessed memory

Before my time, there were two rabbis who 'ruled' in Suwalk: R'Ahron Baksht, of blessed memory and after him, R'Yosef Yoselevitsh, of blessed memory.

R'Ahron Baksht came from Lithuania. He was a true Litvak, a great scholar but as full of enthusiasm as a Hasid. He was a student of the famous Musar Heshiva in Kelm. In the world of the yeshiva, he had a reputation as one of the great Musar personalities of the generation.

His influence was felt not only through his deeds but also through his Musar preaching. Here is one of his acts of Musar, which the women who sold herring in the market, told with awe: “One Friday when the rabbi was on his way to the Sabbath prayers, the herring sellers were still out in the market with their barrels. He did not reproach them but instead, he helped them to roll their herring barrels into their booths. Naturally, the following Friday, they closed shop earlier and made sure that their booths were locked up in plenty of time in order not to trouble the rabbi.

A porter told how on an ordinary cold Wednesday he wanted to slip into the big Bet Hamidrash to warm himself at the oven. The Bet Hamidrash was locked and there the rabbi, who was walking around all along, singing and studying so sweetly, so sadly…”Believe me” said the porter, “I stood near the door a long time, trembling as if I were in a holy place and I felt like crying, I don't know why…”

That was how R'Ahr'tshik Bakst, the Ba'al Musar[1] from Kelm, meditated all alone in the big Bet Hamidrash of Suwalk.

People had a great deal of respect for him. He once even went into the boyne [slaughter house?] and asked the young butchers to show him their tsitses [fringes].

 

R'Yosef Yoselevitsh, of blessed memory

After R'Ahron Baksht in Suwalk began to look for a new rabbi, there were many candidates. Rabbis came to visit, preached in the Bet Hamidrash, and no decisions were made. Old R'Ahron Valkin, the rabbi of Pinsk, pleased the scholars and also the general public. The women were especially taken with his wonderful High

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Holidays sermons

But since it had been decreed that no new rabbi could come to town without disagreement, even quiet and gentle Suwalk became embroiled in quarrel. A new “side” arose which also wanted an opinion on choosing a rabbi and it opposed the scholars. These were the circles of the hand-workers society. They chose as their candidate the rabbi from Zshetl, Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin.

The final decision was to vote. But since neither of the two candidates received an absolute majority, the town was, once more, without a rabbi. So a delegation of the respectable householders and scholars of the community went to Siemiatycze and proposed to the famous rabbi, R'Yosef Yoselevitsh, that he come to Suwalk to be the rabbi there.

After their return, the delegation presented their results of their proposal at an open meeting of the Community Council. They told how the rabbi of Siemiatycze had made a

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very good impression on them but that he had presented them with a condition that no rabbi before had ever attempted: He would not come to Suwalk to be interviewed. Rather, the contract had to be brought to him to Siemiatycze.

It seems that this condition pleased the people. It was bold and clever and, by the way, corrected them for bringing in so many candidates to be heard … and they, therefore, immediately decided to send him the contract.

The day he came to town was a holiday. And the new rabbi pleased everybody with his first sermon and indeed, with his general appearance.

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Rabbi Yoselevitsh was an acknowledged giant of scholarship and one of the leading rabbis of the Agudat Ha-Rabanim of Poland. He was also a familiar with worldly matters; very clever and a great public speaker. He was devoted to Torah education. I still remember his sermons on important occasions and his eulogy upon the death of R'Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, of blessed memory.

He was not able to eulogize the Hafets Hayim, may the memory of a righteous man be for a blessing, for he was himself sick. But his young son-in-law, R'David Lifshits, said the eulogy. He was much loved in Suwalk and helped his father-in-law a great deal during the latter's last years.

 


Translator's Footnote

  1. The Musar movement of the 19th century stressed ethical behaviour and constant self-examination as to one's ethical behaviour. Return


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Rabbi R'Mordekhay Tsevi Ha-Levi Vaysman

A. Suwalker

R'Mordekhay Vaysman was a rare type of scholarly middle-class world and of the previous generation. As he himself mentioned in his will, he was born in Suwalk on the first day of Kislev 605(1845) to his father, Rabbi R'Yosef Zelik Ha-Levi. His grandfather R'Leyb Hana'les was known all over for his honesty, very guarded in speech and never spoke in excess. In their old age, his parents immigrated to America. His father was rabbi of the Eldret Synagogue [Eldridge Street?] for some time and was known for his scholarship and good deeds which he did for the newly arrived immigrants from overseas.

From his earliest youth, R'Mordekhay Tsevi became known for his rare abilities and great diligence in study, and the then rabbi of Suwalk, Rabbi R'Shemuel Mohiliver [Samuel Mohilewer, 1824-1898, one of the founders of Religious Zionism] encouraged him. At seventeen, he was married to the daughter of the famous R'Yehoshua Ha-Kohen Blumental who was then rabbi in Lazdey. Afterwards, he lived in Mariampol for a short time and then returned to Suwalk. There was a famine at the time and he had a hard time

[Col. 510]

making a living. Therefore, in 1869, he left for Radom where R'Shemuel Mohilever was the town rabbi, for he had been at home in his house in Suwalk in the past. R'Shemuel received him very warmly and recommended him as a tutor for two sons of wealthy men. This served as his income for several years. Later, through the advice and help of R'Shemuel Mohilever, he entered the world of commerce and became a middleman in arranging mortgages on large debts. Thanks to his good name, he was very trustworthy and earned a good living from this business.

Besides his involvement in the world of business, he devoted himself to study and became recognized as a great scholar, both clever and solid.[1]

His nickname in town was: “Der Muflag”. [Expert, distinguished one]. He corresponded with many rabbis and also published many of his own novella [innovative commentaries or explanations] and articles in the Torah journals: “Ha-Measef” (Jerusalem 667 [1907]; “Bet Midrash La-Hakhamim” (Warsaw 694 [1934]; “Shaare Torah” 681-686 [1921-1926]; and “Ha-Be'er”.

He also published a collection of his novella about Sabbath observance on shipboard together with his commentaries: “Divre Hakhamim” Warsaw 636 [1876] and

[Col. 511]

left [after his death] an unpublished manuscript with a lengthy composition on Halakhah and Agadah [two elements of the Talmud: law and legend].

R'Mordekhay Tsevi had rare good qualities; a sharp mind and a good heart and did much for Jewishness. He spent a short time in America (1909-1910) and he would sermonize in New York and other cities to strengthen Jewishness there.

When he was very old, after his wife's death, he came back to Suwalk to his only living son, the famous doctor and communal worker, L. Vaysman. He was in his late eighties but he was once more a beloved figure in town. The scholarly world and especially the young Torah people loved to engage him in discussion in Suwalk.

[Col. 512]

He was a frequent visitor to the home of R'Yosef Yoselevitsh and later to his son-in-law, Rabbi David Lifshits and would enjoy lively discussions with them on topics of the Torah. They respected him and often gave him the opportunity to preach on varied occasions.

When he became weak and could no longer walk around, he would send his novella to the rabbi in writing for his opinion. He was deeply involved in study until his very last days. On Hoshanah Rabbah, the rabbi came to visit him for the last time and brought him a scholarly tome for his consideration. At the end of Simhat Torah, 699 [1939] right after Havaalah, he died at the age of 94, may his soul be bound in the bonds of life.

 


Translator's Footnote

  1. Impossible to translate the two terms used: harif=sharp and baki=expert. It means someone who can do pilpul, hermeneutics but also has a solid knowledge Return


[Col. 511]

Suwalk Figures

Reuven Boyarski, Detroit

In the middle of World War I, I married a girl from Suwalk. I lived there for eight years and have many memories of that time.

Suwalk was rich with interesting personalities who put their stamp upon Jewish life. Some of them will be mentioned here.

The dayanim during my stay in Suwalk were R'Binyamin Magentsa and R'Moshe Altman. Rabbi Altman was a very wise man and expert in Torah law. He was very successful in setting quarrels. He mixed with people and was already something of a modern Orthodox Jew.

R'Binyamin Magentsa was completely different. He was completely unworldly. He was a great scholar, very diligent and would often sit and study all night long. He still had time, however to work for the only Talmud Torah in town, which he practically carried on his weak shoulders. He was always collecting funds for the Talmud Torah and other charitable institutions. He himself lived a meagre life. The whole world was for him only an entrance hall

[Col. 512]

to the World to Come. Later, when I was a cantor in England, I received a letter from him (this was a short time before he died) in which he asked for nothing for himself but only support for the Talmud Torah.

The supervisor in the Talmud Torah was Rabbi Bergshteyn, who died a few years ago in Erets Yisrael. The Government rabbi before my time was Rabbi Roznberg. What kind of a man he was I do not know until this day. He rarely mixed in community life and had many opponents. People said that he was a scholar and knew many languages and was especially familiar with Russian literature. Both the Government rabbi and the cantor were considered government employees and were paid by the magistrate.

The community was run by three overseers: Volf Bialostotski, Yosef Rabinovitsh and Frenkl. Bialostotski was a strict man and carried out his job with a strong hand but also with order.

[Col. 513]

The other two were more-or-less assistants. One should also mention the two town sextons: R'Yosef, the synagogue sexton, an intelligent man, enlightened, with a marvellous memory, a real cement-lined pit which does not lose a drop. [This refers to various categories of intelligence as described in Talmud]. He was also an outstanding sofer [writer of religious documents]. The second sexton was R'Moshe Ber Budvetski of the Bet Hamidrash Hagadol. He was a righteous and pure man. Whenever one came into the Bet Hamidrash

[Col. 514]

one found him sitting over a page of Gemara. He guarded his tongue from evil in the way of the Hafets Hayim [famed for his stringent rules against slander and gossip], and his mouth was sealed with seven seals.

This Suwalk, with such lovely Jews, together with thousands of Jewish settlements like it, was wiped out by the Nazi. May their names and memories be erased!


[Col. 513]

Bizarre happenings in Suwalk

Ben-Yisrael


R'Yitshak Ayzik Hever promises Salvation

In my time there was hardly anyone left who had known him personally but many stories were told about the great scholar and Kabbalist.

On the great plaque on the Suwalk Talmud Torah it was inscribed: Founded by the Gaon the Tsadik Rabbi Yitshak Ayzik Hever, of blessed memory. Old timers told that the Suwalk rabbi had promised that as long as the Talmud Torah continued its studies, the city would be protected, especially in time of war. During World War I, there was almost no halt to the studies here. Therefore, it was aid that the Jews were saved from extinction and those Jews who were mobilized, all came back alive. There were no battles around Suwalk during World War II and there were no air-raids. There were also no killings in the town itself. When the Nazi came into Suwalk, they immediately closed the Talmud Torah and then began the decrees against the Jews.

 

The Rabbi of the Fishermen's Kloyz – a Wonderworker

Many people would go to this rabbi for blessings and charms. Some called him: “The Ba'al Shem Rabbi” because there were many stories of the wonders that he did. In our family there was a young child who often had convulsions. The doctors had no remedy.

[Col. 514]

The mother went to the rabbi. He told her to take water from the pump in a small bottle, to keep silent all the way home and then to put the bottle under the child's head. He also gave a blessing: “Do not be afraid, the child will recover”. The child became normal as though nothing had happened.

A daughter of this rabbi lived in Suwalk until World War II. She was a poor widow and lived in a poor dwelling rented from R'Artsik the bricklayer. She was supported by the community. All of her children were abnormal. The “Sefer Hasidim” warned that one must not dabble in Kabbala because there is danger that one's children will convert or be crazy. The above-mentioned wonderworker knew of the danger, but his love for Jews made him overlook it.

[rewrite of the last sentence of the Rabbi of Fishermen's Kloyz… col 514: note: word Fishersher may mean something else, perhaps related to somebody named Fisher]: …The above-mentioned wonderworker certainly knew of the danger but it seems his love for Jews was greater and he risked the danger in order to intercede for Jews.

 

The blessing of R'Moshe Betsalel

R'Yosef Turetski was a well-to-do man who sold sewing machines, motorcycles and bicycles and owned a machine shop. He had been far removed from Judaism but later became a pious Jew. His charities were renowned. He also did many acts of charity in secret, known only to the wardens of the charities. He became pious after a young daughter of his died. When his

[Col. 515]

son Hayim became sick and the doctors gave him up, he went to Rabbi Moshe Betsalel and poured out his bitter tale of woe. R'Moshe Betsalel gave him his blessing and told him that his son would live. R'Yosef Turetski asked the rabbi if after such a life-threatening illness his son would remain an invalid for the rest of his life, R'Moshe Betsalel replied that he would be healthy and would grow like a tree. The blessing came true. Hayim and his family escaped the Nazi and are now in South Africa.

 

Punishment for defying excommunication

During World War I, the city had scarce food supplies. Some people profited by taking food out of the city. There was danger of a famine. The government enforced strong measures to prevent this. There was no city rabbi at that time so the religious court judges declared a decree of excommunication [for anyone who defied this order] as was done in those days, with a black wagon and black candles… Not everyone obeyed the prohibition. Those who did not heed it came to a tragic end. From that time on, people were very wary of decrees of excommunication and prohibition.

 

Demanding the Honour of the Dead

In 1920, the talk of the town was about the following incident. In the dwelling of a Jewish woman on Turme Street, there would be loud knocking on the windows in the middle of the night. At first, many theories were proposed to explain this but witnesses declared that the knocking began exactly half-way through the night and came from within the house. This went on for some time. It was said that the dayan, Rabbi Barukh Magentse, had come there with a quorum of Jews to pray. Finally, old R'Zalmele took on the task of getting rid of the noise and, it is said, did so with charms. The woman told that he had torn some grass from the grave of Rabbi Yitshak Ayzik Heber and used it as a charm to cure her sick grandchild. As it is written in some books, the souls [of the dead] find their rest in the grass surrounding a saintly man's grave. This story was long inscribed in the memories of Suwalk Jews.

Many years later after the establishment of the State of Israel, a Suwalk woman living in Israel planned to go to

[Col. 516]

the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohay in Miron to pray there for her sick child. She was told that olive oil taken from the olives growing in the area was used as a charm – the woman shivered from dread and told the story of the middle of the night knocking on the windows of a woman in Suwalk.

The olives in Miron were not from the grave itself but from the groves around but fear has no boundaries, it seems.

 

Punishment for disrespect for a Rabbi

An important overseer of the Community Council, a strong, middle-aged man, came home from a meeting – lay down to sleep and died in his sleep. The story shook the town up. People talked about the fact that at that particular meeting, where the matter of hiring a rabbi for Suwalk was discussed, and the overseer came out against hiring a certain well-known rabbi with the argument that he was too old. He announced emotionally: “We do not need any old rabbis here to create more graves in the cemetery!” The “old rabbi” lived another fifteen years in his town before he was killed by the Nazi.

 

The advice of R'Mordkhele Ashmener

The Suwalk provisions firm of Tshastkov used to supply flour and bread to the army. They used to get along, somehow, with the high officers in the town… Once, a general came to Suwalk from Peterburg to supervise more closely the provisioning of the army. He personally visited the bakery of the provisions firm and observed that it broke a number of regulations. The general immediately closed the firm and charged its owners in court. They were threatened with harsh punishment.

The company chef went to Bialystok to consult an important lawyer. The lawyer told him that nothing could be done because the accusation had been shown to be true. Tshastkov came back to his hotel in despair and started saying Psalms and wept. A khosid staying at the hotel persuaded Tshastkov to tell him the reason for him saying Psalms. When he heard the whole story he advised him to go immediately to the renowned wonderworker – R'Mordkhele Ashmener. When Tshastkov told the story to R'Mordkhele, he was asked: “Do you pray daily?” He started to stammer and excused himself: “Business, Rabbi, I'm busy…” R'Mordkhele answered him sternly: “That is no excuse” and refused to talk to him anymore. But after Tshastkov's pleading, R'Mordkhele softened and said: “One must be very careful in business. One handles other people's money [especially that] belonging to widows and dowries of orphans” and after thinking for a while, he added: “Find out the name of the general's mother and send it to me”.

At a meeting of the firm's directors, Tshastkov told about his conversation with R'Mordkhele. It was decided that since there nothing to lose anyway, Tshastkov alone would take the responsibility, go to the general and tell him that while he was in Peterburg, he had received regards from the general's family and would make believe that he was trying to remember the name of the general's mother. It really followed wonderfully and the general himself said: “Yes, her name is…” This was sent to R'Mordkhele

[Col. 518]

via telegraph and soon after, an order came from Peterburg that the general must return there. The general was never seen or heard from again and everything ended happily.

 

Salvation through the Hofets Hayim

R'Moshe Geltsinski was a fine, honest and charitable merchant. Once, a Polish secret agent invented a plot against him and he was in great danger of punishment. Geltsinski went to the Hafets Hayim to ask for advice. After the Hafets Hayim had conversed with him on various matters both pertaining to relationships between humans and relationships between humans and God, he told him that during the trial he should hold a small mezua and concentrate on what is written therein and that would confuse the secret agent. The secret agent began reading a long list of charges against Geltsinski and in the midst of reading, he got mixed up and began acting like a madman. Naturally, the charges were dropped and Suwalk Jews talked about this for a long time.

Translator's note: The preceding section, columns 513-518 deals with folklore, superstitions, belief in the efficacy of charms, etc., and probably requires a great deal more explication than is possible in simple translation. The one about grass from the cemetery, for example, I have never heard.


[Col. 517]

The Hidden Saint

Rabbi Abraham Magentsa

In 1849, there lived in Suwalk a Jew who was very rich but was also very miserly. He did not contribute even the smallest sum to the town. Nothing worked neither threats nor cajolery. He did not give charity and that was that!

When the heads of the town saw that they could get nothing out of him, they decided, along with the burial society; that since they could do nothing to him during his life-time, they would make a reckoning after his death and would bury him next to the fence so that all would hear and see.[1]

[Col. 518]

At the same time, there lived in Suwalk a poor cobbler who was barely able to support himself. In contrast to the wealthy miser, the cobbler was very charitable. His hand was always open to everyone … to poor orphans, widows and other needs. He would contribute more than the finest householders.

And so the years passed. The rich man did not want to give charity and the poor cobbler always gave generously. Until … One day the rich man died. Naturally the burial society kept its word and buried him near the fence. A few weeks went by. The town decided to build a new mikveh [ritualarium]. A few householders

[Col. 519]

went out into the town to collect funds for that purpose. And whom did they go to first? The cobbler.

They came to the cobbler and told him about the need for the project and asked him for money. But – he gave nothing … The householders thought that perhaps he did not have any cash on him at that moment and so they came back a few days later and again requested funds, and again, he gave nothing.

There was uproar in town. What did this mean? A Jew who had given charity all these years so generously and suddenly stopped giving? What had happened?

A few of the householders went to the rabbi and asked him to call the cobbler in for an explanation. The rabbi sent to call the cobbler who came before him on the run. The rabbi asked him: “Tell me, my friend, I beg of you. What has happened to you? We know that all these years you have given the most generous contributions to charity, more than the finest householders in town and now, during the last few weeks, you have stopped giving entirely. What is wrong?”

“Listen, rabbi”, the cobbler replied. “All that time that I gave charity, it was not my money that I gave. I am very poor and work very hard to earn enough for a piece of bread, so how could I give charity? But the rich man who was considered a miser, who was buried near the fence, he used to give me money especially for charitable purposes. He was a great saint but he did not want anyone to know so he made me his agent. Now that he is dead, I can no longer contribute. Here is his will rabbi which he told me to unseal after the thirty-day mourning period”.

With shaking hands the rabbi opened the will of the hidden saint and read:

“I forgive the burial society and the entire town for the shame of burying me near the fence, for that was my will. Therefore, I decree that my body should not be buried in a more favourable place”.

This story was told for many years in the Suwalk area and was written up in the city pinkas [minutes] for succeeding generations. With the destruction of the entire community, the pinkas too has gone up with the smoke. May these lines then serve as a monument for the soul of the “Matan Be-Sternik”. [one who gives in secrecy].

R. Eli' Bernshteyn, the warden of the burial society, showed my father, R'Mordekhay, may the memory of a righteous man be for a blessing, what was written in the pinkas of the burial society and my father would re-tell this story to me and my brothers on many occasions.

 


Translator's Footnote

  1. This is where suicides were buried and others who were regarded as unworthy Return


[Col. 519]

Suwalk Nicknames

Zalman David Roznblum

Suwalk was populated not only by scholars, merchants and intellectuals but also by unpolished masses a storehouse of unique characters. These characters described below will be refreshed in the memories of those who were young children in Suwalk at that time.

As I think with my eyes closed, I see the following picture in my mind.

[Col. 520]

I am standing on Yatke Street on Tuesday market day and see Mordekhay Baltruk hiring a wagon full of lumber and Hayim of the potatoes [?] is groping around on another wagon and bargaining with a gentile for a “tshvortke” of potatoes [?] On the other side of the street, Moshe Pot and Monish the butcher are walking from the Butcher's kloyz talking about a calf deemed treyf by the butcher of Ratzk.

As I run through David Koklinski's front yard into the anteroom of the Bet Midrash carrying my tefillin bag [bag for phylacteries], I see Hone Ayzik with his wares covering two tables:

[Col. 521]

Mahzorim [holiday prayer books], siddurim [prayer books], calendars, bundles of fringes, story books and devotionals. Suddenly, I hear a voice calling from the Tailor's kloyz:

“A kedushah, nekadesh et shimkha be'olam!”. That is Yosl of the long underwear, calling people to fulfil a commandment. In the Bet Midrash the men are praying. Among them, I see Shostok, who sells lime, covered with his prayer shawl like a rabbi. Near the stove sit the three Shtumaks as always; the “Prussian band” with their high boots smeared with yellow fish oil; the redheaded Shtumak who used to make the sausage at Zalman Yonah the butcher and also at Gershon the butcher and the third of the “Troika”; Uke the Shtumak. [note: It is not clear whether Shtumak is a family name or not. It can be considered a slang term for someone who is mute. The name of the “second” mute one is omitted from the text].

After the prayers one also sees on Shul Street, Mote the fruiterer with a table of sweets and his wife, fat Dvorke who sits warming her feet on a fire-pot near the gate. A few steps further away is Tamara of the beans with a pot of warm chick-peas and a tin tray of molasses cakes. The passers-by are Hone Mote-Meir from the Hakhnasat Orkim, Tevke Moshe Shie's, pulling a wagon of bread for his stall and Maytke, the ritual slaughterer running to pray with the last quorum.

I walk over to the corner. Near Pokroyskin [St.] there are some gentiles standing with hatches and saws waiting to be hired to saw up a wagon full of lumber. There are also wagonners and porters among whom I notice Ruvke Lulik [the pipe?], Golde Basheshe, Sharke Novok, Asherke Adzshoder, Metshik Simha-Trede and Meirke Kurik. On the other side of the street near Kamkhen [St.], is Deaf Alter with his wheelbarrow. There are also a few rogues there teasing Dovidl the Psalm sayer who used to pump the gas [pump in carbonation?] at Tsipe Ozer's.

On the other corner near Sandivski's tavern, stands Hayim Long-Neck and prepares to go into the tavern for the third time. The street is full of people, gentiles walking and riding to the market to sell their products. I also go to the market. I come near the fishermen. There is a whirlwind of movement. Moshe the gendarme stands there and Meirke the fisherman is screaming with his hoarse voice. Aranovits the potter has already put out his red fired clay pots. Blyakhman's booth where he sell his bazaar items is also already open.

A little further on is the tall Sheyne-Etke Fiaruns quarrelling with her short husband and she begins to hit him because after all these years of bargaining, he has not yet learned how to buy a wagon load of cucumbers

[Col. 522]

without over-paying. Near the milk-woman's booth is a group of people looking on as Braynke Dzidikhe [the Jewess?] screams and curses and nobody knows what it's all about.

Further in the market one sees that the second-hand dealers have already set up their tents. The Boyeles [or builders?] are there; both Malyshkes [oven makers?], Berke Avia and Moshke Avia. The belt makers are also there. Tall Khatse has come to help his brother-in-law, the blond strap-maker to sell suspenders. Here too are the hatters – Kasman, and Brak from Turme Street. In the clothing section there is Base the Male with some men's garments on her arm. Moshe the knife sharpener stands there sharpening knives and singing. His son, Pertske the “Engineer”, has been running all over town looking for anyone who is building something.

 

Hayim Yisrael, the Suwalk water carrier

 

On the way to Yatke Street I meet Velvl Shmardzsh and his friend who are collecting for their friend Motke Flak who is in the hospital because he quarrelled with Meirke Patsuk over a whiskey.

[Col. 523]

Yatke Street is black with people. Among them is Funde with the sack and Sonye with the cats and her two bags full of rags upon which she sleeps behind a door.

In the middle of the street I see Yonke Tsats quarrelling with Yoske Kalyakn [the cripple?] because he is getting in his way and he puts his calf in the gentile's stall [?]. And Yisraelke Safar looks on shyly with his crossed-eyes and wonders what will be.

The butcher stalls of Khasele Roznberg are full of people. There is Folke the butcher, Vilki, Moshke Safar, Avdzshor, Kurapatke, Dovdl Kashliats, Hayimke Fonie and Opposite Lisne's pickled meat place [?] the butcher stalls and the bread stalls are going full blast. At one table is Shmuelke Burele with baked goods and at another table is Moshe Dovidl Stropki. Across the street Kom's son is selling (pea soup??) and waiting on his customers: Yashe from the office, Felte Bayukhe, Pagrudi Naske Kruti, Britski Kiak, Shemuelke Babek, Binyamke the Redhead, Motke Bul and Yosl the soldier.

[Col. 524]

Suwalk Jews also had their own talented folk musicians. There were such “famous” ones as Shimele the Klezmer who played “Razluka ti Razluka” in an extraordinary way. And who could forget the artistry of Gavrile Slup and his fife? And where can one find a musician like Deaf Leybke who could whistle on a bottle “Yamshtsik Daganyal Lashadey”? And there was Tsemkhke Diment who would give musical concerts with a paper-covered comb. It was a pleasure to listen to him. Who could as for more? And even a modest little drum has drawing power when the young gentile from the government palace would come drumming through the town to announce a proclamation of the magistrate. Soon a crowd would gather around him. Even those two Jews who crawled around on their hands and knees with a chair [?] would come crawling.

All of these characters perished along with the rest of the Suwalk community.

Translator's note: This section is full of localisms. Since there are no capital letters in the Hebrew alphabet, it is impossible to tell when a name is a family name: e.g. Baltruk, or when it has some special meaning as a nickname. Some of the references are completely obscure.

 

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