Thirty years ago it was: the town where we were from and where we grew up was devastated, the fountain from which we drew our Jewish as well as Human values was destroyed. All that remained were ruined houses, a desecrated cemetery, a vast mass-grave; and so many of our dear ones have no grave at all.
But we, sons and daughters of Kolno, wherever we are, shall always carry, carved in our memory, our town and its Jews our parents and brothers, our kinsmen, our friends, our people.
It is for our own sake and in order that the coming generations should know their roots and should never forget what hatred was brought about, that we have dedicated to light a memorial-candle to our community, to collect memoirs of our own town and to preserve them.
We began preparing the book when our Kolner organisation in Israel was reinforced by the last survivors, who came to settle in Israel. Its publication met with great difficulties in communication with former Kolner citizens in Israel and overseas, collecting and editing the material , calling for volunteers to work on this sacred task and in fund raising. All this took a relatively long time and lengthened the preparations.
Organised in 1965 the editorial board began to plan the book. We came to the conclusion that a collection of individual articles and stories by Kolno people would reflect our aims better than a book written by one author, and would create a more complete and vital picture. We considered that articles dealing with specific subjects, authored by well-informed people, who had their material engraved in their memory, would succeed in reviving the life of our town as it was, and would leave for the future generations, a true image of the Kolno community, in which our martyred kinsmen lived and flourished.
This choice extended our task and made it unusually difficult, as we had to include numerous people in the work of writing, interviewing, collecting and documentation. It is not in the least surprising, therefore, that there are certain repetitions concerning people and events, mainly caused by the differing attitudes and viewpoints of the writers.
We endeavoured to collect objective and documentary material, hoping to be able to reflect the history of the Kolno Jewish community throughout the generations. Unfortunately, we had no archives or museum at our disposal and our several applications to the Kolno Town-council, its local ecclesiastical body and the regional authorities were to no avail. Nor did the Warsaw Committee for the history of Polish Jewry provide with the necessary documents. For these reasons the historical section is incomplete.
This book describes personalities, periods, events, the religious and national life of the community in its public and private aspects, its culture and its economy. We gave much room to those who have brought us our present way of life the Zionist movements and their ramifications. We sincerely regret that we did not meet with similar success in describing other movements, and this for lack of suitable material. We were not able to give adequate expression to all those who merit, for we could not redeem all the honest Jews and interesting personalities from oblivion. It is also a superhuman task to depict, in a memorial book, the terrible tragedy that overtook our community.
Both Hebrew and Yiddish have been used, as we have published the articles in the language they were written in. We felt the need, however, to present the articles about the Holocaust in both languages, though that Kolno people and their relatives overseas, who do not know Hebrew, as well as our young generations in Israel, who know no Yiddish, should be able to learn how did our community live and die. We have also added, for the same reason, a special chapter in English for former Kolno people, now living in the U.S.A., Great Britain and Australia.
In the chapter "In Memoriam", we have included some articles dedicated to our community-members, who fell in the War of Liberation and to those who died after World War 2.
The task was completed, after the death of the late Aizik Remba, by the writer Benjamin Halevy, of Kibbutz Beth-Zera.
On concluding the book we would like to thank all the people and organisations who assisted in its composition and publication;
Our fellow Kolners, who wrote the articles and stories and entrusted us with documents and photographs;
Our colleagues, who donated the funds to finance the enterprise;
Benjamin Halevy, who crystallised the character of the book;
The publishing-firm "Sifriat-Hapoa'lim";
And the executive of the printing-firm "Opher", who made the greatest efforts to affect a successful printing.
Our best thanks and wishes to all of them!
The Kolner Organisation
The Editorial Committee of the Kolno Memorial Book
How can one mourn a town
Wiped out altogether
Whose dwellers are dead and
Whose dead live on in our heart
For two centuries a Jewish settlement existed in Kolno, in a few months it was wiped out. The course of life is long and slow and the fall-down sudden and violent.
Houses remained, where strangers now live; some uprooted monuments were left in a desecrated cemetery and thousands of Kolno community-members there are, scattered far and wide, who bear in their hearts, with pain and agony, memories of their hometown.
The life and death of the Kolno community are but a drop in the sea of the history and extermination of Polish Jewry; but, just as a drop reflects the life and movement of the sea, so the Kolno Jewish community is a reflection of Jewish life, throughout the Eastern European Diaspora, from its first days, through the years of growth and flourishing, until the bitter end.
Jews inhabited the earth of Kolno for many generations. At first as unwelcome guests, and later as untolerated citizens. What spiritual strength did they need, like all the Jews in Poland, to live, strike and develop, in an alien and hostile environment, faced with endless plottings and open clashes against them! How great were their courage and endurance! Not only did they manage to survive; they also developed a sublime way of life, from a spiritual and social viewpoint; a way that could serve as an example and model for the most progressive nations anywhere in the world. Indeed throughout Jewish history, the situation of the Jews in Egypt was repeated over and over again : "But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew."
Those who read this book, dedicated to the Kolno Jewish community, will be moved and thrilled at the sight of such a full and perfect Jewish life, lived by generations of Jews, in a tiny town, under circumstances of poverty and privation. They were fortified by their religion and found help and consolation in it. They developed a Jewish way of life, customs, traditions and manners superior to those of the people around them, by whom they were ruled and persecuted. They constructed an extensive network of social-welfare and charitable institutions, and their culture and economy endured and flourished, thanks to the individual Jew's sense of responsibility towards the community as a whole. They knew and felt that all Israel had to be brothers.
On reading this book, one cannot but admire and appreciate those Jews so remote from us, who live in Israel, so innocent and simple in their way of life, their customs and views and yet so complete in their faith, and tremendous in their lives and deeds.
Take, for example, that Jew himself well-off educated, like many others in the village, whose purpose in life was to provide the poor with firewood for winter. Every summer he used to collect money, buy the wood cheaply and store it for winter, when he shared it out to the needy. There were many like them, given to kind deeds.
Or that teacher so hardly hit by fate a hunchback, stutterer, weak of body, but strong in spirit, whose life-goal was to bring knowledge to Kolno children and youth, fulfilling his task zealously and energetically a model to many others. And those two little episodes, where a daughter describes her father (in the "In Memoriam" chapters, at the end of the book) a simple Jew, who never learnt psychology and education and probably had never heard these terms and who educated his children, not by words, but through deeds and personal example.
Literature concerning the Holocaust, is to our great grief, rich enough, and the relevant chapters in the Kolno book are no exception. These chapters are of importance and interests to every Jew in Israel.
Numerous and varied are the personalities and their deeds, described in all their grace in these pages anonymous in history, but well-known in Kolno. This, of course, is the book's purpose to erect a monument to a life wiped out and to Jews cut-down. "That the generation to come might know, even the children, which should be born, who should arise and declare them to their children" , (Psalms, Chapter 78).
The Kolno community-members in Israel and the countries of the Diaspora felt they had a sacred debt to pay to their fore-fathers and near ones, who perished so tragically. For years and years, a handful of people worked towards this end rescuing the past from oblivion, reviving the form and image of the town and its Jews. With the publication of the book this debt to the past and to the cherished dead is paid. Now the people, who prepared it so devotedly, hope that their descendants will read the book and learn to appreciate their roots and the source of their own life so far from them, in time, place and manner of living.
These are very sad chapters, telling of the people, the life, history and end of a community annihilated. The pain is still greater because this book is the sole monument of thousands of Kolno Jews, who perished so suddenly and cruelly, most of them without the rites of a Jewish burial.
Jewish Kolno is no more, but its spiritual and human contribution has been melted into the treasures of Judaism in Israel and the world over. This Memorial book is witness to this.
Lying awake in the loneliness and darkness of sleepless nights, or on shutting my eyes while riding on a train in huge, metropolitan New York, I can see clearly the Square in the center of the town; all the streets, side-streets and alleys; the roads I walked on my way to the Cheder, then to the Public and later to the High School (The Gymnasium).
I can see the paved cobble-stones and even the unpaved, broken spots on the sidewalks. The streets are as clear and fresh as when I walked them half a century ago.
I can see the cement or wooden stoops, in front of the stores in the Square, where we used to sit on summer evenings, watching the town people promenading on the sidewalks, standing in groups about the square, discussing world affairs or arguing about the programs and aspirations of the various Jewish parties, active in the community.
As the years pass and the days of our youth become a nostalgia, we feel it our duty and obligation to preserve for our children and the future Jewish generations this period in Jewish history that has passed and never will return.
I am one of those, who were not there during the "Black Days",
when those, nearest and dearest to us, were hurled into a common grave,
dug by their own hands. I did not hear their prayers at the brink of the
grave, but only years later from afar did I hear their echoes. We,
who were not there, still cannot believe that the things we heard about
had really taken place.
One of my earliest recollections is of our walks, in the early hours of Saturday evenings, to Lavnes a suburb on the other bank of the river, inhabited exclusively by Polish peasants.
There were two parts in Lavnes; on its left a road led to the watermill, where the more sophisticated young people went bathing in summer, and where one could even rent a row-boat.
Tougher boys preferred swimming in a pool, called "Chuszhnack" (where they had to fight for the right of entrance with the Gentile boys (the "Schkotzim").
The right side of Lavnes was forbidden territory, and no one dared go there, except with one's parents; the dogs were so vicious.
I still feel the thrill of holding on to my father, on those rare excursions. I cannot recollect any incident of Jews being attacked there. I remember a widow, called the "milchige". She would buy milk, before sunrise, carry it in pails slung across her shoulders, to sell to the more prosperous Jewish families, who could afford to buy milk.
I do not know whether "goyim" (Gentiles) took part in the slaughter of their Jewish neighbors during the "Black Days". I dare hope they did not.
A stretch of swamps lay between the town of Kolno and Lavnes and we children were warned not to walk there for fear of drowning. In the center of Lavnes, facing the highway leading to Lomza (the nearest big city) were the barracks of the Mounted Border Police, called the "Objesczyki". On Saturday we would go there to watch them jumping their horses. During the German occupation, in the First World War, those barracks used to be the Headquarters of the Gendarmerie, the forerunners of the Gestapo, where a sergeant by the name of Tobie was in charge. He used to torture the prisoners, who were sentenced for smuggling and other offences and there were rumours that, in the night, one could hear the screams of the tortured.
The highway led past Lavnes. There, on Saturday evenings, engaged or
newly-wed couples, even Yeshiva students, including, sometimes, the Dayan
Reb Avigdor (the assistant Rabbi) accompanied by some of his followers,
would promenade for a short distance, no further than the second hill.
Our street and the nearby street were inhabited by tradesmen and shopkeepers. A single horse-trading family the David Kornetzkys, kept their compound at the end of our street; the other horse traders, together with butchers and wagon-drivers, reigned supreme in the northern part of the square, the tougher section of the town, called "Woytestwo".
During World War I, a street battle erupted between a youth gang from Woytestwo and one from Lomzer and its side street; it raged for a whole year, with stones as the principal weapons. Peace came only after one boy was seriously wounded in his eye.
The "shul" (the main synagogue) was situated on the main street
of the northern section, called the Vincenter; around the corner were the
Beth Hamidrash (the study-house), the Rabbi's residence, the Beth Din (the
family court-house) and various "shtiblech'' (prayer-houses). Further
on this street became the Vincenter highway, leading to the German border.
The vast American Jewish community of our days, whose political and financial contribution to the State of Israel is and has been so important, consists of the descendants of those poor helpless emigrants who used to pass through Kolno and other border towns. Let the Kolner agents' contribution to this episode in Jewish history be remembered!
On the outskirts of the town stood the beautiful old Russian church with its gilded dome. Abandoned after the Russian retreat, at the end of World War I, its garden became a park and a gathering-place for young people. Parallel to the church-grounds ran a tree-lined walk named "alleyka" a rendezvous and Lovers Lane. In later years, the Vincenter highway, leading to some woods, became the main picnic and hiking route for the younger generations. This road also led to the popular village of Koziol, on the Pissa river. Surrounded by pine trees, it became fashionable among wealthier Jewish families to vacation there in summer.
To the left of the square, Zabiela Street led to Zabielo (the village where my father was born) and out to the desert-like part of Poland the "Puschia" (wilderness), populated by primitive, free and independent natives.
This was also the way to the Jewish cemetery, now holding such a tragic memory for us. For it was here that our brothers, sisters and friends walked their last mile to the common grave they were forced to dig for themselves. Here they were shot by the Germans and buried.
From the right side of the square, Stavisker Street led to the smaller
towns of Stavisk and Schuchin. About six kilometres away lay Chyrnitz estate.
owned by a Jew a rarity in Poland. The first "Hachshara" (a
preparation- farm where youth going to settle in Eretz-Israel were trained)
was established there.
All week long, they looked forward to Thursday, the Market-Day, for the peasants to come to town, sell their farm-products and buy what they needed in the shops round the market-square.
Like the rest of Poland's Jewish communities, the Kolner Jews were not by any standards affluent. Economic opportunities had always been restricted by legislation. Nearly half the population was reduced to depending on community-help; many were kept alive by money sent by relatives from America. However, the community put great stress on helping the poor, the sick, the handicapped and the refugees, and Kolno's community was well-known for its generosity and charity. Jewish children were taught very early in life that it was their duty to help the needy anonymously.
On Friday, before the Shabbath day, every home was visited, first by professional beggars soliciting alms, then by socially-conscious women collecting food to give to needy people, too proud to ask for charity. Then came the representatives of the official charitable and social organisations that every Jewish community used to support. There were the Societies for a free schooling for poor children; free loans for the needy; visits to the sick; helping needy brides to marry; praying (reciting the Psalms) for the very ill, participation in funerals.
To appreciate all this, one has to realize that the fate of the Jews,
in the ghetto, depended on the good-will of the non-Jewish world. All these
activities were vital as self-help and contributed to their survival.
The highlights of the Purim festival were the Carnival Parades organised by amateur performers of two charitable organizations. Dressed-up in bright masquerade costumes, their faces masked, some carrying musical instruments mostly drums and cymbals, they visited every dwelling. The length and style of their performance depended on the contribution they anticipated. In a few of the wealthier households, a complete Purim show was presented, with songs and dances. Who can forget the joy and happiness of the children following the Purim-actors on their rounds ?
There are so many more memories of happy events the High Holy Days, Simchas Torah celebration, and others. The Jewish community recognized that men could not live by bread alone and considered the spiritual needs of Jewish life to be of vital importance.
Kolner Jews were proud of their adult study groups, where the better
educated studied and interpreted the Talmud and Commentaries. Rich and
poor, merchants and working people, even unskilled laborers, devoted part
of each day to studying, each according to his knowledge.
One was the first theatrical show I ever visited. The magic of the experience left me, a small boy, a theater buff forever after. The show was the classic "Uriel Acosta", based upon the life of the famous Jewish philosopher of that name, excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in the 17th century. The performing troupe was led by A.Y. Kaminsky (father of the now well-known actress Ida Kaminsky).
The second show was an amateur variety show produced by the first Zionist group "Hatcheya". It depicted chalutzim pitching hay on a kibbutz in Palestine, singing Hebrew songs.
In the late twenties an independent theatrical group was established. The goal was pure cultural achievement and the proceeds were donated to various philanthropic causes. We succeeded in producing some of the best plays by Jewish and European authors; the direction and performance equaled some of the best professional productions in recognised theaters wherever they are.
Memorable Zionist rallies were also held in the theatre hall. In 1920, when the Allied Powers signed the Peace treaty with Turkey in San Remo, the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the treaty, and Great Britain was made the Mandatory for Palestine, entrusted with the establishment of a Jewish Home there. A great rally was called to celebrate the historical event. After a fiery speech by the local Zionist leader Moyshe Morgenstern, with an appeal for contributions, the women in the audience shed the golden jewelry they were wearing for the occasion rings, watches, necklaces and threw them onto the stage. They acted in the finest tradition of our ancestors, giving their possessions, some their only ones, to the cause of Israel.
The building behind the theater was originally the High School, first
sponsored by the Catholic Church, to encourage and promote education for
the Polish youth. The small number of Jewish students who were admitted
attended school on Saturdays, but were excused from writing. After a time,
when the school came under the jurisdiction of the country-government,
the new principal ruled this out. Some of us, fired with the spirit of
nationalism, would not give in. We went on strike and were eventually expelled.
Reb Velvel Remba used to teach in the Tailors' Prayer-house where my father worshipped. On Saturday afternoon, after the noonday meal, I would walk over to the Rembas' home. There they were, still sitting at table with the father at its head. He was a very distinguished-looking man, with a "Herzl" black beard, who had come from Wonses to Kolno and married a local girl named Pesa. Well learned in Judaism, Reb Velvel also had a modern education and could speak and write Polish. His dress was a blend of the traditional and the modern. After the meal the dining room became an Open House. The more distinguished and Europeanized citizens would come for "Tea", but primarily for a social gathering, a kind of Town Meeting, where all the local and world news would be discussed and commented upon.
When the Polish Jews were guaranteed minority and voting rights by the Versailles treaty, the Jewish voters elected their own representatives to the city government. When Mr. Remba, as representative of the merchants group, became the first Vice-Mayor, and my father the second Vice-Mayor, the bond of friendship between our two families became even stronger and deeper.
My father Zalmen was a remarkable man. Deeply religious, he would never compromise with his own beliefs; yet he was tolerant of the new non-observant generation. Born in 1875, in a small village, he attended a Public School, where he learned to read and write Polish, an unusual accomplishment at that time. When he settled in Kolno, he followed his father's footsteps and became a tailor. He was loved and admired by Jews and Polish peasants alike for his honesty and fine human qualities. He respected knowledge and education and inspired all his children with the ambition to acquire both a Jewish and a secular education.
In his last years he lived in New York. When he learned that four of his children and all his grandchildren had perished in Europe with the rest of the six million martyrs, he accepted it as G-d's will and kept his pain and sorrow to himself. Blessed be his memory!
An influential personality I remember was the unique teacher Gedalie Allie, a physically crippled man, dwarflike in appearance and a hunchback. He established the first modern Cheder (school) in town, where he promoted secular education. He sought to inculcate his pupils with love for the Hebrew language, and a desire to strive for knowledge and forsake superstition. Interest in enriching Jewish culture was revived by his influence and intense nationalism aroused. Even those who were not his pupils were influenced this unusual man. His house was always open to every individual and for every cultural or Zionist event. I, too, was a pupil of his for a number of years. We all owe much to him.
Let me pay tribute to an unusual family, a credit to the entire Jewish community and to Kolno in particular: the Karlinski family (otherwise called Bereles). The mother, widowed as a young woman, making great sacrifices, raised remarkable children. The two daughters: Sarah, an attractive brunette and Reizel, a beautiful blonde, were my teachers at public school. They were of great inspiration to me and I shall always cherish my association with them. The eldest son became the famous Jewish writer, translator and critic on the staff of the Jewish Daily "Moment" in Warsaw, writing under the pen-name of "Karlinus". The other son, Kalman, a good man, also served in the staff of "Moment", and is now living in New York where he is associated with the Jewish Daily "Der Forwerts". He has helped and contributed to the success of the Kolner Memorial Book.
The Sosnowitz family was one which I have respected and admired. I visited their home regularly, as a friend of the elder son Moyshe Zalman. The father, a salesman, commuted between Kolno and Germany. A deeply religious Jew, incorporating the best qualities of modern and traditional Judaism, he raised and influenced his two sons to follow in his footsteps. The elder, now a very successful businessman in New York, is a credit to the Kolner people: a good Jew, a very good friend. The younger one, Chaim Ezra, lives in London, England. Financially successful too, he is active in Jewish affairs. The father passed away in Israel. The mother lives in Rechovot, Israel.
I shall never forget three of the closest friends of my youth who perished in Poland; Shmuel Kayman a devoted, wonderful human being and friend; Yosel Krellenstein a schoolmate of mine and very close friend, and David Hurwitz always like a brother to me.
In the solemn spirit of the Prayer for the Dead, let me finish with Kaddish for all my dearest and beloved, killed with the rest of our six million brothers and sisters:
My sister, Shayne, her husband Matys Kalman, and five children, killed in the town of Szcuczyn by the Germans and Poles;
My sister, Neshke Chmiel, with two children, killed in Kolno;
My brother Moshe Chaim Kolinsky, wife Blume and two children, killed in Szcuczyn;
My baby sister Cyvia, her husband Yankel Crystal, with two children, killed in Kolno.
I will never forgive your murderers! I will never forget you!
The Chamber of Commerce covered the same area as the Jewish Merchants' Association, including the Voyovodship of Biaylstock, to which the district of Kolno belonged.
The General council of the Jewish Merchants' Association of the Eastern territories, with its head-office in Vilna, was interested to be in touch with all the provincial associations and to follow-up their problems in an effort to alleviate the difficult and complicated situation of the Jewish merchants throughout the country.
I did a great deal of travelling to towns and villages, organizing meetings,
often becoming involved in local politics and forming close contacts with
the problems of the petty merchants and the few industrialists and "tycoons",
scattered about the area, stretching from Vilna through Grodno, Bialystock,
Lomza and as far east as Pinsk and Brisk. The pattern was identical everywhere,
but I obviously took a greater interest in my home-town, Kolno, and during
my last years in Poland I came very close to its economic and social problems.
I will do my best to record a coherent picture of the economic conditions
in my birth-place in the 15 years, preceding the Holocaust. The descriptions
will obviously be sketchy, since I rely entirely on my memory.
It happened however, that Kolno was relatively less affected by this new policy than many other towns and villages. This was mainly due to its geographical situation, about 7 kilometers from the East German frontier, which brought it specific sources of income.
Although the few Polish merchants and civil servants, living in Kolno, attempted to deprive their Jewish neighbours of these special sources of income, they did not succeed, for the simple reason that they lacked the know-how required to turn the geographical position to their advantage by developing regional foreign trade.
Kolno, as far as I can remember, had a population of five thousand, including three thousand Jews, a proportion similar to that of many small towns of the district and in Poland in general. Our hometown was a small trading-center, surrounded by a sea of small farms and some larger ones, holding between five hundred and one thousand acres. Most of the non-Jews living in the town Kolno included were also farmers; very few were engaged in commerce and until 1930 only a small minority were employed by the Government administration.
The civil servant class was undeveloped in Poland, because the Polish state up to 1918 had no tradition of civil service. All the civil servants, prior to 1918, were mainly of Russian origin and were held in contempt by the local population, as the representatives of the Czar and his oppression.
There was very little contact between the Jewish and Polish population
in Kolno. The Jews organised their lives, successfully, on a fully self-sufficient
basis. Jewish children were educated at the Jewish religious school or
at the government school for Jewish children. For a short time, Kolno had
a Polish secondary school a gymnasium as it was called in that country.
Many Polish peasants could not afford the fees, so Jewish children were
admitted, without limitations. The school was closed in 1927, when the
proportion of Jewish children had reached one-third of all the pupils.
This caused the government to withdraw its support. It may be worthwhile
to note that, as far as I remember, this short episode of the Gymnasium
brought Jewish and Polish children together for the first and only time.
These weekly markets were characteristic of a most primitive economy, which had lived on, right into the twentieth century. The Kolno Jews, as others in many Polish towns and villages, derived their living by catering for the farmers' needs, supplying them with consumer goods and the services of the Jewish tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths, glaziers, etc., as well as with the professional amenities provided by doctors, lawyers, and so on. The market economy was a combination of two systems: the primitive distribution of agricultural products and exchange economy.
The peasants traded their products through two channels: The housewives, who used the market-place as the only place where butter, cheese, green groceries etc. could be obtained, either for immediate consumption or for storing-up for the harsh winter. The second channel was the trade with wholesalers, who bought grain, seeds, live cattle, poultry etc, from the farmers, either to resell in the cities or to export abroad. These Jewish grain merchants, and dealers in cattle and horses had wide contacts inside and outside Poland . The grain merchants were connected with mills all over Poland and East Prussia, and also used to ship the grain, peas, oil-seeds etc., from the ports of Koenigsberg and Danzig. They managed all this, in spite of relatively primitive means of communication and transportation, since Kolno had no railway-station and the nearest one was in Lomza 30 kilometers to the north and 7 kilometers north-east of the town of Dlottowen in East Prussia.
On market-day, the grain and products bought from the peasants, in comparatively small quantities 100 to 200 kilograms at a time, and brought to a number of granaries, near the market-square. There it was sorted and repacked for shipment. Each grain-merchant, of course, had established his store, as near as possible to the market-place; the brothers Lwovitz had theirs to the south, in Lomza street; the Margolies' to the south-west, facing the large church-square, where the farmers could park their wagons and horses. Baranowitz's, Zwawy's and other stores were situated in Stavisky street, to the east and south-east. Each merchant did his utmost to build up a regular clientele amongst the farmers, in order to ensure regular supplies of grain. Some of the grain-merchants became very friendly with their suppliers and continued trading with them for years. However, the competition between the various Jewish merchants was rather severe, and in spite of their ingenuity and hard work, they made no more than a meagre living. One can recall. however, infrequent instances when some merchant or other managed to make a coup in a rising market, especially with a rare type of agricultural products oil and clover seed, etc.
Many attempts were made by various grain-merchants to establish partnerships, in order to buy at reasonable prices and sell at better margins, but they were unsuccessful, because of the individualistic characters of the personalities concerned. My late grandfather, Michael Markewitz, for instance a very forceful man went into partnership, at different times, with the Baranowitz, Lwovitz and Margolies families, but they all broke up after a short time.
The sale of grain, dairy products, timber and peat for fuel, was the main source of cash for the farmer, who would spend his money in the shops surrounding the market-square, where the shop-keepers had been looking forward all week through to market-day. These small business-men had to face the competition of the growing number of State-supported co-operatives and non-Jewish shops, as well as that of the market stall-holders, who were of two kinds:
The trading procedure was very simple. Once a week, the farmer would
sell his products to the merchants or to the consumers and spend his money
in the local shops. The extent of the trade was governed entirely by the
distance and time in which a horse-driven cart could reach the market-place.
Since a farmer could not afford to spend more two hours, each way, on travelling
to and from the market-place, the radius was limited to 15 miles and the
business potential was practically static, with little hope for expansion.
The horse-traders of Kolno acted, mainly, as buyers on a commission-basis for foreign importers. The latter either visited Kolno in person or entrusted their local buyers to purchase horses in all the Polish markets. Each foreign horse-trader had his own buyers, with whom he kept up personal relationships, on the basis of mutual trust and respect. The horse-traders were experts in their field, worked hard, having to cover great distances under the most difficult conditions, to attend several market-towns per week.
The horse-trade was the main source of employment in Kolno. It provided a living for numerous people riders, stable-boys, grooms etc. The riders would collect the horses from the distant markets and ride them, bare-backed, to Kolno. The stable-boys prepared them for export. The best riders would qualify for travelling abroad and accompany the horses, by rail or sea, to their final destinations. The drivers drove the horse-drawn carriages and later on the cars in which the horse-dealers and their foreign buyers were taken to the market-towns throughout Poland. Clerks were employed to prepare the invoices and the veterinary and shipping documents required for trade with the various European countries. Forwarding agents attended to custom-formalities on both sides of the frontier.
As far as I can remember, these agents, such as Hurwitz family, were the only Jews who were partners with a non-Jew Somer. This came about as the result of a merger of two firms. Both the Hurwitzs and the Somers succeeded in obtaining the special license required to become a forwarding agent in Poland. However, the Hurwitzs felt that a partnership with a non-Jew would offer more security, while Sorner knew that the Jewish name would attract Jewish clients and bring in good profits. Somer was not a Kolno citizen; he had arrived there as a high-ranking civil servant in the district office Starostwo which he left in order to establish the partnership with the Hurwitzs, as the earning prospects were better.
Their agency was the only one in Kolno with an office, run by Charles Rosenblum, now living in New York. Somehow it happened that he and the accountant, Berel Bursztyn, who was in charge of the bookkeeping, invoicing and documentation for the firm, survived the Holocaust. Perhaps they could write a more detailed account about this varied and fascinating international trade, conducted from Kolno and reaching practically every West European country.
During this period, when I worked at the Vilna Chamber of Commerce. I was personally involved in reporting and writing various papers on this subject, for the Ministry of Trade, as the export of horses came under the Chamber's jurisdiction. The fact that this branch of commerce was practically controlled by Jews was a cause of great envy on the part of the leading landowners and their organisations. The Minister of Agriculture, who controlled the export of the diverse kinds of livestock, tried to form a non-Jewish organisation and granted it a monopoly to export horses. Under the guise of rationalisation, the Chamber of Commerce, which was nominally supposed to protect the exporters' interests, made efforts to undermine the Jewish horse-dealers' living. However, the numerous attempts at competition by government-sponsored non-Jewish organisations, failed. The Kolno horse-dealers had a tradition going back many generations and close connections with foreign buyers, who refused to deal with anybody but their well-trusted Kolno colleagues.
This trade, of course, had its ups and downs. It was irregular: Sometimes the foreign traders halted the import; bad times came then to the traders and the town-economy in general.
It is interesting to note, while on this subject, the comparatively
primitive way these transactions were financed. Kolno had no commercial
bank and all the credit required had to be advanced by private people.
An interval of two to three weeks passed from the time the local farmers
were paid for the horses and the date of receiving the money from abroad.
All the horse-dealers lacked capital. The main source of credit was Leib
Sokol, who worked with Motel Zolondz from Lomza. They succeeded in building
up trust in their integrity and were able to collect small savings-deposits,
from Jews and non-Jews, and use the money for financing the international
horse-trade. Motel Zolondz even managed to establish a special relationship
with the Lomza branch of the Bank of Poland, which used tp advance him
money, on the promise that he would repay the loan in foreign currency,
received for the various kinds of products exported from Kolno.
Koziol, surrounded by pine-forests, became the main collecting station. The mushrooms were brought there by young peasant girls, who had gathered them in the forests and carried them on their backs, for 10 15 miles. There they were sorted and packed. As there was no refrigeration, it was essential to export the mushrooms daily and they were kept at the right temperature by storing in special shady sheds, cooled by natural draught.
The nearest transport-station was the German village Dlottowen about four miles away, at least an hour and a half, over a sandy track, by cart. Special wagons on high springs were built to ensure the mushrooms' arrival in good condition. From the German frontier they were shipped to canning-factories and market-places throughout Germany and Switzerland and elsewhere.
My grandfather kept contact far and wide with foreign buyers and factories.
He used to correspond with them sending them hand-written little postcards
and receiving, in return, elaborately typed letters. He built up a reputation
of great integrity and had excellent business relationships with all the
manufacturers. However, the business could not develop for lack of communication
and storage facilities; this, and the irregular growth of the wild mushrooms,
created a major problem. Immediately after rainfall, there would he a glut
of mushrooms, but none at all when the sun shone. Another problem was the
competition, especially with the Kaymans, who tried to break into this
business, and who managed to obtain a foothold thanks to their special
relations with the manufacturer Otto Sherman of Koenigsberg. Moreover,
the mushroom season lasted no longer than twelve weeks in the year, with
many ups and downs, depending upon the vagaries of the weather and the
unstable prices paid abroad. The element of speculation, however, had its
fascination; when good prices were obtained, the bad times and meagre rewards
(out of all proportion to the hard work involved in sorting, packing and
delivering) were forgotten.
As you see, the Jewish Kolno merchants did their utmost to take advantage
of their geographical position, expanding the commercial activities far
and wide beyond the Polish frontiers.
Competition for the work available was rife and very few traders and artisans had more than a meagre living. Many of them lived in real poverty, others managed to augment their earnings with small gifts from friends and relatives in America. In spite of all this, the Kolno traders succeeded in keeping up appearances, many of them making every effort to educate their children either in religious schools Yeshivoth or at secular institutions, including universities. Many sons and daughters of tailors, bakers, cobblers, blacksmiths etc., were Gymnasium pupils.
The Jewish community organisation in Kolno, as in other similar towns, was on an occupational basis. There was a Jewish Merchants' association, a Union of Jewish artisans and traders and even a so-called Trade Union, whose members were artisans and apprentices. These were all in their teens or early twenties. On reaching the age of marriage, the accepted thing was to establish a small workshop or to emigrate, and this automatically curtailed union-membership.
I remember that during my university studies I came into close contact with our working-classes, so to say, in the summer vacations. Together with Elli Bursztyn, Alter Krelenstein, Fishel Hurwitz, Motel Bryzman and Symcha Szklaniewitz, we tried to organize evening classes under the aegis of the Bund, which enabled us to get a license. None of us, except Elli Bursztyn, were members of that party. However, feeling that such classes were a good idea, and since Yiddish was the only language that could be used (The people who came to the classes spoke Yiddish, their mother tongue. They knew very little Hebrew and used Polish as a necessary auxiliary language), affiliation to the Bund committee was a natural step.
In this way, we were able to conduct our educational work without interference by the Poles, who kept a watchful eye on any organisation doing work, which could be interpreted as political.
We managed to obtain accommodation in an attic, installed there a few tables and benches and it became a class-room. Elli Bursztyn, an active Bund member, made many attempts to turn this small adult education into a nucleus of this party, but he never succeeded. The so-called "Jewish proletariat" of Kolno was unaware of the complicated problems and class distinctions characteristic of the larger towns, where Jewish workers had created their own class-conscious organisation.
The fact that there were very few people who were not self-employed, and the narrow gulf between the very small number of employees and their employers was, perhaps, the main reason why there were no class differences, in the strict sense of the word, in Kolno. The social distinctions, however, were clear enough.
Apprenticeship to any trade automatically implied the aspiration to a future, as a tradesman or artisan a status looked upon as inferior to that of a merchant or professional. The craftsman had to earn his living by hand-work, for lack of mechanical instruments and without the assistance of hired labour. The apprentices provided him with very little help and he could not afford to employ more than one or two, at a law wage There was never enough work and the struggle for existence was harsh.
The traders and artisans were organized in the Hand-workers' Union. It had very good leaders, such as Feivel Boczko, Chaim-Mendel Bryzman, Fishel Marvit and Moshe Leibel Lubel. These were only a few of the names that come to my mind while writing these lines. The organisation's development was assisted by the obligation for all trades in pre-war Poland to organize in a central body, headed by the Chamber of Trades. This resulted in a well-entrenched network of Traders' organisations, Jewish and non-Jewish, in every Polish village.
From an economic point of view there was no competition between the Merchants' and Traders' organisations. Each had its own problems, with which it dealt with separately, through the respective central offices in Vilna and Warsaw. Socially, the two organisations cut across each other, when it came to running the main bodies of the Jewish community the "Kehilah", the Rabbinate, the local-cooperative bank and others.
In pre-war Poland, the Kehilah the Central Office of the Jewish Community was organized according special Parliamentary legislation, as an officially recognized statutory body. Every town had its own Kehilah, with an elected membership in proportion to the size of its Jewish population. The Kehilah was responsible for all religious institutions, charities, cemeteries and above all for its Rabbinate and synagogues.
The elections to the Kehilah were on a democratic basis; all Jewish males over 21 having the right to vote. The candidates belonged, mostly, to political parties: the Orthodox Agudah, the Zionist organisation with its various affiliates, the religious Mizrachi, the enlightened General Zionists and Socialist Zionists and the Bund, the Jewish Socialist Party.
Other candidates represented economic and social groups. But the economic and political organisations intermingled, cutting across each other, and all parties were represented in every economic organisation.
In Kolno, as it happened, the Hand-workers' Organisation was the strongest, and it managed, in spite of its small membership, to obtain very strong representation in the Kehilah and other affiliated bodies.
Basically, the economic organisation worked in mutual harmony. There was hardly any friction between the Merchants' and Handworkers' associations.
On the other hand, the political organisations put great fervor and
excitement into the small-scale parochial matters. The synagogue, where
debates between the various political groups took place, often resounded
with echoes of deep animosity. All the same, these differences in outlook
did not prevent people living together and cooperating in solving their
various economic and social problems.
A similar charity was run single-handed by Mordechai Zundel Margolies, who, in the summer, bought firewood with the money he collected, storing it in a yard near the Kehilah building and issuing small quantities of fuel to the neediest families at the height of winter, when the weather could reach minus 25 degrees Celsius. This was a most remarkable achievement since he really saved many lives by his own efforts alone.
Another outstanding social charity was the Society for Nursing the Sick ("Shomrei Cholim"), divided into two sections, for men and for women. Kolno had no hospital or trained nurses; when a person was dangerously ill, requiring a twenty-four hour watch, the family was soon exhausted. One could always call upon this society to send in someone to spend the night with the patient.
There was, of course, the usual Burial Society, providing the poor with all burial services, including ground, free of charge, at the expense of those who could afford it.
The sole aim of all these societies was to serve and help, especially in times of stress and economic difficulties.
The Kehilah had the right to impose taxes attached to the individual
income-tax. This money was used to run the synagogue, pay the Rabbinate,
provide free schooling for poor children and alleviate, within its meagre
means, the fate of the neediest citizens. The Kehilah was fortunate to
have had, for many years, the services of Joseph Hurwitz, a very good administrator,
who managed to train the young Joseph Panitz as his secretary. In many
ways the Kolno Kehilah served as a model of successful organisation for
many neighbouring towns. This was recognized by the Polish Government,
which honored the President, Joseph Hurwitz, with a special medal for his
services to the Jewish community.
The Manager of the Kolno Jewish bank was Abraham-Berl Bryzman, a man of great skill and ability. Throughout the years, he succeeded in expanding its capital, by collecting small deposits and through special funds, supported by the Central Committee of the Cooperative Bank (administering the Joint Committee's sources). The borrowers were amazingly honest and the bank had comparatively few bad debts, although its customers were very poor. It was an unwritten law to keep up, as far as was humanly possible, knowing that, in this way, one was not only fulfilling an obligation, but also helping others.
When I look back at the past, I respect and admire the spirit of real
humanism which inspired all these activities and institutions.
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