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[Page 164]

Ostrowa During World War One 1914-1918

By Tuwia Makover

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

Tishebov 1914, Germany and Austria attacked Russia and the first deaths were in Kalisz. After that, it became dangerous in the city. A lot of shots were fired resulting in wounded civilians and many deaths. In Ostrowa, a bomb fell on the horse market near the piaskes and killed three drivers Chaim Hersz, Icchok and Ab'ke. The war began with fervor and the Jews began to flee the border villages. Ostrowa was suddenly full of Jews from Myszyniec and Chorzele, etc. After several upsetting days, the town calmed down. The High Commander of the Russian Army was Nikolai Nikolaiwicz, an uncle of the Tsar - an enemy of the Jews. The High Commander ordered the army not to make camp, only to attack. General Samsonow marched directly to Eastern Prussia. The front was approximately one day old when a victory was announced: “The city is taken and the Germans are retreating in order to get away from our army”. The city became calm. From time to time we would see soldiers marching through the city on their way to the front. And people earned money from these soldiers. The outlook was optimistic - war is not such a terrible thing. After several weeks, sad rumours were making the rounds (in public everyone was afraid to discuss them) that things are not going well for Samsonow and his army in East Prussia. One day the Russian military retreated in chaos. The city was full of soldiers who presented an outlandish sight: soldiers were running without backpacks, hats, uniforms, rifles or underwear. They did not know where to run to or when to stop. It turned out that a German plan had deceived the Russians into chasing the army into Germany and there the Germans carried out the final strike.

A large part of the Russian army fell into the trap - General Samsonow's army ceased to exist. About General Samsonow himself, several versions were heard: some said he was a prisoner of war; others that he had committed suicide. Rumour had it that the Russian army had been infiltrated and these spies had played an important part in the defeat. The leader of the 1st Corps in Samsonow's army, General Von Grundensztern hanged people for being spies. Another spy was the Warszawa Governor, Baron Korf (previously Governor of Łomża) a well-known person in Ostrowa. He often came to the old besmedresh on days when he was riding. The commandant of the Gonindz fortress was a spy, etc. Now people began to realize what war was about.

Eager to find a reason for the defeat, people spouted the same old story, the Jews were entirely guilty; they were spies. The Jews sent geese stuffed with gold across the border to the Germans. The naive Russian soldiers, the majority of whom came from deep inside the Russian Gubernias, believed it all. To them, many of us had helped our neighbours. The Poles were victimized the most among Ostrowers - the majority of the military heading to the East Prussian border went through Ostrowa, where several highways crossed to East Prussia. They exploited the Poles in the villages where the military quartered for the night and they beat the Poles, thinking they were Jewish spies. As usual, the Jews were also guilty for the beatings the Poles took. Then, painful experiences began for the city. Nikolai Nikolaiwicz ordered the eviction of the Jews from the border villages. Ostrowa was full of refugees. There were food shortages. Every day Jews were arrested as spies. One Pole said that he had seen Jews looking at the telegraph wires in order to send secrets to the Germans. Another had seen Jews disconnect the telegraph wire. Still another had seen how a Jew had driven geese stuffed with military plans and gold, etc. over to the Germans. The Russians exiled, deep into Russia, the esteemed community leaders of the city: Dr. Klaczko, Mendel Wszawor, Jukel Tejtel, Menachem Kahan, Motl Langlejb, the Drozdowski brothers, Eliezer Knisiński, etc.

The front was established not on German - nor on Russian territory, but at the Narew and Brzura Rivers. Winter had arrived and the hardships would become worse. And they did when Nikolai Nikolaiwicz again ordered more Jews to be expelled from the border area. This was to be a large expulsion. A delegation headed by Rabbi Jehuda Lejb Gordon z”l intervened with the front-commander and they accomplished a lot. Only the villages closest to the front were to be evacuated by the Jews. Ostrowa was once again full of refugees. In this time of need, Icchok Sztejnberg came to our rescue (later Minister of Justice in the Bolshevik cabinet). He was the spokesperson from the Moscow Relief Committee and the Committee for Zemst Ves under the chairmanship of the Duma Chairman Aleksander Guczkow.

It is impossible to put into words the devotion of comrade Sztejnberg and his wife in helping the needy and homeless. Day and night, without rest, they went from one problem to the next and were ready for any emergency.

There were various interventions with the Russian military authority, who were excessively proud and sharp, but they never once requisitioned what we needed to exist. I had once, to a degree, seen an intervention by Mrs. Sztejnberg with the military commander in the city. A Cossack colonel, who lodged at the pharmacist Mieczkowski's house, had expressed a reproach about the Jews. Mrs. Sztejnberg banged on the table and said: “the Russian people are liked by Jews and we are their good friends. We only dislike Russian officials”.

Through the winter, there were no battles at the front. With the start of summer, German assaults began in earnest and they broke through the front at the Brzura and Narew. Simultaneously, there was an increase in the number of Jews expelled from the villages near the front increasing the number of homeless in our town.

On Shvues, the Jews of Rożan were expelled, as well as other areas close to the border and all these homeless people came to Ostrowa. But the Russians had not authorized their entry into the town. They had to stay, with their sick, old women and small children two kilometers outside the city in a cleared field. The situation was terrible. When many of the pregnant women went into labour, Mrs. Sztejnberg did not rest. She brought midwives to the field with all the necessary supplies. She organized a large relief effort. After long meetings with the front-commander these refugees were finally allowed to enter the town. Thereafter, the relief committee was at the refugees' disposal until the refugees set off on the road again. The majority of them were taken to Russia.

In the month of Tamuz [June], the Germans began to break through the fortified positions and there was talk that the Russians would give up. The Germans broke through the front at the Brzura and then the retreat started. In the city people were discussing the retreat, which caused new anxieties. Such as, would the Russians set fire to the town as they had done to many of the villages? This was the biggest fear, as the majority of houses in Ostrowa were made of wood.

A conference was held to work out how to avoid this terrible tragedy. To our good luck we learned that the high commander of the retreating army, General Dawidenko, was with a part of the 23rd Nijewski group back in Ostrow-Komorowo. He was known as a liberal and a friend of the Jews and he had Jewish acquaintances in the military in Ostrowa. A delegation was put together which included his acquaintances and they pleaded with him to use his power to save Ostrowa from being burned to the ground. The commander listened to the delegation and assured them he would do everything possible to keep the town safe. The General fulfilled his promise and issued a strong order against destroying property in Ostrowa. But I had also done something. Seeing as a soldier at the front would do anything for cigarettes or tobacco, I had gathered together a huge transport of tobacco and cigarettes to be delivered at the beginning of Elul [August] when the retreat would be at its peak.

As the entire retreat went through Ostrołęka, Zambrów and Malkińska Streets, I stood in Fejga Tejtel's courtyard and threw tobacco and cigarettes to the soldiers who threw back the money to pay for them and we won a victory over evil. Thanks to the general's order, our cigarettes and tobacco, the town was saved from being burned. But not everyone heeded the rule: the windmill that stood outside Ostrowa was burned to the ground and we never did find out who did it or how it happened.

At the start of Elul [August], at nine o'clock in the morning, I saw the first Germans in the piaske at Nutkiewicz's sawmill. By noon, the entire German army was marching on Zambrów and Warszawa highways.

It is worthwhile noting that as in all wars, there were those who took sides for and against the Russians and Germans. The German sympathizers argued that we had already been victimized many times by the Russians. The Germans are more cultured and liberal. The Russian sympathizers said that we would find out soon enough that the Germans were bad and that we would have trouble earning a living under their régime. Besides, after paying taxes to them, there would be nothing left for us. This is interesting because the day the Germans arrived, one of their supporters was literally beaten up by them (I will not mention his name).

With the Germans' arrival, a series of new troubles began which made us forget the old ones. An epidemic began – typhus and cholera (for some ending in death) and hunger, as all the food products were requisitioned. They requisitioned our brass doorknobs from the doors and all the copper frying pans. The food products were taken from the peasants and sent to Germany. Our businesses died and the stores closed. People sat all night in the dark. The kerosene had been requisitioned and electricity had not yet been installed in town. And now several thousand more homeless from the nearby villages arrived as the retreating Russian army had set fire to the villages of Goworowo and Andrzejewo. They all fled to Ostrowa. People were literally lying in the streets, hungry and without any belongings. The bread ration went down to 200 grams per person per day and people waited in line for hours to receive this meager portion.

The winter only added to the hunger. With Sukes came the cold and snow and it was impossible to dig up the potatoes, which froze in the ground. One time a good Polish citizen Brorziński, from Trynosy, donated several tons of frozen potatoes for the poor. Because of their hunger, thousands of people threw themselves at these potatoes before they could even be divided up. The worst was the situation of the wives whose husbands were in America. Due to the war, there was no contact between them and the women had no way of making ends meet without the money their husbands sent. Barefoot and hungry, many people went to work breaking rocks on the highway for several pfenig a day. Many could not go on. They became sick and died. The young men were able to find work in the forests.

When the epidemic broke out, people were literally helpless: without doctors, without drugs, without anything to help the sick. The energetic Linas Hazedek stepped in to organize relief work. They brought in a doctor, (a woman from Warszawa), provided a pharmacist they knew and persuaded the German authorities to release a little food: sugar, honey and grain. That still was not enough to alleviate the suffering, to help those who were sick, or to relieve the hunger. The Kehila representatives went to the authorities, but still no food was released. Yet somehow the relief workers managed to relieve the hunger.

From time to time the authorities would release some basic products such as honey, sugar and kerosene, to be divided up. There would also be free food for the poor to divide. A free kitchen was organized to feed the children of the poor.

The committee also managed to send food to the Jews interned in the Komorow barracks and for Pesakh, brought them matzah and kosher food.

So we endured the German regime for several years and true the Germans did not murder any Jews, as did the Nazis, but the situation in general and the hunger had been unbearable and many people did not survive.

America entered the war and with their help the German front collapsed and they were routed from Poland. On November 11th, 1918 the Poles took over the government and Poland was declared an independent state.


End of the First World War, refugees from
surrounding villages prepare to return home

[Page 169]

For the Benefit of the Refugees
(during the First World War)

From Hatsfira No.100, 1915

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

The Jewish Committee of Moscow is working in Łomża Gubernia, for the benefit of the war-refugees now living in Ostrów, Ostrolęka, Rożan and Maków.

Previously the relief payment was two rubles a head for each person: but this was not enough to stave off hunger. Now the committee has opened stores to divide up portions based on two rubles and even what people received in these stores was barely enough to meet their needs, but the prices were cheaper than in private stores.

Besides this, the Committee has opened houses for adults to cook for school children and a home for small children. The Relief Committee also has found jobs for the unemployed. The entire effort has helped to keep their hunger at bay.

The Committee has also given support, among others, to the wagon drivers whose horses had been confiscated by the Germans. The horses were their livelihood. They were given aid in order to buy other horses.

In Ostrolęka, one hundred sixty families, about six hundred people, have benefited from the relief effort. Recently, the Union of the Assemblies in Russia founded, in Ostrolęka and Rożan, institutions to cook and distribute food, food stores and an infirmary for outpatients that have benefited the entire population regardless of religion or origin.


Meals for school children
Leaders: Mosze Raf and Rywka Sztejnberg (Drozdowski).
Manager: Brajncze Markusfeld

[Page 170]


By H. Frejdkes-New York

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

There is a legend about Ostrowa, that thanks to a blessing by a rabbi, the city was saved from fire and was never burned to the ground. However, the holy rabbi had not foreseen Hitler's fire that destroyed this historic Jewish community in 1939.

Jews had been settling in Ostrowa for hundreds of years. The city was located on the border of Lithuania and Poland and attracted Misnagdim and Hasidim and both left a heavy religious mark on the city. Ostrowa was known for its learned men, rabbis, yeshivot and Jewish traditions. The two large botei medrashim were the strongholds of the Misnagdim, with the Hasidim concentrating their efforts in shtiblakh.

During the period of the enlightenment, religious Jews fought every attempt to bring about reforms in the Jewish way of life and would not retreat from their positions.

First, at the beginning of the 1900's modern ideas penetrated the small towns and certain changes took place in shtetl life. The young people were stirred up and reacted. They started to leave the city and go to the large cities in Poland - Warszawa, Łodz, Odessa, etc. Many left to go abroad - America, Argentina, England, etc.

The union fought to improve working conditions for the labourers and the small artisans. A library was organized as well as a reading circle. People sent their children to Hebrew private schools, also to Gymnasia. But the religious dominance over Jewish existence in the shtetl continued: Shabes and Yontoyvim were celebrated and strictly observed.

The Jews struggled daily for their economic existence: the stores and the artisans depended on the surrounding village inhabitants (markets and fairs) as well as the military located in the region.

Poverty was a constant. Despite the traditional Khakhnasas Orhim on Shabes and teg for the yeshiva students, there was not enough money to care for the poor. They would be given a voucher, called “wheat money”, to get some matzah flour to make Passover cakes.

The first relief institution organized was Linas Hazedek that cared for the sick and then Khakhnasas Orhim - for travelers staying over night in Ostrowa. A fund was created to help with loans to retailers and artisans. No Jewish hospital, old-age home or orphanage existed.

A shake up came in 1914 with the start of the First World War. In August of that year the town was beleaguered with thousands of Jewish refugees from the German border villages around Poland. The young men were mobilized by the Russian army, a number of Jewish citizens were arrested and sent deep into Russia as “undesirable elements”. Some of the inhabitants left the town and went to Russia to save themselves from the German army. The economic situation became worse daily as the régime confiscated a lot of products for the use by the military. The military authority ordered the opening of the stores on Shabes and we were compelled to desecrate the Sabbath.

The Jews were downhearted and depressed. The situation in town was very bad and only became happier when the Russian army retreated in 1915. The German occupation authorities took over the town in the fall of 1915, and then a new series of evil decrees began: businesses were restricted and the retailers were removed from their positions.


People's kitchen during the First World War


The situation in the city was terrible, as there was a shortage of food and staples. We ran searching for a piece of bread at the bakers' and potatoes at the farmers'. As a result of hunger, there was an epidemic of typhus and cholera. There were scores of funerals every day. It killed young and old alike.

To alleviate the hunger, a public-kitchen was started which was run by a good part of the scores of privileged men and women. Over six hundred hot lunches with bread were given out each day, except Shabes.

The ousted merchants smuggled grain, salt, kerosene, leather, etc. They manufactured soap, etc. The German police strongly persecuted illegal trade, confiscating property and often ruining the poor merchants.

During the time that the German occupation authority interfered with the economic existence of the town, they impeded, but did not put an end to cultural life.

The large number of young people in the city took advantage of the opportunity to create a library and reading-circle that acted as a cultural centre and grew into an immense institution. The Sports Club, under the leadership of a German officer, made it possible for hundreds of young men and young women to become physically fit. “Zmir” [“Song”] with a drama section, under the direction of Jankiel Pajus, held public lectures and debates in the library. The Sports Club participated once in a parade in the city. “Zmir” with its choir held many concerts, as well as dramatic performances. But the economy was very bad.

In 1918 the occupation government left Poland, including Ostrowa. The government was taken over by a Polish anti-Semitic régime, which began an economic boycott of the Jewish population and heavily taxed the merchants and artisans. The Jews throughout Poland, including Ostrowa, were in for an economic decline.


United Youth Society 1918
Stand from right: Lejbisz Nejman, Herszel Frejdkies, Berel Frejdkies, Herszel Szwarc, Kronenberg.
Sitting: Alter Goldman and Berel Kacyn


The difficult economic situation caused young people to think about a way to fight back. Their way out was mass emigration. They went to Israel, America, Argentina, Uruguay, etc. The older generation stayed put and struggled to exist amid anti-Semitism that spread throughout the country.

At the time Hitlerism had taken hold in Germany and would take over Poland as well in 1939. Ostrowa was one of the towns taken over by the Hitler-régime and very quickly the town no longer had any Jews.

Right from the start, hundreds of Jews were slaughtered in the city marketplace. Thousands fled across the Russian border. Later, most of them would be killed by the Nazis, but a few would be saved by travelling deep into the Soviet Union.

The Nazi era erased every trace of the Jewish community in Ostrowa, which had been there for hundreds of years.

After these many sad events, I found many Ostrowers in various communities throughout the world. The largest was in North America, mainly in New York, concentrated around the Ostrower synagogue, Workmen's Circle branch and Ostrower-Zaromber union. They numbered about a thousand.

I am very proud of what Ostrowers accomplished economically and how they have never forgotten their hometown.

[Page 173]

Immigrants of the Third Aliyah in Israel in 1926


Standing from right: Fajncajg, Szuliewicz and his wife, Hendza Kremer, Fillar, Markusfeld and Chaim Wons.
Sitting: Rywka Kohn, Efrim Lewitow and his wife, Mrs. Hofman and Jakob Hofman.
Lying down: Kac and Malja Liwazer


Ostrowers in Montevideo, Uruguay

[Page 174]

1 September 1929 Betar


Farewell party for L. Kahan 27 January 1926


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