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[Page 97]


Translated by Selwyn Rose


The Holy Community of Sokółka

David Yardeni

Half-way between Grodno and Białystok dwells the town of Sokółka, surrounded by Polish villages and dense forests on three sides – Szyszki, Bucholova and Dumbrowa.

Szyszki and Bucholowa were summer-camps during the summer months for the town's residents starting from Shavuot until after Rosh Hashana.

In the Szyszki and Bucholowa forests, the young people of Sokółka spent their weekends and spare time, and school children had hikes there as well on Lag B'Omer

Sokółka was the county town; there was a railroad station, an important road junction connecting Bialystock, Grodno, Janów, Sidra and Sucha Wola.

Two rivers flowed in the vicinity of Sokółka: the Potsteich* and the Kuryły.

There was also an army camp outside the town, on the way to Krynki.

The houses in town were of wood or un-plastered brick, red bricks, houses of one or two storeys. The rooms had wooden floors, polished with red cream, wooden ceilings and tiles or log roofs. Most of the houses had cellars or attics for laundry or storage of Pessach table-ware and cooking utensils. The walls were covered with colored paper and the custom in town was to redecorate each year before Pessach by renewing the paper on the walls. The windows were double-glazed, especially for the winter, to stop the cold penetrating. Inside the houses were ovens that were used both as heaters and for cooking. Before Pessach, as the thaw set in, the double glazing would be removed and stored in the attic until the following winter.

Once the sealed windows were opened we could feel the scent of the approaching spring and sense the beloved tastes of Passover.

The streets were narrow and paved with rough cobblestones. Riding on a wagon or bicycle one could feel the constant bumping. The sidewalks were also narrow – just two paving-stones wide and at the edge a drainage gutter for the rain. During the summer the gutter was white-washed. Every citizen was responsible for cleaning the section of the side-walk in front of his house. Every morning, especially Monday, after the market, after the farmers had left the town, the men-folk would go out and clean up the street and the sidewalk of all the garbage, and horse- and cattle-dung that had been left behind. The whole aspect of cleaning up afterwards was the responsibility of the townspeople; the municipality took no part in the cleanliness of the town, it saw its function only in the gathering of taxes with no need to worry about providing public services to the citizens. The Polish police were most punctilious about the cleanliness of the town, not for the sake of cleanliness itself but in order to levy fines and collect them from the Jews.

During the thaw all the men would be out front of their houses with spikes and axes to smash the ice and clear the garbage off the cobble-stones.

In the town-center, at the Schulhof, were synagogues, Talmud Torah, the wayfarers' hostel, the Kotzker-Steibel and next to it the bath-house with its tall chimney, letting out prolonged siren calls inviting the townspeople to enjoy the facilities. Around the Schulhof were crowded the homes of the poor. The houses were low and the windows small.

Facing the Great Synagogue was the well. The neighborhood was called Fadel* and behind it spread the Christian neighborhoods: Zabrod* and Balkan*.

Białystok Street was the main street in Sokółka; in it were concentrated the Polish “Town Hall” and all the Jewish shops; Białystok Street reached as far as the “Town Hall” and then continued on as Grodno Street which ended mostly with Jewish houses as far as the end of town. In one direction the road led to Grodno and in the other to Białystok – and beyond to Warsaw, while in the opposite direction via Grodno and on to Vilna.

The street was forever in movement with buses and horse-drawn carts and wagons all the hours of the day. The town traders were not satisfied with Białystok alone and went as far as Warsaw for their trade and customers.

There were two wells of water in Ulitzki Street from one of which the people drew water. The municipality was in this street and further along the street lived the Jews and at the end of the street was a field which was the Jewish cemetery, ancient and surrounded by Christian fields. Among the gravestones sunken in the ground it was possible to read some signs of eroded Hebrew letters. These were the remains of the old cemetery among which were graves with many legends surrounding them, covered with small structures like tents, roofed with red tiles. Extending beyond the old cemetery is the new one, surrounded by a brick wall with a large gate.


2. The Kuryły River

There were several places used for swimming in Sokółka. There were swimming pools like Woda-Katzku, the “Lower Pool”, Zelwanski's pool in a fruit orchard on Białystok Street and there were two streams in Sokółka: one of them entered Sokółka from the direction of Białystok – the Potsteich* over which was a wooden bridge carrying horse-drawn carts


The teacher Haim Yerushavski


from the surrounding Polish villages and also cars traveling between Białystok and Grodno. The movement was constant and day-long. In those days, until the end of the First World War no one knew what swim-wear was and swam naked, therefore the Jews didn't use the stream as a swimming venue. The second stream – the Kuryły – flowed through a small Polish village far from the town, surrounded by green fields and copses of pine-trees. The youth of the town would spend time there on Saturday afternoons and school-children would have hikes there on Lag B'Omer. On the other side of the village was a high mountain overlooking the whole area and the stream cut through the village center. A wooden bridge led over the stream to a dirt road which in turn led to the two Jewish villages, Janów and Sucha Wola. At the other side of the bridge the stream fed a large lake from which the local Polish fishermen brought fish for the Jewish homes on Friday.

The river Kuryły was quite far from our town and in order to get there we needed to pass through the fields of the Gentiles – a route paved with dangers especially for children, from fear of the Schaksim (local bullies), and their wild dogs. When they got to the lake-shore with pounding hearts they jumped straight into the water. The children of Sokółka loved it and rushed to get there and enjoy the clear waters; they swam and played in the lake to the point of exhaustion, got out stretched on the grass, rested, “feeding their souls” – and then started all over again. The children from town spent hour after hour in the water and on the banks. Young and old waited with eager anticipation for the summer swimming season.

Not too far from the bridge on the way leading from Janów to Sucha Wola, on the left hand side stood the windmill of Haim Yossel Lawandyk. A small waterfall but with a powerful current flowed behind the bridge and drove the mill. The mill and the bridge were burnt down in 1915 during the retreat of the Russian Army.

Close to the bridge, on the left hand side, the men swam: the water was deeper there and only strong swimmers dared to swim out far from the shore to the center; there were many who knew how to swim. The teacher, Haim Yerushavski, was a good swimmer. On Fridays the swim-ming areas were swarming with people. The people swimming on these days were different to the usual crowd of the normal week-days. Most of them were older and most of them enchanted


On the banks of the River Kuryły


by the river and its cool waters. The Jewish community weighed down by the weekly struggle to make a living, threw their worries and cares off together with their clothes and the heavy load on their shoulders and jumped into the river; they swam, ducked and played like children, preparing to greet the Sabbath, refreshed and pure.


3. Market Day

The situation and way of life for the people of Sokółka was not a bed of roses. Most of them belonged to the middle-class, shop-keepers, artisans and a few of them simply laborers and idlers. The shops and restaurants were almost empty during the weekdays, except the grocery stores and butchers where there were always shoppers. People bought textiles, suits, shoes and


The Market Day in Sokółka


hats – the Jews only for festivals. The earnings from the Jewish community for all the tradesmen was poor, so the Jews of Sokółka waited eagerly for market day which occurred every Monday, because it was the day that they found most of their business among the farmers from the area.

The farmers brought their produce for sale: potatoes, butter and cheese, honey, apples, cherries, cattle and at the same time visited the shops and bought whatever they could find. In the restaurants the farmers sat eating salted fish, drinking beer and vodka; the Jewish tailors, cobblers, hatters, the blacksmiths – all had their hands full with work, for the farmers would order for the whole week. The hatters would display their wares at the market outside the Russian Church, erecting simple stalls on planks of wood leaning against the shop-front and sold their products. When the day ended they dismantled the shelves, taking the unsold goods in deep baskets and with a lightened spirit returned to their homes to prepare for the coming week's market.

The Christians wore hats on their head all year-round, especially in the winter. From the earnings of the market day the people of Sokółka sustained themselves for the whole week.


4. Medical Assistance

The medical help in Sokółka was in the hands of doctors who from time-to-time would leave and others come in their place, and two permanent medics: the Jewish Schmuckler and Noskie the virulent anti-Semite who was at the same time also a doctor and, as a doctor made no distinction between Jew and Gentile. He was utterly dedicated to healing the sick with all his soul. The Jews of Sokółka enjoyed the ministrations of the Feldschur* only for a short while before he left Sokółka for another town.

Apart from the doctors who knew something of medicine the knowledge of the two medics, Schmuckler and Noskie was limited; they had never learned any medicine in a formal institution or setting. For all that the residents of our town preferred the dressers to the doctors.

Also to be remembered favorably are the two elderly ladies, Riv'tcha Polkess and Ruch'ke Meilaks who cared for the health of the people using means that only they were experts in. Whoever was bothered by getting cinder in his eye would go immediately to Riv'tcha Polkess for first aid. The patient would sit on a stool facing her, open his eye and she would lick the injured eye until the offending particle was out of the eye and the patient left fit and well. Someone's cheeks were swollen? Ruchke Meilaks was the one to go to – she would take a boiled onion and massage the cheek with it whispering a prayer quietly for the health of the patient.

The midwives of our town also deserve the highest praise: Sima Jerushavski (the little midwife) Maschke Reichals-Lesden – Zippa Govinski, all of whom were dedicated heart and soul to helping those giving birth with the minimal facilities they had at their disposal.


5. The Modest Folk

It is possible to speak with a little pride about Sokółka; even the artisans, the wagon-drivers there were learned in Torah. Every laborer and artisan, even though lacking in formal education, knew how to read Hebrew and pray. In the old synagogue of the artisans, between the afternoon and evening prayers they sat learning from the Gemara and the “Shulhan Aruch” and Shabbat was dedicated to the Psalms.

Koppel the cobbler who worked all day and every day repairing shoes would dedicate his spare time between the afternoon and evening prayer studying the Gemara, which he already knew and understood well, while on Shabbat he taught the laborers of Sokółka Torah and Rashi in the synagogue.

Shmuel Hirsch the tailor, a simple Jew, God-fearing and busy the week-long with his work - on Shabbat changed his clothes and he would recite the Psalms in a loud voice with the congregation following him. The Psalms he knew by heart. Moshe Berl, the tailor and Isaac the hatter, they, too, after work dedicated their time to Torah study.

The wagon-drivers also were erudite in their knowledge of Judaism and whoever found themselves traveling with them on the long journey to Białystok to Janów or to Sucha Wola, would never be bored by the journey, the Talmudic decisions, the legends and Proverbs that the drivers knew to tell and expound, would make the journey one of unending interest.


Herschel the Driver


Zeid'ken the water-carrier
Zeid'ke the water-carrier


6. Educational Institutions and the “Tarbut” [a Hebrew word which means “Culture”] School

Sokółka can be proud of her achievements in the field of Hebrew education. There were 4 Hebrew schools in town defined as: “Heder M'tukan”, that of Hillel Levine, of the teacher, Nathaniel Kaplan, of the teacher Nahum Kunsht and of Haim Yerushavski. These schools provided for the children of our town Torah and knowledge, educational and cultural values, imbued in the children the spirit of Zionism and awakened the idea of pioneering. Indeed, many of the youngsters from our town realized their Zionism and at the appropriate time they rose up and immigrated to Palestine and became citizens there. Nearly all the Jewish citizens of Sokółka knew how to speak Hebrew. The “Heder M'tukan” didn't encroach on the normal “Heder” and “Talmud Torah” in which children, whose parents preferred the traditional “Heder”, learned.

The schools of the “Heder M'Tukan” were also religious, the teachers maintained tradition, the children had their heads covered, learned Gemara, Rashi and Tanach, just as in “Heder” except that in addition to what the religious curriculum taught, they learned general topics as well – mathematics, history and geography. The lessons were conducted in Hebrew and the children spoke Hebrew among themselves. They didn't sit at a desk like in “Heder” but on benches, two to a bench. Every hour there was a short break for games which the children loved very much.

On Lag B'Omer, the children would go for an outing to the surrounding forest. They enjoyed these outings immensely, in the company of their teacher. The festival of Lag B'Omer made an ineradicable impression on the school-children. The festival started with the children assembling in the school yard with military precision. After that there was a parade through the city streets in which all the children in the school took part, marching along in ranks of four, singing a Zionist song. All the townspeople, from all age groups from the very small and on upwards, stood watching the parade. Thus we marched through the streets of Sokółka on the way to the forest where we spent a lovely day singing, playing games and on the swings until in the evening we returned home happy – tired but happy and pleased.

During the winter evenings, the children would leave school and make their way home by torches made of greased paper, the handiwork of each child. There were also children who used a torch made out of a tin, covered with a wind-shield of sorts and a lighted candle inside.

In the winter the children would make slides on the ice and dawdle on the way home to make snow-balls to throw at each other, or to make a tall snowman while the snow fell in pellets on their face.

During break-time in school they would play various games - sometimes with money. The games were much loved by the children.

The seasons of the games were different, suited to three seasons of the year. In the summer after school, they went swimming in the Kuryły or in the pools (Wodo Kaczki) or Zwrod (Unteren Teich) (Koppelneias). In the winter skating on the ice of the Potsteich with sleds or even without, sometimes a sleigh on Mount Szyszki or Mount Isaac Liebngrov or Mount Haim Herschke. At the end of the swimming season they would assemble in Ya'acov Yehoshua Hertzan's yard and play a variety of local games including military games.


With the ending of the war between Poland and Russia a branch of the “Culture” school opened in Sokółka, affiliated to the central one in Warsaw which sent its teachers to our town. Most of the town's children attended the “culture” school. The curriculum included, among other subjects, gymnastics and singing. Between sessions was a recess. Apart from Bible studies the children also studied secular subjects: grammar, arithmetic, geography and history. The lessons were conducted in Hebrew. A Polish government school holding 8 classes was also opened in which Jewish children studied, especially the senior classes. A Polish Gymnasium waqs opened and there, too, Jewish children studied.

The names of teachers and pupils in Sokółka:- in the Mattfuss* school (“M'Tukan) were Hillel Levine, Nathaniel Kaplan, Nahum Kunsht, Haim Yerushavski. The teachers in the “Talmud Torah” were the Łomża Rabbi, the Odelsker Rabbi and the Shtabiner – their family names were not detailed only the honorary titles by which they were generally known. The teachers in the “Haderim” were Avraham-Itzchi, the Daradki teacher, the Reisener Teacher, the Kuźnicarer teacher, Yosef-Haim the Deretchin teacher, the Rachover Teacher , Moshe the Farabaress - the son-in-law of Moshe the house-decorator. (The teachers were named according to their home towns, like “The Łomżarer teacher, etc.).


7. Synagogues

There was a central synagogue and four Batei-Midrash in our town. Of the four Batei-Midrash three of them were concentrated in one area called the “Schulhoff”; the most notable of the synagogues was The Great Synagogue (Der Grosser Shul) which was most impressive! The Holy Ark was adorned with decorations and ornamental flowers and wonderful niches and carvings. The upper edges had wood-carvings of Cherubim facing each other and in the center, between them an arch with the tablets of the Ten Commandments carved on them, sparkling with gold paint; above the tablets two carved hands, fingers spread and touching in the symbolic position of the Priests' blessing the people. The tapestry covering for the ark was beautiful and embroidered with sparkling lettering illuminating one's eyes.

Next to the ark was the dais used by the Hazzan. There were two broad steps leading up from the dais to the Ark. The steps also served as a “stage” for the synagogue's choir that accompanied the Hazzan during prayers especially during the High Holydays. The Sanctuary was a large broad hall, high glazed windows with colored panes. The entry doors were high and wide. In the center of the synagogue stood a beautiful Bimah on which was the table for reading the Torah and conducting parts of the service. The congregation sat on benches placed around the Bimah. The walls shone. In front of the eastern wall was a chair placed symbolically for Eliyahu the Prophet. A high broad corridor gave access to the Sanctuary and on either side of the corridor two separate prayer-rooms one “Tiferet Bachurim” where the youngsters prayed. Spiritual guidance and leadership was provided by Rabbi Yisroel (“Der Novobranetz”), a black-bearded man of medium height, round-faced with small eyes. Always happy with his lot, G-d-fearing, a simple, honest man, he loved and pleased all mankind. He owned a grocery shop but devoted his time to the synagogue “Tiferet Bachurim”, worried that the children should receive a proper education in the spirit of tradition, religious and national, that they should find meaning to both religion and nation at one and the same time. At the termination of the Sabbath, he would “benchHavdalah over a cup of wine and chant meaningfully the prayer “Who maketh a distinction between Holy and profane.” The young people around him hummed in accompaniment. At the same time he would distribute among them candies and nuts and “other goodies”. At “Simchat Torah” when the whole synagogue sang and danced unceasingly Rabbi Yisroel “Der Novobranetz” competed with them in singing dancing and drinking…all in honor of the Torah. He danced – and made to dance – all present in the synagogue of “Tiferet Bachurim”. This was the style of Rabbi Yisroel who dedicated his life and his time for the sake of educating the children of Israel in the spirit of tradition.


The school of the teacher Hillel Levine


The “Heder M'Tukan” of the teacher Nahum Kunsht in 1908


The second prayer-room was that of the members of “Leinat Ha-Tzedek” (a communal charity organization dedicated to caring for the temporary homeless, destitute and wayfarers – S.R.), which enacted the commandments of visiting and helping the sick in the town. Prayers were held in the Great Synagogue only during the summer because there were no heaters there; prayers were held during the winter only in the Batei-Ha-Midrash. In the new Beit Ha-Midrash it was mostly the middle-class and the rich who prayed. In the third Beit Ha-Midrash –“The old Beit Ha-Midrash” it was the artisans, workers and laborers who prayed. In the fourth – “Beit Ha-Midrash – Shulhan Aruch” prayed a mixture of the wealthy and the middle-class and artisans. The fifth Beit Ha-Midrash was in the “Vorstadt” – the suburbs of the town.

Apart from these five synagogues there were also two synagogues belonging to the Hassidim (Shtiebeles ): the Kotzker Shtiebel and the Karliner Shtiebel; there the Hassidim of the town prayed. In the synagogue and in the Batei Ha-Midrash there were also official parties held for national and religious festivals – first of all of Russia and afterwards of Poland. On those occasions there would be speeches by notables who happened to be in town at the time. There were also meetings of the Community Committee and of the Zionist Federation. Marriages also took place next to the synagogues.

A Jew who wanted to pour out his heart to his Creator went to the synagogue. There, friends and acquaintances met as well to converse and discuss the events of the world: Politics, Zionism, elections, arguing about the events of the day.

The synagogue was the hub of life in the town. During the First World War the Jews sat in the old Beit Ha-Midrash debating the strategy of the army. The conqueror and the vanquished - they debated the tactics of how to conquer Sokółka. The “brainy ones” thought and decided that the German army would close the lines of retreat of the Russian Army and force a defeat with a clap of the hands; with the help of fingers they planned the movements of the Russian and German armies. They decided on policies – which for defeat and which for victory. In the synagogue the Jews of Sokółka sat and talked about Palestine, about the villages and the settlements, on the State of Israel which will arise, on the Jewish Army. All the dreams and ambitions, the dreams of immigrating to Palestine were woven and embroidered in the synagogue. In winter, during the long nights of the month of Tishrei, when outside was freezing cold, they would come, after Saturday night meal, to hear the week's chapter. Clustered round the table sat ordinary Jews as well as learned ones all seeking to hear the voice of the Torah. The lesson gave inordinate pleasure to the listeners.

The younger generation also found a place in the synagogue. The youngsters sat glued to their seats and listened to the captivating stories of the elders.


8. Shabbat in Sokółka

Shabbat in Sokółka could be recognized already early on Friday. The bath-house chimney started to blow its whistle with long blasts – an invitation to everyone to come to the bath-house and the Mikva. The bath-house was open only once a week, Friday, for Shabbat. In winter the bath-house was full of people from wall to wall. In the summer, people bathed in the river Kuryły or in the pools, where the waters were clean and clear.

On Fridays, the grocers' shops and the butchers were full of customers with the women-folk of Israel buying fish and meat, fruit and vegetables for Shabbat. There was a tremendous amount of preparation from Friday morning onwards in honor of the coming Shabbat. The housewives hurriedly preparing the fish, the cholent, the Kishke and the Tzimmes with carrots, potatoes and prunes, all filling the house with pleasant aromas. The girls washed the floors, dusted all round, cleaned the windows and the doors. Everyone worked, everyone was busy with preparing for the “Queen Shabbat”. The smell of the fish spread throughout the entire house and penetrated every corner.

For the children there was a special task – to carry the pots of prepared cholent to the bakers where the bakery's ovens, not used for Shabbat, stayed hot and were used to cook the cholent throughout the rest of the day and night and with their dying heat maintain it until after prayers on Saturday noon when the children would go and bring it home for Saturday lunch. The “festival” atmosphere was felt throughout the town. The Jews put down the yoke they had been carrying during the week, the cares of trying to make a living, struggling against the burden of taxes owing to the Polish government, dressed for a holiday, arraying themselves in their finest Shabbat clothes. The housewives lighted the Sabbath candles in their copper or silver candle-sticks and blessed them and the light of Shabbat spread through the whole house.

The streets also were dressed for Shabbat. Meyer “Der Shulrufer” would walk through the streets stood in the center of the road, raise his head, close his eyes and shout with all his strength “In Shul arein” – “Shul time!” – and as if the command came from above, the people rushed to fulfill the order. The shopkeepers closed their shops; the artisans stopped working and closed their workshops, the wagon-masters stabled their horses. Shabbat. The men of the house changed their work-a-day clothes for their finest Shabbat clothes. Every table throughout the town was covered with a white cloth with two covered challot as required, together with a bottle of Kiddush wine and a wine-cup. The father and sons went to the synagogue to pray and from on high and from all directions shone the “Light of Creation”.

Sokółka was a Jewish town; most of the Christians dwelt outside the town and those who did live in the town were not engaged in trade nor did they have shops – therefore they sensed the quietness of the streets like in the houses. All the shops were shut and the town rested from all work.

In the evening, after the evening meal, and after Saturday lunch, the sound of Sabbath hymns could be heard floating on the air from every house. And in the afternoon the youth would go out of the town towards the forest and there they would enjoy themselves with songs and Sabbath hymns.


9. The Days of Awe

As Shabbat finishes and the blessings for the new month of Elul are made, the atmosphere of the coming Days of Awe begins to pervade everything. The sound of the Shofar splits the air from the synagogue from the beginning of the month until after the Day of Atonement. People sew new clothes in honor of the festival and the hands of the tailors, the cobblers and the hatters are full of work.

The Hazzan rehearses the choir that is preparing itself to accompany him with the prayers during the Days of Awe and before that during the Selichot prayers.

The Gabai of the Great Synagogue is concerned that the sound of the prayers will be pleasing to the congregation. The choir would rely on the Hazzan and would help him. While the choir sang, he could take a moment's respite and gather his strength. As with many towns we, too, used to have a Hazzan who could also act as a ritual slaughterer and also perform the Brit-Milah.

In addition to the regular Hazzan of the Great Synagogue all the Batei Ha-Midrash had competent prayer-readers and many of them were blessed with pleasant voices. In the “Shulhan Aruch Beit Ha-Midrash there was Asher Selig Korakt, a good-looking learned man with a thick black beard; his prayers were pleasant to the ear. When he sang the Kaddisch or “Behold me, poor in deeds”, he would split the heavens and bring the congregation to rare emotion. He, too, was liked by the congregation of the synagogue and everyone related to him with affection and love.


Rabbi Asher Zelig Koreckt


Seder night at the home of Rabbi Gamliel Stein


The prayer-reader Yosef Meyer Marreiner also prayed in the “Shulhan Aruch” Beit Ha-Midrash a tall, wide-shouldered man with a thick black beard, a wise, learned, G-d-fearing man. His prayers were very pleasant and always fervent; standing in front of the Ark, he was lost entirely to his earthly surroundings. We also remember Altear – the Sexton – who had an excellent voice and was always happy.

Ezra, the Sexton of the “Old Beit Ha-Midrash” was a wonderful prayer-reader and he would enliven and hold the attention of the congregation with his warm voice. Rabbi Moni from the suburb congregation had a grey beard, his pleasant voice rose up on high when he chanted the prayers and the “Tachnunim” on Yom Kippur.


10. Erev Pessach

With the blessings of the new moon for Nissan in the spring, preparations began for the festival of Pessach. The first of all the women's work was to prepare rendered goose-fat to use in the cooking of many tasty dishes for the Passover festival. The aroma of the fat pervaded every Jewish home; its strong smell exciting and recalling the festival. After the fat comes the preparation of the four mandatory cups of wine. Even though there was plenty of wine in Sokółka, the folk preferred to make their own using honey for Passover. Every woman knew how to prepare it. It was a drink for reviving the soul. The shops were full of Jews buying cloth to make suits for the festival. The tailors, cobblers and hatters were overloaded with work and were forced to work day and night in order to complete the orders in time. There was not one Jew who didn't wear new clothing for Passover. The treasurers of the Talmud Torah donated suits for the poor children whose families were unable to provide one. The festival of Passover occurred after the ice and snow thawed and so the windows were opened, the house aired and the furniture taken out and the houses thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom. The wall-paper was renewed and the Passover tableware brought down from the attic and everything prepared for the Seder. Every child chose his favorite colored cup. The mortar and pestle were brought down from the attic and used to pound the matzoth into fine Matzo-flour and matzo-crumbs. Also brought down from the attic were the pottery-bottles and jugs. The children filled their pockets with walnuts, a game played by children in every country.


11. The Bakers

Little Pasca and Ud'keh the Baker

Shmuel-Yascha, Old Shtoffer and Kalischcz”lski invited builders to repair the ovens that had been neglected all the year because of the pressure of work baking daily bread. Now with Pessach here, the ovens were prepared and kashered for Pessach, workers were engaged and the baking of matzoth for Pessach began in all its urgency. The baking was done in shifts. When the matzoth were ready they were placed in a deep plaited basket, covered with a white cloth, and two children who worked in the bakery for wages, delivered the matzoth to the various houses.

On the night of the Seder there were raised spirits everywhere. Joy and happiness were felt everywhere. Voices raised with the songs and melodies of Pessach from the Haggada were heard coming from every house until late at night. The tables were laid with all the good foods imaginable, matzoth and wine, honey, horse-radish and fish, and all sorts of tasty things. People rid themselves of the week-day cares and responsibilities; every Jew felt himself to be as if a King on the Seder night. The people of Sokółka worried about the Jewish soldiers in the Polish army camp and arranged a communal Seder for them, presided over by members of the Community Committee. The Chief Rabbi of Sokółka. and army officers were also invited.


12. Weddings

It was usual in Sokółka to hold weddings in the home of Elyakam Rabinowitz, whose house had a hall on the second floor. The Chuppah was erected on a balcony facing the market square and the Russian church. After some time, when the “Literarischer Geselleschaft” rented the rooms for their own activities, the towns-people would arrange their weddings in their own homes or with Mataas the Tavern-owner on Białystok Street. In order to entertain their guests the hosts would hire the orchestra of David-Yitzhak, which included trumpets, a drum and cymbals. The noise of the orchestra would reach the street. They played the “Shereleh”, the waltzes and danced. The curious wandered round outside the house, peeping in the windows to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom. The guests danced to the music of the orchestra, the traditional comedian entertained the guests, the families distributed colored candles to the guests and with cries of “Maz”l Tov, Mazel Tov” echoing from every corner they start towards the bride's house. The Bride and Groom stride out in front and behind them comes David-Yitzhak and the orchestra playing “Chussan Calah, Mazel Tov”, the two families dance round the happy couple and kiss. Another new family comes to the town!


13. The Fire Brigade

Sokółka's fire fighters were born out of a group of volunteers, mostly Jews. The one in command was a Jew called Leibenberg. He owned a hat shop on Białystok Street. The rest of the brigade were Haim Herschke Farpacker, Zeidel Werner, Altear Freidels Epstein, Fischel Stein and some others. In order to alert the volunteer firemen in time of crisis or a fire, Neimka Monswitz mounted a white horse and rode through the streets blowing on a brass cornet or trumpet; this was the signal for them to report. The first to arrive at the meeting point – before the arrival firemen, were the children, and after them came the firemen in full array: brass helmet, grey topcoat, a rubber belt, white and wide with a red line down the middle. They formed up in two rows, numbered off and then changed formation to four by four with an officer at the head of each. They marched through the streets followed by a convoy of water-barrels and ladders loaded on wagons drawn by horses.

Their training program included such things as extinguishing fires, fire prevention, jumping from roofs, and climbing up ladders. The brave among them climbed onto the roofs, part of the force remained below and tightly held a tarpaulin and the man on the roof jumped, falling straight down onto the tarpaulin. The children looked upon the man as a kind of hero and envied him, especially his uniform and the axe in his belt. The Sokółka firemen made a fine impression and were dedicated to fire-fighting.

We must praise the important role played by the Sokółka firemen in extinguishing the blaze that occurred at the time of the retreat of the Polish army. The town was bombarded by Russian artillery. The shells fell on the center of town, in the market square, opposite the Russian church. The flames engulfed the entire street. Two complete rows of houses were totally destroyed. The firemen fought the blaze bravely and with dedication, endangering their own lives with the modest equipment at their disposal. The water was brought from the well, far from the site of the fire. The firemen had no machines or mechanical aids just wagons and horses loaded with barrels of water. Who knows how many houses would have gone up in flames if not for dedication of the firemen who eventually overcame and controlled the flames with much toil.


Sokółka's Fire Brigade


The Sokółka Fire Brigade outside the Town Hall


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