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[Page 263]

Our Shtetl's Past


Step by Step

by Yankel Czerow (Detroit)

Translated by Pamela Russ

Donated by Karen Shiller

[ ] Contains translator's remarks

1. General

Suchowola, a town like all the other small towns in the “Pale of Settlement.” A cemetery, a water mill, a river – this is the first thing that welcomes you. The cemetery was already very old. A long time ago there was already no space for new graves. So the cemetery was enlarged. They bought an additional piece of land, put up a fence, and made a new one. The cemetery served many purposes: a place after you've lived out your life, and on Rosh Khodesh Elul [the beginning of the Hebrew month Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashana] – for Kever Avos [the gravesites of parents], Tisha B'Av [the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a somber day of fast commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temples] after Kinnos [special prayers, elegies, recited on the day of Tisha B'Av] – to visit friends, and for children – to stick homemade swords into the graves, and to tear off the nuts [from the trees] that grew there. But nobody tried to eat them [the nuts] because they [the nuts] grew in the cemetery [tradition prohibits eating any food in a cemetery, or anything that grows there]. Just as in life, so after death the deceased were separated into classes: upper–class, middle–class, and Amkho [“Your People,” referring to the everyday people]. If somebody from the congregation owed money, the Burial Society retrieved the debt from the inheritors before the deceased was buried, no excuses accepted. The deceased could have been lying around [awaiting burial] for a long time but the Burial Society would not be swayed until everything was resolved. That's the accountability they required when someone was separated from the community from miserliness.

Having a position in the Burial Society went by inheritance and was linked to lineage and honor. There were incidents of Kvuras Khamor [“donkey burial”, referring to a dishonorable burial by the fence rather than within the cemetery proper], which means being buried by the fence. But this happened very rarely.

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If someone was deathly ill and the doctors had given up, there were two methods by which to rip the sick person from the claws of the Angel of Death: to cry in the synagogue at the Holy Ark, or to “tear open” the graves [with tears and cries]. This was the work of the closest family members.

An institution that belonged to the community, but was for the living, was the city [public] baths. This was found near the synagogue where there was also the city Mikvah [ritual bath]. On Fridays, the baths were attended by all at a cost of five kopeks. You received a bucket of water and a broom to steam and to beat yourself.

The person who had tenure at the baths was Gedaliah the Bather, who aside from that was the synagogue Shamash [beadle, sexton]. His job was to take care of the synagogue and every Friday night to call out: “Time to go to synagogue!” Young and old, all knew his chant. On the days of Selichos [days of special early–morning prayers preceding the High Holy Days] at dawn, he would bang on shutters and with the old traditional melody he would call out: “Wake up to serve the Creator!” Because of that he was also called Gedaliah the Shamash. There was no wedding or circumcision without Gedaliah. After he had a few drinks he would call out: “Lekhaim, to life!” He was also the town's undertaker. When he went “digging” with a shovel then everybody knew that there was going to be a funeral.

Also, the community had a meat tax, a payment that the government took for kosher meat.

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In order to get the concession, once a year they would come to Suchowola for an auction. Very often, this type of meat taxer would not get back his money – the town found a way to get out of having to pay this tax. Since the Polish towns were free from having to pay this tax, a town such as Stobin beat Suchowola with cheaper prices for meat. Therefore, the meat taxers stood outside the city on the road and searched every wagon to see if they were carrying meat. They had the right to confiscate the meat. Even so, enough meat came in this way. The rabbis sometimes helped this by putting out a prohibition on slaughtering meat outside the city.


2. Schools and Study Halls

The city was divided into two parts: “down” and “mountain.” So, the Study Halls were also separate, one on the mountain, and one “down,” near the synagogue that belonged to the entire town. Near both Study Halls, there were steibelekh [small, informal prayer houses] for various groups: “Khevra Tehilim” [group for reciting Psalms], “Khevra Torah” [group for Studying Torah], “Khevra Mishnayos” [group for Studying the Mishna and interpretations]. These groups would pray in their own place only on Shabbath, but not on the High Holy Days.[1]

With time, there were many dissatisfied people in the two Study Halls, who left and built a new Study Hall near Leishke Pesakh's. The name “the New Study Hall' remained to the end. Even though the “down” Study Hall was supposed to service the “down” people, many “mountain” people came there too, particularly from “high society,” such as Leizer Khana's (Yaffa), Itamar, Khatzkel Piaczker. Each Study Hall had an equal number of sacred items [pertinent for the Study Hall]. The khazzan [cantor] had his set day in each Study Hall, but never in the New Study Hall, because it was difficult for him to walk there because of his older age. In the later years, there was also a cobbler's Study Hall.

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In the Study Halls, they used to come to pray, but they would also come to hear Magidim [migrant story tellers who recounted anecdotes with moral content] who would come here from time to time. A “pedestrian” [not well–known, just passing through] Magid didn't have much good fortune, not too many people came to hear him and he used to have to go across town to collect some groshen [coins] for his lecture. It was very different with a well–known Magid. This type of person could have stayed in town for several weeks and tell over stories every day to a crowd. One such Magid, by the name of Kohen, stayed in town for a few months and did not captivate the people too much with his lectures as much as with his beautiful singing. The crowd did not tire of coming to hear him every day.

When the Khovevei–Tzion[2] movement began, and later the Zionist movements, the Magidim no longer came to town, only preachers and speakers. They busied themselves now not with lectures about hell and heaven, but they were awakening the world to Zionism. In the first years, their labors were crowned with success. An organization was founded whose goal was to sell stocks for the colonial bank as on installments. The treasurer was Yankel Szajnes. Also, the shekel took up a major position [became prominent]. It looked like a Messianic movement that believed in Dr. Herzl as the redeemer.

In the years 1904–5, when the pogrom waves and the anti–Semitism took root in the Pale of Settlement, the Beis Hamedrash [study hall] became the location for discussions especially on Shabbath during twilight [just before the conclusion of Shabbath]. “Hatzefirah” [“The Siren,” the first Hebrew language newspaper printed in Poland] and “Hamelitz” [“The Advocate,” weekly Hebrew, progressive newspaper printed in Tzarist Russia] explained to the readers what was going on in Warsaw, and Peterburg, and the news in the Russian “Duma” (parliament). Because of these discussions, the congregants forgot that it was already time for the evening prayers, and that soon the extra soul [acquired for the Shabbath] would leave and the daily concerns of earning a livelihood would take its place. Among the curious listeners were idlers who were distant from real life and didn't see beyond their four amos [own space].

Once, on Shabbath evening, in the new Beis Medrash

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Koppel Magid stood up and relayed the news of the week to the congregants, about Purishkevich [1870–1920 right–winged ultra–nationalist politician in Imperial Russia] who day in and day out called for pogroms. Everybody became very concerned. Not knowing what to do, suddenly Reuven Melamed's son–in–law, Reb Yakov Jakimowski, a great scholar but also a na├»ve person, came forward and very simply offered the suggestion that all the rabbis should excommunicate Purishkevich and his end would undoubtedly come.

From time to time, a khazzan [cantor] came to town. Sometimes just for a weekly evening prayer and sometimes for the prayer welcoming the Shabbath. If he “made a deep impression,” they would already come after him one Shabbath on the mountain and one Shabbath on the bottom. Once, a khazzan by the name of Skobelow arrived, “put away” [performed magnificently] an evening prayer and made a huge impression. He remained with us for the entire summer and for a long time after he left our town the people could not forget about him and kept singing his “pieces.”

Except for Gedaliah Shamash [beadle], we had no other well–known beadles. There was Feivel the Shamash from the bottom Beis Medrash, who was old and sick, and no good for anything. On the mountain, there was Moshe the Shamash. After his death, there was Leibel, his underling, a miller, and he was also a leader of morning prayers. In the new Beis Medrash there was Khaim Aryeh, a Torah scholar Jew, and he was also a melamed [teacher].

Of all the societies that the shtetl had, the most important was the Linat Hatzedek Society [a charity organization for medical purposes]. There was no doctor in town, but from time to time a medic would come. Therefore, the Linat Hatzedek was actually the only institution that attended to the sick. They contacted Linat to ease family situations that were already overextended. Every night, several of the Linat group would come and stay until morning. Other than that, they would also lend an “eiz–fenkhar” (half rounded tin), syringes, and so on to a sick person. This all was under the management of Zalman Melamed. If a sick person came with a note from a medic

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he received the necessary medical care. If they were busy with another sick person then he had to wait with his stomach ache until the other became better. Linat Hatzedek would also give free wine to sick people to give them strength after they made it through a dangerous situation.


3. Baalei Tefilos [Prayer Leaders]

Suchowola, more than any of the other surrounding towns, was blessed with Baalei Tefilos [prayer leaders]. At the top was the city's khazzan, Reb Yisroel Szlosberg, born in Brostowycz. As a young man he came to us for a trial and then stayed his whole life as the city's khazan–shokhet [cantor–ritual slaughterer]. He was a Jew with a beautiful countenance and an outstanding voice, a great singer who attracted love and respect. It is sad that such a personality in the world of cantors was lost in the small town, and was not well–known in the broader world. But this happened because he had a personality where he was happy with his lot and never chased after great fame.

Our small town was destined to have one of the greatest cantors. His home

Caption: Nisel Yoshe's Berelkowski

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was always a gathering place for musicians. Thanks to him, many young men became fine Baalei Tefilos. But he had a tragic old age. For a long time, he was bedridden with illness. He did not leave his bed until his death. His memory remained endeared to everyone that knew him. Of all our Baalei Tefilos, Nisel Yoshe's was the famous one. Besides his strong voice and musicality, he was also a Jew who was a Torah scholar. His entire life, he was involved with business, and as a Baal Tefilah he received no payment. His prayers remained in people's memories, with their sincerity and warmth. His Neilah prayer [closing prayer on Yom Kippur] was unforgettable in the large synagogue. The last rays of the sun shone in through the small windows high up. With their last bits of energy, the congregants recited the closing prayers. Suddenly, Reb Nisen [*translator's note: the name is written as Nisel then Nisen, referring to the same person], with his lion's voice, sang out: “Our Father, our King, open the Gates of Heaven!” And for everyone it appeared that the heavens were open and the Creator of the World and His angels signed and sealed the people in for a good year. Reb Nisen died young, at the time of World War One.

The two sons of Welfke Kruczel–of–the–Wall, were also fine prayer leaders: Khatzkel Enni Rokhel's and Mordekhai Yosel. They were talented Baalei Tefilos with their sweet voices. The first, Reb Khatzkel, spent a few years as a Baal Tefilah in New York. When he was in Suchowola, the neighboring towns grabbed him up. There was always a contest between Jagustow and Bialystok as to who could “grab him up.” One year, when he remained at home and prayed in the large synagogue, there was no room even to stand. His pure, clear, and sweet voice reached far and pulled you in. Wherever he led the prayers, all the youth followed him.

He was known for his refinement. Along with his wife Enny Rokhel

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Caption: Khatzkel Enni Rokhel's Kruczel

he was always busy helping orphans, widows, and feeding the hungry. Until the last day, he was the supervisor of the Hakhnosas Orkhim [organization that attends to the needs of visitors]. He knew from whom to take and to whom to give, and was loved by all.

In the later years, Mordekhai Yosel left to America and until the end held a very honored position as Baal Tefilah in the largest Detroit synagogues.

Khatzkel Piasker was also a Baal Tefilah with a reputation. He never left the town and was the permanent Baal Tefilah in the “down” synagogue. Nutke the Shokhet [ritual slaughterer] was a fine Baal Tefilah, and was especially outstanding with his heartfelt Neilah [closing prayer on Yom Kippur]. Khaikel the dyer did not really have a voice, but was one of the finest “reciters.” His praying provided spiritual pleasure.

Yekusiel the tailor was a fine Baal Tefilah of the morning prayers as well as a great Jew. Other than his beautiful praying, he was also the rebbe [teacher] of the Mishna study group for his entire life. The learning schedule was: on Shabbath, from 3 AM until the commencement of morning prayers, and then after lunch until the time of minkha [late afternoon prayers]. During that time period for one whole year, he and the study group covered the entire mishnayos. And on each

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Channuka there was a celebration [marking the conclusion of the study] with a large, prepared feast.


4. Our Teachers

Teaching by us, was as in every other town. Every shlemazel [idler, unlucky person] who had nothing to do, went to teach. But even so, each child even the poorest, learned how to pray, learned a chapter of chumash [Five Books of Moses] with Rashi [commentary], and this was the result of the work of these homely teachers.

“Shprintze Moshe Yirmiyahu's” was an elderly woman. She took care of the children as her own children and grandchildren, and educated them with the greatest warmth. Before daybreak, the children were already sitting on her doorstep waiting for the door to open. The child was under her watch for a few terms, and then he went for teaching to her husband, for chumash and Rashi. His school was in the same house, but beside a different wall. In the winter evenings, the children would sit in cheder [religious school] until ten at night, studying chumash by the light of a wax candle which everyone had to bring along with him. In the late night hours, the children went home by the light of the lantern that they made by themselves. In order that the light shine through, they made paper “walls” smeared with oil. More than once, the handiwork caught fire on their way home.

A well–known teacher at that time was Yankel Karpinicer. He was a son–in–law of a Karpinicer resident. This was a village not far from Suchowola. His level of teaching was already a higher one, from the Prophets to Gemara [Talmud commentary]. He was a respectable and fine Jew, and other than on the Thursdays, which was Judgement Day [exam day] for the weekly studies, he was even loved by his students. No anger, no bitterness, with a perpetual smile, so the children went eagerly to school. The children got “smacks” for not knowing the lessons, but even then his punishments were gentler; if the boy himself asked

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and even begged [for mercy] seriously, then he got away with half the dirt [repercussions], as opposed to the one who was stubborn and didn't want to encounter what was coming to him. The teacher did not make a living from his teaching. And while still in his younger years, he left for America and found other work.

Among the greater teachers, were: Yakov Mordekhai the feather man [sold feathers for stuffing, etc.]. His students were already of bar–mitzva age [13], but they had terrible problems with him. He had difficulty speaking [stuttered], so he was always embittered and punished the boys for the smallest misdeed. His punishments consisted of pinches, tearing off pieces of flesh. Those who sat closest to him suffered the most. From his cheder, there was the crossing to Velvel Czalel's, or to Zalman the melamed [teacher]. He [Zalman] used to choose his students. He would never go on chol hamoed [interim days of Jewish holiday of Passover and Sukos] to look for his students, but it was an honor for both the father and the student to be selected by Zalman. And since his total was from ten to twelve students, it was really difficult to have him as the teacher. In winter around Channukah time, and in the summer right after Shavuos, was the time to secure a place for the student for the coming year.

After completing Reb Zalman's cheder, the boys would go to yeshiva [higher grades of religious school], or remain a “genteel boy.” It was rare that, just coming out of Zalman's cheder, a young boy would become a worker. In those times, this was considered a low level. If a student was exceptionally talented, he considered the boy as one of his own. So, all the better students from the towns were actually his students. He [Zalman] was of weak disposition, but still he did not withhold any of his strength from his students.


5. Jobs [Employment]

In the town there were: a water mill and taverns. Earlier, there was only one, Khaim–Yankel's tavern. Later, two more opened, Daniel Szkliar's and Tuvia Khacze's. A few families earned their living from Khaim–Yankel's tavern: He himself along with his sons: Szeime, Gedalya, Avrem'el

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Iser, and Hershel. He also had partners: Daniel Szkliar and Tuvia Khacze Khaya Soroh's. Later, Daniel left and built up one of the most beautiful and largest breweries on Korpowyczer Street. Because of his business aptitude the whole beer business went to him [Daniel] and this was the beginning of the downfall of “Khaim Yankel's dynasty.” And now, Daniel remains the only brewer for Suchowola and the surrounding area. He was just about the richest Jew in town, was very respected and distinguished. But with the uprising of the Polish government and its devices of pushing Jews out of business, all the decrees did not forget Daniel, and this brought the downfall of his tavern.

The mill also has historical background: The “courtyards” around the towns, just as the mills, were in the possession of the Polish nobility until the Polish uprising. The same was true for the mills in Okopy, Suchowola, and Karpowycz. The same was true with the “courtyards” behind Grodzhysk, Karpowycz, and so on. When the uprising was supressed, all these possessions went over to the Russian nobility. The same thing happened with the Suchowola mill where Berel Milner remained. When Berel died, the mill went over to Khaim Leizer Liwerant, Zelig Karpowycz's son, who had a very respectable life. He died in World War One at the hands of Polish murderers al kiddush Hashem [in sanctification of God's Holy Name].

Suchowola was well–known for its horse trade, which was not always “kosher.” The business, however, was in fine hands, such as Nisel Yosze's, Yosze Leizer's, Avrohom Kirzhner, and others who ran businesses primarily with Germany.

There was lively trade going on between the village and the city: grain, steelworks, saloons, bakeries, and dry goods. Carpentry [woodworking] took a large place in Suchowola. The work was prepared in the summer months, and completed

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in the winter nights and sold in the surrounding fairs. The largest number of carpenters consisted of poor people. The other jobs, smithies, tailors, shoemakers, cabinet makers, were all connected to the city and the village. The cabinet makers, shoemakers, and tailors that worked in the village did not wait for the farmer to come to them. Everyone had his customers to whom he went, from house to house, village to village. And [when he] finished working with one family – he left to the other family, finished with one village – then went to the next village. He left his house Monday morning and came back Friday evening. His greatest challenge was with food because he ate kosher food. These village earnings only went on during the winter when the farmer stayed at home and took this time to bring all his business in order. In the summer months, he worked at home and did his sales at the fairs.

Another business that went on between the city and the village was linen that the female farmers worked by themselves. They sowed the flax, spun it, wove it, and bleached it in the summer sun. This was a big business for export. The linen merchants went from village to village buying up the merchandise. The business was not so kosher especially in measuring that was done with lightning speed so that nobody who was standing around would notice how the measurer quickly pulled the linen from one arshin [a measure of length formerly used in Russia, equal to 28 inches] to the other. In the business vernacular this was called: “measured.” In general, this “measured” gave the whole profit because of the great competition [that existed].

Another business was: the “koribelnik” [peddler]. His work consisted of driving around from house to house selling things for household needs for trading, such as rags, iron, bones [fruit pits], sometimes – a sheep, a goat, some pig hair, eggs, chickens. The peddler brought these things into town and sold them to: Avrohom Welente's, Moshe Furman, Shmuel–Yitzkhak, and so on. They would take these things to Bialystok or to Grodno.

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The market that took place on Sunday or Thursday was the greatest source of profits. In these days it was lively in town. The village brought in everything of which they had extras: grains, horses, livestock, wood, potatoes. From the money that they earned, they were able to buy to their hearts desire. Driving by, each wagon had a few drunkards in there and they made everything festive.


6. Our Youth

Up until his bar–mitzva years, each child, poor and rich, had to go to cheder. Only when a young boy finished cheder did his problems begin. The question arose: What is this boy going to do? There was no immigration to America yet, and factories only existed in the large cities. It was easier for the tailor, the shoemaker, or the carpenter to answer that question. Even more so, he could hardly wait for this opportunity so that he wouldn't have to bear the burden by himself. Right after the bar–mitzva, the young boy became an extra hand; end of idler.

Their problems began when a child demonstrated that he had better skills, a sharp mind, that he could “crawl through” a page of gemara, was already looking into a Moreh Haloshon [commentary, religious book written by Khaim Tzvi Lerner of Dubno, 1887], or into a Russian grammar book, and wanted to “do something with his life.” His father wanted to be proud of his son, maybe even live so long to see that his son became a rabbi. In those times, that was the greatest dream of every parent. But he could not send him away to a larger city for a yeshiva, because it was only with great difficulty that he hardly had earnings for the week.

Caption: Khaim and Yehoshua [Yeshia] Goperstajn

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There was no youth movement, no library, where a young boy could evolve by himself. Tens of youths would go around aimlessly in the streets with sticks in their hands and wait for a Russian conscript or for their chuppah [bridal canopy]. Nonetheless, by themselves, without anyone's help, every generation produced interesting personalities. From the earlier generation, well–known were: Zalman Leizer Khana's [Yaffa], Alter Icze the dyer's, Khaim Yankel's son, Leibel Frajman, Velvel Elijahu Gershon's, Mendel Nutke the Shokhet's. A generation later: Yudel Enni–Rukhel's, Leizer Motke's, Khaim Shajnke's, Zajdke–Daniel–Khana, Simkha and Daniel Kopel Magid's, Shmuel Izek Franczus, and others.

The last generation was a lot more interesting. Just as the entire country, our town was also given a jostle. The newspapers “Hamelitz” [The Advocate], “Hazman” [The Times], and later there was “Der Freint” [The Friend], “Heint” [Today], “Moment” [Moment]. The time was rife for a library, in secret, without a permit. Everybody threw himself into the work to acquire books, money, and a location for the library. All this was organized by Shajnke Motte's.

The youth started to live and enjoy bringing out their unused skills and strengths. They organized readings, discussions, and occasionally – a presentation. The library began to serve as a culture center for the youth. Yankel Hershe's son, who left to Canada, later answered the question about where he got his education with the greatest frankness: “My gymnasia [high school] and university were the Sucholower library.”

In the years 1905–1906, the first rays of freedom appeared across the entire Russia, and also the pale of settlements became flooded with socialist ideas. By that time we already had a highly developed youth. It happened that when the Bund [a secular Jewish socialist movement] would send in an agitator he could already do nothing because the youths from other parties were already enlightened and aware.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Mishnayos refer specifically to study of the Mishna. Studying the Talmud would be considered a more serious activity for the main study halls. Less serious study was common to the shtiebels. Return
  2. Khovevei Tzion was an organization founded as a forerunner to modern Zionism promoting Jewish immigration to Israel. Return


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