Translated by Eszter Andor
Bendet Nisht (Barukh Niv)
When the Russian troops started to retreat from Eastern Prussia under the pressure of Emperor Wilhelm's army in 1915, the Russians needed a scapegoat that could be blamed for their defeat. They found it soon: the Jews! An order was issued at once to expel them from all settlements near the border and the front lines. Long lines of wagons appeared on the roads, packed with homeless Jewish refugees yearning to find a place where they could shelter with their families. Many of them stopped in our town Krynki and settled here.
A Committee for the Homeless was soon set up to provide them with a roof over their heads, as well as with food and clothes. The committee had several sections and one of them was responsible for cultural matters. Its activists led by Sonya Fel, Yakov Kirzhner, Bendet Nisht, Pinkhas and Menase Garber, and others devoted themselves to teach and educate the innocent homeless children so that they would not, God forbid, remain backward in their spiritual development.
With the help of some teachers, such as Leah Nisht, Breyne and Esther Terkl and others who, although still almost children themselves, were unselfish idealists, the cultural committee succeeded in establishing a three-grade Hebrew elementary school for both homeless and poor children of the town. The little voices of the pupils soon rose from the classes and delighted the teachers and the founders of the school amidst their hard work.
Around Tisha be-Av of 1915 during the First World War, the entire Jewish population lived in deadly fear of each new day. One morning the rumor spread that the Jews of Krynki would soon have to leave the town because of the great Russian defeats on the whole battle front and the advance of the German army. The entire region between Grodno and Bialystok was classified as a strategic zone since the Germans concentrated immense forces in the region of the two big fortresses in Grodno and Osowietz. The Germans besieged the Osowietz fortress for six months and the shelling could be heard in our town. It was reported that the Jews of Grodno, just as those of the nearby shtetls, were expelled into the heart of Russia. We feared and expected that it would soon be our turn and we would have to abandon our homes and trades. It was especially frightful to think that the Gentiles would appropriate all our properties after we left the town.
And we would talk among ourselves about the imminent distribution of our property like this: Look, there is Tzapan, the limping shoemaker from Sokolker street, standing on the marketplace with a band of Gentile lads around him. He is showing his friends with his thick stick which shop and its stock he will inherit when the Jews flee the town. Or take Yurhilo, the wet tannery worker, who walks around barefoot with his feet black and bruised and begs some kopecks from the Jews every Friday. He wants nothing less then Itshe Mostovlionske's brick house!
The entire local police force ran away from Krynki one night and abandoned the shtetl. An officer with a group of barefooted soldiers took over the power, declared a state of war and proclaimed himself interim commander. We all feared that he might order us to leave the town.
One evening a whole crowd of Gentiles descended upon us with spades and axes on their shoulders. At first we thought that they were rioters ready for action but it soon turned out that they were sent to Krynki to dig trenches against the attacks of the enemy. We learned from the Gentiles that they came from Sopotzkin where they had also dug such trenches, but German planes flew over them and started dropping bombs and in the end they were forced to retreat. Thus we learned again that the Germans were close to Grodno. Meanwhile Virion's grove was cut down to make room for the trenches. The Jewish youth was not hired for this work even though many of them would have been eager to earn two rubles a day. The Jews were excluded from the war operations because of dreadful false accusations against our brethren, the sons of Israel, which said that we were on the side of the Germans and even supported them in many ways. Naturally, after such rumors the Jews could not expect anything good either from the Gentile population or the Russian soldiers.
The pits were finished, ready to be used in battle but a miracle happened and the Russians had no time to use them. The Germans arrived and the Russian army was forced to retreat. As they were retreating they burned down everything on their way. Flames were blazing in all the villages around Krynki. The Russian soldiers spent a whole night trying hard to burn the great water mill which was not far from the town. But as if to spite them, the wooden wheel, which was thoroughly wet, did not catch fire and the mill remained intact. Later when the Germans came into Krynki the mill became very useful: all the poor Jews could go and grind a pood (a Russian weight of about 36 pounds) of rye there to bake bread for their families.
Under the Pressure of the Occupier
Translated by Jerrold Landau
by Shamai (Shima) Lider
Translated by Jerrold Landau
As is known, the economic situation in Krynki during the time of the German occupation of World War I was very bad, as it was in the entire occupied area. The tanneries stopped their work. The situation of the shopkeepers and the merchants was not bright. Most of the shops were pillaged during the time of regime change, other than those of iron implements and agricultural machines, for the soldiers were not very interested in such merchandise at that time.
The hunger began to show its signs upon the masses. Entire families, with adults and children, would go to the fields to collect the left-over produce after the potato harvest. Even if the farmer had combed over his field a second time to retrieve potatoes that were hiding here and there, the people who came from the town would dig the ground once again, and, after great effort, find a few small, inferior potatoes. They would also spread out to the forests far from the city to collect wild berries or mushrooms in the summer, and to cut trees for cooking and heat. On occasion, we would even sneak into the nearby forest of Wyrion to cut dry trees, even though it was forbidden.
Once, a full convoy from our street was found as we were returning home with our cut-down bounty on our shoulders. We succeeded in escaping in all directions. However, one was caught and interrogated (Nyunia Stambler), and was unable to withstand the beatings. He gave over our names. We were summoned to a trial and fined. Some of us were also sentenced to jail. I remember how they came to arrest Mother. The Jewish translator Shabtai Chajes gestured to us children to burst out in great crying. We obeyed, and wailed and screamed, Mother, Mother! until they released her. At the end, we were freed from this tribulation.
by Shamai Kaplan
Translated by Jerrold Landau
As the Russians retreated in the autumn of 1914, Rabbi Zalman Sender left the city. Only one rabbi remained. The conquering Germans imposed their regime, and the Jewish community began to live its life in a restricted fashion during the period of occupation.
The majority of the community, who were observers of tradition, were faced with the problem of appointing a spiritual leader. In 1916, the synagogue people gathered together and invited Rabbi Weintraub, a refugee from Kovno, to serve as the rabbi of Krynki. He was an educated man, filled to brim with Judaism and its Torah, as well as with general education. He was also proficient in languages, including German. Rabbi Weintraub gathered together a group of lads and taught them a page of Gemara each day. I was one of them. We would go around from home to home in the city every Friday to collect money for the rabbi's weekly salary.
The German occupation regime, with its stringencies and decrees, led to a situation where many heads of families became impoverished to the point of struggling for a loaf of bread. At that time, there were some Jewish youths who collaborated with the Germans and profited from this. Rabbi Weintraub was a man of the humanist school. On Sabbaths after the third Sabbath meal he would deliver a sermon in the home of Yehuda Worlinsky, mainly on topics of morality, and he would speak out against this. There were those in the audience who understood his innuendoes about those serving the needs of the Germans, but they would not disclose who they were.
One day, he was summoned to appear before the district captain, and he found favor in his eyes. The captain recognized that he was a rabbi, and even agreed to free his Gemara lads from the forced labor that was taking place at that time, for he interceded on their behalf. As Passover approached, he also received from the Germans potatoes, which were in short supply, to distribute to the poor of the town. We carried this out on a volunteer basis. Thus did the prestige of the rabbi increase greatly.
However, this was not acceptable to some of those who were close to the regime, who were afraid of bankruptcy. They began to search after him. One Friday, as I was walking with Moshe Marain through the Kowkoz quarter to collect money for the rabbi's salary, several youths followed after us, and started up with us, leading to a dispute. From that time, they began to persecute us in various ways. We were even taken to forced labor. They damaged the rabbi's reputation, claiming that he was spying, so to speak, against the German regime.
Finally, they succeeded in bringing about a situation where one Friday, Rabbi Weintraub was ordered to leave Krynki within 24 hours.
Translated by Eszter Andor
When the Germans entered Krynki, the Jews in the surrounding communities sighed with relief. At first the Jews felt liberated from the Russian regime which had discriminated against them and persecuted them, and threatened their physical survival for many generations.
But a harsh occupational regime established itself very soon. There began a series of forced labor on the highways. Food and various merchandise such as leather, metals and chemical products were requisitioned. Unemployment started after the requisitioning of the small piles of supplies and the prohibiting of leather production, which led to the closing of even those few tanneries that still remained in Krynki. Free movement was restricted and a special permit had to be acquired if someone wanted to leave the town for example. It was prohibited to take in and out of town, food an other products of primary necessity, etc.
Commerce came to a standstill. Many shops and businesses had been plundered during the retreat of the Russians and most of the remaining goods were soon requisitioned or bought up and what was left vanished due to all the smuggling and speculations that went on.
Serious food shortage, turmoil and immense scarcity sprang up. The Jews, young and old alike, set out to the nearby villages to get whatever products they could from the peasants, whose cattle and grain had also been confiscated by the Germans. People were lucky enough if they returned home with a little piece of hard village bread, a little barley or rye and the like for themselves and the rest of their household.
Even those who still had some savings soon lost it when the order was issued that all Russian rubles had to be exchanged into the worthless banknotes of the occupying power. An evil decree was also issued which ordered the selling of all copper products, (including household articles such as door-handles, frying pans and other tableware), to the German lord for almost nothing. The wind of poverty started to blow soon in the Jewish homes. The time of hunger and need arrived when, as Krynki Jews describe it in their memoirs, mothers and sisters, wrapped in tatters and with clogs on their feet, poured out of all corners of the town at daybreak and tread the fields for 20 versts (about 13 miles) to find a forgotten stalk of rye or a frozen rotten potato. Others also went to the nearby woods to gather a little waste wood to cook and warm themselves.
on the highway leading to Little Brestovitz
Meanwhile the Jews of Krynki did not sit idly. They sought ways to make both ends meet and endure the bad times. They leased orchards and gardens from landowners in the neighborhood of the town and dozens of families made a living out of growing potatoes for years. Others took up impromptu trades of the times: the more adventurous engaged in smuggling forbidden goods from one zone to the other, while the less daring became coachmen who transported these goods and made a living from this. It is true that some of them would have made a better melamed [teacher of children in cheder] than have anything to do with a horse and a coach, writes a Krynki Jew, but they did not have an alternative. People also tried to make a living out of other things as far as they could.
When the front line approached Krynki during the First World War most of the leather factories evacuated into the heart of Russia. After the entry of the German troops into town, the remaining tanneries were closed, the factory yards were overgrown with wild grass. The raw materials were left lying around, the tanks were dry, the rolls and the benches were covered with cobweb.
The huge abandoned factory yards were a paradise for the cheder youth. There, they jauntily and happily played hide and seek, and Cossacks and robbers. The hundreds of poles left there served often as guns, swords and for playing devils.
D. R. N
Soon after the entry of the Germans in town, a radical change could be felt in Jewish cultural and social life in the nearby occupied territories. As the front line was approaching Krynki the Jewish members of the Russified circles were the first to leave the shtetl and go to the heart of Russia and those who remained were deprived of their spiritual nourishment. Russian language was withdrawn from circulation. The Germans banned it from the educational institutions and from social life in general and they even prefered Yiddish, which was close to their own language and which they thought could serve as a tool in Germanizing the population.
Yiddish, which the nationalist Jews had always regarded as a shield which protected the Jews from assimilation and as a natural tool for the development of Jewish culture, was maintained for some time, despite the general conditions.
The Jewish public, especially the youth, experienced not only bitter economic deprivation but also spiritual distress. People yearned for opportunities to enjoy themselves and drive away the oppressive mood, hear a little Yiddish and gain some spiritual pleasure.
When the Germans started to allow the organization of various performances the income of which was to be donated to help the needy, the Jews of the nearby towns and shtetls soon set up associations to cultivate Yiddish arts and drama, at first with the above-mentioned aim.
In Krynki, too, a Literary Society was quickly founded by leaders of various social groups, and literary evenings and other events were organized. The association set up a drama circle which ventured to produce plays in Yiddish a delight that the Russian regime had forbidden and that the Jewish public had not tasted for years. A fresh spirit entered the shtetl and reached even those who had until then been far from Yiddish culture in all its manifestations.
Beside their activities in the general Literary Society and in the drama circle, the Zionists, especially the youthful Tzairei Zion, which had organized itself undercover in the meantime, also opened a special gathering place, the Center. This label served as a disguise under which illegal Zionist activities were carried out as far as it was possible in those times.
Young teachers and activists undertook, with a lot of energy and devotion, the education of Jewish children The Hebrew elementary school was opened again and later a Yiddish elementary school was also established by labor leaders. Meanwhile, however, the occupying forces looked around and opened their own schools where teaching was in German with the intention to abolish Jewish education. The Germans demanded the introduction of German as the language of instruction in the Jewish schools and when the Jews resisted this they closed the Jewish elementary schools, although this did not make the German schools more successful. The Jewish schools opened again later.
The Literary Society also suffered from the occupying power. The situation changed only after the revolution in Germany at the end of 1918.
It is 1916. We are in the middle of the First World War. Krynki, like all Lithuania, is occupied by the German army. An intensive cultural revival can be felt in almost all the towns and shtetls and Krynki, of course, cannot lag behind. A Literary Society was founded in our town at once under the leadership of the brightest forces, such as the teacher Eynshteyn, Dovid Gotlib, the Potshebutzki brothers, and others.
The society started to develop a wide variety of activities, organizing frequent literary evenings, at which lectures on literary topics and social questions, as well as recitals and recitations, and readings were held. The cultural elite of Krynki Jewish society participated in these events. The evenings always attracted a large audience, which greeted each performance with great applause. This audience, however, started to demand serious programs, such as lectures, recitals and recitations, because it badly needed culture and literature in order to drive away the hunger and poverty, which reigned in the town. An amateur drama circle was formed and it produced plays in Yiddish under the guidance of the Literary Society at the local bank.
I remember to this day the first play of Yakov Gordin that we staged, Kashe the Orphan, in which Trakhtenberg was played by Eynshteyn the teacher, Matie Shtreykhl by Shmuli Tenor, as we used to call him, and Kashe the orphan by Rokhl Stambler.
The performance was a great financial and moral success.
The theatrical evenings were also attended by the German military personnel stationed in Krynki and in the nearby villages, as well as in the Lishk manor and in Alekshitz where they were quartered. The Germans stationed in Krynki were even interested in the performances and they often intervened in the direction of the play. Once at the performance of Hertzele the Aristocrat, they even forced Rokhl Stambler to sing Schubert's serenade at the end of the play.
The Germans soon became jealous of the pleasure the Jews took in the performances and the overlord issued a strict decree that the management of the Literary Society should add a dance after each performances to make it possible for the Germans to dance with the Jewish girls. Unable to refuse, the management had to accept the decree against their will and for a few months each play finished with a dance for the benefit of the Germans who were very much attracted to the Jewish girls of Krynki.
However, murmuring started among the Jewish people of the town against such entertainment, at first quiet but getting ever louder. Scandalmongers took the opportunity to intrigue and exaggerate what really happened. The management of the Literary Society was powerless. They could not put an end to these dances because repealing the decree of the German military power in wartime would have entailed the death penalty or at the very least being sent to forced labor in Heynovke or Bialoviezh. There seemed to be no way out.
Then comrade Dovid Gotlib, chairman of the Literary Society announced in a meeting of the management that he would not allow the dance after the next performance and would assume responsibility for it. All members of the management tried to dissuade him, warning him of the great danger that such an act might bring, but nothing helped. He stubbornly stuck to his own opinion. And so it was: when a new play was put on and at the end of the performance people started making room for the dance, Gotlib got on the stage and gave out strict orders that nobody was to dance and have boisterous festivities at a place where Mendele, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem was recited.
The Germans were stupefied as if struck by lightening. How dare that filthy 'Ostjude' [East European Jew] oppose the omnipotent Germans!, they said to themselves. Comrade Gotlib took advantage of the confusion to disappear from the hall with some of his comrades.
When the Germans recovered from their astonishment, they started to look for Gotlib in order to take revenge on him. Late at night they invaded the house of Dovid's father, Reb Yudl Gotlib, peace to his memory, and other Jewish houses, too. As they did not find him, the German police announced to the Literary Society the following day that if Dovid Gotlib did not surrender himself in six hours, all the members of the society's management would be arrested and the society would be abolished. Precisely six hours later Dovid Gotlib showed up at the police station and he was arrested.
When the authorities tried to decide later what punishment he should get, the police sergeant Grabak, demanded the highest punishment. A series of mediation started then trying to influence the head of the office and other circles, and they finally agreed to just sending Gotlib to Heynovke. But Gotlib was unexpectedly saved by his cousin Batsheba Mordekhailevitz who was on friendly terms with the secretary of the head of the office, Shturmak, a deeply religious German Jew, graduate of a rabbinical seminary. (They got married later.) No effort was spared and Dovid Gotlib was finally rescued from the clutches of the German military.
However, he was freed on condition that the Literary Society would call together an exceptional general meeting at once and not only relieve him of the chairmanship but exclude him from the society altogether. The meeting took place two days later and all members of the society, as well as several representatives of the German occupying forces participated in it. The meeting was presided over by the vice-chairman, Anshl Potshebutzki, who explained to the assembled why the meeting had been convened. For the sake of the continued existence of the Literary Society he asked those present to vote for the dismissal of Dovid Gotlib from the chairmanship and his exclusion from the society by raising their hands. But nobody raised their hands.
Seeing this, the chief representative of the Germans warned the assembled that they must find a way out; otherwise sanctions would be applied against them. Gotlib himself intervened, however, to save the situation and implored the assembly to vote for his exclusion for the sake of the Literary Society. But the second voting could not take place because the firemen sounded the alarm this had been prepared by the Germans and their servants on purpose and the assembled scattered.
The Germans were victorious . . . Officially Gotlib was considered excluded from the society but in reality no meeting of the management, no discussion, no cultural event took place without Gotlib being actively involved in it. And he received dozens of letters from the nearby Jewish shtetls, which appreciated his courage, daring and fearlessness. This is how the Jewish youth of Krynki fought against the evil German power in 1916.
The Zionist Center; Tzeirei Zion
by Baruch Niv
Translated by Jerrold Landau
During the First World War, when everyone was tied to their own location for several years, with no possibility of even going out to the broader area, the youth were thirsty for activity and for salvation from idleness. Thus did the Literary Society (an organization for Jewish literature and culture) and the Zionist Center sprout up. We conducted Zionist activity under the auspices of the Merkaz [The Center]. The German authorities were angered by this. We conducted activities for the Jewish National Fund, we organized a memorial for Dr. Herzl on 20 Tammuz, etc.
Members of the Tzeirei Tzion [Young Zion], founded at that time, organization met in the Merkaz. It was headed by young people who displayed great action and diligence throughout all the years of German occupation. Through their various activities, they earned a respectable level of influence and communal status in town. Tzeirei Tzion reopened the Hebrew school and participated in leading and sustaining it. Since most of the Jewish children of Krynki studied there at that time, they also made connections with the parents and those who were involved with the school. Tzeirei Tzion established the large local library. They also maintained connections with the movement outside of Krynki. A delegate from the organization (the writer of these lines) participated in the convention of that organization in Białystok in 1916. A delegate from the Krynki chapter (Avraham Einstein) participated in the Zionist convention of the south Lithuanian district in Białystok in 1918, and was elected as a member of the central headquarters.
Tzeirei Tzion was also active in the aforementioned Literary Organization and in the drama troupe and its performances.
The Hebrew School
The activities of the committee for refugees in the town ceased its operations with the entry of the Germans to Krynki, and the Hebrew school, founded for their children, was closed. A few of the members of the culture committee of the aforementioned organization who remained in town Menashe and Pinchas Garber, Yaakov Kirzner, and the writer of these lines decided to reopen the school, and did so. However, after that, the relationship of the authorities to it took a turn for the worse, and they closed it and forced its students to attend the German school that they founded. Despite this, the Hebrew school was reopened after a period of time through the efforts of its activists, albeit at a more modest level.
At the end of 1971, after the Balfour Declaration, members of the Tzeirei Tzion committee Alter Pocboski (died in Israel in 1964 after surviving the Holocaust of the Second World War), Berl Zakon (today in New York), Melech Zalkin (perished in the Holocaust), Pinchas and Menashe Garber, and the writer of these lines gathered together and decided to enlarge the school in light of the hoped-for possibilities of aliya to the Land of Israel and the need to prepare the younger generation for such. The matter became feasible, but only after the revolution in Germany, when the fist of the occupying government weakened, and the students who had been forced by the Germans to transfer to their school began to return to their own school.
Those active in supporting the school at that time included Avraham Einstein, Heshil Sapirsztajn, Melech Zalkin, Yosef Gabai, Feigel Epsztajn, Menashe Garber, and the writer of these lines. Later, they were joined by Efraim Efrimson, Shamai (Shima) Kaplan, and others.
Bendet Nisht (Barukh Niv)
Translated by Eszter Andor
After the German occupation of Krynki, the Committee for the Homeless ceased its activities, and instruction was interrupted for a few months in the Hebrew elementary school, which had been founded for the children of the refugees and the poor at the beginning of the war.
The population was suffering from hunger, poverty and the cold. But soon four members of the cultural commission of the Committee for the Homeless, who had remained in Krynki Menase and Pinkhas Garber, B. Nisht and Yakov Kirzhner assembled and decided to open the school again saying that even when there is no flour, there is the Torah (one must study even when there is nothing to eat).
In one year the school, the only Hebrew school in town grew bigger, and the rulers who had at first tolerated it, took a dislike to it and closed it, and compelled the children to attend the German school. But thanks to the efforts of its leaders our school opened again, albeit on a smaller scale.
At the end of 1917, after the Balfour declaration, the committee of the Tzairei Zion convened in Krynki. (It consisted of the following people: Bendet Nisht now in Israel; Alter Potshebutzki died in 1964 in Israel, having survived the cruelties of the Second World War; Berl Zakon now in New York; Melekh Zalkin perished; and Pinkhas and Menase Garber.) It was decided that the school had to be enlarged, especially because of the prospect of an aliya to Palestine and, connected to this, the need to teach the pupils Hebrew, the local language.
It only became possible to carry out the resolution in 1918 when new winds started to blow the winds of revolution first in Russia and then in Germany. When the inhabitants of Krynki started feeling, too, that the iron grip of the occupying forces became weaker, the Tzairei Zion organization enlarged the school and the pupils who had been forced to transfer to the German educational institution were also allowed to come back.
Among the active leaders who fully devoted themselves to maintaining the school were the following people: Avrom Eynshteyn, Heshl Sapirshteyn, Melekh Zalkin, Yosef Gabay, Menase Garber, the author of this article, and later Efraym Afrimzon, Sheyme Kaplan, etc. They spared no efforts and they managed to overcome all the difficulties that arose: political persecutions of the school authorities and especially lack of money.
Forty to fifty percent of the budget was always missing. Great self-sacrifice was required from the school committee and the Tzairei Zion organization in order to cover the deficit. They received piecemeal support from our American brethren and later from the town authorities.
Despite the hard material situation of the school, the teaching staff always maintained a high pedagogical level. The moving spirits of the school were such educators as Eynshteyn, Gotesfeld, Dr Reys, Dr Tzveygl, Moshe Zaleski (now doctor and director of Hebrew education in Cincinnati, USA), etc.
Hundreds and hundreds of pupils graduated from this educational institution in its eighteen graduating classes. And those graduates who left Krynki and emigrated to North and South America, and the numerous graduates who made aliya to Palestine, occupy most distinguished places in the cultural and social life of their country.
The original idea was to educate Jewish children in Hebrew and in the spirit of our national values and survival in Palestine and indeed the school made this reality. This is shown by both the spiritual foundation with which the pupils were provided, and the enviable rich hakhsharah [training for would-be immigrants], which was to help them take root in the country, build it and fight for it.
It is the First World War. Homeless, starving, and shabby people wander about in town. Something must be done. I call together the intelligentsia of the town the high school students, the pharmacist and the teacher couple and we decide to create a school for the children and to pay attention to them.
The fight against the German occupying power is a splendid chapter in the history of Krynki. The Germans demand that German be the language of instruction in the schools. We teachers agree that Yiddish should remain the language of instruction and German should be taught only as the vernacular. Among the teachers were the Rotbort sisters (the daughters of Rubke, the Governor of the Province), Potshebutzki, Falk and I, and there were a few German teachers and a high school teacher. The Rotborts had already been linguistically assimilated. I, the socialist-Bundist, was a rather militant Yiddishist. Once I made a sharp attack in public against the representatives of the occupying power and because I was young I did not realize how dangerous it was to oppose a military power. We have not invited you . . . You came to us uninvited . . . Yiddish is our mother tongue . . . We love Yiddish and we will not give in! This is how I was thinking at the time.
The same night my friend, the German high school teacher, knocked on my window and advised me to leave the shtetl at once. . . . I woke up my father and left in the cold grey dawn. I got on a cart to Bialystok. Later I often came to the shtetl to work in the school, in the self-defense group, or to give a lecture. My father used to call me the gabe's wife and he had hardly any time to see me.
by Shamai (Shima) Lider
Translated by Jerrold Landau
When the Germans Left
On one autumn evening, we suddenly found out that the Germans left Krynki, as they lost the war. Masses of men, women, and children began to stream to the area of the Wyrion farm to collect booty from the large amount of property that was left there, especially sheep and cattle. The gate was broken open and the pillaging began. It is difficult to describe the mania that overtook everyone to snatch and pillage.
Even the civilian committee that was founded on a provisional basis sent delegates to inform and influence the masses to stop the pillage, for the committee was intending to organize local affairs, including the distribution of necessities, in a fair fashion. They did not find an attentive ear.
The battle regarding the nature of the committee, which was aroused in the houses of worship, had not yet stopped when stories began to circulate in the city that a draft for the Polish legions was taking place in the region, with the purpose of taking over the local government. It was further said that the Lithuanians were also beginning to draft people around Grodno. The Lithuanian announcement also reached Krynki, and one lad, Shmuel (Mulia) Stambler, was even drafted to their army. (He was later killed in one of the battles that took place in those days.) A Russian youth, apparently a Communist, arrived in Krynki, and started to organize a workers council. They also started gathering weapons and organizing a militia. Its members included among others: Shlomo Stambler, Tevel Koncwycki, Chaim Gedalia Kopel, Shmuel Lewski (Taner).
The Rule of the Workers Council
Within a brief period, the Germans left Krynki, and a different national government had not yet been established. For a period, the Workers Council ruled in collaboration with the town council. The Workers Council set up its headquarters in the building of the national bank on Poctowa Street. Its prominent members included Yehoshua Gotlib (the brother of David Gotlib), Yeshayahu Zuc, Yoska Terkel (Chatzkel's), Moshe Puria (Mosheke Sacur), Binyamin Puria, his brother Yaakov, Kahanowic, Neiporuznicer, Gershon Tarlowski, Velvele Ekstein, and others.
The local workers authority conducted an orderly distribution of food to protect the prices of staples against inflation, and to protect the storehouses of food in the town that they not be smuggled outside. For that purposes, guards were also posted on the roads leading from Krynki to the wider area. They also did so to preserve local order and to prevent theft and hooliganism.
In the interim, supporters of liberated Poland began to organize themselves in the area. They drafted soldiers and set up committees in their effort to establish Polish rule. Rumors spread that there was a great deal of ammunition in Krynki, and that the town intended to declare an actual independent government. Nearby neighbors, including the landowner Rozenblum from Makarowce, where brigades of legionnaires were training, as well as others, requested that the people of Krynki refrain from bloodshed, for there would be no hope that this settlement could maintain its stand in the hostile area, and it would be best to avoid provoking a war.
After days and nights of serious debate within the workers council, it was decided to remove the cannon from the roof, to hide the weapons, and to refrain from mounting resistance but also to not invite a different government. After a few days, however, the Polish legionnaires entered Krynki, and began searches for the heads of the workers council. If they did not find them, they arrested their family members to force them to reveal the hiding places of the members of the council. Those interrogated were even tortured with the points of the skewers used to clean the guns.
It is the end of 1918. The First World War has ended. The Germans are about to leave Krynki. The secretary of the county convenes a meeting in the big bes medresh [synagogue and study house] and informs us that the Germans are leaving and the Poles intend to take over the power. He selects some respected Jewish and Christian inhabitants and gives them the keys of the granaries and some twenty thousand German marks and creates a civil committee, which will take over the lead. Dovid Gotlib convenes a meeting of the Bund, the Poalei Zion, and the anarchists, and we decide that with the outbreak of the revolution in Russia and Germany the time has come for the workers of Krynki to take over the power. Following the good old tradition of the Krynki lads we broke into the meeting of the civil committee, scattered it, and established a labor council. We took over the keys of the granaries and the money and the power in the town.
We promptly distributed flour and potatoes among the poor and sent some men to buy weapons in Bialystok. We already had 200 guns and two machine-guns and a lot of crates with weapons. We set up the machine-guns on the roof of the little bank the loan and savings bank. We organized a workers' militia, which was lead by Heykl Barkan (Heykl Mutz). We provided them with guns and red armbands and we started governing the town.
When all the cereals were gone from the granaries, we levied a tax on the rich and organized public work to give work to the poor and the unemployed. They were sent to cut ice on the Krynki lake for the poorhouse.
Our militia had a very difficult task trying to fight theft and hooliganism, which started to spread towards the end of the German occupation. Rich Jewish boys and Christian hooligans terrorized the population and people were forced to suffer and keep silent. When the gang disregarded our warnings to hand over their weapons, we shot two bandits in the market place and that helped. The population was very grateful to us, and later when the Poles took over the power and arrested us, the priest interceded for us and helped us to get free.
This is how we ruled the town for a while. Bialystok was already governed by the Poles. Messengers from Pilsudski himself came to Krynki a few times and called us up to give over the power. We refused. We surrendered only when we were already surrounded and the Poles were coming at us from two directions, from Sokolke and Amdur.
I arrived back in Krynki after the First World War as a demobilized soldier who had gone through the storm of the Russian revolution in the Russian army. When I came home, I joined the Krynki committee of the Bund with the intention to cut off the left wing of the local movement in order to found a separate communist party, following the example of the Kombund in Russia.
The following people were members of the local committee of the Bund in Krynki: Dovid Gotlib, Issakhar Fink, Avrom Shmuel Zutz, Hakhum Blakher, A. Sh. Liberman, who was a crockery shopkeeper, his sister-in-law, Khame (Nekhame), who was a midwife, and I. Among us we held the continual debates that were going on at that time between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks along the lines set by the two geniuses of that generation, Plekhanov and Lenin.
Meanwhile the revolution broke out in Germany and the German power around us ceased to exist. A workers' council made up of several parties was set up in Krynki. The chairman was Yerushe Gotlib, Dovid Gotlib's brother, the secretary Velvel Furie, and Yoske Hatzkls, Moshke Furie, Sorke the midwife, Velvel Ekshteyn, Heykl and Shloyme Mutz and Issakhar Fink, as the representatives of the Bund, were its members. There were also a few Christian members, such as Mikhniuk and Anisimovitz, young demobilized officers of the Russian army and tsar Nicholas.
The first action of the workers' council was to levy a tax on the richer inhabitants of the town in order to help the demobilized soldiers who came back from Russia and from German captivity and went around tattered and hungry. There were heads of families among them who had to be given first aid to help them get back on their feet. A soldiers' committee was set up and it successfully carried out the necessary actions. There were very few people who refused to pay the tax. The workers' council organized a big demonstration to protest against the pogrom in Lemberg and almost all the Jews of Krynki participated in it. The demonstrators, together with the tanners, marched through Kostzial and New Street to the town hall and the little bank and back. The red banners were carried by the eldest worker of the town.
Within the workers' council an arms committee was set up, which went to Bialystok every week to buy weapons. We collected money for this from a special tax, which we imposed on the mills of Krynki and its environs around which we deployed our militia.
A problem arose with the illegal youth that went around armed and tried to take advantage of the situation. The workers' council approached them and tried to influence them rather than threaten them. And when we caught a well-known Sokolke thief in Krynki, the illegal youth even helped us hand him over to the Germans in Sokolke, who shot him. (A few Germans were still left in the towns at that time.)
The Krynki workers' council was closely linked to such nearby shtetls as Horodok and Brestovitz, in which there was no stable power either.
We ruled the town thus until the Polish army started to mobilize and the news came to us from Amdur that the legionaries were coming to Krynki. They stopped in the middle of the way and sent ahead a delegation to us with the proposal that we should surrender and give over the power. Dovid Gotlib told them that we would not give over the power to anybody, but they should come and take it if they could. The leaders of the workers' council left Krynki and went to Vilna on a minor road, the Odelsk-Grodno road, to avoid an unnecessary bloodshed.
By the way: when we arrived in Odelsk, we encountered a pogrom mood but when people learned that the Krynki workers' council was in town, the tensions died down.
Hershl Giteles Oygustovski
When Krynki was under German occupation during the First World War the Bund, together with other trends popular among the Jewish population, was active in the cultural life of the shtetl. The literary Saturdays that took place in the little bank are memorable. A wide Jewish public gathered there to hear a little Yiddish lectures on Yiddish literature and Jewish history and the like. And if the representatives of the German occupants were not present, which happened from time to time, the lecturer would sneak into his speech his opinion about daily happenings.
After the disintegration of the German occupying regime, when the inhabitants of Krynki organized their own town administration, the Bund came out in the open and participated in the elections to the town council. When the workers' council took over the power, the Bund joined it. The party was also active in the cultural life of the town. Under the leadership of Shmuel Tenor, a Jewish workers' choir was organized and natural science and cultural studies evenings were also held for the young.
I remember the happy evenings when we gathered, thirsting for culture on the premises of the Bund in Itshe Afroytzik's house. There was a lending library, which had a wide selection of books: world literature, as well as the works of the Yiddish classics, of course, and a rich collection of scientific and general social-economic works.
The Bund played an important role in Yiddish education and theater. The plays of the best Yiddish dramatists (Hirhbeyn, Yakov Gordin, Sholem Ash), as well as of world dramatists (Strinberg, Ibsen, Molière, etc.), were put on stage with amateurs. We would have to search hard to find another town or shtetl where Anski's Dybuk was put on stage without any help, but in Krynki we did it. It required a lot of courage and perseverance, as well as inexhaustible faith and love to realize such a performance. School children dragged all kinds of sacks and blankets to the lake, washed them and sewed them together clumsily, and then Note Kozlovski painted sceneries on them. Great was the excitement when the curtain rose.
|We struggled with hunger,
We ran over the fields to feed ourselves.
Our will to live grew stronger,
We appeased our hunger as best we could.
We were seeking on the fields,
We burrowed ourselves in garden beds,
We wanted to provide food for the winter.
We carried potatoes and rye on our shoulders,
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