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Chapter 3

The Atmosphere of the Land of Israel

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The Period of World War I

The Eve of the War in Sopotkin

The period of the last prosperity passed over the town on the eve of World War I. About two years before the war started, the Russians began to put up big fortresses between Sopotkin and Grodno in the vicinity of Lavina. These works brought prosperity in the town.

It was told that when it was known to the residents of Sopotkin, that the Russians were ready to start building fortresses, Avrohom Ozer did not wait too long and bought all the stones from the place in which the fortresses had to go up. He bought the stones and rocks from the owners of the farms and from the peasants in that vicinity. Avrohom Ozer was a clever contractor for building highways.

When the contractors from Moscow came, ready to build the fortresses, the clever Jew requested to accept him as an equal partner to the other contractors. If his request should be denied, they would have to buy from him all the stones and rocks in that place and pay a big payment. They agreed and Avrohom Ozer became one of the contractors in the building of the fortresses.

The first Shock

The first shock that occurred in the town was World War I. The war broke out in July 1914. In December 1914 the Germans reached the town and remained there for five weeks. In the night when they entered the town, they put on fire the house of the Shadzunski family, which stood in the market place and killed three Jews.

The old synagogue they turned into a stable, and the two new synagogues they turned into hospitals.

The goal of the Germans was to reach Grodno as soon as possible. Because between Sopotkin and Grodno (a distance of 10 kilometers) were spread fortifications, the march of the German Army was late for five weeks. The movement of the Germans was very slow because of the fortification. From the fortification, the Russians fired grenades into the town of Sopotkin. A grenade hit the house of the Kubniauski family and their father was killed together with his two daughters.

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By chance mother went to the neighbor and her little child followed her and this way they were saved from death.

At last the Germans retreated and the Russians returned to the town. An order was given by the oppressor Nikolay Nikolayewitch, the uncle of the Czar Nikolay Aleksandrovitch, to chase out the Jews from the border zone. The Jews were forced to leave their town and to wander deep into the Russian empire.

The Russian army stayed in Sopotkin about half a year, after that it was again occupied by the Germans.

The Jews who did not go too far began to return to their town. About half the inhabitants of Sopotkin returned and found their homes destroyed, without doors and windows, and the few items of their belongings stolen.

Sopotkin became the center of the German government. A German mayor was appointed, a police station was opened, warehouses were established, a dairy was opened, etc.

The peasants of the surrounding country were forced to deliver to the Germans a part of their products: grain, eggs, two quarts of milk from every cow every day. And who did not obey the order of the Germans, his possessions were taken away. So, for example, in one beautiful day they brought all the cows from one village, put them in the center of the town and kept them for two days because the full quantity of milk was not delivered.

In the year 1919, after the war came to an end, the rest of the families began to come back to Sopotkin. The refugees found their town destroyed and burned.

The Jews returned to their town after they inhaled the atmosphere of the big world, the air of the big cities in the middle of Russia. This enriched their consciousness and their look at the big and modern world. This made Sopotkin one of the most advanced towns and more modern than many other towns.

In the year 1919 the Lithuanians tried to capture a region of Grodno from the Poles, insisting that this was a part of Lithuania. The Lithuanian soldiers passed the town of Sopotkin on their way to Grodno. After several days they retreated and returned to the Lithuanian border.

With the retreat of the Lithuanians, the Polish army entered Sopotkin and the situation of the Jews worsened. From time to time expedition troops were sent to the town by the Lithuanians.

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One time a Polish soldier was murdered by a Lithuanian patrol. The peasants from the surrounding area accused a fisherman, a Jew, who, according to their testimony given to the Polish authority, was the killer. The Poles broke into the house of the fisherman Samuel Lutakort, they found him and his son sick in bed. They took them out of the house, brought them 9 kilometers from the town, tortured them and killed them.

With the entrance of the Polish Army into the town, the Jews closed the windows, locked their doors and were afraid to leave their houses.

The Polish Army began to attack the Jewish population, to rob their goods and to act ruthlessly with them. As an example, they caught the shoemaker, Birushka Zemianski, harnessed him to a wagon, taking the place of a horse.

It is a fact that the Jewish population of Sopotkin suffered much more from the Poles than from the Germans.

With the End of the War

The turbulence, the shock that passed through the town in the period of World War I, brought about complete economic destruction and ruin, from which Sopotkin never recovered.

The revival of Lithuania and the closing of the Lithuanian border impoverished the town completely. The sources of making a living were reduced to a minimum. The Poles persecuted the Jews and anti-Semitism rose from day to day. The poverty of the Jews made them leave the town, to wander elsewhere mainly to Grodno.

The work in the forests and along the canal Augustov came to a full stop.

The Grabski period made the situation of the Jews even worse.[1]

The Jews of Sopotkin were looking now for a way to make a living. Their eyes turned to the ground. They started to lease pieces of land, they put up agricultural farms where they cultivated all kinds of fruits.

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sop064.jpg [18 KB]
“Talmud Torah” School

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Many families began to rent pieces of ground from the peasants and put up agricultural small farms to raise cows.

Once a guest came to Sopotkin from a city. His question was directed to a farm owner: "How can you agree with the fact that next to your house should stand a stable spreading stench?" The Jew from Sopotkin answered: "As long as we will continue thinking that the dung stinks, the gentiles will hate us, and we will not be able to be a nation like all other nations." The Jews devoted themselves to agriculture and this way they raised their dignity in the eyes of their neighbors, the gentiles.

And from agriculture the road was not too far to Zionism and to the desire to immigrate to Israel.

Inauguration of a Hebrew School

After the end of World War I, an independent Poland came to being, a Hebrew school was opened and replaced a former German school. The Hebrew school was in the house of Plaskovski. The place was small and could accommodate all the children of the town. With the help of Sopotkin's landsmen in the United States, building of a school began. The plan was to put up a two story building. The truth of the matter was only one floor was finished. The school had only six grades (classes). It was a wooden building near the old synagogue plaza and close to the old cemetery.

There was brought a good, experienced teacher from out of town, a very fine and knowledgeable principal, who had a lot of knowledge in Polish was invited.

The Polish language was not absorbed too much by the students. The motive was: "We shall go to Israel, we don't need to know Polish." The school made progress to everyone's satisfaction. The organized Jewish community that took care of the school, saw to it, that children from poor families should be able to attend a nice institution of learning.

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sop066.jpg [22 KB]
The Administration of the Hebrew School,
teachers and pulpils
Seated (from the left):
1. Yaakov Moreyn, 2. Moshe Yechezkiel Samborski, 3. Eliyahu Saturta,
4. Yehuda, 5. Rabbi Menachem Mendl Rabinovitch, 6. Shochet, 7. Yaakov Gurski,
8. Eliezer (Leyzer) Shadzunski, 9-12. teachers

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The National Awakening

Sopotkin "mountains all around." Hills, mountains and forest surrounded this beautiful town. This was a Jewish settlement that was famous in Torah and good deeds and, above all, it was a Zionist settlement. People say that the Sopotkin Jews were devoted Zionists, because of the influence of the famous Zionist Samuel Jacob Rabinovitch. Their Zionism was in their blood, not only in their prayers in which Zionism and Jerusalem are mentioned so many times.

After World War I the Zionist perception among the Jewish population of Sopotkin rose tremendously and all thoughts and meditations turned to the land of Israel.

The day when the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed was a big holiday in the town. The main synagogue was filled up, the prayer "Hallel" (Praise) was said with heart and enthusiasm. The celebration moved from the synagogue outside and all the streets echoed with songs and dances.[2]

When the first from Sopotkin, Sara Ivashkovski, left for the land of Israel, a farewell party was arranged in which the entire town, old and young, participated. One of the sons of Farbshteyn donated a sum of money to the Jewish National Fund (J.N.F.) in order to have the privilege to raise the cup of wine and to bless the lucky girl in the name of all gathered.

The next day men, women and children gathered along the street and escorted her to the end of town.

The First World War, the economic destruction that followed the war, the anti-Semitism brought the strong desire to leave the town and to go to Israel. Sopotkin began to see itself as a "town on the road" on the road to the land of Israel.

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And it happened that if somebody from the town left for America to his relatives, a small get-together was organized by his good friends wishing him the best and expressing the hope to meet him in the land of Israel in the nearest future. And the party was finished.

sop068.jpg [18 KB]
“Olim” immigrants from Sopotkin to the Land of Israel (1921)
The first pioneers from Sopotkin
From right to left:
1. Gedaliuahn Freedman, 2. Gedaliyahn Kelynburt, 3. Ephraim Flasikovski (Ben Yehuda),
4. Sara Ivashkovski (Garber), 5. Tanchum Flaskovski (Ben Yehuda)

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  1. I wanted people to know that Grabski was the Interior Minister of Poland, a Jew hater, an anti-Semite. [S. M.] Return
  2. "Hallel" is a beautiful prayer taken from the book of Psalms. We say Hallel during the holiday services and at happy events like Independence Day of Israel, the Balfour Declaration every year to commemorate the happy day. It is a prayer of praise to
    G-d. [S. M.] Return

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