The Suwalk Municipality
The Suwalk town council was elected every four years. While a discussion of the town council, which was predominantly Christian, might seem out of place in this section dealing solely with Jewish organizations and institutions it had a not insignificant effect on the economic life of the Jewish population, and to a certain extent on the education of it youth.
Of the 25,000 residents of Suwalk, 8,000 were Jews, proportionately represented among the council members. For example, in the latter half of the 1920s, of the 20 members of the town council, 14 were Christians and six Jews. It is interesting that of the relatively few Jews on the council, several served as department heads during each term of office.
While representatives of the anti-Semitic Popular-Democratic Party lost no opportunity to attack the Jews and to deprive them of their legal rights, they never achieved a majority of the council which remained in the hands of the Socialist Workers' Party, the Farmers' Party and the Jewish representatives and, in the latter half of the 1920s, also the non-party bloc, Pilsudski's party. This majority tried on the whole to keep the discrimination of the Jews within certain limits, at least ostensibly.
Anti-Semitism in Poland was inherent and constant; however with the establishment of the Polish state at the end of World War I, it began to expand in scope. In comparison to other Polish towns, Suwalk was, in this respect, not among the worst offenders. Nevertheless, manifestations of discrimination and violation of the rights of the Jews were apparent on the municipal level.
In order to better the situation of the national minorities in Poland, the authors of the Versailles Treaty included a provision demanding equal rights for all subjects, affirming that no minority would suffer discrimination by the ruling majority. With respect to the Jews the Polish constitution guaranteed the Jewish community a certain degree of autonomy in the form of an elected Community Board an official body empowered to impose and collect taxes from every family head in the community, in addition to the government and municipal taxes.
Paradoxically, it was precisely this provision, based on goodwill and humanitarian motives, which created a loophole in the law, opening the door to discrimination.
The municipal and municipal-supported institutions, such as sanitation, ecology and education, were required by law to provide services to the entire population, but the Jewish minority continued to maintain its own institutions, and even established new ones. Although the cost should by rights have been borne by the municipality, clear signs of discrimination were revealed.
A blatant example is education.
Polish law provided for free compulsory elementary education. The vast majority of Suwalk Jews, opting for a Jewish education for their children, at least during their early school years, sent them to the Talmud Torah, the Tarbut school, or to the lower grades of the Jewish high school, but these Jewish institutions like the others, where not supported directly by the municipality but rather through the Jewish community Board which received an annual allocation for all its institutions with a list of those entitled to support and the sum allotted to each. These sums generally covered only a small part of the real expenses.
The situation of secondary education was, in this sense even worse. There were in Suwalk three government secondary schools: two high schools, one for boys and one for girls, and a teachers' seminary. Study in these schools was free, but the percentage of Jewish students never exceeded 8%. This was not du e to the Jews' aversion to gen-
tile learning, but simply because of the numerus clausus (literally closed number or quota) set by these schools for Jews, unofficially but very effectively. The private Hebrew high schools received no assistance from the municipality and were dependent on tuition fees paid by the students' parents.
The municipality adopted a similar attitude toward the other Jewish institutions. Hence the importance of maintaining maximum possible Jewish representation on the town council in order to protect the rights of the Jews as established in law, even if their best efforts could achieve only a small part of their legal due.
The institutions a community creates tell much about the character of that community. In this regard, the Jewish community of Suwalk was clearly one of a compassionate, humane character.
These rights found expression, in the case of the Jews, in a kind of self-government in the areas of religion, social welfare, and, in part, education. Implementation was in the hands of the Jewish Community Board, an official body established by law, elected every four years by the adult Jewish population. The Board was authorized to impose and collect taxes from its members, namely from all Jewish residents of the town.
There was, however, a distinction between Jews and other ethnic groups defined as national minorities Russians, Lithuanians etc. in that the Jews were considered a religious minority. Thus even if a Jew were, for example, to declare himself Polish by nationality, he could not claim exemption from taxes imposed by the Board unless he converted to Christianity a phenomenon virtually unknown in Suwalk.
The functions of the Jewish Community Board were as follows:
. . .
On the whole, the community had reason to treat the Board with respect and satisfaction, as those elected to head it and to serve as members demonstrated considerable administrative ability and spared no effort in ensuring the success of their activities.
During the period between the two World Wars, the Board was headed by Binyamin Rosental (General Zionist). Hayim-Mendel Friedman (Mizrahi), Dr. Leon Weisman (General Zionist), and, during the last two years before the war, by Yaacov Kusnierzhitzky (originally a Folkist and later very close to Zionism).
by Berl Kahan
Among the most important institutions in Suwalk were the Jewish hospitals, of which there seem to have been several over the course of the 19th century. One source indicates that a Jewish hospital was built at the end of 1859, and that the Suwalk community also sent 8090 rubles annually to support a Jewish hospital in Warsaw. According to another source, a hospital was founded in 11863, and the City Council gave 5,000 rubles, a big sum for that time, as a contribution toward its construction. The City Council also gave an annual operating subsidy of 150 rubles. Yet another source maintains that there was a Suwalk Jewish hospital as early as 1845 with 50 beds, which was one of only ten Jewish hospitals throughout Poland.
On November 13, 1862, the city officially turned over a new hospital building to the Jewish community, renovated from an old Polish hospital. The building of the Jewish hospital was a large and modern with a pharmacy, residence for the doctors and staff, and a big kitchen. A ladies' auxiliary, the Organization of Women Supporting Sick People in Suwalk, was organized in 1893, responding to the need generated by a major outbreak of smallpox.
Dr. L. Weisman headed the hospital and Dr. Grubstein was chief surgeon.
The Old-Age Home
In 1894, the well-known philanthropist Yehoshua Dov Burak donated a large building for an old-age home. Doctors Natanson and Lipsky assisted in this project. The organization published its rules in Hebrew and Yiddish, with a reface in which the organizers expressed their happiness that they could put up such an important building to support the elderly. For the first year, they could take in up to twenty free boarders, and would make facilities available to others at a rate of 75 rubles a year. The minimum age for admission was 50, but an exception was made for those who were weak and could not earn a livelihood by doing any kind of work. The regulations were very strict. For example, Rule 36 provided that the inmates are not allowed out in the yard without a written permit from one of the managers or supervisors. The institution provided for a daily visit from a paramedic; in emergencies, a doctor would be summoned. The printed booklet with these regulations is quite rare, but a well-known bibliographer, Chaim Lieberman, bought a copy from the Soviets after World War II, when he happened to be in Moscow. This is one of the two copies that the Czarist censor required to send to Moscow of each book that was printed; a notation in this copy indicates that 1,000 copies were printed.
In 1863, the Suwalk philanthropist Abraham Rosenthal erected a building for Gemillas Hesed, an interest-free loan institution. The old Gemillas Hesed house was also built with his money. He founded this organization with a grant of 1500 rubles, and it eventually became a great institution which lent money to the needy Jews of Suwalk.
An organization to support the fallen was organized in 1867. In the first year, there was a treasury of 450 rubles and 700 poor Jewish people received assistance. The organization had 24 elders, who took monthly turns serving the poor. The membership dues were two and a half copecks a week.
A new organization supplied poor Jews with wood and fuel, especially in the cold winter months. In 1871, when there were very bitter frosts, this organization raised 120 rubles in a special campaign.
Had the task of distribution bread and potatoes to the poor. The leaders of this organization were the lawyers Godziansky and Klinkofstein and the maskil (enlightened) Mordekhai Rosenberg. They received help from Doctors Natanson, Margolit, and Rotrosen. Each one of these people sat in one of the synagogues ad actually distributed potatoes, bread and wood to the needy. Suwalk went through an economic crisis in 1892, during which this organization played an important role.
Hakhnasat Kala & Malbish Arumim
There were many specialized organizations in Suwalk: to help people get married (Hakihnasas Kalo), to supply people with clothes (Malbish Arumim) and others.
by Berl Kahan
The social and welfare workers of Suwalk had a special mission: concern for Jewish soldiers. Suwalk was a garrison town, and there were frequently several hundred Jewish soldiers whom the local population would supply with kosher food and a place to visit when they wanted to be away from the barracks on Jewish holidays.
The local social workers also assumed the burden of raising money to assist soldiers when there was an opportunity to ransom them from the obligatory military service. In 1866, for example, fourteen Jewish family men were ransomed and those active in this effort included Rabbi Mohilover, Joshua Lipsky, David Lichtenstein and Abel Markson: they raised the tremendous sum of 5,000 rubles. And the men were all relieved from the protracted military service.
Suwalk, like many other Jewish towns had to worry not only about its own problems, but also about the problems of fellow Jews in other places. This feeling was so strong that whenever there was a problem in any place in Poland and Russia, the Jews of Suwalk were the first to help. Osher Margolis writes that in 1871 there was a big fund drive for destitute Jews from Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine. In 1872, when Suwalk held a fund drive for suffering Persian Jews, more than 200 people gave money for this purpose. Money was also collected for Persian Jews in the surrounding towns of Filipowe, Psherosle, Baklerowe, and Seini. In 1874, a big famine in Jerusalem inspired a donation of twenty rubles from residents of Baklerowe.
The Jews of Suwalk and the vicinity also responded generously to the needs of people in the surrounding towns. Much suffering was attributable to fires. In 1879, there was a big fire in Lasdai and the community thanked the Jews of Seini for their help. In the same year, Suwalkers donated 120 rubles for Jews who suffered from fires in three nearby towns. In 1886, there was another big fire in Lasdai in which 250 houses burned down. At that time, Suwalkers sent bread, clothing, and many other things. In 1895, 1,000 rubles was collected by Jews of Suwalk for suffering Jews in faraway places. The Jews were badly hit by a big fire in that year. In 1900, there was a big fire and about 200 Jewish families became homeless in Augustowe. Suwalk sent wagons with food.
Some Religious Institutions
The Old Shul, one of Suwalk's oldest institutions, was organized in 1821. Over the entrance were these words: At this gate the righteous may enter. This synagogue had several descending steps to illustrate the words of the Psalmist: From the depths I have called upon You for help. The Synagogue stood in a large yard, which also contained a few smaller houses of prayer and public institutions, like the public baths and the mikveh.
Across the street from the Synagogue was the great Beth Ha-Midrash, which also had a few smaller houses of prayer in its own year these were known by the occupations of their founders and members: fishermen, tailors, shoemakers, bricklayers, and so on. The butchers' synagogue was a little farther away, on Sulgass (synagogue-street).
There were many other synagogues and minyans in Suwalk, and many other organizations included Torah study in their activities. In the Beth Ha-Midrash opposite the synagogue, there was a Talmud lesson every day. On Shabbos, many townspeople came to hear the Rabbi discuss the weekly Bible portion. After a hard day's work, both the Suwalker and people from the surrounding towns, businessmen and laborers alike, came to listen to visiting preachers and cantors.
by Y. A. Tropp
A Suwalk Hospitality House, (Hakhnasath Orhim), was organized in 1857. It was famous far beyond the borders of Suwalk. The first treasurer was Heskel Leib Lichtenstein. This old, well-functioning Hospitality House, was completely abandoned in 19614 on account of the war, as the military has removed all the furnishings and, indeed, everything that was removable. Prior to the war, this institution had been very active, and its prayer room had regular congregants, who came thrice daily to pray and study with Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Falachik in the evenings.
Mordche Mayer Kleiman and his wife Chanah, neighbors of the Hospitality House, saw to it that the synagogue stayed open. In 1921, when Suwalk residents began
returning from wartime refuges, they started to reorganize this institution. The Suwalk Hospitality House had 18 beds. One special room with two beds was set for important guests and visitors.
In the middle of the week, the guests would buy their own food. For Shabbos, they were given places to eat with many residents of the city.
Visiting the Sick
Bikur Holim & Linas Ha-Tsedek were among the oldest institutions in Suwalk. Following a period of neglect during the First World War, when many Suwalkers returned to their home town from different parts of the world where they had escaped wartime conditions, they immediately started rebuilding these very important institutions. At the first general meeting called to renew this activity in 1920, they elected a board of directors chaired by Mordche Weisberg. Significant assistance also came from landsmen of Suwalk who lived in America.
Not all people can come asking for economic help, even when they are in dire need of it. Many needy people are bashful about their condition and are ashamed to ask for help. Just for that reason, members of the management would make discreet inquiries and extend assistance to such persons without publicity. From 1925 to 1939, many of these cases were given help quietly and anonymously.
Doctors played an important part in the work of Bikur Holim. During the period of independent Poland between the wars, there were about ten Jewish doctors in Suwalk, most of whom were connected with the Jewish Hospital.
by Leslie Sherer
The organization TOZ (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia) Society for the Preservation of Health in Suwalk was important because its task was to care for and foster good health and well-being for the children of the [poor Jewish families in Suwalk.
TOZ gave those children free medical and dental care. It gave them in the summer-time a day camp in the beautiful green meadows and forests around our city. It fed them warm meals. It gave them periodic medical examinations. It gave them games and concerts in our beautiful city park.
The people who took care of those children were volunteers; Jewish doctors dentists, ladies of means and generally city people with good and caring hearts.
Children who benefited from the good deeds of the TOZ were Jewish boys from the Talmud Torah, the Tarbut School, the Yidishist and other schools and poor children from some of the surrounding small towns.
A group of young Suwalker emigrants to the United States as well as the American-born children of older emigrants organized in New York, in 1937, a Club to support the TOZ as well as other worthwhile important Jewish institutions in Suwalk. The organizer and the moving spirt of that club was Mrs. Mintz-Bailey, the wife of Rabbi Bailey (Bialostocki) of the Bronx. Among the organizers and first members were: Leslie Sherer, Lala Tombacher, Katia Osowiecka, Moris Bialostocki, Mrris Lizewski (GBHM), and children of members of the Independent Suwalker Benevolent Association. In the two years of the existence of that Organization we collected and transmitted to the TOZ in Suwalk hundreds of dollars. It did our hearts good and although hundreds of dollars is not a big sum now, it was then a Godsend for that institution.
by Y. A. Tropp
In 1919, when the first government of independent Poland issued a decree authorizing trades unions, Choneh Markowitz initiated a union of Jewish tradesmen in Suwalk with assistance from Joseph Adelson. They engaged a secretary, A. B. Zimmermann, and rented a hall on Kosciusko Street. After some preparatory work, they called a general meeting of all the trades in Suwalk, including bakers, butchers, tailors, shoemakers, cap-makers, can-
ners, coppersmiths, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and so on. At this meeting, they elected a management under the leadership of Markowitz. In addition to business meetings the union held entertainment nights and established a synagogue for its members. The union also supported cultural life, establishing a library and reading room which was filled with people every evening. The union existed up to the Second World War.
by Yehoshua Bakhrakh
The Talmud Torah school was called Ohel Yitzhak, after its founder (in 1851), Rabbi Yitzhak Eisik Wildmann (Haver), one of the foremost rabbis of the city.
In the Talmud Torah, in addition to a thorough background in religious studies, the pupils also acquired a love of Zion. The school had excellent teachers, who encouraged their students to converse and to write compositions in Hebrew.
There were both poor and welltodo pupils in the Talmud Torah. One day the mashgiah instructed all those who were barefoot to go to the shore store and select a new pair of shoes. And so they did. On another winter day, all the boys with torn pants received new pants from the tailor.
In 1929, on the eve of the massacre of the Jews of Hebron, an emissary arrived from Palestine. Two classes were called together and the door between the classrooms opened, and he taught the pupils a song about the war of the Maccabbees. Just then, the new arrived of the murder of the Jews of Hebron by their Arab neighbors. The entire school stood at attention in memory of the blood which had been shed, and in their hearts was kindled the desire for revenge.
by R. Elhanani
As early as 1908, a private Hebrew high school was established in Suwalk, then a part of Russia, by Dr. Schwartzman. The high school, composed of only four classes, did not prove viable and was closed after a few years.
About ten years later, in 1919/20, the Jews of Suwalk again decided to establish a Hebrew high school, this time with greater success. The Suwalk School was a member of the national society for the establishment of Hebrew secondary schools in Poland. Most of these schools were coeducational, for boys and girls, with Polish serving as the language of instruction and the syllabus comprising all general studies. In addition, the schools taught Hebrew language and literature, Bible, Jewish history, and a knowledge of the land of Israel.
The achievements of the Hebrew high school in Suwalk in the area of Jewish education must be attributed to its first and only principal, engineer Binyamin Efron, and a group of the school's founders, who dedicated themselves to it until its closing in 1939. In the summer of 1929, the school was disenfranchised for Communist activity on the part of some of its students, but was reinstated the following academic year.
Special mention should be made of the important role which the school played in the life of the town, serving as a seedbed for the Betar cell which began within its walls, encompassing most of the student body and radiating outward attracting members from all elements of Jewish society in the town.
The first matriculation certificates were issued to students of the Hebrew high school in Suwalk in 1928 and the last in 1939. Binyamin Efron personally signed all the matriculation certificates issued by the school.
by Tzipora MeitkesHaber
The Tarbut School in Suwalk was founded in 1926, composed at first only of a first grade. As the pupils advanced each year, the school grew. The Tarbut School served as a center for Hebrew and Zionist culture for the Jews of Suwalk. The principal of the school, Mr. Dubrovsky, did not restrict his activity solely to the school, but felt a responsibility towards the entire community. He dedicated himself to the school, for which he received a modest salary, part of which he reinvested in the school.
The percentage of girls in the Tarbut School was particularly high, as most of the boys studied at the Talmud Torah. The classes were small, generally not more than 16 in each. The studies were all conducted in Hebrew, with a strong orientation to the land of Israel. Under the guidance of the teachers, plays were presented in Hebrew.
by Lily LevineKutner
The Yiddish school (Yiddishe Veltliche Shule) operated in Suwalk from 1929 until the outbreak of the war. The initiative for the school came from four members of the local Bund movement Max Levine, his wife Bertha, Finkel and Abromovitz. They dedicated themselves to the establishment of the school and, in order to set an example for others, the Levines removed their daughter from the second grade of the Tarbut School and transferred her to the first grade of the new school.
Most of the pupils of the school were from poor families, and only a few paid tuition. The school also had to provide the pupils with books and other school supplies, and even provided free lunches, subsidized by the municipality.
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