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[Page 49]

The Holocaust

 

The Destruction of Suwalk

by Yeheskel Berelson

Tension between Poland and Germany in the summer months of 1939 was growing continuously. But the Jews in Suwalk, a town right near the German border, didn't and couldn't believe that Hitler would dare to start a new world war. They thought about it, thought again, but somehow they doubted the possibility of a second world war.

The community leaders of Suwalk were also busy at that time with the unfortunate Jews of Zbonszyn – the Jews that Hitler had chased out of Germany in the middle of the winter of 1938 because they were not German citizens. For some time they were wandering around in no-man's land, because Poland did not want to let them in either. In the spring of 1939, many of these Jewish refugees were brought to Suwalk, and the community activists were busy finding for them food, dwellings, and so on.

The refugees were a warning to the Jews in Suwalk that Hitler wouldn't stop at anything, and that they have to be prepared for the worst. But still life in town went on quite normally and community work did not stop, until August 24 came and gave them a real cause to panic – in the middle of that night the police knocked on the doors of all the houses where there were reserve soldiers and any able-bodied men and told them where to come should they be called. In the morning, there were already notices that a general mobilization was declared in Poland. This was right after the well-known Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty.

Darkness befell the Jews of Poland. The richer people started leaving the town. Those who remained were the older and weaker ones who didn't have the strength or the possibility to run. Some of the rick ones didn't leave either, not wanting to leave everything behind. They had already experienced exile during the First World War. They argued that Suwalk was not a strategic military point, so no big battles would come to Suwalk. And wherever they would go, they would still have to face the war. However, at moments like this logic does not prevail, only fear, and the fear was great and it chased the masses of Jews to run from Suwalk wherever they could. Most went to the central parts of Poland, and especially closed to the Russian border.

Things started going very fast. Friday morning, the first of September, the Polish President received the war declaration from Germany. In the afternoon, Nazi airplanes bombarded Suwalk, the army crossed the border and every minute the invasion of the Germans into town was expected. Saturday, the second day of the war, there was a heavy bombardment of the town. Almost every day the Germans bombarded the town. We still didn't see any German soldiers entering Suwalk. The Hitler hordes cut deep into Poland and crossed the border in many other places. But Suwalk and the vicinity were still free from Germans. Even during the most dangerous days, life went on in Suwalk.

When the sirens whistled, warning of bombardments, we ran to the shelters. But we still had to be concerned for the sick and the poor, and this was the job of a newly formed committee. One of the concerns was to save the Jews who were confined in the jail for a petty crimes. But it was dangerous to get there to talk to the authorities. Finally, the rabbi and Dr. Naftali Starapolski (leader of the community organization) went to the warden of the jail to ask for release of the Jewish prisoners. On their way, there was a German bombardment. Both of them ran from shelter to shelter until they reached the jail. The warden agreed to let the Jews out.

Never was Rosh Hashana celebrated in such a sad way as now. One can't adequately describe the scenes where after the prayers people parted with each other. The young men, the husbands, had to go back to the army.

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The usual prayer – to be inscribed for life in the Book of Life – had a real meaning right now.

After the holidays, on Shabbat conditions became quite critical. All the Polish military had left town that morning. In the afternoon, the Polish police left town, too. That was a sign that Poland gave up. Along with it, there came also news that the Soviet army crossed the Polish border and were approaching Suwalk. There were also rumors that the Soviet Union and Germany had divided Poland among themselves, and Suwalk was probably to be in the Soviet Union. At the present time, Suwalk was without any government whatsoever. As in former times of civil distress, hooligans came against the Jews. Responding, we organized a committee for self-defense.

Several days later, news came that the Soviet army was entering Suwalk. Life became more stabilized under this brief Russian occupation and many of the Jews who had left Suwalk came back. However, not for a long time. After several days, the end of the holidays, there came the news that the Germans were coming back into town. At the end of Simhat Torah, German garrisons in thousands with tanks and heavy artillery entered town. The Jewish hope had been extinguished.

 

Under Hitler's Rule

The first day, the Nazis did not show their claws yet. The Jews locked in their houses, were looking through the windows to see what was happening. Several Jews dared to go out in the streets and they reported that the German soldiers were not bothering anybody.

But the next day, there were other rumors circulating. This and this Jew was beaten up by the Nazi soldiers. Here and there a Jewish store was robbed and vandalized and the goods were taken away. Some SS men were looking for something in the Holy Ark in the synagogue and so on.

On the third day, on Sunday evening, when the rabbi came to the synagogue a Polish messenger came and told him to come right away to the Gestapo. The rabbi took with him three members of the community. The Gestapo officials greeted them with hate and poison. The Jewish representatives were not allowed to sit down. Right away, the Germans presented their demand: By 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, they must submit a list of all the Jews of Suwalk and their detailed addresses. The rabbi and the committee answered that it was impossible to make a list like that in one night. Besides that, most of the Jews had left Suwalk and who knows who remained and who did not? After some lengthy negotiation, the Gestapo officers agreed to wait for the list until the next evening, with a condition that they should bring a certain amount of leather goods, coffee and chocolate.

Several days later, the Gestapo started grabbing Jews to go to work. They tried to get only the weak and sick. When some Jewish young men offered to go instead of their elderly relatives, they were badly beaten. The work they were taken on was to dig trenches, clean toilets, and this kind of hard labor.

Then there came a decree that all Jewish stores must be opened and nobody was to hide any merchandise. For hidden goods they were threatened with death. However, for several days life became a little more stabilized and the rabbi opened the Talmud Torah and the girls' school, but his situation did not last very long. Some days later, they started catching again Jews from the street. It was impossible to go out in the street.

 

The Exile

All these troubles and trials were only a preview of what was to happen later on. On Saturday, 21 October there came a Polish official to the synagogue to fetch the rabbi and two representatives of the committee to the German authorities to hear a decree about the Jewish population of Suwalk. When they arrived the officials, without even looking at them, announced that tin three days' time all Jews must leave Suwalk. The committee started to appeal to them, plead and cry: “Where should they go?” To this the German answered “You can go to the planet Mars, but you must disappear from Suwalk.” Finally they agreed to extend the time from three to fourteen days. They also gave to six Jewish representatives a permit to travel to the Russian and Lithuanian borders to seek a place to resettle. They went to the borders, but neither the Lithuanians nor the Russians allowed them to enter their respective countries. They found out that the Jews of Seini were driven out one day before, and they were just roaming around in no-man's land between Germany and Lithuania. They were chased out, Lithuania and Russia wouldn't let them in.

The fourteen days were coming to an end. All of a sudden, a farmer came to the rabbi of Suwalk and gave him a letter from Rabbi Bengis of Kalvaria: In Lithuania they know about the tragedy which had befallen the Jews of Suwalk and the other small towns. Officially, nothing can be done to open the borders for them. But those Jews who were successful to cross illegally will find a place in Lithuania. The rabbi gave the news right away to all the people; maybe there were some ways to cross the border.

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But how, when there were guards on every corner and every spot?

On the 8th of November, many Jews started trying to cross the border illegally. Some were caught and died but some successfully crossed the border. Somehow or other, through a lot of hardships, the rabbi also crossed the border and came to Lithuania. They found he had lost his five year old child.

With the coming of the rabbi of Suwalk to Kalvaria, many more Jews came across the border from the German side, and every evening some more came into Kalvaria and Wilcowisk and other small towns. The Jews of Lithuania welcomed them with open arms, and shared with them everything they had. They took the Jews into their own homes and shared food and clothing. The Jews of Kalvaria made a special committee to make sure none of the refugees went hungry. Some young men of Kalvaria tried to cross the border and bring in more Jews from Suwalk. Altogether, about 3,000 Jews from Suwalk crossed the borders into Lithuania.

But running away and crossing the border did not come easy. There were many tragedies. Many were caught and sent back to Germany. Many died on the way, or were shot. Mordekhai Stern, a well-known dentist from Suwalk, had both of his legs frozen. In critical condition, he was taken to the hospital and died. This was the father of the famous Avraham stern, the founder of the Fighters for Freedom of Israel.

Not all the Jews of Suwalk could escape. After all the hardships, about 3,000 Jews still remained in Suwalk. For a few weeks things were calm.

On the 2nd of December came a decree that within three days all the Jews must be in their houses. Monday morning, the town was surrounded by German police and SS men. The Jewish streets were closed off and all the Jews were driven into the big synagogue, the Jewish hospital and the jail. They searched them all, and took away everything of value that they had with them. From there they were all taken to the railroad station, put in sealed wagons that were surrounded by vicious dogs, and after two days travel, they were brought to Lukov and other towns around Lublin.

In the same fatal morning, when the Jews were finally driven out of Suwalk, several families succeeded in escaping to side streets from the German police and escaped into the surrounding villages. Seeing that they had nothing to lose, they would rather risk their lives to run to the borders instead of falling into the hands of the Germans. Some of them succeeded in coming to Kalvaria. Among them was Israel Zavojnitski, now in New York, and Moshe Rafalson.

It was clear that many Jews were still hiding in the villages, where they were waiting for an opportunity to cross the Lithuanian border. A lot of money was required to bribe the peasants to help them come over. The rabbi of Suwalk alerted the central refugee committee in Kovno and the towns around to establish a special fund for this purpose. The committee worked day and night to help send out messengers to the Lithuanian border to bring in as many Jews as they possibly could. They also notified the peasants that they would reward handsomely all those who would help Jews coming across the border.

Many were caught by the Germans and brought back to Suwalk. To Kalvaria came news that sixty Jews were locked up in a place together with gypsies, who were giving them a lot of trouble, putting boards with nails on their bodies and dancing on top of them.

In Suwalk remained many Torah scrolls that were hidden by the Jews when they left town. They learned that the Germans had found them and were selling them to shoemakers for the leather. There was a campaign to bring the Torahs back to a safe place across the border. They also notified people that they would pay well if they would get them. Thanks to this hard work, they succeeded in bringing about 60 Torahs to safety.

Thanks to the central committee in Kovno, at last they succeeded in persuading the Lithuanian government that the refugees from Suwalk and vicinity should be legalized as refugees and allowed to remain in Lithuania. They allowed them to remain in sixteen small towns.

But very few of the remnant of Suwalk survived. After all the hardships they shared the lot of the other Jews of Lithuania.


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The Notes of Zalman Gradovsky

by The Editor

On March 5, 1945, about two months after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Soviet commission for the study of the Nazi murders, which conducted the first excavations in the ash pits of crematorium 3, found an aluminum canteen containing a notebook and a letter, both written in Yiddish and signed by Zalman Gradovsky. This was the first manuscript of the Sonderkommando to be discovered. The notebook contains 91 pages, with several missing. The manuscripts and the canteen were transferred to the military-medical museum in Leningrad, where they remain to this day.

Zalman Gradovsky was born in 1910 in Suwalk. He received both a general and a religious Jewish education. He was well-red in European literature and a professed Zionist. He possessed great physical strength and had a tendency towards writing.

Gradovsky arrived in Birkenau-Auschwitz in December 1942. Of his stay there and of the Sonderkommando, we possess an account by his townsman, Yaacov Freimark, who was a member of the “Canada” unit in Birkenau. Freimark was in close contact with Gradovsky until spring 1943, and witnessed the writing of Gradovsky's notes. Gradovsky worded in the Sonderkommando of crematorium 4. According to Freimark, he was a deeply religious man. After each consignment of Jews had been burned, he would return to the block where, wrapping himself in tallit and tefillin, he would recite Kaddish for those who had perished.

Gradovsky was first mentioned as the leader of the Sonderkommando uprising in the book by the Czech-Jewish authors Otto Kraus and Erich Kolka. He is also cited as the leader of the uprising in Zalman Levantal's manuscript. He died as leader of the battle.

The notes are written in a beautiful emotional and figurative style. The author brings the reader into Auschwitz, shows him the “selection”, describes the bereavement of those who have lost those dearest to them while they themselves have been condemned to live. The notes are suddenly interrupted when the author was sent to the Sonderkommando. It may be that other sections are buried elsewhere as Gradovsky in his letter mentions notes and letters buried in various places. Indeed, other of Gradovsky's manuscripts were later discovered.

On the first page of the notebook there appears a sentence which is repeated in Polish, Russian, French and German: “Read this document. It contains much material for the historian.” On the last page he gives the address of his uncle, A. Yaffe, in New York.


From Gradovsky's Notes

by Zalman Gradovsky

[Come] to me, you, happy citizen of the world, living in that land where happiness, joy and pleasure still exist, and I will tell you how to base modern criminals have transformed the happiness of a people into disaster, exchanged its joy for eternal mourning – forever destroyed its pleasure.

Come to me, you, free citizen of the world, where your life is safeguarded by human morality and your survival guaranteed by law, and I shall tell you how the modern criminals and the base thugs have trampled morality and destroyed the laws of existence.

Come to me, you, free citizen of the world, whose country is blocked by a modern wall of China, which the nails of the cruel demons have not succeeded in penetrating, and I shall tell you how they have encircled a people in their satanic arms and driven their terrible nails with sadistic cruelty into their necks… Come to me, you, who had the good fortune not to encounter the rule of these cruel modern pirates face to face, and I shall tell you and show you how and by what means they exterminated millions of this renowned, tortured people, and by what sophisticated sadistic methods they annihilated millions of the vulnerable, lonely people of Israel, whom no one arose to defend.

Come now, when the destruction is still at its heights [ ], come now, when the ardor of extermination still reigns, [come now], when the angel of death still rules. Come now, when the ovens are still flaming.

Come, arise, don't wait for the storm to pass, for the skies to clear and the sun to shine, for then you will stand in astonishment and not believe what your eyes see. And who knows if, with the passing of the storm, you will [not]

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think that this great and terrible destruction was wrought by cannon, [or] that the utter annihilation of the European nation of Israel occurred because of a natural disaster. That the ground opened up and they were gathered from all corners by the power of Divine inspiration and were swallowed by the abyss.

…Come, take courage and come with me to walk the face of the European continent, where Satan has spread his rule, and I shall tell you and prove to you with facts, how the supreme civilized race annihilated the weak, defenseless people of Israel who [know naught of] criminals.

Do not fear the long road. …for I will not show you the beginning before the end, and gradually your eyes will freeze, your heart turn to stone and your ears become deaf. We shall have to walk for days and nights, in hunger and thirst, over the various wandering roads of Europe, bearing the massed millions of Jews, chased and pursued to their terrible satanic destination.

Say goodbye to your friends and acquaintances, because [after] you behold the sadistic acts of horror committed by the so-called civilized satanic people, you will undoubtedly wish to erase your name from the family of man.

…Tell them, your wife and child, that if you do not return from the journey, it will only be because your human heart was too weak to bear the heavy pressure of the cruel deeds upon which your eyes looked.

…Now, my friend, after I have given you all the instructions for our journey, I would like to walk with you through one of the many Polish camps in which many of the Jews of Poland and elsewhere have been concentrated , sent [ ] to that place from which there is no return, because eternity has set its boundary there.

Come, my friend, let us go down now into the camp, where I and my family and tens of thousands of Jews lived for a short time. I shall tell you what happened to them during those terrible moments until they reached their final destination.

…Three factors facilitated the extermination of our people by Satan. One general, and two specific. The general factor is that we lived among the Polish people, in most of whom we saw and sensed great zoological anti-Semites, and they looked on with satisfaction, seeing Satan expending his cruelty upon us immediately upon his arrival. With mock sorrow on their faces and with inner joy in their hearts they listened to the most terrible and heart-rending news of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish victims, exterminated by the enemy by the cruelest and most savage methods. Perhaps in their hearts they were glad that the pirates came and did the work of which they were not yet capable. The only thing they feared, and rightly so, was that when the war against the Jews would be over, the moment the object or which they vented all their barbarism and cruelty would disappear, they would see a new victim to quench their beastly instincts.

You ask why the Jews did not show resistance…Because they did not trust their neighbors, who would betray them at the slightest failure. There was no one prepared to help… The fear of immediately being handed over to the enemy weakened the readiness for struggle and blunted their courage.

The first of the two specific reasons which worked like opium on the great Jewish masses, and deceived the youth, were family ties. The sense of responsibility for parents, for women and children… The second being the instinct to live, which negates all black thoughts and dispels all evil intentions, in the hope that all evil, spoken or unspoken, is the product of an inbred superstitious pessimist…

…A dull whistle pierced the air. This was the herald of a train setting forth on its way. Like a beast fleeing with its prey, the train sprang from its place and began to disappear. From all our hearts there burst a cry filled with pain. Now all felt the shocking pain of truly being torn from their homes.

…You see, my friend, how around each window of the train people stand as though glued, peering at the free world. Each wishes to satiate his eyes, roving from one direction to another, as though they had a premonition that they were seeing all this for the last time.

… We got off the train. Do you see, my friend, what is happening here? See who is coming to greet us. Soldiers with helmets on their heads, with big whips in their hands and with big bad dogs. Why these precautionary measures?

Wait, and you shall understand.

Immediately upon our arrival, the satchels and small bundles were angrily seized and placed in a large pile. No one was allowed to take anything with him, one must have no possessions. The command casts a dark gloom on us all, because if you are ordered to hand over your most necessary, essential, elementary belongings, it is 'a sign that the most necessary is unnecessary, the most essential – unessential. But you cannot ponder this for long because the echo of a new order immediately pierces the air [:]

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“Men and women separate.” This cruel order struck us all like thunder. Now, when we are already near our final destination when we have reached the border we are ordered to say goodbye, to sever the un-severable and to sunder that which cannot be sundered, which is fastened so firmly, fused in a great indivisible whole.

…All stand helpless filled with worry and despair, alone, forlorn, downtrodden. “Boxes” are assigned, shelves for 5-6 “numbers” (prisoners – ed.) together, where we are ordered to hide our bodies so that only our heads will be visible. Crawl in as far as you can. Cursed man! Let us see as little of you as possible. Guests long since arrived approach the “boxes”, ask how many we were and how many were brought to the camp. The questions are so incomprehensible.

…A blow with a stick on one of the heads protruding too far from the “box” halts reflection, alts the sorrowful conversation. The pain of my new brother so affects me that I have begun to think a little also about myself. …The new “father of the camp” approaches our “boxes”, the tall blond man, and with a very generous smile he addresses us, the new children: “I, whom you see before you, am [the block-elteste (senior)]…” … Remember that this place where you are – is a camp for dying. People don't live long here. The conditions here are very hard and the discipline – iron. Forget everything, remember yourselves, and then you may endure. First of all take care of your shoes and boots. This is the first order of camp life. If you are barefoot - you are finished quickly. Maintain cleanliness, though who knows whether you will have the strength after a hard day's work to touch food. But at least the desire should be there. End of speech. Good night my dears…

…The first night has passed. The bell wakens us and we, who have just arrived, are sent outside. They have to practice with us before the line-up to be held shortly.

…Attention, hats off [!] With grandeur and arrogance a second low-ranking person approaches. He is the “block-Fuehrer”, who receives the line-up. He counts the standing rows and signs the paper. The numbers match. Hats on! At ease! The line-up is over. He continues on to a second frozen mass to check if all is in order. Our gaze follows them, the proud soldiers, who go from block to block. Near almost every block, near every stone mass, lies one person, or sometimes 3-4 [dead] people. These are the victims of the night, who didn't manage to survive.

… I wrote this ten months ago. I came from Luna, in the Grodno district, from the Kelbasin camp.

I buried it at first in a pit of ashes. I thought this was the safest place; there, in the area of the crematorium, they will probably dig. But recently [here the page ends].


The Letter

by Zalman Gradovsky

…I wrote this during the time when I was in the Sonderkommando. They brought us from the Kelbasin camp near Grodno. I wanted to leave this along with many other notes, as a reminder for the future world of peace, in order that the world should know what happened here. I buried it among the ashes, believing this to be the safest place, because I am sure that they will dig here to find the traces of the millions of people who perished. But recently they have begun to obliterate the traces. Wherever there were a lot of ashes, they ordered them to be finely ground and taken to the Visla to be carried downstream. We opened many pits. There are today two such open pits around crematoria 1 and 2. Several pits are still filled with ashes. Perhaps they forgot them, or hid them from the higher authorities, because the order was to obliterate all signs as soon as possible. By not fulfilling the order they silenced the matter. Thanks to this two large pits with ashes remain around crematoria 1 and 2.

Much ash [of burned bodies] of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Russians, Poles has been sown and plowed around the crematoria. There are ashes around crematoria 3 and 4, too. There they ground it and carried it immediately to the Visla because the entire area was designated for “burning bridges”! The notebooks, and other notes, lay in blood-filled pits among bones and pieces of flesh which were not always completely burned. This could be sensed also by the smell.

Dear finder, search everywhere, on every spot of ground. Under it are buried dozens of documents written by myself and others, which shed light on all that happened here. We, the workers of the Kommando, scattered them especially as widely as we could, in order that the world should find tangible traces of the millions of people who were murdered. We ourselves have already lost all hope that we will be liberated. Although good news reaches us, we see that the world is giving the barbarians the opportunity to conduct massive extermination and to uproot the remnants of the Jewish people. Before our eyes, tens of thousands of Czech and Slovakian Jews are dying. These Jews certainly could have expected to be liberated. But wherever the barbarians are in danger, from whatever

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lands they are forced to flee, they drag with them those Jews who remain alive and bring them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, or to Stutthof near Gdansk. This we learn from testimony which reaches even us.

We, the Sonderkommando, have long wanted to put an end to our terrible work, which we were forced to perform under threat of death. We wanted to do something big. The people of the camp, some Jews, Russians and Poles, prevented us with all their strength and forced us to postpone the date of the uprising. But the day is near. It may come today, or tomorrow. I am writing these words at the moment of greatest peril and greatest ferment. May the future judge us on the basis of my notes; may the world see in them at least the smallest portion of the tragic world in which we lived.

September 6, 1944
Zalman Gradovsky


“Hatikvah”

They breathed easy, the band of senior officers, as the echo of the last note faded away. But not for long. A new song filled with courage and faith now bursts form from the hearts of the multitude. They sing the national anthem, Hatikvah. These are sons which they, too, know well. They have heard them more than once. The multitude sing the national anthem with pride and joy. They, the band of officers, once again freeze where they stand.

The song recounts, rouses, reminds. Through the song, the multitude of dead speak to them because the song gives them courage: You, robbers, murderers of the world! You believed, you thought – tempted by your “Fuehrer”, your “God” – that you would annihilate the Jewish people, and with their annihilation achieve victory. But the song comes to tell and remind you that y u will never achieve this victory against the people of Israel.

The song reminds you that the ancient and tortured people of Israel will continue to live, and go on to build its future, build its home in its distant, ancient land. The song reminds you, tells you, that the illusion to which you so easily succumbed, that “only in the museum would Jews remain in the world” and that none would survive to call for revenge – or to avenge himself is false; the song reminds you that there are Jews living in the world, who will gather here after the storm from all corners of the world to search for their fathers, their sisters, their brothers, and will ask: where are our brothers and sisters – those who are soon to die, those who are now singing this song: They will form great armies whose sole purpose will be revenge. They will demand retribution for every victim, for the innocent blood which you are about to shed today and for the blood which you have already shed.

The song Hatikvah does not permit repose; it rouses, it summons.


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Erection of a Cemetery Fence in Our Town

by Simon Savitt-Zavozhnitzky

In 1976, a delegation composed of rabbis and representatives of the Organization of Polish Jews from the United States, went to Poland at the invitation of the Polish Minister of Culture.

At that meeting, the delegation requested of the Minister, not to destroy the Jewish cemeteries, and permit construction of cemetery fences. The Minister agreed and gave his approval.

Among the leaders of the delegation was the Rabbi of Suwalki, Rabbi David Lifshitz, who proposed at that opportunity to the central community in Warsaw to take up the initiative for carrying out the project. As a result they decided to give the order to a contractor firm in Warsaw, and together with them travelled to Suwalki, visited the Municipality and described to them the construction details.

The contractors, architect and engineers visited the site and measured the area.

After some time, they sent several plans to the Suwalki Municipality and to the Suwalki Society in New York.

Their plans involved building a foundation of stones and brick posts, and between the posts, an area of 3 meters, metal grillwork to a height of 150 cm (about 5 ft.).

We could not agree to this; first, because it would be very expensive and second, it could result in the materials being stolen, due to their high value there.

On our part, we proposed that it be built from stones and concrete. The matter was delayed about two years. At

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the urgent request of Rabbi Lifshitz, I agreed to make a special trip in order to carry out our proposal.

In January 1980 – at the initiative of the Rabbi of Suwalki, I made a special trip by myself to Warsaw and met with the heads of the Jewish community there and with the architects and engineers who undertook to carry out the building of the fence.

From there I took the train to Suwalki. The trip took a whole night. In the morning I arrived at the train station – that same, so well-remembered old station with the red bricks. However, the Jewish cart drivers who used to wait for passengers, such as “Sonny” and Ruven, are no longer to be seen…

Queing in line for a taxi took nearly an hour standing in the cold before some “sheigetz” drove me to the Hancha Hotel through all of Kosciuszko Street until after the bridge, then right on the Augustow Road. At the hotel I was told that my room will be vacated at 2 p.m. In the meantime they gave me a room for an hour – to wash up and pray. Immediately following that I went out and was again walking through my home town – after forty years. I walked through part of Kosciuszko until Hlodna Street, turned right in the direction of Nonieweza Street, where I recognized the Solnitzky house. I knocked on the door several times before Mrs. Dabe Seynenski-Solnitzky opened the door. I said “I am a Jew” and she answered me in Yiddish “Nu, a Yid, kummt arein” (“Well, a Jew, come on in”). Despite her age and failing health, she is alert and remembers exactly the people of the town from the past and the present.

From there I continued and visited with the lone Suwalki Jewish family, Adelson. I explained to them in detail the reason for my visit, as rabbi Lifshitz's letter to them regarding my trip, reached them only after I had already returned to New York.

I made an appointment and met with the mayor and town's engineer of Suwalki and presented our plans. To the second meeting that was organized. I brought with me Mr. Adelson. Participating in the meeting was the mayor and other representatives.

Again they proposed and demanded that the fence, if at all, be built in the manner as decided a long time ago with the heads of the Warsaw Jewish Community. They also added, that in their opinion, the building of a fence is unnecessary and it would be sufficient to erect a memorial on a limited area, where the memorials erected at the end of the war are located.

I answered them point by point, first of all as to their demand to expropriate most of the Jewish cemetery area, telling them, that we will not give up even one centimeter, because this is the only holy place that remains out of all that we had. I stressed my point by saying that according to my measurements, they had already appropriated about twenty meters behind our cemetery, and attached it to the football stadium that they built at the end of the borderline. They answered “politely”, we will measure again and return … Then I proceeded explaining that their plan cannot be adopted for the reasons mentioned already adding the argument, that it is unreasonable, since all the cemeteries of other faiths are situat3ed in line with ours and are built of ordinary stones, so if our fence will be built in a manner similar to the Lazienki Park in Warsaw, it will stand out and give rise to feelings of discrimination. This explanation convinced them to agree to my proposal.

While in Suwalki I concluded, that it would be more desirable to give the work only to a Suwalki contractor – it would be easier and cheaper – with difficulty I managed to convince Mr. Adelson to take care of this, and I promised that I will continue to visit and participate, at which point he agreed. We contacted several local contractors and began dealing with various plans.

And so, I visited again in the summer of 1980, and we began together contacting contractors in Suwalki, however due to the events and strikes taking place in Poland at the time, I was forced to leave. Due to the emergency situation that followed in that country, the matter was again delayed for about two years.

Disregarding the special conditions still prevailing in Poland, I agreed to go there in August 1983, however, I made it a condition to Rabbi Lifshitz that other Suwalki representatives join me, Mr. Sherer, the chairman and Mr. Yechezkel Oken, the treasurer, agreed to this.

I arrived in Warsaw first, and the next day greeted them with the Adelsons at the airport. The next day we traveled to Suwalki.

We made an appointment with the new mayor and town representatives.

We reached an agreement to build the fence in such a manner that its façade would be faced with hewn stones, while the rest would be made of concrete. It should be mentioned that the length of the fence is more than 500 meters. It is noteworthy, that then, in the emergency period, a military governor ruled in Suwalki, and participated in this meeting in the Municipality, and it was he in particular who helped us in reaching an agreement regarding our plans and opposed the renewed demand that we renounce more than half of the Jewish cemetery, that it be expropriated and joined with theirs. He himself is a native

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of Suwalki and this caused him to take our side claiming that this is a historical necessity.

Naum Adelson undertook to carry out the work, but only on condition that we too visit from time to time in the course of construction.

I came alone once more in 1984, in order to make the final decision to build, clarify and straighten out several problems that could have delayed the construction.

Last, I must mention the reasons which influenced me to devote myself, almost on my own, to wandering through the towns of Poland, and in particular in the city of my birth, in order to carry out the difficult and complicated work, despite much opposition and various reasons even from the people of our town. I on my part felt that it is my duty to devote my time, my strength and my money to this purpose.

I was influence by the words of support from the rabbi of my town, Rabbi Lifshitz.

Moreover, because of what I had seen with my eyes ion the towns of Poland, how the Jewish cemeteries have become factories and what not, and how as a result of the deep excavations, the bones of the deceased had been tossed aside, we have acted and succeeded in preventing a painful and humiliating fate from the home of eternal life (cemetery) of our town and our dear ones.

Due to the construction having been carried out in good taste, and it having been received with appreciation and satisfaction by the authorities and residents of the town, it will encourage and influence others also to build and preserve the fences of the holy cemeteries.

Following our participation in a reunion of Suwalki people in Israel, on the occasion of the erection of the memorial at the Holon cemetery in the summer of the year 1985, I, my brother ad Mrs. Eli Moshe Amitai, Mr. and Mrs. Oken, and Mrs. Hannah Wahl, a native of Suwalki (nee Rakocinski) decided to visit Suwalki. There we saw the completed fence.

I made an appointment with the director general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Warsaw, who made a special trip with us to the cemetery and expressed his admiration for the excellent construction.

From Suwalki we travelled directly to Lublin. We visited Majdanek, where the concentration camp remained as it was at the time of the Nazis, since they didn't manage to destroy it. We continued to Krakow and visited the next day the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

We returned to Krakow and visited the ancient Rama synagogue and the holy graves of the great men of all generations who are buried in the old cemetery next to the synagogue, graves that have survived intact.

Now we are faced with the task of building one or two walls out of the destroyed and broken tombstones which survived, like brands snatched from the fire, scattered there throughout the area, as well as those that we found behind the Polish high school, near the fire station, that had been sunk into a poor that was built for the Nazi mayor of Suwalki at that time. This should serve both as a memorial to the deceased, for safeguarding the holy place and for preventing its expropriation.

We left our town Suwalki with a feeling that we left behind us two kinds of cemeteries, one a cemetery of graves without tombstones, and the other, the houses of Jews that remained silent like tombstones without graves, the location of their remains unknown.

And the Lord will fence off the breach among our people.

Edit. Mr. Savitt's proficiency as building contractor helped a great deal in the execution of the project.…


Suwalk Revisited

by Leslie Sherer

I left Suwalk in August 1937 with a picture of a beautiful, little provincial city in my mind hoping someday to visit it; to see my parents and possibly be able to bring them over to the USA; to see my friends again. How wrong I was.

Many things happened in the last 46 years; a new life, marriage, a war, a terrible Holocaust. We witnessed the birth of the State of Israel with its trials and tribulations; four wars; economic struggles and its monumental, unique accomplishments. In 1983 I was requested to lead a dele-

[Page 58]

gation from our Organization to Suwalk in the matter of erecting a stone wall around the Jewish cemetery. After a long and difficult heart searching I finally agreed to go. We arrived in Warsaw where the third member of our party, Simon Savitt, joined us. Naum Adelson and his son Joseph met us at the airport and then took us for a very fast and cursory tour of the city. That night we could not sleep, for countless thoughts roamed through our minds…

The next morning we left Warsaw from the Wilenska Street in Praga. Passengers, valises and driver were squeezed into the small car like sardines and we were on our way to Suwalk. On the way we passed the primeval forests of the Province of Augustow with its majestic pine trees which reminded me so much of our Pacific Northwest. We passed Knyszyn, Jasinowka, Suchowola, Sztabin, Dembowo and finally arrived in Augustow. After a quick ride through the town we found in the forest the monument that was erected a few year ago. That monument was put up to honor the memory of those Augustower who were tortured and killed there as well as for those who died in the concentration camps. That monument was built thanks to the efforts and the monies contributed by Augustower in the USA, by Mrs. Zeavin and our own Board member Sam Gradowski.

Then, while the sun was slowly beginning to go down, we set out for Suwalk. To my great surprise the road was paved. (The Germans did that to move their troops & heavy armaments to the Russian front). We did not see any horse-drawn vehicles, just cars, trucks and buses with license plates marked with the letter S; because Suwalk is now the capital of the State by that name. Incidentally it is now the largest of 60 states in Poland (due to the fact that it has received half of the territory of East Prussia). As we drove towards Suwalk, sites long forgotten began to reappear before our eyes: the farm houses, the forest, the village of Dubova. Papiernia, then the forest suddenly ended and the barracks of the 41st regiment, the house where Gutkowski lived and many other houses; the soldiers, church; the football field; the girls' seminarian then to the left, where Kobilinski used to live, a seven story new hotel, “Hanza” and a huge sports complex adjoining it; then down the hill and over the rebuilt bridge over the river Czarna Hanza into the asphalt paved street of Kosciuszki. The car seemed to go very fast but our hearts beat faster in anticipation and trepidation. It seems to me that the minute we hit the town our hearts overtook the car. We passed Arcadia, the German church; turned right at the traffic light (imagine traffic lights in Suwalk?) into Wigierski Street past our favorite and beloved place of recreation, the house of MACCABI; past the brewery unto the corner of I-go Maja and to the house of Naum and Ida Adelson. Everything moved so fast and changed so fast like a kaleidoscope; houses, trees, people, flowers, pictures running before my eyes and I trying to catch them fast in my mind but to no avail.…As for the city itself, it is still the same as I, or probably many of you, remember it. The city that we knew is called the OLD TOWN (Stare Miasto). The streets are paved. There are traffic lights on the corners. Kosciuszki Street is lined with chestnut trees and the sidewalks, from the bridge to the hospital, are lined with red flowers. Most of the stores on Kosciuyszki Street are closed up and converted into apartments. There are just a few of them left; among them is what used to be Ciacierskis café. One would not recognize it. It looks drab on the inside and has very little to offer. The business section of the city is Chlodna and Market Streets. In the stores on these streets you could get merchandise or food only when it was available and that was not every day. The park is as beautiful as ever. The market was converted to a park (Marji Konopnickiej) and even the “Dolek” was converted to a mini park. The “horse market” on Chlodne & 1-go Maja is now a park with a huge monument. The only market place is an insignificant vacant lot on 1-go Maja opposite from where Kaufman used to live. The old city had many of the wooden houses raised and replaced with big 6-story city projects. Most of the old Polish residents of the city live in the old houses. Half of “Shuhl gas” (Synagogue Street) with the big synagogue is gone. Half of Noniewicza Street is replaced with projects all the way through to 1-go Maja. Half Bakinowskiego is replaced with beautiful new buildings. Most of the 27 Jewish smaller houses of worship are gone or occupied by Polish people. So are both Talmud Torah buildings on a street which is called now Lenin Street; opposite them is a huge 6-story glass and steel State if Suwalk building that stretches from ul. Wigierska to Ciesielska. The Jewish hospital is now incorporated into the city hospital complex. The only remaining Jewish building is the “Moshav Zkeinim” (home for the aged) which will be restored and possibly made into a museum. The only place which we, the delegation hoped would remain Jewish was the cemetery. So with that in mind and with the hope for a little bit of good luck we set out to inspect that place. It was a huge barren area half overgrown with grass containing a number of fairly new and just a

[Page 59]

few old graves and a horse grazing on it. That day happened to be Tisha Beav. Savitt conducted a short service and all of us recited the Kaddish in unison. The other half adjoining the Russian cemetery was freshly mowed and looked like a huge neat meadow. We asked ourselves “why is this part so nice and neat?” And the horrible thought came to our mind that perhaps that too, they wanted to take away from us: to take away the only Jewish thing that we have a claim on to be our own where our sacred forefathers lay in their eternal rest. But the then military officer in charge of our city promised us that he would do the best he could and try to assure that the whole cemetery will belong to us.

The next day we set out for a meeting with the local authorities about putting up a fence around the cemetery. I must admit that all the years that I lived in Suwalk, just across the street from the Magistrate I never saw the inside of the great decorous meeting hall upstairs. I saw the yard and the detention house where many drunks and criminals of various kinds were taken top, but never the great hall. When we came to the meeting, we were truly overwhelmed and a little frightened but kept our fingers crossed. The Adelsons spoke, the captain spoke, we from New York spoke and pleaded our case and requested to remove the gravestones which were used by the German Governor to make a huge water basin, and put them back on the cemetery. The civilian authorities, the City President and the other attending Officials were not too sympathetic to our cause and put some obstacles in our way. We fared better at our next meeting when there were still some difficulties but the President said he will try to do what he can and we assumed to be a good omen and to go ahead. The whole project was put in the hands of Naum Adelson and we were supposed to be apprised of the progress of things. We shook hands and left in a much better mood than we came.

Naum, Charlie and I got into his small car and took a ride to Filipowo which was a very emotional moment for Charlie Oken. We went to Baklerove. From there we went to Raczki. We could not recognize the town. Not a Jew is to be seen in any of these towns. It was nice to be back in Adelson's home.

The next day Joseph took us with his car to see the lake Wigry. The 16 century Camedulian Cloister is still there and services are conducted daily. The parish houses however have been converted to motels for vacationers. The lake is as beautiful and peaceful as ever but there is very little boat traffic on it. Together with the lakes of Augustovo, where there are 5 excursion boats plowing the waters of the lakes and canal, this place is the summer vacationland of Poland. From there we went to Sejny, another little sleepy town. We saw there to our great chagrin the synagogue standing like an orphan. Surrounded by decaying rickety scaffolding (for the last 15 years) weather-beaten, falling apart piece by piece. It gave us the shivers. Nobody cared nor did anything about it. We tried to find the cemetery. After a while we found five barely standing up headstones with some Hebrew inscriptions on them. We again recited the Kaddish.

We spent another day in Suwalk trying to find some of the old neighbors and people that we knew. Some we found in bad condition physically living in overcrowded quarters.

Suwalk is now the capital of a State by that name. It consists of the “Old City” (The city that we knew) and the New City with 6 to 10 story housing complexes on the north which stretch from the Psheroshle past the Kalvaria road to the North-East. It reaches past the Smolinski windmill, the jail, the railroad station past Utrata Street. It has 65,000 inhabitants; a large prefabricated housing industry; a large asphalt-cement industry; a dairy industry to the South and one of the largest furniture manufacturing industries in Poland and many varied industrial plants. The city is alive with young people, cars, taxis, trucks, city and inter-city buses with a big terminal behind the park. A brand new, modern hospital fit to be in any capital city.

I left Suwalk with mixed feelings of nostalgia, sadness and loss. I went to look for something and did not find it any more. A city that does not remember my past and does not care about it means nothing to me anymore. I was glad that I was able to meet and get to like very much the Adelsons (also Doba Solnicki). But, although the area with its lakes and forest “the summer vacation spot of Poland” is beautiful, it still represents to me, as well as the rest of Poland with its former concentration camps and a most pathetic pas, just a place to recite a prayer, a

KADDISH

 

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