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[Col. 279]

From an Old Journal

Eliezer Mordekhay Altshuler

The following chapters are fragments from A.H. Altshuler's Hebrew “Sefer Hazikhronot” translated by us into Yiddish with minor changes. The entire book “Sefer Hazikhronot” is in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem.


This winter the rabbi (Rabbi Samuel Mohilewer) founded a society: “Bikur Holim” made up of the young men of the town. I have also become a member. I have often gone around with another man to collect donations for the society.


This winter a “Hevra Alfas” was organized. At first there were only five members but in a few weeks it grew to over one hundred members. All the tables in the Bet Hamidrash were taken. But, the society did not last long. Finally, only the five founding members remained. I was among them.

[Col. 280]

We studied conscientiously every day after morning prayers for a period of four years and completed the study of the whole “Alfas” twice.


A group of householders, headed by R'Shaul Rozntal, founded a general school for Jewish children this summer. The school was divided into seven grades with special superintendents. I became the superintendent of one grade. The private Hebrew teachers in town were not happy with this situation and they warned that the school would lead to apostasy. The school did not last more than two years.


A number of young maskilim [inteligentsia] published a journal called “Ruah Hazeman” [the spirit of the times].

[Col. 281]


There was an epidemic of cholera in town this winter. Many residents died. The dreadful sickness ceased in the month of Shevat – thank God. There were very strong rainstorms this summer. The crops in the fields were damaged. The whole country feared a famine. The prices of grain rose very high.


During the winter prices rose steeply. Poor people simply died from hunger and cold. They began to import rice and millet from Russia and everyone benefited. In the countries of the West, Jews carried out great fundraising campaigns for the suffering Jews in our country. One thousand rubbles were sent to Suwalk. Thanks to this aid, soup kitchens were set up for poor people. The remaining money was used to purchase the house of the Talmud Torah.


I opened a spats factory. I bought a sewing machine in Warsaw for which I paid 130 rubbles. It was the first of its kind in town. Many people were afraid to operate it.


I went to Prussia and brought back a kerosene lamp which was a novelty in town. During the intermediary days of Passover', some of us got together with R'Shaul Rozntal and decided to fund a town library. We visited many homes and collected around 500 books. After Passover, we set up the library in a room of the Talmud Torah. Many people came to the reading room. In the month of Elul a fire broke out in the Talmud Torah and the library burned up.


During the intermediary days of Sukkot a group of twenty householders decided to start a new Hevra Shas because there were almost no members left in the old one. We invited Rabbi Eliezer Simhah Rabinovits to start us off. The society grew from day-to-day. At the conclusion of the first tractate, we had sixty members.

There is also a “Hevrat Mishmorim” in town which was founded

[Col. 282]

by R'Yehiel Heler, may the memory of the righteous be blessed. Either he or his brother used to present passages of the Agadah once a week. The other rabbis in town did the same especially Rabbi Eliezer Simhah who preached every Sabbath night. Sometimes too, the esteemed scholar, R'Yosef Rozntal would preach. It was my custom to speak to the group on Sabbath night before Helikhot.


Rabbi Eliezer Simhah has left Suwalk. After his departure, a great controversy broke out. Some people wanted to bring in the Slutsker Rabbi and other, the Rabbi of Brisk. Then a delegation set out to invite the Brisker Rabbi to come – their opponents sent him telegrams advising him not to come. The result of this dissension was that some people close to the Governor went to him and asked him to appoint the teacher of religion in the Russian language, Mr. Zeligman, as the Government Rabbi. At first Zeligman refused but one of the factions finally talked him into accepting. This faction hoped to have him on their side to appoint the Dukhovne Rabbi as the real rabbi of the town. There was much opposition to Zeligman becoming the Government Rabbi but his supporters and the government functionaries were stronger. Zeligman received the needed number of signatures and he became the official rabbi. A short time later, however, the community appointed the famous Plungian rabbi, R'Hilel Libshits, as the real rabbi of the town.

At the end of the winter, I was appointed by the rabbi and the overseers as the warden of the big Bet Hamidrash. New benches were made, paid for by the special funds collected in the synagogue during the week when the chapter “Shokalim” is read, for the specific purpose of renovation. The floor was repaired; two gates were added to the entrance of the courtyard which was paved for the first time and the whole Bet Hamidrash was painted inside and outside and a pump was put in for drawing water.


The night of the 15th Mislev was an important event for the seventy members of the Hevra Shas. In the morning, the rabbi read the conclusion and in the evening the Bet Hamidrash was lit up with many lamps and candles. From there we marched to the festive hall. There it was decided to keep a pinkas [journal] for the Hevra. The responsibility for this was placed upon me. Within a week, I

[Col. 283]

had drawn up 41 by-laws. One of these was that a new member did not have to pay in advance but must first study three tractates with the Hevra. The special Hevra Sabbath was set as the one when the chapter “Veethanan” is read. The rabbi agreed with the by-laws and wrote a lengthy introduction to them. Later, a scribe wrote out the by-laws and the introduction and names of the members in the Pinkas. When the Pinkas was completed, we elected referees and the referees chose the wardens. This was the way things were done from then on.


In the month of Neshvan, new overseers were chosen. R'Menil Rozntal, R'Moshe Bardin and I. Our first decision was to introduce a new order into community life. First of all, we annulled the community tax which had been levied against each individual according to an estimate [of his worth?]. From this, the salaries of the rabbi, the cantor, the religious court judges, the sextons and the other community officials had been paid. But this tax had resulted in quarrelling in town. Therefore, we decided to find new sources of income. We asked the ritual slaughterers to increase the fee they paid into the community treasury from 1,100 rubbles to 1,700 rubbles. As a result, the ritual slaughterers raised the fees they charged. We rented the bathhouse to a new bathhouse keeper for 20 rubbles a week. (We owed the old bathhouse keeper 2,700 rubbles, so the overseers went out and collected 1,700 rubbles and the rest was paid by the new bathhouse keeper). We also required all of the kloyzn to pay a tax. In this way, our income covered our expenditures.

We also took over the Hevra Kadisha. This also brought in some income. All of this made it possible to put a new roof on the big Bet Hamidrash; to fix the ceiling in the women's gallery and to complete the paving of the entire synagogue courtyard. Altogether, it cost 1,700 rubbles. The balanced account of both income and expenditure was posted on the walls of all of the synagogues and everyone was amazed at our success.

After Passover, the overseers called a general meeting at which it was decided to appoint Rabbi Moshe Altman, son-in-law of R'Asher Margalit as a religious judge in town.

The overseers also

[Col. 284]

also organized a youth society whose job it was to collect about 20 rubbles weekly to be distributed to poor children with receipts. [note: it is not clear if the receipts were given by the children who received the money or if the children came with some kind of chits for which they received the money].


This year, the services were shortened during the High Holidays because of the cholera epidemic in the country.

Wednesday, the first day of Hanukkah, there was a large assembly for the purpose of electing overseers. We had decided in advance to refuse to serve again but under pressure from the community, we accepted the responsibility once more. I undertook to rewrite the communal Pinkas because the old one was falling apart. First I gathered up all the pinkasim of the various societies: the Hevra Shas, the Hevra Mishnayot, Hevra Tehilim, Hevra Torah, Hakhansat Orhim, Gemilut Hasadim, Bikur Holim, Hevra Mishmorim, En Yaakov, Menorat Hameor, Hevrat Hayatim, Sandlarim, Zovehe Tsedek as well as the Pinkas of the Talmud Torah and the Yeshivah. Using them as sources, I put together the new communal Pinkas.

At the beginning of the summer, we organized a “Linat Hatsedek”. I proosed the by-laws which were later passed. On 15th of Tamuz, about 100 members of the Hevra “Talmud Torah” got together to elect twelve wardens – one for each month. I was elected President.

This winter, Rabbi Hilel Libshits left to become the rabbi of Lublin. Again, the problem of choosing a new rabbi came to the fore. We wrote to Rabbi Eliezer Simhah Rabinovits of Kalvarie (who had been the rabbi in Suwalk before Rabbi Hilel Libshits) and asked him to return as rabbi. After Passover, on the 10th of Iyar, Rozntal and I went to see him. At first he agreed. Many householders were pleased. We collected signatures for him and invited him to come in the winter of 654 [1893 or 1894] for the conclusion of the Shas. Rabbi Eliezer did indeed come and he said the “Hadran” but afterwards, there were disagreements and no conclusions were reached on the choice of rabbi.

On the 21st of Sivan there was a great assembly in the En Yaakov kloys and it was decided

[Col. 285]

to appoint the Verzshbelaver rabbi, Rabbi David Tebli Matsenclenboygn as the town rabbi. After the Sabbath, R'Yisrael Zalman Starapalski and I set out for Verzshbelove and sat with the rabbi studying for half the night and a whole day after. We enjoyed his intelligence and scholarship immensely. When we returned, we announced that he was suited to be our rabbi. The people were pleased with our report. That week we sent an official letter of appointment signed by 220 people which had been notarized by the magistrate.

Tuesday 13th of Av, R'Mendl Rozntal and R'Meir Serayski went to Mariampol to receive the rabbi of Verzshbelave. I remained in town in order to organize the reception for the new rabbi of Suwalk in the village of Shvitsernie. On Wednesday we received a telegram stating that the rabbi and his escorts were on their way. The town was in a dither. Around 400 householders came to Shvitsernie in their carriages. The rabbi was received with great ceremony. The rabbi spoke words of wisdom and preached – the wardens served drinks and snacks very generously. In the evening everyone came back to Suwalk. The rabbi was led to his inn by a parade of people and afterwards, many remained to celebrate in his company until late at night.


Wednesday 29th of Keshvan, overseers were now elected and among them were R'Darukh Roznberg and R'Gotlib Mshemianski, a public


On Yom Kippur eve the religious court judge, R'Naftali (Prendzl) passed away. Later, Rabbi Binyamin Magentsa was chosen to take his place.


During the past few years there have been a number of quarrels between the overseers and the community. Sides were chosen.

[Col. 286]

In order to put an end to these quarrels new elections for overseers were held. I was chosen as was R'Eliyahu Yeruzalimski. At the beginning of the summer, we renovated the big Bet Hamidrash and chose six wardens. The sexton, who had been appointed at the time of the controversy, was let go with 100 rubbles compensation. Town affairs became much calmer.


On the eve of the first of Tevet the old governor left town. Before he left, he came to take his leave from the overseers, the rabbi and other important householders. They gave him a Bible bound in silver as a farewell gift.

At the end of the winter the spats workers united and decided to work only from 9 in the morning to 7 at night. There was great confusion in the shoe industry. The merchants were opposed to [the decreased working hours] but they finally had to give in.


All winter long we were in fear of the striking and revolutionary workers. There were a whole series of strikes. There was great tumult in town. On the Sabbath of the chapter Vaere, about one hundred workers came into the synagogue during the service. They shut the doors and one of them went up on the bimah and spoke. Thursday night, four of these people came into my house and demanded that I give them five rubbles. Even though they threatened me with a revolver, I was strong and told them I had no money for them. They warned me that they would return but they did not show themselves again.

The time is one of unrest all over the country. In many towns, as well as in Warsaw and Lublin, there have been anti-Semitic acts. Everyone fears what tomorrow will bring. In Suwalk, the young men quietly organized a self-defence group.


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