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[Col. 315]

A city of active social involvement

Shmuel David Bernshteyn

Six generations of my family lived in my home town Suwalk and helped build its 12,000-strong Jewish community. That is why everything that happened there is part of my personal and family memories.

For example, the Talmud Torah was named for R'Yitshak Ayzik Heber. My great-grandfather, R'David Zayberg brought him to serve as rabbi over 100 years ago. They along with other householders, put up the Talmud Torah building and remained friends and neighbours, {even after death} in the cemetery, where an eternal light was kept burning as long as there were Jews in Suwalk.

After World War I, when there was a need for a modern Jewish high school, my uncle – R'Hirshl Bernshteyn,

[Col. 316]

who was also very active in Talmud Torah affairs, was among the first to establish a Hebrew gymnasia[1]. For a period of 20 years, this was where local Jewish boys and girls received a National education, avoiding the need to leave home and desecrate the Sabbath, as required in the Polish gymnasia. The teachers and the principal of the Hebrew gymnasia – Binyamin Efron – were active Zionists. It was a great honour for me, a sixteen-year old, to participate in the Council of the Suwalk Zionist Organization alongside the director of the gymnasia, even though students were forbidden to participate in politics.

[Col. 317]

It was at the gymnasia that I got to know Avraham Stern {Yair}, the later founder of LEHI {Lohame Herut Yisrael}, Stern Gang. Stern returned from Russia in 1922, ignorant of the Hebrew alphabet. He started studying Hebrew in our gymnasia and from his fellow students, he learned the ABC's of Zionism. He showed great ability in languages, dramatics and above all, in leadership. In 1926 the upper grades of the gymnasia were disbanded because the Polish government stopped its subsidy. Avraham Stern and Menahem Robinzon, left to study in the Gymnasia Ivrit in Jerusalem. Stern visited Poland on a number of occasions and of course, came to see his parents in Suwalk.

[Col. 318]

Only a few of us, his old friends, knew that he was one of the leaders of Irgun Tsevai Leumi. His parents had no idea. Even years later, in 1939, when his parents and I met in Kovne as refugees, they knew very little of the role their son was playing in the struggle for a Jewish state in Erets Yisrael.

In the gymnasia, we formed clubs of Hebrew speakers called “Rak'Ivrit [2] or “Dovre 'Ivrit[3]. For months at a time, we spoke no language but Hebrew. It was there too that we entered Zionist politics. In 1926, there was a strong Hehaluts[4], one of whose leaders was Pinhas Koslowsky.

[Col. 317]

(Sapir) at present Israel's Minister of Commerce and Industry, son of a learned and enlightened man. At his house, we carried out heated discussions about Zionists, Socialism and, the future of the Jewish people. We founded the Hehaluts haMerkazi that same year {1926?} as a General Zionist youth organization in opposition to Hehaluts. This group gave birth to the Revisionist Organization and Betar (Berit Trumpeldor) of Suwalk.

[Col. 318]

Betar and the Revisionist Party were among the most active Jewish organizations in town, especially during the last two years before the Holocaust, when Revisionists Kusnerzshitski and Miler were among the leaders of the community. The Revisionists also directed the Tarbuth School and the Hebrew library, which had over 5000 volumes.

On May 14th, 1939, elections were held for Suwalk's City Council. The “Democratic Bloc”, which included all

[Col. 319]

Of the Zionists except the Revisionists, elected three men: Dr.L.Vaysman; Yosl Adelson and Moshe Goldberg.

The Revisionists elected two men: Shmuel David Bernshteyn and Shapira. At the very first meeting of the newly elected City Council, all the Jews banded together into one bloc in the struggle for Jewish rights, e.g. in the question of moving the market place.

[Col. 320]

limiting kosher slaughter, etc. I must note that the Polish Council members and Government officials who were in the majority, showed understanding of Jewish needs. In general, the relationship between Jews and Poles was not as bad in Suwalk as it was in other towns.

Suwalk train station

Welcoming Senator of Polish Senate, Rabbi Kovalski. Together with the worthies of the town; Rabbi Binyamin Magentsa – the dayan {religious court judge}, R'Eliyahu Rozntal; R'Hayim Mendl Fridman; R'Yohanan Birger; R'Berl Zeligzon; R'Alter Gubranski; Rabbi Astrinski; Matsman and others.

On photo: welcoming Senator Rabbi Kovalski at the train station


[Col. 319]

Along with the political parties, there was a well-organized guild[5] of manual labourers led for many years by Yosl Adelson and Kalman Mikhnovski, two practical and shrewd men. The merchants had their own guild with its own clubhouse – the site, not only of card games, but also of the best and largest library in town, with the latest Yiddish, Polish and Russian books.

The Linat ha-Tsedek[6], and Bikur Holim[7], societies were headed for many years by Mote Vaisberg, a man of power, who also devoted much time and energy to these charitable institutions.

The pride of Suwalk Jewry was the Jewish hospital supported by the hard-earned coins of the entire Jewish community.

[Col. 320]

Dr.L. Vaysman; Dr. H. Staropolski, and in its last years; Dr. Grubsheyn, were active in both medical and philanthropic matters.

There was also a Berit ha-Hayal, a Revisionist group of hundreds of veterans of the Polish army.

There were also two artistic groups: “the dramatic society” and “the dramatic circle”[8]. The “dramatic society” had a nice chorus led by the five members of the Blokharovitsh family who sang and conducted; and a symphonic orchestra conducted by Engineer Trotski and Alter Gutman.

All of these institutions and organizations acted conscientiously and responsibly, and, were self-supporting. Each had its benefactors

[Col. 321]

who felt that they were doing holy work with no need for publicity.

[Col. 322]

There was no need for announcements when a lecturer came to town. People came of their own will to hear something new.

Puck {?} Hall, Monday 3rd December

Only one concert of word and play by the well-known pair of Palestinian artists: Meir Teomi and Yehudit Perkal.
(former artists of the Moscow Chamber Theater) with an original Palestinian programme. Details in the programmes. Curtain at 9p.m. Printer: A.Broynrat, Suwalk


[Col. 323]

If there was a protest demonstration in the synagogue courtyard, young and old came in response to the call. Even without artists and entertainers, people came to hear their own leaders: Rabbi David Lifshits, beloved and honoured by all. Dr. Vaysman; Dr. Staropolski. All spoke Yiddish; each one with a quotation

[Col. 324]

from the holy texts, and after each meeting, people did not rush home but stayed around to discuss what they had heard.

How bitter is the thought that this world has been cut off – that the murderer has intruded upon every memory of our holy Suwalk.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Secondary school Return
  2. Hebrew only Return
  3. Speakers of Hebrew Return
  4. Hehaluts was Labour Zionist, ideological ancestor of present-day Ma'arakh. Betar and Revisionists were ideological ancestors of present-day Likud Return
  5. Actually, dramatic corner Return
  6. Shelter for homeless Return
  7. Visiting the sick Return
  8. The word used, farband=alliance has many meanings: union, group, guild, etc. Return


[Col. 323]

In the days of the First World War [1]

A.M. Altshuler

In Iyar 5674 {around May, 1914} there was a big meeting about filling the post of rabbi which was vacant since the death of Rabbi Moshe Betsalel Luria – may the memory of the righteous be a blessing. These candidates were under consideration: The town preacher of Vilna and the rabbis of Tavrik, Poneviesh, Vilkomir, Knishin, Sokolke, Movoredek, Bestvits and Plungian. In Sivan {June}, a contract was signed with Rabbi Hayim Heller but, shortly thereafter, the war broke out and it all came to naught.

In Av, {August} general mobilization was declared. There was much confusion. The banks halted the withdrawal of funds.



The commander ordered all the shops to stay open on Rosh Hashanah. Most of the storekeepers did not open their shops. In order not to leave their homes unoccupied, it was decided that the women would not come to the synagogue. Nevertheless, prayers were concluded by 10:30 a.m. and they were forced to open their shops afterwards.

[Col. 325-326]



Excerpt from the order of the Commanding Officer Ast[2] {branch} dated 30th October, 1916 regarding the regulation of land title and mortgage registers in those parts of the district which belonged to former Suwalk Province.

  1. Those parts of the district which belonged to Suwalk Province before the German occupation are under the jurisdiction of the County Court in Suwalk. Land title and mortgage registration regulations come into force on 1st January, 1916.
  2. All petitions and documents referring to the land title and mortgage registers must be written in German or accompanied by a German translation done by a duly certified translator.
  3. All appeals of decisions made by the office of land title and mortgage registration in Suwalk must be made to the District Court in Suwalk. The documents must be presented at the County Court or the District Court via a written declaration to the Clerk of the Court.
    Headquarters Ast {branch?} November 5, 1916
    Commanding Officer Ast {branch?}
    Quartermaster General
    (signed) P. Eisenhart

[Col. 327]

On Friday, there were notices put up on the billboards that all residents of the town must bring special payments of 3,000 rubbles with an additional tax of 500 rubbles for Jews.

The stores were also open on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur afternoon, there was a rumour that the Germans had been pushed back from Grodno and that there was a general retreat all along the front. On Saturday at 4p.m. there was a dreadful explosion in the Jewish neighbourhood and a fire broke out which quickly spread to most of the city. At the same time, the Germans started to withdraw.

On Saturday evening, the Russian soldiers were already in town. They besieged the shops and demanded food, clothing and shoes – all things which were very scarce. Since they did not find these supplies in the shops, they began plundering private homes and searching in people's cellars, which aroused a great tumult.

Early Sunday morning, many stores had already been broken into and robbed – and, there had been some rapes. Sinister elements of the Polish population incited the Russian soldiers against the Jews. On Sukkes, we had to pray privately {not in minyan} because the synagogue and Beth Hamidrash were besieged by soldiers and we were afraid to go there.

[Col. 328]

The robberies continued until a new mayor was appointed who took strong measures to halt them. The Jews breathed a bit more freely and as a gesture of thankfulness, they tried to collect better food and sweets for the wounded soldiers. The sound of shots was still heard from all sides. Army patrols guarded the streets.

On the first night of Sukkes, fires broke out – some right in town, other on the outskirts of town. Shots were heard all through the days of the holiday. Groups of soldiers came and went. The shops were open on the intermediate days of Sukkes. The soldiers bought up everything available and paid good prices. Many people who had run away came back, and food became very scarce. It was very hard to get bread, butter, sugar and eggs were completely unavailable.

In Heshvan {October}, many Jewish families left town because the cannons thundered day and night from the front, only five kilometres away. At the end of Shevat {February} the Germans were again close by. At the last minute, my family got aboard a train which was going towards Grodno. From there, we went to Vilna-Minsk, where we remained until the end of the war.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Fragments from his Sefer ha-Zikhronot Book of memories. See p.279. Return
  2. This is written in a peculiar German-Yiddish. The word “Ast” is not clear. Either it is the name of the commanding officer, or, it is an acronym or it stands for some German term such as branch. I have not been able to track it down. Return


[Col. 327]

Pogrom in Suwalk in 1914

Abstracted from the Bund pamphlet “Daklad po Yevreiskomo Voprasu”, January 1916.

In spite of Russian military assurances that the enemy was far from the city, three quarters of the inhabitants fled – frightened by the rumours of the Germans bad treatment of civilians. At the end of August, 1914, that is, just before the Germans came, only those who could not leave remained behind.

[Col. 328]

Jews left in masses – uneasy at the widespread rumours that the Jews were impatiently awaiting the arrival of the Germans, and that they would greet them with gold in their hands.?

At that time, there was an openly anti-Semitic newspaper? published by two “Narodavkis” – Vinitski and Doblatski. It reprinted all the anti-Semitic items from the Dvo Grosko and other anti-Semitic periodicals published in Galitsia and Poland. These newspapers and some local anti-Semites played a role in exacerbating the tense situation in which Suwalk Jews found themselves at the beginning of the war.

[Col. 329]

The Poles' hatred of Jews often showed itself in minor incidents, but this harboured no good.

Only nurses who had graduated from the nursing school attached to the City Hospital (built mainly with Jewish money) could work there. The Head Nurse at the school was Sister Krasovskaya, who, with the aid of influential personages, excluded Jews from the school, even those with advanced medical training. As a result of the pressure by the lcal Jewish doctor who was a member of the hospital board, six Jewish women were admitted to the school.

During the uneasy period after the outbreak of the war, the Poles called a general meeting in order to set up a citizens' committee. Jews not not invited to attend. One Jew, without his knowledge, was somehow nominated to the committee. The fact that Jews were almost completely unrepresented in the leadership of the committee – which did not of course free them of all the obligations connected to its work – could impress the Russians that they were not interested in the wellbeing of the city, nor in assisting the civilian and military powers. This could lead to the impression that the Jews were for a German rather than a Russian victory.

Under such conditions, any action taken by a Jew could be mis-interpreted and could lead to drastic consequences.

The attitude of the Poles toward the Jews, during the first weeks of the war, may be exemplified by some actual incidents.

When the Russian army was advancing toward Koenigsberg, and there was no danger of a German occupation of Suwalk, a local Polish factory owner asked the Jewish supplier Erdraykh, in front of a large crowd, “Well, are you also going to participate in the delegation to Kaiser Wilhelm?”

When old man Frankl's tenants stopped paying rent, he wrote to his son, a doctor in Tomsk, asking him for money. The Suwalk military censor, Danietski, had Frankl brought in and questioned at length as to why he needed money and whether he was planning to send it to the Germans…

[Col. 330]

The Germans came on August 30th and left the night before September 20th. The Russians began to march in the following day, Sabbath, September 20th at 11a.m.

As soon as the Russian soldiers began coming back, the Poles began to incite them against the Jews. The soldiers, half-starved on their return from the front, started rushing to the Jewish stores. They were angered when they found them closed for the Sabbath. Later in the day, the Jews opened all their businesses, but there was simply not enough food to feed an entire army.

The soldiers' rage was so great, and it took such extreme forms, that on the second day, one of the local priests found it necessary to preach restraint.

The pogrom lasted the whole Sabbath. No matter how much the post influential Jews of the town tried to persuade those in charge to stop the pogrom, they were unsuccessful. When a Jew asked a passing officer for help, the response was: “Go to the Germans!” On Sunday, General Mishtsenko received a delegation of local Germans and Poles, but he refused to see the rabbi.

Early Monday morning, both rabbis, (probably Rabbi Moshe Altman and Rabbi Binyamin Magentsa)[1] were unexpectedly arrested. General Mishtsenko refused to listen to the Jewish delegation that came to see him about this. He declared that the Jews were not behaving in a patriotic fashion and presented the following list of “facts”:

  1. The peasants of the village Tartak saw a Jew on a white horse riding through the front lines, pointing out Russian soldiers to the Germans.
  2. The Jews are tearing down the Russian telephone lines. (as it was later shown, the Russians had strung telephone wires over the home of a Jew when he was not there. They suspected him of espionage and shot him when he came home).
  3. The Jews did not want to sell anything to the Russian soldiers but they received the Germans nicely and baked bread for them.
  4. The Jews know the whereabouts and numbers of the German soldiers but refuse to reveal this information to the Russian general staff.

However, the rabbis were finally freed.

[Col. 331]

While the Germans were still in town, there were rumours that the Russian soldiers around Suwalk were planning to get even with the Jews. The director of the Potrebitelsko Obshtsestvo ( …….property office) and bookkeeper of the Kaznatshaystvo (administration) Matsievski warned: “We're going to get you Zhids!” When someone asked him if he would personally participate in a pogrom, he replied: “If not I, others will. I'll see to that”.

On September 20th, when the first Russian units entered the town, many Jews went out onto Grodno Street to greet them. They gave the soldiers bread, herring and cigarettes. The Cossacks – the first to enter – thanked them then added: “we know all about you. We shall kill off the Jews if there is no bread”.

Immediately, Polish hooligans surrounded the soldiers and began to incite them against the Jews. The soldiers, accompanied by young Polish toughs and floozies, set out to beat up Jews.

A Jewish merchant, SH.F….. was beaten up for refusing to sell tobacco to the soldiers. Another Jews was badly beaten up because there was no sugar or sweets in his store. There were many such incidents in town. Bread was sold in all the bakeries, and the ovens were kept going even on Sabbath with special permission of the rabbis.

On the night of the 20th, many anti-Jewish incidents took place in various parts of town. Stores and homes were robbed. I shall list some events which I witnessed and suffered.

  1. Soldiers and civilians broke down the door of Burak's store in the marketplace and robbed it. They also broke into the house and one child went missing. The soldiers were arrested by a patrol. When I went out into the street, the patrol officer calmed me saying that they had only emptied out a Zhid's store and killed a Jewish boy. Later, the child was found.

[Col. 332]

  1. Frid's store on Bazarna Street was broken into. When he asked an officer to put a guard on his store, he was told that it was not the officer's business.
  2. Soldiers broke into Goldberg's store, beat him up very badly and pulled his wife by the hair.
  3. Cossacks armed with revolvers, took 200 Marks and 500 Rubbles and a gold watch from Zev. They rioted in his house all night long.
  4. That same Zev, took his hat off before an approaching officer. In response to this greeting, the officer slapped him and said: “You're a Zhid”.
  5. The broken-in stores and houses were vandalized by Poles who came with sacks and baskets from all over town. Some even brought wagons to carry away the goods. They destroyed what they could not carry. I myself saw holy books trampled in the dirt. Frid's grandfather of 90 years, burst into tears when he saw this. One soldier wanted to stab him but was restrained by another soldier.
  6. On the second day, in the very midst of the pogram, a Polish woman said to a suffering Jew: “This is nothing, we will yet see Zhid blood”.

Only on the third day was a military police chief appointed who used stringent methods to prevent further outbreaks.

During the first day, only Jews were taken for forced labour. Soldiers would stop people in the street and ask: “Jew or Pole?” Jews were forced to work and Poles were freed. In a few days, all the Jews had been conscripted. They were given menial work; for example: a group of important men, headed by the warden of the large synagogue, Rozntal, had to remove the dead horses from the roads and bury them. Mirovski, while doing forced labour, had his store and house robbed in his absence.

It is important to note that besides the Cossacks, most of those who participated in the pogroms were the soldiers of the Caucasus regiment, of which 65% were Poles.

Translator's Footnote

  1. This refers to the person who abstracted and translated this selection from Polish. Return


[Col. 333]

Germans in the Talmud Torah

(Memories of the First World War)

Eliezer Oranovsky

Covered with snow, encapsulated by the frost, the city of Suwalk glimmered pearly-white. The Anshe lay black and frozen, as though chained. Only in the Arkadia {conservatory?} could one see flowers and plants growing under glass.

Need and hunger joined with the cold in its reign over the city.

The German did not allow any grain or foodstuff to be brought in. They confiscated everything.

Haman, a tall broad-shouldered German, was notorious for searching the “secret places” on peasant women's bodies and clothing – looking for concealed butter or cheese.

Some of the employed survived by selling cigarettes to the German soldiers. Before daybreak, there were dark flecks on the white snow – traces of the hundreds of people who had been standing all night in front of the bakeries, hoping to buy the bread made of rye mixed with chaff and ground horse chestnuts.

The change-over of regimes from Czar to Kaiser, had almost no effect on religious and spiritual life. The synagogues and schools were full of worshippers and teachers. The hadorim and Talmud Torah held classes as usual, except for the first weeks of the occupation, when there was an 8p.m. curfew. Then, everybody locked and bolted himself in, and the town looked empty of its inhabitants – a dead town.

The nine classes full of pupils in the one-story brick Talmud Torah, chanted their lessons from the Bible aloud – each class with its own melody. And the sound of all these young voices, like the chirping of birds, rose into the air, ascending to the heavens…

Since there was no money for fuel, every week, each pupil was told to bring a few pieces of wood from home and the accumulated wood was enough to heat the rooms daily. Only the upper grades studied in the evenings. There was no kerosene or candles for light.

The teacher of the highest class in the Yeshiva was Rebe Wayl, a thin, short, grey-haired man with a short beard and deep dark eyes which inspired respect. A long black coat covered his thin body, bent like a twig and as mobile as quicksilver.

He sat in the middle with his students around him on three sides, leaning on a lectern, an open Gemara before him. If someone whispered to a neighbour in the middle of the lesson, and was noticed by Rebe Wayl, the lesson would be stopped. Rebe Wayl would stand up and start shaking the lectern back and forth, right to left. His eyes would grow larger; focus on the “sinner” as if they could pierce through his innermost soul. Anger and bitterness would course through his body and cause it to shake. On such occasions, all of the students would sit stock still, pale and frightened and the source of this rage upon whom the fiery glances fell, would have rejoiced if he were swallowed up by the ground rather than suffer the shame of being the target of Rebe's looks.

After a minute or two of such spiritual mortification, they would feel spiritually cleansed, baptized in the fiery glances of the rebe whose face would slowly relax and calm down. Once again, the holy Shekhina would shine from his face, like the sun after the rain, and he would continue the lesson.

On one such evening, there was a knock on the door. “Come in” the rebe said quietly, with a tremor in his voice. Two tall fleshy Germans with fiery red faces and pointed moustaches came in. They stood there as if stupefied.

[Col. 335]

“Where were they?” they must have though – is it real, or a dream?

Thirty boys, aged ten to twelve, wearing head coverings, sat around holding large books – Gemaras – and in every right hand was a balankes[1] which shed a pale yellow light on the pale boyish faces, from which thin smoke curled up and made halos of smoke around their heads.

Here and there, someone would cut off a piece of coal which threatened to go out, and the flame would be renewed. The shadows danced on the wall as if light and darkness were struggling with each other, formless and mysterious figures.

“What is happening here?” they asked the thin old man wearing the long black kapote (long coat) who looked like a strange, outlandish figure, in the dim light.

“Quite simple” he answered. We are studying the Talmud, and since we have no kerosene or candles, we use balankes for light for we may not cease our study. The world is supported by the study of Torah”.

Whether they did or did not understand, they apologized for disturbing, for interrupting and they disappeared into the frosty night.

“Now I shall explain to you the sense of their seeing, hearing and not understanding”, and Rebe Wayl began to expound upon the subject.

“You have seen that there were two Germans here; people with eyes, ears, heads, hands, feet – people like everybody else; yet they did not see anything – they did not hear anything and they did not understand anything.”

“You understand the meaning of *they have a mouth and they cannot speak*…this refers not only to clay and stone; or to idols made by human hands, but also to people who are like clay and stone – who do not hear or see…”

[Col. 336]

“What did they see? Smokey balankes, yellowish light, smoke curling up and poor children chocking on the smoke, with big books whose pages are stained with candle grease.

If they have human hearts, then they can only pity us. Perhaps they thought that we were not completely normal, for from their point of view, this seems to be craziness; isn't the day long enough for study that we have to study at night too? And under these conditions.

Go explain to them that Torah should be studied day and night – would they understand? A short distance from us, two giants are struggling – the Russians and the Germans – and here we are, as though nothing were happening. We are sitting and studying Torah under the worst conditions, and if there are no candles, then balankes will do. For we are illuminated by an inner light; the light that everyone has within himself which draws us to the burning bush in the desert, to that thorn bush which Moses saw in the desert – to the divine light which burns and burns and is not consumed…”

“When we are deeply rooted with heart and soul in that burning bush, even a balanke, even a splinter, a stick of wood, suffice to light up the material, the page with inked letters, so that the flesh and blood eyes can see, and then the internal light comes and opens a spiritual world before us. Then the letters and the words begin to sing in our blood vessels and we begin to feel as if we are floating on the sea of Talmud; happy, illuminated, elevated.

“Nu, can they feel this, can they understand this?”

The Rebe sat down on his stool. His radiant face was hidden between his hands, his elbows leaning upon the lectern near the Gemara.

A silent melody arose from thirty uplifted hearts. The yellow light of the balankes was even dimmer that night of the First World War.

[Col. 337-338]

Members of the Musical Society in Suwalk in 1923
Mikhnovski; Eplboym; Finkl; Purvin; Moshe Birger; Blekharovitsh


[Col. 337]

After the First World War, we formed a dramatic, musical society. The conductor was Yaakov Robelinski. The performances given by the society were famous in Suwalk and environs.

[Col. 338]

The Suwalk chess club was also very active. Every evening, many chess players would gather there to match their skills. The best players were Shalom Shperling and Reyngevirts.

[Col. 339-340]

Members of Suwalk Chess Club in 1924
Adlson; Eplboym; Mikhnovski; Mikhl Smolinski; Turetski; Golombieqvski; Dr. Smolinski; Reyngevirts


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Balanks was not found in any dictionary. Dr. Schulzinger, who spend some years in Suwalk, told me it was a local word for a potato or other vegetable in which a coal or wick was placed to provide primitive light. He was very helpful. Return
  2. there are only 6 names listed under photo with no indication as to whom they identify. There are 13 people in the photo. Return
  3. There are 11 men in the picture but only 8 names given. Return


[Col. 337]

After the First World War

Shlomo Stutsinski, Montevideo

In 1919, a teacher named Gelman came to Suwalk. He was very learned and a fine speaker, and he conducted discussions at the Zionist organization. He eagerly agitated for pioneering, for the idea of emigrating to Erets Yisrael and for building the land oneself.

We young people were inspired by him. We were full of dreams and the idea of a new life in the land of our ancestors inspired us. We created a commission, rented some land, and began to study agriculture.

First of all, we hired a horse and wagon from Hono'ke, the wagoner, to haul manure. The whole town of Suwalk

[Col. 338]

gathered around to see the sons of the middle-class hauling manure…that year, we also formed a sports club – Makabi – led by Motl Eplboym. The Makabi was especially devoted to football {soccer?}. We did not have the means to buy the special sportswear and equipment, so we fixed our brother's old shoes and shortened our long pants. Even though our shoes were too big, we won a match against the forty-first regiment stationed in Suwalk. “Mash Prshegland”,[1] the Warsaw sport newspaper wrote in praise of the Suwalk Makabi. We were invited to play in Warsaw but we could not go because of our unsuitable garb.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Translator's transliteration. Return


[Col. 339]

The Lithuanian Occupation

M. Shlomi-Firdman, Haifa

It is 1920. The Red Army has reached Praga near Warsaw. The Poles leave Suwalk and we wait for the arrival of the Lithuanian Army.

We fear pogroms. The older members of Hashomer Hatsair, at that time, the scout organization of the Zionists movement, meet and discuss the possibility of forming a Jewish self-defence organization. The community council discusses this too. The “Shomrim” put themselves at the disposal of the community council.

When the Lithuanians entered the city, their commander called upon the community council to help keep order until a civilian police would be organized. He requested that the young Jews also participate in the police force.

[Col. 340]

A few days later, a Lithuanian soldier comes to my house and demands that I, the “commander” of the scouts, should go to the commander of the city. An order is an order, and I had to obey, but asked Shmuel Backrach, our secretary, to accompany me.

The Lithuanian headquarters were in a house on Koshtshiushke opposite the post office. We were led into a separate room and were asked to provide 50 comrades to help keep order the following morning for the expected arrival of three Lithuanian ministers: Minister of Interior, Minister of War and Minister of Jewish Affairs.

We told him that it was a political matter. We were a part of the Zionist organization and we could not make such decisions on our own. We explained that the best group for him to see was the community council. I got up to leave.

[Col. 341]

“No”, he says to me: “you wait here until we get the reply of the council”. I asked for permission to write a few words to the president of the Suwalk council without revealing that he was my father. Permission was granted. The Lithuanian commander also wrote to the council and sent the two letters off with a soldier.

I later learned that the letters arrived while the council was in session and from my few words, my father learned of my desperate situation.

The debates in council lasted until nine that night. Bahrach and I are on pins and needles. We converse in Hebrew so that the “uncircumcised one” should not understand. The officers change shifts every few hours but we are not left alone.

The reply of the council was that since there was no civil police in town, order must be kept by the military during the reception of the ministers but that the shomrim would assist.

We were allowed to go. On our way home, we went into the Zionist clubhouse to consult with Roznberg. At home, we consulted with my father. We then ran to collect the older “shomrim” for the following morning.

Forty “shomrim” in uniform showed up at 9 in the morning at the intersection of Koshtshiushko and Khlodne Streets. There was an archway covered with green (branches?). The military police were already there. Most of the crowd were Jews with a sprinkling of gentiles.

An automobile carrying the guests approached. The military band played the Lithuanian anthem. The Lithuanian solders saluted and I and my shomrim did likewise. One of the guests, the War Minister Fulkovnik Zhukas, together with the commander and other officers, walked through the rows of soldiers. When they came to us, he put his hand out to me and said in Russian: “Good chaps”. I responded, as was the usual in such cases, in Russian: “Happy to be of service”.

The Jewish minister, Dr. S.Roznberg, did not come. Had the commander tricked the Jews into participating in the demonstration, or was it just chance that Roznberg did not show? Who knows?

I returned from the parade crestfallen.

[Col. 342]

A few weeks after the Lithuanian entry, there was again unrest in town. There were rumours that the Polish army was approaching. The Lithuanians prepared to retreat. They began to withdraw to Kalverie. Once more, there was a council of war at home and it was decided that I would go to the Lithuanian commander and ask to go along with him. As leader of the Jewish youth at that demonstration, I could no longer remain. He understood. He told me and my brother Zorah to come the next morning and he loaded us into a truck full of soldiers going to Mariampol.

That is how we began to live like refugees in Mariampol and later in Kovne. All ways were open for me. I even got an audience with the War Minister. I was the only Jew accepted into the Government Technical School.

It was hard to be a refugee. We had no money and we had brought very few goods with us. We were quietly hungry.

The shomrim who remained in Suwalk had many difficulties. They were dragged to the police and photographed and questioned as to my whereabouts. I found this out in a about a year when I stole into Suwalk in order to get papers for a passport so that I could immigrate to Palestine. A polish policeman recognized me. I was arrested and was saved from death by a miracle.

Many Jews were executed at that time. The Poles accused many Jews of espionage and many Jews were hanged in the woods of Kalverie and Augustow. My father and the warden of the burial society were required to remove the corpses from the gallows.

The woods were full of Polish partisans and soldiers who considered every Jew a Bolshevik. It was extremely dangerous for Jews to show up in those places. My father and a few other Jews used to ride into the woods to get the corpses and bring them back for Jewish burial. They were often in danger of being killed. More than once, my father's beard was grabbed and he was told: “Zhid we are going to shoot you!”

He was saved from the gallows by the letter of the Polish mayor, certifying that he was a member of the Burial Society and sometimes a bribe helped too.

Note: frequent change of tense is by author.


[Col. 343]

The pogrom in 1936

Mordekhay Zlotnitski-Zahavi, Jerusalem

I remember the year 1936 very well. It was the year of the pogroms in Pshite and Brisk – the year Goering came to hunt with Minister Beck.

The air of Suwalk was full of Nazi poison. American photographers took pictures of the words scrawled on the walls: “down with the Jews”. After football (soccer) games between the Makabi and Polish teams, the Jewish sportsmen would leave the field under a hailstorm of stones.

The local anti-Semitic hooligans yearned for greater deeds – they wanted a full-scale pogrom. It happened on a wonderfully beautiful day in May. Some friends and I were in a Jewish club on Kosciuszko Street. Suddenly, there was a sound of a siren. We thought there was a fire, but when we went out onto the balcony, we saw another kind of fire:

A big gang of Polish louts holding sticks were breaking windows of all the Jewish businesses. They were chasing Jewish passers-by and when they saw us on the balcony, they started after us. We locked the door. There were three boys – Yaakov Vilenski, Moshe Nignivotski {and I} and three girls. Our only weapons were billiard cues, so we go them ready but the hooligans ran off in another direction, after throwing some rocks through the windows.

After a while, some more friends showed up with real weapons. They told us about incidents of people being wounded and said that we should go out into the street to defend Jews.

Kosciuszko Street was dead. Broken doors, pieces of glass and merchandise lay on the ground. There were no policemen to be seen. We left the girls and two of the boys in the clubhouse and three of us went outside.

[Col. 344]

Immediately, some Polish policemen came running and yelled at us: “Go on home”. We turned into Yatkeva Street where three Polish youths appeared out of nowhere and attacked us. At first we took some blows, but when we saw that they had no backup, we started to show them what we knew.

Moshe Nignivotski hit one hooligan so hard that all we heard was: “Oh Jesus Mary!” The remaining two of us started to beat up the two sturdy youths in gymnasia uniforms. I gave one of them such a blow with my head on his nose that the blood began to flow and he ran away. The third youth had a narrow escape. Yitshak Vilenski (he died in Russia) was a carpenter with hands of iron and he almost strangled him. We managed to persuade VIlenski, with difficulty, to let him go.

In the evening, the streets were full of police. The Jewish comrades assembled at Sandubski's bar and in the clubhouse of the Makabi, the Betar and Hashomer Hatzair.

The following day, Jewish women were afraid to go out onto the street. Although it was quiet, the Jewish young men were prepared for anything. The Polish gentiles were also ready. A strange thing happened that I shall always remember. At nightfall, the hooligans went out for a “stroll” carrying metal and wooden clubs. A bunch of Jewish youths came out from another street – butchers with meat cleavers under their coats, wagoners, cobblers and just plain fellows – all broad-shouldered, husky men – and they crowded into the main street. The Poles started retreating, little by little, and in one hour, they had completely vanished from the scene. The Jews remained the masters of the street and this was a great victory for it showed that “they were afraid of us”.

[Col. 345]

Episodes from my youth

Shmuel Sinanski-Siman, Israel

R'Naftali Fridlander was a man of learning, both in secular and sacred subjects, and a fine character. His son, Eliyahu, was my friend and I was a frequent visitor to their home. Every Saturday, R'Naftali would give a Torah lesson at his home. His brothers, R'Levi Yitshak and R'Moshe used to come too. Quite frequently, his nephew, Dr. Staropolski, would show up. R'Naftali and his brother-in-law, R'Bertshik Rubinshteyn, owned a sawmill on Gumyeni street. Almost all the factories were on the same street. For example, our brewery, Hirsh Ratshevski's tannery and R'Asher Rubinshteyn's brewery. There was another brewery on Vigrer Street.

Before World War I, it had belonged to Kunts. Under the Polish regine, Kunts was not allowed to run his brewery. With no other options available, he started a stock exchange[1] {sic} Most of the shares belonged to his Jewish a partners, Moshe Rozntal, Finklshteyn and Ariovitsh.

There were two Jewish owned stores selling beer and lemonade in Suwalk. They belonged to Perets Solnitski and Rumshinski. Most of the saloons were owned by Jews: Ukrainski, Opnhaym, Ariovitsh, Berger, Baravski, Goldring, Mishkinski, Sandovski, Fridenberg and Kats.

Suwalk went through three language eras. The first was the Russian era. Until 1914, Suwalk had Russian government gymnasia. Mariampolski's private school, which prepared Jewish children for the gymnasia, was also conducted in Russian.

The second period was German. The German speaking Jewish intelligentsia founded a German-Hebrew school where attendance was compulsory. The inspector was a German major named Vikli {Willkie?}. The head teacher, Wolf, was a German Jew who was devoted body and soul to the Vaterland. He was a very nervous man and fanatically strict. The students shivered in their boots in his presence. Not a day passed without a student not beaten with a heavy rod. Even the teachers dreaded him.

[Col. 346]

I recall how I was once supposed to sing at a Purim concert in the Hindenburg Café on Shul Street, but suddenly fell ill with influenza and could not make an appearance. Two policemen showed up at our house, pulled me out of bed and took me to the theatre. Sick as I was, I was beaten up by Wolf backstage because he argued my sickness was “foylenzia, not influenza”[2]

When the Zionists held their meetings and the Zionist leader, Dr. Robinzon, would debate the Pundist leader Glikson, Wolf would rush in with a revolver in his hand and chase everyone away. During the German era, our young intellectuals spoke German as their mother tongue.

The third era was Polish. A Hebrew-Polish gymnasium was founded – headed by Efron, an engineer by profession. He played an important role in Suwalk Jewish life. Many Jewish boys and girls who graduated from these gymnasia became students at various universities. They conversed mainly in Polish.

Efron became a leader of the General Zionists and his opposite number was Gelman, a very intelligent person and an outstanding orator. Gelman was the principal of the Hebrew Folkshul and the leader of the Zerei Zion. He directed Hehalutz in Suwalk from the twenties on. He was unusually kind-hearted. Hehalutz also organized evening courses in Hebrew for those members who had fallen behind in their studies. The teachers were: Gelman, Berezovski and Orlovski.

There was also a fine Jewish orchestra which performed in the Mercantile Club. Among its best performers were: Richard Opnhaym, Dvoretski, my brother Hilel, peace be upon him, Smolinski and other Jewish musicians whose names I don't remember. The orchestra was conducted by young Trotski, the chief engineer of the municipal electric works, son of Trotski the jeweller.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. This is the translation, but it may also mean some kind of society which sold shares. Return
  2. In order to get the flavour of the pun, we can change foylenzia (foyl=lazy) to foolenza. Return


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