Before 1745, Wasilkow and Bialystok belonged to the Tiktin Jewish Community Council Kehila, but in this year, Bialystok was declared a city. Count Klemens Branicki settled there.
As the town developed greatly, the central authority for Jews broke away from Tiktin. In 1771, this council in Bialystok took over control of local Jewish affairs and 50 smaller townships including Wasilkow. The council supervised the many privileges and duties of the Jewish communities in the proclaimed areas.
Bialystok also became the administrative centre for the area including Chorostch, Grudek, Yanow, Jashinovka, Knishin, Adelsk, Sokolka and Zabludow. The Russian Czarist Empire ruled there until 1916.
The Nazis burned most of the historical documents, chronicles, community records and burial society books, whether in Yiddish or Hebrew. Therefore, we use material collected by the late Abraham, Samuel Hershberg, historian and scholar and also information from pre-war press the American Forward and others dealing with Wasilkow rabbis.
Rabbi Abraham David Margulies
The tombstone of Jacob Moshe had it recorded: The son of Rabbi Abraham David, chairman of the rabbinical council of Wasilkow (literal translation: the father of the rabbinical court). Jacob Moshe was himself a great Talmudian scholar, a philosopher and orator. This tomb stone was the best proof of the
Historical facts relating to the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. There was possibly a Rabbi before Margulies but no documents are available.
Rabbi Mordchai Elijahu Rabinowicz
The second chief Rabbi; He was declared Gaon for his great scholarship. An outstanding man even in his early years, he soon proved to be very gifted in explaining difficult passages of the scriptures and controversial chapters. He had his commentaries published in print to such holy books as AMRE-RATZON, TORATH-MORDCHAI and others.
Rabbi Rabinowicz died young at the age of 55. In the Chronicles the following was printed: Rabbi Mordchai Elijahu was called up before the Almighty in Heaven on the eve of the holy Sabbath in the month of Adar (March). M.H.D.S.R.P. He used to support people wanting to publish their comments. He subscribed to Beth Yedidiah by Saul Shochat, Tzva Rav by Tzvi Hirsh Lewin, Tafarat Tzvi by Tzvi Hirsh Boyarski, Shaman Shishon by Benjamin David Lewin and others.
Rabbi Gershon Meir Boyarski
He was born in Ostryn in the Vilno district to a religious family of progressive, enlightened people. A great scholar, he was very popular with the Wasilkow community, always very interested in his peoples' problems. A great reader of important Torah (bible) commentaries, he subscribed to many publications such as Midrash Tanchume, Tzvi Elibinger and others. He carried on his work with great dignity
As befitted a leading scholar.
Rabbi Raphael Gordon
The longest serving Rabbi in Wasilkow. He was born on 20th February, 1847 in Malat near Wilne. His father was Reb Shimshon, an owner of farms and a brewery. His grandfather was Shimshon Slonimer the Gaon and later Rabbi of Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad). Further back, the martyr Reb Shimson Ostropolier was one of his forefathers. Rabbi Raphael had a phenomenal memory and was regarded as one of the greatest experts on Jerusalem Bible and commentaries.
Rabbi Gordon wrote a lunar calendar for the 6th and 7th millennium. He was an expert on the Chronicals of the centuries. He was nineteen years old when he married in Amdur. His wife carried on with a shop selling fabric and remnants.
Rabbi Raphael became chief Rabbi in Wasilkow in 1901 where he served until the day he died in April 1935. In 1898, he wrote an important essay: Nachal Eden and commentaries on Sh'as.
Although Rabbi Gordon died in Wasilkow, he was buried in Bialystok according to his will. The whole community came out into the streets to pay their last respects to the great Gaon.
Despite his old age, he kept studying the holy books and writing his comments and observations. He had a deep insight into human psychology. He was an outstanding arbitrator in the various disputes between his people. Even the butchers respected his wise judgment of one or another blemishes on a carcass.
Rabbi Gordon lived a frugal life. In later years, he hardly moved from his house. A prayer room was
therefore arranged next door at Boruch Shlomo Spektor's half of the house. Borusch Shlomo was a carpenter. Rabbi Raphael was very popular, loved by every section of the community and one of the greatest gaonim of our era.
Rabbi Gaon Israel Halpern
|The last Rabbi Rabbi Israel Halpern|
The son of Nachum and Sarah, he was born in 1876 in Wolkowysk. He studied at a Yeshiva in Kovno. He received his merit certificate from the Gaonim Rabbi Hzhak Elchanan (Blessed be his memory) in Kovno and Rabbi Ala Boreehow in Wolkowisk.
Rabbi Halpern started out in business. He became a partner to Gedalia Birger in a timber mill. A fire destroyed the mill and all capital vanished. The community invited him to become Rabiner, which meant working with the Polish Government Authorities and be chief Jewish Registrar. The old Rabiner, Velvl the learer was not well advanced in the knowledge of the Polish language which was necessary for controlling piles of documents. The old-timers knew Russian as this was Russian territory before World War I.
Rabbi Halpern became chief Rabbi after Rabbi Gordon's death.
Apart from being a great scholar, he was very active in the community. A devoted Zionist, a leader of the Mizracki, a founding member of the Tachkemoni school and a first class organizer; he mobilized the people and organizations for the liberation of the Jewish People in their own land.
His wife Miriam was born in 1881. She was an intelligent, peaceful woman a real Jewish mother. The Rabbi's whole family were human loving people, dreaming about a better world. The road for them was the Zionist one.
The eldest son was Jacob Halpern. He received his certificate from Gaonim Rabbi Shlomo, Dovid Kahane and Yechezkel Michelson in Warsaw (B.H.M.). He went to Israel and worked for the municipality of Tel-Aviv as head of the department of religious denominations.
Rabbi Israel's daughter Faigl, a very beautiful girl, married a well-known accountant. They left for Israel.
The youngest son, Tzvi-Hershele, trained as a Chalutz at the Ostrow Mazowiecki camp before he immigrated to Israel in 1936. (Then Palestine). His career was described in previous pages.
A younger son Moshe was 2 years younger than Faigl. He and his family were murdered by German Nazi. Another son Samuel was a teacher in the Hebrew Yavneh College. He was one of the best Zionist activist and chairman of the Jewish National Fund committee. Called by his friends 'Shmul', he was the main motivator in
organizing the Lag-B'aomer celebrations, the annual Chanukah bazars and other community functions.
The whole of Rabbi Halpern's family had the respect and admiration of their people for their devotion to the interests of the people and especially for their work in the Zionist movement for the national rehabilitation of Jewry.
Yet one of the Rabbi's sons, Osher, saw salvation of mankind elsewhere in communism. He was the leader of the small group of Jewish communist-atheists. The party was illegal but this group of enthusiasts worked feverishly for their ideals. Their favourite pastime was to break up Zionist meetings as they regarded Zionism as a false idea.
The Zionists called for a mass meeting to celebrate the Balfour Declaration (granting a Jewish National Home in Palestine). The great prayer house Bet Hamidrash was full and ready to hear the speeches by Rabbi Halpern, the representation of the Bialystok Zionist Organisation, Mr. H. Kruglak Zelewianski and others.
Suddenly, the young communists appeared on the centre stage. A few sat Osher on their shoulders and he commenced a fiery communist speech. From the top gallery which is reserved for women only, communist leaflets were fluttering down in hundreds. One can imagine Rabbi Halpern's sorrow and embarrassment caused by his son.
The Rabbi often had to intervene with the police to prevent his son's arrest. At the time, communist activities were regarded as bad as spying for the U.S.S.R. considering the nearness to the Red Border.
The Rabbi finally convinced Osher to leave Poland. He went to South America. Rumour has it that he changed his political convictions.
The ex-communication Hairem of a Jewish communist by Rabbi Halpern was one of the saddest happenings in the existence of Jewish Wasilkow. This man refused to have his baby son circumcised as the custom demanded. Rabbi Halpern sent his representation three times to the parents calling for an explanation. The man refused. The Rabbi told them that he therefore had no alternative. In the prayer house, the doors of the Holy of Holiest were opened, candles were lit and the Rabbi chanted the ex-communication verses in the age-old Hebrew the holy tongue. Tears were pouring from his eyes.
September 1939. Mighty German armies flooded Poland. They occupied Wasilkow for 5 days only as the Soviets came to take over according to the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop treaty.
During the few days, the Nazi exhibited their barbarianism. Attacks by hooligans and looting of Jewish shops were prevalent. A great number of Jews were chased into Russian Orthodox Church and locked up. No food or communication was allowed.
Rabbi Halpern got dressed in his Sabbath best and went to the army commandant who took over Joseph Shlachter's house on Koscialna Street. The Rabbi asked the commandant with the greatest respect to release the Jews. He barked out: I am not talking to the Jew, I
will as I like. He did just that.
There is no doubt that the Rabbi's intervention brought the desired result. After 5 days of Nazi horror, the Red Army marched in. Wasilkow became a town incorporated in the White Russian Soviet Republic.
In the middle of the night, a man came to the Rabbi's house, knocked on the door and warned the family to leave immediately. He said some people wanted a court martial against the Rabbi. A revolutionary court would bring no good. Rabbi Halpern had no choice. He had to leave his community.
After a lot of tribulation, he and his wife reached Vilno. They endeavoured to immigrate to Israel.
A copy of his last letter to his son Tzvi in Palestine describes their situation. He asked for a permit that could be issued by the British Mandate authority but time was running out. The Nazi unleashed war in 1941 against the Soviets.
The Halpern family were trapped and were murdered by the Nazi. Rabbi Israel combined scholarship in Torah, modern education, folk and a warm and friendly attitude to all individuals. With these organizational abilities, he contributed greatly to the development of the Wasilkow Jewish community.
Rabbi Itzhak Yevorkovski
He was so popular that people called him Reb Itche Wasilkower. He was Rabbi Samuel Mohiliver's pupil in Suwalk. He established a small weaving mill and studied hard the Torah and Holy books. A good orator, he often preached with the Chevrah Torah, the Lovers
of Zion. His sermons were published in the book: Hagot Labi in Bialystok in 1910. The well -known Bialystok banker, Elijahy Meiloch contributed 10,000 roubles to build a Yeshivah (higher college). The building was completed in 1902. Rabbi Yevorkovski became head of the 4th top class and later the principal. Two hundred students studied in the Yeshivah the college for future Rabbis.
Reb Israel Moshe Margolis
A Wasilkow citizen, he lived in Bialystok. He was a well-known novelist and dramatist, a follower of the renaissance era and philosophy of realism, especially in literature.
He wrote to Russian newspapers, magazines and periodicals about the Jewish people and their many problems.
In this way, he stood up against the anti-Semitic propaganda waged by the Czarist regine and influenced by the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.
Mr. Margolis often wrote excellent essays for the Russian Jewish journal Voschod-East and published in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad).
Cantor and ritual slaughter man Henoch Sivovicz was a modern style clergyman. He often looked into the holy books. He had to devote a lot of his time to bringing up his children. His daughter Faiga was in the class that was the first to complete studies in the 7th class Sholem Aleichem School. Eventually, the Sivovicz family immigrated to Leipzig, Germany. Here he died suddenly at the age of 48. A fine man, he was very much like Dr. Theodore Herzl in his looks.
Cantor and ritual slaughter man Kowlaski
He was often called Wolper as he came from the township of Wolpfe. An ethereal looking, powerful chested tenor, first class tradesman, he was well respected and popular with the people. He got a choir together for the high holidays. Amongst them was his son Shimon and Osher Genesher. The listeners appreciated their singing. His elder son Peisach was in the drama circle. He was crowned with the title Purim-Peisach because of his part in a certain play. Shimon and Brocha studied at the Tachkemoni School.
His daughter Chanah was active in the Zionist Organization but an unfortunate love affair broke her down. She attempted suicide by cutting her throat with her father's ritual blade but was, however, saved in time.
His sons and daughters immigrated to the lands of the American continent. Kowalski's wife passed away. He re-married but soon after the Nazi
arrived, the couple and all other Jews perished.
Mordchai Spektor, the Wasilkow boy who became
He is now serving the Jewish congregation in Palm Beach, Florida. A very talented man with a beautiful singing voice that expresses the East European Jewish soul. Listening to him, one returns in one's mind to childhood; to the shtetl, to the fields, rivers and forests of Bielo-Russia. Mordchai was for a while Cantor in one of the largest Orthodox Shuls in New York. This was the Mount Sinai Jewish Centre. Lately, his Shul is the Anshei Shalom Temple, West Palm Beach (the men of peace).
Cantor Spektor deserves more space as he is so popular. He miraculously survived the horrors of the holocaust. He was born in Wasilkow in 1923. His father Joseph (B.H.M.) was called Yosl. His mother Sarah Gitl's (B.H.M.) maiden name was Shneider and was also born in Wasilkow like their grandparents and great-grandparents. Mordchai's father had three brothers: Srolke, Elia and Berl.
Mother carried on a business which was called Rosetchke's shop. Joseph was a locksmith and mostly worked in Bialystok. He also worked as a wrought ironman on the balustrades, gates, water supply installations and ornamental work.
They had five sons: Zalman, Chaim, Berl, Isaac and Mordchai (often called Motl). All of them were born in Shmulke, the butcher's street. Sarah Gitl wanted a daughter but this did not happen.
Bialystok industries expanded. Joseph was called to work longer hours.
He was not able to go home on many Fridays for the Sabbath reunion; eight kilometres of walking after a week's hard work.
The sons were growing up. They needed a strong hand at home. Mother's duties were much too strenuous.
The decision had to be taken to move to nearby Bialystok. They took up residence at 23 Sucha Street (The Sand Hill Piaskes) in Bacer's block. There was a bakery in the building and room was made for Sabbath and holy day prayers.
The best cantor was Joseph Yosl Spektor. The singers were his sons. Mordchai (the future cantor), his brother Isaac and especially Chaim who often sang solo in the Bialystok Great Synagogue.
The boys joined the choir which was directed by Pinchas Shwarts. (B.H.M.).
One day, the German Nazi chased many Jews in to the Great Synagogue and set fire to it. Many of the Spektor family perished there; the rest were murdered by the Germans in the bunker that they had dug out under the house where they lived.
It was fortunate for Mordchai that he was in Minsk when Hitler's armies attacked their former collaborators, the Soviets, in June 1941.
Mordchai studied at the Music Conservatorium in the White Russian capital. He escaped the Nazi, wandered about, was arrested by the Russians and sent to a hard labour camp with a 10 year sentence. He did not know why.
His beautiful voice saved him in surviving those terrible years in the Gulag. Mordchai Spektor returned to Bialystok in 1948. He visited Wasilkow but not one of his numerous families had survived. Grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles all perished. Local Poles now resided in their homes greeting some of the returning Jews with threatening eyes.
Spektor joined the State Yiddish Theatre in Warsaw in 1949. The director of this theatre was Ida Kaminska. Mordchai married Miriam Sandler in 1951. Miriam was an internationally-known coloratura soprano and a member of the Warsaw opera. The couple left Europe for Israel in 1957. A concert tour by both in Israel, France Belgium and other countries brought them fame and success.
In 1960, they were engaged by the Yiddish Theatre Mitre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1961 they were in Uruguay; 1962 in the U.S.A. Their first concert here took place in the great auditorium of the Bialystok Centre in New York.
The impresario was Isak Ribalovski, then manager of the Bialystok Friends Club. Soon after, the Spektors presented a great show in Madison Square Gardens before a crowd of twenty thousand.
In 1963, Mordchai decided to become a cantor. This was his life-long dream; to follow the family tradition and represent a congregation before the Holy of Holies. And so, the boy Motl from Wasilkow became Mordchai Spektor, one of the greatest cantors in the world. To the glory of God and Wailkow Jewry all over the world.
Historians recognize the Jewish people as People of the Book. Young and old spent most of their lifetime reading, studying, researching and writing in literature, science, cultural subjects and philosophy. As for the Books of Moses, this was and is the daily food of the pious Jew. Many of them aspired to be leading readers, presenters and cantors. Not all deserved the honourable positions. Some dissatisfied listeners would leave the Shul and walk to another where a good cantor drew the connoisseurs. Outside the prayer house, a small cluster would gather in the courtyard to discuss the merits of the cantor and some would be bitingly critical.
The Cantors belonged to their respective congregations. The custom was that the soloist from the great prayer house did not perform in the small Shul, or vice-versa.
One of the best cantors in Wasilkow was Abraham Batlai of the Great Synagogue. He was also head of the Burial Society (Khevre-Kedishe). Reb Tevl Kamiem was a popular cantor and Torah reader at the Great House of Prayer. It was good to listen to him. He demanded quiet and order.
Itche Stabinski was a good reader. He was the blacksmith on the outskirts. He led the prayers in the small prayer house. He was quick and finished before most other Shuls. Arron Shapiro the blacksmith was cantor at Chai-Adam.
Other singers-readers were: Berl Jacob-Moshe the beadle's son-in-law; Shai the pickler (Kvasnik); Naftali Kahn; Shaika-
Shaitchuk Polak; Shmul Batlai; Yosl Yankl Gishe; Shmul Saria; Chaim Bachrach; Hershke Polpapishke; Shimon the innkeeper; Chone Wajs (a little deaf but a good singer-reader); Shmul Yoske Shapiro; Zeidke Shwarz; Arke the teacher; Motie Wajs (who was also the beadle at Chai Adam Shul).
The cantors and readers were knowledgeable in the Holy Scriptures. They formed small groups to study the Gemara or the Jerusalem Bible between afternoon and evening prayers. Usually they sat on hard long benches along old tables. They hardly thought of the joys of living. They never forgot for a second the three principles holding up the world: study work and charity. They worked in the Burial Society and various charitable institutions.
At all times, the education of children was of the first priority for the Jewish people, and above all other problems. The knowledge of our past, our heritage saved the nation and prepared each generation to withstand corroding influences from the outside. Prohibitions, limitation, murder, harassment, etc., could not force Jews to abandon their faith or could offer of riches, perfidious methods and other great attractions corrupt them in any way.
After the destruction of the first temple and the expulsion of the Jews from their land, the Diaspora in Babylon commenced. People used to hide in caves, mountains, forests in order to form study groups to be able to read the Torah of Moses; to keep the links with the nation and to prepare spiritually for the struggle for independence and survival.
Little Wasilkow was also a link in the chain of Jewish existence and tradition, therefore educating the young was of great importance. Before the outbreak of World War II that is in 1939 the following schools prospered: Sholem Aeichem. 7 classes most subjects in Yiddish. Vayneh most subjects studied in Hebrew: Powszechna. 7 classes all subjects in Polish.
Cheders. Small schools devoted to religious and the Holy tongue Hebrew, for students to be able to read the prayer books, holy day editions and Kadish the prayer for mourners and orphans. The Cheder was usually attached to the Shul.
Wealthy people used to engage Melamdim
religious teachers, to teach their children privately.
The greatest joy for parents was for their teenage sons to study the commentaries such as the Gemara and Halacha (the book of rules and laws).
In modern times, many teachers with general knowledge were engaged to assist children with maths, accountancy and Polish as these were necessary in carrying on the businesses.
Many Cheders were in the private homes of the Melamdim. Some were teaching to write as well, which was of great advantage. Most Cheders were rather primitive with long tables, long hard benches. Children cramped together kept at the holy books from morning to dark. Many teachers called themselves Rabbis to raise their status.
One of the larger Cheders was at the rear of Meir Inker's house at the market square next to Pinie the gardener's house. The school was in the kitchen with a long table and long benches on both sides seating some 20 to 30 boys. A small table for Rabbi Zanvl formed the top dash to the T-shape of the other furniture. There was a wood or coal kitchen stove combined with the baking section, next to it a bucket of water and a metal jug, another bucket for slush, a wicker dish for salting meat to be Kosher and other primitive utensils.
Some shelves with religious books relieved the starkness. The boys, aged from 4 14 had to assist with domestic chores such as fetching water, cutting firewood, carrying out the buckets of waste and cleaning up. They were allowed two intervals during the day.
They played near the house.
One cannot forget the evenings when going home, Polish boys used to harass the Jewish children. They leaders of the Polish hoods were the sons of the cleaning woman in the Polish school. There were many bitter fights.
The boys had to pass the Polish school on the way to the Shul yard (Shul Hoif) and then home. In the summer, stones and pebbles were used, in winter, chunks of ice and snow.
The battlefield started outside the Polish Catholic School (Povshekhna) along Shepal's the deaf street to the Great Shul (Synagogue) right up to the house of Moishearn the cobbler. Here, the Poles stopped not daring to proceed else they would find themselves in the middle of the Jewish area. The Poles were yelling Bailis; we yelled Matzoch.
Many Cheders modernised and became reasonable schools.
The Yiddish Sholem Aleichem School was founded in 1921 when this former Byelorussian area came under Polish rule.
One of the first Principals was the teacher Moszkowski. He came from Vilno. He contributed a lot to the school and so did brothers Itzl and Faivl Rogowski. They organized the Bundist party as convinced socialists and Faivl immigrated to South Africa.
The Sholem Aleichem School had evening courses for higher level studies for former students. The director of the courses was Osher Halpern the Rabbi's son. After completing 7 classes, students were well versed in orthography, writing in a literary
and sensible style, Yiddish literature, maths, geography, nature studies and handcrafts. The school was modern, catering for the new generations and for living in the new world. The standard was quite high. The school was well appreciated by the people and this reflected in the great numbers of pupils.
There was a negative side, however. The school became a base for Bundist and Communist activities. Principal Moszkowski was a fiery communist and that is how he wanted to bring up the children. The Bund, a legal organization, had most say in the school council. They wanted a Bundist orientation.
Moszkowski was the ruler in practice. He co-opted Osher Halpern, a very able young man. A communist illegal cell was formed. The results were that most students, who completed the first leaver contingent, joined the communist underground. Some became important leaders: Boruch Katz, Velvl Shapiro, Hana Perlstein, Chaka Loshitzki, Faiga Sivovitch, the cantor's daughter, Sarka Sidoraanski and others. The Bund got Yankl Kamien.
The Sholem Aleichem School achieved a lot in strengthening the Yiddish library and the dramatic circle. This one was able to present such great shows as Anski's, Sholem Aleichem's, Goldfaden's and others.
The first Hebrew school was the Tachkemoni school founded shortly after the Yiddish school by the Zionist organization and the more religious in the People's Council who did not like the leftist trends in the Yiddish school. In the years before World War II, even Labour-Zionists
left the Sholem Aleichem School Council.
The first Principal of Tachemoni was the teacher Mr. Londinski, a passionate Zionist and first-class educator. The school had 4 classes and 3 teachers. Landinski, Miss Sokol and another young lady from a nearby township. About 35 children (later the numbers increases to 50-60). This was a much smaller school than the Yiddish one.
All students were taught in Hebrew and Polish. The dramatic group put on concerts in Hebrew. One memorable presentation in Hebrew was the beautiful stage play Two Melodies by I. Shveiger.
The man who resurrected our old-new tongue was Ben Yehuda Eliezer, previously Perelman. He was born in the small township of Lushi, Lithuania, studied at a Cheder and a Yeshivah and later in a Russian college in Dineburg. In 1879, he decided to proceed with higher studies in Paris and specialized in medicine. However, a serious illness stopped him. He went to Algiers to recuperate.
Ben Yehuda returned to Paris and devoted his time for the liberation of the Balcan Lands. Simultaneously, thoughts came to him of his own people returning to their promised land. The language of the old-new land would have to be Hebrew. The holy tongue of the scriptures modernized and adjusted to the daily needs.
Very few even dreamt in those times that the language of prayers would become the language of every day, after two thousand years of isolation covered up in the holy books. The resurrection would bring many new terms in various fields. Like
technology, astronomy, geography, biology etc. A great new dictionary was needed. Ben Yehuda harnessed himself into this work. He spent many years compiling this book which became the important base for Modern Hebrew.
Ben Yehuda and family settled in Jerusalem in 1881. He passed away in 1922. He was the happiest man in the world to hear the young pioneers speak Hebrew; the pupils from local and overseas schools and people in the streets.
The Tachkemoni school leavers in Wasilkow became enthusiastic followers of the Zionist ideology. Through the years, the school was flourishing. The name was changed to Yavneh College and all came to an end when the Soviets came to rule in 1939.
The Polish state school (Povshekhna) was founded before World War I. During that war, the Germans occupied the area all around. They ordered German to be the language of the school and Polish to be one of the lessons only.
Poland gained independence in 1918 and by 1920; new rules were established in the school with Polish being the tongue of study in all subjects. Yet credit should be given to the Poles who retained a German teacher, Herr Scholenberg, for 2 hours weekly to teach German although no Germans remained in Wasilkow.
Rarely did a Jewish child go to the Polish school as every pupil was obliged to be present at Catholic prayers and study of the Catechism. Those few Jewish children who did were allowed to stay back on Jewish holidays.
There were all political parties from right to the extreme left. The main ones were the Zionists of all shades from Beitar to Mizrachi, the Bund and the Communists. The Zionist organization was formed when Poland regained her independence in the 20's. There were enthusiastic Zionists before World War I but they were not organized.
The Balfour declaration of 1917 offered the Kings and the British Government's agreement to form a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Young Jews in Poland were absolutely ecstatic. After 2000 years of harassment, inquisitions, pogroms, pain and misery, a home of peace and freedom was being planned.
The Zionist organization mobilized all willing to train for work in the holy land, to co-ordinate the practical work, to raise funds to buy land for future Kibbutzim and settlements.
Nearly every home was provided with the white and blue box for coins and notes for the National Fund. The Zionist ideology was to give the people back their national pride and dignity - hope for the future. Brith Trumpeldor boys and girls stood out with their smart khaki uniforms, disciplined marching and proud, brave bearing. They represented the Jewish community on national holidays like Lag Ba'omer and others.
The youth marches invigorated every man and woman and gave them the faith in the holy land, redemption, gatherings, meetings, lectures were given to teach and explain the present and future problems of the new National Home. Hachsahara work was to
prepare young folk to work on the land in extremely tough conditions. They first lot were Moshe Schlachter, Hershele Halpern, Abraham Polak and others. The Zionist organisation was the largest and most popular in Jewish Wasilkow.
The family of Yudke KANE, the apothecary, were most active in forming the movement. His son Noah KANE was the main initiator. Other founders were: the Lsar Perlstein family, especially his daughter Sarah and son Laibl: others were: Abraham Kane, Shloimke Cohen, Fruma, Mashe's David Bakgrach, Peisach Spektor, Moishe Aran's, Srolush the pickler (Kvasnik), Laible Yudowski and Zaidke kagan. Later they were joined by: Yerachmiel Zelewianski, Moishl Halpern, Shmul Halpern, Hinda Kane and still more.
Just before World War II, we had General Zionists Itzchak Grinbaum's group. Their leaders were: Yerachmiel Zelewianski until he left for Israel, Pesach Abramow, Motl Shneider, Shmul Halpern, Jacob Piltchik and others. Palei Zion, that is Labour for Zion activists were: Zaidke Kagan, Laibl Krawec, Laibl Mendelewicz, Shimon Perlstein, etc. Beitar activists were: Eli Gotlib, Mizrachi. Religious Zionism: Rabbi Israel Halpern.
There was the National Fund committee. Sport Club Maccabi and others.
These organizations were constantly strengthened with new blood from the Hebrew school Tachkemoni (later Yavneh). The school naturally united all Zionist diverging groups.
The Bundist Organization
In the 20's and 30's, the Bund was anti-Zionist. Bundist was a worker's and lower class party and believed in fighting for Jewish rights in every country where they lived. They did not accept Palestine as a solution to Jewish problems or to anti-Semitism.
The Bund was formed in Wasilkow in 1922. Itzl Rogowski was their most active leader. A very decent man, he suffered from paralysis in one hand and one foot. He had to carry a walking stick. He was the distributor of the Bundist daily Folkscajtiung. The Bundist had a hard start among the people but became more accepted when their Sholem Aleichem School showed results. The Bund organized unions to improve pay and working conditions for Jewish workers, however, there were no strikes in Wasilkow. Things did not improve but great discussions were held on the future.
A well-known Bundist Moshe Winik was the hero. So was Shimon Krawiec. In later years, new activists joined up: Kalinski, Mandlkern and his wife, Faivl Winik, Yona Winik and others.
A Cukunuff (future) organization was forming to cater for young Bundists. Leaders and members were: Dovid Shtabinski, Chava Biber, Moishl Polak, Nisl Perlstein , Mary Shaitls, Chaia Shtabinski, Chayele Perlstein and others. Some of the above worked in Bialystok and travelled to their homes in Wasilkow.
The Communist Party
The party was illegal therefore all activities were within the various
National groups. Poles, Jews, White Russians (Byelorussians), Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Germans. The leader of the Wasilkow Jewish communists was Moszkowski, the principal of the Bundist school. Rather strange! His mates were: the Rabbi's son, Asher Halpern and Dovid Katz. The communists fought the Bundist for the souls of the school pupils.
Of the first lot who completed the seventh grades, nearly all joined the communists. Future communist leaders were: Boruch Katz, Velvl Shapiro, Boruch Farber, Chaike Loszyeki, Faiga Sivovitch and others.
The Bund won Velvl Kamein, Saqrka Sidoranski and others. The Yiddish school was a good base to work from for our communists and so was the library. Work that could be done legally. They used to collect money for political prisoners. M.O.P.R. the translation is International Organization to assist Revolutionaries. The communists concentrated on lectures, cultural, secular work, buying books and theatrical performances. They had no contract with Polish communists who numbered a very few. Only two of them were known. Pan Boinowski who lived opposite Mordechai Mahler's smith shop and Pan Filipowicz whose house was in Shmulke's the Kosher butchers' street.
In 1936, an anti-Jewish riot took place at Przytyk. Jewish people protested all over the country. The Wasilkow Jewish community organised a united front to protest but the Polish communists took no part.
The Polish concentration camp was formed in 1936. Three Jews were sent there from Wasilkow. Boruch,
Katz, Velvl Kagan and Chone Perlstein.
When the Red army marched in in September 1939, the commissars took no notice of the Jewish communists or of the others. The soviets did not trust their Polish comrades at all.
Very rarely did such a thing happen in the Jewish communities of Poland, Russia and Lithuania. The religious authorities did their utmost for such not to happen. Yet it did.
In Wasilkow, in modern times, I remember a Hairem ceremony when I saw the stage play Dibbuk by Anski. In the twenties the drama was presented with the participating actors: Muliak Wajs, Chanah Abramow, Chackl Polak, Dortche Putluik, Bashke Lenczyner, Riva Spektor and others. The second time I saw Dibbuk was the presentation by Ida Kaminska's troup. This made a tremendous impression on me.
The Hairem at Wasilkow took place not long before World War II. The subject was Alter Greengraz. He and his wife struggled to make a living. He was a boot repairer and had communist leanings. He had little chance to express his ideas in a small town where the police and their spies knew everybody.
Most people like Alter could only demonstrate their anti-religious feelings. Alter and his wife came from Radzilowa a very small township. Like many Jewish people, they escaped harassment by the Poles.
In many areas life became unbearable due to physical attacks, brawls, boycotts, robberies and
looting from the Jewish market stalls, kiosks and shops. Some people moved to more peaceful places, especially towns that had factories where one could find work.
Industrial plants also brought new ideas and social consciousness of justice, freedom and the fight for higher standards of living for the workers and the masses.
Raizl Greengraz gave birth to a boy. Alter refused to have the boy circumcised. His wife concurred. Rabbi Israel Halpern found himself in a dilemma as he was also the Rabiner in charge of the Jewish birth register. As a government authority, he had to write in a column the date of circumcision and the name of the operator. Rabbi Israel called for Alter to come and discuss the matter. Alter refused twice. The beadle was sent to the Greengraz three times to warn them that extreme action had to be taken in accordance with the Halachah.
The Greengrazes family was excommunicated at the Great Beth-Hamidrash by Rabbi Israel Halpern in the appropriate ceremony with chanted prayers. The rabbi cried all along during this most unpopular performance in Jewish life. This was the only case in the history of Wasilkow Jewry.
The only consolidation for the community was the fact that the Greengraz were not locals as they were in town temporarily. Therefore, no harm was done to the reputation of the community which was known and respected as one of song and Torah lovers as well as scholars. Until the days when all was annihilated by the German Nazi.
Not with bread alone lives man. One will ask the question: How was life in the small town apart from work, worries, how to survive and other problems? Generally, a man's life is his work; a little time is spent for social and cultural activities as well as for entertainment.
Every East European township had its characteristics. Wasilkow was known as a musical community. It is hard to explain the historical roots for this interest, sentiment and taste for good music and singing in the years before the catastrophe.
Warm evenings brought out people for walks in Bialystok streets. Open windows enabled the passer-byes to hear music played by some good instrumentalists. Faivl Shtabinski displayed his virtuosity playing the violin with expertise and feeling. He and his family resided in the same house where his father Mulke Shtabinski, the box maker, lived.
One time the Bialaus family lived there. Faivl enjoyed solo concerts. He was also a member of a jazz ensemble. In one part of the house, Avreal Polak lived, a first class cornet player. He was known for his excellent concert melodies.
Tevl Trachimowski was known as a talented musician. He played well the violin, guitar, mandolin and other string instruments. He entertained in the Shvistopol area. Nisl Perlstein, Ilchke the butcher's son, who lived near the market, was an excellent mandolin player.
He and his little sister Chayele played duets.
At the Shalom Aleichem School, the sisters Mirle and Elke Rabinowicz entertained with their mandolin and balalaikas.
The main orchestra in Jewish Wasilkow was Perlstein's band. They had a place at the rear of the Polish state school. Perlstein's 'and contributed greatly to the development of musical and cultural appreciation amongst the young. The Perlsteins were the first to open a cinema. At the time, only silent films were available. Suitable music was played by a small orchestra to synchronize with the actions on the films. Usually they were the charming dark-eyed Chana and her sisters. Chana became a music teacher. The father of the musical Perlstein was Reb Iser a timber merchant. He was a dignified citizen and manager of the second house of prayer (Kleiner Bet-Hamedresh). There were 7 daughters and 2 sons. We have a saying: have 7 daughters and seldom will you laugh.
However, the Perlsteins proved the opposite. The young were well brought up with love for Jewish traditions. They lived with music, entertainment and cinema for the people. Just before the war, most of the family immigrated to Israel. 4 daughters remained. They perished in the Treblinka death camp according to some people.
There was a Jewish brass/wind orchestra and a large one with one hundred string instruments donated by Mr. Avreml Moldivan-Zadvo Ranski to the young, when he came home from overseas for a short visit to his native town.
Wasilkow industries developed and expanded in the years before World War II. There were quite a number of small factories, weaving textiles, tailors, shoe repairers, wood turners, wooden case makers, etc.
Many girls, women and men were employed. After work, these people washed, ate a little and walked in the streets right to the open fields past the wooden bridges. The older people sat on benches and verandas to fill their lungs with the fresh smelling hay from the country around. The passer-by walked as far as the Cerkiew, the wind mill and the catholic chapel as if to check if they still stood in their places. On summer nights, people stayed out till two in the morning. The outings were a form of relaxation, entertainment and moral satisfaction. A form of dreaming and speculating on the future of humanity and the Jewish people in particular.
Although various political groups kept to themselves, the Zionists, the Bundist, the Communists no serious ill feeling was created. A kind of friendship existed especially during entertaining and cultural activities.
As early as 1903, Wasilkow Jewry was entertained by one or another travelling theatre group. In the huge timber barn, called DOM LUDOWY, the people's hall, plays and concerts were presented.
On cold evenings, patrons would sit on long rough wooden benches well wrapped up so that God forbid one would catch a cold or influenza. Children with no tickets found some openings in the floor and smuggled in. After the play, benches were moved
aside and dancing to good music was then available till early morning.
In the early twenties, the dramatic group staged performances. The actors were: Muliak Wajs, Chackiel Polak, Pitluk Rive Spektor, Chana Ponimonski, Bashe Lentcheynner and others.
Although the very religious looked askance, the majority used to attend controversial theatre plays and concerts. There was enthusiastic applause proving their enjoyment of the cultural, spiritual and social life of the community.
The Zionist organization contributed greatly to various functions of interest to the young. Music, songs and dances invigorated the young.
The yearly Chanukah bazaars were very popular as there were orchestras and dancing whether Israeli or ball dancing.
An excellent jazz band was created by the amalgamation of Perlsteins band with Faivl Shtabinski's and Avreml Polak's. Musical and dance evenings were arranged. Some Poles used to attend. Jewish young people also went to the Polish evenings but these were not very pleasant on account of a lot of drinking and brawling by the Poles.
Often dramatic circles were formed by the political organizations. The Zionist once presented a play in Yiddish called: A Wedding in a township shtetl. The stage director was Jerachmeil Zelvianski; his assistant was Baszka Lentchiner. The rehearsals took place at the Zionist office in the brick building next to Midele Levin's textile shop. The actors were Chana Shternshus, Israel Shlachter, Laibl
Mendelewicz, Abraham Gelberd, Elia Shapiro, Elka Rabinowicz and others.
At times the Bundist and Communists presented variety shows. Participating actors were: Avreml Loszycki, Ginger David, David Shtabinski, Chava Biber and others. After the show dancing was on.
The Zionist dramatic circle presented a classical play: The Jewish King Lear. The main role was taken by Chatzkl Polak especially brought over from Bialystok where he lived in the thirties.
Many Bialystock people used to come to Wasiklow to plays and dances.
There was also football. A Bialystok team played against the Wasilkow one. They never bothered to pick names for their soccer clubs. The most suitable area to play was the paddock near the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish School at the other end.
Soccer became very popular before World War II. Even on Saturdays, matches took place to the chagrin of the observant. There were many enthusiastic screaming supporters. Our stars were: Yankl Biber-Goal, Simacha Farber, Isocher Shtabiski, Avreml Polak Captain, Ischer Garfein, Boruch Farber, Zaidl Vinik, Eli Gotlib and others. When the Wasilkow team won, the captain kicked the football as high as he could and the crowd cheered enjoying the spirit victory.
The Suprasl river, Jurowce forest, Jakime lake all provided relaxation and entertainment. The young swung on swings as high as they could go; they would row the hired boats like mad and there were lots of
cyclists and one wondered how these battlers could afford them. Some cycled long distances as far as Suprasl, Knishin and other places.
Some brave young men and women took short cuts through the forests. Little was told about these mystery excursions so full of poetical and romantic episodes.
|Chanukah Bazaar Organizers|
Moshe Szlachter I remember in my childhood when I began to learn Hebrew at the Takhkemone School. The Hebrew school was the Merkaz centre of the Zionist movement in Wasilkow. All Zionist activities were undertaken within the four walls of the school. In the evenings, it was the meeting place for the Zionist youth and elder friends as well.
Gatherings, meetings, discussion, holding hands and dancing a lively Hora dance was also part of the active elements to develop unity, brotherhood and love, the idea in mind was to build a future in the land of Zion.
Mosze was not a very tall man but a humble and quiet man. I remember him as if it were only yesterday. He did not like to make speeches or make himself important in the various committees and commissions of which he was a member. He was a good hearted person always ready to help wherever needed. He was the organizer in preparing the building of the Takhkemone school (to the first Chanuka Bazaar which lasted eight days), he dissembled the walls between classes to make room for the orchestra and prepared tables for the sale of goods.
In one word, he was a friend to all and one who accomplished the practical work and assured all others of the way it should be. He was devoted to the Zionist idea in building our national home.
Mosze Szlachter was born in 1908. His mother died whilst he was young and during his youth, he did not receive affection or loving care. When I got to know him closer, he was living in the Koscielna Street with
his father, Szlomo and brother Israel who were eventually killed by the Nazi murderers.
The youngest brother Herszel, after completing army services in the Polish army, went to Argentina and later settled in Israel with his family.
The eldest brother, Israel, also a member of the Zionist organization, was an active participant in the drama circle carrying out theatrical performances. He eventually perished with his wife and children at the hands of the Nazis.
The Szlachter family operated a factory producing wooden boxes used for packing textiles and materials for overseas export and local markets. They worked long hours and family life was not an easy one without a mother or a housewife. They had to cook, wash and do all the work required in looking after the house. Szlomo and Mordechai shared these chores.
Mosze was amongst the first pioneers to join the training farm, Hakhahora, starting the kibbutz which was built with the help of Wasilkower Zionist organization in Osada Czarnowiesz which was situated in the forest of Bukszteler Bush. Working in the forest, in fields and eventually sent to the Hakhshora Kibbutz Polesie situated in ('Pinsk), Mosze subsequently immigrated to Israel in 1914.
Having disembarked from the ship, Mosze travelled to the settlement Kfar-Sava where he was billeted to a wooden stable, issued with a camp bed, mattress, small pillow and a square wooden chair. He also received
1 lira from the Sochnut as financial support.
The first night sleep was spent very restlessly, tossing and turning from side to side, thinking of the next experiences about which tomorrow would bring, constantly turning matters over in his mind. The following morning thinking naturally about breakfast and work, he had to consider whether or not to spend the last lire and he left without a penny. This put a great demand on his hidden anxiety for it was still not clear what the future would bring.
The first period was very difficult joining the Hagana to operate under constant sounds of gunfire at night, being constantly alert of the possibility of being robbed. The only work available was packing oranges from the orchards into boxes and with was only temporary. We were then called up for service in the English army and after one year, we were demobilized from military service.
There was further work in the orchards around Kfar-Sava and Ranana. It was here that he got acquainted with Garda Geis (female) a devout Zionist originally from Germany and they married in 1940. He later joined the Palmach taking part in the war of liberation in the new Israel Army.
Later, on returning to his previous job of making boxes for packing oranges, the company began to get bigger as the demand was increasing for the export of oranges and other citrus fruits and production was expanding. In the primitive way, automatic machines were installed to keep pace with the increasing production
for export of citrus fruits.
Mosze was put in charge of the operators of the box-making machinery section and in charge of many workers. He was often praised by his employers for his industrious and devoted attention and wise likewise respected and admired by those who worked under his supervision which pleased both the big enterprises Jochin and the settlers of Kfar-Sava.
It is necessary to remember Mosze Szlachter's wife, Gerda Geis born in the town of Rinah not far from Frankfurt, Germany. She too was an active member of the Zionist organization, attending the preparation of Hach-Shara.
When Hitler came to power, the situation of the Jews began to get worse from day to day. Gerda was employed at the local hospital which was administered and supported by the German-Jewish board.
One day, the director of the hospital called her into his office, gave her money and recommended that she and all her family flee Germany which they did in 1936 and went to Israel.
Arriving in Israel the family settled in Kfar-Sava where Gerda also obtained work in the orchards where she first met Mosze and eventually married.
Mosze, after 24 years working in Israel, went on pension in 1972 but is still active with many organizations and institutions, helping Vaad Leman Kahyel and a social worker to support the local hospital with contributions and caring for the sick.
It is past fifteen years now since he was an active member in Mishmar Haezrakhi
(Home Guards). He received a reward in the form of a medal for his loyalty, honesty, comradeship and service to the inhabitants of KFAR-SAVA. Mosze Szlachter always remained the hearty and quiet pioneer of the Zionist movement realising the dreams and the desires of a dedicated Wasilkower.
My Mate Tsvi (Hershele) Halpern
Hershele Halpern was born in 1915 to the Rebbitzin and Rabbi (G.B.H.M.) Israel Halpern. He was a blond boy, always smiling and very much like his mother Miriam, of blessed memory. He was pranks and always in the centre of games in our out of school. Our favourite games were: mates, chizik and palant. For the latter, a wooden cutlass and a wooden stick are used. One hits the stick, this then flies away a distance and the next ones should go further. We were then pupils of the Hebrew school Tachkemoni. The principal was Mr. Landinski, a highly qualified pedagogue who
knew his way to keep order and discipline in the whole school.
Hershele was not very diligent but had a good brain. He did well at school without great effort. He was a passionate debater able to defend his opinions and at times quite stubborn. In Tachkemoni School, the leadership, the teachers and the students were all Zionists. Later, the avant-garde of the Zionists movement in Wasilkow and beyond.
Most of the boys who completed their studies joined the Halutz movement to train as future agricultural experts in Eretz Israel.
Hershele left in 1934 for the Hachshara training camp in Ostrow-Mazowiecki. He gave all of himself to hard manual work to improve his physique so as to be of good service to our land and our people in Israel. The camp BAINAI ZION was very successful.
Hershele became editor of the camp's chronicles Nativ as well as secretary of the kibbutz. A lot of political and ideological work had to be done.
In February 1936, Hershele and a number of his friends left for Israel. He settled in the RAMAT HASHARON kibbutz to back-breaking labour on the land. This was a poor kibbutz with no resources. Tsvi had to live on oranges only for a time.
The kibbutz was liquidated after a while. He then moved to Haifa and got employment in an agricultural machinery factory. The pay was good and he soon joined the factory management thanks to his arbitrators. His father, Rabbi Israel, wrote strongly advising him to
Enter the Jerusalem University.
Bad reports from Europe were reaching Israel in 1938. Nazi anti-Semitism, orders restricting and humiliation of Jews, bashings, injuries ten thousand Polish Jews being chased to Polish German borders and left near the Zbonoszyn station in the open square. The Poles were not in a hurry to allow them back.
400 synagogues were set on fire in Germany. Many shops were destroyed and many Jews injured. The young people in Israel were appalled. There had to be a way to stand up to the terrible enemy threatening the very existence of German Jewry, European and perhaps the entire globe.
Tzvi calls on the young to get ready for battle against the terrible pestilence. The builders of Zion had to become fighters for Zion. With the outbreak of World War II, Tzvi and comrades joined voluntarily the Jewish Brigade with the British forces under their own white and blue banner. They fought at Ismailia, Tobruk, Italy and arrived just in time to liberate the survivors of some of the Nazi death camps in Germany and in Europe.
Tzvi got appointed by the Jewish Agency to the position of Chief coordinator for the Jewish camp survivors and war refugees Sharit Hapleita willing to immigrate to Eretz Israel. The office was in Munich, West Germany.
A transfer Kibbutz was established at Degendorf, Bavaria. The transports had to be camouflaged as the whole operation was illegal and against the wishes and orders of the British authorities and Arab protests.
A young lady on her way with others to Israel became Tzvi's wife.
The work of preparing thousands of war-weary Jews for life in Eretz Israel was tremendous. Many had to be taught on what their nationality was, what their history, their future, their life and prospects would be. There were economic, political and family problems for thousands.
In June 1946, Tzvi returned to his job in Haifa. 1947 sees the birth pangs of the new Jewish state and in 1948, the fight with arms is necessary to insure independence. The pioneer Tzvi volunteered again for service. A short 24-hour leave allows him to marry Miss Maryla Fogel from Czena-tochowa in Poland.
Tzvi stays on in the army with a high military rank. So does his friend Colonel Itzhak Pondak and others, yet Halpern was not one for a long military career.
By the end of 1949, he resigned and went back to his job in the tools and machines enterprises.
In 1953 he and two partners form a company for the production of agricultural machinery, aids and tools. Meantime, Tzvi's parents escape Russian occupied Wasilkow to Vilno. Rabbi Israel wrote his last letter to Israel asking for a permit to join their son.
Such permits and very few of them were issued by the British Mandate Authority. The letter was dated 1st day of Chanukah 1939. Tzvi did not obtain a permit for his parents from the Authorities that had a negative attitude towards Jewish immigration coupled with heartlessness and light-hearted policy towards the terrible plight of European Jewry.
Tzvi's company started in Tel Aviv and later transferred to IZUR-HATASHIYAH near PETACH TIKVAH. With his energy and abilities he won export markets in Persia and Venezuela apart from producing for the internal demands.
The Yom Kippur war in 1973 caused a lot of disruption some African countries broke with Israel. Some exports stopped. The last Persian market when the Shah lost and the Ayatollah Khomeiny came to rule caused a lot of worry.
However, Tzvi recovered and became a big enterprise with success after success. He remained the golden hearted Hershele the boy from Wasilkow who devoted his life to the Zionist vision and took such an active part in realizing the ideal of a state for the Jews.
Tzvi Hershele Halpern passed away on 5th June, 1984. He struggled for 2 years against an incurable illness.
My dear friend and mate rests in peace in the Kriat Shaul cemetery near Tel Aviv. He was one of the brave Wasilkow Halutzim who was always ready to sacrifice his life for his people. He will remain in our hearts forever as one who contributed to the dignity and glorious memory of the Wasilkow Jewish community.
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