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[Page 119]

From Days Gone By

by Eliezer Markus




I arrived from Sapotskin, the town of my birth, to Augustów, in the year 1911. Our dwelling place was on the street of the synagogue, in the house of Lazer Freimark (Tzibulkes), opposite the home of Rabbi Chaim Baier (Korek the Melamed). In the courtyard of that same house lived an old Jew, a water-drawer, and his two sons who followed in his path. One was “Gali” the blind, who, despite his handicap, would bring water from the river and distribute it in buckets to the houses of the residents. His brother, Avak'eh, would also bring water and, later, became a gravedigger.

Our neighbor on the left side was a welder, and his name was Avraham Yitzchak Cohen, nicknamed “Grovetz.” He had two sons: Shimon, and Avraham'eleh the crazy, the city simpleton.

On the right side stood two wooden houses in front, and a wooden house in the courtyard. There lived the Bat-Sheve'le family: in one house Bat-Sheva lived with her husband, and in the second her daughter Rachel-Leah'ke, and in the courtyard, her daughter, Devore'ke. The husbands were fishermen, and the women sold the catch in the market. Devora's husband was also a glazier. Rachel Leah had two daughters and three sons: Aharon - “Noz,” Tanchum and Moshe Yitzchak. This last was killed when he was with the Partisans (according to the testimony of Shmuel Zufintzki).

I was placed in the “cheder” of Dovid Boyarski, known as “Der Vishaiyer,” for the name of Vishai, the town of his origin.

My friends in the “cheder” were: Yitzchak Bezant, Yaakov Cohen, Mordechai Ostrov, Ze'ev Sheinimer, Zerach Finkelstein, Dovid Hillel Kaplan, Arieh Shreibman, Aminadav Grinberg, Dovid Friedman (Katonti),[1] Yerachmiel Kaplan, Meir Vezbotzki and Moshe Biyuranski. Those younger than me: Noach Denmark, Mordechai Shreibman, Metushalach Chalupitzki.

The “cheder” was in the house of Hershel Denmark, which was in Gelinki Street. In the same house was Yazurski's “cheder” for the youth who were more mature than me.

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In the city there were other “chadarim:” of Pilosky (DerSupotzkinner”);[2] of Rotblit (the Stavisker);[3] of Chaim Baier (Korak); of Meir Meizler. In 1913, Rabbi Elyakum Levinzon came from Lazdie (“Der Lazdeiner”). There was a “Talmud Torah” under the management of Rabbi Betzalel Grader. There he taught with his son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Solnitzki, who had a pleasant voice and had a majestic appearance, and was the “baal koreh[4] in the Beit Midrash.

Rabbi Nachman Friedberg, a teacher of Russian literature, was a modest man, “hidden among the baggage.” He founded and managed the benevolent fund that developed into a savings and loan fund, lending associations, and eventually to a national bank.

Among the youth there were stories that circulated about the underground and the revolutionaries who would squeeze funds from the people of means in order to finance their activities. The chief activists were: Avram'eleh Glikson and Chava Frenkel.

The priests frequently preached in the churches against the Jews, and spread the poison of anti-Semitism. This situation induced fear among the Jewish population. They began to organize and prepare themselves for the hour of trouble that was likely to come. The Blood Libel against Beilis[5] in Kiev terrified the Jewish settlement throughout Russia. There was great worry for the fate of the Jews in the villages (Olinki, Lipsk, Tzernovroda, Yanovka, etc.), in which a few isolated Jewish families lived among a sea of Christian farmers. Among the youngsters in the “cheder,” stories spread of terrors carried out by robbers and thieves, the most famous of whom was one Tzarsky (a robber in the forests of Augustów who had escaped from prison and was executed for armed robbery in the year 1916).

A group was organized, therefore, of householders and tenants for the needs of night-patrols against attacks and arson. Every night, in turn, two men would go out to patrol. Among the activists in this organization, I remember Lazar Freimark and a colorful young man, dressed impeccably, wearing shiny polished boots – Yishaya Tuvia Falk was his name.

When the news was received that Beilis had been freed, the joy was so great that the Jews kissed each other in the streets, and wept from joy. Many celebrated the event with feasting and drinking.

In the association of volunteer fire-fighters, the Jews shared activity with the Polish population. In the lines of firefighters were many Jewish young men. Their band of wind instruments made a great impression. The society was supported with a small amount from the town, while a large part of its budget came from donations and income from receptions that they would hold in the town park in spring and summer.

From time to time, preachers or maggidim would come to town who would preach to the congregation. There were among them those with ability who knew how to draw a large audience of eager listeners, men and women. One of them was the “Maggid” of Posvola. His sermons were peppered with the sayings of our sages, may their memories be for a blessing, and proverbs that relied on the issues of the day and what was going on in the world. He knew how to make tears flow from the eyes of the women – when speaking of the hardships of making a living, family separations, migrations, etc. The reward for his efforts came from money that everyone would drop into a bowl at the exit, each man according to what his heart moved him to give.[6]

When Theodor Herzl published his historic call, prior to the Zionist Congress in Basle, a great awakening arose in Augustów as well. Among those who stood at the head of the Zionists must be mentioned M. Koifman, the owner of a shop for medicines, Dovid Slutzky, Shmuel Grinberg, a merchant,

[Page 121]

Arieh Aleksandrovitz, the brothers Chaim Yosef and Binyamin Markus, and Tzvi Feinstein. The authority of the Lithuanian and Belorussian communities was Rabbi Rabinovitz of Sapotskin, a town in the Augustów district.

A central place in the cultural life of the town was held by the Jewish library. At the head of the library at that time stood Mrs. Avramsky and her assistants were: Aharon Zukerman, Atsha Lap, Chaya Markus and Naftali Rubinstein.

The council members also served as volunteer librarians. In the year 1912, the Zionists succeeded in introducing into the library council the teachers Reuven Levi and Dovid Boyarski. The two brought a new spirit into the library. They succeeded in acquiring many Hebrew and Yiddish books, and in the schools conducted publicity to increase reading. For the youth the library was a significant meeting place for getting to know each other, and throughout the evening hours, there was considerable movement. The library served as a very valuable institution for indirect education, for Zionism and Hebrew culture.

On Malinska Street, in Rubinstein's house, there was a silent movie (“Illusion”), owned by Yones-Kaplanski. There was also the “Fuchs” theater, where sometimes wandering troupes of actors would perform; sometimes the local Jewish youth would organize a reception, or a presentation, whose proceeds would be devoted to a charitable institution.

On one of the August days of 1914, when joy reigned in the park, on the occasion of the annual festival to benefit the Fire Brigade, the news came about the general mobilization. The information came down like thunder on a clear day.

With the outbreak of the war, life in the city was disrupted. Great confusion prevailed; studies in the chadarim ceased; a few teachers left the city, together with a few other families, believing that the nearness of the border was dangerous during war time.

There were those who distanced themselves by travelling through Russia. Of these, many were the families who did not return with the end of the war.

In effect, the town was captured by the Germans, with a flanking maneuver, a short time after the war began, without causing serious damage. A few lone shells hit a few houses and lightly injured a small number of people. The Germans treated the residents fairly, apart from commandeering supplies for their troops.

At the end of two weeks, the Russians mounted a counterattack and captured the city. The return of the Russian army was accompanied by incidents of imprisonment, robbery, and false accusations against the Jewish population. As a result of one accusation two Jews, Reb Yisrael Grosberg and Shaul Kilzon were imprisoned. In Czarny-Brod, seven Jews were hanged by the military authorities when there was no guilt on their hands. The wave of imprisonments and assassinations passed over the Jewish population in all the cities and towns in the border settlements.

With the receding of the snows, in the spring of 1915, the Germans conducted a great attack along the entire front and Augustów was captured by them for the second time.

Many that lived in wooden houses in the area were brought into our house, which was a house of stone. Soldiers passed through the town and warned people not to light fires in their stoves, because the smoke from the chimneys served as a target for the cannons of the enemy. Indeed, a Mariampol house was hit by a shell, since smoke rose from the chimney.

[Page 122]

The Russian soldiers disappeared and the streets were emptied of any person. The city resembled a ghost-town. People sat in the houses in groups, full of expectation and fear in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Not an hour had gone by when large numbers of Russian troops began streaming into the city, and arranged themselves in the market square. The shops remained closed, out of fear lest the Russians would return and consider it shared action with the enemy, as they had experienced after their first retreat.

City matters were subordinate to the military authority. The conquering army published announcements in three languages: German, Polish and Yiddish, by which they sought to calm the population. It was said in them that the German army had come to liberate the oppressed nations from the yoke of the Russian government, and it was incumbent on all residents to continue with their normal lives while obeying the orders of the government. Movement in and out of the city was forbidden, and needed a special license.

With the stabilizing of the front, a military hospital was opened and an officer was appointed who was expected to organize life in the city. The officer began exploring on whom to place the administration of public affairs.

At the head of the Jewish community he placed Reb Yisrael Leib Litinsky and as his alternate, Reb Avraham Veidenbaum. Efraim was elected as the secretary (Der Bershter). The appointed heads of the community held meetings and consultations with the heads of the householders, on how to support the town matters so that the Jews would not be harmed – God forbid – in the event that the Russians returned. One of the first directives dealt with the opening of the shops and arrangements for preserving cleanliness in the city. A special order was set that the bakeries should continue with their work, and they were obliged to provide bread to everyone who requested it.

The German conquest did not weigh too heavily on the population. The Jews even felt a certain lightening of the situation after the persecutions and oppressions by the Russians. Instead of second-class citizens, they became citizens with equal rights and obligations with the Christian population.

At the end of 1915, when the Germans advanced into Russian territory, the front moved from the city, which then emerged a little from its geographic isolation. The Germans refurbished the municipal park, repaired the fence, neatened the lawns, and every Sunday a military band played in the center of the park. Two Jewish policemen were appointed: Yitzchak Bialovzetzki (“Russko”) and Vasserman.

Senseless persecutions, whose purpose was to cause the population to feel the superiority of the German conquerors, were not lacking. For example, an order was brought out that all the men were obligated to remove their hats when passing a German officer on the street, and transgressors were punished. One of the Polish notables, an estate owner (the Fritz) from Garbów, began to walk about on the streets without a hat, and many did as he did. It was also forbidden to sit on the threshold of their homes on the market street, as the residents were used to doing. A sentry was strict about fulfilling the decree.

The Germans appointed a sub-officer who organized a grade school for the children of the Jews. In it, instruction in German was compulsory. The teachers in German were the women: Niuta Yones, Povembrovski, Rabinovitz and Soloveitchik. For the children of the Christians, a separate school was established. The first supervisor of the schools was Officer Tzovak. He was the very epitome of a Prussian officer, and he placed the emphasis on exercise lessons in a military drill structure. The officer that came in his place was a professional teacher, and taught German to the higher classes.

[Page 123]

On one of the days an inspector came to visit the schools. How great was the amazement of the children and the teachers when he tested the children on the Bible and read from a Hebrew book with the Sephardic pronunciation.

Although agriculture was advanced in Augustów region, and in the usual years the farmers supplied all the basic food needs of the population (potatoes, vegetables, dairy products, fish, fruit, etc.), during the time of the conquest a lack of many necessities was felt. The Germans took for themselves the agricultural products, and imposed ration-cards. The flour that the Germans earmarked for baking bread was of very bad quality. Of course, a black market was developed. Due to the serious lack of metal in Germany, they confiscated all copper vessels in the city. The soldiers, accompanied by militia, went from house to house collecting all the copper vessels, which were the pride of the housewives. The bells of the Catholic and Pravoslavic churches were also taken down and transported to Germany.

There began to arrive from the Vilna area a number of refugee families, who on most days were absorbed into the city, but the nickname “refugees” clung to them for many years. With the moving of the front from the city, some of the families who had left it at the start of the war returned. With the returnees came the teachers Dovid Boyarski, Reuven Levin, and Pilipinski, whose influence on the young generation was significant.

The Germans began to energetically exploit the forests. They established sawmills in and around town. Across from the “Fuchs” auditorium (which had served as a silent movie house before the war), a sawmill was established in which Russian and French prisoners of war were put to work. For the operation of the sawmills, a large power-station was built which also provided electric light to the residents of the town who until then had used kerosene lamps. They also built, next to the railroad station, a modern factory for the production of tar and turpentine, and a second factory for dehydrating fruit and vegetables. The Germans sent the vegetables back to Germany, which suffered a great lack of food. A few Jewish families earned their living in the factories mentioned above.

One of the big sawmills constructed by the Germans was erected in the village of Blizna, next to the Augustów-Suwalki railroad tracks. For the purpose of administering the forest economy, the forest supervisor, Hoiftman Shreider and his deputy Officer Milke, were located in Augustów. Many Jews, who were expert in the timber trade, found lucrative employment there, and also succeeded in developing private trade in wood.

With the advance of the Germans on the Russian Front, and after the conquest of Warsaw and Brisk of Lithuania, the area where citizens were permitted to move was expanded. Life became a little easier. Trade began to flourish. The Germans made it possible to bring from Germany tobacco products, chocolate, coffee substitutes, preserved fish, etc. For this purpose, the Germans opened a store that supplied merchandise to Jewish wholesalers. This store, which was also responsible for food, was managed by a German Lieutenant whose name was Zaks, who established friendly relations with the merchants of the city.

Activity also increased in the area of cultural life. At the initiative of the teachers Boyarski and Levin, courses for study of the Hebrew language, the Bible and general studies were organized that enjoyed great success. Most of the youth in town took part in these courses.

Literary receptions were also held, with public readings and lectures.

At the initiative of Volf Ratner, the son of the city's Chazzan, an amateur drama group was organized. At his direction,

[Page 124]

plays from the repertoire of the Jewish theater were brought, with great success and to the pleasure of the audience, the rehearsals and preparations for the theater productions served as an opportunity for meetings of the youth, because tens of the young men and women were involved in the event. The income was dedicated to public institutions: the library, Linat HaTzedek,[7] etc. The main activists in the dramatic group were: Yitzchak Varhaftig, Arieh Eizenstat, Yehuda Rotstein, Dovid Stolar, Eliezer Mintz, Rivka Kantorovitz, Niuta Yones, Nadia Sarni and Sonia Yones.

Also the library, which had been closed with the capture of the town by the Germans, operated again.

The yearning for cultural and literary activity brought about the publication of a literary collection by Moshe Markus, Ze'ev Sheinmar, Ben-Tzion Boyarski, Shlomo Levinson and Yishayahu Plotzinski. The sole printing-house in town, which was owned by Varhaftig, stood idle. The youth were permitted to organize and print the collection by themselves.

The collection, “Pinateinu,[8] was published and edited by Moshe Markus and contained articles, poems, literary items and a long historical article from the estate of the writer Rabbi Yaakov Frenkel, may his memory be for a blessing, “The Land of Ophir.”[9]

At the end of the days of the German conquest, when the doctor, Yitzchak , returned to the city, a large meeting of many youth activists was called at the initiative of Chaya Markus, for the sake of expanding medical aid for the poor of the town. A special house was acquired, and instruments, and a permanent clinic was established. Dr. Yitzchak Yurdanski served as the institute's doctor, and the head of the council stood Mrs. Chaya Markus (until her aliyah to the land). Her deputy was Liuba Lozman; Mordechai Ratner was engaged as the pharmacist.

The clinic also loaned equipment to the sick and kept ice in the cellar in case of need. With the approach of the time for the German withdrawal, a great national awakening arose within the Polish population. The mood was uplifted. The Jews hoped, that with the declaration of Polish independence they would become integrated into the new state as citizens with equal rights.

At the initiative of the Polish Intelligentsia, a great public meeting was called in the courtyard of the Pravoslavic Church. Poles and also Jews spoke. But the harmony did not continue for long. Immediately upon the organization of the Polish Government, the Jews were once again pushed aside into a dark corner. Anti-Semitism again raised its head.

[Page 125]

Avram'eleh “Gruvatz”


Performance of the Kreitzer Sonata

[Page 126]

Amateur Troupe 1917

First row from right to left: Shlomo Ratner, Laurent, Berel Rozenhof, Alter Kentzuk, Shmuel Yehuda Loinshel, Feivel Blacharski, Gedaliah Rotenberg
Second row: Meizler, Chune Lap, Esther Stoliar, Etta Goldring, Yaakov Stein, Sima Shreibman, Kentzuk, Gedaliah Denmark
Third row: Bergstein, Devorah Bramzon, Volf Ratner, Niuta Yones, (…), Rochel Rubinstein, Dovid Stolar
Fourth row: Meir Vezbotzki, (…), (…), Abba Stolar


The Dramatic Group (1923-24)

Standing from right to left: Y. Beker, M. Volmir, M. Kolfenitzki, Leah Sherman, VV. Sheinmar, Y. Linda, Y. Plotzinski
Sitting: S. Yones, L. Markus, Ch. Strozinski, VV. Ratner, D. Lobel, Doron
Bottom: Liza


[Page 127]

Amateur Troupe

First row from right to left: Masha Rozenfeld, Avraham Vezbotzki, Rivka Rozenfeld, Chaya Markus, Dov Friedman.
Second row: Chaya Lev, Eliezer Markus, Channah Lozman, Yishayahu Plotzinski, Channah Strozinski, Niuta Eibeshutz. Bottom: Portnoy, Cohen.


Members of the Choir

Standing from right: Y. Beker, M. Kolfenitzki, Beknovitzki:, (…), (…), A. Tsherman, P. Tsherman, Y. Chalupitzki, T. Linda, B. Rozenhof, M. Stolar
Second row: Y. Bialovzetzki, B. Ivriyah, Y. Linda, Ch. Bergstein, Ch. Plotzinski
Third row: Tsherman, S. Ratner, M. Volmir, Volf Ratner, S. Yones, Y. Ignovitz
Bottom: A. Leizerovitz, (…)

[Page 128]

Amateur Choir (1923)

Standing from right to left: Y. Beker, B. Friedman, Y. Zeligzon, M. Goldshmidt, A. Rozenfeld, Y. Lonshel, Y. Sherman, M. Kolfenitzki
Second row: R. Mistivovski, Avresha, R. Varhaftig, S. Ratner, B. Rabinovitz, Y. Doren, R. Rotenberg
Third row: A. Markus, Y. Plotzinski


The Dramatic Group, Performance of “The Dybbuk.”


[Page 129]

The Amateur Troupe

Standing from right: A. Stolar, … M. Lap, Y. Vilkovski, Chaya Markus, M. Elenbogen, Yoel Chalupitzki, …. D. Freitzeit, Nachum Lozovski, M. Kahn
Second row: M. Mariampolski, M. Goldshmid, L. Markus, Channah Lozman, Plotzinski, … VV. Sheinmar, … B. Friedman Third row: Ch. R. Rozenfeld, M. Stolar, Y. Ratzitzki, Leizerovitz


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. I am too small. Genesis 32:11 “…I am too small for all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant.” Return
  2. From Sapotzkin. Return
  3. From Stavisk. Return
  4. The person who reads the Torah aloud for the congregation during prayer services. Return
  5. Menachem Mendel Beilis, 1874 – 1934, was a Russian Jew accused of ritual murder in Kiev in a notorious 1913 trial, known as the “Beilis trial” or “Beilis affair.” Return
  6. Exodus 25:2 “…you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” Return
  7. A charitable organization that took care of the sick and all their needs, above and beyond medical care. Return
  8. “Our Corner.” Return
  9. 1 Kings 10:11. Return


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