The only young Jew attending secondary school, in 1918, was Moses Goldberg, later the leading advocate and lawyer of Lomza. He reached this position thanks to the fact that he was in Leningrad when the first World War broke out and continued his education at various Russian secondary schools during the years of the war.
His father, Samuel Goldberg, was the only licensed advocate in Kolno. He served in the local court under three successive governments Russian, German, and Polish. He was entirely self-educated and never had had any formal schooling.
But by 1939 Kolno had approximately one hundred Jewish academicians in the professions of law, medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, engineering, commerce, history, the arts, foreign languages, etc. graduates of universities in Poland, France, Belgium, the U.S.A., England and Eretz-Israel.
This was the fruit of an extensive educational and cultural development during the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and of the great sacrifices and efforts of those parents who accorded the highest priority to educating their children.
These achievements were all the more remarkable in view of the fact that, during this period, Kolno had practically no modern educational system.
Since there are no records regarding these developments, I have to draw entirely on my memory.
The earliest period I can attempt to record goes back to the beginning
of the century, to the stories told me by my grandparents, parents, uncles
and aunts. I can remember vividly, however, many of the educational problems
which arose after the end of World War I.
Our Jewish community was always proud of the fact that there were no Jewish illiterates, compared to about eighty percent illiterates in the non-Jewish population at the beginning of the century. Even after the establishment, in 1918, of the Polish state, the proportion of Polish illiterates was as high as thirty percent.
The most prominent of the few Jewish community-buildings was the Talmud Torah. The others were two synagogues and the Rabbi's house. The rooms around one of the main synagogue-buildings were earmarked as houses of prayer and learning for the different groups of craftsmen tailors, cobblers, etc., and for meeting-places for secular associations, like the Society for studying the Bible, the one devoted to buying and preserving the prayer-books, the Talmud and others. Some of these rooms accommodated the Cheder-schools.
Up to the outbreak of the first World War, the main source of education
was the Beth Hamidrash and the blend of religious education, provided by
the school-system, supported by the community and located in the surroundings
mentioned before. The Jewish population of about 2500 to 3000 took very
little advantage of the meagre educational facilities provided by the Russian
government, which ruled Poland at the time. Education was highly valued
and the social standing of any member of the Jewish community was assessed,
in the first place, by his educational and academic standards. Parents
were prepared to make great sacrifices to educate their children, especially
boys. (Girls' education was looked upon as a luxury, but this attitude
changed, drastically, after the first World War.)
The children first learnt to read and write Hebrew, by a very simple method, but they had already been in contact with the language, since the very early age of three, when they started to accompany their parents at prayers, in the synagogue. At the age of five, a boy could already recite a number of Hebrew prayers and make out the main letters of the alphabet. Naturally, at Cheder, he learnt to read Hebrew comparatively quickly. The teaching started by the Rabbi opening the Bible, reading the words aloud and asking the children to repeat them after him; every word was simultaneously translated into Yiddish the vernacular language, in use at home.
It is amazing how quickly the children learnt to translate the text of the Bible by this method. The translation started, usually, from the text of Genesis; the stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and the Flood; the Patriarchs, Israel in Egypt and so on the Jewish children's fairy tales.
At the beginning, especially during the first two years, when Genesis and Numbers were the subject of study, progress was very rapid. In addition, children had to learn to recite thousands of words of various prayers, with their translation. This again, although it may seem a mammoth task, was done very quickly, for the prayers were repeated three times a day, in unison, not only at the Cheder, but also in the Synagogue on Sabbath and holidays. It was a father's greatest pride to have a son next to him, reciting the prayers very loudly, to prove to his neighbours, not only that he could read, but that he knew the text, by heart.
The usual Cheder hours were from eight a.m. to three p.m. and from five to eight in the evening. Within about three years the child had managed to go through the whole Bible, including Kings and Prophets, and could translate fluently from Hebrew into the vernacular. In addition, the Rabbi gradually began to introduce the next of the commentators on the Bible, especially Rashi's. At the age of eight or nine a child was ready to study Talmud.
Secular education was provided by an outside teacher, coming for one of two hours a day. The children were taught the Latin alphabet and to read Polish, Russian or German, according to the government in power.
In my first school years, the secular education was bilingual Polish, because of the surrounding local population, and German because the country was under German occupation. Most of the secular teachers were women. My teachers were Sarah Shaine Bornstein, the sisters Sarah and Reizel Karlinski and my aunts Sonia Panitz and Rebecca Markewitz. Most of the lady teachers had studied in the district town of Lomza, at non-Jewish secondary schools called gymnasiums or at teachers' seminaries. According to tradition girls were not obliged to attend religious schools and their religious education was very scanty.
At the beginning of the century, especially after 1905, the pressure of the political revolution in Russia forced the Tsarist regime to liberalise the Polish education and a number of elementary schools were opened in various towns and villages. Jewish parents refused to send their boys to these schools as the curriculum did not provide for any religious education, but girls were allowed to attend them .Some of the latter managed to make their way to the Gymnasium in Lomza. My grandfather, Michael Merkewitz, was, I believe, the first Kolno Jew to allow his daughter, Sonia, to leave home and stay with my great-aunt, Reizel Alef, at Lomza. There she studied at the Russian Gymnasium. My great-aunt Sarah Reizel. attended the Russian school in Kolno and did extremely well; the latter taught Russian, Polish and all secular subjects to girls and many young men. To a certain extent, she may be considered the pioneer of secular education, on a wider scale, in Kolno Jewish community.
The older generation, however, was self-educated and I still wonder how my grandfather and father became fluent in German, Polish and Russian and how they conducted commercial correspondence in all these languages, by hand, with a wide range of customers throughout Germany and the vast Russian continent.
The Cheder methods of teaching were not uniform. As far as I remember there were five Cheders in Kolno. The Rabbis we Samuel Rosenfeld, Herschel-Meir Notel, Moshe Hirsch, Gedale Ali and Joseph Panitz, who emigrated to America, in the early twenties.
The Cheder curriculum changed drastically after the end of World War I. On the establishment of the Polish state, in 1918, the Government introduced a bill for universal education and founded two free schools in Kolno one for Polish children and one for Jews. The curriculum was based on a normal secular education and religion was taught for three hours a week. The Jewish parents sent their girls to these schools, but their boys continued their religious education at the Cheder.
But, the cultural throughout Poland penetrated to Kolno as well. Enlightened
parents endeavoured to establish a boys' school, where religious education
could be combined with a modern Hebrew education or a secular one. From
1918 onwards, a number of Cheder-schools increased secular teaching, either
in Hebrew or in the vernacular Yiddish. The most orthodox Cheders were
Rabbi Notel's, Samuel Rosenfeld's and Rabbi Herschel's and the most advanced
were those taught by Jeseph Panitz and Gedale Ali.
In his Cheder, the curriculum was basically similar to that taught at the others; the only difference was the greater emphasis on Hebrew, as an everyday language, and not as a mere means of translating the Bible and the Talmud. He also introduced mere secular teaching, singing lessons, school performances and many other innovations, previously unknown in the Cheder.
This school was inadequately accommodated on the first floor of an old house, accessible through a very rickety staircase, and I still wonder how no child was hurt, climbing up and down, year after year.
Gedale Ali's living quarters were next door to the classroom, which was always over-crowded, but compared to the old Cheder it was modernised. He introduced school-forms, built specially by the local joiner, to take the place of the traditional table. The walls were decorated with maps and various pictures telling Bible stories. Each child had a place for his books inside the form. An additional advantage was the neighboring old Russian churchyard, which could be used as an open-air playground, something lacking in all the other schools.
Gedale Ali was also deeply involved as a leading member in Zionist activities. He succeeded in creating a circle of the so-called enlightened people of Kolno, who tried to combine religious education with a secular of life. Gedale Ali's Cheder outlived all the rest; as far as I can remember, he was still running it 1938, when he passed away.
Most of the people, who in later years, made their mark in life, spent
some time in Gedale Ali's Cheder before going to secular schools. But,
of course, even a modern Cheder was no match for the school established
by the Polish government for Jewish children following the Parliamentary
Act of Universal Education. However, the education was universal, but not
compulsory, and parents could avoid sending their children to school if
they so wished.
Rubenstein, the druggist, and Benjamin Abkiewicz, the tobacconist, kept their shops on the ground-floor and their homes were at the back.
As the Jewish quarter centered around the market-square, the pupils lived within five to ten minutes walk from their school; their playgrounds were the market-square and the school's back yard, but there were very few organized games and sports.
The school's sanitary facilities were appalling. The corridor and staircase were rickety and narrow. I dread to think what would have happened in case of fire. In spite of that, with assured fuel for heating during the severe winters, and the comparatively well-paid teachers, who received regular salaries from the government, were a great improvement on the privately owned Cheder.
As I already mentioned, the Polish government school for Jews was mainly attended by girls, for whom the two weekly Bible lessons were considered sufficient, but the temptations of a free education, with a good curriculum, were too attractive, and the number of boys at the school increased gradually.
At first, these were the boys whose parents had modern ideas and rebelled against a too religious education. Others were those, who had not succeeded at Cheder, giving the parents an excuse to change their school. The usual one was: "Well, the Lord did not ordain my son to be a Rabbi; why should I fight His will?"
The greatest dilemma, however, was that of the parents whose sons did well at Cheder and who started to rebel against it, at the age of eleven or twelve, urging their parents to transfer them to a secular Polish school. At the beginning, the parents resisted decidedly, but in time they agreed on a compromise, namely half a day at the secular school and half a day at the religious one.
The atmosphere in the government school was, in general, pleasant.
The pupils knew each other well and the teachers took a great interest in them, doing everything to make their school-life pleasant. There was no snobbery; the Jewish teachers had grown up in the village and knew every child and his family-background.
In 1922 a new and very important development came about. The local authorities, supported by government-grants, set up a secondary school a Gymnasium for children aged 11 or l2 onwards. It was a non-Jewish institution and admitted Jewish children whose parents paid a fee. This made it possible to be educated in Kolno until the age of 18, in preparation for matriculation and the university.
The Gymnasium was started in the two rooms above the local theatre, then moved to a special building on the village outskirts. Teaching facilities, like a playground, a library and a small chemistry laboratory, were beyond the dreams of the elementary schools. Parents understood the advantages of a secondary education and made great financial sacrifices to pay the necessary fees. On looking back I realise that many of them had to use the greatest ingenuity to get the money together every month. This obligation to pay for education turned the gymnasium pupils into a certain kind of elite. In time, new problems developed. For the first time in history, Jewish and non-Jewish children, with all the differences of their environment and up-bringing, were brought together.
Many of the non-Jews were from the surrounding peasant villages and hamlets, and their manners differed from those of the town-born Jewish children. The teachers were from other places, mostly from larger towns, and resented the obligation to live and teach in a small village. Teachers changed from year to year and there was no chance to create a bond between them and the school; many of them were anti-Semitic and resented the large proportion of Jewish pupils, recruited from among those who had shown the greatest ability at elementary school and Cheder, while a good number of the non-Jewish pupils were of peasant origin, with a much poorer educational background.
This situation was fully exploited by some of the anti-Semitic teachers
and the atmosphere was often tense. As the proportion of Jewish children
was as high as fifty or sixty percent, life, on the whole, was not too
difficult; we managed to keep on tolerable relations with the non-Jews,
excepting those whose parents were notorious for their anti-Jewish attitude.
As far as I can remember, there were about a hundred and twenty Jewish
boys and girls in the gymnasium in the mid-twenties.
Although the Hashomer Hatzair was organized on parallel lines, as a scout-organisation, there was very little contact between the two movements. Hashomer Hatzair offered facilities of learning Hebrew, mainly enjoyed by girls, as the boys were usually fluent in the language, which they had learnt at Cheder.
As far as I recollect, Yitzchak Moshe Weintzimer showed a great deal of organisational ability and devoted a lot of time to Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, which gave the Kolno youth an opportunity for additional education, including sports and games.
At that time, many of the boys were allowed, by their parents, to study
in the Gymnasium, on the clear understanding that we would attend evening
Talmud classes and not let ourselves forget the knowledge we had already
The nearest Gymnasium available for Jewish children was in Lomza, about thirty kilometers from Kolno, or further away at Bialystock, Grodno and Vilno.
In Lomza there were three Gymnasiums: a free government-supported State school, where it was practically impossible to obtain admission for children; a Catholic school, from which Jews were automatically excluded, and a private Jewish gymnasium. It was run by Dr. Goidlust, on a curriculum identical with that of the State school. All the pupils and most of the teachers were Jewish. Jewish history, as well as Hebrew was taught. This school had to support itself by the pupils' fees alone, and this was much higher than the fee paid at the State-supported Polish school in Kolno. It was not difficult to enter the Jewish gymnasium, but hard to get over the problem of boarding the children away from home. Here again, the parents displayed great ingenuity. Many pupils found accommodation in relatives' homes; the latter were prepared to help promising children and often offered board and lodging free, or for a nominal payment. Once the problem of boarding was solved, the parents, somehow, managed to pay the higher fees and about sixty or seventy former Kolno pupils managed to continue their education elsewhere.
But even those who stayed behind went on studying at various cultural societies which they organized. These societies also expanded the library and did their utmost to aid the youth movement and the various social and political local organisations.
However, not all the gymnasium pupils reached the university stage.
Some of them could not adapt themselves to the new conditions and dropped out after a year; others discovered that their parents really could not afford the fees and other expenses; some had to help support their families. Still, over forty reached the university; most of them were wiped out by the Holocaust, but among the survivors there are graduates of all the universities mentioned above.
The university students brought, in their vacations three times a year a new aspect to the cultural life and activities in Kolno. They organised, for example, evening-classes for the young people who stopped school at 14. By that time, the Zionist movement had established an extensive network of Hebrew ("Tarbuth") secondary schools; and the Jewish socialist workers' movement the Bund had developed a network parallel of Yiddish schools, under the name of "Cisho" (Central Yiddish Schools Organisation).
Both these organisations established evening classes and discussion-groups in our town, all assisted by the students.
One of the student circles admitted sixth or seventh-year gymnasium pupils. Its chairmen were Eli Burstyn and afterwards, Moses Burstyn, his cousin, myself and the late Dr. Hurwitz.
The student circles eventually became social centers, organising dances and theatrical performances in Yiddish and Hebrew, based, for many years, on the classic Yiddish writers. The performances always drew packed houses, and in spite of their limited means, managed to put on two or three plays a year.
The moving spirit was David Hurwitz, who had a flair for acting and
actually succeeded in including his parents to send him for a short period
to Warsaw, where he attended a school for drama. My aunt, Rebecca Margolies,
was also much involved in the theatrical group; on looking back, one can
only admire the efforts put into preparing the plays, which afforded so
much enjoyment to the audience.
All these activities suffered a set-back when a fire broke out in 1932,
destroying both synagogues, the Talmud Torah building, the library and
numerous houses in the center of town, mainly occupied by Jews.
In 1960, when I revisited Kolno, there was no trace of the active Jewish life of the past or of any living Jew. Only a ruined Jewish cemetery and the shell of the House of Prayer, serving as a store of agricultural machinery, remained.
The Town-Mayor, one of my former class-mates at the Gymnasium, commiserated with me, explaining: "The building remained empty for ten years; we had to do something about it; there were no Jews for miles and miles around."
Kolno, my hometown, I see you as in a dream the market-square; the Jewish shop-keepers at their counters, or standing in the doorways, waiting for customers; craftsmen toiling morning and night to support their families; the garden and fields around the town; rivulet Lavnes, flowing along its way to join the river Narev. Youthful memories my friends of Hashomer Hatzair, our walks round the square, the singing and laughter. I remember the long stormy evening discussions, the intimate talks about the Jewish problems and other questions of universal importance; our firm resolutions to speak Hebrew and nothing else. Elderly Jews locking up the stores to go to the prayer-house; the joy of a young couple's wedding or a baby's birth; Jews passing away at a venerable old age, generation after generation life flowing along as peacefully as the water in the Pissa rivulet.
When the war broke out, I was living in Warsaw with my two sisters Feicha and Golda. Abraham Dolowitz, who was with us, found his way to Vilna in 1940, and eventually managed to reach Eretz-Israel. He lived to see the birth of the state and fell as a soldier in the War of Liberation. My two sisters met the lot of the six million Jews, who lost their lives in the Holocaust: Golda fell in the Warsaw ghetto and Feicha died a heroine's death in ghetto Bialystock.
I was anxious about my parents, who remained in Kolno, with their little children Tsirele and Yitzchakel so I took advantage of my rights, as a White Russian citizen, and returned home.
I found a Kolno changed out of all recognition. Most of the Jews businessmen as well as craftsmen had been proclaimed "unproductive elements" and had been left no means of supporting their families. The market-square for generations a source of livelihood for both Jews and non-Jews had been transformed into a public park. A huge monument to Vladimir Illych Lenin, carved out of rough stone, had been erected in the middle of the park, to the great astonishment of the town's inhabitants. They, certainly, could not make a living out of a monument.
The economic situation, in general, and that of the Jews, in particular, was disastrous.
Essential commodities were missing from the very beginning, and one had to stand in queues for hours to buy a little food. The rich were impoverished and the poor were enriched by promises alone. The hardest hit were the so-called "Jewish Capitalists" former businessmen, store-keepers, peddlers and their families, who had great difficulties in getting work. The "capitalists" Berel Burstein, Motya and Sheina Dudowitz and Chaim and Esther Dudowitz were deported to Inner Russia. This, at the time, was considered a great tragedy, but in the end the deportees, including many Polish families, landlords, police personnel and civil servants, remained alive to see the end of the war.
When the new Soviet passports were issued, many Jews were classified as former businessmen. Since Kolno was very near to the East Prussian border, those designated "untrustworthy elements" were obliged to leave the town for places further from the frontier.
Former Zionists, too, were among those persecuted by the new authorities. They arrested Joseph Horwitz, the President of the Jewish community and the Zionist organisation, with Leah, his wife, and sent them to the Lomza prison, where J. Horwitz died. His wife was deported to Russia after some time.
A number of Zionist Youth activists left Kolno right after the Soviet occupation; Shmuel Kornitzki, Leibel Rosenfeld and Abram Dolowitz, of Hashomer Hatzair, escaped to Vilna, with Eretz Israel as their goal. I myself, as a former Zionist organisation member and a businessman's daughter, found it hard to get work. After a great deal of cross-examination I managed to get a job as an accountant in a dairy; but from time to time I was invited to the Komsomol, where I was questioned about my former friends of Hashomer Hatzair. I disclosed nothing, of course.
Former Jewish communists Marvid, Shlomo Krelenstein, Yissacher Nipkhe, Greenbaum and others, cooperated, out of ideological convictions and sincere faith, with the new rulers. Even so, they were not appointed to any official positions and, after a time, Marvid and Krelenstein were deported to slave-labour camps. Zerach Stavisky, Akiva Kashipopa and some other Jewish fellows were employed by the Soviet militia; most young Jews worked as assistants and apprentices to horse-dealers.
Life began to return to normal, notwithstanding all difficulties. Several "artels" were established, including a tailors' artel directed by Michael Borech, and a bakers' artel headed by Teitelbaum, as well as shoemakers', carpenters', locksmiths' and other craftsmen's artels.
Mendel Sokol, a former merchant, was held in high esteem by the new authorities and was appointed by the Soviet municipality to be superintendant of the construction of the new hospital, the public baths and other institutions. Later, they even trusted him with the trench-fortifications, the front-line of defense near the town opposite the East-Prussian border. When Sokol had fulfilled all his assignments dutifully and diligently he was deported.
During the short Soviet rule, Kolno was full of Soviet citizens. Most of them had been deported from inside Russia to the west and were employed at military constructions of the new defense line and elsewhere, together with local inhabitants, Jews and non-Jews.
The largest industrial plant in the district was the nationalised dairy, directed by a Soviet citizen. Among the local workers were: Akiva Burstein as storeman, Leicha Kolinsky as treasurer and myself as accountant. Former storekeepers, who had managed to hide some of their goods, began selling them "under the counter" or exchanging them for other products.
The Jewish children attended the general Russian school, where some of the teachers from the former Jewish school were employed, among them Krinsky, Yankel Burak, Feigl and Moshe Burstein and Moshe-Joseph Etkowitz. Two Jewish teachers from Bobroisk in Russia Levin and Malkin also worked there.
Although the official language was Bielo-Russian (White Russian), Russian
was spoken at all institutions, while Polish and Yiddish were used at clubs
and meetings. Notices in public places were printed in three languages
Bielo-Russian, Polish and Yiddish. The Jews continued to worship in
prayer-houses, without interference. Rabbi Kaplan went on fulfilling his
duties, as the community's religious head. The Jewish community was gradually
adapting itself to the new regime and getting reconciled to its lot, waiting
for better days to come.
The bombardment of Kolno started at 1:30 p.m. Nobody realised what was happening; some thought it was thunder. Several Jews were among the first victims, like the Shklaniewitz family, whose house suffered a direct hit. The two daughters Rivka and Keila who remained alive by a miracle later died in the Lomza ghetto. The stunned N.K.V.D. and other officials escaped at dawn and some young Jews went with them, but they couldn't go far; the town was surrounded and all roads cut off. On Sunday, the first day of the war, the Germans occupied Kolno.
Jewish life lost all value. Cases of degradation and humiliation became
things of everyday an endless chain of trial and trouble, stretching
from morning to night. Polish neighbours and Russian bootlickers did everything
in their power to get into the good graces of the Nazi authorities. These
Christian traitors did not sell their souls to the Nazis for thirty shekels
of silver, but rated a Jew's life at the price of half a pound of salt
and some were even satisfied by a Nazi's smile or a shoulderpat. Hidden
springs of Antisemitism erupted with Satanic force. Poles gaily robbed
and murdered their neighbors, in full view of the Nazis, and this began
from the very first: Ya'kov Zabilowitz and the elderly Bramson were forced
to undress and were brutally beaten to death, to the tune of mocking shouts
and laughter; Chaim Gross and Moshe Merachek, the blacksmith, were shot
by German gendarmes in the middle of the street.
Terrible alarm set in; mourning and fear of the future clouded every household. The summery Sabbath morning dawned and instead of going to pray, as they had been doing for centuries, the Kolno Jews went out, in families and groups, to the market-square, their heads bent in mourning, as though on the way to their own funerals. In the market-square, their Polish neighbors were already waiting impatiently. The Nazi policemen ordered the Jews to finish demolishing Lenin monument.
It was a terrible scene, which reminded me of the Spanish Inquisition. Then the Christian citizens surrounded the auto-da-fe, and now Lenin's monument, in both cases enjoying the suffering of the tortured Jews.
Some Jews began smashing the monument with heavy hammers, while the Nazis lashed them with their whips; others men, women and children loaded two carts, which had been prepared in advance, with the fragments and stones. All this time the Poles stood there men and women, old men and youths, their faces inflamed and excited cursing loudly and making fun of the toiling and tortured Jews.
The sun was already high in the sky, merciless burning the bent backs of the Jews, who were suffocated by the dust of the crumbling stones, hopelessly depressed and degraded, bleeding from the wounds on their backs. The sun had allied itself to the Germans and their Polish servants in their Satanic game, and attacked the Jews from the sky, while they lashed them on the ground.
When the monument had finally been smashed to pieces, some Jews were made to harness themselves to the heavily-loaded carts and to pull them to the Jewish cemetery, two miles away. The rest were forced to march behind the carts, singing and weeping to order, in the tradition at their behaviour of funerals.
"Lenin's Funeral" came to an end. The Germans and Poles began to disperse, laughing heartily, and the Jews remained behind, not knowing where to go. They had little time to hesitate, as their curfew hour was near and any Jew seen in the street after that would be shot on the spot. They began running home (they still had homes...), but that night not all the houses were a haven to those who lived in them.
I began running too, automatically, not really knowing where to go. The way home, past the Gendarmerie station, was dangerous. So I went to the Dolovitch's house, intending to stay overnight and go home in the morning. To my great disappointment, the door was locked.
Next day, the Kolno Jews were horrified to hear that, during the night, fifteen Jewish families had been slaughtered. Like wild beasts, the Poles had attacked the unhappy people, robbing their houses, murdering anyone they came across, raping modest Jewish girls. My cousin, Deborah Dudowitz, the Brismans and the Dolowitch family (where I had wanted to spend the night) were among the victims. The two Dolowitch daughters had been raped and then killed. The day after this night of bloodshed and Lenin's funeral, German soldiers burst into the synagogue, burning Torahs and other holy books, breaking benches and tables, defiling the Aron-Kodesh (the Holy Chest, where the Torahs are kept). After that, they collected several Jews from the adjoining side-streets and forced them to march through the streets, behind their cantor, Keidansky, chanting, "Look down from Heaven and behold!"
Decree followed decree, each more degrading and depressing than the
other: yellow patches in front at the back, forced labour, street-cleaning,
a decree forbidding the use of pavements to the Jews, forcing them to walk
in the middle of the street, like cattle. Attending the Houses of Prayer
became too dangerous, so the Jews prayed secretly in Guta-Leah's cellar.
All this was only the beginning. The worst was still to come.
The teachers Moshe Etkovitz and Yankel Burak were among the victims of the first action. These two had made an attempt to influence the German authorities to establish a ghetto in Kolno, in order to "normalise" the life of the local Jewish community. The murderers, Gestapo members, who had directed the action, threw the teachers into the last lorry and exterminated them with all the rest.
Three days afterwards, the Germans commanded all the parents and wives of those who had been "transferred", so to say, to report at the market-square, and bring food and valuables, as they were being sent to join their husbands and sons. The despairing people came at the set time, with their property. Lorries and Gestapo members were already waiting for them; they were ordered to hand over their parcels, to be packed as "luggage"... They, themselves, were put on the lorries and taken to the village of Meschivoyeh, near Stavisk, where they were exterminated.
One morning, at the end of July, the remaining Jews were ordered to the market-place, where terrible scenes took place. Rioting Gestapo members tore babies out of their mothers' arms and dashed them into the paving-stones. The women and older children were taken, by lorry, to Meschivoyeh, and the men herded on foot to Kolimagi. The community's Rabbi, Rabbi Kaplan, who was among them, stood there, pale as death, enveloped in his prayer-shawl, his lips whispering a prayer.
Yankel Krelenstein tried to escape from the square and was cut down by a German bullet.
After the third action, about eighty Jews remained in Kolno those who worked for the Germans and their families. At the beginning of August, the women were sent to Moschivoyeh, and a few days later, the men were taken to Kolimagi and murdered there.
My mother Devora Cludniewitz, and my youngest sister, Tsirele, Chaicha Karlinsky (nee Krelenstein), Rivcha Remba (nee Karlinsky) and her little daughter Ruth, were among the murdered.
It took the German murderers only six or seven weeks to uproot the Jewish community of Kolno, which had flourished for generations. Over two thousand men, women and children were cruelly put to death. About fifty people managed to escape, but the majority were captured by farmers in the neighborhood, who turned them over to the Germans. Nearly all of them lost their lives, one way or another.
As fate willed it, I was to remain the one and only living Jewish witness of the Kolno slaughter.
My weary legs finally carried me to the village of Laskwitz, about seven kilometers from Kolno, where a farmer named Michael Tcharnetzki, one of my fathers customers lived. I knew that he liked Jews and, indeed, he welcomed me warmly.
A few days later, after we had heard that no Jews were left in Kolno, Tcharnetzki took me to Lomza, saying, as we parted: "If things get bad, return to me!"
In Lomza, right from the very first, I was convinced that I had to escape. I got in touch with my sister, Feicha, in the Bialystock ghetto, and asked her to come to Lomza. Together, we would be sure to find a way out. But she insisted on my coming to Bialystok and registered me there.
In Bialystock I felt a stranger in a strange place, surrounded by the high, threatening ghetto fences. Feeling certain that escape from there would be too difficult, I returned to Lomza alone, but I fell from the frying-pan into the fire, for the situation was going from bad to worse.
Decrees, murders of individuals and mass actions indicated clearly that the end was near. The final extermination seemed a matter of days.
A night before the action, in November 1942, a group of ten people escaped from the ghetto, most of them Kolno women, including Chaya-Leah and Bracha Olech, with a little girl, Sprintza Chuldniewitz and Botchka Eidenberg from Chirnitz. We crossed the river, Naarev, by boat, and set out, on foot, going towards Stavisk. In the village Grabov we joined a group of about a hundred Jews, who had escaped the night before the great slaughter.
A farmer gave us food, including a warm meal he had prepared for the
whole group. Since we could not remain in the village for long, we divided
up into small groups and went our separate ways. Sprintza Chludniewitz
and I went to Laskowitz, to Michael Charnetzki, the farmer, who had saved
my life before. When we arrived, he arranged for us to stay in his sister-in-law's
house, on the village-outskirts. For three weeks, we lingered in the forest
during the daytime, spending the nights in her barn.
Our friend then advised us to cross the Prussian border, reasoning: "They need labourers there; you will certainly get jobs, as unskilled workers, on a farm".
This seemed far from feasible a crazy idea, something like entering a lion's den; but beggars can't be choosers and we decided to take the risk.
One night Tcharnetzki brought us to a little Polish hamlet Klazkocki, very close to the East Prussian border. There we parted warmly from our dear friend, who had risked his life to save ours.
We went into the first farm-house and told the farmer, openly, who we were and what we wanted. He behaved kindly, giving us food and shelter for the night. At daybreak he crossed the border, returning soon with the good news that he had found work for us.
The same day we crossed the little brook between the Polish village and East Prussia and came to the German village Soldenan. We introduced ourselves to the German farmer, Cantek, with whom the Polish farmer had arranged the matter, as Polish women who had escaped from Warsaw, during the bombings, I remained there, while Kantek took Sprintza to his brother, in the neighbouring village.
There was plenty of work on the farm and I toiled from six o'clock in the morning till late at night, working in the fields, threshing wheat, harnessing horses and feeding cows. I got enough food, but no wages or change of clothing. The few things I had with me wore out very soon.
Dreading the harsh, frosty winter, I decided to take a risk and visit
a farmer in Kolno, with whom my family had left some valuables. I knew
him well and was sure that he would not denounce me to the Germans. Deep
in my heart, I still hoped to hear that some of my family-members had survived.
I had seven kilometers to go; on the way, I visited a rich gentleman-farmer, in the village of Gromadzin an acquaintance of ours, named Philipkovski. There I heard about Bochka Eidenberg and Chaya-Leah Olech two Kolno people who showed a great heroism. After our escape from the Lomza ghetto, in November 1942, I had parted from them. Wandering along weary to death, they reached a farmer's barn one night and fell asleep inside it.
In the morning, when the farmer came to get hay for his livestock, he discovered the uninvited guests and lost no time in going to the village, Lachovka, arrested Bochka and Chaya-Leah and took them, by cart to the police-station. On the way, Bochka attacked the policeman, from the back, and began to choke him, while Chaya-Leah snatched his dagger and stabbed him. The man, gravely wounded, fell to the ground and Bochka took his revolver. The astonished farmer ran for his life, while Bochka and Chaya-Leah disappeared. The Germans put a price on their heads, but they left no traces.
This is what Philipkovski related. After the liberation, the farmers
told me that Bochka and Chaya-Leah had found a refuge in the forests near
Grabovek, until 1944, when the Germans discovered them, by accident, and
So here we were, two lonely Jewesses, once again homeless and desolate, wandering over the cursed Polish land, occupied by Germans and offering no refuge from their murderous hands. After crossing the border, there and back, time and again, we came to another German village and went from house to house, inquiring after work, but no one would employ us, as we had no documents to prove our Aryan origin. The farmers advised us to ask the village chairman to register for employment At his house we met a gendarme, who demanded our papers. We answered that we had lost everything when our house burnt down, after a bomb hit it. This did not help us; we were arrested and brought before the Johannesburg commendature. After a short questioning they put us in prison.
We were put in one cell with Polish women and had different kind of work to do. Sprintza and I worked diligently, knitting sweaters and socks, sewing and ironing. After the weeks of wandering and hiding like hunted beasts, prison seemed a paradise to us.
After a few weeks we were brought before a court, in Johannesburg. The judge shouted at us and put us through a strict cross-examination about our origin and permanent address. Notwithstanding this, he gave no hint of suspecting that we were Jewish. We were sentenced to four months imprisonment, for the offence of crossing the frontier illegally.
Then we were returned to the Lick prison, where the food was nearly
sufficient. We worked hard and were liked by the women-wardens. We prayed
for the term of imprisonment to go on forever, but the four months passed
all too soon. One morning, the warden informed us, gaily, that that afternoon
we would be "free".
We worked there for eight months. The owner, although satisfied, was afraid that he would have to do without us, as we had no papers. He arranged documents for us, certifying that we were Polish women doing forced-labour. Now we felt more secure. It seemed that, after all, we were going to survive those terrible times, especially as the Red Army was approaching the East Prussian border.
The evacuation of the civilian population began, Germans and forced-labourers,
In the meantime the front reached Konigsberg. For three months, the Russian army stood on the outskirts of the city and our camp suffered badly from the battles and bombardments. It was my fate, once again, to survive.
On the fourth of April the final attack on Konigsberg began. The Germans ordered us to run with them, in the direction of Stalack. We fled under a hail of bullets. Everything was on fire and people were dropping to the ground, more out of sheer exhaustion than from the Russian bombs.
In the general panic I lost my companion Sprintza, who had been my comrade
throughout our long Via Dolorosa, right until the very last day, before
liberation came. No trace of her was ever found. I have no idea what happened
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