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[Page 66]

Between Two Wars

Chaim Chamiel, Jerusalem

In its knowledge, language and lifestyle, Ostrolenka was considered as standing on the border between Poland and Lithuania. It was always subject to the influence Lomza and Bialystok on one side, and the influence of Warsaw-Poltusk on the other. This was apparent in the Yiddish accent. The typical Ostrolenkan accent was a mixture of the two pronunciations – the Lithuanian and the Polish combined. The shuruk [Hebrew vowel, corresponding to a long u] became a hirik [Hebrew vowel, corresponding to a long e], but the kamatz [Hebrew vowel, corresponding to a short a] was not pronounced as a shuruk, and not the tzerei [Hebrew vowel, corresponding to a long a] – as a patach [Hebrew vowel, corresponding to a short a]. In the Ostrolenkan Yiddish, there was missing, indeed, the softness felt in the Bialystok accent (in the z and b sounds, for example).

In its spiritual life, too, Ostrolenka was influenced by Lithuanian erudition and by the spirit of the Misnagdim, as well as that of the Chassidim, which became more and more entrenched in time. Most of the young Chassidim came from outside – as bridegrooms and merchants. For the most part, they came from nearby towns, traded, dealt in good faith and worshiped God in their own way.

Chevra Torah

The oldest society in the city was the Chevra Torah. In the beginning, the society conducted its affairs from the home of Reb Motel Chmiel (Camiel), my grandfather, of blessed memory, and in the home of Reb Jakow Byszko. After a time, the society established a wonderful synagogue of its own. Its teacher and rabbi was Rabbi Mosze Natan Tejtelbojm, a decisive and God-fearing Jew. He taught the [commentaries of Rabbi Mosze] Alsheich to the members of the society on the Sabbath, and during weekdays read them lessons in Torah and Mishna. Veteran inhabitants of Ostrolenka assembled at the Chevra Torah. Most of them were simple workmen and small merchants, who gathered in the evening at the synagogue, after a hard day of work, to give their souls their due. The society celebrated three holidays in great splendor. A) The 7th of Adar – the date of death of Moses, of blessed memory. On the memorial day of the giver of the Torah, the society saw attending to holy matters as its sacred obligation. On that day, all the members of Chevra Torah freed themselves from their business and gathered at the home of the first gabbaim [manager of the synagogue]. (The society had three gabbaim, and for many years, Awraham Piaseczny served as first gabbai). Most of the day was devoted to study. At the end, they held a seudat mitzvah [a celebratory meal following the fulfillment of a religious commandment]. B) The Sabbath of the Torah portion of Yitro, containing a description of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. All the members were called up to read the Torah. They made pledges for the benefit of the synagogue. Also, the Kiddusha Rabba [the great blessing] was properly conducted on that Sabbath. C) Simchat Torah – this holiday was celebrated with special enthusiasm. Immediately after Yom Kippur, the gabbaim combed the city for the finest and largest apples. On Simchat Torah eve, after the society completed reading the Torah and the rabbi gave a lesson concerning matters of the day, the red apples were placed on the table. A large barrel of beer was opened, to the joy of the rascals who clung to it, and large glasses of beer were meted out to the congregation.

The society also developed public activity among its members and created an assistance fund for the needy. The old melodies were the lot of those who prayed in their synagogue. Melodies were handed down to them from their fathers and were sanctified by tradition. Reb Jakow Byszko especially excelled in this. He recited the refrains of the High Holy Day prayers

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Opening of the Popular Jewish Kitchen for the Needy in 1917.
From the right: Mosze Margalit, Icchak Rapaport, Dimensztejn, the German Mayor, Rabbi Bursztejn, Deputy Mayor M. A. Kaczor, Menachem Frydman, 2 Jewish law adjudicators: Szlomo Irmijahu Grynberg and Jakow Szlomo Pizman, Icka Sojka and Lejbel Benedon, Welwel Chacek

The Popular Kitchen with its employees and active members
(seated in the center: Icchak Rapaport)
The Popular Kitchen, with Pesach Hochberg
(standing by the table)

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with grace and warmth, gently and simply. He still led the congregation in prayer when he was nearly one hundred years old, and his voice was like a nightingale's, pouring out its heart before God. In the large synagogue, Reb Chaim Berel, the ritual slaughter, led the congregation in prayer with a strong voice and a chorus at his side. Chassidic melodies were not in the style of Reb Jakow Byszko; his praying was all only rachamim ve'tachunim [pleas for mercy]. But Reb Chaim Berel, who was a Chassid, was suited to the refrains of the melodies of Modzitz, Gur and others. Later, the center of these melodies was the Gur Chassidism. Merchants, magids [story-tellers], passersby and messengers brought new melodies with them. My father, who was not a Chassid, and was a member of the Mizrachi, took me to the Chassidim to hear their melodies and learned them later from me. In the last years, Jakow Dancyger was known for his pleasant voice and for his talent to adapt different compositions. His praying was pleasant: he was greatly influenced by the ritual slaughterer [and cantor] of Myszyniec near Ostrolenka, who composed his own melodies. They had a light cheerfulness from “the Kurpic” (named after the local people – the Kurpie), and from the Modzitz expressions of the soul.

There were other societies in Ostrolenka concerned with learning Torah, Mishna, Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch. These carried out their public lives together and extended help to friends whenever needed. Their activities were concentrated in the Talmud Torah's school rooms. There, they conferred among themselves about all the matters of the city, made known their protests against prominent members of the community, discussed children's education and the Zionism which captivated hearts. Another place for secular conversations on matters of the world was the “public shtebl” – a community hall near the large synagogue, built after the last war. A large crowd would push into the community house between afternoon and evening prayers, especially on winter evenings. Amid the great congestion were heard conversations, arguments and discussions mingled with the voices of those who prayed and said Kaddish. In the last years, Ostrolenka merited its own magid – Bartler – of the Nowardok ba'alei musar [masters of ethics], who worked diligently for the good of the poor and was concerned with family purity.

The Chassidim gathered in their shteblich. In the city were Gur, Alexander, Worka and Amszinow Chassidim. The Gur Chassidim, who took a specific stand on all public and political matters, were the most influential. Later, the activity of Agudat Yisrael, Bejt Jakow, etc., was concentrated around them. The rabbi of the city, Rabbi Icchak Bursztejn, was not considered a Chassid. His opinions did not always mesh well with the opinions of the Gur Chassidim, who acted according to instructions of the Rebbe (the matter of Cywiak, the ritual slaughterer, the position concerning Keren Kayemet, etc.)


The “Improved Heder” – Yavneh

The Zionist revival progressed slowly. At first, the number of Zionists in the city was so small, that one could not tell the difference between a General Zionist and a Mizrachi adherent. All of them were observant Jews and worked for the good of Zion. The organization of Zionist life in the city was caused, primarily, by the opening of a Hebrew school, the Improved Heder, which, after a time, was called Yavneh. Aside from a few private heders, there was a Talmud Torah in the city. There was an attempt to unite the good students in the city into one framework, but the education given at this school was not in accordance with the spirit of the city's intelligentsia, who studied Hebrew in their youths and joined the Zionist camp. Approximately thirty five years ago [in 1927], therefore, a group of parents gathered and decided to open a “modern” Hebrew school, operating according to the principles of the new pedagogy. To this end, they brought from Wojciechowice, where the Polish army in the area camped, the teacher Zalman Chanoch Gorzelczany, who established the Improved Heder. A small group of youths studied Hebrew, prayer, Torah with Rashi commentary and Jewish law with him. The school was headed by a parents' committee, which attended to expenses and found a room in the Talmud Torah, despite the disruptions of the Chassidim and the ultra-
Orthodox, who opposed Zionism.

My father administered the economic side of the school, and took care that the studies met a high standard. Every Sabbath, he would come to the school, sometimes with a whole entourage, to appraise the students. Sometimes the rabbi came as well, to ascertain that studies were conducted in accordance with the purity of Judaism, and that the students excelled in the breadth of their knowledge and in their behavior.

The Improved Heder struggled hard for its

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existence. It was attacked from all sides. Once its doors were locked shut, and it was necessary to use force to open them. Once, the Ostrolenkan magid burst into the “public shtebl” and stopped the prayers with the cry “Gevalt [emergency], Jews, it is on fire… Hebrew threatens you, Israel!” Slowly, the school became more established, despite all obstacles. A room was added to it and, later, it had three rooms in the Talmud Torah building. Jakow Filar was hired to be the advanced students' Hebrew teacher. Most of the youths studied Hebrew under this teacher, who sold fowls and eggs besides giving Hebrew lessons.

He was meticulous and irritable, and was strict with his students. He was also an exemplar in his pure, strong love for the Hebrew word. When he read a poem, story or chapter of Jewish history for us, his breath grew short, his eyes shone and his voice became deeper and turned into a roar, a sigh or a plea. His words were replete with romance and enthusiasm.

The teacher Zalman Gorzelczany, who was later the school principal, excelled in a sense of organization and a practical approach to day-to-day matters. Thanks to his vigor, activity and diligence, a large building was rented and the school had seven full classes, with full rights granted by the governmental schools supervisor. As a teacher, Z. G. excelled, with his pedagogical approach to students and parents. His words were heard with instructive decisiveness, his teaching was pleasant and his rebukes were gentle. He revived the school, introduced Hebrew poetry in it and roused the Hebrew and Zionist intelligentsia to take an interest in the fate of the school. So that the school could achieve government qualification, G. included teachers from the general school, who taught general studies in Polish.


The Yavneh School. Among the students sit in the middle the teachers of the school:
from the right, Jakow Filar, Gedalja Rozenbojm, Chanoch Zalman Gorzelczany and Dr. Chaim Chmiel (now in Israel)


Bejt Jakow

Girls did not attend the Hebrew school. The principle: “He who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he teaches frivolity”, was strictly observed. Only a few took care to teach their daughters Judaism, Torah and science. Then, a school for girls, Bejt Jakow, was established by the ultra-Orthodox Jewry, which opposed Zionist education and feared outside influences in general. The school earned the admiration of the entire Jewish public in the city. The daughters of ultra-Orthodox, Zionist and non-observant parents attended Bejt Jakow in the afternoon, when they were released from the general school. At Bejt Jakow, the girls received an ultra-Orthodox education and studied Yiddish, prayer, Torah and Jewish history. Bejt Jakow

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students bore their Hebrew names with pride, and later became active members of religious youth organizations, whether in the framework of Agudat Yisrael, HeChalutz-Mizrachi or Shomer HaDati. Pesia Szereszewska, a Bejt Jakow student who went on to teach many girls, is worthy of praise.


The Culture School

The Yavneh School did not satisfy those parents who demanded more of an emphasis in the curriculum on secular Zionism, and were not particular about the religious side. They therefore established the “Culture School”, and brought the teacher, Gedalja Rozenbojm, from Bialystok for this purpose. His father, Nehemiah, was known as a teacher of the enlightened youths of the city before the last war. His son was also educated in the spirit of the enlightenment. G.R. knew the new Hebrew, spoke it with a Sephardic pronunciation (at Yavneh, it was still taught with an Ashkenazi pronunciation) and was expert in the new Hebrew literature. He was known as a first-rate chess player in the entire Bialystok district. In public chess competitions, held from time to time in the city, he played against ten at once, and would usually beat them all. The Culture School, where the pedagogic level was high, did not last long. It was forced to close, and the teacher, Rozenbojm, went to teach at Yavneh. In the short time that the Culture School existed, it introduced a new spirit in the city. Zionist activity flourished, fetes, parties and plays were held, endearing the Hebrew language and the Zionist enterprise to the public.



A yeshiva was established in Ostrolenka by the Nowardok yeshiva students. This Yeshiva was a center for ultra-Orthodox youths for a long time. The youths preferred to attend the great Lithuanian yeshivas. Most went to nearby Lomza. Others went to the Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva in Radon, and to the Klatzk and Kaminetz Yeshivas. Ostrolenka's yeshiva, however, gathered the youths of the area, who came to hear Torah from its teachers and Ramim [heads of the school]. The yeshiva acquired a good reputation for its gatherings and public celebrations on holidays. A committee of women attended to the yeshiva's needs. They divided the young boys up among the balabatim for “teig” [meals in rotation] and established a special kitchen for the older boys in the yeshiva's basement. In the last years, the number attending decreased, as the youths began to train more and more for work. In Ostrolenka proper, a larger number of boys attended the general school and even the secondary school. Others left for hachsharot [preparatory programs], in preparation for emigration to Israel.


Communal and Economic Life

The chapter of Jewish communal and economic life in the city is a large and broad one. The city did not abound in wealthy people. Most of the inhabitants were tradesmen (primarily tailors, shoemakers, milliners and butchers) or small merchants, who sold sewing notions, and grocers. They brought their wares to fairs and market days in nearby towns, despite the dangers lying in wait on the roads. More than once, robbers and vicious farmers attacked them, stealing their goods and beating them bloody. There were even instances of murder, but the Jews could not give up this source of income. Some merchants in the city traded with large cities and exported merchandise out of the country. These were the owners of the flour mill and the saw mill, and leather, rag and iron merchants. There was no lack of grain merchants, who stood on the roads on market days to approach farmers bringing their produce to the city. Competition was great and earnings were meager and poor.

Communal life in the city was quite well-developed. All strata and, toward the end, even the Bund, were represented in the Jewish community. It concerned itself with religious matters, maintained a rabbi, two rabbinical judges and three ritual slaughterers. It helped support the poor and protect the rights of the Jews vis a vis the government. Representatives of the Jews also sat in the city council, and were generally accepted by the Gentiles. This acceptance was dependent primarily on the personality of the governor of the city, the starosta. Particularly during the last years, the starosta took a loyal position toward the Jewish population. The community was headed by Mosze Aron Kaczor, Chaim Pinczas Gingold, Mosze Margalit and, toward the end, Mendel Gedanken. They were devoted to the community and concerned with its well-being.


Linat HaTzedek

Of the communal societies, I will mention only two whose social-communal value was substantial and great.

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The management of the municipal fund for loans.
From the right: Kosowski, Efraim Chmiel (Chamiel) and Anszel Lew


Account book for Ostrolenka loan fund
(during the time of the Russians)


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Linat HaTzedek dealt with medical assistance to indigent patients, providing medical equipment and doctors' visits. Members of Linat HaTzedek visited the patient's home, took care of him and attended to his complete recovery. The head of this society, Icchak Rozonowicz, devoted himself to his task and succeeded in making Linat HaTzedek a first-rate social-communal institution.

The Jewish Bank

The Jewish Bank was established a few years after World War I, thanks to the efforts of Anszel Lew. He visited homes to gather support for the bank. The bank's value was discovered later, when the number of its members grew and it was placed on a cooperative basis. Hundreds of Jews in the city benefited from constructive loans and deposited their savings in the bank. In the last years, the bank was managed by Natan Jabek, who earned the trust of the general public. He increased the bank's return capital and the number of its loans. Many workshops and stores existed thanks to the effective assistance extended by the bank. Many were saved by the bank from the shame of actual starvation, when their income decreased because of heavy taxation. For all the years of the bank's existence, my father, Reb Efraim, was its driving force. He worked hand in hand with Anszel Lew and later with Jabek, as a volunteer, of course.


With the strengthening of aliyah [emigration] to Israel, interest in Zionism grew. Youth and adult organizations appeared suddenly and flourished. Jews began to aspire to make aliyah. The Holocaust was felt in the air, the hatred of Jews grew. Sources of livelihood declined and were blocked, the yoke of taxes was burdensome. The Land of Israel appeared to be the one and only place of refuge. At the end, Zionist and anti-Zionist organizations operating in the city directed the lives of adults and youths. In the last years, the city's lifestyle changed completely. A radical and fundamental change took place in people's outlooks. The awareness of Zion grew, youths felt the ground burning under their feet and tried to find a haven. On the other hand, their ties to the place were too strong for people to leave in great numbers, and not everyone who wanted to leave had the financial ability to do so. The Holocaust came as a disaster and washed everything, everything, away in a torrent of blood and fire. The Jewish settlement was ruined, and its children destroyed and turned to ashes.

Mournful and Sad

We stand here today, mournful and sad, and count our losses. We were all orphaned, without exception. We lost parents, relatives, comrades and friends. We no longer await their coming. Those who nurtured the hope of a homeland in their hearts, whose eyes were raised toward Zion and who bore their nation's name in glory – are gone as well! Even their graves have disappeared. This Jewry was eradicated with a single blow, and with it many of our chances and aspirations were destroyed.

Ostrolenkan Jewry no longer exists.


The Chairman of the Ostrolenkan Community, with Jewish soldiers from the regiment in the area,
who were provided with kosher for Passover food 2.4.1934


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