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Ostrovtser Shul in Toronto

Early Ostrovtser Immigrants in Toronto

In the Ostrovtzer Shul on Cecil Street in the city of Toronto there hangs a panel containing several photographs which in their naked horror tell, in essence, the tragic story of the annihilation of the Jews in Poland. Actually the pictures tell only of the harrowing end of one Jewish town, Ostroviec, but the sad fate of this city was the fate of all other Jewish communities in Poland. When one looks at the scenes of this destroyed town – at the piles of rubble, at the wrecked buildings, at the smashed and profaned tombstones – and imagines, or tries to imagine, the horrors that befell the inhabitants, one feels things in one's heart that words cannot describe. Where once there stood ancient Jewish streets, trim houses, imposing synagogues and everything else that was part of the life of the small Jewish town, one beholds now not only the ruins of the specific town of Ostroviec, but also the end of a pattern of life that had been molded by a past of a thousand years of Jewish history in Poland.

The city of Ostroviec with its more than 18,000 Jews, its great rabbis, and its uniquely Jewish charm and colour was a vital part of Polish Jewry, a vital segment of the three million Jews who were, in the past, the spiritual and physical backbone of European Jewry. Today nothing remains of the storied life of Ostroviec except a few pictures in a panel hanging sorrowfully on the walls of the Ostrovtzer Shul. Jewish Ostroviec no longer exists – nor throbbing Polish Jewry; nothing remains but a few pictures – a sad

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and poignant reminder of a great past and an unbelievably tragic end.

In celebrating the 40th anniversary of the existence of the Ostrovtzer Shul in Toronto the members of the synagogue have unconsciously raided a NER TAMID, an eternal light, a light that will always shine on those beloved kinsmen who died in martyrdom. Whether we are devout or not we must see in the existence of this Shul a symbol of the eternal Jewish capacity to survive. That the Ostrovtzer Shul is a miraculous embodiment of this Jewish survival instinct is undeniable – for precisely at the moment when the city of Ostroviec with it flowering Jewish life has vanished from the face of the earth forever we see a new life, patterned after the old Ostrovtzer one, blossoming richly and beautifully in Toronto. The Ostrovtzer Shul -- what an evocation there is in its very name – is an unbreakable link that binds us to our old homes that many of us left with trembling hearts some forty years ago to go to a distant continent there to plant a new life on a new soil.

Certainly the men who founded the Ostrovtzer Synagogue 40 years ago did not dream, when they were laying the cornerstone, that they were to raise a glorious monument to the fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters who were so mercilessly slaughtered by those bestial enemies

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of mankind – the Nazis. No one forty years ago could have believed that the synagogue that was being built on Cecil street would become not only a place of worship but, above all, an assurance of the continuation of Jewish life, the Ner Tamid we mentioned above, a light never to be extinguished.


Tifereth Bikkur Cholim

At 47 Cecil Street, Toronto, there lives an old Jew, in whose home on Elizabeth Street the first Ostrovtzer Congregation was founded 42 years ago. This old man is our familiar landsmen Leibish Zukerman. Leibish is rich in years, but his memory is as alert as ever. As we sit talking of the founding of the congregation he vividly recalls the day when a score of Ostrovtzer Landsleit gathered in his house on Elizabeth Street and, over a glass of beer and some Zubeissen, laid the foundation for the synagogue.

Among those present at this gathering were the following members: Aaron Warshavsky, Herschel Bucovsky, Abraham Lerenbaum, Leibish Zukerman, Jacob H. Fish, Jacob H. Fachler, Shlome Kirshenblatt, Aba Fidler, Meir Singer and Hershel Lerenbaum. Others, no longer living today, wee the late E. Marcovetsky, Zelig Weinberg, Lipe Silverman, Leibish Blum, Abish Rubinstein, Samuel Wagner, Yankel Blum, Motel Fidler, Jacob Singer, Yudel Fish, Meir Rochwarg, Shloime Davidson, Alater I. Halpern and Meyer Yechiel Finkelstein. Also present were Isaac Kempal, Pinya Steinbeck, Abraham Z. Linzon, Abraham Fisher, and Hershel Linzon, as well as others whose names cannot now be recalled.

All the above-mentioned persons were the relatively young and most had left behind an established place in the old country, friendly surroundings and childhood attachments, to start life anew in Canada. Many had left behind not only parents, but wives and children as well. These adventurous souls had risked everything to build a new life, arriving in a country where the surroundings were strange, the people very different, the language and customs foreign. They were as though violently torn from their native soil. Just as a hurricane uproots a young tree and tosses it to a distant island, so these young people, frightened and helpless, were tossed ashore into a new country. Uprooted from the old land, they were as yet far from

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rooted in the new one. Like lost sheep these frightened and lonely young men huddled together, sticking close to one another and trying to preserve the intimacy they had known in Ostroviec.

The tendency of newcomers to band together in order to retain their familiar way of life is a universal characteristic. It is common to immigrants of all nations and faiths. While among non-Jews this tendency was expressed by the formation of sports clubs and amusement centers, Jewish immigrants founded landsmanschaft societies and fraternal associations. These landsmanschaft groups served people coming from the same hometown in the same way that the sports clubs served the non-Jews, by keeping alive among them an awareness of their common origin and common cultural heritage.

Forty years ago these young immigrants from Ostroviec thought chiefly in terms of their home town, and, particularly, in terms of their home town's religious atmosphere. The maintenance of the traditional way of life that had centered about the synagogue and the Beth Hamedrash was what absorbed the thoughts of the newcomers. In Ostroviec no one spoke or ever heard of sick benefit societies or landmanschaften. There all the important issues of the day were threshed out in the Beth Hamedrash or in the great Synagogue. It was quite natural therefore that when the few score young men gathered in the home of Leibish Zukerman on Elizabeth Street to consider ways to assure their continued existence as a group, the answer they should find to their problems should be to build a synagogue of their own – a new Ostrovtzer Shul.

The Shul was to serve a three-fold purpose: it was to be a house of worship; a meeting place for landsleit; and a place where the poor and the hungry could find shelter. Forty years ago it was not uncommon for an immigrant to find himself without means of support and without a roof over his head. Not a few of them walked about hungry, without a penny to their name and with no place to lay their heads on. That it was the intention of the founders to provide aid to the needy can be gathered from the name which the Ostrovtzer Synagogue first bore. It was initially called the “Tifereth Yisrael Bikkur Cholim” (the glory of Israel is in the caring for the sick). The very name first chosen for the synagogue reflects the spiritual as well as the practical aims of these young immigrants, and it was in this spirit of lofty idealism that the first Ostrovtzer Shul was founded.

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The Early Immigrants

The Jew who emigrated from Poland in the early years of this century usually left because of the want and suffering at home and not because he sought adventure across the seas. Some left because they were afraid of being conscripted into the Czarist armies, others were driven by grinding poverty to see a better living for their families. Some sought to escape the religious and economic oppression obtaining under Czarism; others again had been active in the underground revolutionary movement. But the chief reason for emigrating was usually the lack of any future for the enterprising young man, who could seldom if ever achieve a position of security or dignity at home. Generally the children of the well-to-do did not emigrate to America, preferring to live at home in relative, so to say, comfort.

Thus most of the emigrants from Ostroviec were of the poorer classes of the community and were largely small craftsmen. It was these workers who were the first immigrant group to leave Ostroviec. Convinced that life in the town held no future for them, that the poverty and oppression of Polish life left no room for any hope, many of these workers set out for new lands ready to start their life all over again. It is possible to realize how difficult the fresh start in Canada proved for most of them, and what bitter hardships they experienced here, when one remembers how many of them returned to Poland. Many others who stayed would also have gone back home had they possessed the wherewithal for the return passage. Not a few swallowed their disappointment in the new country while longing for the spiritual warmth and comfort of their native town. Some lived very close to starvation, sometimes existing on only stale bread and pickles; others saved pennies in the hope of accumulating enough of them to be able to return to their wives and children. But as most of these could never manage to save enough, they remained in Canada, doing their best to adjust themselves to the new conditions.

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Ostroviec – A Town of Chasidism

At the beginning of the 20th century Ostroviec was a typical Polish town with a large Jewish population, possessing all the familiar features of an intensely traditional Jewish community life. It was a thoroughly Chasidic town with a different Chasidic “Klaus,” or small house of worship, on every street. Every other Jew was a Chasid, loyal to one Chasidic rabbi or another, worshipping in the separate Klausen formed by each distinct group of Chasidic followers, and periodical, making a pilgrimage to the home of the venerated rabbi. The followers of the Gerer dynasty were the most prominent and numerous group. Other groups were composed of adherents of the Alexander rabbi, of the Vorker, the Skernevitzer, the Kozimirer, the Shidlover, the Ozarower, and many other rabbis who represented different fashions and systems in the Chasidic life of Poland. In all there was a total of almost 40 such Klausen or Shtiblich in Ostroviec. In addition there were also “Chevras” consisting of workingmen from special trades who founded what might aptly be called “Union Shuls,” where they held religious services and enjoyed the company of friends as well.

The strongest influence upon the Jewish character of Ostroviec was exerted by the world-famous Ostrovtzer Rav, Meir Yechiel Halshtock, who occupied the rabbinate for more than forty years. This man (he lived in Ostroviec, but his spirit soared heavenwards), more than any other, laid his stamp on the character of Jewish Ostroviec. Before Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halshtock came to Ostroviec, the incumbent was the noted rabbi, Geshon Henoch. Of the latter there is told the tale that he was the first to discover the “Chilozon,” the legendary worm with the dye of which the “Tcheiles”, the wool of the Tzizis, is properly colored.

He is reputed to have made his discovery in an aquarium he visited in Italy. There he found a fish that emitted a bluish stuff whenever it was faced by danger. Rabbi Henoch became convinced that this species of fish was the authentic Biblical “Chilozon,” and sought the sanction for his belief from Rabbi Chaimil, the Brisker Rav. But great as he was Rabbi Henoch did not occupy his post for long. When he accepted the rabbinate in Ostroviec he had declared publicly that he would resign from his post if a single Jew in the town opposed his authority. Meeting opposition from certain Chasidic elements he kept his word and resigned, his place was taken by “Skernovitzer LLI”, Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halshtock, who was to become one of the outstanding rabbis of Poland.

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A whole body of literature has been created around the personality of Rabbi Halshtock, who was considered by many to be more saint than man. He had come to Ostroviec a young man and remained there until his death in 1928 at the age of 77. A tall, imposing figure, Rabbi Meir Yechiel was somewhat eccentric in his dress, wearing a “Spodik” and a fur neckpiece, even in summer. He had an uncommonly pale face, and fierce eyes that shone with a divine brightness. Since he permitted no manuscript of his to be published, we have few of his works today and whatever teachings of his have been preserved have been largely communicated by word of mouth. It is known throughout Ostroviec that Rabbi Meir Yechiel fasted all the time and he was never seen eating in public. Before going to sleep he was known to take a


The father – Rabbi Meir Yehiel HaLevy   The son – Rabi Yehezkele, murdered in Sandomierz

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glass of boiled milk and for almost forty years he practiced this asceticism of his, on weekdays, Sabbaths and Festivals. He lived a simple, austere life and wore his mantle of leadership with humility and dignity, devoting himself with his whole soul to the study of rabbinical literature.

The scenes of jollity, the dancing, the ecstatic singing that were prominent features of Chasidic gatherings were largely absent in the court of the Ostrovtzer Rabbi. Here, the “Tishen” and the “Shirahyim,” the portions distributed at the final Sabbath meal at the “table” of the Chasidic “rebbi,” were entirely ignored. At the court of the Ostrovtzer Rav intellectuality reined, and study was the chief source of religious exaltation. Influenced by the ascetic behavior of the Rav many orthodox residents of Ostroviec eschewed the eating of meat and lived on a diet of dairy products.

Rabbi Meir Yechiel did not inherit his calling, being neither the son of a rabbi nor the offspring of a Chasidic Tzadik; he owed the prominence he achieved to his own efforts. His father was a baker, a simple and upright Jew, who lived in Subin, a small Polish town. In his early childhood Meir Yechiel had already attracted wide attention as a Talmudic prodigy and when he was only 17 he was appointed rabbi in the town of Skernevitz.

Although the father of two children, a son Chatzkele, and a talented daughter, Rabbi Meir Yechiel practiced celibacy for many years, and was even summoned before the Beth Din by his wife to account for his behavior. Rabbi Meir Yechiel's family always suffered from poverty, which was due to the rabbi's lack of interest in the acquisition of worldly goods. His son Chatzkele later became rabbi in Nashelsk and his daughter became betrothed to the some of the Chmelniker Rav.

Kind and generous by nature, the Ostrovtzer Rav never ruled over his followers with an iron hand. On the contrary, it was through the example of his gentleness and great forbearance that he wielded his greatest influence, winning the love and respect of the entire population. When members of the community would appear before him on matters of litigation over property or over other business, or at a Din torah, he would always be distressed, feeling that such petty matters should have no significance beside the study of the Torah. He discouraged petty quarrelling, unhappy over having to waste his time on trifles. A charitable man, devoted to the welfare of the community, he would no sooner receive his small fees than he would distribute them among the poor.

But Rabbi Meir Yechiel's influence was not the only influence that made itself felt in the town. At the

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Beginning of the century a socialist movement arose in Ostroviec attracting many of the Jewish revolutionary youth, who plunged into underground activities aimed at the overthrow of the Czar. The movement received its greatest impetus from the large steel factory that had sprung up in the town, employing close to 10,000 workers and making of Ostroviec an important center of Polish industry. The low wages and the harsh working conditions made the plant fertile ground for revolutionary activities and many of the local young men were recruited into the underground movement. Thus at the time we are writing about Ostroviec was a town where pious Chasidism and radicals, Talmudic scholars and revolutionary socialist mingled together and lived side by side.


Jewish Occupation in Ostroviec

What were the main occupations of the Jews in Ostroviec? From what sources did they derive their livelihood? It can be said that the sources of income fell into three classifications. The principal source was the steel factory which employed almost 10,000 Polish workers. Paid twice a month the workers found it difficult to stretch their wages the full two weeks. As a result of this the Jewish shopkeeper and the small trader began to see their goods on credit. A ledger was kept and accounts entered for the family of each worker (this system was a forerunner of the budget accounts in the modern department stores) and the bill collected when the customer received his semi-monthly wages. This practice proved to be a boon to the shopkeeper, enabling him to maintain a steady business and make a modest living.

A second source of livelihood was the “Yarid,” or market day, which was held twice weekly, usually on Mondays and Thursdays. On these market days the peasants from the surrounding villages would stream into town with their wagons loaded with every kind of farm produce. The Jewish storekeepers and townspeople would buy the produce from the peasants, and the latter would hurry to the shops and inns to buy their supplies and to enjoy a drink. The “Yaridim” resulted in a lively trade growing up between the peasant and the townsman, at the same time creating friendly rela-

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tions between the Jew and his neighbor.

The third source of income was the trickle of dollars constantly coming from America – gifts sent by the emigrants to their families in Ostroviec. The economic discrimination against the Jews in Poland, the frequent boycotts on Jewish trade, and the chronic anti-Semitism largely deprived the Jew of a livelihood, and were it not for the generous though limited aid received from abroad the lot of Jew in Poland would have been hard indeed. In addition to these three main sources of income there were the smaller trades, like shoe repairing, tailoring, and cap-making, all catering to the immediate needs of the townspeople. Many residents of Ostroviec owned small shops in which they were the sole workers, slaving from dawn to dark to eke out a pitiful living.

The above, in short, wee the occupations of the Jews of Ostroviec and the bulk of the population was always poor – wretchedly so. There were “Gvirim,” or rich men, too, but for every rich man there were a thousand poor ones. In addition to all this the small trades people suffered from taxes so high that it was almost impossible for anyone to make more than a very bare living. Indeed, heaven only knows how the Ostrovtzer Jews would have managed if they had not received assistance from America.

The Ostrovtzer Jews of 40 years ago could scarcely have imagined that the fate of the town wo9uld depend so much on the poor young men who had left home to seek greater opportunities overseas. The beautiful verse from King Solomon's “Koheleth” comes to mind here, “Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.” Overseas translated the nostalgia for their birthplace, the deep longing for bygone days, into concrete and warm-hearted acts of kindness. Today this need for help and this yearning for the old home is largely gone. The Jewish Ostroviec of one's memory is no more – its beloved inhabitants are no longer there.


Episodes From the Life of Ostroviec

Around the life of everyone's birthplace a literature usually grows up woven partly of fact and partly perhaps of fancy. As the years roll by

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memories of early childhood, of vividly remembered early surroundings, come surging back, restoring to us long forgotten pleasures and brightening our lives. In this literary labor of love we propose to mention only a few episodes that come back to mind about the life in Ostroviec forty years ago. The reader who lived in Ostroviec himself will have no difficulty in recollecting other similar incidents.

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His colorful personality and his tremendous authority, having given rise to countless tales. One of the greatest Gaonim of the Poland of the last century, a profound and brilliant brain, he took time from his scholarly studies to concern himself deeply in the affairs of the townspeople. Careless of his own comfort and of the needs of his own family, he was always ready to look out for the poor who came to him for help.

His modesty and his humility were proverbial in Poland. For example, once when he went to attend a reception at the court of the famous Gerer “Rebbi,” he refused to ride in a coach which the Gerer rabbi had especially sent to fetch him. Asked the reason for his refusal, Rabbi Meir Yechiel replied that it was “to great an honour for me to accept.”

Whenever his duties required him to journey to the neighboring towns or villages and whenever he was called to some distant city to arbitrate a quarrel, the Ostrovtzer Rav would summon the same coachman. This “coachman,” Meir'l Yushu, who was considered a pauper even by the poor, was forever floundering about in a state of mental helplessness, and his comic ineptness always provoked laughter on the part of the citizens. Meir'l Yeshu owned a tired old nag, a most sorry creature that just barely managed to shuffle along on the roads, its head nodding sorrowfully with every step it took. The sight of the two, horse and driver, on the streets of Ostroviec, never failed to excite pity and laughter. Nevertheless, with all the fine coachmen with their prancing horses to pick from, the Ostrovtzer Rav would always choose Meir'l and his tired nag. In this way he wanted to show that all of God's creatures are equal in his eyes and should be treated with equal kindness – the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak.

Here is another example of the Ostrovtzer Rav's sympathy for and kindness towards the poor and humble. Because of its steel factory the town of Ostroviec had become an important railroad junction, with its yards always crammed with freight cars and coaches. Many poor Jews would stop over in the town in the hope of getting a meal or a night's lodging from the inhabitants. The Jewish “Baalei Bathim” or respectable householders of Ostroviec were hospitable folk, and generally ready to help the stranded stranger. Nevertheless, they seldom invited any of these wretched transients to their homes, considering them a disreputable lot. However, on the Sabbath day many of these shabby wanderers and paupers could be seen dining at the “Tish” of the Ostrovtzer Rav, enjoying a good meal and being treated to an inter-

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esting discourse on the current “Sedrah,” the Biblical portion of the week.

Once, because of a complaint of the authorities by the enemy, he was ordered to pass an examination on the Russian language in order to show that he qualified for “Official Rabbi,” an appointment conferred on him by the state authorities. Already an old man and aloof from secular life, the Ostrovtzer Rav nevertheless succeeded in passing the examination with flying colors – and this after only a few weeks of study.

His purity of soul was matched by a devotion to personal cleanliness that amounted almost to an obsession. Weakened by his constant fasting, the rabbi was often attended by a doctor called in by his anxious disciples. After submitting to the physician's examination the Ostrovtzer Rav would insist on being thoroughly bathed (this was a special of Mikvah in bed).

Each morning before attending prayers in the synagogue the rabbi would cross the narrow streets to reach the Mikvah where he performed his ritual ablutions. A custom arose among the children going to Cheder to wait for the rabbi in the streets and say Good Morning to him. On mornings when he felt particularly weak he summoned his favorite coachman, Meir'l Yushu, to accompany him.

On special statutory holidays (or Galuvkes as they were called in Russia) it was mandatory for the state appointed rabbi to appear in Shul in order to offer a prayer for the Czar. The Ostrovtzer Rav would hurry to the synagogue on such occasions to pronounce the required benediction. After the service the rabbi was obligated to shake hands with the Russian officials who had come to see that the ceremony was performed. As soon as the handshaking was over the rabbi would hurriedly depart for the Mikvah.

The rabbi punctiliously observed the prohibition against wearing “a garment of two kinds of stuff mingled together,” and whenever he had to spend the night away from home he was reluctant to use the bedclothes supplied by his host, fearing that they might be “Shatnez,” or of wool and linen mingled together, and so violate the biblical injunction against their use.

Once he was spending the night at the inn of one of his Chasidim in Skargisk, and the host noticed before retiring that the guest wore a preoccupied look. Guessing that the rabbi was worrying about the bedclothes, the proprietor offered to borrow the cloak of a prominent Ostrovtzer citizen who also happened to be staying at the inn. When he returned, a few minutes later, with the cloak and the Ostrovtzer gentleman in town, the latter was piqued

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to discover that the rabbi did not recall his name. Turning to the rabbi he said in an injured voice: “I am surprised that you should have forgotten my name.” The Ostrovtzer Rav replied apologetically: “I'll tell you the truth, I only remember the names of the very rich or the very impudent.”

In the forty years during which he was rabbi, the Ostrovtzer Rav never permitted an engaged couple to break their vows, and never once granted a divorce on whatever grounds; and although it might have yielded him considerable revenue he never permitted the sale of “Chomets,” or leavened bread, on the day before Passover. For many years he headed a Yeshiva in the town, which wore his name – “Beth Meir.” His scholarly reputation attracted many brilliant students from other centers.

Each Yom Kippur Eve when the rabbi was setting out for the synagogue the people would line up in the streets outside the Shul, the men on one side, the women on the other. The rabbi would bless the bystanders as he passed them and, filled with the solemnity of the Yom Kippur spirit, wish the people a “Chasima Tovah”, a Happy New Year.

Lazar Hartstein, who lives now in Toronto, Canada, relates the following interesting story about the rabbi: Twice a year, before Passover and before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Meir Yechiel would send 300 rubles to some needy institution in Eretz Israel. Lacking money of his own, the rabbi would borrow the 300 rubles from a moneylender, giving the names of the local Shochtim, or ritual slaughterers, as guarantors. The latter always felt obliged to make good the loan, large as it was.

A second story told about the rabbi is as follows: A group of former soldiers who had served in the Czar's army formed a congregation which they called the “Chevra Soldaten.” When a Sefer Torah was being donated to their small Shul the members invited the Ostrovtzer Rav to address them. Asked by the rabbi what they were going to call their congregation, they replied that they were planning to call it the “Chevra Soldaten.” Rabbi Meir Yechiel was displeased with this name and suggested that they should change it to “Shomrei Shabos.”

“But why Shomrei Shabos?” they asked. “Is there a Jew in Ostroviec who doesn't keep the Sabbath?” The rabbi replied that he knew they were God-fearing Jews but that he felt that by proclaiming this fact they would have a salutary effect on others, particularly upon merchants prone to keep their stores open to unseemly hours on the Sabbath Eve.

The rabbi introduced the custom in Ostroviec that the teachers

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and their assistants (Behelfer) should take the young children to the Great Synagogue every summer morning. The children used to pour out of the Chedarim into the streets and, with their teachers, head with gusto for the synagogue. When they got there they were taught to intone in chorus the Hebrew verse, “How awe inspiring is this house of worship,” and to add “Blessed is He, blessed is His Name.”

In the constitution of the Toronto Ostrovtzer shul there is an item which says that as long as the Ostrovtzer shul stands the anniversary of the great rabbi's death should be celebrated each year on the 17th day of the Jewish month of Adar. It is the custom to mark this anniversary with a dinner at which tales of the rabbi's great learning and saintly deeds are lovingly told. This custom is punctiliously observed.


Migration Movements

The greatest mass migration in Jewish history took place in the years between 1900 and 1914, when millions of Jews departed from Eastern Europe to seek new homes in North and South America. The cause and results of this migration might best be understood by examining the overseas emigration from the town of Ostroviec, for the conditions in Ostroviec, a typical small Jewish town in Poland, mirrored the conditions and the soul of Polish Jewry at large.

The movement of Jewish emigration from Ostroviec was in two stages, each an important transition period in the life of the town. The first stage was the exodus from Ostroviec in the first years of this century, in the wake of the attempted assassination of the Czar in 1905. Fear of reprisals spread through Russia and many believed that the vengeance of the authorities would not stop with the suppression f the revolutionary movement but would be visited upon the Jewish population which had always been a scapegoat for the Czarist regime when it wished to divert the discontent of the masses from itself. Now a sense of danger filled the air and the Jewish population lived in dread of coming pogroms. Many Jews left Ostroviec, forming the first wave of emigrants.

On the eve of the First World War we come upon the beginning of the second stage of Jewish migration. The new emigrants, were chiefly artisans, workers in the Jew-

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ish trades driven to emigrate by the disastrous economic conditions obtaining in Poland and by the boycott of the Jews encouraged by the government. Many of the new emigrants were brought over to North America by the earlier immigrants, who were generally speaking a much hardier lot.

The different character of the two “Aliya's” was reflected in the differences that soon sprang up among the local Ostrovtzer landsleit. The members of the second Aliyah organized a congregation of their own and established a rival Shul on Chestnut Street, in the home of Shloime Grossman. This synagogue, even more than the first one, was a shelter for the homeless and the hungry, providing free meals to anyone who came there.

In time the rift between the two factions was healed and, when certain reforms were introduced into the earlier synagogue, the two congregations merged, forming the Ostrovtzer Shul that we have today. With more equality amongst the members, with a greater spirit of democracy in the leadership, and with an increasing share in the conducting of the Shul's affairs given to the members of both groups the fortunes of the Shul began to rise steadily.


Additions to the Constitution

During the first few years of its existence the Ostrovtzer congregation was beset with difficulties, lack of finances and inadequate quarters hampering its development. But after the Synagogue on Cecil Street was built, and the congregation firmly and handsomely housed, the membership began to grow rapidly. Two important articles were now added to the synagogue's original Constitution; the first provided that under no circumstances should an Ostrovtzer Jew be barred from membership in the congregation; the second, that the name of the synagogue should always include the words “Anshei Ostrowce”, or “Men of Ostrowce”, as part of its full title. This second article points up the remarkable attachment of the members of the synagogue to their old home town, an attachment that was expressed

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on countless occasions by large-hearted acts of generosity.

When the constitution was originally conceived, the name Anshei Ostrowce expressed the nostalgia of the members for the world of their youth, with its remarkable Jewish environment. That world now no longer exists in any shape or form. The Nazi brutalities, which have stunned the world, and which future centuries will never stop being aghast over, have denuded Poland of its three million Jews, removing every human and practically every spiritual link binding the Ostrovtzer Jews to the landscape of their origin.

In continuing to cling to the name Anshei Ostrowce, the local Ostrovtzer Jews reveal their profound love and attachment to their birthplace, to the old home town that has brought them so much joy and sorrow, happiness and suffering.


Beth Hakenesset Hagadol

The full name of the splendid synagogue that stands at 58 Cecil Street, at the corner of Cecil Street and Spadina Avenue, is Beth Hakenesset Hagadol Anshei Ostrowce. In English the name of the synagogue has been shortened to the Ostrovtzer Congregation, but among the Yiddish speaking population of Toronto the name most often heard is t he Ostrovtzer Shul. Located in the center of the Yiddish district in Toronto, the synagogue, with its handsome exterior, is an important landmark, one of the sights to be pointed out to the Jewish visitor in Toronto. The synagogue was built largely through the efforts of prominent Ostrovtzer landsleit and its importance in the community today is due to the unceasing and selfless devotion of the large membership. Particularly deserving of mention in this respect are

Abraham Z. Linzon, the first president and one of the most active figures in the congregation, who was largely responsible for the modernization of the building; David Sussman, the present president of the synagogue; Israel Weinberg, president of the congregation for more than 10 years; J. Rosenberg, the devoted secretary of the congregation during the past 26 years; H.M. Grossman, vice president; and the synagogue's treasurer, Isaac Gotlieb. Others that should

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be mentioned are some of the past officers of the congregation, as L. Zucker, Abraham Linzon, Abie Lerenbaum and the brothers Abraham and Feivel Fidler.

Nearly $75,000 has so far gone into the building and the improving of this modern synagogue, and the congregation has no intention of resting on its laurels. Plans are now underway for enlarging the building – for adding an auditorium that will make the Shul a social center for all the Ostrovtzer Jews in Toronto. It is hoped that this auditorium will attract the children of the members drawing them closer to the life of their parents, and strengthening their ties with the traditional past.

Today the Ostrovtzer Synagogue is the only religious monument to the memory of Ostroviec on the American continent. Although there are many Ostrovtzer societies, landmanschaften, and Hilfs Fareinin, the Ostrovtzer Shul on Cecil Street is the only synagogue built in America by Ostrovtzer immigrants. This fact alone makes the Ostrovtzer Shul unique. By its very existence the synagogue is a Ner Tamid, an eternal light always shining on our beloved kinsmen who died in martyrdom.


Early Congregation

At the beginning of the century there were only a few thousand Jews living in Toronto. They came to Canada bringing the customs and traditions of the Old Country. Before long the neighborhood bounded by Yonge Street on the east and University Avenue on the west was populated by Jews, and Elm, Elizabeth, Chestnut, Centre, Edward, Teraulay and Simcoe Streets were bustling with immigrant life.

Gradually attempts were made to organize the religious life of the small but growing community. When the leaders of the Ostrovtzer landsleit started to look for suitable quarters for a house of worship it was natural that their eyes should fall on downtown Toronto. The first Ostrovtzer Shul was on Teraulay Street, today's Bay Street. After a short time the congregation moved from Teraulay to Elizabeth Street. A couple of rooms were rented in the rear of the home of Lazar Borenstein, a Yivansker immigrant, and in these rooms, 42 years ago, the foundations were laid for the present Ostrovtzer Synagogue.

The first years were difficult ones and the congregation had to change its quarters repeatedly. It moved from Teraulay Street to Elizabeth, from Elizabeth to St. Patrick, and from St. Patrick to Centre Avenue, where finally the congrega-

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tion purchased a building of its own. The first president of the Shul on Centre Avenue was Hershel Bukovsky to be succeeded in office by Elyahu Markovitch, the father of the prominent Toronto physician Dr. Charles Markson.

Most of the activities of these early Ostrovtzer immigrants revolved around the synagogue, which also served as a meeting place where the immigrants could discuss their personal problems, always certain of sympathetic and interested listeners. An interesting situation of those days, which also reflects the hardships that were faced by the congregation, is this one: the new Shul on Centre Ave. was too small for men and women to worship on the same floor. The upper story was therefore assigned to the ladies; and as a thick ceiling separated the upper from the lower floor it was found necessary to bore holes through the ceiling so that the voice of the Bal Tefillah could reach up to the ladies above. Unfortunately the eagerness of the ladies to hear the Bal Tefillah ended in too many of them crowding around the holes and the confusion that would then result should not be too difficult to imagine.

While a situation like this can today be regarded in a comical light the problem of finding suitable quarters for a growing membership was certainly serious for the congregation at the time, money being none to plentiful then.

One day a prominent member of the congregation Mr. David Sussman, reported to the synagogue that a church at the corner of Cecil Street and Spadina Avenue could be purchased for $20,000.00 and he strongly urged the membership to place an offer. At this time there was only a balance of $300.00 in the treasury and some of the membership was most reluctant to go ahead, saying indeed that Mr. Sussman was trying to bankrupt the congregation. But despite the opposition, very severe at times, that he met with, Mr. Sussman hammered away at his idea, and finally a meeting was held and $2000.00 raised, enough to make a first down-payment on the building. Thus much of the credit for the fine synagogue we have today is due to the obstinacy and far-sightedness of a few of its first members whose tenacity of purpose was largely responsible for the purchase of the building.

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Ostrovtzer Societies

In addition to the Ostrovtzer Synagogue, the Ostrovtzer Jews in Toronto have organized three fraternal societies, the Ostrovtzer Hilfs Farein; the Ostrovtzer Ladies Auxiliary; and the Ostrovtzer Independent Mutual Benefit Society. For the present we only want to emphasize the fact that both the Ladies Auxiliary and the Hilfs Farein began their existence as branches of the Ostrovtzer Shul, and did not become independent organizations until much later.

Up to the outbreak of the Second World War there were two separate Hilfs Fareinin in Toronto, both having identical aims, the raising of funds for the destitute Jews of Ostroviec. Recently the two societies merged, forming a single organization to look after all relief activities. Since the end of the war this Hilfs Farein has provided extensive aid to Ostrovtzer Jews who have turned up in the displaced persons camps and those others who were able to make their way to Israel.

Like the Hilfs Farein, the Ladies Auxiliary was initially a branch of the synagogue, with the members' wives devoting themselves to the welfare of the synagogue. The ladies of the congregation donated the Holy Ark, a “Perocheth” for the Holy Ark, and a Chupah, and also raised money for modernizing the synagogue.

Through the instrumentality of Mr. David Sussman, who several times visited Ostroviec, the members of the Ladies Auxiliary established personal relations with many Ostrovtzer families, devoting after that an increasingly large share of their activities to helping them.

The Ostrovtzer Ladies Auxiliary was founded twenty-five years ago with Mrs. Rochele Lerenbaum as its first president and Mrs. David Sussman as its first vice-president. The following members of the Ladies Auxiliary have been successively officers of the organization during the past 25 years, the late Mrs. Alte Rubinstein, the late Tobele Farber; Rose Stern, Chanah Bloom, and Sarah Appel. The president of the Ladies Auxiliary today is Mrs. Rochele Weinberg, who was also the first secretary of the society. Other secretaries were Mrs. Leah Grossman and Mrs. Sime Gotlieb. The present officers of the Ladies Auxiliary are Mrs. Rochele Weinberg, president; Yente Sher, vice-president; Chana Bloom, treasurer, Rachel Borenstein, financial secretary; Itta Weisfeld, recording secretary; Sima Gotlieb, trustee; and Mrs. Linzon and Rochele Grossman, hospital visitors.

In the archives of the synagogue are many interesting documents relating to Ostroviec and many in-

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Ladies Auxiliary Committee Affiliated to the Ostrovtser Landsmanschaft in Toronto

Seated (from right to left): R. Borenstein (Protocol Sec.), Sarah'le Friedman, R. Nash (Fin. Sec.), R. Carpy, Sarah'le Sherman (Hosp.)
Seated: S. Wachsmann (Vice-Chairman), A. Singer (Treasurer), Dora Grossmann (Chairman)

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teresting letters from its residents. There are letters from the Ostrovtzer Rav's son, Rabbi Chatzkele Halevi, and acknowledgements by the community of help received. There are also letters from Ostrovtzer landsleit who have reached Israel and who have organized themselves there into a society called the “Organization of Ostrovtzer emigrants in Israel.” All these letters and papers are invaluable documents which the Yivo, the Jewish Scientific Institute, is collecting in order to preserve the memory of the massacred Polish Jewry.

The Ostrovtzer societies have taken a prominent part in all local Jewish affairs and are now planning to build a colony in Israel to commemorate the town of Ostrowiec. Indeed, the Ostrovtzer Jews have played, and are continuing to play, an important and constructive role in the religious, social and cultural life of the Jewish community of Toronto.

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Executive Committee of the Ostrovtser Society in Toronto

Seated (from right to left): A. Friedmann, M. Bricks – ex-chairman, L. Starkmann – chairman, A. Neumann -- vice-chairman, J. Schneider, H. Lindzon, A. Reichzeig
Standing: W. Wollman, M. Weisglass, S. Wollmann, Secretary S. Zweigmann, J. Nash, A. Kornblau


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An excerpt from an elegant commemoration volume published in 1950, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the synagogue, -- this article gives an authentic and interesting picture of the life of the first Ostrowiec emigrants in Toronto.

However, many changes have since taken place in the life of the Ostrowiec Jews in Toronto. Many public figures and social workers of old died in the meantime; the situation of the emigrants – who managed to enter the economic life of the new country – improved gradually, and they finally left the suburb, where they made their very first steps on foreign soil. The surroundings of the synagogue, nay the whole quarter, have been abandoned by its Jewish inhabitants, -- who moved to the center of the town, -- and lay deserted and neglected.

Following this development, it was decided by the Ostrowiec emigrants in Toronto, to sell the synagogue and devote the proceeds of it to the construction of an Ostrowiec House in Israel, to represent a memorial of their birthplace and simultaneously to become a cultural and social center for Ostrowiec emigrants the world over.

This project is under consideration and there is reason to hope every Ostrowiec Jew will have the privilege of enjoying a warm and hospital corner in Israel, a meeting-place with his compatriots living in Israel, or in some other end of the Diaspora – all this due to the Toronto 'Ostrowcers'.

(Reprint from “Jubilee Book 40th Anniversary” of the “Beth Haknesseth Hagadol Anshe Ostrovce”, published in 1950)

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A vanished life. . .


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