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[Page 131]

Memories and the Way of life


My Town

by Aryeh Shmukler

The township of Suchowola that was situated between Grodno and Bialystok excelled in its beautiful vistas. Surrounded by forests that added to its pleasantness, the youth would take enjoyment from it on Sabbaths and during other free time, Lag Ba–Omer celebrations [Jewish festival] were held in them, and Youth Camps from the towns also made use of it.

Though Suchowola was held in high esteem among the numerous towns and villages of the area, it nevertheless suffered a manner of discrimination, which was the “Berg” and the “Arop”. When a Suchowoler found himself visiting another place he was immediately asked: “Are you a “Berg”er or an “Arop”er? (an “Hillsider” or a “Lower sider”?), and the question caused much discomfort to the person being asked. It was the thing that split the town into two distinct areas, sociologically speaking. “Hillside” referred to being on the hill, where the shopkeepers and merchants were, and the “Lower side” referred to where the artisans and hawkers were to be found. This state of relations imprinted itself in the minds of the youth such that peaceful and brotherly relations were not always maintained. The youth from the “Hillside” parts behaved haughtily towards their fellows on the “Lower” parts, though both feared the Goyim [heb: Gentiles] equally such that there was no room for haughtiness in those circumstances. However, “Lower”s did not see themselves as inferior in every respect. They were beneficiaries of a miracle in that the famous Synagogue “Shule” known throughout Poland for its grandeur and its unique appearance, considered to be a priceless asset and the source of much pride, was situated in their midst. Of the key communal institutions in the “Arop” were the houses of worship (the “Shtieblach”): The Psalms Association Shtiebel and the Torah Association Shteibel, where communal and administrative activities were centred. Of the main “characters” in the area was “Shmuel'ke the tailor (Khorovsky), who served as the source of news , politics and opinions for the worshippers, and for news that may not have been in the newspapers. If the “Shule” was a source of great pride for the “Arop”ers, they had another important asset to be proud about, namely, the Ba'al Tefillah [heb: Leader of the prayers] Reb Leizer Mordechai Khevin. However, in the battle to secure his services, in the end the hand of the “Berg” ers won the day when they managed to lure him to lead the services at the synagogue of the “Berg”.

The divide between the two quarters was palpable and was difficult to eradicate in spite of efforts to do so. In the end the divide was breached by the establishment of Khalutz movement in the town. What the townsfolk and leadership had tried unsuccessfully to achieve over many years was accomplished by the youth who had but one goal in mind: the love of Zion and the intent to make Aliyah to the land [of Israel]. The town benefited enormously as a result. The “Young Khalutz” knew how to unify the youth, rich and poor as one, the educated and the illiterate, and this movement found the way for everyone.

[Page 133]

From my childhoods

by Gedalyahu Gil'ad


A: My master and teacher Reb Motti

Decades have not dimmed my memories of him. Seated on a high throne, eyes shut reviewing a religious treatise by heart, wide nosed, thick eyebrows. His tiny house stood on the Tifleh–gass [Yiddish: Church Road]. A small yard beside the house, where we used to play. I was delighted by the news I was to study in R' Motti's “Kheder”[heb: Room, traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language]. There were those who said that R'Motti would allow kids to play in the yard and not be caged indoors all day. We loved learning a passage from the Torah or a topic in the Gemara [Aramaic: Talmud], and yes he would allow us to go out and play a little. But when we would overdo it and the room would empty, he would quietly step into the yard, his hat planted firmly on his head, and wave his cane left and right, and whoever found himself in its path would find his luck had run out. We would be returned to the classroom and review what we had learnt. But once his anger had subsided we would slowly steal ourselves outside until the entire episode repeated itself. On Sabbaths the Kheder adorned a wholly different appearance. The “additional holy soul” was felt: A tablecloth on the table (doubtfully white, doubtfully grey), the Rebbi seated contentedly, his kippah [heb: religious skull–cap] on his head, and he in a festive frame of mind. During the winters we would read the Barchi Nafshi [Psalm 104], a psalm full of song, and during the summers we would learn the Pirkei Avot [“Ethics of the Fathers”], and it was here that Reb Motti showed his true power. His knowledge of the material was clear and detailed and he would expand his words. “All of Israel has a place in the world to come” he would begin, “and why all of Israel? After all there are bad Jews, criminals, cheats? Ahh, but a Jew is fundamentally good, but is lead astray to sin. But once he has atoned for his sin he may enter the next world a fully–righteous person. It says “Sin will be eradicated”, not “Sinners will be eradicated”, and “an Israelite, even though he has sinned, is still an Israelite”. On Sabbaths he was in a special frame of mind, he would half–close his eyes and contemplate, and we then knew that he would soon ask us a riddle (of course, from the Torah or the other books of the Tanach), and when we would solve it he would smile broadly, as if to say “ahh, you young ragamuffins, there's a brain in your skulls after all!”.

Once on a Sabbath he told us, when he was a young torah scholar at the table of his father–in–law and learning at the Beis Midrash [heb: Jewish study hall located in a synagogue, yeshiva, kollel or other building. It is distinct from a synagogue, although many synagogues are also used as batei midrash and vice versa], he would secret amongst the pages of Gemara a [modern] Hebrew book, and would glance at it when no one noticed, even though it was banned and considered to be an abomination. He was very learned in the Hebrew language and would mock the young Hebrew teachers for their poor skills. In the winter we would learn until seven–thirty, because at eight o'clock would begin the second “shift” of “Gemara boys” as they were known, who would learn until ten. We would haul a large sled up to the Church and then ride almost all the way down to the “Kheder”. Once one of the Gemara boys was late for class and told Reb Motti all about what his “precious jewels” had been up to. The next day, when I came late myself, Reb Motti came to me, held my hand and said “and so, my precious jewel, were you also amongst the bob–sledders yesterday? Of course, I denied it. “Give me your hand” he said [i.e. do you swear on it?]. An oath was considered a very serious matter, so I refused and prepared myself for a few body–blows. To my astonishment he let go of me and began to wail “Look at the difference between him [i.e. me] and all of you. He refused to make an oath, and you all lied to me”. It turned out that everyone had sworn they had not sled. This hurt him very much.

Once we were learning in the Beis Midrash next to the big “Shule”, known as the “Aroper Beis Midrash”. And why were we learning in the Beis Midrash? A rumour had spread through the town that the Germans were going to demand a teaching diploma from every educator. The Rebbi of course had no such certificate, and in order to hide the existence of the “Kheder” we learned in the Beis Midrash.

He used to boast about his physical strength in the days of his youth, and not for nothing was he known as “Wolf”. And why this name? One night he was walking alone in the forest when he came across a wolf. He caught it and slaughtered it as one would do a kid [goat], this he told of his youth when he was strong and powerful. Now, when I knew him he was already old and weak. He was wide–chested yet ate sparingly. During the German occupation he would subsist on grits and wafers. The poor food exhausted his strength, as did his wife. He would smoke a pipe, and when he wanted to buy a packet of “Koroshkes” (poor quality) tobacco he would pass his hand holding the pennies under the table and hint to us to go and get him a packet, and we would happily go off to fulfil his wish.

The “Kheder” deteriorated unexpectedly fast, reb Motti weakened, became ill and passed between life and death. He recovered from his illness and returned to teach at the “Kheder” but did not last long and expired. In the vaults of holy memory is a special honoured place for my Rebbe and teacher, Reb Motti.


B: The burning of Khametz

We would light a large bonfire on the eve of Passover, and would declare “Go and burn your Khametz”[heb: leavened foods that are forbidden on the Jewish holiday of Passover].

Lipka's house was all thatch roof and a basement. The roof was open to abuse on the eve of Passover, on its one side – the lane leading to the “Yellow Hill”, and on the other – an unfenced yard. On the days leading up to Passover we would count down the days, and Lipka would do the same and prepare herself for the inevitable. She would sigh and moan to her neighbours “what can you say, the day of judgement is about to descend on my head”. She knew how to curse, thank G–d, all of the curses written in the Torah.

On the night of the 14th of Nissan, the night before Passover, I would help my grandfather burn the Khametz by holding the wax candle. He would go with a wooden spoon in one hand, and a goose feather in the other, and would shake out all of the crumbs from all the corners. By morning the wake–up decree would be heard from the “Yellow Hill”: “Go and burn your khametz”. Two boys would hide in Moltshikhe's yard and two others would go directly to the roof via the lane and remove straw from the roof. We didn't only take from Lipka's property, our hand was on every fence until we had collected sufficient wood and straw. We would collect round the bonfire and take the khametz from the eager Jews that would come and enjoy the sight. After the burning was complete we would send the little ones to get potatoes for roasting. The potatoes would come out burnt on the outside and hard on the inside, but were eaten with much appetite.

The next day, in the synagogue, we would say to each other, “we had a great time, eh, we removed half of the roof”. Although there were some empty patches in Lipka's roof, we simply didn't get to the other half in time.


C: Purim stunts

“This year the evil Haman is going to get it” we would declare before Purim, the days were during the First World War, when new weapons of destruction were invented. The kids tried to make “Purim rifles” to the best of their ability. They made a rifle with a strong spring and an “explosive” barrel. They filled the barrel with gunpowder that we took from dismantled bullets that we found, and instead of bullets would place a wad of cotton and flax. When shooting the gunpowder would catch alight, which would light the cotton–flax, and a flame would shoot out to a distance of a few metres. Improvements were subsequently added to the old rifles: Instead of a trigger full of sulphur we took the copper cups from the synagogue's lights. The cup would serve as a trigger and instead of a nail we would use a screw. The sulphur from a whole box of matches would be added all in one go, and resulting blast would be deafening, as much as a cannon. With this weapon we attacked the evil Haman.

We went to the Beis–Midrash and during the prayers would fulfil the Mitzvah [religious commandment to read the Scroll of Esther]. During the reading of the Scroll of Esther we would lose our patience and being to “strike” Haman when his name was called. The “blows” would reach their height when they would read “Haman the son of Hamdata the Agagite, the persecutor of the Jews”, then we would crossfire in all directions.


D: Hanukka

Frost and icicles droop from every rooftop, wax and tallow candles illuminate and dance in the windows, and the ground is white and covered with snow. That was how the town looked during the nights of Hanukkah.

Grandfather would come home from the synagogue, and in his shaking hand would light the Hanukkah lights, make a blessing over them in tune, and all of the grandchildren surrounding him listening and enjoying. Grandfather tells us about the miracle of the jar of oil, of the five sons of the Hasmonean that fought and who purified the holy temple, of Hanna and her seven sons who sacrificed their lives, and we drink up his words. The children would meet each day, put their hands in their pockets, reveal the Hanukkah money they had received and boast and brag about the amounts they'd managed to collect.

Girls would play in the next room a game of chance called “Tchikin”, and mothers and fathers would play cards. On Hanukkah they would allow themselves to play this game.

And we would play with the Sevivon [heb: four–sided top used on Hanukkah. Each side has a letter N,G,H,S – acronym for Ness Gadol Hayah Sham – A great miracle was there – in the land of Israel]. An “N” and a “H” would win, a “G” and an “S” would lose.

[Page 137]

The image of my town

by Esther Ostrov (Berelkovsky)

With the awe of my soul do I plumb the depths of the memories of the past, of the town in which I was born.

Peacefully did life wind its way through our town that resided amongst the forests, the pine forests, where we would stroll.

The little houses were covered by thatch rooves, but seemed as palaces in my eyes, everything was beautiful in my eyes, peace and quiet descended upon everything. My parents were well respected and materially comfortable. My first teacher, who taught me the alphabet and to read, seemed to be an all–knowing person in my eyes.

The township was conservative and kept its traditions. Its cultural expectations were modest, and concentrated on the library that supplied books to anyone who asked. Once in a while a play would be presented by some amateurs, who gave the best of their efforts and their skills, yet the environment was saturated with Hebrew culture, and the youth learnt and understood perfectly parts of the Tanach, and their Hebrew speech was clear and fluent.

Most livelihoods were derived from trading with the peasants, and the sons were similar to their forefathers, without airs or excessive aspirations. And if they struggled to make ends meet or were unsatisfied in any way, they would never complain and would accept the judgement of heaven. They were not mavericks, nor did they break the chains of continuity. There was a particular poignancy about this lifestyle, an atmosphere of culture and absolute simplicity, a willingness to help one's fellow, to reach out and help a person when in need. We grew up in the backdrop of a small town, and in our town we saw the finest faces of all.

A shimmer of light fell on our town: The Balfour Declaration [1917]. Rumours of it came even to us and stirred within us a longing for Zion which nested deep in our hearts. The awakening went and grew, the “Khalutz” [heb: Pioneer, a Zionist settlement movement] was established in our town. And in its establishment the youth benefited immensely with the opening of new vistas. The opening of the gates of the land to the prospect of a life of destiny, a life of individual purpose in the Promised land. We began to view life in the town anew with some disdain. How pointless is the future without the ability to gain a skill, the inability to integrate into the life of the Polish nation which eschews Jews and their needs and aspirations. Anti–Semitism is at everyone's mouth, the Jew is restricted from any ability to sustain himself, feelings of security and tranquillity have been disrupted. The Youth saw itself as an unwanted article, unsure of its fate, its future and its existence, so it should have come as no surprise to see a powerful nationalistic awakening pound in our breasts. Have the nearing sounds of our Salvation shown us the way we should follow? The readiness to leave the town that only a short time earlier was seen as the centre of our lives should not be surprising at all. We left it with a light heart, without regrets or longings. But our hearts ached to leave parents and family in their plight, without hope of improving their lot. Their letters were laden with expressions of Job bein haShitin [heb, biblical reference. doom and gloom], one evil decree followed another, and the attacks on their very existence became more and more frequent, until the hurried and bitter end….

[Page 139]

This was Suchowola

by Shoshana Levinsky (Shpecht)

Suchowola was a typical small Jewish town in all of its ways. It had few wealthy residents but many poor ones. Anxiety regarding the next day's sustenance was common to all, the conditions forced them to work hard and to make do with very little. Heads of families, their wives and their eldest children, together they bore the burden of sustenance. And they were not always successful in finding bread to satiate their hunger or to provide clothing. Jews made a living one from another or dealt a barter trade with the local peasants.

In our town people were known by the names of their deceased fathers. For example, “Khatskel Taives”. His mother was “Khaitze Leibes”, and her son was called “Leibel Khaitzes”.

All of the Jews were connected and dependent upon one another, as one large family from one ancestor. So it was natural to experience “familial” conflicts. With every incident that took place in the town, everyone took part insofar as it was relevant to them.

When it came to elect the new Town Rabbi, all of the town would congregate as one. Young and old, male and female, everyone would rush to the Synagogue to hear the Rabbi's speech. And for weeks afterward everyone argued and voiced their opinions about the Rabbi and his speech.

When celebrating a Bris Milah [heb: ritual circumcision] in our family, most of the town participated in the celebration. And in days of mid–winter and snows, Grandfather would saddle up the horse to the sleigh and collect the old and the weak so they could join in the celebrations.

When a family sailed to America or made Aliyah, the whole town accompanied them until the village of Karpovitch, and when they returned everyone felt heart pangs for the family that had departed.

The aspirations of most young people were to make Aliyah. On one occasion I saw our neighbour, Khatskel Moshes, fixing his roof. I asked him “Is it worth your while investing money in fixing this roof, after all soon in our days all of the Jews will make Aliyah?” The shrewd Jew answered me sternly: “I'm fixing the roof so that we don't catch cold during the winter, so that we may all merit to make Aliyah….”

The young would fantasise and dream in communal meetings, in a “branch” or a literary circle, or the house of a welcoming family where old and young could mingle. Such a home was that of Hanna and Tuvia Stotchinsky, where anyone could feel welcome. The householder himself, Tuvia (Taive), would mingle smilingly and with a hearty laugh join in discussion or tell jokes. The mother – Hanna –was one of “ours”. She would participate in our discussions and pass to us her wisdom and her life experience.

When a Zionistic emissary would visit, he would gather us round a table and we would listen spell–bound to his tales.

To an outsider Suchowola seemed a boring and barren wasteland, but the truth us, that life was brimful with excitement and activity.

The Drama society added a lot to the life of the town. They would practise and prepare months in advance of the play, which though it took place in Tuvia (Taives) Khatses's cellar, for us it was a grand theatre hall. Each play was a major event in the town.

Following the great fire of 1926, our family moved to Warsaw, and to my delight I discovered that the knowledge I had gained in Suchowola was no less than that of the city dwellers. I considered this to be a compliment to our town.

[Page 141]

My Childhood in the town

by Hayya Suchowolsky (Barkai)

Life was hard for my parents, but my father Alter the Engraver, was happy with his lot. All the neighbours respected him and loved to be in his presence, and would gather at our house on Sabbath eves. My mother was good and modest woman, and everyone loved and respected her. No poor person left her door empty handed, she gave charity even during the tough times. She died young, only 36, and from that time our elder sister – Sarah–Leah became mother and sister combined.

After the death of our mother and our brother Moshe–Leibel, a sadness descended on our house. But there were also days of happiness, for example the days leading up to the festival of Passover. We baked Matzos at our house and the gaiety was amongst both us and our neighbour's children. I particularly loved the preparations, when they would prepare the oven and invite Elka the cook as a Knetterke'h [Yiddish: kneader] and the usual Velgerke's [Yiddish: beaters]. All of the children took part in the work to earn our sustenance for the festival. My role was to distribute the water and the neighbour's children were particularly envious of this. Father would abandon his job during the Matzo baking season and become a baker. And in the days running up to the festival we would “turn the house upside down”, whitewash the walls, clean up and lock away the leaven. I particularly loved the act of bringing down the utensils from the attic, the night of Passover and the “theft” of the afikoman [heb: based on Greek language “epikomen” or “epikomion” [επί Κομός], meaning “that which comes after” or “dessert” is a half–piece of [[matzo]] which is broken in two during the early stages of the [[Passover Seder]] and set aside to be eaten as a dessert after the meal].

My schooling years were the best years of my life. The new school building had not yet been built. Classes were held at the house of Khaik'eh Uzziel's, the house of Shim'on Morin (Brazzaver), and in the “shtiebel”[ Yiddish: “little house” or “little room” is a place used for communal Jewish prayer. In contrast to a formal [[synagogue]], a shtiebel is far smaller and approached more casually. It is typically as small as a room in a private home or a place of business which is set aside for the express purpose of prayer, or it may be as large as a small–sized synagogue. It may or may not offer the communal services of a synagogue] beside the Beis Midrash. No one looked forward to studying in the Shtiebel because of a rumour that ghosts and spirits occupied the holy closet housing the Torah scrolls. It was pleasant to learn at Khaik'eh Uzziel's. There was a lack of classrooms so the children had to learn in two shifts. Electrical power had not yet come, so we learnt in the light of paraffin lamps that were not always lit. Though we dearly loved our teacher Levinzon, we would nevertheless find all sorts of ways to disturb him during class, and sometimes would manage to while away an idle hour in an unlit room where the lamps had been duly tampered with. Every Friday our teacher Levinson would travel home to Yanova [Janów, Poland, about 16.5km South–East of Suchowola], and when he would sometimes be delayed on his return on Sunday morning for whatever reason, we would all rejoice. In 1928 we experienced a particularly harsh winter. The snow storms were such that we couldn't go to school for two weeks, and when we returned to our studies we still found high mounds of snow that we would slide down all the way to the “Morad”. Yet there were other times when studies were taken more seriously and proceeded without disturbances of any kind.

I loved Suchowola and well after I made Aliyah still got attacks of nostalgia and longing for the township.


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