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A History of Ostroleka

Translated by David Silverman, from the Ostroleka Yizkor Book published 1963 in Tel Aviv
[Editor's notes in brackets]

Ostroleka in Ancient Poland

Ostroleka,an ancient settlement, located on the Narev River and near a large forest, was founded in the 14th Century. The city was elevated to the category of a city by the local "Mazavsher" Duke, and it thrived. Certain rights and privileges of use were granted. A bath,a barber shop and fairs are mentioned. There is no evidence of Jewish residents when the city was founded.

Later History:

With privileges granted by the Mazavsher Duke Conrad in 1502,a shoemakers guild was formed by the local craftsmen. Shoddy workmanship was to be dealt with by the guild through its elders. However the Duke, or his successor, retained the right to fine the guilty, if the elders did not act on a timely basis.

After its incorporation into the Kingdom of Poland [early to mid-16th century?], the city was raised to the status of a starastve [county] and into a lifelong lease to King Bono, who decreed in 1552 the relationship that would exist between the inhabitants and the staraste[county executive], whose name was Mik. The citizens were given certain work freedoms [e.g. not required to work as peasants];allowed to go without permits, nor did they have to pay tribute to the staraste in the form of beer,etc. However they were required to provide him with chickens on holidays. They were allowed to cut dry wood from non-productive trees,and use it for heating.

Historians wrote in 1564, that in 1563 all the 334 houses in Ostroleka completely burned to the ground and then rebuilt.

In 1578 new laws were decreed for the guild.

Sigmund the Third established written regulations in 1622 concerning merchants and the brewing trade,all of which were written in Polish by the elders of the guilds. August the Third, in the "privileges" of 1745, pronounced or allowed religious freedom to the Jews as well as the Christians, and also required respect to visitors. Travelling was forbidden prior to the completion of morning prayers. Also prohibited was the buying or selling anything before 8 A.M. Also as to the buying of grain and other life-sustaining goods, the city people had advance warning ahead of outsiders and particularly ahead of Jews. For the greater need of the city, three additional fairs were established.

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Nineteenth Century:

In 1808 there were 99 Jews in Ostroleka out of a total population of 2,036.

On April 25,1826 a special decree restricted Jews to living within certain quarters of the city, except that wealthy Jews who paid taxes were allowed to buy land and live in areas forbidden to the ordinary Jew. By 1827 the Jewish population had grown to 496 out of a total population of 3,030. By 1857 Jews numbered 1,128 out of a total population of 3371 [33.5%]. In 1862 this law was voided and Jews were allowed to live in all quarters of the city and they were also permitted, from that time on, to buy baths and to buy various other good things. During this time the Jewish population grew, helped by those coming into the city from neighboring little towns.

Circa 1865-1867, Ostroleka was the provincial capital in the Palatzker gubernia [province of the Russian Empire]. In the city there were 192 homes, 2 horse-stables,a courthouse, the provincial chief's office, the forest official, a salt storage facility,a hospital, post office elementary and girl's schools and 6 fairs were held there every year. The province at that time had seven cities: Andzsheyev, Brock, Tshizshev, Mishenitze, Nur, Ostrolenka and Ostrow. Other provincial facilities were 7 elementary schools, a police court, 23 breweries,10 turpentine factories,12 watermills and 50 windmills. Also in the province were 39,831 head of cattle, an amber mine and 83,967 inhabitants, of which 11,040 were Jews.

By 1897 the Jewish population grew to 4,564 out of a total population of 7,965 [57.3%].

Twentieth Century:

By 1909 the Jewish population totalled 6,219. By the time the first world war broke out, the Ostroleka Kehilah [Jewish Community] had reached a high level of economic and cultural achievement and was the third largest Kehilah in the Lomza gubernia. An important factor in the development of the city was the Russian military camp which was within the city. Many Jewish "padratshikes" [individuals with a license to sell provisions to the Army] put together provisions and supplies for them. Being close to the east-Prussian border, Ostroleka was a mid-point in the field of commerce and economic ventures and thus outgrew the other towns in the gubernia, who had no train service until 1915.

With the outbreak of WW1,Ostroleka suffered. Due to its proximity to the battlefield, Ostroleka was the first to be destroyed. In 1915, the Russians left the town and burned it down, leaving only 8-10 houses standing. Many Jews fled the city upon the defeat of the Russian military. Many became homeless in White Russia and many others settled in nearby cities such as Ostrow, Warsaw and others.

In 1916,under German occupation, people started returning to the city,finding ruins, but started rebuilding..Relations between the Jews and the occupying Germans was good, particularly because their Yiddish was so close to the German language. Some rebirth occurred, but the Kehilah was never restored to its former standing. In 1921 [not all Jews had yet returned] the Jewish population was 3352 [36.7% of the total population]. Because of the fallen state of the city and economic pressure on the Jews throughout Poland in the 20's and 30's migration of the Jews increased.

By 1924, the Jewish community was counted into the larger community, and they had a managing committee membership of 8 in a city council of 12. The last election was held in 1936.The chairman of this managing committee was Mendl Gedanken (a general Zionist), Vice-Chairman was Wolf Leib Barshtsh (Agudah), and the members were: Ally Bayuk (Labor Zionist), Notte Barman (Artisans), Itzhak Rosanowitz (Mizrachi), Shloime Rutski (Agudah), I.Shafran (Rightist Labor Zionist), and Abraham Piastetshni. The meetings of the council were peaceful.

The kehilah staff consisted of the Rabbi, his representatives, 3 schochets [ritual slaughterers] and 6 clerks. The kehilah had religious society institutions such as a talmud torah, a Yeshiva and a khevra-kedusha [burial society].

In 1931 the Jewish population was 4,291 and in 1939, 4,900.

World War 2:

[excerpted from the Encyclopedia Judaica] Ostroleka was occupied by the Germans in 1939. Jews were physically attacked and Jewish property confiscated. On Simchat Torah 1939, the Jewish community was given three days to cross into the Soviet Sector. During this expulsion many were killed. The Jews were scattered throughout the Soviet sector and somr found refuge in Bialystok, Slonim, Lomza and other cities.Administrative restrictions were placed on them and then in 1940 many families were deported to the Soviet interior. Those who remained in the Soviet occupied sector of Poland fell into the hands of the Germans after the the outbreak of Soviet-German was on June 22,1941 and suffered persecution as did the local Jews, forced labor, starvation,diseases and finally extermination.

Jews from Ostroleka were active in the resistance movements in the Vilna and Baranovickie ghettos. Some also joined the partisans and fought in Puczcza Naliboki and surrounding area.

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