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Memories of Ostroleka

Excerpts from the Ostroleka Yizkor Book, translated by David Silverman


Memoirs by Meyer Margolis

In 1915 we were thrown out of our city,after a year of fear caused by cannon bombardment and wild Czarist soldiers, who, in fleeing the front, robbed, brutalized and murdered Jews. All this led to an order, issued one morning, that all occupants must leave the city.

I remember a wagon and two horses at our door with cushions and other household items plus the meager good things that we could salvage.

This was a fearful picture for a child of 9 - hundreds of wagons, others on foot with their meager packs on their shoulders,fear-filled faces, sick people. Others who could not make it on their own were aided by people who had wagons - no compensation was asked for. And so this stretched out on the dirt road to Ostrow. A similar fate fell on hundreds of other shtetls.

For a year we wandered, and we heard that our town was burned down, with a very few houses left standing. Fortunately those who returned to Ostroleka found refuge in the famous "Benedans barracks".

My family had found refuge in Lomza where we stayed until our return to Ostroleka. All of us rode into town in a wagon. A light rain was falling - what we saw was chimneys, broken houses and walls and balconies hanging by a hair. We drove to the shul gas [Synagogue Street] where we used to live, right opposite the great shul. As we drove into the street we saw the ruins, including our house. We all stood in front of our house, sobbing. This picture repeated itself for every returning family.

The first night, I remember, my eyes never closed. The wind whistled through the cracks. The next morning I went into the street and found friends who had also returned. People who had buried things for safekeeping, before the evacuation, were digging.

And so, little by little, our shtetl returned to life. Relations between the Germans and the Jews were good. Stores began to reopen. Workshops began to operate, and those who had a little cash slowly rebuilt their homes. Also at that time, a great iron bridge was built over the Narev, which put a lot of people to work. (The old wood bridge had been destroyed.) Political parties and cultural groups began reorganizing.

The German occupiers trusted the Jewish residents over the Christians because of the similarity between the German language and the Yiddish and most Jews spoke German as well. "After all, what is German, but a bad Yiddish!". Soon there were Jewish militiamen.

I remember very much the "yashkelikhe". In one room was the library with several large beautiful siddur (Prayer book) bookcases and Itzhak Lev was the librarian. Soon the two rooms were filled with youngsters seeking books, discussing books,etc. A choir was organized, a drama section formed and soon the ruins did not bother us as much. In the evenings, everyone, storekeepers, maids, et al went to their clubs or to the synagogue for classes. We began to seek lecturers. The theater was full of people. Different troups and artists sought out our shtetls, for instance Anna Jacobowitz, Avrum Itzhak Kaminsky and Julius Adler.

Aside from the efforts of the various political groups, work was going on for worthwhile causes such as the communal kitchen, which served 100 lunches a day to the needy. There were Jews who had income but there were many poor Jews. Help was arranged for the sick. The peoples kitchen help entertained the poor with amateur shows. Young people's groups met also in private homes.

In 1918 when the Germans left Poland and the Poles took back the regime, a war broke out with the Bolshevists. Things then took a turn for the worse. Jewish youth were then mobilized into the army thus depriving Jewish families of their young sons and sources of income.

The United States was the only supporter of Poland and its Jews. The Jews had to look out for themselves.

Although no democratic election was held,personable and energetic townspeople, including Velvel Chacek, oversaw the community and its needs, but it was not an easy task. The Jewish group did not have its own building. Meetings were held in members' homes. Nobody had official standing. Rebuilding had commenced, and amongst the first things was the re-establishment of the Zionist groups and the library. Another problem was the buying of wheat, particularly Passover wheat.

A large emigration to Israel (then called Eretz-Israel or Palestine) occurred which weakened the Zionist leadership. Their successors were not agreeable to upholding that which their predecessors had built up. However news that followed from Eretz-Israel was not good - joblessness and Arab problems. Bad news was published daily about life under the British mandate government.

Because of the bad news from Israel the "Bund" grew stronger in Ostroleka. Many people returned from Eretz-Israel and became active in the Bund.

It was not long before there was again destruction of our lives. That was the Bolshevist invasion of Poland in 1920. As always, the Jews were first "in the fire". The Russian Red Army quickly left Poland, and the Polish regime, especially the anti-semites (never missing in Poland) took revenge against the Jews, but through it all, the youth tried to live a normal life.

I recall an evening, at the Gutman family's house,which was a fateful time in my personal life. It was an ordinary evening, when I and a group of other youths were spending a social evening at that house, having discussions, singing as a group, etc., when we heard something very familiar outside. Police had surrounded the house and proceeded to arrest all of us and brought us to City Hall. We had to spend the night at the police station - we were accused of communism and the singing of Bolshevik songs. But the inquiry against us showed that this was a lie and we were released. This incident cast fear in the entire shtetl. I started reading about leaving Poland, but my parents felt I was too young to go out into the big world alone - that I should continue my education and to learn a trade. But I was straining to make Aliyah to Israel. I agreed to learn the locksmith trade in Lomza, but I vowed to get my passport preparatory to making Aliyah.

More than 13 years have passed since I left Ostroleka. The tie with my family was by mail. Some friends who also made aliyah but returned to Ostroleka met their eventual fate with those who had remained behind.

One of my friends who made Aliyah and remained was David Lev, with whom I was very close. He and I both joined the Haganah. I joined a theatrical group in Tel Aviv and David worked as a locksmith in Jerusalem. We kept in touch, but in 1929, I found his name in a Haganah obituary notice! At that time many of my friends returned to Ostroleka.

In 1934 my theater group traveled to Europe for guest performances. After performances in Paris, London, Brussels,and in cities in Italy and Switzerland, we went to Poland. It was 12 midnight when we arrived at the border. My compatriots went on to Warsaw and I headed to Ostroleka. I spent the night in Lomza, wiring home that I would be there the next morning.

During the hours that I spent strolling the streets of Lomza, they appeared provincial as opposed to my childhood recollection that they were very,very important.

All the way to Ostroleka my eyes never strayed from gazing at the tiny villages we passed through. Getting closer to Ostroleka I recognized the prison on the right side, which Jewish children used to dodge with fear, not to pass there. On the left the large sports arena, which looked a lot larger than when I left after World War 1. Also the public school where I spent my younger years looked better to me.

Soon I saw a great crowd of people, friends,and acquaintances and family members who welcomed me warmly. Unfortunately I could not tarry longer than 3 days because my show was opening in Warsaw. But in those few days I found that the city was rebuilt more beautiful than previous, the streets paved with cobblestones - but the youth were impatient and nervous. Everyone spoke of Eretz-Israel, America, Argentina, Uruguay. Those who had travel money were envied.

The reviews of our show went to the Jewish and Polish press in all the cities of the Province including Ostroleka. I was asked to do the show in Ostroleka, which I did, alone - without the rest of the troupe. The proceeds went to assist those who needed money to travel to Eretz-Israel.

My last day in Ostroleka was Simchat-Torah. It was a cheerful time.

So I remember my beloved Ostroleka.

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