History of Jałówka

Jałówka is situated in a densely forested area on an old trade route from Minsk to Warsaw, 54 km from the regional seat of Białystok, and through which flows the Jałówka River. The town was founded at the beginning of the 16th century by Queen Bona, wife of King Zygmunt I, and in 1548 was granted its city charter by King Zygmunt August. In 1795, it was annexed to Prussia and in 1807 was incorporated into the Russian Empire. Jałówka was not connected to the railway network, and its economy remained characteristically rural: its residents earned their livelihoods from agriculture, light commerce and from workmanship. After WWI, Jałówka was included in independent Poland, and with the outbreak of WWII (September 1939) came under Soviet control. At the end of July 1941, it was conquered by the Nazis, and after three years was liberated by the Soviet Army.

The first Jews settled in Jałówka at the end of the 18th century. In 1870, the community consisted of 400 people. Their sources of livelihood were light commerce, and various skills—principally carpentry and tailoring—yet there were among them also bakers, butchers, coopers (barrel makers) and many wagoners (Jałówka's form of transportation and hauling from which wagons were harnessed to horses). The Jews lived in the area of the market and maintained stores and stands there. Aside from their homes, they kept small animal pens and vegetable patches for their own use; sometimes a cow, goat, or a horse. At the end of the 19th century, the number of Jews approached its peak—approximately 750 people (56.7% of the general population)—but from then on the number decreased as a result of emigration and departure for the large cities.

In the first years, there was no independent Jewish community in Jałówka, and the Jews belonged to the community of Svisloch (6 miles east,: now in Belarus). In the first half of the 19th century, with the growth of their number, they established a kehillah (Jewish community); sanctified a cemetery outside of town; and built a wooden synagogue, with a Talmud Torah (religious study for children) class and beit midrash (religious study for adults). In the synagogue the well-to-do prayed, and the beit midrash t even served the craftsmen and simple folks. Aside from a hevra kaddisha (burial society), charity and assistance groups, such as Hachnasat Orchim (Welcoming Strangers), Hachnasat Kala (Welcoming the Bride) and others were also active in Jałówka. The head of the kehillah at the beginning of the 19th century was Rabbi Meir; and from among the rabbis, known to us, which succeeded him are Rabbi Eliyahu Tzvi Horwitz; Rabbi Yitzhak Danzig; Rabbi Ya'acov Meir Halperin, who moved on to Woronów; and from 1904, Rabbi Ya'acov Tzvi Podorowsky (died in 1931).

Photo courtesy of Tomasz Wisniewski

In WWI, Jałówka was conquered by the Germans. During their three years of rule (1915–18), the town was in a state of distress, shortages and hunger. Open commerce was prohibited and food was distributed in starvation rations to the populace. Many were drafted into forced labor. The Jews received little assistance from their relatives in countries across the sea or from the American Joint [Distribution Committee], and only thanks to their own vegetable gardens were they saved from outright starvation. The Germans opened schools—in German—in the town in which all the town's children were obligated to study. Jewish students were allotted a few weekly hours for religious and Hebrew studies. In time, along with the economic restrictions, the Germans carried out certain liberalizations and allowed a public life and even [political] party activity. In the heat of WWI, the Jews elected a new community committee, in free democratic elections.

In the years of the War, many Jews escaped to Russia, emigrated to other countries or to large cities; and not all returned to the town at the end of the War. In the 1921 census, the first after the War, 588 Jews were counted, and their ratio to the general population decreased to slightly less than half. In the period of independent Poland, the Jews of Jałówka carried on their traditional skills—commerce and skilled craftsmanship. Market day served as the focus for economic activity in the town. Zionist activism was found in Jałówka in those years, and branches of several parties and youth groups sprung up. On the eve of the 11th Zionist Congress (1931) there were, in Jałówka, 39 voting delegates. The non-Zionist Bund was active in the town, as well. The private cheders (religious schools) and Talmud Torah were re-opened after the War, and according to the Polish Education Law, Polish language courses, math and other general subjects were added. Girls studied in the town's Polish elementary school. Subsequently, a Yiddish elementary school was opened, belonging to the Zisha network. In 1931, Rabbi Ya'acov Tzvi Podorowsky died, and the title passed to his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Podorowsky.

Photo courtesy of Tomasz Wisniewski

On the eve of WWII, young Jews as well were drafted into the Polish Army. In September 1939, the Red Army entered Jałówka and a Soviet regime was instituted. Private stores were closed or nationalized, and in their place government cooperative stores were opened. Merchants and shopkeepers who had been forced from their professions were employed, in their distress, in the cooperative stores and the rest were moved into new jobs. Craftsmen organized guilds ("ertels"), per their craft, and young people were even appointed to clerical jobs in the Communist administration and party. Local education underwent Sovietization, and the youth left for high school or technical studies outside of Jałówka. Some young Jews studied at the Teachers Seminary. Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territories and Western Poland flooded Jałówka in the first weeks of the War. Some stayed in the town, but most were sent to work in the hinterland of the Soviet Union.

At the end of June 1941, Jałówka was conquered by the Germans. A few Jews managed to escape to the Soviet Union, trailing the Red Army soldiers and government administrators. A slew of edicts were imposed on the Jews: the obligation to wear the yellow star, prohibition to walk on the sidewalk, a ban on contacts with non-Jews and recruitment for forced labor. The Jews were used in harsh labor and suffered from hunger and shortages. The Germans confiscated wagons, horses, farm animals and other property from the Jews, and imposed upon them ransom payments which turned them destitute.

Photo courtesy of Tomasz Wisniewski

In the Fall of 1942, 600 Jews were left in Jałówka. On November 2, 1942, SS men, German gendarmes and Ukrainian policemen encircled the town and concentrated the Jews in the market square. Many tried to hide or to escape but almost all of them were discovered and shot. Wagoners from neighboring villages transported the Jews to abandoned Kasrektin near Volkovysk in which Jews from the whole province were concentrated prior to being sent to the death camps. After the departure of the convoy, the Germans and their helpers renewed the hunt for those hiding and shot them in the place in which they were found. In the transit camp, the Jews were housed in stables and moldy trenches, in cramped, cold and damp conditions. The daily food allotment included 100 grams of stale bread and soup, made from rotten beets (intended for animal feed). Mortality from hunger and disease was high, principally among the children. On December 2, 1942 the residents of the camp were sent to Treblinka and killed in the gas chambers. A few young people remained in the camp to sort and place in storage the belongings of those deported. A young man from Jałówka survived through the end of the War and served as witness to the consequences of the members of the community. After the expulsion, Jałówka was declared to be Judenrein (free of Jews). The beit midrash was dismantled and transferred piece by piece to Dublany (approx. 2 miles north), where it was reconstructed and served as a warehouse. The synagogue of Jałówka was burned down by the Germans in the summer of 1944, prior to their withdrawal.

[Translated by David Gordon from Pinkas HaKehillot, Poland, Volume 8, published by Yad Vashem and used with their permission.]