Life on the Colony
There are currently only three documents describing the life led by the Jewish colonists of Kolonja Izaaka. Two are the childhood memories of women who left the Kolonja in the 1930s, both published in the Yizkor Book of nearby Sokółka in 1968. The third is a sketch of Kolonja life in Salomon Salit's book.
In her essay in the Sefer Sokolka, Sarah Ekshteyn Chinsky describes many of the specifics of day-to-day life, and also captures some of the flavor of living in the Kolonja - particularly of being a teen there. She recalls the teachers in the cheder, preparations for market day, the sound and feel of Shabbos, and the community of young people that centered around the Kolonja youth:
Our dear young people numbered, takeh, rather few. But appreciate this fully – we drew the attention of all the villages around, and their many young people from around the province frequented our Kolonye. In the evening, when our young men and women were still in the fields, who should arrive for a visit but a whole company of Krinker meydlach and bechoyrim, of Amdurer chevreh, and of Sokolkers. Just as if they had all agreed to organize a surprise for the Kolonye youth. Suddenly, like thunder and lightning it would start, and our youth would come hurriedly back from the field, their sickles and scythes in their hands and with empty waterskins which one used to take with to revive the heart from heat and fatigue. Soon all the youth had assumed a general yontifdik appearance, had greeted all the guests, eaten, drunk, sung and danced until late at night. Then would come the question of how each person would get home. So they would all take themselves out and sleep in the haylofts.
The second essay is by Ms. Chinsky's sister, Menuchah Ekshteyn Shmilovitz. Ms. Shmilovitz's memories are those of a small child at the time: delight in her father taking her to the fields, comfort when the elderly Chaneh-Basheh would say prayers with the children on stormy nights, and wonderment and fear when an automobile would, on extremely rare occasions, pass through the one road of the town.
In Chapter 11 of Salomon Salit's Kolonja Izaaka: Wies Powiatu Sokolskiego, the author describes the houses, food, clothing, and social and religious life of the colonists. An excerpt from that chapter was translated into English and posted on line in 2007 by the town of Sokółka. Here is that translation, including the introductory paragraph:
During the interwar period, the Jews of Sokółka region were also involved in farming. The inhabitants of the settlement of Kolonia Izaaka (Isaac’s Colony) in the Odelsk Common, were later murdered by the Nazis. In the words of agricultural engineer Mr Salomon Salit…
The settlement is divided by a broad avenue planted with poplars, with the buildings on both sides of the road... [T]he houses are built of timber with thatched or shingle roofs. There is also a two storey brick house belonging to the owner of brickworks. Houses usually consist of two rooms… The rooms are relatively spacious. The number of rooms depends on the wealth of a householder. Better off ones have 2 or 3 rooms, and also a special day room (świetlica) used to receive visitors. The rooms are furnished in a variety of ways. The poor have only a few benches, a table and a few beds… For example in the house of one of the richest landowners (the village headman) one enters through the porch into the large kitchen with two windows. On the weekdays, the inhabitants take their meals and spend most of their leisure time here. A doorway leads from the kitchen to a day room, which has three windows and the wallpaper covered walls. The furniture here consists of a big table covered with a nice tablecloth, chairs, a big wardrobe with a mirror (purchased in Białystok), a wall clock, portraits of the relatives living in America in fancy frames; the window sills are adorned by many potplants, on the side board there is a gramophone with the religious and folk music records.
There’s also a tile stove in this room; all in all resembling town conditions. On the Holy Days inhabitants of the house feast in the dayroom and also entertain their guests here. From the day room, we proceed to the bedroom where there’re big oaken beds all made up and covered with bedspreads. A small locker and various knick-knacks complement the decor. Everything is kept fastidiously clean and tidy.
The farm buildings are usually attached to the house… If we can stress generally hygienic and clean condition of residential buildings, the same cannot be said about the buildings housing farm animals…
We can immediately tell the neighbourhood peasantry from the Colonists by the homespun fabric clothing that the former are wearing; only the better off ones wear “town” clothing on holidays. The Colonists do not use homespun clothing at all, but exclusively factory made products. Their holiday clothing is no different from such as is worn in towns…Whereas, the peasants seldom use footwear, usually preferring to go about barefoot or in so called “clogs”, Jewish Colonists in the main…wear boots, and on holidays, some of them even put shoes on…
The local Colonists are generally healthy and seldom fall ill. Death at an early age is unusual. Only one family
suffers from congenital tuberculosis, of which a 20-odd year-old youth has died recently…
The meals are usually taken three times a day. There are major variations in eating habits, which are
dependent on the season.
In the summer, breakfast usually consists of cream with onion, coffee and gruel. The poorer residents limit themselves only to gruel, porridge or some kind of soup. The dinner consists of potatoes with sour milk and soup. For supper they will have noodles with milk, and often blini. During the winter, breakfast consists of herring with potatoes, coffee or tea, barley soup or gruel with lard [sic]. For dinner, almost every day, the richer residents eat meat with some kind of gruel. The poorer ones limit themselves to soup with noodles or broth.
The evening meal during the winter consists of tea with bread and butter with cheese or scrambled eggs; the potatoes are eaten by less well off Colonists. In the summer more dairy products are eaten, with meat dishes consumed only on holidays. [H]ome baked bread is commonly eaten. On Mondays, the wealthier residents buy white bread in Sokolka.
The Colonists have their own dietary habits and customary foods. On Friday evenings, they usually consume meat dishes, with rolls instead of bread. A dish known as cymes [tsimmes] - made from stewed turnips and carrots is commonly eaten. This name (cymes) has been adapted by the neighbouring people to describe any tasty dishes in general. On Saturday, after prayers, ‘czolant’ is served for dinner, this is a specifically Jewish dish, consisting of potatoes, fatty meat and beans or some kind of gruel, stewed in a bread oven overnight…
Intoxicating liquors are not used in general, perhaps exceptionally on holidays…
The Colonists pay particular attention to the upbringing of children. Up to the age of 13, they are taught by a “malamed” (a religious teacher)… Apart from the religious education, the children also receive general education at 7- year primary school in Odelsk. The Jewish children show particular talents for mathematics and science, they are less gifted in humanist subjects. Very characteristic for the Colony is complete absence of illiteracy, for even though some are not able to read and write in Polish, everyone knows Hebrew sufficiently well...
The Colonists are religious; their religiousness tends to increase with age. There is a wooden prayer house in the Colony. Religious services are performed by the Odelsk rabbi, who at the same time acts for Isaac’s Colony. The burden of rabbi’s upkeep is partly shared by the Colonists. They bury their deceased at the Odelsk cemetery…
The goodwill of the Colony residents is striking. In almost every dwelling, several money boxes can be seen, be it for collecting the money for Jewish National Fund in Palestine or for assorted yeshivot etc. The needy will always be provided with a piece of bread and some money. In the hour of need they willingly help their neighbours, regardless of whether they are Jews or Christians. Because of this, they enjoy great popularity amongst their Christian neighbours, who often ask for their advice or help.
The local Colonists are exceptionally aware socially and politically. For many years now, the Colony has been administered by a Jew, who performs the duties of a Headman to the highest standard. This has been confirmed by the local authorities in Sokolka (Starostwo) in their request to the Government to grant an award to the six local Headmen; in the second place was Wulf Asz - former Headman of the Colony. At present this position is held by Mojsze Knyszewicki. All Colonists consider themselves as belonging to the Jewish ethnic group and declare Zionist sympathies at all elections.
Translated by Waldemar Daszuta.
Acc. To ‘Sokólskie Zeszyty Historyczne’ No 2 July 1991, ed. Mikołaj Talarczyk
Photo at top of page: Knyszewicze, another nearby one-road farming town. Photo by Irwin Keller, 2007.
Photo mid-right: A hut in Odelsk. Photo by Tomasz Wisniewski.
Copyright © 2009 Irwin Keller