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An Historical Discourse
Written in Polish by R. Palevski.
Translated by David Silverman z"l
We don't know exactly when Ostroleka was first formed as a "shtot" [city] but the first indications appear in the 16th Century when Baleslav the Second divided his realm amongst his sons. Old documents indicate that the Ostroleka portion went to Ziemavicz the Third. In 1502, Conrad Mazavietski set up guilds. In 1563 a terrible fire broke out which destroyed almost the entire city.
Old documents from 1826 provide evidence that Ostroleka was a poor "shtetl" [small town] of 316 houses, of which only 15 were of masonry, and the population was 2562 (including 480 Jews,of which 142 were employed in agriculture-the others in handwork or trade). From other writings we see that most all handwork and trade was by the Jews. In town there was an amber factory. Townspeople by profession were: 24 bakers, 3 millers, 3 furriers,3 hatmakers, 33 shoemakers, 11 potters, 17 butchers, 17 tailors, 7 "kesslers" [boilermakers], 3 locksmiths, 3 hatband makers, 2 turners, 1 clockmaker, 1 knitter, 2 glaziers, 2 merchants, 9 shopkeepers, etc.
Ostroleka developed strongly in the years 1878-1896 when they began building Polish Czarist military facilities in the area. Further development occurred when the railroad came to Ostroleka.
In 1860 there were 192 houses in Ostroleka with a Jewish population of 1130 out of a total of 3460.
By 1895 the general population was up to 7776 (the number of Jews and houses is not known).
The significant growth of the Jewish population between 1825 and 1860 raises the question of whether the Jewish population lived together in one neighborhood of the city and where? What part did the Jews play in the life of the city? And what effect did this growth have on the building of the city?
We have at our disposal various sources concerning the population figures,such as "Jews in Ostroleka and the Compensation for Injuries after the War of 1843" and the "Geographic-Mathematic Dictionary" by M.Vizchovski.
Although the counts may not agree with each other, there is nothing to undermine the numbers. There was an unquestioned growth after the Polish revolt of 1830-31. From all of our information available about the Jewish population of Ostroleka, we can say that its participation in city life and in the history of the city had two clear self-evident stages: a. Before the revolt and after. As to the stage before the revolt, we know little about the count and position of the Jewish population in the different periods of the history of the city. Nevertheless it must be said that at the end of the 18th century there was a decided change in wealth and employment. Supported by ethnographic material, we firmly believe that they had at their disposal greater monetary means and they stepped out, on the threshold between the 18th and the 19th Century, as a factor in the investments in agriculture and the installation of water-dams on the Amulev and other tributaries of the Narev. And also as to the placing and development of water-mills and "bleacher?" places, blacksmith shops, etc. At the end of the 18th C. there were small and medium Jewish financiers from Ostroleka, who were tied in with world industries. We have information that they were actively financing industry. At the same time, Jews worked at making and transporting tar, making potash and charcoal, transporting timber over the rivers and even explored for and mined amber. It is without any doubt, that this category of the Jewish population had to have played a significant role in gentry of the city and of the entire region.
Independent of this category of the Jewish population, there existed also in Ostroleka wide layers of small shopkeepers and craftsmen. In the city they formed the great majority of the Jewish population, but we cannot say what percentage [of the Jewish population] they were.
On the basis of certain documents, we can establish that, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th C., their activity was tied in with both the city and the surrounding villages, producing articles for daily use (various kinds of ropes, combing and reworking wool, making hats, candles, soap, etc.). They sold their wares house-to-house, or bartered with the village population, mostly for tallow and honey.
The significant growth in Jewish population after the revolt was a phenomenon with many aspects. Although the growth of the Jewish population in the city was tied into the growth of the capitalist system of the country, this phenomenon had its own specific features which were of minor interest in the historical past of the city.
Let me add, that once the border between Prussia and Russia was set, Ostroleka became an important center where there developed a widespread business of smuggling men, horses, haberdashery and other goods. In the period from 1830-1864 that revenues, of the Jewish population who were involved with smuggling, reached such a significant scale that they were even reflected in official statistics.
Now another question arises, just how did growth in the Jewish population reflect in the growth plans of the city? What a pertinent beginning, when particular sections of the city were parceled out for the Jews. If even in the last 20 years of the previous century there had existed a plan to create a distinct partition between the Jewish and the Christian populations, we don't know how extensive that was. Based on the plans for the building of the city at the end of the previous century and on the "regulatory-project of 1878-1886" and also on the plan for the building of the present-day city, we firmly believe that the Jewish population lived in close quarters on the cross-streets between the market [place] and the fairgrounds, and down Kilinski St. and in the region of the milk market. Beyond that street, and in the direction of the church, the border of the Jewish quarter jutted out in many places. The eastern border was Varinski St. The Jewish population did not grow much to the south.
In 1915 the city had a population of 14,000, of which 6,000 were Jews.
During the German occupation [World War 1] there were also these schools: a three-class school for Polish children (2 teachers), one Jewish school and 30 kheders [Hebrew primary schools].
A separate tragic event occurred in the history of Ostroleka in the years 1939-1945. The war and the German occupation brought to the city the elimination of the entire Jewish population, the destruction of the entire business and operating apparatus of the city, a scolding and persecution of the Christian population,and the incorporation of the city within the borders of the Third Reich under the name "Sharfenviza"[?] The greatest toll of buidings, those which formerly served as school "places", and institutions that were tightly bound with the Polish state, were rebuilt and converted to industrial useages. The small wooden houses, which formerly housed the poorest Jewish population were burned down and the area flattened.
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Created: November 1997
Last Modified: January 2020
Copyright © 1997 David Silverman