A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN SUWALKI
territory now known as Suwalki
province comprises about
11,000 square kilometers. Located in the Northwestern corner of modern
Poland, the traditional borders included East Prussia to the west, and
to the northeast and south, the Niemen and Bobra rivers, along side the
provinces of Kovno, Vilno and the city of Grodno. To the southwest it
is next to the province of Lomza. It was almost entirely included in
the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until 1386, when it became part of Poland.
The border location between Prussia, Lithuania, and Poland made it the site of continuous warfare, depressing the population and leaving the area rather desolated by the 14th century. A streak of broken treaties during the early part of the 15th century attests to the continued warfare, terrnoil and destruction. The source of the name Suwalki is uncertain. The whole territory much larger than the modem Suwalki was called "SUDUAEN "by the Germans and "Terra Sudorun" in Latin. The old Polish name for Suwalki is Kraj Zapuszczanski, which means the land behind the forest. Some sources think that the name of Suwalki stems from the Lithuanian phrase "Sussi Vilki" which means viscous woods, after the fauna of the deep forest in the region. Lithuanians, who immigrated to the area to escape the impact of the constant wars, made up much of the population when the warfare finally ceased in the 15th century. It was a good refuge from the warring parties, with the deep forests, lakes and swamplands.
Although the early settlers were of many nationalities, the Lithuanians predominated throughout the territory. They probably gave it the name of Suwalki, which also means a gathering of different types of people. In 1667 King Ian Casimir of Poland gave the region to the Catholic Order of the Kamedulans who built their cloister on the peninsula of Lake Wigry, one of the deepest lakes in Poland. For many years the Kamedulans maintained the vital records of the local population. The town developed gradually, in 1667 about 150 years after the settlement was established, Suwalki was not more than a big village. The first church was not erected until 1720. In 1715 the Kamedulan Order freed the Suwalki peasants from serfdom and assigned 300 lots to build a town. In 1720, King Sigmund 11 granted Suwalki the government rights of a municipality.
By 1797 Suwalki had 214 houses and almost 1,200 people. In 1795, the date of the last partition of Poland, Prussia acquired the Suwalki region. In 1807, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonapart, who had defeated Prussia in his wars of European conquest, ordered the incorporation of the Duchy of Warsaw which means back to Polish territory. After Napoleon's final defeat, the Congress of Vienna Treaty of the 21st of April 1815 made the Warsaw Duchy part of Poland and Suwalki was absorbed into the Russian Empire.
In December 1866 the Kingdom of Poland was newly divided into 10 provinces. The Suwalki and Lomza regions were administered as part of Augustow province. After this date, Suwalki became the provincial capital of the Russian gubernia of Suwalki, and remained under Russian rule for more than a 100 years. After the First World War, three counties, Suwalki, Seiny, and Augustow, became part of independent Poland. The other counties in the region were incorporated into the independent country of Lithuania.
People of many national backgrounds lived in the Suwalki region; Lithuanians, Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans and many others. Lithuanians, who lived in the northern parts of the Province, were the largest group. The Lithuanians had their own representative from Suwalki province in the Russian parliament. Some clergyman expressed themselves vehemently in the parliamentary sessions about mistreatment of the Lithuanians by the Poles. The Russians and Poles lived mainly in the less fertile southern part of the province.
The Jews lived in the towns throughout the province. Suwalki was the most important and biggest town in the area, and it was the capital even when it was part of Augustow province. From the second half of the 19th century Suwalki grew at a faster pace than the other towns in the region, due mainly to construction of a highway between Suwalki and Minsk, and construction of the Augustow canal nearby. Before the railroad from Warsaw to St. Petersburg was built, Suwalki was right in the middle of the highway from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, and it was a stopping place for traveling nobility of Russia and Poland. A special house, originally built for the use of royal travelers, in later years became the residence of the governor of Suwalki.
Census figures from this time document the increased pace of growth, in 1856, Suwalki had 10,182 inhabitants, in 1890, there were 19,116 inhabitants, and in 1905, almost 23,000. The exact age of the Jewish settlement in Suwalki is not known. In 1750 the Kamedulan Order meted out a parcel of land to build the town which became Suwalki. At that time they designated a certain street for Jewish residents, but the surviving records show no sign of Jewish life in Suwalki for more than 50 years after that time, unlike the small towns surrounding the city of Suwalki.
It is possible that designation of a separate area in Suwalki was an invitation for Jews from the surrounding area to come there to establish commerce in the city, as Jewish residents had done in the surrounding towns. But either the Jews did not immediately accept this invitation, or it is possible that they lived there for a short time, but were later expelled. As far as the records show, however, even by 1800, Suwalk had no Jewish residents. The contemporary German historian, Hoische, wrote that at the beginning of the 19th century Suwalki was free of Jews. This would be consistent with historical accounts showing that Jews were generally forbidden to live in larger towns in Poland at this time period.
This edict was changed by the Napoleonic conquest and the Polish historian Waszutinski writes that in 1808, 44 Jews lived in Suwalki, the small number indicating that the Jewish settlement had it's beginnings in recent times. Whichever date is chosen, it seems clear that Suwalki, the largest and most important city in the territory, was the youngest of all of the surrounding towns in terms of it's Jewish history. For instance, a small town like Wilkowycz, which could not compare with Suwalki in size and importance, already had a synagogue in 1623, and in the small town of Kalvaria, near Suwalki, there was a Jewish settlement led by Rabbi Aaron Brody 250 years before Jews came to Suwalki.
While the Jewish communities in the smaller towns surrounding Suwalki had stagnated, and in some cases lost population, during the 19th century, due to restrictions, persecutions, and edicts of all kinds, especially by the Russians, the opposite happened to Suwalki where the Jewish community quickly grew to become dominant in both population and influence. The Jewish community in Suwalki also grew from 1823 to 1862, in spite of the fact that there were restrictions on the presence of Jews in many parts of the city. In 1827 the community numbered 1,209 people, in 1856, 6,407, in 1857, 6,687, and in 1862, 7165. There is some debate about the accuracy of these figures which are based upon official census records.
The Polish uprising in 1863 and the famines of 1868 and 1869 and steady growing Jewish immigration away from the area also contributed to the stagnation. During the Polish uprising, the Jews suffered, as always at the hands of both sides, the Cussaks who suppressed them and the revolutionaries who demanded money from the Jewish community. In 1863, the Jewish leaders in Suwalki reluctantly gave in to the demands of the revolutionary forces and imposed a contribution tax of 6,000 rubles upon their community. When the Russian government discovered this, the community leaders were arrested and detained for a considerable period of time. It reminds us of a story of two Cussaks who are fighting and say, you are beating my Jew, I will hit your Jew.
From the 1890's through the first decade of the 20th century there was a new increase in the Jewish population, and by 1908 the census takers counted 13,002 Jews in Suwalki. No surviving records document the economic life of the Jews residing in Suwalki and the vicinity at the beginning of the 19th century. But we can also surmise much from newspapers and books of the period. The town was not economically developed, the opportunities for material advances for the Jews were few and we can assume that they were not particularly well off. This structure changed over time, however, by the middle of the 19th century we come across the names of Jewish merchants who are assuming importance in the local economy.
At the beginning of the 1840's, Jews dominated economic life throughout Augustow province, including Suwalki, so that the Polish governor advised not to initiate military service for Jews because that "could bring the economic down-fall of the area." In 1867 there were 12 Jewish owned factories in the Suwalki area employing 54 Jewish workers. The value of their production, about 16,583 rubles, was small in comparison to the output of Jewish factories in other provinces.
| As Suwalki
to be an important commercial center, and travel through the city
increased, the hotel business became important. Several hotels in
Suwalki were owned by Jewish entrepreneurs. Their progress can be
sketched from advertisements in HaMaggid, a local newspaper. There was
an advertisement printed in German, Hebrew and Yiddish by Moishe
Epstein, proprietor of the Hotel Krakowski, extolling his superb
accommodations; 10 rooms, nice furniture, and kosher meals, to the
merchants of Poland and Russia who might pass through Suwalki on their
business, and guaranteeing their comfort and satisfaction. If not for
the prior years of famine and epidemics, the growth of the population
would have been much greater.
During the second half of the 19th century, many Jews in the surrounding towns near the Prussian border earned their livelihood smuggling merchandise and Jews to East Prussia, at considerable profit. It bears explanation that for much of this time, the movement of Jews over the border was truly a mitzvah since these Jews were frequently fleeing from oppressive decrees and persecution in Russia. In this manner many Jews escaped from poverty, idleness and forced service for 25 years in the Russian army. The Jewish communities of Suwalki and its surrounding little towns underwent episodes of prosperity and peace, as well as times of persecution, hunger and deprivation.
Tzarist Russia was known to have provinces where hunger was rampant causing many victims to suffer. Since Suwalki was on the western frontier of the Tzarist empire, it also experienced, in 1868 through 1870, a severe interlude of hunger at which time many Jews in Suwalki just plain perished. During this period help came from surrounding provinces as well as countries like Prussia where there were Jewish communities that were able to help their brothers to the east. In view of anti-Semitic sentiments of the government and of the population, many Jews from Suwalki and vicinity started to immigrate aboard, mainly to the United States, Sweden, South Africa and South America.
As they prospered, the Jews of Suwalki instituted and organized many charitable institutions. One of these institutions, "Bichor Cholim Linkas Hatsedek", whose mission was to visit the sick and supporting the needy, was among the oldest institutions in Suwalki. Following the period of neglect during the First World War, a first general meeting was called in 1920, at which time it was decided to elect a board of directors. The first director was Mordechai Weisberg. The budget for this institution was significant. The last budget adopted before the 1939 invasion of Suwalki amounted to 7,000 zloty. The members of the management also visited weddings, circumcision ceremonies and many other entertainments to solicit for this institution.
Significant assistance also came from landsmen of Suwalki who lived in America. From 1925 to 1939 many people received help in an anonymous way in order not to embarrass them. The doctors in the city played a very important role in helping out the needy sick ones. The most active were Dr. Weisman, Dr. Strapolsky, Dr. Rosenthal, Dr. Gmbstein, Dr. Preisman, and Dr. Smolinski, who survived the Second World War in a Soviet partisan unit. The First World War did impair the functioning of all of the institutions, and as tile Jews, Who mostly had run away before the advancing troops, had returned after the end Of hostilities, they started to rebuild and to reorganize all of the institutions which had been neglected. All the institutions had been supported mostly by Suwalki's Jewish residents. Rabbi Yoselewich and later the last Suwalki rabbi, David Lifshitz, made speeches and appealed to the community for support of all of these important institutions, as it was an old Jewish tradition for the community to maintain a hospitality house as well as other charitable institutions.
The City of Suwalki was proud to have many religious Institutions among them "The Old Shul", one of Suwalki's oldest institutions which was organized in 1821. Over the entrance were these words "At this gate the righteous may enter". There had been many synagogues and minyans in Suwalki, about 27 in all, and many other organizations included torah study in their activities. In the Bet Hadmidrosh, opposite the synagogue, there was a Gemarah lesson every day. Among the most important institutions in Suwalki were the Jewish hospitals, of which there seem to have been several over the course of the 19th century.
One source indicates that a Jewish hospital was built at the end of 1859 and that the Suwalki community also sent 800 rubles annually to support a Jewish hospital in Warsaw. There was also a famous old age home as well as a Talmud-Torah which was an excellent hebrew public school. This school, founded in 1851 by Yitschajk Isaac Chawaur, the rabbi of Suwalki, was also connected with a Yeshiva. This was the largest existing institution in Suwalki, continuing its operation until it was destroyed in 1939 when the Nazis entered Suwalki and all of the Jews were expelled.
That institution had many famous graduates, well known people who later lived in Israel, and a number of well known Jewish writers and public figures studied there. There also was a very well respected Jewish high school and a Tarbut school for girls. The Jewish community of Suwalki and vicinity was very intensely involved in the Zionism movement. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century and continuing thereafter, quite a large number of Jewish inhabitants immigrated to Palestine. Avraham Stern, the leader of the very well known Lohamei Herut Israel (LEHI), commonly referred to as the Stem gang, who fought for the independence of Palestine to become the Jewish State of Israel, was born and raised in Suwalki. In the period between the two world wars, the Jewish community has gained in importance on the level of commerce, manufacturing and education.
By the beginning of the Second World War there were between ten and eleven thousand Jews in Suwalki, a community of about 30,000 people, which number included a large military garrison, the town being on the border with Lithuania and East Prussia. Since the Russian empire was quite anti-Semitic, the Jewish population of Suwalki did not grow any more because of an immigration wave after progroms. The Jews left for many countries including Palestine, South America and a smaller number to the United States.
On Friday, September 1, 1939, Poland was attacked by Nazi troops. It was not a total surprise since tensions had been mounting for months and especially in the border region where the city was located. Initially, the Suwalki railroad station as well as some military objects had been bombed on several occasions. Many of the wealthier people started to move out of the city and scattered over other sections of Poland, as well as Lithuania. Some also escaped later on through the demarcation line between the German and Soviet troops, which was at the city of Augustow.
The city of Suwalki was promptly incorporated into the province of East Prussia, and its name was changed to Sudauen. The Jews remaining in Suwalki, including many sick and elderly, were subjected to mental and physical abuse as well as some shootings. Many of them had been forced to menial hard labor. The Nazis also looted all Jewish stores and told the community leaders "you could even go to the Mars but you have to disappear from this city". About 3,000 Jews had been able by all kinds of means to cross over the Lithuanian border illegally.( Some running to the villages and tried to hide, some to the forest).
Finally on December 9, 1939 all Jews remaining in Suwalki were ordered to stay in their houses. They were then picked up by heavily armed Germans, put in sealed trains and transported to several villages and towns in the middle of Poland in the region of Lublin. One of these villages was Lukow, another was Biala Podiaska. These have been the last 3,000 Jews who remained in Suwalki, and were evacuated from there, and most of them were shot in a forest near a locality called Lomazy. 2,000 Suwalki refugees who found themselves in the Soviet occupied Western White Russia in the city of Slonim died during the final solution there in 1941 and 1942.
Many people from Suwalki perished in some other communities during the Holocaust. Some of them were killed while serving in the Soviet Army as well as the underground. Among those who perished were my parents and little sister. Numerous survivors and their families who visit Suwalki find that gone is the vibrant Jewish community in Northern Poland where they were born and raised, and what remains is a dead town with the highest unemployment rate in Poland.
Most of the new generation of Poles who presently live in the city have never seen a Jew in their lives. The only memory of our people who lived here for 130 years is the empty silent cemetery where 32,000 Jews are buried.
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