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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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The Old Shtetl Szczuczyn

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The first mention of Szczuczyn, located in northeastern Poland, was in 1466 when it was mentioned in documents as a village that belonged to private owners. In 1699, it obtained permission from the king of Poland to hold five fairs a year and a weekly market. Some Jewish families lived in Szczuczyn in the 18th century, and in the 19th century, parallel to the development of the city, the number of Jews increased. Many Jews migrated from the villages around Szczuczyn after they were deprived of their traditional occupations, such as liquor manufacture and sales.


In 1877 the Jews represented 75 percent of the total population, and most made their living from small trade. Some of them dealt in horse-trading during the fairs. Jews were also involved in crafts, especially in shoemaking and tailoring. Some established their own small manufacturing companies, and in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Szczuczyn became known in the region as a summer resort. A lively tourist trade targeting mostly Jews flourished. Jews came even from all over Poland, including Warsaw and other big cities.


Around 1820 an independent Jewish community was established, followed by a synagogue and a wooden beit midrash. In 1858 two buildings were renovated, and another house of study was added. The community had its own rabbis, and of those known to us, the most well known were Rabbi Yehoshua Heshl, and after him, Rabbi Noah Chaim Eisenstadt. During the 1890′s Rabbi Menachem Mendel Astrinski, known for his book Tsemach Menachem (Menachem’s Plant), was the rabbi of the town. After his death in 1904, the community chose Rabbi Judah Haleib Hassman, who had previously served as rabbi at other respected communities. Rabbi Hassman served for about 20 years and established a yeshiva which was a branch of the famed Slobodka Yeshiva. During the First World War, most of the students scattered with the occupation of Szczuczyn by the Germans, and Rabbi Judah Lieb went to the interior of Russia.


In 1921 Rabbi Judah returned to Szczuczyn but was unable to restart the yeshiva. In 1928 Rabbi Judah emigrated to Hebron and became a rosh yeshiva there. In 1929, after Arab riots and massacre of the Jews in Hebron, he moved with the yeshiva to Jerusalem. He died in 1938.


During the inter-war years most Jews were engaged in various crafts and small-scale trade. In addition to the existing industries, there was a Jewish-owned factory engaged in oil production that employed 15 Jewish workers. Another new industry involved the purchase of fish, which were bred in neighboring districts in pools and then delivered to large towns. As in all Jewish communities, there were charitable organizations to help the poor and needy. Linat Hatzedek, for example, helped the community in various ways, including providing medical aid. There were also bikur cholim and hachnasat orchim societies. Due to the grave economic situation in Szczuczyn, many young people left for bigger towns, while many others immigrated to the United States and Israel, greatly reducing the Jewish population between the two world wars.


Immigrants from Szczuczyn formed a landschaft group in New York and were able to send some aid back to the old home town. The society established itself on New York’s Lower East Side, and even had its own synagogue at 242 Henry Street. Today, the society still holds some burial sites in various cemeteries in New York and Israel.


Szczuczyn is located just three kilometers from the border between Poland and what was East Prussia. During the first days of World War II the Germans conscriped 350 men, mainly Jews, for forced labor in Germany. After five months only 30 survivors from this group remained to return home to Szczuczyn. The Germans burnt the synagogue and two of the study houses. They beat Jews and stole everything they could before they handed the town over to the Russians in the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement of August 23, 1939. Szczuczyn was annexed to Russia, and some Red Army units entered the town on September 27, 1939, the eve of the Sukkot holiday. Some local groups of communists, among whom Jews were prominently represented, gave a warm welcome to these Russian units.


Some 20 Jewish families, who were thought to be untrustworthy, were deported some kilometers from Szczuczyn to the Russian-controlled towns of Wasosz and Radzilow. On June 21, 1941, they were sent to Siberia. On the eve of the war between Germany and Russia, on June 22, 1941, some of the Jews tried to flee the town, but few succeeded. Approximately 2,000 Jews were left in Szczuczyn. On the evening before June 28, groups of Poles attacked Jews in four areas in the town: in the market, in Lomzinska Street, in the new town square, and in the suburb of Pawelki. The rioters, armed with axes, knives and agricultural tools, entered the Jewish houses and killed many families, especially some the most influential and affluent among them.


More than 300 Jewish dead – men, women and children – were loaded onto carts and buried in large anti-tank ditches. On August 8, 1941, the day the Ghetto was established, all Jewish patients in the public hospital were taken to the cemetery and murdered. During the next five days all the Jews were gathered in the courtyard of Beblowski and killed. Most of them (600) were killed in the Jewish cemetery. It is assumed that the murderers were Germans, together with some Poles who joined them.


On November 2, 1942, the Ghetto was liquidated. About 200 Jews were taken to the transfer camp in Bogusze and from there were sent, in December 1942 and in January 1943, to the death camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz.


Today there are no Jews in Szczuczyn. The cemetery, once the final resting place of thousands of Jews, is an empty field with only a few fragmented tombstones and a memorial to the approximately “600 people, who were killed by the Facsists during the Second World War.”




http://www.szczuczyn


Shmuel Ben Eliezer can be contacted at jpolin2@aol.com.

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