CONGREGATION ACHEI GRODNO VASAPOTKIN AND CHEVRA MISHNAYOS - THE TOGETHERNESS OF THE JEWS OF GRODNO AND SOPOCKIN

by ALFRED NEIL KRAMER

 

 

Research shows Sopockin to be approximately 25 kilometers northwest of
the City of Grodno, or 21 versts. See Sopockin: An Historical
Overview, Landsmen, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Nov. 1999). Sopockin is a very
small town, compared to the City of Grodno. Sopockin’s population,
historically, ranged perhaps from 315 (1765) to 1674 (1897) ibid. See
also Landsmen, Vol. 14, Numbers 1-2, p. 17 (June 2004). Grodno’s
population was recorded as 207,778 (Census 1897)

The Jewish Encyclopedia
- Belarus Sig: www.jewishgen.org/belarus/grodno1.htm. The first
paved road built in Sopockin was called Nova (New) Street and later
Grodno Street. It went all the way to Grodno so as to allow bus travel
instead of horse drawn carriages.


Grodno Synagogue

The above data is shown to illustrate the near proximity of the two places so as to understand the relationship between the Jewish peoples
of both places.

According to one source, in 1913, a combined society was formed in New York City which involved both communities. It was called Achei Grodno V’Anshei Sopockin Mishnios. This name obviously included the names of the City of Grodno and the town of Sopockin. The organization may have been formed shortly before or after 1903 because Harry Kramer, who was an initiating and founding officer, emigrated then. No matter when it was formed, it raised funds for those still in Sopockin and helped build or contribute to shuls and synagogues in New York. During the Great War and World War II it helped Sopockin and Grodno citizens emigrate to such places as Israel, Canada, Buenos Aires and the United States. See ibid., p. 21-22. (The town of Sopockin has historically been spelled at least six different ways, and that 's just in English.)

The Society had a designated cemetery area in Washington Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York City. It was designated for members from both places. Washington Cemetery was established in 1895. The gates of the mutual area reads, in part, "Achei Grodno V’ondri Sopockin." See Landsmen, Vol. 10, Numbers 1-2, p. 22-24 (Photo - Gates at Washington Cemetery).

Judy Goldman, a Sopockin survivor from World War II, quoted in the previously mentioned articles, recollects going to college in Grodno. Once, and as she says, only once, she walked the 25 kilometers from Sopockin to Grodno and back. Mrs. Goldman, who remembers attending, in Buenos Aires, the 30th anniversary of the last deportation by the Nazis of Jews from Grodno, was greeted with open arms and received a copy of the over one hundred page book, which marked the occasion named Ecos De Grodno (Echoes of Grodno), Little Israel Ass’n Of The Ex-residents of Grodno (July 1973) (No’s XXI-XXII) Buenos Aires; and which was autographed for her by more than 30 people from Grodno on March 28, 1974. The very first paragraph of this book states - "In the month of March of this year commemorates 30 years since the date that Grodno was ‘Cleaned of Jews.’ Posters with that inscription were put in the transit station (of Grodno) by the executioners of our martyrs of Grodno, just like their neighbors: AMDUR, SKIDL, LUNE, VOLP, KUZNICE, SOKOLKE, OZIOR, SOPOTZKIN, ADELSK, etc. The final Jews were deported to the transitory concentration camp of KELBASIN and from there to the gas chambers of MAIDANEK, TREBLINKA and AUSCHWITZ."

This banquet was attended by many, many survivors with their family members and friends and celebrated their survival. How many more survivors and their children and grandchildren live in Israel, Canada, Uruguay, the USA and other countries? The Kramer family alone, derived from Sopockin, numbers over 300.

So, what was the formal and the actual relationship between Sopockin and Grodno? Another survivor from Sopockin, Rachel Kapen, a renowned Jewish author, surmises that "Grodno, as being the big city of small Sopockin, it is no wonder the congregation is thus called."

However, for our purposes, factual analysis must be sought, rather than speculation, no mater how well advised. For example, the following information was submitted by Maury Kitces, a fellow genealogist, who has done extensive research on the DUNSKY family, which had several branches from Sopockin, including the KRINSKY family. As stated, the congregation/society was named Congregation Achei Grodno Vasapotkin and Chevra Mishnayos. So, the question is were they two combined (very pious) congregations? Were they two separate congregations? Or was there just one? Was one a separate one from Sopockin, which at different times was within the borders of different countries, such as Russia, Poland, France and Lithuania; and was the other, Grodno, from Russia, Poland; or Lithuania, also a separate one? Today, Sopockin lies in Suvalki Province, Belarus; and, Grodno in Grodno Gubernia, Belarus. See www.bh.org.il

Mr. Kitces writes -

"I also don’t have a definitive answer for why the names are combined, but I did find an early reference with a slightly different name - "Chevrah Achei Grodno v’Anshei Staputkin". Which roughly translates to the society of the brethren of Grodno and the people of Sopotskin. Perhaps suggesting that there were once two community synagogues, and the Sopotskin one (probably much smaller) combined with the larger one. If they were not once separate, I don’t think they would have used "Achei" for one, and "Anshei" for the other. Sopotskin was only about a dozen miles from Grodno, and there were probably many members who had families from both cities. E-mail (6/21/2009). " (Emphasis supplied.)

Suwalki Gubvnia was created in 1866-67, which included the town of Sopockin, where the first Jews had settled in the early 1600s. See Landsmen, Vol. 9, No. 4, p. 3. Perhaps the Jewish peoples of Sopockin were allied with the Jewish peoples of Grodno before any such borders. It seems that wherever Grodno and Sopockin survivors had wound up together, an organization was formed to aid those in need; for example, perhaps The Grodno Society in Buenos Aires; definitely, the Sapotkiner Relief Committee, officiated by many of the same officers in the Achei Grodno V’Sapockiner Society; and the Boston Branch of the same. There must also have been, or are, more. Lastly, the stationary of the April 15, 1980 congregation states, in it's heading, Congregation Achai Grodno Vasapotkin. Translated, the meaning offers more, and what should be sufficient proof, the Congregation of the Brothers of Grodno and Sopockin.

It would appear that just these names alone make the argument conclusive for the togetherness, the unity, of the Jews of Grodno and the Jews of Sopockin. So, with that in mind, the following article, found in the Society’s files, published in a prior issue of Encyclopedia Judaica, gives a glimpse at how it was historically, for Grodno certainly, and most likely for Sopockin as well. Permission to re-publish this article was granted by Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Databases Department (5/15/2009) - www.bh.org.il. *

The information, a heart-rendering story, states that:

". . . Grodno (Horodno), City in Belorussian S.S.R., formerly Poland-Lithuania. The Grodno community received a charter in 1389. They were banished by the general decree of expulsion of the Jews from Lithuania in 1495, but were permitted to return and to claim their possessions in 1503. Grodno became noted as a center of Jewish learning. By the end of the 16th century a number of Battei Midrash and Yeshivot had been established and Horodno was written by the Jews as though it were Har-Adonai ("The Holy Mount" in Hebrew). The community was spared during the Chmielnicki massacres in 1648-49 and gave asylum to fugitives from the south, but later suffered from the Russian invasions of 1655-57 and subsequent invasions by the Swedes. One of the three principal communities in Lithuania, Grodno was represented on the Council of Lithuania. The first Hebrew book to be published in Lithuania was printed in Grodno in 1788 in the Royal Press. In 1549 the Jewish population formed 17% of the total; in 1887 68.7% of the total; and in 1931 42.6% of the total population.

The principal traditional sources of income of Grodno Jews were commerce, crafts, and more recently, industry. In 1887, 88% of commercial undertakings, 76% of factories and workshops, and 65.2% of real estate in Grodno were Jewish owned. The situation did not alter appreciably before World War I, but after Grodno’s reversion to Poland the Jews were systematically ousted from their positions and from the middle of the 1930s a stringent anti-Jewish economic boycott was imposed. The huge Y. Shereshevsky Tobacco Factory in Grodno employed, before World War I, some 1,800 workers and provided a livelihood for hundreds of families in subsidiary activities, nearly all Jewish. Work stopped on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals and it maintained a school for the children of the employees. The Polish government nationalized it in the 1920s, making it conform to the official pattern and the majority of the Jewish workers were forced out.

Among the notable rabbis serving in Grodno were Mordecai Jaffe (16th Century); Jonah B. Isaiah Te’Omim, author of Kikayon De-Yonah (1630); Moses B. Abraham, author of Tiferet Le-Moshe (1776); Joshua B. Joseph, author of Meginnei Shelomo (1715); Mordecai Suesskind of Rothenburg (17th century); Simchah B. Nachman Rapoport of Dubno; and Benjamin Braudo (d. 1818).

From the end of the 1890s the various trends of Jewish labor movements became increasingly active in Grodno, in particular in the tobacco factory. Central to the movement was the Bund. The labor movements played an important part in organizing Jewish self-defense in Grodno in 1903 and 1907, and some Jewish youngsters there also avenged the bloodshed that resulted from the pogroms at Bialystok. A society for settling in Eretz Israel was founded in Grodno in 1872, and a second acquired land in Petach Tikvah on its foundation in 1880. The Society of Chovevei Zion in Grodno in 1890 gave generous support in building the girls’ Hebrew school in Jaffa. During World War II, when Grodno was under Soviet rule (1939-41), a clandestine Zionist center there transferred intending immigrants to Eretz Israel via Vilna. After World War I the Grodno Zionists, headed by Noah Bas, instituted the Hebrew educational system Tarbut. Jewish pioneers from Grodno emigrated in the successive aliyot from the beginning of the Bilu movement, and Grodno youth were among the first to join the second aliyah. The Grodno He-Chalutz Association was among the first founded in Lithuania, and the third aliyah from Poland was initiated by Grodno pioneers.

Under Polish rule there were pogroms in Grodno as early as 1935. The Nazis occupied the city on June 22, 1941. On Nov.1, 1941, the Jews of Grodno were segregated into two ghettos, one for ‘skilled workers’ in the small, overcrowded ‘synagogue quarter’ (shulhof) and the fish market; the other, which was smaller and reserved for the ‘unproductive’ in the suburb De Slobodka. On Nov. 2, 1942 their liquidation began to Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Early in 1942, a Jewish underground resistance and defense movement was formed; members of Zionist youth movements, especially women, set up a communications center in Grodno for contact with the ghettos in Vilna, Bialystok, and Warsaw; there was also a workshop for forging ‘Aryan’ papers and travel permits for members of the movement engaged in rescuing Jews and in armed defense. An unsuccessful attempt was made to assassinate Streblow, a chief executioner of Grodno Jewry. There was also an attempt to organize a mass escape from the Great Synagogue, which served as a collection center for deportation. After the war some 2,000 Jews resettled in Grodno. By the 1960s Grodno had no synagogue. The ‘old’ synagogue was a storehouse; the ‘new’ one was used as a sports hall. In the mid-1950s the Jewish cemetery was plowed up, and the tombstones were taken away and used for building a monument to Lenin."

*Encyclopedia Judaica (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) was first published in Jerusalem by Keter Publishing House and in New York by the Macmillan Company. The New Encyclopedia Judaica - 2nd edition may be purchased online at http://www.ahuva.com for $1,895.00. Between 1972 and 1994, ten annual yearbooks were collected in a 1973-1982 events supplement and a 1983-1992 events supplement was added. Together these volumes contain more than 15 million words in over 25,000 articles. Its general editors were, successively, Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder. Advertisers describe it as the result of about three decades of study and research by about 2,200 contributors and 250 editors around the world.

The current officers of the Achei Grodno V’Anschei Sapockin Chevros Mishnayos, more currently named, Congregation Achai Grodno Vasapotkin, are Seymour Kramer, Alan Kramer and, yours truly, Alfred Kramer. You may contact me at alfredorad@gmail.com.


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