Sopockin Rabbins

Shimon Meir Rabinovitch
(circa 1830s-1900s)
Schmuel Ya'akov Rabinovitch
(Spiritual Leader-1898)
Mordechay Eliyahu Rabinovitch
(Spiritual Leader-1908)
Menachem Mendl Rabinovitch
(circa 1930s)
M.H. Rabinowitz
(circa 1903)
(Brownsville, N.Y.)

(M.H. Rabinowitz owned The Straight Path prior to it winding up in a bookstore from which the photocopied text was placed on file at YIVO)
Cheif Rabbi Schmuel Ya'akov Rabinovitch
(1857 - 1921)

See the Yiskor Book for further history on the writings and movements of these great men.
Rabbi Menachem Mendl Rabinovitch
(circa 1935)

(Click on photograph to enlarge)

Interior of Synagogue Sapotkin
Photograph from Instytut Sztuki
Polskiej Akademia Nauk

Courtesy of Shirley Gould

From the Pinkas Hakehilot -
Ledger of the Communities: Poland- Vol. IV, ed. 1989, written by Abraham Wein

Sopotkin: The first refugees arrived at Sopotkin and they related that young men face mortal danger from the advancing Germans and therefore they have to escape. Consequently, many Jewish young people left Sopotkin and headed to Warsaw. Some of them were killed on the way while others returned to Sopotkin at the end of the battle.

Sopotkin was conquered by the German Army in the first week of the war. In October 1939 it was annexed to "Btzirk Tzikhnau." Immediately after the occupation, the Germans began abducting Jewish men ages 16-60 for a variety of forced labor such as cleaning the town, paving of roads, demolishing of houses, and various field and farm work.

One day, in Sept. 1939, the local Germans concentrated all the local Jews at the center of town, took from them their keys and robbed them. Afterwards they returned the keys to their owners and released their Jewish neighbors. At that time the Jews were forced to cut their beards and side locks. At the end of 1939, or the beginning of 1940, the Germans demolished the synagogue and the houses of Jews in the center of town. The inhabitants of these houses who remained with nothing, were dispersed as they found other places to live in Sopotkin.

The Jews were not allowed to leave Sopotkin without a special permit. A number of times the authorities demanded of them to pay "fines." In Sopotkin there was no ghetto. In the end of 1940 there were in Sopotkin 90 Jewish families; among them there were 18 refugee families. They didn't have any sources of income so they subsisted on the selling of the few belongings they had. The need grew daily. In Sopotkin there was no Judenrat neither was there any other Jewish institute to look after the needy. In 1940 Chaim Djialdov approached the joint branch in Warsaw for displaced Jews. The Germans forwarded their request to the community rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Glatshtein.

On Yom Kippur 5701, at dawn, a group of Sopotkin men arrived at Sopotkin. They assembled all the town Jews in a lot that was created by the demolished houses. The Germans demanded of the Jews to give them all their money and all their valuables. Then, they transported all the Jews (300-350) in trucks to the Camp Pumyahovek, which was erected in the former Polish fortress. In Pumyahovek, the Sopotkin Jews stayed 5 weeks. At that time they were the only prisoners in the place. After Passover 5701 they were transferred to a transient camp in Djialdovo where they were welcomed by the German guards with screams and merciless beatings, especially the elderly and frail. They stayed in that place about two weeks. The inhumane conditions and the cruelty of the guards caused the death of ten of them. From Djialdovo approximately 50 men were sent to a labor camp in Metengeten near Kenningsberg, and from there all were sent in the spring of 1943 to Berlin, and later on to Auschwitz. The women, children and elderly were returned to Pumyahovek on Lag B'omer , 5701 and were all released. They were banned from returning to Sopotkin but they could choose another place to live. They were scattered among the towns in the vicinity but most of them settled in Plonsk. Their fate was like the fate of the Jews in places where they settled.

After the war only few of the Sopotkin inhabitants remained alive. They returned to the place of their birth in 1945, but following a pogrom that the Poles perpetrated in the neighboring town, Kukhari, they all left. Yet, should be commended, the Pole, Michaelski from Sopotkin, a man who was before 1939 a member of the nationalistic party and a known anti-Semite. Yet, during the occupation he was a political prisoner in Camp Yavozhno and worked there in the kitchen. In Yavozhno, he stumbled upon Zvi Traub, a young man from Sopotkin who was on the verge of collapsing and he took care of him and each day gave him an extra helping of soup. Soon Taub recovered and remained alive. According to him, Michaelski saved his life.

(Region Augustov, District Bialistok)

1785 General Population ?? Jews 315
1808 General population 550 Jews 312
1827 General Population 880 Jews 533
1857 General population 1,594 Jews 1,239
1897 General population ?? Jews 1,674
1921 General Population 1,774 Jews 888

In Poland, Sopotkin was a private town belonging to nobility. Already, at the end of the 17th Century, Sopotkin became a big commercial center on the border between Poland and Lithuania. Its importance grew in the 18th Century with the increase in the export of wheat and wood from the big forests in its vicinity. The wood was shipped in the neighboring Augustov canal. As a result of the partitioning of Poland at the end of the 18th century Sopotkin was first under the rule of the Prussians. In the year 1807 it was annexed to the Warsaw principality and in 1815 it was included in the Polish Kingdom, which was then established under the protectorate of Russia. In the first months of World War I, there were battles in the vicinity of Sopotkin and it changed hands twice, before it was finally conquered by the Germans in 1915.

The comfortable conditions for commerce, which existed in Sopotkin in the second part of the 18th century, laid the ground for the establishment of a Jewish settlement. The first settlers in Sopotkin were engaged mainly in the export of goods to Lithuania. In the 19th century the number of Jews increased. In the first half there were in Sopotkin tradesmen who engaged in the clothing trade. In the year 1892 there were in Sopotkin 30 cobblers, 21 tailors, as well as a number of milliners, carpenters, and tinsmiths. Towards the end of the century, two Jews established a glass factory. Others engaged in tannery. However, the main livelihood of the Sopotkin Jews came from small commerce and peddling in the neighboring villages. The Jews supplied the neighboring farmers with industrial products and bought from them agricultural produce.

The Jewish community in Sopotkin was organized in the second half of the 18th century. Then a synagogue was erected and a cemetery. In the 1880's the rabbi was Rabbi Yehiel Moshe Segalovich. After he moved to Mlava, Rabbi Katriel Nathan replaced him, formerly the rabbi of the Augustov community who was forced to leave because of a conflict. Rabbi Nathan made his home in Sopotkin and officiated as the local rabbi. In 1896 he returned to Augustov and in Sopotkin Rabbi Shmuel Yaacov Rabinovich was appointed rabbi, an activist in Hovevey Zion- Lovers of Zion in Russia. With his coming Sopotkin became a center of Zionist activity. Together with him also was active in the Zionist Movement the writer Shmuel Tshernovich who settled then in Sopotkin. Rabbi Shmuel Yaacov Rabinovich moved from Sopotkin to Liverpool in England. In the days he lived in Sopotkin he wrote the books "The Religion and Nationalism" and 'An Honest Guest". After him the rabbi in Sopotkin was Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu Rabinovich (in 1908) who authored the books: Commentaries to the answers of the Geonim, a Candle for Light, and more. Rabbi Rabinovich continued until the 1920's. The last rabbi in Sopotkin was Rabbi Menahem Mendel Rabinovich.

Until the beginning of the 20th century the majority of children acquired their education in private "heders." In 1905 a private school for girls was opened in Sopotkin. First, it had only 12 girls. The curriculum included also general subjects and the language of instruction was Russian. However, the school didn't develop further and was short-lived. Approximately at the same time a modern "heder" was also opened but it too wasn't successful until the 1920's.

After the eruption of World War I and in face of the advancement of the German army in the direction of the town, many Jews escaped, especially the more better off ones. In the first days of the occupation the Jewish population suffered greatly from the hands of the German soldiers who hurt them and looted their belongings. Three Jews were killed and one house where 3 families lived was burnt. The number of poverty-stricken Jews increased. At that time a soup kitchen was established and aid was given to the indigent, especially the children. But in spite of the harsh conditions, in the last years of the war the political and cultural activities increased, albeit on a smaller scale. A Zionist club was established as well as a youth movement which later on became the foundation for "Ha'Halutz." After the war was over, the club became a center for the local Jewish youth. In 1917, a branch of Agudat Israel was established and also a branch of "Ha Mizrahi." Almost at the same time a branch of the Bund was also established.

Between the Two World Wars

With the resumption of Polish rule in Sopotkin in 1918 two instances occurred of persecution of Jews and a few people were arrested. The Polish soldiers who entered Sopotkin abused the Jews and not once attacked passers-by. With the stabilization of the Polish rule the town quieted down and its inhabitants began with the rehabilitation of its public and economic life. The Jewish population decreased by 50% in comparison to 1897. The economic situation of the Jews worsened. The commerce with Lithuania ceased because of the closing of the border between Poland and Lithuania, and Sopotkin completely lost its status of a town located in an important crossroads from west to east and from south to north. Because of the decrease in population the local commerce decreased as well. At the hands of the Jews of Sopotkin remained only the small commerce and the peddling in the neighboring villages. In the wake of the decrease in commerce also the sources of livelihood became limited for trade and light industry people. A number of Jews owned mills and beer breweries. Their main income was based on buying agricultural products from farmers in the area and marketing them in bigger centers. The wealthier among the merchants traded in wheat, eggs, and cattle.

Because of the severe economic situation the number of Jews dependent on the help of the community grew. Against the backdrop of the general phenomenon of the impoverishment of the agrarian population in Poland, also shrank the sources of income for Jewish merchants, storekeepers, and craftsmen whose customers came from the agricultural rear of Sopotkin The situation of Jews also worsened because of the boycott on Jewish trade as a result of anti-Semitic incitement and the use of Jewish services. This boycott was re-enforced in Sopotkin, as in other towns in Poland, especially in the 30's and it found expression in patrols that were stationed in stores' openings and the establishment of Polish stores.

The Jewish public in Sopotkin reacted on these difficulties by the organizing of economic-trade institutes that were aimed at somewhat ameliorating their plight. In 1928 the organization of Jewish merchants was founded. The Jewish bank which was founded at almost the same time gave the essential credit for the existence of Jewish trade and small industry. A loan society also helped small businesses. The community helped the most needy of the community.

A society called "Linat Zedek" was founded in order to extend medical care to the poor. In the first years following World War I the joint organization helped the needy. This organization assisted in rehabilitating the buildings damaged during the war. Afterwards the joint organization supported the loan fund. However, all these activities couldn't block the Jews' exodus from Sopotkin, especial the young, to the bigger cities in search for a better income and the local Jewish population decreased. In spite of this situation there seemed to be a reawakening in the political and cultural life among the Jews of Sopotkin. The modern "heder," that was first opened prior to World War I, was re-opened. In 1926 the community began to erect its building. First the first floor was built with room for 3 classes. The number of pupils was almost 100. Certified teachers were brought and also a principal. At that time Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu Rabinovich served as rabbi. He was the last rabbi of Sopotkin and perished in the Shoah.

The Zionists, who started their activities at the end of the 19th century, expanded it at that time. Their influence was great. The club and library in Sopotkin became a center of the Zionist activities in town. Next to the General Zionists organization in 1931 was founded the organization of the Zionist youth on the basis of: "HaShomer Ha'Leumi," which was previously organized. Some members of: "Po'alei Zion" were found in Sopotkin even prior to Wold War I but after it their numbers grew. The party was engaged in cultural activities. And organized a drama club. The Revisionist Movement and Beitar were organized in 1930 and it founded Brit HaChayal. The Mizrahi was founded as a separate party, already in 1915, but it began to function only after the war. Next to it were founded the youth movements "Tzeirey HaMizrahi" - in the beginning of 1925, and after it "HaShomer HaDati." The most active among the Zionist youth movements was "HaHalutz." They founded, in 1930, a "Kvutzat Hakhshara" and incorporated in it also members of other groups. The majority of parties and youth groups had their own clubs, small libraries and sports circles. Agudat Israel, which was founded in 1916, developed branches; in 1922- Young Agudat Israel and in 1934- Poaley Agudat Israel.
The Bund, which was founded prior to World War I , had tens of members at that time. It renewed its activities mainly in the trade unions. As far as the administration of the community, the Zoinists ruled. In the first years following World War I the representatives of the Jewish parties were active in the municipality. In the 30's their numbers subsided.

In the ten years prior to World War II, the Jews of Sopotkin suffered a great deal from instances of anti-Semitism which were on the increase. The Jewish peddlers were not allowed to enter the villages. On the market days, the anti-Semites put boycott guards in front of Jewish stores and stalls. In February 1935, there were demonstrations against the Jews, many were abused and beaten and windows were broken in homes and shops. In September 1937, again the Jews were attacked, stalls were overturned, and their owners were beaten.

During World War II

According to the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, Sopotkin was annexed in Sept. 1939 to the Soviet-occupied territory. Because of its proximity to the German border (approx. 5 kilometers) , Sopotkin was declared a border area and this fact caused constant tension which prevailed in town in all the 22 months of the Soviet rule.
All the private houses in Sopotkin, the size of which exceeded 50 square meters, were confiscated by the Russians and the owners and their families were ordered to leave town and settle in a distance of no less than 100 kilometers inside the territory of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of farmers' families who were categorized as "kulaks" were banished to Siberia. A similar fate befell many Jewish families. The private stores in Sopotkin were closed. To the tailors, the cobblers and even the horse and buggy men cooperatives were established. The old Beit-Ha'Midrash became a movie and a house of entertainment.

Thousands of Russians flooded the town, they were the people of the new administration and the army, as well as, the young people, members of Komsomol who were engaged by the army in the building of various fortifications in Sopotkin and its vicinity.

On Saturday night, the 21st of June,1941, there were rumors of mass deportations.
Which awaited those who didn't receive a Russian passport. At 2:00 A.M., the Germans began bombing Sopotkin with cannons, and the shelling lasted the entire night as the town was burning. The residents and the soldiers fled, many were killed or injured and burnt. The German army encircled the town from all sides, and at 9:00 in the morning, the 22nd of June, 1941, it conquered the town without any resistance from the Russians.

Sopotkin was burning for 4 days. Only a few houses remained standing. The Jews who returned from the vicinity were summarily caught by the Germans and were forced to clean the area of corpses and ruins. The Rabbi and a few distinguished Jews were accused of collaborating with the Russians, were led to the vicinity of Augustov, and were shot. All the Jews of Sopotkin were assembled in a convent that was in the neighboring town of Teolin (according to another version they were assembled in a community center or a movie theater in Teolin).

In this camp the prisoners didn't receive any food. At night the Jews went over the fences and managed to get some food from the farmers. In June, 1942, the Germans sent all the men, except people with trades, to forced labor in Staroshailtze. All the Jews remaining in Teolin were returned to Sopotkin and were housed in the few houses which survived the fire in Osochniki St., and there the ghetto was erected for them.

On the 1st of November, 1942, the ghetto was liquidated. It was told to the people that they are being transferred to work in the Ukraine. Each person was allowed to take work clothes, a pair of shoes, and a hand parcel. Each family received a wagon with a policeman and they were transferred to a transient camp in Kaylbashin, which was 5 kilometers away from Grodno. In the summer of 1941, a camp for Russian prisoners was erected. Approximately 25,000 Soviet prisoner-soldiers were housed in hundreds of trenches they dug for themselves, and lived under sub-human conditions. They all perished, most of them in the typhus epidemic that plagued the camp. In their place came from Nov. 1942, between 25,000 and 30,000 Jews from settlements in the vicinity of Grodno and Bialistok. The first who were brought there were Jews from Sopotkin. The living conditions in the dark, in the cold, and in constant humidity, with no clothes and no food (the daily food ration was 100-150 grams of bread and "soup" which was prepared with potatoes with the peels and mud on them), brought the people to complete weakness and caused a great number of deaths.

Every day 70-80 died in the camp. Moreover, the camp commander, a sadistic Nazi called: Karl Rinsler, killed with his bare hands many Jews, just for sport. From Kaylbashin transports left for the death-camps of Treblinka or Auschwitz every few days. On the 19th of Dec. 1942, the camp in Kaylbashin was liquidated. The rest of the Jews, approximately 5,000, among them from Sopotkin, were walked to the area of the former ghetto in Grodno. From there, they were all deported, in two transports, in the 18th and 19th of January 1943, to the death-camp of Auschwitz.

It is told that after the liquidation of the Sopotkin ghetto, a Jewish child of 7 or 8, by the name of Lepchak, survived. He managed to hide among the ruins without being caught by the Germans. One day the Germans instructed the Christian inhabitants to gather the remnants of furniture and other things and put them in one place, at the center of the desolate ghetto. Germans then put it all to the fire and the child came out of the ruins [to get warm]. The Germans handcuffed his hands and feet with barbed-wire and burned him alive in front of the Christians.

A few of the Sopotkin Jews managed to stay alive following the Shoah. Among them were Alter Biblovich and his wife, Rachel, and their daughter Luba who were hidden in the home of Pyoter and Sofia Paliachik and their 6 children in the village of Kadish. In March 1978, a committee of Yad-Va'Shem recognized the Paliachik family as Righteous Gentiles.

Translated from the Hebrew: Rachel Kapen (Ivashkovsky)

Other Sopockin Scholarly Books

Rabbinical Responsa, The Straight Path, published in 1903, and written in the Hebrew alphabet, by Chief Rabbi Schmuel Ya'akov Rabinovitz, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Sopockin, Russia (now in Belarus) has recently been found (March, 2001) in an old Brooklyn, NY bookstore and retrieved before it very shortly would have decayed forever.

The book, according to Abraham Schwartz, Attorney-at-Law and scholar, Baltimore, Maryland, is a typical form of Torah literature encompassing decisions rendered on legal questions. In answering the host of questions presented to him over time, Rabbi Rabinowitz references and used the knowledge and wisdom from the Code of Jewish Law, the Torah, Torah Responses and other legal and religious sources, to arrive at his reasoning and conclusions. For example, one of the easier problems asked- would it be in keeping with the faith to rent a Jewish field to a non-Jew as the field would most likely be worked on Shabbos.

The book, which was retrieved from a used-book store in Brooklyn by Michoel Ronn and Alfred Neil Kramer, is now on file in the Sopockin Collection at the YIVO Institute, 15 West 16th Street, NYC, NY 10011.

Kol Jacob, a book, in part, on personal philosophy, written by Jacob Gutkovsky, Horav Goan, was published in 1947 the same year he most likely passed away. Mr. Gutkovsky, son of Eleyahu, was born in Sopockin in 1870. He studied under and was ordained three times- by the Rabbi of Mir, by the Rabbi of Volozhyn and by the Rabbi of Ayishishok (sp?) This accomplishment some say entitles him to be referred to as a genius. In 1898 he became the Dean of the Yeshiva at Lodz. In 1937 he made Aliyah and, among other things, delivered lectures in a synagogue in the middle of Tel Aviv. He died suddenly and his book, Kol Jacob, was published posthumously. He also wrote books about Maimonides and the history of the world. He was said to have had a fantastic mind, to be a thinker, modest, a real educator, one who always put himself to the side and who was happy with very little, only caring about learning and teaching.

The book, Kol Jacob, is now on file, in the Sopockin Collection, at the YIVO Institute, 15 West 16th Street, NYC, NY 10011.

The Old Shul


Note: Spelled variously Sopockin, Sopotkin, Sopotskin, Sopochin, Sopochkinye, Sopoczin, Sopocekin, Soposkin, Soporkin (mispelled), Sopochani, Sopokina, Sopotkus, Sopoczkin, Sopockino, Sopochani, Sopokni, Sopoczkine, Sopokin, Sopodzkin, Sopotzky, Sopoken, Sopockinic, Soposzkin, Sopotskni, Sopotzky, Sopockinpow, Sopockinic, Sopotinico, Sopockine, Sopokinie, Sopotzkin, Sopockinski, Sapoczkin, Sapotkin, and possibly even other ways.

For further information about Sopockin see the Sopockin Yiskor Book at Also see Volume 9, Number 4, November 1999, Volume 10, Number 1-2, June 2000 and Volume 14, Numbers 1-2, June 2004 - LANDSMEN (