The location of Prostki at the border crossing between Poland (later the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland) and Prussia (later Germany) boosted the cross-border trade and smuggling. The town’s commercial significance increased even more with the construction of the iron railway, with Prostki being the final station on the extension of the Brzesko–Grajewo line. Jewish merchants from Mazovia would visit the border crossing and local customs houses since as early as the beginning of the 18th century. First Jews permanently settled in Prostki when restrictions on Jewish settlement were lifted in Prussia in the early 19th century. At the time, the locality was partially a big village and a town.

In 1873, the Prostki community owned a synagogue and cemetery and employed a chazzan. However, it was subordinate to the kehilla in Ełk. The Jews from Prostki started to seek independence from their neighbours in 1879, but to no avail. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that a separate kehilla was formed in Prostki. In 1902, it comprised 29 families, 116 people in total.

One of the people to perish in the ranks of the German Army during WWI was Jakob Jacques Grand, born in Prostki but later living in Berlin. It is possible that he was a descendant of a French émigré who left his country in the period of the Napoleonic wars and settled in the area of Ełk, giving rise to the Romantic legend of the French Island on Lake Sunowskie[1.1].

In 1932, the Prostki kehilla had 56 members, with Jews constituting 2% of the town’s total population; 12 people paid the community tax. The community board comprised Jacob Czarninski, Isidor Bloch, and Hermann Berlowitz. Benno Fein was the melamed, and Towie Zilbermann – the chazzan. In 1930, the kehilla budget amounted to RM 4,300. The community owned a synagogue, cemetery, and ritual slaughterhouse. Eleven children were provided religious education.

The address book for the county of Ełk from 1930 features many advertisements of Jewish merchants from Prostki. Hermann Berlowitz offered import and export of wheat products, grain, and animal feed, and emphasised that his company had been in operation since 1908. Isidor Bloch specialised in the import of wheat products by rail, which he had been doing since 1880. Max Czarninski advertised that he owned the oldest and largest business in the area, while Jacob Czarninski offered services in the trade in iron products such as structural steel, cast iron stoves, ceramic stoves, kitchen and home appliances, as well as a variety of construction materials.

The commercial character of the town and the social and economic crisis which hit Germany following World War I exacerbated the animosity between Jewish and Christian merchants. This only intensified when the Nazis came to power. In March of 1933, after the NSDAP won the election, the following merchants were arrested: Goldenzweig, Berlowitz, Reiter, Czarninski, and Markus Jr. Their apartments were searched for weapons[1.2].

In view of continuous repressions, many Jews from Prostki decided to migrate from the town, with many families forced to become separated. Historical records mention the story of Frieda Abraham née Cohn (b. 1886 in Prostki) and her husband Hermann, who decided to send their son Hans (b. 1922) to Palestine before the outbreak of the war. On 19 February 1939, Hermann Abraham wrote a letter to his son: “On the other side of the road, over the entrance to the Grumacks, there is a banner reading ‘Entry forbidden for Jews!’[1.3]. The time has come, we are going to disappear…” In another letter, dated 16 May 1939, the father complained to the son about the struggles to migrate from Germany. He wrote that the “dream of Bolivia” was no more, he was instead hoping to be able to leave for Shanghai. He concluded his frustrating experience in dealing with the aid organisation with a joke: “What is the difference between dog food and an aid organisation? Dog food is for dogs, and an aid organisation – for cats[1.4]. The Abrahams sought to find shelter in Berlin, but they were deported from the German capital on 14 November 1941 and eventually sent to the Minsk Ghetto in Transport No. 5, where they died. Several members of the Jurkiewicz family managed to reach France. However, Sura Jurkiewicz did not manage to escape the Holocaust – in 1943 she was deported from Drancy to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Historical sources also mention Jews born or living in Prostki among the victims of the Nazi German camps in Auschwitz and Treblinka, and ghettos in Łódź, Warsaw, Minsk, Kaunas, and Riga, with many of them temporarily held in Theresienstadt before being sent to their final destinations. Most of them were deported from Berlin. A total of ca. 20 people connected to Prostki perished in the Holocaust.

Bibliography

  • Einwohnerbuch der Stadt Lyck in Ostpr. Sowie der Gemeinde Prostken und der Ortschaften des Kreises Lyck, Lyck 1930.
  • Führer durch die jüdische Gemeindeverwaltung und Wohlfahrtspflege in Deutschland: 1932–1933, Berlin 1933, pp. 27–28.
  • Kossert A., “Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Gemeinde im Kreis Lyck,” Hagen-Lycker Brief 2000, no. 58.
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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Tragarz duchów. Zbiór podań ludowych z Mazur, ed. J. Łapo, Dąbrówno 2007, p. 123.
  • [1.2] B. Koziełło–Poklewski, Narodowosocjalistyczna Niemiecka Partia Robotnicza w Prusach Wschodnich 1921–1933, Olsztyn 1995, p. 135.
  • [1.3] In original: “Eintritt für Juden verboten!”
  • [1.4] http://www.letzter-gruss-online.de/41306/41324.html [Accessed: 28 Sep 2008; unavailable as of 28 Mar 2019].