Tag Archives: Raya Sosensky

My Father Wolf Sosensky (3)

part1 part2

After World War I

The aftermath of World War I, and the Russian revolution which followed, created a chaotic political situation in Eastern Europe. The stirrings of Belarusian independence, which began around the turn of the century, and the Russian revolt in 1905, intensified during this period. In 1918 an independent Belarus republic was declared, but it was short lived. The Poles and Russians continued to fight in the area, and Belarusian territory was breached by both armies. Eventually, the territory was split between the two nations. By the end of 1922, the Soviet Union, which evolved out of the Russian Revolution, was formed and a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (B.S.S.R.) was established in the Russian controlled territory. Dolginov was located in the Polish sector. Wolf’s take on the postwar situation in Belarus is revealed in the following passage from his writings.

After World War I, Latvia received independence and became a sovereign nation, but the going was hard politically. It’s a well-known fact that “it’s difficult to breathe between two fires”. To exist independently economically, fine!, but prosperity wasn’t certain given Latvia’s precarious situation: Russia on one side and Germany on the other, both sharpening their teeth. They both had one and the same aim: to seize control of the Baltic Sea, to gain possession of the Gulf of Riga, the lovely bathing and resort places, the large, well-established factories, etc. In 1940 Russia ruled over all of Latvia and began to make it a communist possession.

In 1920, Wolf had returned from his wartime captivity and sojourn in Poland. Altogether it took him two years to reach his family in Dolginov. When he arrived he found his town in total destruction. The village had been entirely ravaged and his house almost totally demolished. It was very difficult for Wolf to see such devastation. Wolf and the remaining members of his family managed to rebuild half of their home. The other half was never completed.

In the early 1920’s, Wolf resumed his journalistic activities and began writing articles for the local papers — “Belaruski Zvon” (Belarusian Bell), “Belaruskija Vedamasсi” (Belarusian News), “Nash Sciah” (Our Flag) and others, and he became more socially and politically active in his community. On May 10, 1922, he and a group of men were arrested by the Polish police for cooperation with the Belarusian revolutionary press and participation in the illegal celebration of May Day, the socialist holiday celebrated on the first of May. They were taken to the village of Kostenevichi and then to Molodechno. During incarceration he was tortured quite severely, then released and, with his enduring stamina, managed to recover and make it back to Dolginov.

He joined the Youth Movement for the War Disabled and organized the construction of a hospital for war victims suffering from dysentery and typhus. Those without financial means received treatment for free; wealthier patients paid what they could. The group also helped to open a local pharmacy outlet. Wolf would receive prescriptions from the local physicians and travel by train to Vilna to pick up medicines and bring them back to the pharmacy in Dolginov. The medications were subsidized by charging a fee to attend local shows and plays and from selling flowers.

During one trip to Vilna, he traveled to nearby Mizlav, in order to catch the Vilna train. Upon attempting to purchase a ticket the ticketmaster refused to sell him one. When questioned why, the ticketmaster explained that there was only one train coming though at that time, and it was packed with soldiers who took priority. When Wolf explained the purpose of his trip and showed him the prescriptions, he was sold the ticket “on his own responsibility”.

The train to Vilna was indeed packed solid and he had to squeeze himself into the train car. The moment the doors shut, he found himself in trouble. The Russian soldiers recognized immediately that he was a Jew and started taunting him. One soldier grabbed his fur cap and they decided among themselves that, at the next station, they would throw him off the train. Since Wolf understood their language, he knew what their plans were so he began to sing. And when he was finished, he sat himself down on one of the seats. When the soldiers asked him to continue singing, he refused to do so until his cap was returned. And it was.

As it turned out, his singing helped not only himself but the other Jews on the train who also feared for their lives. During the years that followed, he gained a reputation, and, whenever a Jew from a neighboring hamlet saw him, he would point and say, “Here is the Jew that saved us with his song.”

Wolf married his childhood sweetheart, Rochel Leah, in 1921, and they had 6 children, five boys and one girl, named Henya.

Wolf (on the left) with his family in Dolginov

Unfortunately, Rochel Leah died suddenly, in 1935, leaving him alone to care for his large family. Somehow he managed to do so with help from Rochel Leah’s mother.


Backside of the photo; List of the children: Mordechai Leyb (1930), Avraham (1932), Baruch (1922), Zelik (1934), Henya (1928), Reuven (1923)

In the early 1930’s, Wolf wrote to Yanka Stankevich, a well-known linguist and historian, and suggested an interesting topic for research: Jewish religious songs in the Belarusian language. Stankevich published one of the songs Wolf had sent him, “Batska, Batska”, which became part of Wolf’s hand-written collection, “Belarusian-Jewish Folklore from Dolginov”. This compilation of songs is stored to this day in the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Wolf left behind a comprehensive listing—in Latin terminology—of various herbs and plants, available at the time, and their medicinal uses. It is not clear when he complied this listing, but it may very well have been during the period when he was involved with the pharmacy.

Community Affairs

In 1927, with the support of friends, Wolf was elected to the Dolginov Municipality (a unit of local self-government, similar to a village council), but after several disputes with the local nobility he gave up his position.

Wolf was an indefatigable fighter for justice and truth and against high taxes. The local residents of Dolginov often approached him for legal advice on various complex and controversial issues. In 1929, he acted as a witness in the case of a peasant revolt against the police.

Clashes between the Poles and Russians continued throughout the 1920s and 30s resulting in the border switching back and forth almost on a daily basis. The residents, especially the Jews, were treated badly by both sides and they suffered greatly from this situation.

Lithuania, with its capital, Vilna, alongside western Belarus were ruled by the Poles, and they imposed hefty taxes on the Jews. Businessmen and merchants banded together to try to protect their interests by opening banking cooperatives. Dolginov picked up on this idea and opened their own cooperatives, similar to merchant unions, and also charitable foundations. Wolf was active in his cooperative for 14 years and reached the level of assistant to the bank president.

In 1933, the directors of the cooperatives decided to construct a building for the Tarbut School which, until that time, had been forced to hold classes in the homes of private citizens. Wolf’s daughter was attending the school, and he was chosen to head the committee to organize and develop the new construction. He worked for the cooperative until the Soviets took over Dolginov.

Despite the many acts of abuse by the Poles against them, the Jews somehow managed to show strength and integrity within their community. At one point, Wolf was accused of being a communist. He spent six months in prison under extremely difficult conditions and was unwell for a year and a half following his release. His condition didn’t slow him down, however. He continued the fight for his community and remained involved in many cultural and social activities.

Raya Sosensky, Israel

(to be continued)

Published 06/27/2021 12:09

My Father Wolf Sosensky (2)

part 1

In the Russian Army

Wolf’s journalistic activity came to a halt when, in 1910, he was drafted into Tsar Nikolai’s Russian Army and taken to Vilna. While being there, he managed to visit the office of Nasha Niva and became acquainted with many figures of Belarusian culture.

He served in the Russian army for four years. One of his younger brothers was mobilized at the same time but he disappeared without a trace, most probably killed in action. Wolf never heard anything more about him.

Oath taken by young Jewish soldiers in the Russian Army. Source of the picture

The army years made Wolf stronger in every way. He was extremely athletic to begin with, and his physical endurance always surpassed all the others. He could stand for two to three hours at a time holding a 3-meter long rifle without moving and could jump over large open pits without falling in. His fellow soldiers were jealous of him, but his beautiful voice saved him from their wrath. They appreciated his wonderful songs and melodious voice which had developed over the years. His musical ability garnered him a promotion and before he left the army in 1914 his officer told his unit, «Here is Wolf Sosensky, going off to fight with a song on his lips».

Due to the outbreak of World War I later in 1914, Wolf found himself back in the army as a result of wartime mobilization. His unit was almost immediately captured by the Germans. Together with six other prisoners of war (POWs), he spent four years as a POW under very harsh, freezing conditions with barely anything to eat. One thing that helped Wolf survive was that he had endeared himself to his captors by sewing clothing for high ranking German officers’ wives. The prisoners tried several times to escape, and one day they refused to go to work, for which they were punished.

Before the capture, Wolf told of an incident whereby, while sitting in the trenches, the soldier positioned next to him asked to switch places citing discomfort. Wolf readily agreed and several minutes later, the soldier was shot in the head. This was Hashgacha Pratis, a miracle, as the changed location saved his life.

Wolf’s easy going manner endeared him to his fellow soldiers and they looked up to him. After witnessing the death of several of his friends as a result of smoking, Wolf, who had been a cigarette smoker, convinced his fellow soldiers to stop the deadly habit. He himself gave it up, «cold turkey», and many of the other soldiers followed suit.

Jews (soldiers and officers) in the Russian Army during Pessakh ceremony. Source

His experience in the army and in the POW camp afforded him the opportunity to hone some of the languages he already knew and to learn others. He ended up speaking Belarusian, Polish, German, Russian, Latvian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Also, while in the camp he cleverly sewed three rubles into the lining of his coat.

In 1918 as the War was drawing to a close, a revolt erupted in Germany and Wolf, along with several other detainees, somehow managed to escape from the camp. He used the money from his coat to help him survive and he managed to get to Poland where he spent the better part of the next two years.

During his military stint, he never hid the fact that he was Jewish.

Raya Sosensky, Israel

(to be continued)

Published 06/03/2021 22:02

My Father Wolf Sosensky (1)

Early Years

Wolf Sosensky was born in the town of Dolginov in the Vileika district of Wilno province in what was then Russian Empire in February 1883. Not much is known about his childhood except that he was one of nine children—eight boys and one girl.

Two of his older brothers were already steeped in Torah and were learning full time in a local cheder. Wolf was a precocious child from the very beginning and the story that has been passed down was that one morning, when he was only three years old, he followed his siblings to their cheder without realizing where they were going. After watching what they were doingsitting and learning TorahWolf decided that there was nothing he wanted to do more than that. The Rebbe, as well as Wolf’s parents, felt that he was too young to start learning in such a formal method, but the Rebbe decided to give the boy a chance.

Not surprisingly, Wolf turned out to be a born ‘learner’ and he spent seven years there studying Torah each day with a well-known melamed (a religious teacher), Yitzchak Wolf (no relation). But when a major fire erupted in the town totally destroying the Sosensky farm and home, the family was left with very few resources. Wolf had to set aside his learning and help support the family.

Wolf’s grandfather had been a tailor and he had quite a few wealthy customers. His father, Abel Sosensky, followed in his footsteps, sewing uniforms for high-ranking Russian soldiers. But despite the many hours he spent trying to make a living, money was always scarce.

At the age of nine, while continuing his Torah education, Wolf was introduced to the sewing trade and worked in his father’s work shop for many years. His expertise in sewing came in handy over the years and helped him to survive.

With his family house rebuilt, and the Renaissance movement at its height, many guests would congregate in the evenings in the Sosensky home, telling stories about the glorious Belarusian past and offering a world view of what was going on at the time. Some of them still recalled the events of the uprising of 1863-1864, an insurrection in Poland against Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Wolf, as a teenager in the 1890’s, embraced the idea of a Belarusian revival and joined the National Liberation Movement, engaging in numerous educational activities. He also distributed illegal literature against the Russian autocracy to the surrounding villages. Wolf was an avid reader and devoured any book he could find. His father, who was well learned and knew French and German, encouraged him in this endeavor.

He became a member of the Bundthe Jewish Socialist Partyin 1903 and later joined the amateur cultural circle which had operated in Dolginov since 1904. There he and other young men and women met to discuss books they had read and to disseminate knowledge on any number of relevant topics.

Wolf had a wonderful singing voice which offered him solace from his troubles on many occasions. People from his town enjoyed hearing him sing and they invited him to join them at their smachot (happy occasions). He never refused. He would chant, tell stories and light up the crowd.

In the fall of 1906, Wolf traveled to Vilna and took part in the distribution of the first Belarusian newspaper, Nasha Dolia (Our Fate), a publication that was eventually banned by Tsarist authorities.

During the same year, the Student Movement for the Cultural Development of Belarus emerged and it distributed a publication, Nasha Niva (Our Field), which focus was mostly public businesses while promoting Belarusian language and culture. Founded in 1906, it was one of the oldest Belarusian weekly newspapers. During World War I, Nasha Niva was not supportive of Russia’s war effort, and the Tsar’s government closed down the publication. (It remained dormant until 1991 when it was re-established for a newly independent Belarus.)

In 1908, at age 25, Wolf began to write for the paper and he offered his readers vivid descriptions of life in Dolginov during this period. He was well aware of the dangers inherent in distributing the Belarusian newspaper at that time, but, it didn’t deter him. The result was that, in 1909, he spent a month in the Vileyka District Prison.

Throughout these years, he continued his tailoring trade. At one point, he decided to learn additional sewing skills and completed a tailoring class in Germany at a Dresden academy. He also opened a sewing workshop and a tailoring school in his home. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed his house, once again, and with it his dreams vanished.

Wolf was ‘autodidact’ (a person who studies a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education), and he taught himself several languages some of which became useful during his lifetime.

He also gave classes at the Tarbut School. The Tarbut Movement was a network of secular, Hebrew-language schools in parts of the former Jewish Pale of Settlement, specifically in Poland, Romania and Lithuania. Its existence was primarily between World Wars I and II.

Raya Sosensky, Israel

(to be continued)

Published 05/21/2021 18:13