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The Bielsko Community Along the Generations

 

The History of the Jews in Bielsko

Translated by Sara Mages

 

A.

The assumption that the first Jews settled in Bielsko in the second half of the 17th century, is confirmed by documents that were found in the Silesian archives in Troppau {Opava Czech Republic]. Jews are mentioned in a complaint, that was filed on 12.8.1677 by the Merchants Association in Bielsko, against the “Jewish tax collector” - Yakov Singer - who was probably a government's customs official. The main complaint was that the aforementioned settled in the city. It was an exceptional case that aroused the attention of the Merchants Association, who fulfilled its patriotic duty and informed the authorities about the violation of the law and the good order of the city. Presumably, this Jew belonged to the Singer family, who received from the Duchy of Teschen - who dominated the city of Bielsko - the right to collect customs in the Bielsko's region. It seems that the Jew Singer can be considered as the “founder” of the Jewish community in Bielsko. He was the pioneer of the slow penetration of additional Jews in a period when the rulers of Silesia forbade the settling of Jews in the city. In 1695, the Merchants Association filed another complaint against the same Jew Singer. This time they complained that he began to engage in the secret production of brandy, and his second sin was, that he stopped paying the tax imposed on him as a “protected Jew.” It's unlikely that this Jew dared to be insolent to the city's authorities, and denied his duty to it. Presumably, he paid his taxes directly to the Duchy of Teschen, from which he received his permit and also the right to live in the city. The duchy preferred to conceal this chapter from the city of Bielsko. According to the existing legal situation, the municipality was forced to accept the actions of the unwanted Jew, who was living under the protection of the duchy.

The situation of the few Jews of Silesia worsened at the beginning of the 18th century. The central government in Vienna decided to reduce the employment sectors permitted to the Jews, and ordered to check the legitimacy of the permit that gave the Jews permission to live in various locations. To impose more difficulties on these Jews, a decree, which forced the Jews to pay a special tax to the state treasury in addition to the taxes and levies that were collected from them by the local authorities, was published in 1713 by Kaiser Karl VI.

The restrictions and burdens probably didn't pacify the rulers' spirit. The presence of a few Jews disturbed their rest. In 1735, a Jewish census was held again in Silesia. The local authorities were ordered to follow the instructions strictly and sternly, and to examine the issue of marriages that took place among the Jews, their number and their dates. According to the census there were four Jewish families at that time: Yosef Mozes, Avraham Lebel, Yitzchak Glata and Moshe Hertzko. The census takers emphasized with great satisfaction that marriages didn't take place in Bielsko.

Apparently, the census has shown, that despite all the restrictions and burdens the Jews managed to infiltrate, in various ploys, to different locations in Silesia, and their number increased.

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To correct this distortion the central government in Vienna ordered to expel from Silesia every Jew, who couldn't prove by valid documents, that he was included in the status of “protected Jew.” The nobles, the landowners, were allowed to give these documents to their employees. In Bielsko, the family of Yosef Mozes, who was under the protection of Graf von Haugwitz the ruler of the Bielsko estate, enjoyed this status .Yosef Mozes and his family were employed by this noble in various jobs. He was a customs agent, tax collector, and managed the finance of the estate. Although the resident permit was issued under Yosef Mozes' name - but in fact, and without the noble's knowledge - the permit also included his very extensive family. This family included sons and daughters, brides and grooms, and even those who worked in the family's home services. As mentioned, Yosef Mozes was the head of this extensive family. In later years, he changed his surname to Panet. The services of Yosef Panet to his noble benefactor were probably many and very useful. Contrary to the norm and the guidelines of the law, the nobleman gave Yosef Panet's two sons residency rights in their names, which caused again the expansion of the family structure. One of his sons, Yechezkel, devoted himself to the study of the Torah. He spent years in the most important Yeshivot of that time in Prague and Leibniz, and also received his rabbinic ordination there. He left Bielsko, and served for many years as a rabbi in the communities of Ostrik and Tertsal [Tarcal], and later in Karlsburg [Alba Iulia] in Siebenbürgen [Transylvania].

It's interesting to note a special detail related the name of Rabbi Yechezkel Panet and the Jews of Bielsko. The name of Yechezkel Panet became famous throughout the country as a superlative Torah scholar. The number of Jewish families, who felt the need for a reliable rabbi and a leader for their developing community, increased during the years of his absence from Bielsko. A request signed by 18 heads of families was sent to Rabbi Yechezkel Panet. He was asked to accept the post of the rabbi of their community - in his hometown - and to continue his relationship with this community. All the requests and pleas were to no avail, and also tempting offers of payments didn't change Yechezkel Panet's mind. He saw a sacred duty in his tenure in Karlsburg and he definitely couldn't abandon it.

This petition of 18 heads of family left us a document attesting, that in1816, at least 18 families lived in Bielsko, and we need to see this public as the first community in its history, although it still hasn't received a legal recognition from the authorities yet.

 

B.

We find instructive details about the status of the Jews in the second half of the 18th century, and the attitude of the authorities and the German population towards them, in a book by Dr. Theodore Hazzah. The book, which was published in 1873, deals with “the weaving industry in Bielsko and its historical development.” The author, an important personality, one of the spiritual leaders of the church, with a humane and liberal outlook, dedicates important chapters of his book to the history of the Jews in Bielsko. They have great value in understanding the process of the Jews' settlement in this city, their integration into the economy and the society, until they were able to be, in less than a century, an intentional and influential factor of the economic and social prosperity of the city, which was famous in the Austrian Empire and even beyond its borders.

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The situation is examined and described, out of a comprehensive and qualified knowledge, in the chapter discussing the weaving industry in the 18th century. The main source of income for the population was the weaving industry, the wool trade, and the marketing of manufactured fabrics. The wool and fabric trade was largely in the hands of the Jews. More than 500 independent weavers employed thousands of workers who lived in Bielsko, Biała and the surrounding villages. The produce was sold to Galicia, Hungary and even reached faraway Turkey. It's important to note, that the trade of weaving products was largely, or almost entirely, in Jewish hands. This data demonstrate the importance of the weaving industry, and the Jews' contribution to its prosperity. The development of the city was dependent and related to the industry's prosperity, and everyone was interested in its rapid development. The population of the city was still small and sparse. There were 550 houses in which 4200 people lived. The “foreigners,” who lived in the city temporarily, weren't included in this number. They weren't considered to be its residents. These “foreigners” were Jews who were only associated with the weaving industry.

The weavers, manufacturers, and textile merchants constituted the dominant class in the city. This class had a lot of influence on the city's authorities, and on everything that was done within it. Due to their economic power they saw themselves as the “masters of the city.” The Weavers Association was interested in the activities of the Jews in the city, and yielded the maximum benefit from them. They recognized that they played a positive and beneficial part in the development of the city. The Weavers Association didn't approve the restrictions that the government imposed on the Jews, and their division into “tolerable,” “protected Jews” and “foreigners” who had to fight often for the renewal of their permits to live in the city. The weavers, who had power and influence in the city, pressured the authorities to change their attitude towards the Jews, and to allow them to continue with their beneficial activities. They demanded to spare the Jews from suffering and insults, and thereby to prevent them from leaving the city. In a memorandum to the city council from 8.21.1761 (one of many that were sent earlier), which was signed by the Weavers Association, is says: “We, who represent the most important economic industry in the city, turn your attention to the harmful actions carried out by the “Duchy” against the Jewish merchants who came to us from Poland. Surely you know the difficulties that we encounter to obtain the wool - the main raw material - for the production of fabrics. Many weaving mills have stopped working due to the lack of wool, and if the Jews wouldn't be able to continuing their work - due to injuries and insults by the duchy - there's a danger that the entire industry will be paralyzed. We made great efforts on our part to strengthen our ties with the Jews. We derive great benefits from them, whether by purchasing wool in favorable terms or by the sale of the fabric by them. One may add that the duchy and the city receive large revenues from the collection of customs and travel permits. Therefore, the new decree against the Jews arouses our anger and our opposition. According to the decree, every Jew, who comes to our city for the purpose of his business, has to pay “ransom” to the duchy's treasury for his protection. We're puzzled about this offensive and illegal tax. We ask: what kind of protection the duchy gives the Jews? In our opinion, this is a pretext to extort money! These Jews are staying in our city's guest houses and eat in the restaurants. They rent warehouses to store their wool - and all of this for the benefit of the residents of the city. They stay in the city

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for their business, and return to their homes when they finish their work. What is the duchy protecting? We're sure that the duchy operates without the authority of the central government, and without legal basis.” In this memorandum the complainants emphasize a characteristic episode of solidarity between the Jews. Jewish merchants from Oderberg [Bohumin] and ¯ory (Moravia), who were asked to serve as substitutes for the Jewish merchants from Poland, agreed to pay the new tax - but, under the condition that the activities of the Jewish merchants from Poland and Hungary will not be interrupted by the authorities - a condition that the duchy was willing to accept.

At the end of the memorandum, the complainants ask to urgently transfer their complaint to the authorized authorities in Vienna, with a warm recommendation of the city council. The Weavers Association firm complaint bore fruit. The duchy surrendered to the central government instruction - however, it continued to connive. After a short period the duchy has renewed its demand for the payment of “ransom.” The Weavers Association complained again in a memorandum to the city council. The following matters were described in the complaint: Jews from Seltschan (Slovakia) - Yakov David and Feibush Wolf - settled temporarily in our city. Immediately after their arrival to the city they were asked by a representative of the “duchy” to pay “ransom,” which at that time was called by the duchy “protection ransom.” The tax is at a height of two Ducats a year and it's necessary to pay five years in advance. The defendants refused to comply with the requirement. As a result, the duchy confiscated the horses and wagons in which they reached the city. The confiscation was canceled after the two respected citizens agreed to guarantee the payment of the ransom.”

This case was brought to the attention of the mayor, and he reported it to the provincial government in a memorandum from 8.29.1761. The mayor relied on a government noticed that was published in public. According to it, the government encouraged the Jews' commercial ties with Silesia - since the trade of agricultural produce, wool and fabric, was beneficial to the entire population.

Although the provincial government ordered the duchy to stop illegal tax collection, occasionally it tried to revive its power, and also succeeded in it. Maybe because the merchants surrendered to the demand and paid the ransom, or those, who refused to pay, didn't complain to the city council and decided not to stay in the city. There were also cases when the merchants dared to oppose the demand of payment to the duchy based on the authorities' instructions, and paid no attention to the threats of the duchy's representative. A story is told about a case, in which the duchy's representative searched for a stick, and with blows and curses expelled the trader who refused to pay, and chased him to the city's exit gate. This case became known to the mayor, who has done everything that his status and power allowed him to. The hide and seek game between the duchy and the city council went on for years, with short or long breaks.

The author notes with satisfaction, that after a long and persistent campaign by the city council, which was supported by the important economic factors, the duchy surrendered to the central government order from 3.21.1769, and ceased its activities. As a result, the Jewish merchants were released from their constant nightmare, and the road was pave for them, and for many who came after them, to engage freely in their profession.

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C.

The origin of Bielsko's Jews was varied. Until the First World War the Jews came to settle in Bielsko from the domain of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They came from Galicia, Hungary, Moravia and Slovakia. Their linguistic and cultural affinity and their religious devotion were different, and referred to their place of origin. However, their identification with the empire and the dominant factor - the German majority - was unshakable. The Jews were grateful to the royal family, who gave them equality of rights, security and uninterrupted economic existence. On the other hand, the government looked favorably on their immersion in Bielsko - a German enclave in Poland - and saw in them a desirable reserve for the strengthening of the German element - the safest support of the monarchy. The government agreed to the assimilation of the Jews, not by compulsion but in pleasant ways, until they became Germans in every respect, except for their religious belief. The majority of Bielsko's Jews adapted themselves, without misgivings, to the government's desired trend. Their lifestyle, language and cultural affinity weren't different from those of the Germans. Politically, they constituted the most loyal section of the non-German Austrian population.

The religious life, as it was shaped by the community leaders, was similar to the religious life that was customary in the western part of the country and in its capital. It was a sharp deviation from their past perception. Jews, at least those who were middle-aged, brought rooted Jewish tradition from their place of origin. They were strictly observant, and their Jewish national consciousness was rooted without being accompanied by definitions and declarations. A short time after their arrival to Bielsko, they removed not only their unique clothing but also the traditional Jewish content - some out of completion and lack of choice, and many out of desire. Judaism that lacked national desire, self-image and Jewish uniqueness - all that retained their Judaism until now - was formed. It was no surprise that the second generation, who was born in Bielsko and educated in German schools, drew away from its original source and saw himself as German, except for the Jewish point which was expressed in a visit to the “Temple” on High Holidays, or a compulsory visit on Saturday afternoon to hear the rabbi's routine sermon in fluent German. The few Jews, with religious tendencies, invested great efforts to provide religious education to their children outside the formal framework, in evening lessons with private teachers. They struggled to release their children from school on the Sabbath and on holidays, and provided them with the basic Jewish values. But the result of this education was poor because of the reality that surrounded this religious Jewry. Many assimilated at that time, some less and some more.

This economic trend was slightly disrupted with the rise of the Zionist idea on the public stage. The Zionist idea infiltrated the youth ranks and the students' circles, and gained popularity. Unrest arose among the Jewish public when the adult Zionists organized themselves. The absolute compulsion to the conventions, as it was presented by the community leaders and its spokesmen, provoked unrest and insecurity. The Zionist meetings attracted a large audience. The fear from the “evil eye” and damage to the economic and social status,

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prevented those, who were convinced in the rightness of the concept, from demonstrating their solidarity in public. From the public aspect - the Zionist candidates failed in the elections to the community and the municipality, and for many years there wasn't a Zionist candidate who was eligible to be elected. The chosen, distinguished personalities, persons of high class, owners of academic degree and the wealthy, jealously guarded their German image. They thought that any deviation can be harmful to the relationship with the German population, and will hurt the rulers' trust in the Jewish community. After all, according their belief and the belief of their representatives, these relationships and this trust formed the foundation for the Jews' status and economic prosperity. Indeed, it was good for the Jews! Their quick rise in the industry, commerce and liberal professions, promised them safety, strength and respect. The Jews were afraid of losing these positions.

Bielsko served as the focal of attraction for the Jews. They didn't encounter difficulties concerning absorption, employment and livelihood. The flourishing economy absorbed the labor forces in various industries, and the “immigrants,” as the newcomers were called, were swallowed quickly in the general population. The “saying,” there aren't any Jewish laborers and poor people in our city, circulated among the Jews, and that was the real situation. This rosy reality caused the Jews to forget the small opposites in their relations with the majority. Anti-Semitism, attacks on Jewish dignity and social boycott, were signs that worried many. However, the Jewish public officials deliberately ignored them, and maybe they also didn't think about effective measures to fight this phenomenon. This community was afraid of struggles. What the Jews didn't do to prove their devotion to the German culture, their loyalty to the government and its policies? After all, the only factor that separated them was their religious affinity, and this affinity was quite weak among most of the members of the public and its representatives. The Jews were among the generous donors to cultural activities, education, theater, philharmonic, and all the social and humanitarian institutions in the city. The Jews weren't absent from the various tasks for the benefit of the German population. This exemplary dedication didn't help to remove the buffer. It worked dialectically. When the Gymnastics Association closed its doors to young Jews, the Sports Association “Maccabi” was founded, and when young Jewish men and women were not allowed to sing in the German Music Association, a Jewish Music Association was founded. It also happened in other areas - such as the economic framework. The public representatives didn't publish this phenomenon, and tried to conceal it and reduce its value. The admission of its existence demanded conclusions. It was comfortable for them to live in sweet illusions, to hold the belief of equality, brotherhood and national solidarity.

These illusions were shattered with the collapse of the Austrian Empire. German Bielsko changed its image in the new Polish regime. Many Germans chose to immigrate to Austria, a right that was granted to them under the peace treaty. Those who remained folded their flags and hoped deep in their hearts for “liberation,” and “revenge.” The German-Austrian chapter of Bielsko's Jews ended.

 


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The Jewish Community

Translated by Sara Mages

 

A.

The right of residence of the Jews in Austrian Silesia was arranged by orders given by the authorities on 12.15.1781 and 4.17.1752. The conditions for granting residency rights to the Jews in Silesia were determined in the frameworks of the orders mentioned above. Their aim was to minimize, as much as much as possible, the number of Jews and their activities in their place of residence. Restrictions were also set for the existence of religious worship and other religious services. Jews were allowed to pray within the family circle, but not in public. They weren't allowed to build a place of worship, nominate a rabbi, or organize in any way for the needs of their community.

Taking into account the small number of Jews in Silesia, they were given the right to establish umbrella organizations in three districts under the legal name of “Judenschaft” - “Jewish community,” and Heaven forbid! not a Jewish organization. The existence of a Jewish organization at that time wasn't tolerated by the authorities. The role of these frameworks was: collection of taxes for the community, management of the religious services, registration of births, marriages and death. These activities were supervised by the provincial government. These “frameworks,” and the fulfillment of their duties, operated under the authority of the law. In theory, they weren't recognized by the authorities as representatives of the Jews, but in fact, for the Jews and also the Christian population, this “framework” was an active Jewish community.

Bielsko was a subordinate of the umbrella organization of the Teschen district until 1865 - the year of the legal establishment of the Jewish community. Until that year, the community affairs were conducted by personnel, who were selected at the general meeting of the Jewish residents, with the consent and under the supervision of the district umbrella organization in Teschen. The elected personnel saw its primary function in the building of a synagogue that will contain all the worshipers. On 2.2.1828, thanks to the care of the district umbrella organization, the long-awaited authorization was received from the government. The entire small Jewish community in Bielsko enlisted, with exceptional devotion, to the realization of the plan.

The members of the community generously donated the large sums of money needed for the purchase of the lot. The fundraising, the search for the lot, the building, and obtaining the purchase permit lasted three years. The lot was purchased in 1831 from the citizen Gottlib Kotzis, and was legally registered under the name “The Jewish Synagogue.” Again, it took years until the Jews of Bielsko were able to collect the financial means for the construction of the building. According to the certificate of registration in the land registry from 3.8.1839, the value of the building was estimated at 7000 Florins, a huge sum at that time. Apparently, the means that were collected weren't enough. The names of the people, who were responsible for the lien on the building, were also listed in the aforementioned certificate: A.Y. Brill, M. Risenfeld and B. Herzberg. They were called the “Bielitzer tolerierte Juden” - “The tolerated Jews of Bielsko.” It's interesting to mention, that since the establishment of the synagogue, the street where it stood was called “Templstrasse,” meaning, the Synagogue Street. Over the years the name was approve by the city council.

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The activities of the community officials weren't limited to the building of the synagogue. They made efforts to expand the community's activities, and succeeded in it. With the government's approval, they purchased a plot of land for the establishment of a cemetery, and in 1848 received permission to conduct the registration of births, marriages and death. The expansion of the authorized operations, and others that were conducted without a permit: - Kosher slaughtering, Torah lessons in the evenings and others - brought the community towards a recognized status of an autonomous community.

The largest period of growth in the number of Jews in Bielsko, which led to the advancement of the community, came in the year 1848-49 with the declaration of civil equality to all the Austrian citizens. The royal decree from March 4, 1849, gave all the citizens of the country freedom of worship, religious education for their children, and the right to organize in communal frameworks. Under the validity of the decree, all the restrictions on free movement, the settlement and the occupations of the citizens of the country, were abolished. And also the Jews had light!

Allegedly, and in accordance with the legal conditions, the Jews of Bielsko received the right to maintain the independent community institutions, and break away from their dependence on the umbrella organization in Teschen. Allegedly yes, but in fact they encountered difficulties and obstacles. The desire of Bielsko's Jews to separate resulted in an open quarrel with the management of the umbrella organization. In the absence of a qualified Jewish institution that could decide in this civil strife, the matter was brought for clarification to the district court in Teschen. Unfortunately for the Bielitzers, the inquiry dragged for years. In 1862, that is, ten years after the submission of the matter for litigation, the court ruled that there was no legal basis to require the Jews of Bielsko to pay taxes to the umbrella organization in Teschen, and they were allowed to manage their own affairs freely. However, the guardians in Teschen weren't in a hurry to give freedom to their brothers in Bielsko, and the negotiations on the terms of the separations, and the removal of reciprocal claims, lasted three more years. In 1865, the Jews of Bielsko were able to announce the establishment of an autonomous community in Bielsko.

During the tranquil period, the patriarchal and conservative, that didn't know the pace of our times, the verdict wasn't modified by the current administration. The same “personnel,” who was elected by the general assembly, continued its activities under the existing regulations. In 1872, the regulations were changed by the government, and that same year, the legal community administration was elected for the first time in the history of the Jews of Bielsko. Sixty eight residents, who were able to pay a community tax of five Florins, were included among the voters. The first community chairman was B. Holender. There's no convincing explanation for the small number of voters in the coming years.118 voters attended the elections that were held in 1885. Six years later, in 1881 - 111 voters! In 1895, we find that the number of voters increased to 224, and also this number isn't related to the number of Jewish residents, which at that time was estimated at approximately 2000 person, that means, about 400 households.

The community life went of peacefully. The first community committee, which was headed by B. Holender, was elected in 1865. He continued the activities of the previous “committees,” who operated before the community received its legal status.

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The few services provided the most vital needs of the small public. Meanwhile, new settlers were added to the city. The number of worshipers has grown steadily, and the place of worship on Templstrasse was too small for those who worshiped there. In 1870, the Jews who came from Poland founded a place of worship, which was called the “Polish synagogue,” in a rented apartment. During the holidays, the community council rented halls, which were available to the worshipers in various locations in the city. In 1879 - the last year of Holender's term as the community chairman - the community council discussed this issue, and decided to take all the necessary measures to build a new modern synagogue! A committee was elected to deal with the issue - the purchase of suitable lot in a central location, and raising the necessary funds in the form of loans and by volunteer members of the community. On the occasions of the death of the community chairman, B. Holender, at the end of the year mentioned above, the realization of the decision was halted. However, immediately after the election of a new chairman, A. Brill, all the steps were taken to speed up the realization of the decision. Indeed, in 1881 the new synagogue was inaugurated. It was built in the city center, on the main street, and for a budget of 100,000 Florins, a legendary sum in those days.

It's astonishing that this public, which was different in its origin and economic status - many were new residents in the city - was also able to carry the burden of other institutions - the school, the cemetery buildings and the flamboyant enterprise, the new grand synagogue, that there were few like it around the country. We must understand the needs of this generation, the first to win civil rights, liberty and freedom of religion. These Jews, who were ostracized and humiliated, were rewarded, thanks to their diligence and vigor, with a solid financial position and a respectable social status. Their pride in their success energized the community leaders and the entire public to increase their efforts and contributions.

The period of extensive activity ended towards the end of the 19th century. A. Brill, the energetic community chairman, passed away in 1898. S. Pollak, one of the senior members of the community council, was elected in his place. The change of leaders didn't cause the reduction in the community activities. The main reason was the new concept, which was formed by the community leadership, in relation to its contents and purpose of the religious functions in the existing circumstances. Meaningful processes occurred in the Jewish community since its inception in 1865. The trend to integrate with the German majority - in the language, education, culture and lifestyle - increased. The affinity for tradition and sacred values weakened. The sense of unity and shared fate, that united the nation during its exile, dissolved. The lofty goal was to assimilate into the dominate nation, identify with it, and be equal not different. This aspiration was nurtured diligently and vigorously by the community leaders, and found support and ample opportunities within the upper class and among the educated. A thin thread connected them to the religious framework - the community. There were many occasions where this thread was torn, and caused a withdrawal from the Jewish people, and at times, also conversion.

The community leaders have molded its image and the trend of its operations, according to the perception that took root in the wide circles of the Jewish public, a concept that they nurtured and participated in. Therefore, it was natural for them to see that the community fulfilled its defined role, and there was no

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need to look for other areas of activities. Its defined role was - to conduct the religious worship. A magnificent synagogue was built for this purpose, the necessary religious services were given to the public, and school children were given lessons in Judaism. They were satisfied that the team of public servants - the community rabbi, cantor, and community officials - fulfilled their roles faithfully and respectfully.

Indeed, there were those who opposed the way the community operated and the world view of its leaders, but they still constituted a small minority. They came from the Zionists circles, who just started to organize, and those who streamed to them were mostly teenagers. Since they didn't pay taxes to the community they had no right to vote, and therefore, they didn't constitute a disturbing factor. Among the opponents were a number of orthodox Jews who settled in Bielsko not long ago. They were textile industrialists and respectable merchants. Their contribution to the Jewish life was insignificant. They boycotted the community and its religious services, and voluntarily removed themselves from participation in the community life.

S. Pollak term as the community chairman ended in 1919. The balance of activities during the years of his tenure was modest, and the events that occurred weren't of special importance, except for a very important operation that was conducted with vigor and vision: the establishment of the community building, a center for the activities of the Jewish community in Bielsko. Until its establishment, the community institutions and offices were scattered in rented apartments. Their dispersion made it difficult to work effectively, and caused great inconvenience to the public. The situation didn't bring honor to the community because of its considerable financial position. The large community building was built next to the synagogue. The building housed, besides the community offices, also the ceremonial apartments of the rabbi and the cantor. It contained a fine meeting hall, and there was a restaurant on the ground floor for the students of the Technical School.

In 1909, Bernard Simhovitch was elected as chairman of the community. B. Simhovitch inherited from his predecessors a well organized community with nice assets - a magnificent synagogue, community buildings, library, and social and religious institutions. All were suited to provide the religious needs of the Jewish public. The scope and the content of the requirements were set by the community management. It can be assumed, that the management didn't encounter serious resistance from the public. This is proven by the election results, which continuously brought the same persons to power. The community strictly guarded the current patterns, and acted out of a clear tendency to avoid a conflict between the affiliation with the Jewish community and the German national affinity. However, the conflict lay at the doorstep of the individual and the public, and its results were inevitable. The economic rise of the Jewish public, and the level of its education and culture, led to a social relationship with the non-Jewish majority. From a Jewish perspective this process had a negative result. It was visibly apparent that individuals, and also social circles, drew away from the Jewish society and its way of life. They neglected the most sacred values that symbolized their affinity to the Jewish community. There was an increase in inter-marriages and cases of abandonment of the community. Occasionally, there were also cases of conversion among the high society, the rich and the educated. The community leaders

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didn't attempt to fight this process, to prevent or reduce it, they had to act to strengthen the tradition, to provide Jewish education for the children, to foster sacred values - the observance of the Sabbath and holidays - and perhaps, the most effective means - to strengthen the national consciousness, the sense of solidarity with the Jewish people. This trend was contrary to the world view of the community leaders. They probably regretted, from a personal viewpoint, the various negative phenomena that were mentioned above. Personally, they considered themselves loyal Jews. Some of them were observant - but they accepted this process, which in their opinion, was derived by the new reality.

Therefore, we can't find in a period of 12-13 years - the first term of B. Simhovitch as chairman of the community - events, actions and meaningful innovations. Everything went according to a routine of many years, which has become a tradition.

 

B.

A change, that brought a lot of danger and chances, occurred during B. Simhovitch second term. At the end of the First World War - in 1918 - Bielsko was added to the renewed Polish state. The ruling German majority, the “masters of the nation,” became a controlled minority, which was subjected to a strict rule and faced a population saturated with feelings of revenge. Their world was destroyed at a stroke and their creation, which was embroidered with diligence and skill over the centuries, was in danger of destruction. However, this wasn't just the feeling of the Germans. The vast majority of the Jews felt like them. Their world was also destroyed. They were faced with a hopeless situation. For three generations the Jews diligently cultivated their participation with the fate of the German nation, and denied their Jewish identity and its spiritual and cultural values. The integration theory, which served as a cornerstone to their existence and activities, has become an empty vessel, a failing spring, whose water ceased to flow - a false theory.

The Jews sought for the last resort in the total collapse. Many thought that this was time for critical thinking, time to return to the Jewish source and the Jewish identity, and to turn in one direction - Zionism. The Zionists struggled for many years for power and influence in the Jewish community. Now it was time to enlist the great majority of the Jews to their ranks. Indeed, many - adults, young people and especially the teenagers - gathered under their flag. The masses. But still, they haven't reached the coveted status, the decisive power. The senior community leaders, the assimilated and the anti-Zionists, remained at the top of the Jewish community leadership. They recovered after a period of shock and confusion, and searched for new routes to the new reality. They put their trust in the new government, and looked for protection and assistance. They acted according to the classical saying - “The King is dead, long live the King!” The leadership remained at the helm for years, not thanks to the government and not by force - but thanks to the voters. In the elections that were held in the years 1925-1927-1930, the overwhelming majority, the representatives of the “union” - the organization of the assimilated - were elected again and again.

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Indeed, the Zionists received a growing representation in these elections, indeed, they came to the brink of victory, but in fact, they haven't crossed that threshold.

During the last chapter of B. Simhovitch tenure, until 1931, the community became the scene of struggle and conflict between the Zionists and the majority of the assimilated and their allies - the representatives of “Agudat Yisrael.” Gone were the years in which the community leaders acted out of complete intimacy with the ruling circle, without opposition and without the public's interest. Also gone were the days in, which the undisputed line of action was expressed in maintaining the current course of action. The Zionists attacked the leadership's “historic” line of action with raging fury. They shook the silence, the Olympic calm that prevailed for decades in this central institute. The guiding principle in the Zionists' struggle, and their goal, was their desire to undermine the peace and quiet, the conservatism, the apathy, the estrangement from the new reality, and the urgent need to turn the community into an efficient instrument, which will strengthen the power and spirit of the Jewish people for the tasks of the period.

The platform is short to follow the stages of the struggles. We will mention the titles of a number of topics that indicate the Zionists' goals:

  1. Voting right to every man and woman aged 21 - without an obligation to pay tax - instead of the voting right that was given to the heads of families who paid their taxes. The required change will raise the current number of voters by fivefold.
  2. The organization of a Jewish educational system - similar in its form and content to the educational system of the Jews of Poland - at first, a primary education, and later, a secondary education.
  3. Identification with the Zionists activities in Israel, and financial support to the Zionist funds.
  4. Help to the youth, the pioneer training project, cultural institutions, and the teaching of the Hebrew language.
  5. The organization of constructive social services to relieve the situation of needy Jews and new residents who came from Poland and Galicia.
Although most of the demands came up against the furious opposition of the community leaders - their importance was in the very fact that they were presented before the public, and placed in the center of thought, as a commitment, that the Zionists will take upon themselves the burden of performance if they will be given the power to do so.

[Page 21]

Elections to the community were held in April 1931. The compromise that was reached between the Zionists and the “Union,” regarding the change in the right to vote, wasn't approved by the authorities. The existing law, which gave the right to vote only to the heads of families who paid their taxes to the community, remained in effect. Two blocs struggled for power in the community - the Zionists with their allies, and their historic rivals, the assimilated and their allies “Agudat Yisrael.” This time the ax fell. With a very small majority - but with a majority, the Zionists list led by Sigmund Arzet, had won. Eighty three percent, out of 1305 eligible voters, participated in the tense struggle. Bielsko's Jews were rewarded with a new community, different in its goals, and the Zionists had to prove that they were loyal to their platform and their promises!

The image of the new community has changed in the eight years of its existence, to the bitter end in 1939. A center, which represented the Jews of Bielsko, was formed instead of the institution for limited religious services. Its activities included any subject and any matter relating to the Jewish life, their needs and desires. The balance of activities, in the eight years of Sigmund Arzet tenure as the community chairman, exceeded all that was done during the seventy years of the community's existence. The members of the generation, who live with us, carry to this day the memory of Sigmund Arzet's period of stormy activities that, to the sorrow of our hearts, sunk in the abyss of the terrible holocaust.

*        *        *

The tenure of the Community's Rabbis

Dr. A. Frankfurter - in the years 1870-1875
Dr. V. Leser - in the years 1875-1882
Dr. A. Korien - in the years 1882-1888
Dr. S. Horowitz - in the years 1888-1895
Dr. M. Steiner - in the years 1896-1939

 


[Page 22]

Jewish Education, Its Various Branches

Translated by Sara Mages

 

A.

The Jewish Diaspora in the western countries saw Jewish education, in all of its forms, the primary means for maintaining the uniqueness, unity, and integrity of the Jewish community. The educational framework changed its form according to legal, political and social conditions. However, in all circumstances, the realization of the educational mission was dependent on the initiative of the Jewish society with its institutions, will-power and endurance.

In Austrian Silesia, the legal conditions for an educational system for Jewish children were created by the fundamental constitution of 1848, which gave equal rights to all the citizens of the country, and equal right to all faiths to worship their religion freely. Since this constitution didn't say anything about education - Bielsko's Jewish leaders saw the opportune moment to organize an educational system for the Jewish children. During those years, the state hasn't yet enacted the compulsory education law - a matter that enabled the Jewish community to act in this area. A section in the existing law - which allowed the Jewish community to engage in any internal affairs independently- didn't prevent an independent educational action. However, the Jewish community still had no legal standing. The “Jewish community,” the institution that was recognized by the authorities, hasn't been established in Bielsko as a legal independent institution (during those years Bielsko belonged to the Jewish community of Teschen). Only in 1865 the Jewish community in Bielsko was confirmed as a legal body representing the Jewish community. On the same year, the first school for Jewish children was founded in Bielsko. At first, the school was located in a rented apartment. In 1872, the school building, which was built in Templstrasse [Synagogue Street], was opened. The school contained five classes for boys and girls, and five years its after its establishment also received the official confirmation by the state authorities.

 

B.

With what this school was different from other schools that existed in the city? What was its trend, and how its Jewish essence was expressed? In order to try to answer these questions, it's necessary to reconstruct the social and political realities, and the Jews' economic status and national affinity.

Until the “emancipation,” only a few dozen Jewish families lived in Bielsko. Their number grew rapidly in 1848-50. The Jews originated from Silesia, Slovakia, Hungary and neighboring Galicia. Most of them came from German linguistic and cultural areas. For that reason, their integration into the German population in Bielsko was easy and desirable. The Jews were government loyalists, and patriots of the House of Habsburg -

[Page 23]

from which they obtained equal rights, livelihood and security. They saw themselves as German in every respect - except for their affinity to the Jewish religion. In those days, the concept of “patriotic Jew” wasn't known and wasn't accepted. The Jews' desire was to assimilate, as much and as quickly as possible, in the German environment, while maintaining their faith. According to their understanding, there was no contradiction between these two trends. They only adopted an outlook that spread throughout Western Europe in that century. The first school for Jewish children was designed according to this concept. The curriculum wasn't different from the one in German schools - only a few lessons in the Jewish religion and the study of prayers were added. The prominent Jewish uniqueness of the school was that there were no classes on Saturday, but, the students were required to attend services at the synagogue. The teaching language was German. The school was owned by the Jewish community, and was supported by its budget without the government's intervention and financial participation. From what we know, the school has developed properly. The number of students grew, and the space was too small for all the children. In 1890, the Jewish community saw the need to build a new larger building in Gisla Street, which was intended for the current students, and for those who will join it due to the rapid growth of the Jewish population. During this period, Philip Lemberger and Leopold Bilia, served as school principals. The school didn't satisfy the wishes of many parents. Parents with orthodox affiliation weren't satisfied with the “regular dose” of religious instruction that were given to their children, and they weren't happy with the extreme preference of secular studies over the religious studies. They found the answer to their aspiration by organizing evening classes with teachers who provided the missing education. “Heders” were also established in Bielsko. This framework was well known and widely used in the Jewish areas of Eastern Europe. With all their faults, we think, that their contribution to the strengthening of the children's affinity wasn't less than that of the school for Jewish children.

 

C.

In 1901, a drastic change occurred in the school's status. Under the provision of the new law, regarding the independence of the county's educational institutions, the ownership and control of the educational system was given to the authorities or to the municipality - along with the introduction of general compulsory education. Formally, the school for Jewish students ceased to exist. By order of the government, it was transferred to the ownership and supervision of the municipality. Logically, this transfer didn't have to cancel the special nature of the school, and the Jewish point in its curriculum. The law ordered to transfer it to the sole ownership of the municipality. Its existence as a school for Jewish students, by its name and its limited Jewish curriculum, wasn't against the law. It's possible, that the reason for its cancelation was rooted in a conflict among the Jews- more than the authorities' pressure. Thirty five years have passed since the founding of the school - a period of many changes in the life of the Jewish population.

[Page 24]

During these years the population grew up to 600-700 households - a population of approximately 4,000 people, about 15% of the total population. The Jews were very successful in the economic field, in the industry, commerce, and liberal professions. The integration with the German population was almost complete. Broad sectors of the Jewish population drew away from their affinity to Jewish issues. Many sought spiritual and cultural assimilation among the Germans. Graduates of the Jewish school also belonged to this social class, a matter that highlighted the lack of its value in the strengthening of the Jewish consciousness. In the course of 35 years, more and more Jewish children entered the German school. It wasn't only the desire of the students' parents, but also of the community leaders. In their opinion, it was the most important first stage towards the desired integration. Therefore, no attempt was made to fight, aggressively and stubbornly, for the continuation of the independent existence of the school with its limited Jewish content. The government's decree was accepted with resignation. The Jewish school was turned into a general school, which was also open to children of other religions. Indeed, the Jewish children were the vast majority among the students. Also the teachers remained in their duties, and the school principals, Leopold Belia and Yakov Goldbom, who served it for 20 years, tried as hard as they could to keep its previous character. The existing curriculum remained in effect, apart from the elimination of religion classes as a mandatory subject. However, one detail, which symbolized its Jewish character more than anything else, was gone. It was the Sabbath, the day off from school. The building continued to serve its purpose, and the sign - which symbolized its essence - was removed.

D.

For eighteen years, the Jewish education was absent in the developing and growing city. The Jewish population has doubled during that period. Most of the Jewish children found their place in German schools. Not all the Jewish community came to terms with this reality. During that time a great thing occurred in the life of the people. Zionism appeared on the historic stage of the nation, and raised the vision of an independent state in the Land of Israel. To achieve this goal it was necessary to prepare the tools, and unite the people and the youth towards the major roles. It was necessary to fight the Jewish war for equality, freedom, and national independence in all the countries of the Diaspora .The [Zionist] practical program “Work in the present,” placed the Jewish and Hebrew education at the top of its priority. The Zionist movement in Bielsko was founded in 1896. The student association “Emuna” was founded first, and “Hashachar,” the dominant Zionist organization in the city, was founded immediately after. There's authentic material in the archives of both organizations about their activities in the area of Jewish education. In their appearances and information campaign, they demanded that the leaders of the community will initiate the renewal of the Jewish school, and increase the youth's affinity to Jewish values. The community management was in the hands of the liberals, the assimilated, and the anti- Zionist. It rejected the demand to “disengage” from the German nation, that they allegedly were part of, and denounced the Zionist propaganda as a “delusion” and false prophecy.

[Page 25]

The Zionists didn't have enough power to change the composition of the community representatives. The voice of one or two representatives in the community, who expressed the Zionists' opinion, wasn't heard, and was like a voice calling in the wilderness. The general public remained indifferent - and didn't participate in the Zionists' struggle. Elections to the community management were held again and again. The Zionists' power increased from time to time - but it wasn't enough to undermine the control of the senior community leaders. The liberals continued to dominate, and continued to renounce the needs of the times.

 

E.

A new reality was created with the conclusion of the First World War. Bielsko, and all of Silesia to Teschen, were annexed to Poland. The national, economic, social, and linguistic institutions of the past, collapsed. The orientation of Austria, including the German area, lost its practical meaning. Bielsko's Jews could no longer continue with their identification with the Germans. The necessities of life required not only to fit in, but also to accept the reality and the political goals of the Polish government The idea of Bielsko's Jews to assimilate with the German nationality, was also buried in the ruins of the geopolitical structure that collapsed during the war. At the same time, a critical thing happened to the Jewish nation. The Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations approval to hand the mandate for the establishing of a national home in the Land of Israel to the British. The increase in the waves of immigration to Israel turned the Zionist vision to a living reality. The problem of educating the redemption generation - received the most urgent significance. The political situation made it possible to sustain a Jewish-Hebrew educational system. According to the Versailles peace agreement, all the minorities in Poland received the right to teach in their own language, and at the expense of the state. Indeed, the Polish government evaded the fulfillment of this commitment to the Jews, and refused to finance the education - but also didn't interfere in this area in the first years. The Jews were free to establish a school in their desired teaching language. This freedom was bought with huge financial efforts, and the Jews were forced to undertake the educational system.

The school in Gisla Street, which had so many incarnations since its inception, was turned again into a Jewish school. Once again, the Jewish community became the legal owner of this school, and set its trend according to their wish. The Polish regimes in Europe collapsed, but the liberal regime of the anti-Zionist in the community still stood firm. The required curriculum was determined by the government, but during these years the regime was careful not to hurt the statutory rights of the minorities. The studies of religion and prays were reintroduced according to the practices of previous years. The teaching language remained German! Several years later, as a result of the government intervention, the exclusive status of the German language was reduced in order to introduce the Polish language as the required teaching language, during the years in which the Nazi party rose to power in Germany and Austria.

[Page 26]

The public struggle to change the image of the Jewish community came to an end with the 1931 elections. The control on the community, which was in the hands of the assimilated-liberals since its inception, was transferred to the hands of the Zionists. Sigmund Arzet, their representative in the community, was elected its chairman. A path was now opened for radical changes in the Jewish educational system. However, the road to their fulfillment was piled with obstacles that were placed by the Polish authorities. In March 1932, a law, which gave control on the minority schools to the district's educational authorities, was legislated. Apparently, it was done for pedagogical reasons, but in fact, they had a clear goal: to gradually turn the minority schools into pure Polish schools. A paradoxical situation was created in relation to the Jewish schools. The Polish government didn't include these schools in the network of general education institutions, and didn't participate in the budget to maintain them - but demanded the right to set its curriculum, its national trend and organizational arrangements. These conditions required a constant struggle on the part of the community, and the school administrators opposed the bothersome interference of the supervisory institutions. The school principal, Eugene Klener, despite his pedagogical and personal virtues, wasn't able to withstand the pressure. He wanted to resign from his post. In 1933, a new principal was appointed. Dr. Moshe Heche was young in years, an experienced educator, imbued with Jewish and general culture, a disciple of the Zionist movement, forceful and energetic, and ready to fight. His task was to turn the school for Jewish students into a meaningful Jewish educational institution. At the end of Dr. Moshe Heche's four year term, on the occasion of his immigration to Israel, the community leader, Sigmund Arzet, noted the impressive changes that he brought to the school's Jewish image, and his educational and social activities: “We're blessed now with a school as we had foreseen it. A school that gives our children knowledge and wisdom, teaches them our great Jewish heritage, consciousness and national identity, and strengthens our children's body and spirit towards the struggle for our existence as a nation, and for reaching our goal to build our ancient homeland.”

This impressive achievement also found expression in the constant growth of the number of classrooms and students. In four years, six classes were added to the existing five classes. These eleven classes contained 542 students, and a nursery school, with 100 students, was added to the school's framework. During these years, there was an absolute transition from a German education for the Jewish children. There were very few Jewish children who studied in German or Polish educational institutions. Most of them have found their place in the secular or religious educational system. This achievement was marred somewhat by the lack of continuing education. All the efforts, which were made by the Jewish community to obtain a permit for the opening of a secondary school, failed. Those who finished five years of study at a Jewish school were forced to choose between German or Polish high schools.

Pinchas Berger took the role to his hands after the departure of Dr. Moshe Heche. He continued the activities that were outlined by his predecessor with great success - until the tragic end of the school in the fall of 1939, when the Nazis invaders annihilated the magnificent Jewish community of Bielsko.

[Page 27]

 

F.

To get to the bottom of the issue of Jewish education, we must dwell on its numerous branches that weren't included in the formal education system. The educational and informative activity of the Zionist youth organizations and its various sectors, which were established at the beginning of the 20th century, contributed their special part to the introduction of national affinity within the ranks of the young generation. The teaching of the Hebrew language, modern Jewish and Hebrew literature, the history of Israel and the creation of the Zionist enterprise in Israel, not only completed the knowledge of these issues, but also molded the spiritual image of the young generation, its human and Jewish consciousness, and its national pride. These cultural and spiritual values, created the Halutzim [pioneers] generation, who led the troops in its war for Israel's independence. In a space of twenty years (1919-1939), Efraim Keler, a personality which has become an institution in Bielsko, stood out among those who engaged in the educational and cultural activities. Efraim Keler arrived to Bielsko in 1919, during the migration of Jews from east to west. He lingered in the city temporarily, but he connected with the Jewish youth and decided to settle there. A. Keler, a lively young man with a broad Hebrew and general education, and a Zionist since youth - accepted the offer of various organizations to organize courses in Hebrew for the youth and the adults - and be their teacher. He found the path to the hearts of the youth, became their friend and their guide, organized and participated in their social life as a teacher, friend and partner. Hundreds of young teens, who belonged to “HeHalutz,” “Akiva,” “Beitar”, “Hashomer Hatzir,” and other organizations, acquired the knowledge of the language in A. Keler's courses. Many of them, who were rewarded to come to Israel, came equipped with not only the knowledge of the language, but also with a load of Jewish values, that even the school couldn't provide them. A. Keler didn't limit himself to these activities. He was the address for everything that was connected to the Hebrew language, to books and Hebrew culture.

When the “Tarbut” association was founded in 1930, with the initiative of Pr. M. Brekovich and D. Horovich, A. Keler was the spirit and the driving force of this association.

 

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