“Bielsk”
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities
in Poland, Volume VIII

(Bielsk Podlaski, Poland)

52°46' / 23°12'

Translation of “Bielsk” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


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Acknowledgments

Project Coordinator

David S. Gordon

 

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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VIII Districts Vilna, Bialystok, Nowogrodek. Editor Shmuel Spector, co-editor Bracha Freundlich,
pages 170-175. Published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2005


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[Pages 170-175]

Bielsk (Bielsk Podlaski)

Translated by David S. Gordon

YearGeneral
Population
Jewish
Population
1816-94
18613,0001,256
18785,8193,968
18977,4644,079
19214,7592,392
19308,000-

Bielsk rests on the Biala River and the Lubcza stream, approximately 40 km from Bialystok, in a heavily forested region. In the 14th century, the town was ruled alternately by Lithuania and Mavozian princes. In 1430, the Lithuanian Archduke Witold built a church in town, and in 1440 Prince Polotzek granted the town a special privilege. The Archduke Alexander Yaglo granted the town its charter under the Magdeburg Laws, and reiterated and ratified the privilege previously granted. After the unification of Lithuania & Poland in 1569, Bielsk became the first city in the King's estate in the Podlasie region. In 1576, the town consisted of 606 houses and five churches (Catholic & Pravoslavic), and its population reached 4,000 people. In the same year, the town had 22 merchants – among them considerable timber merchants who exported the wood on river rafts to Gdansk – and 243 craftsmen, who were organized into five guilds. There were 57 pubs, seven inns which served mead, and five flour mills. Two huge fires struck Bielsk in the 16th century, and in 1602, there were only 3,500 residents. With the invasion of the Swedes in 1656, most of the town's homes were again destroyed, its population dwindled and in 1662 only 1,260 townspeople remained. A few years later, the town was again destroyed. Despite the efforts of King Jan Kazimierz to rehabilitate Bielsk with new & comfortable privileges and the permit to host annual fairs, the town's population remained diminished & its economy was based on agriculture. In 1710, a cholera epidemic broke out in Bielsk and a conflagration incinerated most of the homes.

Only after its annexation to Prussia in 1795, did Bielsk undergo economic & demographic growth, and even then many of its residents turned to agriculture, as always. In 1799, there were 1,733 residents and 320 houses. The town was annexed to Russia in 1807, and due to its location on the important Bialystok-Warsaw-Brisk crossroads, trade & the manufacturing of wool yarn and weaveries developed – and the population grew. In the latter half of the 19th century, Bielsk became connected to the railway network, and enjoyed a period of renewed development. After WWI, two steam-powered flour mills were erected in Bielsk, as well as a factory producing bricks and gravel.

In September 1939, with the outbreak of WWII, the Soviets entered Bielsk and ruled there for approximately 2 years. In the end of June 1941, the city absorbed heavy bombing and shelling by the Germans, and two-thirds of the houses were destroyed, and on June 25th, was conquered by them. Aside from the Jews, in their three-year occupation, the Nazis murdered also hundreds of non-Jews in Bielsk. In the summer of 1944, Bielsk was liberated by the Soviet army.

The Jews up to WWI

In 1487, two Jews from Lutsk were appointed by King Kazimierz Jagiellon to collect duties in Bielsk, and settled there, and in their footsteps, additional Jews followed. In 1539, Jews of Bielsk carried out trade with the city of Smolensk. In 1542, the first synagogue was built in town. In 1566, King Zygmunt August granted the Jews of Bielsk a new charter, in which their rights & obligations were defined. In the second half of the 16th century, the Christian residents of the town accused the Jews of exploitation. In the 17th & 18th centuries, the Jews disappeared from Bielsk and settled in dozens of surrounding villages, yet the head tax, which they paid was the same sum that they had paid earlier, while still living in Bielsk. In a document by the Bishop of Bielsk in 1726, it is specifically stated that the Jews were expelled from the town because they did not respect Christians, and did not deliver to the church oil & candle wax as they had been obligated to do (but it is more reasonable to assume that the expulsion was more a product of political considerations, probably as a result of a dispute between the King & the Bishop).

Evidence of the renewal of Jewish settlement is found in Prussian documents from 1802, according to which the Jews of Bielsk earned their livelihoods in light commerce & craftsmanship. In 1807, there was a small Jewish community. After the annexation of the region to Russia, the Prussians sold their homes in Bielsk to Jews at reasonable prices before their departure. In the yards of their homes, the Jews had small vegetable gardens, a few raised a cow or a couple of goats, while others maintained a horse & wagon.

In the latter half of the 19th century, with the start of the Beszyce-Koenigsberg rail line, the general population grew, especially the Jews of Bielsk – at a quick pace. A few of the Jews became involved as crop wholesalers, and in fruit & timber. The less well-to-do opened stores in or around the market, or owned workshops. Most of the non-Jews remained farmers. At the end of the 19th century, the number of Jews in Bielsk reached its peak – more than 4000 people – and their percentage of the town was 55%. Their standing in the local economy was decisive. Jews owned two-thirds of workshops in town and most of the bakeries. Also several new flour mills (among them, two which were steam-powered); two breweries and several small factories producing tobacco & cigarettes, roof and porcelain tiles were under Jewish ownership.

With the growth of the number of Jews, the standing of the community also was strengthened. In 1898, construction of a new synagogue began, on the location of the earlier one from the 16th century. The new building was called the “Yafeh Einayim” synagogue, after the title of the book by the town's Rabbi, Aryeh Leib Yellin. Beside it was the new beit-midrash (study house) “Sha'arei Tzion” (erected in 1889) and another beit-midrash. Among the community's rabbis of the 19th century known to us are: Rabbi Baruch Bar Natan Matetyahu HaCohen; Rabbi Aryeh Leib Bar Shraga – the author of “Mitzpeh Aryeh”; Rabbi Aryeh Leib Yellin – the author of “Yafeh Einayim” (Proofs of the Talmud, Vilna 1880), who served in Bielsk from 1853-1867; and Rabbi Ben-Tzion Shternfeld, author of the “Sha'arei Tzion” series (died in 1917).

Besides the established Hevra Kaddisha (burial society), charity societies were established over the course of the 19th century, such as: Hachnasat Orchim (“Welcoming Guests”), which maintained a hostel of 4 rooms for Jewish passersby; Linat Tzedek; Women's Union (which aided female orphans & needy girls); Society for the End of Begging; and Mutual Aid Society of Craftsmen. Students of the Jewish high school who, for the most part, studied outside of Bielsk, returned to their homes for the holidays and were accustomed to renting a local bakery for the baking of matzot for the poor with funds raised from donations. The community had a poorhouse, and before WWI, had opened orphanages which sheltered 20 – 30 children.

Most of the children (boys) studied in the heder or in a Talmud Torah (daily studies) for sons of poor families, which were run by the community through the receipt of a Korovka tax (on kosher meat). In the second half of the 19th century, only a few boys - and many girls - studied in the Russian state schools in town and in the two Russian middle schools. There was a Russian high school in Bielsk; however the quota allocated to Jewish students, was minute. At the beginning of the 20th century, the teacher Yungerman established Heder Metukan (“Fixed Room”) which, aside from holy studies, included also Hebrew, Tan”ach, Russian & general studies.

Jewish youth who learned in the large cities brought their education back to the town. At the end of the 19th century, Hebrew & Yiddish newspapers arrived in Bielsk, and in 1904 a Jewish library was opened. After the First Zionist Congress (Vienna 1898), Zionist activity commenced in Bielsk. In 1907, the first Zionist Union was established, and a local Jew – S. Sirkin (father of the Zionist leader, Nahman Sirkin) – was the candidate from the Bialystok region for the Russian duma (parliament). After some time, the local union joined Poalei Tzion, which had been established in town, and a youth movement, Pirchei Tzion, was founded. Jewish youth were also active in the general revolutionary movements. In 1904, a general library was opened in town, which included Yiddish books. In the 1905 Revolution, “Tagblat”, a Yiddish local came out in town.

In 1911, on the eve of the annual fair in Bielsk, peasants from neighboring villages were organizing pogroms against the Jews. Six Jewish youths went to the village in which the plotters resided, and set their kilns on fire, and thus prevented the pogrom. However three of the arsonists were sentenced to three years in prison.

In the Days of the First World War

With the outbreak of WWI, a large contingent of the Russian Army was encamped in Bielsk. In other places, the Russian soldiers bothered Jews, yet in Bielsk they acted properly and strived to keep law & order. The large force based in town created an increased demand for goods & services, and Jewish merchants and craftsmen saw a blessing for their labors. In the first year of the war, many Jews fled to Bielsk from the areas of the front. The community offered them assistance and sheltered them in the beit-hamikdash. With the approach of the Germans in the fall of 1915, many Jews escaped towards Russia, and only 80 Jewish families remained in town. After 10 days of battles at the entrances to the town, Bielsk fell into the hands of the Germans. When the fighting ceased, most of the escapees returned to their homes. The Germans governed Bielsk until the end of 1918, and changed the town's lifestyle. Many of the town's residents were inducted into forced labor. The men were primarily occupied with the rebuilding of the three bridges over the Biala River as well as the repair of the road to Bialystok. Economic activity was almost entirely stifled. The Germans confiscated much of the food; and what was left was doled to the residents in starvation rations. To reduce the distress of hunger, the Jews tended available plots and abandoned fields; and smuggling efforts and the black market thrived – despite the harsh punishment expected from such activities. Hunger and distress caused an outbreak of a cholera epidemic.

The occupation authorities closed the existing schools and opened a German school, in which all the town's children were obligated to attend. The principal was Jewish, and the Jewish pupils also studied a little Hebrew and religious studies in the school. Jews were appointed in the functions of Mayor and Commander of the militia. The Germans lifted the old limitations, which the Russians had imposed on political activity, and the Jews founded several new organizations and parties. In 1916, the Bund cell was established. Poalei Tzion, which had operated underground after the suppression of the 1905 Revolution, was revived - and branches of “General Zionists” and Tzairei Tzion (“Youth of Zion”) were established in Bielsk.

In 1917, elections were held for the Community Committee, in which the General Zionists gained 3 seats. Two representatives of Poalei Tzion were elected, as well; two from the Bund & two Orthodox representatives. These party lists also participated in elections for the new town council, the first elected in democratic elections.

The Jews Between the Two World Wars

Uninterrupted anarchy and attacks on Jews by anti-Semitic gangs reigned in Bielsk from the end of the War until the end of 1920. By the time the independent Polish government stabilized, the economic situation of the Jews was at its worst. The Joint Distribution Committee assisted them with food, clothing & money. A branch of the cooperative “Peoples' Bank” was established at the end of 1920, which supplied business credit to the middle classes, Gama”ch (“Gemilut Hassidim”) Funds – which aided craftsmen and peddlars with small loans for the rehabilitation of their businesses and for the purchasing of raw materials. Eventually, an additional Jewish bank was founded for large merchants. Jewish craftsmen founded a local union, which was affiliated with the nation-wide Jewish Craftsmen Union in Warsaw, and the Jewish merchants too founded a branch of the national union. Long-established charity and aid societies, such as the orphanage, renewed their activity. In the 1920's, the “Linat Tzedek” society established a small hospital.

The worsening of the general economic situation in Poland after the War affected first & foremost the Jews. The Polish government imposed heavy taxes on the independently employed, without regard to their actual income. Craftsmen were obligated to take a state licensure exam which necessitated fluency in Polish; and simultaneously, the government encouraged Poles, providing financial assistance and comfortable loans, to enter those sources of revenue which had traditionally been Jewish. The year of 1929 marked the beginning of an economic depression in Poland. Economic anti-Semitism developed in the late 1930's throughout the country, accompanied by agitation towards a boycott. Many Jews, especially the youth, sought refuge in emigrating & in “making aliya” to Eretz Yisrael.

Despite the economic distress, the inter-war years were characterized by an awakened Jewish public life, and exuberant Zionist activity. One after another, party branches and Zionist youth groups were established in Bielsk. Immediately after the war, the “Halutz” movement started becoming active in town, and in 1920 the first two “olim” (immigrants) from Bielsk came to Eretz Yisrael. In 1923, the “HeHalutz HaTzair” youth group was founded (whose members were mostly working youth), and afterwards “HaShomer HaTzair” (whose participants were mostly high school students). Many moved on from “HaShomer HaTzair” to training kibbutzim, and some made aliya to Eretz Yisrael. Few of the movement's members who remained in Poland continued in higher studies. In October 1928, the former “HaShomer HaTzair” members founded a branch of the “Kadima” movement, and in 1933 the “Tel Hai” training kibbutz of “HeHalutz” was established in Bielsk. The first training course graduated 37 teenagers aged 17-18 years old, which was succeeded by additional courses. The participants chopped down trees or worked in hauling loads or housework. In the years 1936-38, when Polish citizens were demanded to enlist for several days per year in manufacturing jobs and in paving roads, the kibbutz trainees offered themselves as paid substitutes. In Bielsk, there was also a Betar group & its own training brigades. Zionist youth movements also occupied themselves with culture, fundraising for Zionist funds and more. “Poalei Tzion Smol” (left-wing Poalei Tzion), “HeHalutz” and a faction of the “General Zionists” led by Yitzhak Greenboim joined the “Working Eretz Yisrael League” in the 1930's.

The Bund continued its activity in the non-Zionist camp. Only a few young Jews joined the illegal Communist party, which operated underground. Yosef Lebertovsky of Bielsk was one of the heads of the Polish Communist party, and for some days, among the organizers of the Communist underground in the Warsaw Ghetto (he perished during the Revolt). After the 1929 riots in Eretz Yisrael, the Zionists lost power to the Bund and to the Communist underground, and throughout the 1930's clashes between the two camps broke out occasionally. The Jews of Bielsk were also active in general public life, and their representatives were elected to the town council.

The Zionists and Bund members, as stated previously, occupied themselves in various cultural activities. In Bielsk, Zionist sport leagues (“Maccabi”, “Hapoel” and the Bund's “Morgenshtern”), drama clubs, Hebrew courses were founded; in addition to art exhibitions and evening activities. The local firehouse was established by Jews, and all its members were Jews. A Hebrew elementary school was founded in town in 1919, starting off with two classes and 70 pupils; which after joining the “Tarbut” network, saw an increase to six classes, and from 1933 – to eight. In 1923, alongside it, a Hebrew kindergarten was opened. In 1920, with the aid of Bielskers in the USA, a Yiddish school of the Zisha network was opened with approximately 250 students. A few of the children studied in the community Talmud Torah (its principal was the Dayan [Religious Court Judge] Rabbi Yehezkel Leventhal, who made aliya to Jerusalem in the 1930's), or in the state Polish school. Many youngsters continued on to high school. Most of those from the “Zisha” schools studied in the Reali Jewish High School in Vilna, or in Grodno, in the Technion or in the Jewish Teachers' Seminar; while the graduates of “Tarbut” and the local Polish school mostly preferred the state high school in Bialystok. In 1927, twenty-two Jewish male & female pupils, having completed their elementary studies, were accepted to the local state high school after passing the entrance exams. During the same years, a delegation from the Novogrudok “Beit Yosef” yeshiva (Note: from Bialystok – DG) was operating in the “Yafeh Einayim” synagogue in Bielsk, in which boys from Orthodox families studied. The community's last Rabbi was Rabbi Moshe Aaron Bendas (Ben-Da'at), who perished in the Shoah.

In the late 1930's, members of the Polish intelligentsia & students who had joined the nationalistic Endecja party (Narodowa Demokracja) were responsible for anti-Semitic instigation in Bielsk, as in most Polish towns. Anti-Semitic youths posted sentries in front of Jewish businesses (mostly the local cinema, which was under Jewish ownership), barred the entrance and forcibly expelled non-Jewish patrons. Conversely, Jewish youths organized for self-defense. Their commanders were two brothers, members of the Bund, cargo-haulers by trade. The Jewish youths who were members of the leftist parties supported the defenders; however the adults feared of violent clashes, and therefore preferred to request protection by the authorities.

In the Days of the Second World War

In the beginning of September 1939, Bielsk was conquered by the Germans, and immediately with their arrival, they murdered two Jews. Two weeks later, the Germans withdrew and turned their position over to soldiers of the Red Army, in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. The Jews greeted the Red Army with expressions of joy. Jewish refugees from German-occupied parts of Poland flowed into Bielsk and received a warm welcome and assistance. The Soviets nationalized large businesses, and the small stores, which remained rapidly closed shop. In their place, a large state-run House of Commerce was opened in Bielsk. Craftsmen were organized into cooperative guilds. Most of the Jews worked in the construction of the large airfield near Bielsk. The Soviets prohibited political activity, and only the Communist party and the Komsomol were legal. Restrictions were also imposed on religious life. Despite this, the Soviets promoted cultural life, and established in Bielsk a municipal choir, a large library, and various educational programs. Several young Jewish women married Soviet functionaries of Jewish origin.

With the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, the Soviets quickly retreated, and dozens of Jews joined them. For three days, until 25 June 1941, German missiles and artillery bombarded Bielsk, and dozens of her residents were killed or wounded.

Bielsk was captured by the Germans on June 25, 1941, and the pursuit of Jews began immediately afterwards, actively assisted by Polish locals. In the beginning of July 1941, thirty Jewish intellectuals were arrested accused of collaboration with the Soviets, transported outside the city and never seen again. A peasant from the next village was a witness to their execution. The first edicts were imposed on the Jews in July 1941 – prohibition from walking on the sidewalk and having contact with non-Jews, and the obligation to wear a yellow star - a cloth Star of David, which was sewn – from the inside & outside - on an outer piece of clothing. At the end of July, the Judenrat was established, headed by Shlomo Epsztejn, as well as a Jewish police force. Their quarters were the “Yafe Einayim” synagogue.

In early August 1941, a ghetto was created, into which about 5,000 Jews were tightly crammed, four families to every apartment. The Jews were commanded to wall-up the ghetto themselves. Immediately afterwards, the first payment of tribute was imposed, in silver, gold and jewelry. The Judenrat succeeded in gathering the demanded sum by the fixed date. The civil authority, which was established in Belarussia in the middle of August 1941, also imposed on the Jews of Bielsk the payment of tribute in silver and goods – winter clothes, furs, boots and more. Poverty in the ghetto deepened, and with it, the hunger. Supply of food by the Germans never arrived. Occasionally, the peasants smuggled foodgoods into the ghetto over the wall, and sometimes crept into the ghetto and ordered clothes and shoes from the Jewish tailors & shoemakers, and paid for them with food. The crowding and hunger caused the spread of contagious diseases. A few workshops in the ghetto produced goods for the Germans, and in the winter of 1941-42, the Germans established a factory for the production of felt boots. Simultaneously, forced labor outside of town continued. Forced laborers that left for their work were able to gain a little food from the peasants, however those caught smuggling food were shot on the spot. Survivors attested that the Judenrat did all in its power to ease the distress within the ghetto. Jewish policemen, however, all non-locals, reported on and turned in Jews, as well as took bribes. According to testimonies, Jewish policemen took the Nazis to the hiding places of foodgoods, which had been taken from the abandoned Soviet storehouses and hidden in the ghetto. The goods were confiscated, and the Jews in whose houses they were found, were beaten.

On November 2, 1942, Jews from the ghettoes of Orla, Narew and Boçki were transferred to the Bielsk ghetto. Professionals (note: lawyers, doctors, etc. - DG) from the ghetto and their families were transferred to the Bialystok ghetto, as well as the head of the Judenrat, Shlomo Epsztejn. The rest of the Jews of Bielsk as well as the refugees from the towns of the region remained in the ghetto for a few additional days, and in order to throw off any suspicion, the Germans suddenly distributed potatoes to them. In the next days, the Germans and local policemen shot the elderly & the sick in the Jewish cemetery. After these had been murdered, others were shot in the same place. Three young Jewish men, who had returned from Lublin, and had been held in the town's jail (Bielsk's Jews had nicknamed them “Lublinayim”), were forced to dig the mass graves. After they had buried those thousands murdered, among them their family members, they too were executed on the same spot. The executions in Bielsk were in November 1942, and with their end, only the professionals who had been transferred to Bialystok remained, as well as individuals who had hidden in different places. Later, the workers were returned from the Bialystok ghetto to the Bielsk ghetto, and among them approximately 200 Jewish workers from Orla. In the beginning of February 1943, the Germans also demolished the workers ghetto in Bielsk. A few of the workers were once again transferred to Bialystok, and the rest executed. Most of the workers who had been transferred to the Bialystok ghetto were sent in February 1943 to Auschwitz, and there, few were selected for work, and the rest executed. The rest of the workers were expelled to Treblinka and to a few other camps in the Lublin area. Jewish youths from Bielsk staggered to different places, and some of them survived. Among the survivors were also Jews who had fled in June 1941 to the USSR and several Bielskers, who had hidden out among peasants in the area.


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