by M. Bruhel, Tel Aviv
Translated by Ofra Anson
Edited by Rafael Manory
We do not really know if the Hibat Zion (Love of Zion) movement was active in Biala before the establishment if the Zionist Organization, but it most probably was not. However, news of the first Zionist Congress in 1897 did reach Bialaeven though there was no organization waving the Jewish Kingdom flagvia a few individuals who were in touch with activists of the new movement in neighboring towns. There were even some Hassidic families who received the famous hectographprinted circulars written by Dr. CohenBernstein from Kishinev and published in Krakow, and the weekly (or monthly) magazine Der Yid (The Jew). These families were also the first to get hold of the first small stamp, a little David's Shield with the word Zion in its center. These families however, left the Zionist movement after their religious leaders denounced Zionism. A few preferred to leave their Hassidic milieu, and one of these was Herzl Halberstat, Moshe Cohen's son in law, whose brotherinlaw, Dr. D. Cohen, became a famous surgeon in Warsaw.
The first Zionist group was organized in Biala in 1901, by Apolinari Hartglas, a young student at Warsaw University. In his yettobepublished memoirs, which he wrote towards the end of his life in Israel, advocate A. Hartglass wrote:
… during the break between my first and second years at university, I had taken enthusiastically to the spread of Zionism in Biala. I managed to influence a few young Hassidic men. Using my own funds, I ordered many publications in Yiddish and Polish from the Ahiasaf publisher in Warsaw. I organized the first group, and we used to get together, hold discussions, and sing songs of Zion. This is how Biala, a town that used to rebel against the light of progress and be part of Hassidic backwardness, became a fortress of Zionism amongst the Polish country towns.
Hartglass described the difficulties he encountered in organizing the first Zionist group in Biala in an article titled Tzeiten baiten zich (Times change) in the Poldasi'er Leibn (Life in Poldasy) issue 62, on 11.2.1927. Because of his lack of knowledge of Yiddish; the Hebrew teacher, Shalom Ratstein, offered his help. This was the cornerstone for the Zionist movement, which developed gradually, though in leaps, to become the fortress envisioned by Hartglass. And this is what Asher Hoper, one of the first Zionists in Biala, tells about those early days:
I cannot remember in which year we, a group of youngsters from Biala, became activists for the Zionist idea. At some point Eliezer Beinish Goldfarb came from Mizrich to talk about Zionism at the Beith Hamidrash (the religious school). The hall was full of people from all walks of life: Hassidim and Mitnagdim (opponents to Hassidut), merchants and craftsmen. Even Reb Itche Meyer Cohen and Reb Haim Levy Rubinstein (my grandfather, O.A.), two of the greatest Gur Hassidim, came to hear his speech.
Goldfarb's speech at the Beith Hamidrash made a big impression, and we, the group of young Zionists, tried to use this event to enlarge our group. Unfortunately, we failed to recruit new members as the Admorim (Hassidic religious leaders) forbade their followers to join us, and they started to persecute the Zionists. Nevertheless, the Zionist Organization was established in Biala by: Kamona Meshedlitz, an agent for the Singer sewing machine, Haim Tvarkovsky, a military tailor, and Shalom Ratshein a Hebrew teacher from Sluzk who was married to a woman from Biala. They conducted their activities from a hall rented from Shimon Kreidstein. Craftsmen and young men from Hassidic shtibels (orthodox schools) used to sneak in, like thieves, so that they won't be seen by the pursuers of Zionists.
Abram Uhrmacher provided some more details regarding this period in his article published on 18.2.1927 in Podlasier Leiben issue no. 7:
One Passover between 1903 and 1906, A. Uhrmacher held a meeting of the Zionists for a drink in his house. The participants were: A. Hartglass; Rabbi Gabriel Hasofer; Rabbi David, the son of Moshe Yosel; Moshe Yavor; Shalom Ratshein; Asher Hoper; Benjamin Kliger; Abraham Lubeltzik; Hanoch (Hinch) Cohen; Abraham Gelblum, the melamed (young children's teacher) from Borka, some students from the Biala gymnasium who were attracted to Zionism, and about 50 young men who studied in ‘HevrathBahurim’ (a religious study group).
Abraham Pudlishevsky came from Warsaw to promote the Jewish National Fund. His speech was held in the presence of very few people,
in the private dwelling of Haim Tvarkovsky, the tailor from Bialsk.
Between 19031906 the Zionists founded a Beth Midrash (religious school) of their own in Shimon Kreidstein's house. Prayers were held on Saturdays and holidays, whereas in the evenings members would get together for lectures.
Joshua Fisher, one of the veterans of Zionism in Biala, a hottempered militant man who lead the Zionist activity up to WWI, describes it thus:
In about 1903 I applied the OdessaPalestine committee and asked them to nominate me as their agent in Biala. My interest in Zionism started earlier, but my father's objection hindered involvement in any activity. As his opposition declined over time, I started Zionist activity. The committee accepted my nomination and I recruited some members who paid annual membership fees of 3, 6, 10, 15, and 25 Rubles.
We had some 30 members. The most active were Asher Hoper, Moshe Kave, Jacob Steinman, Benjamin Kriger, Moshe Rubinstein (my uncle, OA), and Moshe Braverman. We used to meet at my place and discuss Zionist matters. I did my best to attract the young men who studied at the shtibel. The Odessa committee used to send us Zionist publications and materials for fundraising. We would organize the collection on Yom Kippur eve at the synagogue, shtibels, Batei Midrash, and in the cemetery. We put a bowl and listed the names of those who donated more than 20 kopecks. In the first year we collected 6 rubles, in 1913 we already collected 100 rubles. However, the fundraising was not eventless; it was disturbed particularly by the hostile Hassidim. One Yom Kippur, Motl Mintz dropped the bowl placed in the Gur synagogue off the table. After I met him and warned him not to repeat this behavior, or I will have to take actions that would spoil his reputation, he refrained from disturbing us any further.
Every now and then, we used to invite a speaker from Warsaw, donating the income to the OdessaPalestine committee.
Some time after I started my Zionist activity I learned that a Zionist group had previously been established in Biala, by Asher Hoper, Moshe Kave, and Benjamin Kruger. This group ceased its activity because it was prohibited by the Czar's regime.
In 1910/11 a few young people joined the group and worked enthusiastically. New connections were established between the Biala Zionist group and other Zionist centers, and they subscribed to the Zionist magazines: Hatzfira (in Hebrew), Razviast (in Russian), Die Welt (German), and the library of the Zionist Association in Odessa.
Apart from the annual fundraising on behalf of the OdessaPalestine committee each YomKippur eve, under the leadership of Joshua Fisher, the group also focused on distributing the Shekel and raising funds for the Jewish National Fund. All these were performed secretly, as they were forbidden by the Czar. They sent the money by mail to Cologne in Germany, the headquarters of the Jewish National Fund in those days. They also held a lottery for a share in the AngloPalestine Bank (today's Bank Leumi). It was a 1pound sterling share, worth 10 Rubles. Participation cost was 15 kopeks. Some 6065 people took part in the lottery. Pinie Ribak from the Rogijnize village won the lottery (he later became the son in law of Reb Shloima'le Goldberg, who was appointed by the government to be a Rabbi).
Initially, the group met in private houses, such as those of Joshua Fisher, Israel Finkelstein (Ritkar), and Asher Hoper. The discussions included practical and organizational matters, but also Zionist matters, how to realize their cherished dream. However, as the group grew and became more confident, they began to feel that meeting in private homes was not enough. They wanted a place of their own, where they could meet and spend time together. They also needed a place to prepare their activities and express their enthusiasm for action, which grew stronger with every meeting. They could not set up such a place openly during the Czar's regime, under the watchful eyes of the Russian police. So they decided to establish a charity institution named Achiezer (Brotherhood assistance) to provide medical help for the poor and to lend out medical instruments. Such a charity was already operating in Shedlitz, and Biala followed this example and emulated its rules of operation.
This charity deserves a chapter of its own. In this article I focus on the Zionist activity that was secretly conducted under its cover. As mentioned, the real motivation in establishing Achiezer was to promote Zionist activities. The group contacted well to do, respected, men and invited them to cooperate with the initiative. The head of the charity was Idel Schwartz, and the directors were Moshe Kave and others. All the charity work, the administration and the lending of medical equipment, was done by the young people. It was a place where the Zionists could meet every evening, play chess, talk, have a good time, and mainly be together. Achiezer became the club for young people and the leaders of the charity not only knew this, they welcomed it wholeheartedly, as they felt that only the youth could carry out its important activities and make its existence possible.
The first location was in a brewery; then it moved to a bigger hall in David Pasels' house. Here the Zionists used to meet on Friday nights, secretly, without the management's permission, read Zionist literature and invited Shlichim (emissaries) from other cities.
For several years, Zionist work continued in this manner. A connection with the Zionist center in Warsaw was established, though indirectly.
We found its address via Berlin and Petersburg. As recommended by the center in Warsaw, Biala sent one representative to the 11th Zionist congress, Dr. Monosovitch. He was supposed to report to Biala's Zionists after the congress, but unfortunately, this never happened. By now the group was able to operate in the open. Public lectures were organized in Haim Yoske Kashtenbaum's hall: one was given by Rabi Isaak Nisenbaum from Warsaw, the other by Dr. Shmuel Eisenstadt from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The first movie from Israel was shown in 1912 or 1913. It showed the Herzlia gymnasium and the first houses in Herzl Street in Tel Aviv. If I am not mistaken, we also saw the Passover Festival, celebrated annually in Rehovot in those days. The contacts with the Zionist movement of Warsaw were maintained via the press, too. The newspaper Hatzfira had a special section for provincial cities, where it also published reports from Biala. One of these reported Rabi Isaak Nisenbaum's visit to Biala.
A public lecture about EretzIsrael and its settlement was held in Biala, located in Schedlitz region. It attracted a large audience, including members of Hassidic shtibels, as they are very interested in matters related to their fatherland, and they are eager to learn what is happening there. There are several different Hassidic group in Biala, yet all sat together without any incidents . Nevertheless, there was a commotion in the shtibel of the Partshev Hassidim when they learned that some of their members went to this agnostic lecture; almost as if they had recreated the golden calf… on the first Saturday after the lecture, when the Holy Scroll was brought out, an announcer came forward calling the people who took part in the Zionist event to refrain from coming to the synagogue in the future. There was a venerable teacher among the Partshev Hassidim of Biala, a renowned Kabbalist who was thoroughly versed in the Sefer Hayetzira (The Book of Creation) and was busy trying to create a living creature from the earth… and when he heard about this great affliction which had spread within the walls of his shtibel, he was sorely troubled, lest the devil's emissary should be running loose within these holy walls. He quickly summonsed the ‘sinners’ to appear before him and explained to them the gravity of their crime to think that The Land of Israel could really become the State of Israel… heaven forbid we should think such unthinkable things, these are the thoughts of apikoiresim, the zionisten. And really, ‘as the true believers know, The Land of Israel is to be found wherever our people live… And if such an abominable thought did cross your mind’, added the teacher, ‘you should fast until your heart breaks, and the good Lord will forgive you’. (Mimahazot Hahaim (from the Theatre of Life)Hatzfira, issue no. 174, 15.8.1913).
At this point it became impossible the hide the Zionist work done by the Achiezer charity. The managers and board members of the charity were both excited and angry. In particular, they were upset to learn that such activity had taken place without their knowledge … the charity, which had been developing so well, was in danger. Even Moshe Kaveh, who resented the Hassidic perspective, stood by Idel Schwartz, the head of the charity, who felt betrayed. Some feared that Dr. G. Zito (my father's cousin, O.A.), an assimilated Jew, would leave Achiezer. Yet the youth were determined to keep the charity going, even if the welltodo leave. The crisis was over without any turbulences.
World War I started on the Jewish date of 9 Av (the fast over the temple) in summer 1914. A dark cloud spread over Jewish life. In Biala, refugee camps were set up for Jews from cities in Galicia and in Poland as the front moved towards Russia. All Jewish movements and organizations stopped their activities and concentrated on helping the Petersburg Committee for refugees. The Zionist activity in Biala stopped, too. That summer, as the German army moved eastward, part of the Jewish population of Biala left. People were worried that the battle around the Brisk castle will be a long one, and the cities close to Brisk will have a hard time. Many left for Russia, believing that the war would not get there. Some of the young men whose families stayed in Biala went to Schedlitz to avoid being drafted into the Russian army.
In the summer of 1915 Germany occupied Biala. The Zionists who stayed in Biala resumed their activities, hoping for greater success under a European regime than under the Czar's government. The initial Zionismrelated consultations were between Moshe Rubinstein and Joshua Fisher. They looked for an activity that would attract as many young people as possible. From one idea to the next, they eventually decided to organize Hebrew lessons for adults, and they called upon the help of the Hebrew teacher, Jacob Steinman. Finally, they decided to set up a Hebrew school and a children's home, for families whose heads were drafted to the Russian Army or went to America.
Intensive preparation and publicity work started in midwinter of 1915/6 with the aim of starting the Yavneh school on Passover 1916. The school is described later on in this book. Here we would like to point out that this was the starting point for Zionist activity under the German occupation. From the start, it was clear that the impact of the school went far beyond its main function. After school, the 1213year old pupils came home looking encouraged and joyful, after learning Hebrew songs and stories on Jewish history, fairy tales and anecdotes that aroused their imagination. Their older siblings were envious, sorry that they were too old for the school, and asked the younger ones to repeat what they learned.
The school, which was located in the wooden house of Reb Haim Levy Rubinstein on Kashiva Street, was like a burning flame, attracting all lightseekers. During classes, young people would stand close to the windows trying to hear what the teacher was saying.
The Hebrew songs learnt in school could be heard everywhere shortly after they were taught.
Lag Ba'Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer period, a traditional bonfire night), arrived just few weeks after the school opened, and the pupils went for a fieldtrip in the forest. They marched through the town in festive clothes, singing songs in Hebrew. Naturally, this first public parade of the school attracted other youngsters, celebrating Lag Ba'Omer, a holiday that has never been celebrated in the town before.
All this created a Zionist atmosphere in Biala, and motivated the Zionist leaders to build on this resounding success and to expand the movement. The Zionist circle expanded steadily as the refugees started to settle down in Biala, among them active Zionists. By that time, Haim Barlass, who came with his family from Brisk, has joined in as well.
In the summer of 1916, further efforts were made to bring Zionist ideas to the youth. Every Saturday afternoon there was a lecture in the big hall at the school. Many came to these lectures, including individuals and groups who opposed the Zionist movement, such as active Bundists, who were friendly with some Zionists at the personal level. Fulia (Rafael) Lederman lectured there about the Bundist ideology, and even Wasskin, a refugee from Brisk who represented assimilationist ideas, was allowed to take part in the discussions.
The Zionist group grew and expanded. Many came to the lectures, and after a while, an important Zionist group developed. On the one hand, one weekly meeting was not enough anymore (the school's hall could not be used during working days), but on the other hand, people were tired of the endless arguments with opponents and the incessant repetition of proofs and counterproofs. So it was decided to establish a Zionist Beit Am (People's House) as a meeting place for the Zionist youth and their supporters. Beit Ha'Am was to be managed by an elected committee and chaired by the chair of the Zionist committee.
The house was initially located in the house of Meir Korman, on Grabanover Street, at the corner of a narrow alley. It included two rooms and a corridor.
Beit Ha'Am opened in the winter of 1916/17, with a big festive ceremony. The festive atmosphere was evident not only in the high spirits, but also in the formal, elegant dress of the participants. Moshe Rubinstein, the chair of the Zionist committee, also chaired the Beit Ha'Am committee. Other elected members were: Haim Barlass, Mendel Kaveh, Jonah Steinman, and others.
A period of intensive organizational work started. Committees were elected for each topic, thus involving a large number of people in the movement. Each committee was autonomous in its field of responsibility, and was reporting to the managing committee and participating in its meetings. The cultural activity included frequent lectures, some on literature and some on current political issues. There was a dramatic club, directed by Mordechai Piekarsky, and a choir conducted by Shimon Blankeider (the skinny). Later, a branch of Maccabi was established, and it had a brass orchestra.
The different committees used one of the two rooms, a different committee each evening, except for the evenings of general assemblies or balls, when both rooms were needed.
Every Saturday afternoon the Hebrew group met to read Hebrew journals or classic Hebrew literature.
Two Jews who served in the German army stationed in Biala joined the activity of the Zionist group: Fritz Kornberg (an architect) and Dr. Schwabe, the chair of the sailing club (Rudder Club) of the Jewish students' union Ivria in Berlin, who worked in the Police Administration. Their activity was limited, according to what could be accommodated beside their army duties, but it was very important, nonetheless.
On the corridors of Beit Ha'Am, the Weinstein sisters (daughters of David the tilelayer) ran a food stand. Their younger sister, Shayne Weinstein [who today lives in New York], became a student at the Yavneh school, and thus they were also coming to Zionist activities.
The work developed well. Young people came from all walks of life, even from groups that were far from Zionism. Many were influenced by their younger siblings who studied at the school, and also Beit Ha'Am was the only venue that was open to all, and allowed the youth to spend some leisure time together. The freedom on which Beit Ha'am was based had eventually led to conflicts with older and religious Zionists, some of whom left and established Hamizrahi.
The first general assembly of Beit Ha'Am took place in the summer of 1917. It was supposed to be a meeting of a strong, cohesive, group of people who had been working hard for quite a while. The two rooms, which were not that large, were full to overflowing. After hearing the report of the chairperson on the achievements since the opening of Beit Ha'Am, the participants started arguing. There was a strong opposition, not to the way Beit Ha'Am was being run, but to the principle that the same person held both positionsthe head of both the Zionist committee and Beit Ha'Am.
The opposition came from within the Zionist committee, from Haim Barlass and Mendel Kaveh. Almost all the assembly joined the opposition. Only Dr. Shwaba, a prominent, very experienced, organizer, stood by M. Rubinstein. They both argued that a joint function is necessary to maintain the Zionist orientation of Beit Ha'Am and avoid repeating the experience of the Saturday meetings in the school, which became a place of arguments and dispute.
The general assembly lasted three days. At the end it was decided that the Zionist committee and the Beit Ha'Am committee should remain unchanged. From then on, Beit Ha'Am formally became a Zionist institution, both as a club for members and as a home for all Zionist activity.
In 1917, as the Zionist Organization grew, the Zionist center in Warsaw decided to hold a Zionist opinion poll in all cities and towns of Poland, combined with a fundraising campaign on behalf of the Jewish settlers in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, who had been deported by the Turkish government. The main purpose, however, was the opinion poll, which was supposed to be a proEretzIsrael [called Palestine at the timeRM] demonstration at a time when people believed that the war will bring about freedom for all oppressed people. Polish Zionists were asked to sign the following declaration, with their name and address:
We recognize the extreme importance of the help provided to our pioneering brothers in Eretz Israel. The Jews of Poland express their wish that they will not lose heart. The great world revolution which will bring freedom and liberty to all oppressed peoples and nations, will also fulfil the historical ideal of the Jews and create for them a legally assured homeland in Eretz Israel, their historical native land.
The newspaper of the Orthodox Association, Das Yudishe Vort (the Jewish Word), declared war on the poll, and warned the Orthodox Jews against signing it. But the Zionist Organization in Biala participated enthusiastically in the poll. A couple of its members visited each Jewish household, told the families about EretzIsrael and the hopes for an appropriate solution to our aspirations when the nations will reach a peace agreement after the war. They collected dozens of pages, which included hundreds of signatures, and Biala contributed substantially to the 250,000 signatures collected in 200 towns of Poland.
Zionist activities developed quickly and demanded more time and space. The hall, that until then had been big enough to release the energy of the Zionists, could not contain it anymore. Appetite grows with eating, and each group (the theater group, the choir, the band and Maccabi) demanded more time, more rooms, and a larger hall.
They started looking for a larger place and in the winter of 1917/8 Beit Ha'Am moved to the house of Moshe Levenberg, on Briskai Street, for a short time. This was also the time of the first clash between the Rabbi of Biala and the local Zionist Organization, which happened as described below.
in the winter of 1918, Biala learnt of the death of the Zionist leader, Dr. Yehiel Chelinov. The committee decided to hold a public memorial at the Central Synagogue. Zionist activity, such as assemblies and parties, which took place at the Yavneh school or at Beit Ha'Am, had been criticized before, but this time the whole Jewish population was invited to pay respects to a Zionist leader. On the day of the ceremony, the rabbi called Godel Binies, the Gabbai [keeper of the finances of the congregation who also is in charge of daytoday running of the synagogueRM] of the synagogue, and ordered him to lock the synagogue and give him the keys.
That afternoon the city was in tumult. Some went to the Rabbi in an effort to prevent a clash, asking him to allow the memorial to take place in the synagogue, but to no avail.
In the evening, at the appointed hour, people arrived at the synagogue, but it was locked. For half an hour the synagogue yard was full of people. The very response to the Zionists' invitation was a success.
The Rabbi's stubbornness upset the Zionist youth, and Maccabi members, originally assigned to keep order during the memorial, got ready to force the synagogue open, which was not that easy: it had double doors and heavy locks. It was a difficult decision, but there seemed to be no chance that the Rabbi would reconsider. Moreover, they did not want to appear that they show disrespect or that they desecrate the synagogue by breaking the doors.
However, when it was clear that the Rabbi was not going to change his mind, they decided to open the synagogue from inside, and to avoid any damage. Three Maccabi members, led by Asher Feigenbaum (son of Moshe the glassmaker), climbed up to the ladies' section on the third floor, managed to take out one of the bars of a window, and through this opening, Feigenbaum managed to jump into the synagogue. Half an hour later the doors opened from inside. The synagogue filled up immediately, and hundreds of people remained outside for lack of room. Members of the Zionist Organization eulogized the deceased, and the prayer for the dead (El Male Rahamim, God is full of mercy), was sung by one of the members, Pintze Libman, as the cantor was absent at the rabbi's command.
Through this incident, the first in a string of battles with the antiZionists and, in particular, the Rabbi, the Zionists felt stronger and capable of gaining social acceptance. This was the pioneering incident of a series of public social clashes that were to occur in the near future.
A while later Beit Ha'Am moved to the house of Kalman Sheinberg, on Sadova Street. This was where the real Beit Ha'Am, Tel Talpiot, for the youth, was located. It consisted of five rooms, two of which were combined by knocking down the wall separating them, to create one big hall for assemblies, and an exercise room for Maccabi.
Once again, activities were divided between the different committees; each was given time and space according to the new possibilities. The council, which included all the committees, met every fortnight. There were frequent lectures on literature, and current affairs, law, etc. In short, there was a tremendous upsurge in Zionist activities. Youth movements began to appear, first the Zion Youth and later, under the Polish regime, Hashomer Ha'za'ir. All were hosted in Beit Ha'Am.
This was happening already in 1918, near the end of the war. People had already begun to feel some freedom. The borders of the Germanoccupied territory, formerly tightly controlled by the army, which were fenced and blocked off, with no connection to the outside world, were gradually breached, and news from outside penetrated the blockade. As the Germans advanced in 1917, the Jewish soldiers who had taken part in the Zionist activities and had allowed for some indirect connection with the Zionist committee in Berlin, have left Biala.
There was almost no connection with Warsaw. It was impossible to attend the 3rd national Zionist meeting as the German military administration did not issue travel permits. Yet, step by step, it became easier to have external connections and to receive news from different parts of Europe. Those who had fled to Russia when the front came close to Biala were sending books, newspapers, and memoranda published by Zionist centers and the Tarbut(Culture) organization, which gave some idea about the extent of the Zionist activities in Russia. The abovementioned Fritz Kornberg who was now in Krakow, would send news about himself and also material published by the Tse'irei Zion (Youth of Zion) movement in Ukraine, where he was active at the time.
Later on it became easier to contact Warsaw. Letters could be sent and received, and exit permits were more easily obtainable. It was then that we learnt about the Balfour Declaration, although the Germans preferred that the Jewish population would not know about it. In short, we came out of the straits and onto the wide way. We began to feel that important political and social events were about to take place, and also the German military effort started to die down and its end was near.
At the end of the summer of 1918, the first returnees began to arrive from Russia. Among them, there were two very different groups: some who had become extremists on the left, who brought to Biala the ideas of the Bolshevik Revolution and its ideals; at the other extreme came the Hassidic middle class, for whom the shtibel was the center of world before the war. Some of these people later established Agudat Israel [To this day a political religious party in Israel RM].
All these political groups started to demand their place in society. The Zionists, who until now had the hegemony, had to adjust to interactions with other parties (for instance, in the American assistance committee, chaired by Moshe Rubinstein, where all the parties were represented), and sometimes to have fights with the opposing parties.
In the fall of 1918 the Zionist movement in Poland was strengthened by the return of the powerful leader, Itzchak Grinboim from Russia. His first step towards organizing Jewish life in Poland was his plan to call for a general Jewish congress during which a national committee was supposed to be elected, a committee that would lead Polish Jewry and would manage its affairs. This initiative encountered strong opposition from Aguda, the Bund, the Polkists, and even from the ZionistSocialist party. The central Zionist committee decided to call for a precongress conference in December 1918, in which both the Zionists and unaffiliated people took part.
In Biala, these elections were the first time that the Zionists had encountered other parties in a political contest. Their main opponents were the members of Agudat Israel. Public meetings took the place of Tora studies. The Aguda was fighting against the idea of a general Jewish national committee that was not based on the Tora and on keeping all commandments. In one of the meetings, Iche Meyer Cohen represented Aguda; before the war he had never dealt with secular matters, but when he returned from Russia he felt that he is suitable for speaking to the public. His ultimate argument was that the secular Jews did not wear Tzitzit [a Jewish garb with four fringes that is worn by Jewish orthodox men under the shirtRM].
The elections for the precongress committee took place on a winter day, and Moshe Rubinstein and Haim Barlas were elected. The conference enabled Biala to meet personally for the first time with the Zionist leadership in Poland, and from then on to occupy a central place in the Polish Zionist movement.
The first elections for the postwar Polish parliament (Sejm) took place in 1919. For the Jews, the renewed Poland began with pogroms in Lvov and Kielce (Keltz), attacks from the Halerchiks (General Haler's soldiers), and the Poznanchiks (Polish soldiers from Poznan region), who were very active in cutting off beards of Jewish men, throwing Jews from fast moving trains, and other such heroic acts, in Biala as elsewhere.
At that time the Zionist leaders in Biala started to get ready for the election campaign. Four regions had to vote in Biala: Biala, Radzin, Vladova, and Janeva. Before the election, a meeting was called for all the towns and cities in these regions. The convention took place in Biala's Beit Ha'Am. It is worth mentioning, as a memorable episode, that a nonJewish candidate from Mezrich also came to the convention, claiming that he was a liberal Pole who objected to antiSemitic incitement and he said he need support to be elected as the candidate of the Jews in the Sejm… Haim Barlas and Moshe Rubinstein reported to the participants, who accepted the Zionist election platform and established a regional election office in Biala to manage all the election affairs.
The Zionist youth became actively, and enthusiastically, involved in the elections. The work was organized locally, and there were frequent contacts with the towns and cities of the four regions, via circulars, letters, and visits. No financial aid from Warsaw was necessary. Soon after the list of candidates was published (which included the lawyer Apolinary Hartglass, the lawyer Alexander Hertz Olshwanger, and the engineer Moshe Kerner) the list received the number 5, and a fundraising campaign to cover expenses was organized overnight in all four regions, selling pins marked with the number 5. During the two months of the election campaign, Beit Ha'Am was a busy administrative center.
As the elections grew closer, meetings of the different parties took place. The campaign heated up. Biala was liberated late from the Germans, and thus was the last to conduct the elections. All the parties could send their best speakers and instructors. The elections were held on a Sunday. The weekend before, Biala hosted several young Zionist speakers from Warsaw: Dr. Esther Mangel, Yitzhak Aitkin, Mordechai Yoffe, and Jacob Pyontnitzki, who talked at the different meetings. On Saturday night Noah Prilotzki spoke in a Polkists assembly. From the Zionist side, Dr. Esther Mangel answered, presenting counterarguments.
After this meeting, which was attended by many people, the nationalists decided to call for another meeting the next day at the same place (the movie theater of Yoske Kashtenbaum), in which Yitzhak Grinboim would speak.
Grinboim came to Biala on Saturday night. The hall was full of people impatiently waiting for the speaker to start. There was a lot of tension, opposite parties recruited many of their members in order to disturb the meeting. The Bund in particular was determined to break up the assembly and not to let Grinboim speak. Grinboim stood on the stage surrounded by a group of strong people, but he could not speak.
Bundists stood at the foot of the stage shouting and screaming calls that were not related to the elections. Finally, Grinboim succeeded in overcoming the noise. His speech, too, was not related to the elections that were to take place the next day, but was a thorough analysis of the Bolshevik revolution and the Jews. The audience listened with much concentration.
This made the Bundists even more furious, they screamed and shouted that in a certain town the Zionists had informed on members of the Bund. Grinboim promised to look into the matter. One Bundist called Grinboim a provocateur, and Grinboim slapped his face saying: One should pay with blood for such an accusation. A fight started and the meeting could not go on. It was also felt that there is no need to continue. After the party in honor of Grinboim, he was escorted to the train.
On Sunday morning, they were all at their work stations, and performed their tasks diligently. Now came the long wait for the results of the hard and stressful preparations. On the one hand, this was a time of relief from the tension and stress of the campaign; on the other, a period of anxious expectation for the results. Members of the Zionist organization who roamed about impatiently in the corridors of the regional court, where the votes were being counted learned ten hours before the results were formally announced that their efforts were not in vain: their candidate, the lawyer Hartglass, was going to strengthen the group of Jewish nationalists in the Polish Sejm.
The general elections were the first political action taken in postwar Poland. At the same time, the local government and regional councils (Starostawa) were established, and this Council started to control political parties and social organizations, and immediately banned the activities of the Zionist organization.
Yet, the resourceful Zionists found a way around this. From the first contact with the new authorities, it was clear that asking for a permit would be a long and unreliable process; they thus took a shortcut: they used a Royal order (Note: Poland was a kingdom until 1919 RM) that automatically validated all associations that existed legally during the German occupation. The truth was that even this way was not strictly kosher, but it was quicker. This struggle with the new Polish regime was described in the Zionist daily newspaper Das Yidishe Folk (The Jewish People) that was published in Warsaw.
In August 1919, the fourth national Zionist convention took place and Biala sent two delegates: Moshe Rubinstein and Jacob Aharon Rosenboim. It was during this convention that the Youth of Zion was established as an independent organization. The Zionist Organization started to split up into democrats and rightwing, which later became the democratic Al Hamishmar (On Guard), and the right wing Et Livnot (Time to Build). Biala joined the democrats.
In the same year, 1919, there were also elections for the Biala municipality. All Jewish parties presented candidates. From the Zionists, Moshe Rubinstein and Moshe Kaveh were elected.
In the municipality itself, all Jewish members, except the Bundists, joined together and voted as one party. Sometimes, when a Jewish matter was discussed, and it was clear that an antiJewish vote was unavoidable, the Jewish parties would stop the meeting by walking out and thus breaking the quorum. There were frequent fights between the Bundists and the Jewish Party.
A meeting of all Jewish representatives in the municipalities of Poland took place between December 30th 1919 and January 1st 1920. The purpose of the meeting was to unify the activity of all Jewish representatives.
During 1920, Biala's participation in Zionist work in Poland has increased. Yet, the local activities have declined, as the main activists went to work at the headquarters of the organization in Warsaw. After Purim 1920 the Zionist organizations around Seidlitz held a convention there. There were speakers from Warsaw, a delegate from Seidlitz, and one from Biala, who talked about social work. In postwar Poland most Jewish social work was done by selfhelp organizations, funded by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). In most parts of Poland this work was undertaken by assimilated Jews or by the orthodox. In Biala, however, a large committee was established, and all the partiesleft and rightparticipated in it constructively under Zionist leadership. It was a rare and interesting phenomenon, and for that reason the delegate from Biala was invited to speak on the topic. They wanted to know how this was achieved.
In 1920 there was a crisis in the PolandRussia war. The front was approaching Biala closer and closer. Life became increasingly difficult, people were afraid to step out of the houses, not to be kidnapped for forced labor. The civilian regime left the town, leaving just a military government.
During these days of tension, a civil Polish Jewish militia was organized by our members to keep an eye on Jewish affairs. The militia members were allowed to move freely in the city, even during the hours that movement of civilians was forbidden. However, this militia was brought to an end with the Red Army occupation.
The military regime under the Red Army immediately organized the Revcom (the revolutionary committee), and slowly rebuilt the administration by trying to replicate the previous government departments. At first, they did not look for communists, and appointed any person that offered to work. Later they searched for any person able to take on an administrative work and demanded his/her cooperation.
Members of the Zionist group debated whether or not to cooperate with the new regime. It was impossible to hold a meeting and to reach an agreement in the matter, because had an open debate ended up with a negative decision and the authorities found out about it, it could bring about capital penalty in a revolutionary court under accusation of sabotage. Thus, the discussion was carried on in secret, by exchange of ideas by hints, but no decision was taken. Each person decided for himself and did not try to influence those who did not do the same.
Nevertheless, one meeting was held to discuss the matter. It was held on a Saturday, six days after the Russian occupation. That morning one of the Jewish leaders was invited to the department of culture and education that was located in the highschool building. He was informed that he had to take on the responsibility of supervisor of the Jewish schools in Biala and Yaneva. He tried to refuse by saying that he is a Zionist and he could only establish schools based on teaching Hebrew and Bible. He was promised that the authorities would not interfere with the school program. His appointment was issued the same day, and he was told to come the next day to look for an appropriate apartment that would be confiscated for his office. That Saturday afternoon a small group of Zionists got together for a meeting, disguised as a visit to the bedside of a sick female friend. It was the first time that the question had been clearly raised. Most participants thought that the appointment should be accepted, because it will leave the school in the hands of the Zionists. Some, and the appointed person among them, suggested to wait for outcome of the battle over Warsaw. If Russia conquered Warsaw, it would be possible to consult with the central Zionist committee.
The next day, Sunday, the person did not go to confiscate an apartment. In the evening the Russian authorities put out announcements on the streets that within 24 hours he will be charged with sabotage and judged by the revolutionary court. It was decided that he would present himself for the office the next day. Yet, by Monday the military situation had changed and that evening the Russian army left Biala.
The sudden retreat of the Russian army forced those who had worked for the Russian administration to leave the town in fear of revenge by the Polish regime. They ran East. Some stayed for a while in places where they were complete strangers and were not recognized and later returned to Biala, others left for Russia.
The reorganization of Zionist work after the Bolshevik invasion was slow. Some of the active members were absent, the relationships between the Jews and the Poles were tense, making public work difficult.
Soon after the Balfour Declaration was approved by the League of Nations, the Jews of Poland started to immigrate to Israel. The policy of the Zionist Organization was to prefer people who had a profession. A training course for woodworking was set up in Biala, in Freidman's yard (nicknamed Paradise) on Natrovitz Street. Several people took the course in preparation for Alia. The person in charge was Asher Feigenbaum (son of Moshe the glazier).
In 1920 some individuals got ready to make Alia [immigration to Eretz Israel]. The first woman to leave Biala and go on Hachshara [training in agriculture for the purpose of Alia] at the pioneering farm in Grochov near Warsaw was Feige Ita Uhrmacher, who indeed became one of the first to immigrate to Israel. Zelig Rosenfeld and Pearl Wiesenfeld, from the youth, also made Alia. From the older people, Solomon Weissberg (the hatmaker), Yesha'ayahu Agres, Alter Weinberg, Shalom Rogalski, Noah Mann and others made Alia.
At the end of the summer of 1922 the first term of the Polish Sejm has ended. Preparation for the election of the new Sejm began, and the Jews also started to prepare themselves for this.
A regional convention of delegates from all four regions was organized in Biala, and the delegates Yitzhak Grinboim, Joshua Heshel Farbstein, and Apolinary Hartglass reported on their activity in the first Sejm. This meeting took place on a Sunday, in the hall of Haim Yoske Kashtenboim. In the morning there was a public talk, and then the delegates received delegations from the different institutions and associations. In the afternoon, there was another meeting in the Beith Midrash. The streets leading to it were overflowing, Biala had never seen such a crowd in the Beith Midrash. In the evening, the delegates of the four regions got together in the hall of Kiakovsky, to make a list of candidates for the Biala constituency to the second Sejm. Learning from Biala's experience, similar conventions were then held in other parts of Poland.
In 1923 the Zionist movement in Poland experienced a sharp dispute, which divided it into two groups: Al Hamishmar and Et Livnot. The Al Hamishmar group was a minority in Biala, and only members of Et Livnot were sent to the sixth Zionist congress. The prominent members of Al Hamishmar, who had represented Biala in past congresses, were elected to represent other localities.
The reactionary forces, namely the town Rabbi and his followers, could not digest the Zionist's enthusiasm and called upon their old weaponexcommunication. The reason for excommunication was a poem written by David Shim'onovitz (Shim'oni), which was published on the front page of a Hashomer Hatza'ir newsletter, and was titled El Al (upwards toward heaven). It was handed to the Rabbi by one of the Radzin Hassidim, and was spiced by appropriate interpretations… The boycott on the Zionists was called by the Rabbi himself, with all the ceremony of lighted candles, Shofar blowing, curses and excommunications, all of which made a strong impression on the superstitious public.
A quick and strong counter action was necessary to stop the irrational fear. The next day the Zionists declared that they accepted the challenge, and that they were going to fight the Rabbi and his helpers without fear or hesitation. One result of this struggle was the first newspaper in Biala, called the Bialer Echo (The Echo of Biala). The newspaper mocked the excommunication; the ceremony was presented as a comedy. People read it and rolled with laughter, which was exactly what was needed.
The Zionist Organization in the town got ready for the elections. Several fundraising events were organized. One of them was a concert with the famous Chazan Gershon Sirota and his daughter. After all was ready and ads were posted around the town, Sirota sent a telegram apologizing for canceling the concert, following the Rabbi's request. The Zionist did everything in their power to convince him to change his mind, and succeeded.
On Purim of 1924 there was a big party in an open hall. A special satirical piece was written for this occasion about the excommunication, beginning with: Ich bin fun reb zu dir geshikt (I was sent by the Rabbi to you, a parody on H. N. Bialik's Yiddish poem Dos letzte vort (The last word)). The performance was announced in the program, which upset the Rabbi's followers. They tried different ways to avoid the reading of the satire, but the Zionists did not give in, and read it during the ball.
With this courageous fight he Zionists have prevented the effort of reviving the Middle Ages.
After the excommunication, the antiZionists exerted a lot of pressure on Kalman Sheinberg to clear Beit Ha'am from his house, and unfortunately succeeded. The Zionist organization was forced to leave the big spacious hall and to move to Mendel Goldfarb's home on Mizrich St. This house also included a library, which was already quite rich by then, and lectures were held there.
by M.Y. Feigenboim
Translated from Yiddish by A. L. P.
Translated from Hebrew by Ofra Anson
Edited by Rafael Manory
After Moshe Rubinstein moved to Warsaw, and from there to Israel, the general Zionist activity in Biala weakened. The reduced activity was also reflected in the events and the splits in the World Zionist Federation. Until the 1920s, the Zionist Organization in Biala was a united body, which attracted all the Jews with Zionist sentiments. Mizrahi was a separate autonomous organization, but, except for its cultural activities, it cooperated with the Zionist Organization in all other aspects. Hashomer Haza'ir was just a group of scouts, at disposal of the Zionist Organization for all its political activities. After 1920, other Zionist groups developed in Biala, as in other towns, and these groups were subject directly to their respective centers in Warsaw. They did not cooperate with the Zionist Organization, and sometimes acted in opposition to it. Not surprisingly, the new groups attracted members of the Zionist Organization and practically arrested the recruitment of young people to the Zionist Federation itself.
At that time, Hashomer Haza'ir stopped being a scout association and became an independent youth federation, with its own ideology. The revisionist party came into being and bitterly fought the old Zionist movement. The Hehalutz movement started to operate, and actively recruited the working youth. Hehalutz sent its members on hachshara (agricultural training for aliyaRM) encouraging them to make aliya. During the 1930s a branch of the rightwing Poalei Zion (workers of Zion) began operating. The League of the Workers in Eretz Israel also operated in Biala.
Naturally, this differentiation among the various Zionists had a strong effect on the previously united Zionist Organization, and it became a branch of the general Zionist Organization of Warsaw, which was also split into Aleph and Beth divisions. Only the old generation still belonged to it, with no youngsters. Economic hardships also contributed to the decline in enthusiasm and activity.
After Moshe Rubinstein left, the headship of the Organization was taken over by Israel Goldstein, M. Mishkin, Benjamin Kliger, Asher Hoffer, Jacob Aaron Rosenboim and a few others. Haim Myudak served as a secretary for many years, doing a great job. During the later years the home of Moshe Goldstein, the butcher, on Chasna Alley, housed the hall of the Organization. It should be noted, however, that despite the differences between the Zionists in Biala before WWII, all were united in the activities for the Jewish National Fund.
In the elections for the 18th Zionist congress, on July 23rd 1933, 968 votes were cast of the total 1027 eligible members. List no. 1 (Al Hamishmar) got 59 votes; List no. 2 (Et Livnot)5 votes; List no. 3 (Mizrahi)132 votes; List no. 40 votes; List no. 5 (The block of Working Eretz Israel)574 votes; the Revisionists251 votes; List no. 77 votes (from Podliasier Lebn (Life in Podlaska), volume 19/9, 28.7.1933).
Translated by Libby Raichman
In the year 1933 we, a group of Biala residents, started making enquiries about publishing a book of records that would portray a comprehensive picture of the Biala Jewish settlement since its inception. We wanted to provide insights into the past, compare it to the present and extract inferences for the future. The difficulties of our daily lives that each one of us endured and the lack of financial resources, brought our plans for this project to nought.
And what an irony of fate: Far from our birth town, the book about which we dreamt in 1933, is now published. But the present is no longer here to compare to the past and there is no one for whom to extract inferences for the future. The bloody flood that descended upon Polish Jewry reached our town too. The German horde destroyed the Jewish Biala and annihilated the Jewish population. Instead of this being a book about, and for, a living community, the book has turned into a gravestone in memory of the slaughtered Jewish community, whose unknown graves are scattered over almost the whole of Europe. Instead of being a stimulus to an active and spiritually rich Jewish life, this book is the conclusion to a chapter of Biala Jewish life, that existed for hundreds of years and that ended in such a gruesome and tragic way; a memorial to all those who perished so bitterly at the hands of the German murderers.
Our Biala, like other Jewish settlements in Poland, forged a ring in the chain of Jewish life and creativity on Polish soil. Our town contributed her modest portion to all political and social aspects that enriched, beautified and stimulated Jewish life in Poland.
We were substantially represented by the Chassidic movement, that in its time brought a revival of Jewish life. Biala scholars were famous throughout Poland and we regarded them very highly.
The idea of a return to Zion had many loyal followers in Biala who because of their beliefs, endured much persecution. Among the builders of the Land of Israel and the Chalutz movement our participation is evident.
On the altar of the revolutionary movement, Jewish Biala sacrificed more than one victim. Under Czarist rule in Poland one could find Biala Jewish revolutionaries as exiles in white Siberia. In Poland from before the 2nd World War, many Biala youth were tormented in the prisons for their revolutionary convictions.
In the history of Polish Jewry, in the period between the two wars, Jewish Biala wrote many articles through a fellow citizen Advocate Apolinari Hartglas who was known as a proud Jew and one of the most important representatives of Polish Jewry. He distinguished himself with his uncompromising courageous struggle for equal rights for Jews in Poland.
In the struggle with German tyranny in the 2nd World War, there was no lack of participation on the part of Jewish Biala. In the resistance movement in Biala, around Biala and far from Biala, the people of Biala were active. Most of them perished in the struggle with the German monster.
It was not easy for us to set up this book. The necessary material was not easily available and not accessible to us. We succeeded only with our research into archival material from the earlier periods of Biala Jewish settlement. Material from Jewish life in recent generations was reconstructed from testimonies and from memory.
Our intention was to present a review of Jewish life in Biala. It is understandable that the book does not pretend to be perfect. We are however convinced that for the most part, what has been told about our birth town, is presented in an objective way in this memoir.
In the book there is material taken from the Biala weekly news. In some of them certain corrections were made, in order to adapt them to the general framework of the book. Certain works extend beyond the prescribed framework but we could not shorten them as they contain many details of the former Jewish life in Biala.
We must mention here fellow townsmen Alter Weinberg and Asher Hoffer (may his memory be blessed), who despite their advanced age and weak state of health, did not tire of sitting with the writer of these lines for long hours. They shared important details about Jewish Biala with love and devotion. Thanks to the outstanding memories of these two fellow townsmen, we were successful in reconstructing pieces of history that would have, without doubt, remained in oblivion.
We owe thanks to:
The historian Dr Michael Hendel (Tel Aviv) who in his time was director of the Gimnazye (High School) in Mezrich, gathered valuable historical material about the Jews of Biala and here, in Israel, revised it and gave it to us.
The researcher and author Mayer Edelbaum (New York), a descendant of neighbouring Mezrich, for his interesting chapter Rabbis and Teachers in Biala.
All those who responded to our call and contributed with essays for the book; Mr MosheTsinovicz (Tel Aviv) for referring us to specific sources and the members of the committee who helped to prepare the book for publication.
Our birthplace Biala was destroyed, every memory in the town obliterated where once a vibrant Jewish life existed. Our nearest were annihilated in a gruesome manner and we have not remained with a grave to their memory at which we could have stood, petrified in our eternal sorrow and dampen the earth of the grave with a tear. Destroyed is our Biala on earth. Let us create a Biala in the world above and impart her beauty and her innocence from generation to generation.
Adar 5721 (March 1961)
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