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Chapter Eleven:

The Fifty Year Reign of Yechiel Ber Wolkowiski
over the Kehilla of Bialystok


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ב    B

The Personality of the “Head of the Community”,

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The head of the kehile [organized Jewish community], Yehiel-Ber WOLKOWISKI, was a rare person, not a usual phenomenon, a sort of “authority,” and during the course of 50 years he was the central personality, the sole ruler of the Bialystok kehile.

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Actually he was only a sort of head of the community, because there was no kehile in existence in Bialystok then. He was everything in one: the kehile, the head of the community. The gabaim [rabbinical assistants] of every Bialystok institution played a role for him only as statistics, as additional servants, who submitted to fulfilling all of his caprices and orders. Without him, nothing was done – from an appointment of a ritual bathhouse attendant in a mikvah [ritual bathhouse] to lahavdil[1*] a rabbi for the rabbinical seat. He had the same interest in everything.

However, he was not only the head of the Bialystok kehile. He also was the true leader of the city, because no “head” was accepted without his will and agreement. He had to be a tool in WOLKOWISKI's hands so he could make of him what he wanted. He had prepared for this purpose a simple, honorable Jewish-friendly townsman who was the city-president for almost all of his life.

The police chief received a monthly pension from him because he could not survive with his government salary. He was automatically submissive to him in all police matters. In addition to all of this he was the actual leader of the Bialystoker Bank, earlier of the only “Vilner” or “Riga Commerce Bank” and later also of the state-bank where he was even a member of the uchynotny (discount) committee. However, he was also the person in authority there to give and obtain credit because when he was present all of the remaining members ceased [to matter].

He also was the most respected by all the governors in Grodno, where he was the only Jewish representative from Bialystok and was introduced by all of the officials as their most important and esteemed personality. He was presented with more medals and was a pstomstvenny pochyotny grzhdanin [hereditary honorary citizen] (an honorary title for their very respected citizen). Honorary-popechitel [trustee] (a kind of civilian supervisor) of imprisonment and chien uprava [council member] in Grodno gubernia [province]. Yehiel-Ber had his Jewish broker whose work was to learn from the local stolonachanlnikes [head of bureau] (middle level officials) and lower officials about Bialystok Jewish and general matters in order to prevent the results of denunciations and fiats. What was done in Grodno for him and for the community in particular and for individuals is incalculable.

In such a manner, Reb Yehiel-Ber WOLKOWISKI held in his hand the thread of the conduct of the Jewish community, of the municipal administration, of the

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police office, of the bank and also of Grodno, so that several residents of Bialystok actually were dependent on him. Praise for him must be added in that this great power was not used for his material gain, only for the benefit of others – whether a close friend of his or an enemy, a Jew or a non-Jew. He stood sky-high over the then coarse young rich man and community power in Vilna, Yudl OPATOW, ANTOKOLSKI's father-in-law[6].

For the first years his main business was selling manufactured goods on the Ukrainian market. It once happened that there was a military recruitment when he was not in the city and the best children from the community were taken for military service. At that time one could be freed from the military with money. It was necessary to lay down 30,000 rubles, which no one in the shtetl was able to do. Yehiel-Ber arrived from the Poltava fair in the midst of this. Not even resting on his way, he immediately went to the “prisutstvie [office],” and laid down the demanded sum and immediately freed all of the recruits.

No great, no flagrant injustices could be done during Yehiel-Ber's rule in Bialystok. If a man fought with his wife, they both ran to WOLKOWISKI to present him with their argument; if a wagon driver needed a horse he ran to WOLKOWISKI; if one did a wrong to someone he ran yelling to Yehiel-Ber who sent for the culprit and he forced him to do justice of his own will and with threats. And if a person had a hidden trouble, which he could not reveal to anyone, he entrusted it to Yehiel-Ber, confessed and asked for advice, which was almost always accepted.

One could come to him for help at any time, even during the night. He would go to sleep early. It happened that in-laws came with a groom from a shtetl to a wedding in Bialystok. They were stopped and taken to the police for not having a passport. The bride and the guests were waiting for the groom and here was such trouble that no one could help because it was already 12 at night when everyone was asleep, including the police chief. They ran to and woke up Yehiel-Ber. At once, he got dressed, ran to the police and brought the in-laws and the groom with his guarantee. He brought them to the

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bride. The wedding took place and Yehiel-Ber also gave a beautiful wedding gift.

It was said that a local treasurer of the kacznaejstwa (finance office of the government) once lost 600 rubles playing cards. There was supposed to be an audit in the morning; to him the only choice was that he shoot himself. A Jewish acquaintance advised him to go to WOLKOWISKI and tell him of his misfortune. And sure enough, WOLKOWISKI took 600 rubles from his cashbox and gave it to him.

WOLKOWISKI did such deeds in many hundreds of cases during the course of half a century of his rule. Here I have only caught several characteristic episodes.

His reception-time in community and city matters was from six to eight in the morning because he was busy with business for the entire day. People from all classes could then be found waiting for him in the antechamber: merchants about credit from the bank, rabbis from outside and local about rabbinical matters, authors with their books, a few gabbaim [assistants to the rabbi] about city institutions, the wives of the gabbaim about help for oppressed families, Jews to speak from their hearts and ask for advice and also a few secret denouncers who were not lacking at that time in Bialystok and threatened to ask for an audit of the kehile by Grodno about the disorder in the community in the city. He also had to come to terms with them one way or the other. His secret agents and eavesdroppers also moved about and would inform WOLKOWISKI about what was happening in the city.

All of these good deeds, general and particular activities in the Bialystok kehile while in his sixties, is portrayed by the well-known Bialystok Hebrew writer and teacher, Eliezer-Dovid LIBERMAN, who dedicated to Yehiel-Ber his translation of Tsedakah u-Mishpat (Kolel musar ha-dat ha-Yisra'elit) [Charity and Judgment: Lessons in Moral Jewish Theology] of Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (Vilna, 1866). He counts among his great accomplishments for the Jewish community the wells that were dug in the synagogue courtyard at his own cost (1,500 rubles). It is said of him that he also was learned and on Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and Yomim-Tovim [religious holidays], he would immerse himself in religious books.

Yehiel-Ber WOLKOWISKI was a wide-boned Jew of medium height with a pair of glasses on his penetrating, sparkling eyes. He welcomed everyone cheerfully and immediately turned to the matter. He moved in his spot like a squirrel; he

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could not in any way remain seated; but he spoke about everything and it was very interesting to spend time with him.

He was not even a scholar and not a great follower of the Enlightenment. He spoke Russian with errors just as all ancient Jews. However, he had a great knowledge of the world and humanity. He was full of thousands of stories, anecdotes, jokes, as well as scholarship and aphorisms that he heard from the rabbis who would visit him. He was a patrician, genteel Jew, knew a little about everything through experience. He could live everywhere in his shtetl! He lacked nothing: not Torah, not education. He could be equal to everyone.

His strong energy, firm will and spiritual flashes appeared in every conversation with him, but he lacked seriousness, depth and logic. He sprang with interrupted words from one matter to another, gave the impression of a good head and an agile one, but not of a prudent one, but of one in a great hurry.

He also did not deal in logical considerations in his great business, but with instant ideas and caprices. He actually did attain riches on the Ukrainian market, which reached higher than a million rubles, but he easily lost his money and died not such a rich man. However, as his only son, who worked with him in his businesses, told me, his principle was never to give – not to give any promissory notes to his debtors who owed him hundreds of thousands of rubles.

The general mood in the kehile during the time of Yehiel-Ber's reign was a religious one. In the morning, old and young were found walking with a talis [prayer shawl] bag and tefillin [phylacteries] to the synagogue or from the synagogue and the minyon [10 men required for formal prayer]. Four or five minyonim [plural of minyon] would pray in the synagogue in the morning. All of the houses of prayer were packed between minkhah and maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] and people sat studying at each table. Such behavior led to good manners, to the agreeable behavior that strengthened belief.

The entire generation was brought up then in khederim [religious primary schools], bati medrashim [houses of study] and yeshivus [religious secondary schools stressing the study of Torah]; the little education in the richer houses came from private teachers the majority of whom had a little recorded education. There were no schools then, except for the Real School. Feywl ZABLUDOWSKI, a middle-class Jew, a respected man, was the first to enroll his children in the Real School, Reb Lipele, who was mentioned above, gave a long sermon in the synagogue and cried about the ruin of education that would result, if Jewish children will begin to

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attend the Real School. The first Jewish students would, going through the street, change their uniforms for simple Jewish [clothing], so they would not be pointed out in the street.

The only members of the intelligentsia with diplomas were the Jewish doctors, the brothers-in-law, Dr. TRILING and Dr. FARSZTETER, who stood at the head of them, but their houses and conduct were completely assimilated; they were considered ostracized. Later, Dr. CHAZANOWICZ arrived. He was the first swallow of Jewish doctors in Bialystok who did not separate entirely from the [Jewish] people and had a certain influence in the kehile. But the greatest respect was had for the two great rabbis, chairmen of the rabbinical council of the kehile during the time of Yehiel-Ber – for Reb Lipele and, later, for Reb Shmuel MOHILEWER.

Yehiel-Ber also led a pious city: he later arranged a separate small house of prayer in his house that still exists today. For appearance sake he also had great respect for the rabbis, but in his heart he was their blood enemy because he had to have respect for them. He would say about himself: “They are sages and rabbis for those who attend their houses of prayer and I am the sage of the businessmen.” For the things outside of religion that he had to carry out, he did not hear them. For the rabbis he was too strong a power for them to oppose and have quarrels with him about city kehile matters. He was too strong a character and too energetic and powerful. In addition, he had his followers, helpers, trusting people in the city, who were visitors in all of the rich and rabbinical houses, who created a favorable environment for him. The rabbi then, Meir MARKUS, a completely decent, simple Jew, who was a religious teacher at the Real School, gave opposing sermons in Russian in the Choir Synagogue and was in charge of the metrical books, was also Yehiel-Ber's instrument.

However, Yehiel-Ber WOLKOWISKI also had earnest opponents: during the early time – one of them was the middle-class, synagogue respectable man, a certain Feywl KRESZES, or as he was called “Feywl mit di shikh” [with the shoes]; he [KRESZES] demanded accounts of him [WOLKOWISKI] at a meeting of the kehile and strongly protested against his conduct. However, he did not have a large effect on Yehiel-Ber because he knew that he did not have anything to fear from him, because a synagogue-Jew would not go further than shouting and protesting.

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A second opponent was a simple middle-class small businessman, but an energetic man who earned a great deal as a communal worker in several communal institutions and a very impudent man – Avraham-Feywl BLUMENFELD. He shouted not in jest through the entire city that the entire meat-tax money was stolen and squandered without control and without any accounting. He was also a great Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion society] and led the entire society and, as a matter of course, he was an intimate of the Rabbi, Reb Shmuel MOHILEWER. Yehiel-Ber was afraid of him. However, he quickly conferred with him: he was given an appointment in the kehile that brought in a large uncontrolled income. He was chosen to be the Jewish deputy in the inspectorate of the government tax office. He did not wait long to buy himself a brick house and he also became an opponent of the Lovers of Zion. By the way, he died a short time later (5656 [1895])[7].

There is no doubt, as Reb Shmuel MOHILEWER assured me, that Yehiel-Ber WOLKOWISKI was honest in money matters and did not benefit from the meat-tax money. But it is true that he squandered, or more correctly, wasted the meat-tax money. And the principal thing is – he did not take advantage of his position leading the business of the kehile or cause damage to the kehile. Therefore, Yehiel-Ber does not carry the entire blame; blame in all of this is the depravation of rights of the Jewish kehile, that it had to present the government with a false budget and it cost a great deal of money to preserve this false budget and to protect it from informers and government audits.


  1. I provide here an abstract of my long article, “Bialystok Ruler for Fifty Years,” Dos Neye Lebn [The New Life], year (? – ), nos. 44, 50, 54, 62, 79, and from my essay in Hatzefira [The Siren], 5663, no. 26, under the pseudonym Revi-H (translated from Hebrew). Return
  2. See the article, “The Influential Yudl Opatow,” in the large collection, Vilna, of the Vilner branch of the Arbeter-Ring [Workman's Circle], pp. 859-864. Return
  3. I wrote about him in my article, “Characteristics of the First Activists in the Lovers of Zion,” in collection of Hatzefira 5664 [1903]. Return

Translator's Footnote

  1. Word used to separate mention of the sacred from a profane or everyday matter. Return

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