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[Page 349]

Chapter Thirteen:

Retrospective and Review
of the Old Community Institutions

א    A

General Impression of Bialystok in 1880

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund


It is appropriate at the end of our Pinkes Bialystok to return to a few memories. The road that Bialystok traveled becomes clearer before my eyes. I was not born in Bialystok. However, I spent my entire adult life there. I have over 55 Bialystok years behind me (this was written in 1935-36, editor). That is more than half a century. The look back helps to create a review of the great changes in the city.

When I arrived in Bialystok in 1880, in Adar [February] 5640, it was after the Turkish war. The textile manufacturing was at the beginning of a great upswing. The German manufacturing already was in a state of blossoming at that time. The Jewish part of the industry developed strongly. Very wealthy men already were found in Bialystok. The general situation of the Jewish population was satisfactory. It was a time of economic progress.

However, Bialystok still had the appearance of a small shtetl. The outer synagogue courtyard still was half-provincial, too. There were few large brick houses. There were only three brick houses in all of Nikolajewer [Street] (later Sienkiewicza), which is the largest in Bialystok: Dovid ZABLUDOWSKI's house on the corner of the street, with a large room for the officers' club; the house opposite – Yankl KRINKER's of the earlier “Grand Hotel” and Eliezer HALBERSZTAN'S large brick house. At the beginning of Deutscher Street (later Kilinski) stood one of the oldest, large private houses – of Reb Dovid-Avraham KEMPNER (later – Zisl GOLDBERG's house); his father-in-law, Kopl HAJLPERIN, bought this house in an auction in 1808, when it had not yet been completed and organized a small house of prayer there. From the start, a large hall was set up in the front of the house, a theater whose windows were visible on the left side of the wall.

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It is said that the Free Masons of that time who were banned by the Czarist regime fixed it up and thus created a place to come together. The oldest private brick house was the “Palace Theater” building erected in 1740.

The entire city consisted of small wooden or brick houses. The streets were full of fences that extended between the houses. Several current formal streets were not yet [built]. Neiwelt [New World] Street was begun before my arrival by Leib WAJNREICH, but Polevanje (Polne) was built during my time by MAZUR and the street was called Mazur Street from its beginning. At the location of Wersalska (Angers Street) with all of the side alleys were fields and so much mud that one could not go through it to reach the forest.

There was no water system as yet. They were dependent upon Jewish water carriers. Of course, there was no electrical illumination. There was no theater house. There was not even a single large room for weddings, concerts, lectures. The only artist who made the people joyful at a wedding was Sonye the badhkan [jester – man who led the celebration at a wedding, entertaining the family and the guests with rhymes about the bride and groom, among other things] (Sonye ZADRINSKI).

The tall Kalancza Spire with the Cygnwolf during the vanished BRANICKI era, the row of shops around it and the famous palace, where there was a school for noble girls. And opposite the palace – the pond, the expansion of the swampy Biala [River].*

*[Translator's note: Cygnwolf – “goats and wolf” – is a game of five squares with one in the center, the wolf, which is surrounded with four squares, the goat. Anything of similar shape is described as a cygnwolf.]

The communal life was almost entirely connected to religion. It was concentrated in the houses of prayer. The larger ones among the many houses of prayer played the main role: the tall house of prayer (Pulkowoyer [Street]), Yehiel Nekha's, the two “grine [green]” houses of prayer and still others. There was spent the most time; there they prayed, studied, talked about city matters and just spent time. The scholar played the main role in the house of prayer, as well as the truly pious Jew and the rich philanthropist.

The Enlightenment had long ago slipped into Bialystok. However the followers of the Enlightenment did not play a large role. They actually were a repressed minority. Therefore, they founded a separate Choral Synagogue for themselves. Little by little, little by little Hatzfira [The Siren – Hebrew language newspaper published in Warsaw] began to invade until it reached approximately 400 subscribers. There were no newspaper sellers then in Bialystok. The older generation did not know Russian. They satisfied themselves with

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the news that was told by the young people, the readers of the Russian newspapers.

The ignorant person had no worth. Only an artisan who also could study had any prestige. Simple Jewish toilers studied Ein Yakov [homiletic expositions and compilations of Talmudic commentaries], listened to a preacher or recited Psalms. For them, the communal center also was the house of prayer.

Everyone knew everyone else's business. There was no lack of gossip. However, the main talk was communal. The central personality who evoked more talk than anyone else was Yehiel-Ber WOLKOWISKI, the leader of the city and Jewish concerns. Quarrels about city and community matters would occur in the houses of prayer. The most appropriate time for them was during the holidays when Jews did not have the daily worries about income. Each house of prayer had its leaders and its impudent people.

It was the greatest pleasure to go the Shtotshul [community synagogue] to hear the cantor, Moshe BOS, and his small group of musicians pray on the holidays. Of course, Bialystok had many other cantors. Here I remember only the cantor who was very popular when I arrived in Bialystok.[1]

Yet, the overall impression was a provincial one. That reminds me of a small episode that I witnessed on my first stroll through the city. I went with my father-on-law, Reb Mordekhai-Shlomo WENDL. It was toward evening on the second day of Passover. Arriving at the corner of Lipowna-Niolajewska (Pulsudskego-Sienkiewicza), we encountered a crowd of people, men and women. With a clamor and laughter they ran after a couple that had saved themselves from the crowd by going in the building of the former “Hotel Grand” and had locked themselves behind the door. We asked what had happened. We were told about an “extraordinary event”: Sura-Fayga[1*], the wife of the wealthy Avraham NIEMCOWICZ, went out in honor of the holiday

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in the street in a new dress with bells. Such an event brought out a crowd and [caused] a commotion. I could not forget the strange story for a long time because she clearly had demonstrated the provincialism of my new home.

The large manufacturers were German. Jews were the small manufacturers. Bialystok then had a large number of Jewish tavern keepers; the majority with a meager income. There still were enough Jewish workers whose income was dependent on the peasants from the surrounding villages. These Jews survived only with effort and drudgery and were always extremely busy and despondent. In such a situation they always hoped to be put back on their feet by a miracle, a lucky accident. It is therefore no surprise that the business of lottery tickets that was spread among Jews in Lithuania and Poland strongly expanded in the city. However, Bialystok was very captivated by the yetzer-hara [the inclination towards evil]. Jews borrowed money with promises to repay to buy tickets. Others became utterly destitute from [buying] them. Although foreign lottery tickets were forbidden by the czarist regime, the Berlin, Hamburg, Saxony, Braunschweig and other lottery tickets were sold in Bialystok. Collectors of all kinds worked: large, middle and small. They sold entire tickets, half, quarter and eighths and even very small parts of the “drawings.” All Russian officials also bought foreign tickets. The majority of poor people would buy tickets to be paid [in installments and] also in partnership.

For a long time Bialystok did not have any luck in the lotteries. Only small winnings would come in. However, on the other side we can see the precept of bikhor kholem [visiting the sick – an organization that provided medical assistance to the poor] – to take one percent from each winning for bikor kholem, so that the income from the winnings was considered a constant thing. Once, in 1870 Bialystok won a large sum. Erev Shabbos Teshuvah 5630 [on the eve of the Sabbath of Repentance that occurs during the Days of Awe, 1870], the lottery tickets salesman, Yosef-Moshe, the son of Yeshaya, received the news by telegram that a Saxony [lottery] ticket had won the large winnings of 450,000 marks. This was then [worth] 150,000 rubles. This great winnings that went to a number of poor families created real turmoil in the city. Many conflicts arose. Lawsuits were brought. The newly rich men made illustrious matches. Many years after the event, the city still spoke

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about the great winning. When I came to Bialystok 10 years after the event, they still had not stopped talking about the great, good fortune.

This was an event that incited. Such events rarely happened. Life flowed calmly. Jews traded without fear of the authorities. They did not sense any particular burden from the police. It was then a time when the police sergeant and his regional police superintendents and district policemen were actually in service of the Jews; they all regularly received bribes. They were more afraid of Jews who denounced them than of the police. A Jew was a provincial broker and notary. In the 1840s it was Zalmen GRAWA[2*]. After him was Kopl HAJLPERIN, the father of Elihu-Hersh HAJLPERIN who was a broker and a notary, a very respected Jew and a follower of the Enlightenment, a son-in-law of Malka-Rayzl – Reb Mordekhai HAJLPERIN.

Before the subsequent growing industries changed the way of life, the way of life of an average Jews from the middle class was set. Until his wedding, a young man studied: with melamdim [religious teachers] in the houses of study: Hebrew and Russian with [secular] teachers. After the wedding, they hot gegesn kest [had their room and board provided usually by their in-laws], first on one side and then with the second [with one set of parents and then the other]. When the dowry money would run out or was squandered, they would leave kest. The younger one who was not prepared for life as a father and who had already become a man burdened with several children had to pursue a business. He often seemed like a blind man who fell in a hole. Some would emerge as hardworking merchants, entrepreneurs in various areas. However, the largest number were luft-soykhrim [men without any particular business] and groped for work their entire life, led a difficult and oppressed life, one of drudgery.


  1. In our later publications we will provide more details in the chapter Khazonim [cantors] in Bialystok, particularly about the cantor of the Shtotshul, Dovid KACMAN (now in Detroit) and his successor, Meir PODRABINEK (now in New York), the cantor of the Choir Synagogue, Nukhem WILKOMIRSKIK (now in Berkeley, California) and Elihu ZALUDKOWSKI (died in America) and others – the publishers Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Sura-Fayga was of great Bialystok ancestry, a niece of the well-known Brisker Rabbi, Reb Yehoshua-Leib DISKIN. She was a very capable woman. It was written about her: “the gaon [sage] Sura-Fayga.” She wrote Hebrew well and knew Tanakh [Hebrew bible] and Talmud. She once had a confrontation with Peretz SMOLENSKI, when he came to Bialystok and visited her. When the writer stretched out his hand to her, she answered that she does not “give a hand to criminals.” Peretz SMOLENSKI is supposed to have turned his back to her and answered: “However, I am one who forgives sins.” Such an answer certainly was not genteel in relation to a woman, but the answer greatly pleased the Bialystok followers of the Enlightenment. Return
  2. I found his signature on a contract that was closed by a certain Markus RUBINSZTAJN with Dovid Avraham KEMPNER about a cloth factory partnership of the 15th of October 1844. Zalmen GRAWA apparently was the son of Mendl GRAWA who founded the house of prayer in his name in 5587 [1827] (see vol. 1, page 280). Return

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