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[Page 109]

The Bialystok Ghetto Uprising

by Pejsach Bursztejn

Bialystok was the second city after Warsaw to compile an impressive record of courage during the time of the martyrdom of East European Jewry. Bialystok's Jewish youth decided to wage an armed resistance against the powerful enemy.

It is difficult to recall those dark days and comprehend the scope of the tragedy, unprecedented in the history of mankind in its extent, the number of victims, the methods of annihilation and the terrible bloodbath – all of the foregoing enacted by the most wicked regime on the face of the earth.

Against the background of inevitable extermination and in the midst of profound isolation and abandonment by God and by man, you found in the horrid ghetto overcrowding, filth and hunger – the Jewish youth prepared for battle.

After an interval of thirty years, having become familiar with all of the facts, we can assert that no other nation that suffered under Hitler's yoke demonstrated such heroism as did our Jewish people. Let us remember that almost none of the gentiles had been slated for complete extermination and none had lived under such horrifying conditions. Most had homelands and could rely upon the local inhabitants for help in their underground activities against Nazism. Throughout history, no other nation was so alone and deserted, so dependent upon its own limited resources than the Jewish people in World War II.

Under these circumstances, to organize an armed resistance was more than heroic. This was the dream of a people sentenced to death – not only to save themselves but to preserve their honour as Jews.

Today, everyone knows how difficult it was to obtain weapons in those days. Even the Partisans, including Jews and non-Jews, lacked adequate arms. For example, one of the engineers in the ghetto boiled dynamite on a tin stove heated with wood. Ordinary, bottles filled with benzene served as the Molotov cocktails of the Jewish resistance fighters.

On August 16, 1943, the German army and the S.S. contingents who had entered the ghetto to liquidate it were welcome by heavy gunfire. A self-defence organization had decided that the Nazi would have to pay dearly for Jewish lives. In the narrow ghetto streets, the following slogans reverberated: “Don't let yourselves be destroyed”. “Die with honour”. Unfortunately, only a few were armed because of a scarcity of weapons. Axes and crowbars were added to the Jewish arsenal and with these primitive weapons; the Jews attacked the Germans who were armed to the teeth.

The battle was fought along the perimeters of the ghetto. There was no other choice. The Germans had learned from the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. They had concentrated the Jews in those neighbourhoods where it was impossible to conduct house-to-house combat but rather in empty lots, open gardens and wooden buildings which offered no protection.

The S.S. soldiers stretched along the entire length of Jurowecki Street cordoning off the denser section of the city from the ghetto. There was no way to escape. The battle had to be waged near a fence. Only there would the masses find a way to escape from the besieged ghetto.

A signal to begin the struggle was given. An explosive flare lit up the sky and, at that moment, the resistance fighters opened fire on the Germans at the ghetto fence.

At the same time, other members of the resistance movement began setting fire to the factories in all parts of the ghetto. Loud explosions and dancing flames blended with heavy smoke. The first wounded German soldiers called for help, retreating behind the ghetto walls. They answered with fierce firepower. The battle engulfed this entire section of the ghetto.

“Advance! Advance!” The shouts of the resistance fighters and the masses were heard. “We have nothing to lose!”
The wooden buildings began to burn; the blinding smoke caused everyone to gag. Weapons were running out but the battle continued.

The gate at Fabryczna Street, heretofore always closed, abruptly swung open and a tank entered, almost making it to Czepla Street. Suddenly, it stopped dead in its tracks – a casualty of a Molotov cocktail. An airplane hovered over the heads of the resistance fighters swooping down and firing on them.

The ghetto burned for several more days after we were taken away to the large field outside. Several fighters who had hidden in the cellars destroyed everything that could be of use to the Nazi.

The overwhelming majority of the ghetto fighters perished in the unequal struggle. Everyone fought until the last bullet. A few who were not killed retreated to a camouflaged bunker underneath an old well. Three days later, after all the Jews of Bialystok had been evacuated to the concentration camps, the combat shelter was exposed. Four-legged and two-legged dogs uncovered their tracks and led them to death on Jurowecki Street, against a wall where they were shot by the Nazi murderers.

After Bialystok was liberated, we found the mass grave of the resistance fighters. They had been buried in a landfill near the ghetto cemetery. We carried out their exhumation and reburied them in the Jewish cemetery.

[Page 110]

We found their corpses with clenched fists, with rolled up sleeves, still grasping pliers to cut the ghetto fences. These were our sons and daughters and they died for our honour.

Near the garbage dump where we found the seventy ghetto heroes, we came upon a second pit in which lay the remains of the women and infants that the Nazi had removed from the hospital and shot. One woman was killed while she was in labour. One half of the child had already emerged and the second half was still inside the birth canal. Later, Polish pathologists established that a number of these women and children had been buried alive.

We interred them in one mass grave together with the ghetto heroes. Furthermore, we erected a monument over their grave that pays tribute to their heroism and to their eternal sacredness. Alas, their grave and monument remain unvisited for there are no more Jews to be found in Bialystok.

Moreover, the white granite stone with the golden menorah engraved on it also stands alone and on which are inscribed the following words:

“These 60,000 Jews of Bialystok, the 200,000 Jews of its provinces, the nationalistic city, the mother city of Israel, the citadel of Jewish culture, a city famed for its national, religious, social economic and healthcare institutions, the city with its network of schools, Talmud Torahs and yeshivas, the Sholem Aleichem library, Jewish newspapers and theatres, the city of the aggressive Jewish proletariat, prominent writers, scientists and entertainers. Bialystok, with its courageous ghetto uprising against the Hitler murderers, followed the example of Jewish heroism throughout its generations of existence. May the horrible murders forever remain a stain on the German people and may the sacred memory of our Jewish martyrs serve as a beacon of light for us and for succeeding generations. We, the remnants of Bialystok, will always cherish their memory and continue the revered traditions of our beloved hometown”.
The echo of the battle in the Bialystok ghetto reached the mountains of Israel and reverberated throughout the world. No more murders of our people. Never again will we ascend to the heavens in smoke!

* * * *

(Editor's note: In a book entitled Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, published in 1971 by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the following interesting glimpse is given of how Efrajim Barasz viewed the Jewish resistance).

When Chajke Grosman (today a member of the Israeli Knesset) was active as a representative of Hashomer Hatzair in the underground resistance movement in Bialystok, we met several times with the Chairman of the Judenrat, Efrajim Barasz. In one of their discussions, Ms. Grosman told him about the terrible slaughter the Nazi had carried out at Ponary, a desolate village ten kilometres from Wilno. Barasz answered her: “I can't believe that what occurred in Wilno will also happen in Bialystok. I know the Germans. They won't dare conduct themselves in the same way here. They are only carrying out orders issued from Berlin – and should they receive such orders, surely they will let me know beforehand?

“They will not use the methods at Wilno here because they need us. In any event, we can enjoy peace of mind for the time being. I am afraid that our own youth will do something foolish. Will you accept the responsibility for their actions? I will always know in advance if anything is going to happen”.
Barasz several times warned the Jewish youth not to organize and carry out resistance against the Nazi because this could threaten the lives, not only of the fighters but also of the tens of thousands of Jews in the Bialystok ghetto. Nevertheless, Barasz did assist the resistance groups in their activities as is revealed in numerous documents found after the ghetto's destruction.

* * * *

It should be pointed out that the conditions in the Bialystok ghetto were very different from those in the Warsaw ghetto. Bialystok was not surrounded by a brick wall but with wooden partitions. Its buildings were small and constructed of wood. All this made it more difficult for the Jewish resistance fighters to defend themselves, for they were afforded no protection from Nazi firepower. Nevertheless, the battles lasted several days. On the fourth day, German armoured tanks and field artillery entered the ghetto, reinforced by about a thousand SS soldiers and Ukrainians. The Jews attempted to repulse them mainly with grenades and Molotov cocktails. They also had a few machine guns. Several hundred Germans and Ukrainians were killed. The Jewish fighters were captured and deported to Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. A small group succeeded in reaching the forests where they united with the Partisans.

 
Tell the New Generations
Of the Holocaust
And Resistance
 

[Page 111]

During the Revolt

Most of the weapons used by the Jewish fighters were obtained clandestinely from sympathetic Germans who smuggled arms into the ghetto in various ways. A number of Poles and peasants also sold weapons for ever higher prices.

Some members of the resistance got their weapons by breaking into Nazi arsenals and police stations. Some women even hid bullets and other ammunition under their dresses.

The resistance consisted of about 500 courageous people representing all political parties and persuasions. The Nazi enemy succeeded in uniting these previously fragmented groups.

Before the actual battle in August 1943, the underground resistance carried on a widespread indoctrination effort among the masses. Their main purpose was to encourage the people to resist and not to die passively. This helped keep the spirit of the people alive in the face of mounting adversity. There was even a secret radio programme broadcasted twice a week which disseminated resistance propaganda.

The appeal to fight the Nazi, issued by the underground on August 15, 1943 reportedly was written by Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof. This stirring call to arms galvanized the people to meet the enemy courageously.

From the outset, there were strong bonds between the resistance fighters in the ghetto and the Partisans in the forests. Weapons, food, clothing and medication were exchanged to the greatest extent possible. It would have been impossible for the resistance inside the ghetto to have accomplished as much as it did without assistance from the Partisans on the outside. In the end, thousands of Jews were transported to Treblinka by rail. Partisans lined the railroad track to help save those who jumped from the trains.

Tens of thousands of Bialystoker Jews were sent to Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek in the summer of 1943 when the Bialystok ghetto was liquidated and they were exterminated. Other Jews were sent to the Lublin-Poniatow, Blyzin and other slave camps where they were tortured. Thus many hundreds of years of Bialystoker Jewish history came to an end.

[Page 113]

The City Destroyed

On July 27, 1944, after fierce battles between Soviet and Nazi forces, the Red Army liberated Bialystok which was a tragic scene of desolation and ruin.

What was once a citadel of vibrant Jewish life had become a wasteland. The energy and creativity of generations of Jews had vanished in a barbaric orgy.

Jewish neighbourhoods in Bialystok, once ebullient and enthusiastic, were plunged into deep melancholy. The Nazi murderers had destroyed everything. It was incredible that such total devastation could result in so short a time.

Tens of thousands of Bialystoker Jewish men, women and children perished in Auschwitz, Treblinka and other Nazi concentration camps. Bialystok – a microcosm of Jewish life in Eastern Europe – disappeared as though it had never existed.

Shortly after the Soviets liberated the city, a few Jews returned to the shattered remains of their beloved hometown, miraculously having escaped the fate of their six million brethren. The massive destruction they saw made them feel like branches torn from a tree, and they wept.

But they did not give up. As time went on, more Jews came back to the city. How they managed to survive is beyond human comprehension. Their reunion restored hope and they clung together like one large family in mourning.

These few who emerged from Hitler's inferno- the camps, forests, bunkers, endless wanderings and dislocations – were immersed in their painful memories but resolved to begin anew.

Their goal was to rebuild Bialystok's Jewish community and they were aided by generous landsleit in all parts of the world, mostly by the Bialystoker Centre in New York.

They vowed never to forget thousands of their brothers and sisters who had perished in the Holocaust, nor those who had died resisting the Nazi enemy.


Our Streets

by Awrom Szewach

O streets of Bialystok
You are no longer,
But streets of Bialystok
In me you will live forever.

Our homes are all gone,
ust a few walls still stand;
Young lads in tatters roam,
Just a few toddlers, who really knows?

Laughter in the night
From couples in love
Singing to their hearts delight
Yet filled with trouble enough.

O streets of Bialystok
You are no longer
But streets of Bialystok
In me you will live forever.

O streets of Bialystok
How once you beamed with pride;
Now all that remains, O Bialystok,
Is a cemetery bonafide.

 

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