by Izchok Bornsztejn
The week of August 16-21, 1944, one year after the Nazi liquidated the Bialystok ghetto, was proclaimed a mourning period for the Jewish community. Approximately five hundred Jews who returned to the city wished to demonstrate that the Nazi had failed to exterminate all Bialystoker Jews. Furthermore, in a short time, the renascent Jewish community created several cultural and economic institutions the best proof that Bialystok was still alive.
A group of partisans, Jewish survivors from Bialystok, travelled from Warsaw to Bialystok with me in a train. Earlier, they had fled to many cities in Poland after those tragic days in August 1943, barely escaping liquidation. They reminisced about their gruesome experiences as the Bialystok ghetto was destroyed; stories that could make one's hair stand on end. One man was accompanied by his brother-in-law on the way to Bialystok to visit their friends' graves.
As the train moved out of the Lapy station, one stop before Bialystok, this man ran over to the window and pointed out the spot where he had jumped from a train, a year before, destined for Treblinka. The railroad bed was covered with sand. Twenty-five Jews had leaped here from the death train including his brother-in-law who was travelling with him. His sister had also jumped but she was less fortunate than the others. She had hit her head against a telephone pole and, before his eyes, bled to death.
Only three of the twenty-five who had jumped from the train remained alive. S.S. officers and their Ukrainian henchmen had opened fire on all who tried to escape from the trains. This person had observed many bodies that had been shot to death along the railroad tracks.
Bialystok in Desolation
It was a sunny, beautiful day as we arrived in Bialystok. We walked through what were once major streets. Now they were desolate and hardly recognizable. Where numerous homes, synagogues, batei midrashim, schools and other institutions had once stood; only a few dilapidated structures remained. Kupiecka Street, where Jewish homes and stores abounded, was renamed Izchok Malmed Street in honour of the hero who hurled acid in the face of a Gestapo officer. The building, in front of which his body had hung on the gallows for three days, was now a shrine a plaque was affixed on its façade bedecked with flowers. The Jewish Reconstruction Committee was now headquartered in the former Judenrat building with various agencies such as the historical society and the social welfare organization.
A Commemoration in the Synagogue
Bialystok had lost 60,000 Jews and, counting the provinces, 200,000 Jews. A few hundred survivors who returned after the war gathered in the Great Synagogue on the Sabbath, August 23, 1944 to commemorate the dead. The chief cantor of Warsaw led the services. As he chanted the memorial prayer, the entire congregation sobbed.
Before the Torah reading, the chairman of the Culture Department of the Jewish Reconstruction Committee, Jacob Cohen, mentioned the names of prominent personalities who had lost their lives in the Holocaust.
The Procession to the Ghetto Cemetery
Early on the morning of Sunday, August 24, survivors
gathered in front of the Reconstruction Committee building and proceeded toward the ghetto cemetery, carrying flags and wreaths. Although this cemetery had opened only two years before, it was already filled with ghetto victims.
Many Jews from other towns and cities also marched to express their solidarity with Bialystoker Jews. They represented the political spectrum from right to left. The Polish flag appeared along with banners of the various parties. Each delegation brought floral wreaths with ribbons bearing Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish inscriptions, paying tribute to Bialystok's martyrs. Bialystoker landsmanschaft representatives from other lands also participated. One religious organization hoisted a placard reading: May God avenge the blood of our loves ones.
The cortege extended the entire length of the barren street. As it passed the building where Malmed perished, the procession stopped to lay a wreath. Later, the people arrived where the Great Synagogue had been set ablaze with two thousand Jews inside. All that was left of this magnificent edifice were a few bent iron beams. A plaque was placed to mark the site of this tragedy. Further down the road, the parade approached the ghetto cemetery, passing many Poles who removed their hats out of respect. As the people entered, they noticed many new gravestones.
A towering monument stood over a mass grave. Not long before, one hundred and twenty-five Jews, whose bodies were exhumed from various places, had been buried there. Among them were the seventy brave fighters who greeted the final Nazi assault upon the ghetto on August 16, 1943 with gunfire and grenades. They tried to breech the wall around the ghetto to enable the Jewish masses to escape but failed when the Nazi called in tank reinforcements. Subsequently, the resisters hid in an underground bunker that the enemy quickly discovered, shooting the seventy to death.
The monument bore inscriptions in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish, stating:
Here are buriedSeveral speakers vowed never to rest until Fascism was eradicated.
One hundred twenty-five people,
Seventy resistance fighters murdered by the Nazi tyrants,
One hundred eight were men,
Four children and
A special white granite monument to the 200,000 victims was unveiled in the new library named for the late Pejsach Kaplan, a prominent Bialystoker publicist and editor, bearing a golden menorah and extending along an entire wall of the lobby. It glorified Bialystok, condemned its German conquerors and encouraged survivors to perpetuate the city's traditions wherever they lived.
That evening, people assembled to remember Bialystok's resistance fighters with eulogies, dramatic recitations and ghetto songs. The week of mourning concluded with the reconstruction committee dedicating the new Kaplan library, which contained about 2,000 books in August, 1944 most donated by landsleit in the United States and Argentina. A Pole in Bialystok contributed two hundred books he had received from ghetto victims who entrusted them to him before they perished.
|Polish Jews were forced to dig their own graves before being shot as Nazi soldiers stood by|
by Srolke Kot
(excerpted from his book The Destruction of Bialystok).
In 1944, I returned to Bialystok, my hometown. I was happy I would see it again but I was filled with pain and gnawing doubts about what I would find. Logic and the information available to me dictated that I would come upon desolation. But my heart said otherwise. Maybe I would find someone, a loved one or a friend?
Coming to the outskirts of town, I saw chimney stacks that had been torn from destroyed houses, blown up bridges and the railroad station gutted. Whole streets lay empty before me; other streets had entirely disappeared. It was hard to believe anyone had ever lived here.
I then walked toward what had been my home. I had left it the year before without my brother and sister. The cobblestone pavement leading to the house was almost completely covered with grass; a sign that people had not walked there in many months. It was as if the stones cried out in anguish; the grass cannot cover us! People will once again tread here! Generations of Jews had made a life for themselves here and we must tell their saga!
Homes were demolished; walls were absent, windows and doors missing. Jewish books were strewn everywhere. Furniture was damaged; chairs without legs, dressers without drawers and broken beds. Feathers from torn mattresses covered photographs of the people who had once lived in these houses; men with beards and side-locks or with heads uncovered; women with their traditional wigs or sporting the latest hairdos. I noticed a picture of a child laughing and another of a mother contentedly holding her infant. Surely all this could not have been wiped off the face of the earth? The victims' spilled blood cried out: What did they do to us and why?
I approached my house slowly as if I were being led to execution. I noticed that not even the shell remained intact, denying me the opportunity of getting down on my knees and having a good cry, holding on to a wall like a child who, having fallen, seeks to get back on his feet by supporting himself against something stable. All I found were some broken foundation stones and half a chimney. Looking about, I tried to pinpoint where the window and the door had been. Where was the bed in which I had slept? I tried to spot where my parents' wedding picture, happiness and hope brightening their faces, had hung. Pain surged within me. Standing on top of my home's ruin, I could not help but recall the tragedy that had befallen my family and the rest of the Jewish people. Why did they have to suffer such brutality needlessly except for the fact that they were Jews?
The air I breathed was filled with the smoke of the crematories of Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz and other death camps. At that moment I felt utterly powerless. My feet, which had carried me thousands of miles through forests and highways, muddy roads and underground passageways, seeking to escape the grim fate of my people, buckled. My survival seemed meaningless as I spotted a portion of the barbed wire fence, a remnant of the destroyed Bialystok ghetto.
I felt guilty that I had revived and my loved ones did not. What meaning could my life have when all the love that I had known from childhood had been wrenched away by the Nazi. I was torn between wanting to enter the broken frame of my house in which, to my horror, I might find the skeletons of my lost relatives, and leaving which I could not physically bring myself to do.
Nightfall arrived. I wondered how and where I would spend the night. Walking through the wide-open streets, I searched for other human beings, feeling marooned as if on a faraway planet. I asked a Polish woman whether she knew any Jews. She answered that she did not. Then, after many enquiries, I was told that several were staying at a building on 24, Kupiecka Street, which I found in a state of total disrepair, making it difficult to enter. Climbing the stairs, I went into a dark room and found an emaciated old woman sitting on a broken chair near a table listing to one side because it lacked one leg. I asked her whether Jews lived here and she replied, in a barely audible voice, yes.
Her husband then entered the room so ravaged that he seemed like a pair of pants and shoes covering a skeleton. We talked at length about who had survived and who had died, wanting more information about anyone we might know. It was horrible to imagine that no one knew anything about thousands of Jews who might have survived, who had populated Bialystok only a year before. Only a few returned, some entering this building to spend the night after rummaging through the streets for a few morsels of food. Only one woman who had been our neighbour recognized me. She vouched that I was a Bialystoker which was very important because, understandably, the survivors regarded the unfamiliar with suspicion.
The others who arrived were barefoot without any possessions. They found a corner of the floor to sleep on. Some placed their clenched fists underneath their hands as an uncomfortable pillow and covered themselves with papers and books scattered throughout the
apartment. It was exceedingly difficult to accept this reality to which we had come after enduring years of incredible suffering. My Jewish neighbour took me into a room with a bed, which I hadn't seen for a whole year. She covered it with clean linen and I went to sleep, awakening late the next day. The others who spent the night had already left in search of a bit more food and hoping to survive another day.
The First Yom Kippur after the War
The first Yom Kippur in Bialystok after the war, only forty people attended synagogue services. I wondered why some Jewish officers of the Red and Polish armies stood with a siddur in their hands praying and what a man wearing a cross around his neck was doing in shul. To whom was he praying?
I had found a room in 39 Kupiecka Street, an old dark building with windows knocked out, wallpaper torn and a kerosene lamp providing dim light. In the room was a bed without a blanket and a broken table with three and a half legs which collapsed at the slightest disturbance. I shared the space with a few other Jews and we became absorbed in our own reminiscences. Suddenly, someone suggested we go to synagogue to participate in the Kol Nidre services. It didn't take long to persuade me. After all, there wasn't anything else to do.
The room was cold because there were no window panes. Reaching the synagogue was easy. No longer did one have to pass through streets around buildings. The way was open; one could walk straight to his destination without detour.
We entered a converted synagogue. Inside stood a table facing eastwards upon which candles burned. Jews, mostly men and some six women filled the room. They all wept their faces unshaven, wearing old and tattered clothes. They were between twenty-five and forty-five, among them soldiers from the Red and Polish armies; some sporting medals and others who were invalids. The person leading the services could barely be heard; his voice was drowned out by uncontrollable sobbing. The worshipers had no taleysm or the customary white robes for Yom Kippur. But everyone carried the wounds of war, chocked up, eyes swollen and glancing about in different directions. I watched a senior Russian officer crying; a siddur clutched to his chest which bore war medals. I couldn't believe that he was praying to God. But one thing was clear the rough edges of reality had shattered reliance upon man's reason and compassion. The fighting at the front apparently had so affected this soldier that he needed to vent his emotions in shul.
I then looked at the Jew dressed like a Pole with a large moustache, a Polish cap, boots and a cross on his chest. Was he a Jew or not? His eyes were swollen from crying. He held no siddur only a cane. What was he doing here? I guessed he was totally broken after enduring terrible suffering. Never having identified with Jews and having converted to Catholicism, he now stood in the synagogue crying along with everyone else, answering amen to the prayers. He did not remove the cross but he was interested in everything Jewish. He was subsequently killed in a Polish pogrom in a town where ten Jews had returned from the war. Ironically, he died with the rest.
In that synagogue and on Yom Kippur, everyone came to express his feelings not to ask forgiveness but to seek answers from God, the others or even from himself. People needed to ponder the events of the past years to find some meaning to it all.
Those of us, who participated in that pathetic service, representing all levels and classes of pre-war Bialystok society, had joined together not so much to pray but to comfort each other. We thought this shared experience would make things easier. But, on the contrary, as we saw more clearly what had happened, some felt even worse than before conquered and vanquished!
by Rabbi Dr. Awrom Krawets
God decreed that my youth should occur during a terrible transition at the crossroads of life and death. I witnessed a well-established Jewish community perish. Brilliant rabbis, educated laymen, wonderful plain people were destroyed. The reservoir from which our people had drawn inspiration dried up.
After liberation by the Red Army in 1945, we, the first forty Jews, returned to Bialystok. We gravitated toward each other, sharing the gruesome memories of the recent past. I would like to describe the first Passover we spent together in Bialystok after the war.
My family and I lived in a small apartment on the third floor of a modest building. Desolation surrounded us. Because very few structures remained, I was able to see the distant forests directly from my window. All that was left of the Great Synagogue, burned by the Nazi when they first arrived, was its large dome, now a memento of death clamouring for revenge from its resting place on the ground. It was spring: warm weather encouraged the broken Jews to hope for better times.
Each day we heard bulletins on the radio about new Allied victories. The Third Reich, which had looked forward to a thousand-year reign, was smashed.
As the Red Army advanced, more Jews arrived in
Bialystok from the liberated concentration camps. Our town was a transit point for these survivors. The former home for incurables at N°1, Minski Street served as a reception centre. We met with them and exchanged information, warmth and friendship. At the same time, we conducted a regional convention in which sixty elected delegates chose an area-wide Reconstruction Committee of which I had the honour to serve as vice-president. Our work received much favourable notice in all parts of liberated Poland. We organized a kosher kitchen which served three to four hundred lunches a day; and a kosher butcher shop. We founded a small yeshiva for those former students who had joined the Partisans in the forests. Our committee was considered a mini kehilla. Our activities on behalf of Jews did not please our Polish neighbours who attempted to disband us by complaining to the authorities in Warsaw.
Passover was fast approaching. How would we provide matzah for the community? After all, we had no connections outside of Bialystok. Oddly, when Jews were not interested in material possessions, they wanted to restore religious tradition. Thus, we were resolved to bake our own matzos. We sent letters to Jews in the provinces around Bialystock and who were slightly better off financially than we were, requesting they contribute money to our Maos Chizim campaign (matzos fund). They responded generously. In two weeks we got fourteen hundred kilograms of flour. Dr. Szymon Datner, Chairman of the Jewish Reconstruction Committee, found other sources of financial assistance enabling us to begin baking the matzos. With the help of a former haberdasher, Oszer Ajn, we acquired a bakery at N°11, Jatka Street and obtained permission from the authorities to begin the baking operation.
On the day before Passover, Jews from the surrounding towns came to Bialystok to buy matzos. We supplied everyone.
Dr. Datner and I led the Seder services at our headquarters. Tables were beautifully decorated, featuring the traditional fish, meat and other delicious Passover foods. In addition, we were able to offer kosher wine which we prepared ourselves. The people were well satisfied. We spent a most enjoyable night. That Passover was indeed memorable because it filled us with hope after so much tragedy. We looked forward to a brighter future.
by Pejsach Bursztejn
In the last few weeks a large number of Jews repatriated from the Soviet Union returned to Bialystok. The Jewish Reconstruction Committee has provided them with food, clothing and a roof over their heads. We need a large sum of money to support this work. Our problems deserve the attention of our American Jewish brothers. It is to be hoped our landsleit there will not allow the survivors of their hometown to fall.
Our committee, as well as all the Jews of Bialystok, are most thankful to the Bialystoker Relief Committee in America for forwarding many care packages to our Committee which distributes them to needy Jews. Surely the food products, clothing and other items given to us are most useful. Many thanks to our landsleit in New York, Paterson, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Montreal and Toronto in Canada.
We have received the monthly magazine issued by the Bialystoker Centre in New York, the Bialystoker Stimme. It is a pleasure to read this beautiful publication. We marvel at the efforts invested in preparing each issue as well as the noble activities described in the magazine.
We await each edition with bated breath. After all, we yearn for Yiddish culture, books and magazines so scarce in Bialystok. The articles in the Stimme adequately reflect the magnitude of our tragedy and warn of future Fascist resurgence in Europe. Reports about the Bialystoker Centre and Home as well as the Bialystoker societies in America describe in great detail their monumental work. You are planning to publish an historic issue marking the magazine's twenty-fifth anniversary. We will provide much material to you concerning the Nazi occupation of our town. In fact, we have recently discovered the late Pejsach Kaplan's ghetto memoirs which will make a major contribution to the historical record of Bialystok's destruction. Furthermore, Dr. Datner is heading a committee to research the entire subject.
Our Brothers in Bialystok
I shall try to describe briefly the current situation in Bialystok with a population of 39,000.
It suffered tremendously from and was severely damaged by the Nazi. Entire Jewish neighbourhoods were destroyed. Famous symbols such as the town
clock have disappeared. The former ghetto including Neuwelt, Gumjener, Bialystoczenska, Czetochowska, Linas Hatzedek, Jurowcer, Fabryczna, Strykowska, Jatka, Owents, Prages and Mazurs streets were ninety percent demolished. Only the old age home, where our committee's headquarters are, the Jewish hospital, some stores, houses and the social welfare agency still exist. One or two batei midrashim remain as well as our community centre and theatre. Most of the textile factories were razed.
Lately, some have begun rebuilding the Jewish community. We ought to give much of our attention to restoring the cemeteries which have been horribly desecrated. Already we have erected monuments to the 60,000 Jewish martyrs of Bialystok and vicinity as well as to the resistance heroes.
About 712 Jews live in Bialystok today. Two hundred and ninety two of them are native Bialystokers, the remainder from surrounding towns. All of the Jewish provincial communities were totally destroyed with the exception of Bielsk where seventy-six Jews live and Suwalk with thirty-six. Nearly 300,000 Jews from the towns around Bialystok were exterminated.
Most Jews live in buildings owned by our committee; others in private dwellings. Living conditions are terrible. Of the 712 Jews, forty-eight elderly people and sixty-nine sick and disabled depend on welfare. Eighty-seven Jews are employed by the committee. Sixty-two work for various government agencies such as the military and civil service. Eleven work for the Jewish bakers' cooperative; eleven for the tailors' cooperative; fifteen for the metal and construction cooperative and five as cobblers. Our committee founded these cooperatives assisted by our landsleit in America. The following are self-employed: ten tailors; ten shoemakers; twenty-four butchers; three painters; two glaziers; two tinsmiths; two hairdressers and one dentist. Three Jewish doctors work in our hospital.
I estimate that seventy-five percent of our small Jewish community is employable. The rest, unable to work, are assisted by relatives in other lands and by our committee.
The Jewish Reconstruction Committee in Bialystok was created after the city was liberated from Nazi occupation. In fact, our committee was the first of any Jewish city in Poland to organize after the war. At first there were only fifty Jews in Bialystok. Then, others who had hidden out in the forest and bunkers arrived, followed by Jewish repatriates from the Soviet Union.
No one can predict whether a Jewish community can be rebuilt in Bialystok. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we are doing everything to reconstruct our community with modest means after such terrible devastation.
by Eliezer Newdow-Newadowski
|Days of my youth, of summer, of winter,
Remembered once again they live on.
Streets, alleys, a home filled with warmth
My heart pounds furiously with a secret strength.
Behold, I see my grandfather imparting his blessings.
My imagination carries me back to my youth.
My home is now empty.
In your mind you go
The gates of Bialystok stand in mourning.
Exterminated, vanished, no remnant of bones.
by Yedidia L. Hamburg
As the former Vice-Chairman of the Jewish Reconstruction Company created in Bialystok immediately after its liberation from the Nazi, I want to describe our activities.
Post-war Bialystok found itself isolated from the rest of Poland because the rail route between it and Warsaw was exceedingly dangerous for Jews. Polish bandits would often forcibly remove Jews from the trains at the stations along the way and shoot them, despite protective escorts provided by the Polish military. Frequently, these soldiers were unable to carry out their function. For example, two days after a pogrom in a town on the Bialystok-Warsaw route, four guarded chalutzim (people preparing to settle in Israel) from the Gordonia Kibbutz in Bialystok, were removed from their train and shot. Their bodies were buried in the ghetto cemetery on Zabia Street.
The few surviving Jews who attempted to restore Jewish life to Bialystok after the war were courageous. Overlooking obstacles, they did everything possible to continue the sacred traditions of their forefathers, hoping that their determination would help them achieve their goal.
The Jewish Reconstruction Committee led by Dr. Szymon Datner; M. Turek, director; Sz. Lewin, director; Pejsach Bursztejn, director; A. Dereczynski, director; Jedidja Hamburg, director; H. Bratmacher, director; Jehuda Grynhojz, director; Mita Grosman, director; J. Czernychow, director; D. Kolesznyk, director; Chana Rabinzon-Berkowicz, director; A. Grodzki, director; A. Goldman, director; S. Lewin, director; S. Grynsztejn, director; A. Erdepel, director; A. Ostroburski and A. Gerszuni, directors; A. Berkowicz, director; J. Bialostocki, director; chauffeurs training school and Z. Konjucki, director was the only such body recognized by the Polish government. Jewish political parties of all persuasions, from Mizrachi to the Jewish communists, were represented. The committee was divided into sub-committees that served the Jews returning to Bialystok. Moreover, labour cooperatives provided a living for a number of families and helped the small Jewish population in every possible way.
The sub-committees included the following: historical research; production; social security; children's welfare; the secretariat; landsmanshaftn; youth; schools; health care; drama; library; newsletter; exhumation and reburial of Jewish martyrs; vital statistics; correspondence; public kitchens; home for the aged; public safety; administration; accounting; baker's cooperative; tailors' cooperative; metal and construction cooperative; shoemaker's cooperative and training communes for eventual settlement in Israel.
Our committee received substantial assistance from Bialystoker landsmanschaften throughout the world, especially from the Bialystoker Centre in New York, under the leadership of the late David Sohn. Moreover, our Australian landsleit, led by Awrom Zbar, sent many survivors visas and paid for boat fare to Australia. Some used these opportunities. Finally, Bialystokers in Israel constantly encouraged us to continue our rebuilding efforts.
We paid special attention to returning Jewish children, cared for by Christian families during the war, and to their Jewish mothers and fathers. We found out about these situations when the Christian foster parents approached the committee for financial support, doing everything possible to bring these children back under Jewish influence. We also exhumed Jewish corpses from mass graves and reburied them in the Jewish cemeteries.
Digging up these large pits by our exhumation brigade, bodies of several resistance fighters murdered by the Nazi were found. Among them were the corpses of a woman about thirty years old, a small child next to her, a man and a girl about twelve years old. Furthermore, the gravediggers uncovered bullets as well as a passport belonging to a Jechezkel Zolti. Another cadaver was riddled with twenty-eight bullet holes, his name was Zecharja Kaplan. The total of exhumed corpses soared to 230.Evidently, some of them had been forced into the pit and buried alive. They were all interred in the Zabia cemetery on November 22, 1945.
At the end of 1946 and early 1947, the Jews in Bialystok seeking to rebuild their community decreased; many leaving for Israel, the United States, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Latin America and other lands. The noble attempt to re-establish Jewish life on top of the ruins brought about by Hitler ended in failure. Tragically, only nine Jews remain in Bialystok the remnant of what was once a massive and thriving Jewish population.
Let Us Remember
Our Martyrs and Heroes
Editor's note: The following are excerpts from minutes of the Jewish Reconstruction Committee's meeting on April 10, 1949. One gets a clear picture of Jewish rejuvenation in post-war Bialystok that ultimately did not succeed.
At the end of 1948, there were 520 Jews in Bialystok. One hundred and eighty-two were employed as follows:
42 in the four cooperatives (tailors, bakers, shoemakers and plumbers); 51 in private crafts; 2 in government factories; 11 in private crafts; 2 in agriculture; 35 in community work; 32 in government and 7 in professions. If we add 75 wives and 68 children, we get a total of 325 people; 62 percent of the total Jewish population on employee salaries.
There were no unemployed Jews. Anyone wanting to work received assistance from the committee.
In the four labour cooperatives, 118 non-Jews and 42 Jews were employed; this was to promote good relations between gentiles and Jews. The work-place was the best training ground for harmony and fighting anti-Semitism. The Jewish citizens of Bialystok did not want to create a second ghetto in which they isolated themselves by choice from the rest of the population.
In 1948, The Jewish community of Bialystok had an income of 3,698,555 zlotys and expenditures of 3,338,174 zlotys. Thus, on January 1, 1949, there was a surplus of 360,381 zlotys.
Bialystoker landsmanschaftn in various countries contributed to the small Jewish community in Bialystok. The New York relief committee gave 1,070,000 zlotys; the Bialystoker Centre in Argentina gave 825,000 zlotys; Uruguay gave 85,000 zlotys; South Africa gave 250,000 zlotys; Mexico gave 130,000 zlotys and miscellaneous amounted to 140,000 zlotys for a total of 2,500,000 zlotys. Jews in Bialystok contributed 1,190,000 zlotys which would be allocated to restore the ghetto cemetery. Considering the difficult circumstances in which the community found itself, this was a colossal sum of money.
On February 29, 1948, the Jewish Culture Society was founded. Its jurisdiction was Jewish social institutions and cooperatives. It operated the library, which contained 2100 books in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, etc. It also convened annual memorial meetings to mark the liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto. A public assembly celebrated when the State of Israel was proclaimed.
The community ran a Jewish school which, at the beginning of 1949, enrolled twelve children divided into three classes. Because of this small student body, the school was terminated at the end of the year. The Jewish Reconstruction Committee prepared these pupils to transfer to Polish schools.
On July 1, 1948, the public kitchen was closed because of insufficient demand, indicating that Jewish families had rehabilitated themselves and no longer needed this assistance.
The committee also conducted programmes in the following areas: bringing Nazi war criminals to justice; memorializing the martyrs of Bialystok; restoring the Jewish cemeteries; paying social security and unemployment benefits which, in 1948, had decreased because of improved economic conditions; a home for the aged caring for 23 residents; a medical-social welfare agency employing an internist, paediatrician, dentist and pharmacist; and a historical society to preserve the ghetto records and promote further research into the Nazi period in Bialystok.
The committee adopted the following resolutions at its April 1949 meeting:
|The Bialystoker Synagogue, destroyed, together with 2,000 Jews, by the Nazis.
In the background stands the church
by Dr. Szymon Datner
For us Bialystoker Jews, the grounds of the ghetto cemetery were sacred a stretch of earth in the north-western corner. The Nazi forbade us to bury our dead in the old Bagnowke Cemetery because it was situated outside the ghetto and we would have to leave its confines. Thus a piece of land within the ghetto walls was selected as a burial ground.
I recall two funerals in the Zabia (ghetto) cemetery. Both took place in February 1943 shortly after the end of the first liquidation. We, the residents of N°11, Fabryczna Street, buried the instructor at the Hebrew Gymnasium, the unforgettable Dr. Franka Horowicz. She had a massive funeral with the entire Judenrat in attendance.
The second funeral, which took place either a day before or a day later, was for a small girl, four years of age, Basja Bergman, the only daughter of the Latin teacher, Dr. Michel Bergman and his wife Jusja. This small angel was smothered to death in our bunker on the first day of the liquidation when she awakened crying and we heard the Nazi soldiers searching the house above. Returning to my house at night from the factory, I buried the little girl in the garden a few feet from the window through which her mother passed me her rigid corpse covered in a white sheet. Mrs. Bergman, unable to accept the reality of her daughter's death, asked: Maybe she is still alive?
At the Zabia cemetery yet another mound of earth rose near several others containing the remains of small children that had been suffocated just like Basja. During the two funerals, I saw heaps of dead bodies after the February liquidation. Lying in two long rows, they resembled pieces of lumber cut to precision for customers. Included were men, women and children, silent witnesses to the tragedy, gaping holes in each corpse. They had been shot with dum-dum bullets.
Then the German nightmare passed. We, the handful of survivors, returned to our hometown finding everything in ruins the city, the Jewish community, the citizenry. The cemeteries were not spared. Weeds and wild grass as well as garbage and manure covered the Zabia cemetery. Goats had grazed on this holy ground destroying most of the gravestones. In addition to our concern for the survivors, we felt obliged to care for the dead. After all, only two or three thousand were interred in the ghetto cemetery. Most of our brethren died in the crematoria of Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz and the like. We trimmed the weeds from the graves, built a brick wall around the cemetery and hired a reliable watchman to protect the grounds. Gradually, the cemetery was restored to proper condition. Furthermore, we erected a small mausoleum in which many had lost dear ones never properly buried memorialized them by affixing plaques to its walls.
On the second anniversary of the ghetto's liquidation, August 16, 1945, we dedicated a unique monument. Beneath a Jewish star appeared the following inscription in Yiddish: In memory of the sixty thousand Jewish people of the Bialystok ghetto, murdered by the Germans, dedicated by a handful of surviving Jews. August 16, 1943 August 16, 1945. May they rest in peace. At the bottom of the monument, or at its side, I no longer remember exactly, we inscribed: The people of Israel lives on. The entire Jewish community of Bialystok financed this monument. In addition to Jews, several Polish leaders delivered addresses, representing the Polish government and community.
In a letter dated June 26, 1971, I received a letter from the presidium of the Municipal National Board in Bialystok telling me that the ghetto cemetery was now located in the centre of a newly constructed residential complex. Until November 1970, the cemetery property belonged to the Jewish Cultural-Social Organization in Poland which maintained it.
As soon as a demand was made for the cemetery to meet the specifications of the new apartment complex, the administration of the Jewish Organization transferred possession of the cemetery to the government.
On July 5, 1971, I sent a registered letter from Warsaw to the Chairman of the Municipal National Board in Bialystok indicating that I had no reason for not trusting his good-will. But I mentioned facts in my letter demonstrating that the cemetery had not been preserved.
A terrible thing has happened. The ashes of our heroes and resistance fighters, murdered after the Nazi brutally suppressed the Bialystok ghetto uprising, were placed in a mass grave. This military grave was desecrated, violating Polish tradition of paying special honour to fallen soldiers. In no other ghetto or concentration camp Warsaw, Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz were there remains of fallen heroes. Only Bialystok preserved a mass grave of its dead until 1971. The Germans had, after all, not burned the bodies of our victims. Rather, they threw them into a pit, a garbage dump as it were, and on top of their corpses, shot another 55 that were captured after the ghetto was liquidated in 1943. With the greatest respect, the Polish and Jewish communities of Bialystok honoured their memories on April 11, 1946, exhuming their remains and reburying them in a mass grave.[Page 128]
Polish and Jewish leaders eulogized these
martyrs. It was an unforgettable day when everyone shared the anguish of the struggle that had ended only recently. I sad at the time: I address you, dear friends, who represent the Polish authorities. Your warm words ease our pain. We feel that you are our brothers. Under the protection of the valiant Polish people, our most cherished possession will endure the remains of our heroes and martyrs.For months, I continued to write letters of protest demanding the desecration of the Zabia cemetery be remedied. It was like crying in the wilderness.
Twenty-five years later, these chivalrous traditions were abandoned. Bialystoker Jews all over the world were slapped in the face. A military grave had been profaned; all traces of the Bialystok ghetto uprising, undertaken amid circumstances in which hon other people during the Nazi period could respond let alone fight were erased. If this cannot be corrected, then it is the duty of the Organization of Polish Combatants, of which I am a co-founder, to investigate and punish those responsible.
I have described our unsuccessful efforts to preserve one of the holiest places of Jewish Bialystok. The three monuments erected by Bialystoker Jewish survivors were desecrated. The mass grave of the resistance fighters, the symbol of Jewish heroism, disappeared under asphalt pavement. The only consolation we have is that their remains were interred in one location on the former Zabia cemetery. Perhaps someday that holy place will be restored.
|Exhuming the bodies of murdered heroes of the Ghetto for reburial at the Zabia cemetery|
|The Ghetto of Bialystok, July 194 August 1943|
by Dr. Szymon Datner
I arrived in Bialystok in September, 1928 after leaving my position as an instructor in the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium in Pinsk. My wife Roza and daughter Miriam came to Bialystok several weeks later. In 1929, my second daughter Szulamit was born, a native of Bialystok. For several years, Roza was a crafts instructor at the Hebrew Gymnasium while Mirian and Szulamit were students until it was destroyed. Who would have thought that I would §write this article decades later as the only survivor of this four-member family or that I would eulogize Jewish Bialystok and my school where I served from 1928 until 1941?
The Hebrew Gymnasium was the best Jewish secondary school in Bialystok, the only one where Hebrew was the primary language of instruction. Another high school taught in Yiddish and four others in Polish. The Hebrew Gymnasium was founded in 1919. It always offered pre-high school classes. Consistently, there was a ratio of 60% boys to 40% girls. From 1926-36, 367 students graduated of whom 144 later settled in Israel.
The school building contained sixteen classrooms, laboratories, an auditorium, a gym, an outside court for sports, a large library and an annex. Music was a popular subject and the gymnasium prided itself on having a band. The school was privately owned and had a Board of Trustees.
Among the instructors of the Hebrew Gymnasium were: Tojman, physics; M. Chazanowicz; Mojsze Zabludowski; Dr. Franka Horowicz; Ch. Szeper; R. Salomon; N. Kaplan; G. Szkolnikow; D. Peciner; A. Bomchil; Sznaper; Szymon Datner; J. Rotenberg; Pnina Bernsztejn; Gutke Grifel; S. Jakubowski; Hadasa Szprung; Murkes; Szmuel Rakowski; Dr. Chaim Welger; Dr. Mojsze Kacnelson; Dr. Mojsze Ziman; Mendel Kaplan; A. Kahana and Berl Subotnik.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, in November 1939, the gymnasium converted to Yiddish under the Russian occupation although most of the teachers and students remained the same. During the school year 1940-41, Russian became the language of instruction.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazi began their assault on Bialystok and thousands scattered in all directions to escape the bombs. Several instructors of my school vanished and were presumed dead.
Many of the teachers and their families were incarcerated in the Bialystok ghetto along with thousands of other Jews. Some lost their lives fairly soon after the Nazi occupation; others survived until the ghetto was liquidated in February and August, 1943.
|The Hebrew Gymnasium in Sienkewicza Street founded in 1921|
Most of the instructors in the school were well trained, expert in their various fields and excellent pedagogues. Our students were, for the most part, of noble character, brimming with enthusiasm, national pride and a desire for translating their zeal into action. I met some of these students in the ghetto, many of whom later joined the armed resistance movement so popular among the Jewish youth.
I also recall the mothers and fathers of these youngsters. Remembering them is the only way I know of granting their souls immortality, the only monument I can erect over their unknown and non-existent graves. They all departed this earth in an ocean of blood or in the stench of the smoking crematoria, never accorded a Jewish burial. May my memories of the Hebrew Gymnasium serve as a symbolic kaddish for the instructors, students and parents who were affiliated with this educational institution, victims of the Nazi juggernaut who were not granted the opportunity to see the enemy vanquished.
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