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Jewish Biala During the Last Generation
(General Review)

by M. Y. Fiegenboim / Ramat Gan

Translated by Ofra Anson

 

1. Up to the First World War

In this chapter, we will review Jewish life in Biala from the end of the first Polish rebellion against Russia in 1863, up to World War II in 1939. Based on interviews and our memories, we will discuss three sub–periods, divided according to political processes, which affected Jewish life. The holocaust will not be discussed here, as it will be described later in the book, in a separate chapter.

In 1863, Biala's Jews happily welcomed, with bread and salt, the rebels led by Roginski. The Rabbi made a special, festive, prayer and read the message of the people's government.

In 1866, there were about 3,456 Jews in Biala, 64.9% of the population. The town was governed by Russia and, although the Jews were the majority of the population, they did not have any political power and the municipality was controlled by the Christians.

Until the end of the 19th century, Jews chose to live in a ghetto–like neighborhood. Jewish life was centered around the rabbi's courtyard, prayer houses, and houses of study. The hardly had anything to do with the outside world.

The following was written by the lawyer, A. M. Heartglass, in 1927:

“40 years ago, all Biala's Jews were Hasidim. There were two or three Lithuanians, and the rest, almost 100%, were a socially backwards Hasidic mob, ignorant of any modern concepts, without any cultural needs and far removed from any general modern and European cultures. Their narrow world was composed of the rabbi's yard and the landowners around the town, with whom they traded. There was no self–respect in their relationships with Christians. At the same time, in Brisk, located only 40 Km away, there was a healthy, culturally developed, nationalist Jewish community.

The Jews in Biala were not interested in general education. Biala did have a state high school, which I attended, but at the time, I was the only Jewish student. Jews did not read Polish newspapers or journals. The only Jewish magazine was “Hatzfira”, but reading it was forbidden, mainly among the Hasidim.

(Source: “Podalsier Leibn” [Life in Podalska, O.A.] volume 6/2, February 11, 1927, “Tzeiten Beitn Zich” [Times are Changing]).

This Hasidic mob fought against even the smallest deviation from the accepted traditions and managed to freeze Jewish life. Every time they sensed the possibility of a small change, they would scream “Fire on you, Israel!” meaning we must “save” Israel. For “saving”, they would not stop at the ghetto's boundaries, but recruited the Czar's administration for help…

“Fire on you, Israel!” – This alarm call was heard when they saw a Yeshiva scholar with shining shoes, or with a tie and collar; or someone carrying something on Saturday when the “Shabbat Boundary” was broken. Not to mention when they found something “unclean” like a secular book such as “The Love of Zion” by Ahad Ha'am.

An article in the Hebrew newspaper “Hamelitz” from 1884 (volume 5), describe this period as following:

“H. Abraham Kushzutz, from Biala (Siedlce region), reports that a few youngsters got together to read a general knowledge book. When the Hasidim found out, they allowed some of their members to beat them up. Indeed, the education seekers were beaten so hard, that one of them needed medical attention. The town's administration learnt about it, the beaters were forced to ensure medical care for the ill youngster and were made to pay a hundred Rubles fine.”

During that period, there were rebels and deviants. Yet, they were very few. We know, for example, that Israel the Builder father of Alther, Baruch, and Joshua Weinberg [members of my father's family, O.A.] loudly expressed his anger because the rabbi forced the people to wait for him for a long time during the high–holidays service. Any person familiar with the authority enjoyed by the rabbi of Biala knows that almost no one dared to behave like that.

Orthodox persons, scholars, and the respected rich men ran the community. They used to meet at the rabbi's and decide important matters (in those days terms).

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They choose the community leaders who were then approved by the Russian regime.

The memorable leaders from 1890 to WWI (1914) were: Moshe Bergstein, Yeshayahu David (nicknamed “Floken”), Moshe Wyznicher (probably immigrated from Wyznica), Moshe Cohen, David Shachor, Haim Yoske Kashtenbaum, Haim Levi Rubinstein [my maternal grandfather, O.A.], Kalman Sheinberg, Zelman Zak, advocate Kalman Heartglass, and Moshe Lebeberg. Naturally, all the leaders were rich.

The poor did not dare to criticize the leaders. They could not afford to pay community tax and did not have a say in any matter. The rich were not happy with the leaders, because they did have to pay a community tax.

The leaders made a list of the people who should pay tax, and the sum each of them had to pay. They gave the list to the local authority, who collected it together with the municipality taxes.

The leaders used the community tax to renovate the synagogue, the learning place, the Mikveh, supported promising young scholars and set aside some financial aid for the poor. They also covered hospital expenses for Biala Jews who were hospitalized out of town. Later, a special hospital tax was imposed.

The leaders never reported to the community how they spent the money, only to the town's authorities.

Until WWI, the Jewish community did not have an office. All affairs were settled on the street or in the leaders' houses. They never kept notes or references. When the Jewish community was formally established in free Poland, no archive was found.

The community leaders issued their own internal money which was used by the Jews. It was a piece of parchment named “Pruta” (a Hebrew name for a small coin, pl. prutot), with the letters PBg [Pruta of great Biala, O.A.] written on it. Three prutot made one groshen. The pruta was what people gave to beggars. When a beggar from out of town came, he would buy few prutot in case he needed to give change and changed what he had collected upon leaving town.

There were households who could not even give a beggar a pruta. In this case they would give a sugar cube, which cost less than a pruta.

A few years before WWI the pruta has been replaced by a brass coin.

Several social institutions of those days are worth mentioning: Hevra Kadisha [for burial, O.A.], “Beith Lehem” [feeding the poor, O.A.], “Bikur Holim” [visiting the sick, O.A.], and “Linat Tzedek” [staying all night watching over a sick person O.A.]. A few years before WWI, “Achi'ezer” was founded, for medical help. (Some of these institutions will be described later in the book).

Jews were merchants, artisans, and brokers. The standard of living was low, as will be demonstrated in the following examples.

Most of the population fed on bread and potatoes. In most households, meat, fish, and Halla were seen only on Saturdays and holidays. When someone fell ill, his family went to a rich house with a small pot to ask for some soup. When the price of bread rose by half a Groshen, people went to the synagogue to read psalms. Clothes were of poor quality. Most men's clothes were made of hard, thin material; women wore dresses made of simple material. Shoes were made of thick leather, seeking strength, not appearance. Patched clothes and shoes were common.

Housing was also poor. Most often families lived in one, windowless, room, sharing the kitchen with other families. The kitchens were equipped with a brick oven and a hob. Hobs were considered as luxury and were hardly used. Instead, an iron tripod was placed on the hob, the pot on it using wood for cooking.

The room was furnished with two wooden beds, a table, two stools, and a box on wheels holding clothes and important goods. The box was frequently used as a bed too.

A wooden cradle hung from a hook in the ceiling for babies.

Saving was a common phenomenon. Even those who earned very little, tried to save. The first purpose of saving was a dowry for daughters; yet buying a property, even a part of a house, was the real dream. Many of the artisans had part of a house, although they were quite poor. There were also artisans who were considered to be poor, but actually lent money as mortgages for others to buy property.

Taxes were not heavy on the population. Shop owners bought an annual business license, and paid their taxes at the same time. Evidence of how low the taxes were can be seen in the way pressure was applied. If someone did not pay his taxes, Mr. Kashimovski would come to his house on Friday night or on a holiday eve and confiscate the Talith or the brass candle sticks.

The only interaction with non–Jews was through trade and handicrafts. They lived in peace: Christians felt they controlled the villages, Jews felt they ruled the town. On Saturdays and holidays all shops were closed, and the Christians knew there was no point in coming into town for shopping. Jews were rarely harassed, and if they were, it was by Christians from different regions who came for military training in the autumn. The Jews knew that riots could be expected after Succoth, when the new recruits arrived.

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In later years, when the “Bund” started to be active in Biala, it organized a defense, and the rioting soldiers were beaten up.

Jews did not take part in cultural activities organized by Christians until the time of Polish independence.

Most Jews had very little to do with the town's administration except for the courts. The well to do, who had to pay taxes, had to deal with the administration. Most of the clerks could be bribed, and there were Jews that specialized in settling matters, such as free a Jewish boy from the army, using bribery.

The residents of Biala, Jews and Christians alike, did not take part in politics. Elections to the Russian parliament took place occasionally, but they had no effect on life in the town.

The elections were very different from those in democratic countries. Biala sent delegates to the region's capital. Only property owners, that paid taxes, had the right to vote for delegates. Once the Jews put forward three candidates, Bernard Raaba, Idel Schwartz, and advocate Kalman Heartglass. That time the Jews were more involved in the election.

As mentioned, the self–imposed ghetto lasted until the end of the 19th century, when Jewish life started to change. A struggle between some of the youngsters and the orthodox began. General education in the state high school, Zionism, and the Bund generated the beginning of change.

The Jews of Biala did not take up the opportunity to send their children to the state high school; but Russian Jews, who could not send their children to Russian schools because of the numerus classes, sent their children to Biala instead of the local children.

These Russian students met with their local Jewish peers, and under their influence, some of the locals started secretly to acquire a general education. They started to read Russian literature, which impressed them remarkably.

The young Jews who dared to open their minds to general knowledge suffered harassment, in public and in their own families. Yet their forward looking attitude started a trend. Parents started to give their children secular education.

The Zionist movement reached Biala relatively late. Still, in 1894 it encouraged the adoption of the enlightenment movement by Biala's youth. Naturally, the orthodox despised the Zionist movement, and its followers were persecuted. The weak Zionist movement drew to its lines young men who studied in the Shtibels, but did not reach the public. The young Zionists had to be careful not to be found out by the community leaders, who would have stopped their studies, sentencing them to social isolation, had they found out. Their activity was thus limited to the cultural sphere.

It was the Bund, the workers movement, which turned to the public and to the young blue–collar workers in particular. These youngsters welcomed the Bund, especially once they heard of the number of Russians who struggled for the same ideas. The struggle between the traditional Hasidim and the Bund was weaker than their struggle again Zionism, because the Bund organized the workers, not the Torah students. Aside from its political activity, the Bund promoted cultural activity and the reading of serious books. The Bund had the courage to go against the Jewish leadership. It also fought against Jewish criminals that frightened the Jewish population. Needless to say, all this activity was illegal.

After the suppression of the 1905 revolution, the Czar's regime organized riots against the Jews. Siedlce suffered such a pogrom; Biala was probably included in the plan but was saved.

Every year, an Atonement ceremony took place on St. Anthony's day. Thousands of Christians from the surrounding villages came into town. The Czar's regime probably meant to organize pogrom on that day.

The head of the Russian police, Koryanov, used to visit several Jewish homes. On one of those visits, he mentioned the pogrom planed for St. Anthony's day. Joshua Fisher heard about it and decided to prevent the pogrom.

Joshua Fisher was a member of the Polish Socialist Party and did almost nothing without its approval. He cooperated with the underground of that party and brought news from Biala to the leaders of the party. He used his position in the party to explained to them that it was in their own interest to prevent the pogrom planned by the Czar.

The party leaders agreed with his arguments and decided to actively resist any possible harm to the Jews.

On Atonement day, the party placed members to guard all the roads leading into the town. Each wagon was searched, and possible weapons were taken to be returned when its owner returned home. They also warned the Christian travelers to avoid doing any harm to the Jews, if they do not want their homes to burned.

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The day went by peacefully, and no one was hurt. At the same time, the Jews tried to stay out of sight.

As much as Jewish life in Biala was dull and uneventful until WWI, every now and then a scandal shook the people. The different Hasidic group had many disputes. There were, for instance, the Radzyn Hasidim, who had light–blue Zizith strands. When the Radzyn Rabbi, Rabbi Gershon Hanoch, came to visit Biala, he had to leave town in a rush because his rivals intended to inform on him.

I would like to describe some of the more memorable events taking place before WWI.

In 1892, a cholera epidemic broke out in Poland. In the absence of a Jewish hospital in Biala, the sick were taken to the Talmud Torah. The treatment was:

  1. Rubbing the hands and the feet with alcohol;
  2. putting soaking paper on the belly, leaving a hole for the bellybutton;
  3. wetting that paper with alcohol and spreading paper on it.
Jewish volunteers took care of those who fell ill with cholera, among them were Mendel Shtritz, Yosl Gotfried (nicknamed Votchik), and Avigdor Richter (from Lomazy). The materials were stored in the women's section, managed by Itche Meir Zishas (Cohen), who was extremely devoted to the patients. The Christians were also effected and the municipality ordered the sewage to be whitewashed. The rabbi ordered his Hasidim not to come to his yard during the high holidays.

The cholera lasted for some two months, and many lives were lost. The Jews believed that the epidemic was sent as punishment for their sins. They made sure not to get close to the sewage, where the devils live … As in other towns, a “black Hupa” was set up in the cemetery, and they choose a bride and a groom to marry. The bride was “cold Dosha” the “town's crazy woman”.

Closing the old marketplace, located in today's Wlnoshchi Square, generated a lot of objections from the Jewish population. The following story has been told about to the struggle:

Esther Perale was a smart woman, with a sharp tongue. Indeed, for many years, any woman who talked back was called “Esther Perale.

In 1902/3, Czar Nicholai the Second passed Biala on his way to Loshno Vyanovo [not sure about the spelling, could not find any reference, O.A.]. When the Czar's wagon entered the market square, Esther Perale jumped out of the crowd, and stood in its way. She spread her arms and forced the driver to stop the horses. She gave the Czar a sheet of paper and returned to the crowd. It all occurred so fast, that the police did not have the time to react. The sheet of paper Esther Perale gave the Czar was a plea to order not to destroy the huts and the stands of the old market. The Czar accepted her plea and gave the order on his way back.

There was a story regarding the Jewish hospital. The wife of a rich man passed away in 1904. Her funeral was delayed by a day, until her husband donated 6,000 Rubles for the hospital (note that according to the Jewish law, the burial should not be delayed overnight. O.A.).

In 1905/6, robbers attacked some Jewish merchants on their way to the market in Lomazy. The robbers ambushed the convoy in the forest near Lomazy and started shooting at it. The convoy stopped, and the robbers went from one wagon to the other and took all the money. They shot and killed two Jewish horse dealers from Mordy, near Siedlce.

The event shook the town. Different versions were told concerning the identity of the robbers, who were disguised.

The funeral was held the next day, in the afternoon. All shops were closed, and everybody went to pay their respects. The bodies were carried in a simple wagon, and have not been ritually cleansed, and buried as they were found at the site of the murder. The funeral stopped in the yard before the cemetery. Rabbi Shmuel Leib Zak arrived, declared the excommunication of the murderers, and blew a shofar next to the bodies.

Simultaneously, a rumor started to spread in the crowd, that one of the murderers, a Jew by the name of Siroky, a well–known thief, is a “guest” in the brothel run by Krawotzov (a Russian Jew) located in the new market at the end of Grawanover St.

When Aaron Landau heard the rumor, he cited Rashi's interpretation of the weekly Torah portion “Kedoshim”. He said, it is time to “eradicate the evil within us”, we may yet finish with the house which is a disgrace to our town (referring to Krawotzov house). Let us go there to look for the murderer and destroy this evil and shameful house.

The crowd went to Krawotzov's house, while developing a riotous mood. Aaron Landau was the first one to break the windows and shake the doors. The doors opened forcefully, and people started to empty goods from the house. Suddenly there was a scream – Siroky has been found under a bed. Badly beaten, he was carried to the cemetery. Half dead he admitted he took part in the murder.

Yet, Landau did not want to leave Krawotzov's house. Enthusiastically he called:

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“Do not leave until the house is completely destroyed!” Furniture, pianos, beddings, and looking glasses were thrown out of the windows. An order came that nothing should be taken and everything should be destroyed on the spot. A few minutes later, the yard was full of feathers, ripped clothes, and broken furniture.

Guards led by Koryanov arrived. They shot in the air, but Landau refused to move until everything had been destroyed. Moshe Edelstein and Yeshayahu Agers helped him. Aron Landau was arrested for rioting and resisting the authorities. The next day Rabi Shmuel Fijytz bailed him out.

There was a major criminal trial, with Aron as the main defendant. Krawotzov hoped to retrieve some compensation for his loss. There was a long investigation before the three–days trial began in the district court, then located in Urmacher's place on Miedzyrzec St.

Four lawyers, led by the well–known Warsaw lawyer Henrik Atinger, represented the defendants. The young Apilinary Heartglass, who had just started his professional training in the office of advocate Zorderland from Siedlce, was also one of the defenders.

Heartglass took a unique approach for defense. While the other lawyers focused on the legal aspect of the prosecution, Heartglass described the Jewish education from early childhood. He emphasized the loathing a Jewish person acquires towards murder and prostitution from a very young age.

All defendants were found not guilty.

One summer night in 1907 or 1908, three Russian policemen were shot next to the house of Springer (nickname). One of them was killed.

It was said that this event, which took place in the Jewish quarter, almost caused a pogrom. Only the Russian captain of the troop placed in the town, who was on duty that night prevented it.

The suspects were the men of the Charni family (nicknamed Stopes), and they were arrested. There was a rumor that anonymous information had led to the arrest.

After several trials which lasted for years, Ortche Motel, Shlomo and his son Jacob, were sentenced for life with hard labor in Siberia. Hershl and Benjamin were found not guilty.

Ortche Motel died in Siberia, Shlomo and Jacob returned to Biala after the Bolshevik revolution.

One shot police officer in Vollia cost the life of a young Jewish man. He was an orphan who worked for a shoemaker in Vollia. He was arrested, with a few others, as a suspect.

The brought the suspects to the nuns' hospital, to be identified by the dying police officer. The Jewish orphan was the first to be shown, as he lived in Vollia. The police officer nodded when asked if he knew the boy, and that was enough. He was sentences for 10 years in prison and died shortly after that.

Only two Jews served in the Russian army for the full 25 years during the past 70–80 years. They were the husband of Hadassah, the daughter of Hanna, and Siskind. Siskind worked as a porter in the train station, which was a privileged work.

Advocate Apilinary Heartglass has written about the Jewish porter in his forthcoming book:

“The porters in the train station were all Jewish. I still remember one of them, old Aron, who had a long, white, beard and his formal shirt and hat, with a brass number on his chest. The Jewish porters worked for the Polish regime for about 30 years. They were mercilessly fired by the Russian and replaced by Russian workers.

Four cases of religious conversion occurred during the period described here. Especially of women.

The most dramatic was the case of Reisele, an exceptionally pretty young woman. A Russian colonel fell in love with her, surrounded her house on Janover St. with his soldiers, and took her with him.

Her parents could not bear the shame and immigrated to America. I heard that she joined them with her children later on.

Another special event was the day when the Jewish hospital was opened in 1911. Building such a wonderful hospital, at a high standard for those days, was a very difficult task for such a community. The regional governor and his entourage came to the opening from Siedlce.

Before we finish to review the events that took place in Biala before WWI, I would like to mention the case of a blood libel on Jewish Biala, though it happened far away, and was not even heard of in Biala.

The story went like this: in 1881, the Jewish oil merchant Haim Cohen from Brisk, was told by his clerk, who was located in Vienna, that the anti–Semitic Austrian newspaper, “Fatherland”, published an article by Pinhas Meir. In the article, Pinhas Meir wrote that he saw, with his own eyes, how Rabbi Ashkenazi from Biala, a town close to Brisk, slaughtered a Christian boy after Purim of 1881 in order to use his blood for Matzoth.

The news reached the Jewish community in Warsaw, and Y. L. Perez, who worked in the community administration, was sent to Brisk to investigate the event.

Different Jewish leaders took an interest in the event, and after the investigation, they learnt the following:

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Pinhas Meir was from Terespol, probably from the family of Rabbi Shmuel Leib Zak. He studied in Biala for a while, but he did not do well. He was not expelled because he was from the Rabbi's family. One Saturday he tried to hang himself on the Beith Hamidrash chandelier. The Janitor took him down immediately, he was expelled from studies and left Biala.

They also found out that between March 10 and September 10 Pinhas Meir was in Jail in Brisk, the time he said he was in Biala. The managed to get a formal document stating this fact.

They sent this document to Dr. Bloch, the editor of the journal “Austrian Weekly”. Pinhas Meir was sued and sentenced to 6 years in jail (source: “Blood Libel” by B. Z. Neimark, “Brisk of Lithuania” – the diaspora encyclopedia).

Emigration from Biala was very rare before 1905. A few people emigrated following the riots of 1881 in southern Russia (“The Negev Storm”). After the pogroms, Russian Jews started to emigrate, and a few families from Biala joined them. There were also few cases of young people who left to avoid army service.

The large emigration to America started only after the defeat of the 1905 revolution. A few went to England. The emigration was not economically motivated. Rather, people left because the revolution, which had raised a lot of hope among the workers, failed. They were disappointed, depressed, and the Czar's secret police was after active revolutionists. The 400 people who left then were mainly laborers.

The Jewish population of Biala, 6,382 already in 1897 (little over 55% of the total population), ignored the emigration. Migrants' families were ashamed to admit they had a member in America. The common wisdom was that in America people work on Saturdays and they stop living a Jewish life. No family wanted a non–Jew among their members. The migrants thus usually left secretly, without saying good–by. There was a saying “He went out to close the shutters and ran off to America”.

Immigration stopped when WWI broke out.

 

The First World War

Although in the beginning, in 1914, the front lines were far away from Biala, the atmosphere in the town was one of war. Many Jewish men were recruited to the army, and many families lost their only provider. Army troops constantly went through the town and although they provided more business, they also increased anxiety and worries about the future.

After a year of war, the Russian army intended to leave Biala. Some Jews decided to join them and escape to Russia. They thus sent their belongings to Russia, and when the German army got closer, they left for Russia.

Some of the Jews that left for Russia had traded with the Russian army and expected to continue their activity. Yet, it is difficult to understand why the others decided to leave. Especially, considering that the Jews despised the Russian regime because of the persecutions. It seems that they followed the Russian army to get away from the front.

The Russians imposed many restrictions and persecutions on the Jews in Poland. Biala, however, was largely spared. There were just a few incidences of robbery recorded when the Russian army left at the end of the summer of 1915.

The Germans entered Biala after a night of shelling which did not do any damage. The Germans walked around the town with confidence, took everything they needed, as if they were in their own place. The Jews had no problem communicating with them in Yiddish.

The German occupation brought about a complete revolution in Jewish life in Biala. The region had been declared a war–zone and was isolated from all the surroundings. All economic connections with other parts of Poland were disconnected. The negative consequences of the war and German occupation were now obvious.

The German regime confiscated all the goods in the town, and within a short time there was a shortage of basic ingredients. A strict food distribution was set up, but clothing was not part of it. The roads around were guarded by the Germans, so that no food supplies will be smuggled in from the villages around. Farmers had to provide the Germans with a quota of their production, failure to fill the quota resulted in severe punishment, and some were even expelled from their land. The German regime made a full list of each farmer's property and production. They exercised many control mechanisms, such as numbered earrings on the pigs' ears, setting the number of eggs per chicken, etc.

Food was distributed by ration cards from the local municipality. Portions were very small, and Jews looked for ways to increase the amount. They stopped reporting deaths, and for each birth, they reported that twins were born.

The main food was rye bread and potatoes. Yet, even these were in short supply, and many families could not afford it.

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Bread was baked at home, and to get a large loaf from the small amount of flour, mashed potatoes were added to the dough.

Trade stopped, and merchants went idle. The better off became poorer and poorer, and started to sell goods from their homes to support their families. The artisans also had a hard time. Tailors and shoemakers made some living by mending old clothes and shoes. Builders went to work for the Germans for ridiculous pay.

There was hunger in the town, but farmers still had products to sell. Despite the road control, some food was smuggled from the villages into town. When the Germans caught smugglers, they heavily punished them.

In many places Jewish workers worked shoulder to shoulder with Russian prisoners. In many cases, the Russian prisoners stole food from the German storehouses, and sold it to the Jews. Later, when the Jews became better acquainted with German soldiers, the latter would come to Jewish houses to sell them food.

Malnutrition brought about a typhoid epidemic.

When the Germans heard about a case of typhoid, they immediately took the patient to the infectious disease hospital on Warsaw Road (later the camping location of troop 34); the Jewish hospital was taken over by the German army. They disinfected the home of the patient, and the family was not allowed to visit him/her. Some said that the Germans poisoned the patients in the hospital. This, of course, was not true, but it seems plausible that patients did not receive the best treatment. Because of these rumors, people took great care not to inform the authorities about cases of typhoid, and hospitalization of a family member was a tragedy.

The Germans neglected the needs of the population, but they were very good in supplying it with forced, hard, labor. They attracted people to work for them, promising them various rewards. The economic hardship drove many people to accept the jobs offered by the Germans. They were sent to various places for hard work and paid almost nothing. Many returned from this forced labor broken and sick.

In order to control the men and to make sure they all worked, all men had to come to the Gere “Shtible” every Sunday morning, for identity card control.

Life was very tight. People felt as if they were suffocating and the curfew added to that feeling. In the summer, the curfew started before sunset. Everybody had to carry a collection of certificates: work card, identity card, and so on, in case a German soldier stopped them.

The houses were constantly inspected. They always searched for forbidden merchandise, and in conquerors opinion – everything was forbidden. Two soldiers in particular excelled in searching: “the small beard” (named after his pointed short beard), and the “white underpants” (named after his white trousers). When “the small beard” appeared on the street, the Jewish population was frightened. Yet, with time, they learnt how to hide anything that he might like.

The Germans emptied the town from every piece of brass and copper. Even door handles were confiscated, and several brass chandeliers were taken out. A poll tax has been added to the regular taxes.

Nevertheless, though life was limited, the economy destructed, and the Jews extremely poor – cultural, political, and social life flourished.

We know that the same happened in other towns too. However, given the power held by the religious leaders in Biala, this development seems like a miracle.

The wish for public activity, that existed among young persons with no outlet, broke out. This became the most fruitful cultural period in Biala.

Where were the religious leaders? Why did they not continue to firth the new mood? Where were the screams “Help!”, “Fire in town!”?

Few of the religious fanatics, known for their strong objection to the new trends, immigrated to Russia. The others became poor, and their fighting spirit declined. The bases for socio–cultural activity has been set before the war by the Zionists and the Bund. All this change the rest of the religious fanatics to move from being offensive to defense.

Refugees, mainly from Brisk–Lithuania, had an important contribution to the cultural development.

An extraordinary activity initiated by the Zionists, led by their energetic chair Moshe Rubinstein (my uncle, O.A.), the most outstanding personality in town those days. Overnight the Zionist became a large association with effective administration. They established institutions that left their mark on large proportion of the youngsters for the rest of their lives.

The highlight of all institutions was “Yavneh”, the Hebrew school, founded by the Zionists.

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Nowadays, Hebrew schools exist everywhere in the world. But those days they were rare, and whoever remembers Biala before WWI, can appreciate the courage it took to set up the school.

The school establishers faced several problems: recruiting teachers, devising study program while they were isolated from the outside world, and raising money. Yet their main problem was recruiting students. Will Biala's parents stop sending their sons to the Heder and send them to school? The very word “school” has a non–Jewish aroma. When we will get to the chapter on the children–house, we will describe the means that were necessary to bring the children to school.

The school brought a lot of festivity to the hard life of Biala's Jews. What a wonderful youth it educated! Even the opponents of the Zionist movement admitted that Yavneh School is a milestone in the activity of the Zionist movement in town.

“Beith Ha'am” [people's house, O.A.] was very popular in town. At the beginning, it was a whole for non–political get together and discussions. It had a library, and the theater club and the choir of the Zionist federation performed their etudes there. It had been used for lectures, and “Maccabi” used it for gymnastic exercises. Later, the wind instruments orchestra also practiced there (my father played the trumpet, O.A.).

“Maccabi” was a completely new phenomenon in Biala. It was the first time that Jewish men of the town fostered the strength their body. Christians and Jews alike were surprised to see that. At the end of the war “Maccabi” managed to buy from the German army wind instruments and establish the first civilian orchestra in Biala.

It is worth mentioning, that several Jews, members of the Zionist movement, served in the German army. They offered their knowledge as well as practical help to the emerging Zionist movement in Biala.

Religious Zionists, who could not accept the free spirit in “Beith Ha'am”, has established “Hamizrachi”. The bund was behind the library, and organized the theater club, and public discussions.

The Bund stopped its political activity. Before the war, this activity has been directed towards the Russian regime's oppression. Now this activity was redundant, as was organizing the workers against their employers. The only employer in town now was the German army.

Two important social institutions were established during WWI: the children's house and the public kitchen.

The children's house played an important role during the war. Established by the Zionist movement it was one of the best social institutions in Biala.

The public kitchen has been located on Brisk Street, next to the Catholic Church. Hot lunch has been served to the Jewish poor. The German authorities supported the Kitchen, mainly because of the involvement of the army Rabbi, Dr. Teantzer. All political parties sent representatives who ran the kitchen.

The kitchen was not a place where hundreds of people had hot lunch daily, but also a place of cultural activity for young people. It hosted lectures, discussions, theater club. The later donated the income from its performances to the kitchen. Before the holidays, there was a flower sale to help finance the kitchen.

After three years, the German occupation started to shake. The German enormous war machine started to collapse, and it was clear that its days are numbered. Who will be the next rulers – nobody knew yet. Nevertheless, people felt that a new era is coming, liberal, freedom to each citizen regardless of religion or nationality. The first sign that the Germans are about to leave was the wholesale of the content of the storehouses to the population.

 

Public kitchen in front Jewish army chaplain, Dr. Taentzer

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The transition from the German occupation and the new regime lasted for few months. Few criminal Jews took the opportunity to rob other Jews. Wearing German uniforms, they came at night to Jewish homes and robbed money and jewelry.

The Jewish population organized a militia which, armed with German pistols, patrolled the Jewish quarter at nights. One night they spotted two of the bandits and started chasing them. After a short distance they shot them on the butchers' street.

November 1918, the last German soldier left Biala.

 

Under the Polish Regime

In the first days of the Polish governing, Jewish blood has been shed. Polish soldiers entered Moshe Richter's home in Vollia in search for armaments. During the search they have beaten Richter so bad, that few days later he died. Often they would kidnap Jews for hard labor, where they suffered abuse. Yet, slowly order has been restored. The proper administration has been established in town, and the population, including the Jews, started to rebuild what has been destroyed during the war.

The population was extremely poor. The American Joint Distribution Committee came to help and sent to Biala large quantities of food and clothes. A local committee, composed of all Jewish political parties, distributed the goods. A special kitchen provided children with hot meals, and another kitchen sent food to the very poor.

The freedom to have active Jewish political parties in Biala, gave each party the opportunity to develop their activities and to reach the different population groups. Election were coming up, and all parties had a chance to show its activity and organizational ability. A new party joined the existing parties – Zionist, Bund, and Palei Zion: Agudat Israel, the party of the orthodox Jews started to operate, recruiting most of the older generation.

The main political struggle was between the Zionists and the Bund. The Bund, known for its turbulent nature, attracted mainly workers. Often, they would interrupt the Zionists meetings in order to stop them, which sometimes led to scuffles.

In 1918, the Zionists in Biala sent delegates to the organizing committee of the National Council.

The election to the Sejm [the Polish parliament, O.A.] created a lot of excitement, as well–known party leaders came to Biala to participate in the public campaign meetings. The Zionists won the election in Biala, and Apilinary Maximilian Heartglass became a member of the Sejm.

The first election to the municipality, in which Biala Jews took part, were in 1919. The Bund did very well in this election, and 6 out of the 15 Jewish delegates were Bund members.

Life just started to get back to normal, and the Poland Bolshevik–Russia war broke out. As long as the front was in Russia, or far away from Biala, it had no effect in town. Yet, with the collapse of the Polish army, and its withdrawal, war came to Biala. Troops went through town and behaved brutally. The soldiers of General Haller and those who came from Poznan region showed their courage by beating Jews, cutting beards, and robbing stores. The Jewish community lived in constant fear, and there was no source of help. All Jews were considered by the Polish as Bolsheviks, and as such – could be hustled.

In the summer of 1920, the front line reached Biala. The Polish defense lines were broken through one by one. Few months before the Polish left town, they started to kidnap Jews and send them to the east to dig defense tranches. Christians did not take part in this hard labor at all.

Before leaving town, the important leaders of the Bund were arrested, and sent to the concentration camp in Dąbie.

In the beginning of August 1920, the Red Army conquered Biala. Yet, it left before it managed to set up administration, because of the defeat by the Vistula. The Polish army was quick to chase it.

The Jews panicked to see the Russian leave. Not because they liked the new regime, which lasted only eight days, but because they feared the returning Polish army. Jews and Christians alike cooperated with the Red Army. While the Christians got the better position and Jews only secondary ones, the Polish defined Jews as cooperators against Poland. Christians, of course, were doing it for saving their homeland.

Fearing the Polish revenge, few Jewish men tried to run east with the Red Army. Yet because the Red Army left suddenly, those who tried to join it were interrupting the withdrawal, and they were left behind. Most of Biala's refugees returned after few weeks, broken physically and mentally. Very few succeeded to enter Russia (one of them was Sheima Sheinberg, who became an important commander in the army).

[Page 39]

As much as the Polish army treated the Jews cruelly when it withdrew, its returning was even worse. The Polish army killed and hit Jews claiming that they were Bolsheviks. Robbery was frequent and villagers came daily into town to fill their bags with Jewish property with the help of the Polish soldiers.

Our delegate to the Sejm, Heartglass, presented a question to the Sejm. he questions presents the situation in Biala in 1920:

“Even before the Russian invasion, Jews and Christians were taken to work. The later, however, were released immediately. The Jews were hit with the rifles' cults, and their money stolen. These were done mainly by the Poznans. People were allowed on the streets until 10 at night, before the working day was over. Jews had to pay 100–500 Marks each for someone to accompany them home. Complaints to the authorities were disregarded, as the army officer in charge of work was not interested. The Poznans' bullies and robbed Jews; on the last day they shot Jews on the streets, wounded a woman, and broke into houses. Before the Polish army left town, they sentenced to death four spies, one was Jewish. Few days before the Bolsheviks entered town there was a battle near Grabanow (a village near Biala, the author). During that battle, Biala Jews provided food for the fighting soldiers and helped the wounded. The headquarters praised the Jewish help

When the Bolsheviks entered town, the Polish head of the local militia welcomed them warmly (he fled with them when they left), while the Jewish population stood apart. The warmed up to the Bolsheviks after the public meeting in the market square. The Bolsheviks were fair. There was only one case of robbery, in the house of Mrs. Heartglass, where they searched for her son's – a soldier in the Polish army – equipment. The Christian Communists also behaved properly. Jewish Communists, on the other hand, informed anti– Bolshevik community members. As 75% of Biala's population is Jewish, the participation of Jewish youth in the concerts organized by the Bolsheviks was crucial.

The Revolutionary Committee included a Russian soldier by the name of Juljov, and two local citizens – one Polish and one Jewish. The heads of the different departments were local. A local Polish run the agriculture department, a Jew run the health department; the education and the provision departments were held by communist Christians, both fled with the Bolsheviks when they left. The militia, headed by non–communist, recruited unemployed persons, most of them were Jewish. Christians, who were not necessarily communists; held most positions; Jews served as police officers or clerks. Most of them were not communists but left with the Bolsheviks fearing the returning Polish regime.

Rubinstein, the Zionist, refused to get a position, though the Bolsheviks' threatened him twice. Not even as the head of the education department.

When the Polish soldiers returned to town, they immediately shot to death two Jews in Vollia, and robbed them. Then they arrested, with no reason, the Zionist Fisher, the Jewish municipality member Levenberg, and someone by the name of Librant (who was first asked if he was Jewish). The put them against the wall and got ready to shoot them. Fortunately, some local Christians interfered and freed them.

Some Polish residents were not happy with Akiva Kamion the fisherman. He followed the orders given to him by the town's administration and did not let them fish in the ponds of Count Wolopolski. He was informed to the soldiers, who were about to shoot him before others from the Christian population stopped them. They killed another six Jews they met behind the town. The Bolsheviks took Eliezer Wassermann to work with his horse and wagon. He returned with a Polish document, but the soldiers stopped him between Jonava and Biala. They took his horse and his clothes and forced him into a hole in the ground with the intention to shoot him. One soldier had mercy on him and they left him alone. Six kilometers before Biala, another group of soldiers met him, forced him into the river and ordered him to lie on its ground. Luckily, and officer went by and stopped them.

Now, robbery is constantly going on, though with no pogroms. The Jews closed their stores. The robbery involves vandalism. For example: the books and other things that were taken from Rosenstein were piled outside and burnt. Some of the Christians in Biala and its neighborhood encourage the soldiers to kip robbing. The come with bags to take Jewish property. Few young Jews deserted the army and fled with the Bolsheviks to Russia. The municipality, however, recognized that serving the Bolsheviks was necessary to prevent the Bolsheviks from establishing full control in town. Until now, no persecutions against cooperators, most of them Polish, were reported. Still, the Christians in town decided that Jews salaries should not be paid, and the administration follows this decision. Jews are also not getting their share in the flour the Bolsheviks left behind though other office holders do get their share.

Only Jews, of all ages, are kidnaped for work. Soldiers assault Jews on the streets. Soldiers go into a hous, inquire whether the residents are Jewish, and if they are, their property is confiscated. Jaborski's volunteer horsemen are the worse.

The current administration started to work only on August 26. Its head, Officer Zaloeski, seems to be of good will, and opposes any assaults against Jews.

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I went to see him with one of the victims, and he took care of the matter efficiently and sympathetically.

He set up guards. He asked the head of the police demanding that the municipality will provide him with the workers needed, and that kidnaping Jews stops. The equestrians' officer Stokolski and others thought that the closed stores were partly to be blamed for the pogroms. I explained to them that the shops had been closed because of the soldiers' behavior.”

Few months after the Polish victory by the Vistula, Prime Minister Jozef Pilsudski passed through town. His train stopped in Biala to allow delegated with different interests to talk to him. He asked the Jewish delegation about the size of its community during the war. Yet, when they gently tried to complain about the troubles the soldiers cause them, his stopped them sharply, saying they are probably referring to the Bolsheviks' behavior. Surely, they could not continue…

The Jewish population experienced one bitter Saturday after the invasion, though order already had been restored. A Jew from Constantin, Zalmanke, has been charged for spying for the Bolsheviks. The military trial took place in the house of Mowus, and many Jews paced up and down the street waiting for the verdict. In the afternoon, the defendant has been led in the direction of the jail, which was also the direction of the cemetery. Nobody knew the verdict, and people started following him. When they passed the jail, everybody understood that he has been sentenced to death. Indeed, he has been led to the cemetery and has been shot.

This war too was over, and the damage slowly mended. The economy started going again, factories started to work, and the stores to fill with merchandizes. Intensive building industry provided work for builders and other artisans.

Many Jews from Biala joined the massive immigration from Poland to America. The news about the good conditions and opportunities in America, in contrast to their poor situation in Poland, increased the immigration stream. Anyone who had any chance to migrate – did. Yet, the majority of migrants were workers and women and children who joined their parents who left Poland before the war.

Immigration to America was no longer considered shameful, and nobody had to apologize for dollars sent to him by family members. On the contrary, such support elevated the social status.

Warsaw, the capital, also attracted the young people. Immigration, in and out of Poland, took out of Biala many capable persons. It thus had negative effect on many aspects of public life. Yavneh School and the children's house were particularly affected. The standard of education in the school declined, and the children's house closed its gates.

Even after the peace treaty between Russia and Poland was signed, in Riga, the Jews were still thought of as Bolsheviks, and the provocations continued. Inciteful literature against the Jews was distributed daily by an organization by the name Rosvoi, which continued to call for an economic boycott against the Jews. The organization was active in Biala too, headed by a man by the name of Piatchiski. He used to organize public gatherings and speak out against the Jews. Later, the teacher Novotarski replaced him. The tension between Jews and Christians grew, but the Jews did not react and gave the Christians no reason to harm them.

Despite the caution, there was one episode that could have ended with terrible consequences.

On lag Ba'Omer 1922, Hashomer Hatza'ir went, as usual, to the forest in Vollia. The Maccabi orchestra led the procession. When it got to the high school

 

Photo at an unknown celebration

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“Krashowski” the students threw inkwells through the windows on the heads of the marching youngsters. Upon returning, in the afternoon, young Christians from Vollia attacked the Jewish youngsters. Fortunately, some strong Jewish men accompanied the procession and beat up the attackers.

When Piatchiski, the leader of Rosvoi, learnt about the event, he decided to take revenge on the Jews. There were rumors that a pogrom was planned for one of the coming Sundays, connected to a public gathering of Rosvoi.

A Jewish delegation went to the head of the region, told him about the rumors, and asked him to prevent the pogrom. The head of the region did not give a straightforward answer. A day later, he sent a letter saying that he cannot interfere because of the aggression of the Jewish youth in Vollia. The Zionists reported the event to the Sejm in Warsaw. A few days later, the head of the region asked for his letter and the Jewish community returned it to him.

One Sunday Rosvoi did indeed organize a public gathering, and Piatchiski made an anti–Semitic speech. The public then proceeded to the regional headquarters but dispersed in peace.

Yet, the incitement continued, and Jews were attacked. The local authority and the police were totally passive. The police refused to interfere even when it witnessed the attacks, as in the case of Mathithiahu Edelstein. Jewish delegates to the Sejm put forward questions regarding these episodes.

At the same time, the relationships between the Jewish and the Christian population were correct, unless they were incited by their leaders. There were, however, cases in which Christian youngsters fell upon Jews and hit them. Such cases became more frequent before WWII.

In comparison with the period before WWI, the relationships between the Jewish and the Polish population did change. However, Jews did start to take part in cultural activities organized by Christians, such as theater, dance parties, lectures, etc. Similarly, some non–Jews came to Jewish cultural activities. These closer relationships were facilitated by the enrolment of Jewish students in governmental schools, which brought about mutual home visits.

Both Jews and Christians volunteered in the local fire–brigade, working together in harmony. “Podlasyer Leiben” [Life in Podalska, O.A.] issue 77/1 from January 5, 1934, reported that the following Jewish fire–fighters were decorated for long years of service: Officer Jacob Hershberg, for 35 years of service; Abraham Orlanski and Anshel Beckman, each for 15 years of service; Abraham Browarok, Jacob Goldreich, Josef Rosenberg, and Berl Hershberg, each for 10 years. We see, then, that Jews were an important part of the brigade, which would not have been possible if the relationships between the two populations were tense.

The league for air defense also had a Jewish department, led by Michash Hopper. Michash Hopper himself had been decorated with the “Cross of Excellence”.

Even without pogroms, Jewish life in Biala was not calm. The economic boycott had catastrophic consequences. The Jews in Biala were never affluent, there were very few rich Jews, most were middle–class and workers. Furthermore, additional economic hardships occurred when the Jews started to break out of their self–imposed residential segregation.

After WWI, the Jewish life–style changed dramatically. Although there was a considerable number of religious fanatics in town, their influence declined. An example of the decline in their power was the boycott declared by Biala's Rabbi on the Zionists. A Hasid showed the rabbi an issue of “El Al”, published by Hashomer Hatza'ir, which included a poem by David Shimoni that he interpreted as irreverent (Apicorus). The Rabbi sent Joel, the janitor, to call all Jews to the Beith Hamidrash. When the people gathered, candles were lit and in a short speech, the rabbi declared the boycott and Joel blew the Shofar.

Anybody who knows Biala can imagine the impression such ceremony would have had if Rabbi S. L. Zak would have performed it before WWI. Now, it hardly had any effect at all.

The Jewish political parties were legal, and each activated its followers in its own way. Each party established a library, and the number of readers increased constantly. There were theater clubs, which every now and then had quite nice productions. The younger generation participated in politics and acquired education and knowledge.

The standard of living increased and the great majority of the families had an apartment. It was necessary to prepare a furnished dwelling, not to mention a handsome dowry, in order to marry a son or a daughter. The simple clothes, made of rough material, and boots disappeared completely and were replaced by good–looking suits. Nutrition improved and in most houses white bread and meat were consumed daily. There was no need to turn to the rich for a bowl of soup for the sick. Workers and artisans did not need to work from sunrise to sunset anymore.

The Polish policy of economic dispossession against the Jews, which forced a decline in the standard of living, caused a lot of sorrow. The enforcement of the policy

[Page 42]

tightened, and Gravski started to empty Jewish houses of their property.

As already mentioned, many persons from Biala, most of them young, emigrated. Now, however, the USA had closed its gates and the new emigrants went to South America, France, Belgium, and Canada. A high percent immigrated to Israel.

There was also internal migration, from Biala to Warsaw and other large cities that offered better job opportunities. The most active members of all parties left Biala, heavily harming the cultural and social life of the town.

After the Pilsudski revolution, in May 1926, the economic conditions of the Jews eased off a little bit. Yet the relief was a short one. The world economic crisis of 1930 affected Poland, including Biala. Some of the big timber dealers went bankrupt, and with them fell many other families and the two credit institutions.

The boycott policy of the Sanacja [a political regime set up by Pilsudski, O.A.] against the Jews ensured that the Jews will not recover from the economic crisis. Like all other Polish Jews, Biala's Jews experienced deep economic hardships, which almost paralyzed Jewish public life. The general mood was of despair and apathy.

Jewish shopkeepers lost the Christian customers, Christians did not hire Jewish workers, and the Jewish internal market was too small to provide them with a living. Poverty was hastened by the heavy business taxes and businesses collapsed one after the other.

In those days people remembered, nostalgically, the times of the Czar's regime. Taxes were low, the value of a Talith or the brass candle sticks that the clerk Kashimovski would confiscate in case one did not pay. The Czar's taxes now looked ridiculous. Nowadays, all the property of the house was not enough to cover the debt.

Jewish youth had no future. The working youth could not find jobs, and when they did, they were paid very little. Those who studied were not accepted into universities. Consequently, there was a group of unemployed youth, named “Street Rebels”.

Given the poor economic conditions, the Jewish population could not support any social institutions. There were only a few charity organizations that offered limited help.

The Jewish hospital, the pride of the community, was closed more days then it was open, for lack of resources. When American community members sent a few hundred dollars, the hospital reopened until the money ran out.

Many families became “customers” of “Beith Halechem” [the” house of bread”, O.A.], where they could get a Hala every Friday. The Haloth were donated by community members. The “Taz” association, an organization for the welfare of children, helped Jewish children.

Some of the Jewish youngsters turned to Communism out of despair.

In a report on the Biala region, the writer (the deputy head of the Biala Region) states that Jews comprised 39.34% of the communists in the region. He does not try to understand their motives, his purpose being to present the Jewish community as a hotbed of communists. We have no evidence to contradict the numbers he cited, but we do argue that the policy of economic dispossession and antisemitism of the Polish regime were the main factors pushing Jews to Communism.

The communists' propaganda claimed that Russia is a paradise for Jews, who enjoy their equal rights, freedom and experience no limitations, as do all Russian citizens.

We now a bring few facts to demonstrate how Biala's municipality treated the Jews. 40% of Biala's population was Jewish. The municipality was sure that they have to fill the town coffers without any claim on the town's budget.

The share of the Jews in the municipality's income was much higher that the share of the Christians. On top, the Jews, who were the majority of shopkeepers and artisans in town, had to a pay tax to the government to buy business permits. Yet, only after a struggle by the Jewish delegates in the municipality, did they hired two Jewish clerks (one of them was later fired) and two–three tax collectors.

The budget of 1933/4 was 270,000 Zlotys. Only 10,550, or 3.91%, were allocated to the Jewish community (6,500 to the old age home; 100 to the “Tarbuth” library; 100 to the cultural league library; 300 for “Taz”; 50 to YIVO [Institute for Jewish Research, O.A.]; and 3000 to the Jewish hospital). Even this allocation was rarely transferred.

The names of the Jewish delegates to the town's council were as follows. In the first elected council served: Moshe Rubinstein and Moshe Kaveh (Zionists); Gdalyahu Braverman, Moshe Rodsinek, Nahum Worak, M. Hochman, Haim Brodach, and Geltman (“Bund”); Israel Bialer, Mishe Haim

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Weisenfeld, Sosha Rosen, and Moshe Melech Silberman (“Aguda”); Moshe Levenberg (not a party member).

Although Jews were the majority in the municipal council, they did not manage to elect a deputy mayor, and they had to make do with two members on the board. In part, this happened because the “Bund” refused to cooperate with the other Jewish delegates; nevertheless, it is very possible that the central government would not have agreed to a Jewish deputy mayor.

In the election for second municipality council, in 1923, 13 Jewish members elected: Jacob Aaron Rosenboim, Joel Silber, and Israel Cohen (Zionists); Baruch Vinodrag and Menashe Cheshinski (the artisan association); Eliezer Tzelniker and Moshe Kramatzsh (the tenants association); Eizik Sheinberg, Israel Bialer, Sosha Cohen, David Wiseman, Haim Levy Rubinstein (my grandfather, O.A.), and Yitzhak Levi (Aguda).

In the second council, Jews were again the majority, but, again, no Jewish deputy mayor has been elected, and all they achieved was one board member position for Israel Cohen. Today, it is difficult to know whether or not they even tried to get a deputy mayor position, knowing that the government would not approve it. Again, all the Jewish delegation achieved was some minute financial support for few Jewish institutions.

In the third election, 1927, only seven Jews were elected. The new regulations, issued by the government, ensured no Jewish majority in local councils. The disintegration of the Jewish community was also a factor.

The delegates elected were: Israel Goldstein (Zionists); Baruch Vinodrag and Abraham Stricher (the artisan association); David Wiseman and Wolf Weitzman (small merchant organization); Haim Levy Rubinstein [my grandfather, O.A] (Aguda); Yitzhak Pisshitz (merchant association).

There was another Jew in this municipal council, a delegate of the communist party. Needless to say, he did not deal Jewish issues, and had little to do with the other Jewish council members. After a while he immigrated and was replaced by a Christian.

The Christian majority, again, “donated” a sit on the board to the Jewish community. Emil Weinberg (from Galician origin) got the position.

In the fourth election of 1934, the Jewish representation declined further. One reason was the new regulations, which enlarged the boundaries to include villages and allowing permanent army soldiers to vote.

Thus, only five Jewish members were elected: Baruch Vinodrag and Abraham Stricher (the artisan association); Yitzhak Levi and David Wiseman (small merchant organization); Haim Levy Rubinstein [my grandfather, O.A] (Gere Hasidim).

It is worth noting, that the political partied which took part in the election failed to gain a seat in the council. Almost all those elected represented economic interests. For the Jewish community, then, the priority was protecting its economic interests.

The last election was in 1938, before WWII. The Jewish community had no interest in it whatsoever. The artisan association and the small merchant organization ran in one list, only three were elected: Abraham Stricher, Moshe Rodsinek, and advocate L. Goldfarb.

From the first to the last election, Jewish representation declined by 80%. The decline in Jewish population was only 16%. We see what an effort the Polish authorities took to exclude Jews from decision making, although even when Jews were the majority in the council they did not have any achievements.

 

The Community

The first elected community institutions (the council and the board) in Biala were founded in 1924. The Jewish population had chosen, in a public election, their delegates from the community. All political parties and economic associations in town took part in the election. Yet, the workers' parties excluded themselves.

Unfortunately, we have no archives that can be of help in picturing this period in the life of the community. We shall thus rely on memories, explanations provided by Baruch Vinodrag, who was the secretary of the community (died in Israel), and on newspaper reports of that time.

The Polish community law demanded minorities to limit their activities to religion only. Yet, by cooperation between its different interest groups, a community could operate in many other aspects of life.

In Biala's Jewish community, religious and the other leaders enjoyed equal power. The religious leaders made sure that their needs were met early in the budget year. The community law was with them, and there was no need to struggle. They did not demand a lot of support, because they did not want to upset their voters by increasing taxes. The income from slaughtering and some tax was has been sufficient.

The community's main sources of income were a levy on kosher slaughtering and taxes. Yet this was never enough to meet the community's needs. There were leaders that, when it came to planning the budget and thus the taxes, protected the interests they represented and tried to prevent their acquaintances and voters from paying high taxes. Indeed, the rich paid very little tax and even that never on time.

A list of tax payers was published in “Bialer Wochenblat” [”The Biala Weekly, O.A.], issue number 29, July 23, 1937.

According to this list, not all the persons who were supposed to pay the community tax actually payed.

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It is unlikely that in a population of more than 7,000 persons there were no more than 584, or 8.3%, taxpayers. Assuming that the average household size was five people, then there were about 1,400 Jewish families in Biala. No more than 60% of these payed taxes. Note that the Jewish community never had a valid registration of its population.

Number
of taxpayers
Annual tax
in Zlotys
159 5
130 10
41 15
62 20
28 25
30 30
2 35
20 40
28 50
12 60
25 75
13 100
10 125
11 150
1 175
1 200
1 225
3 250
4 300
2 350
1 600
Total 584 Total 18465

 

The table shows that only a few paid 100 Zlotys or more, although, according to the economic situation in the town, there were still many more who could pay. These data show that the rich contributed very little money to the benefit of the community.

The chairs of the community board, Benjamin Kliger and Pinchas Nortman, wanted to charge taxpayers enough to have a realistic budget, which would enable them to meet more than the religious needs. Yet, they were never able to recruit enough support for their ideas.

The Zionists and the artisans association struggled for a long time in order to transfer the income from slaughtering to the community. The slaughterers, naturally, did not want to share such a good business, and they were supported by “Aguda”. When finally it was done, the slaughterers kept sabotaging.

In the local papers we read as follows:

The slaughterers slaughtered without notes from the community, because their demands for a better salary were denied. The rabbi agrees with the board's decision to suspend the work of the slaughterer Y. for two months with no pay. The slaughterers held a strike in protest, and after a day, by the rabbi's orders, returned to work.

“Podlasier Leibn” [Poldalsier life, O.A.], issue 6, December 31, 1926)

Slaughterer P. has been fined with 100 Zlotys for slaughtering fowls without notes from the community [that is, he charged the customers and put the money in his own pocket, O.A.].

”Podlasier Leibn” [Poldalsier life, O.A.], issue 29/145, July 27, 1934)

Yet all these punishments were in vain, because the slaughterers thought that slaughtering was their own private business and nobody should interfere with it.

In 1932, the community paid each slaughterer 75 Zlotys a week. On top of the pay, he would get meat for free. If we compare it with the 30 Zlotys a week earned, on the average, by a professional worker, we see that the slaughterers were quite well off.

The financial affairs of the community were carelessly handled, and the community was constantly in debt. In “Poddlasier Lebn”, issue 19/51, September 23, 1932, we read that the community property has been put on auction for 70 Zlotys, to cover a 1200 Zlotys debt to the national administrators' insurance.

We shall bring some data regarding the community's budget, as published by the local papers.

In 1927, the Rabbi got 600 Zlotys a month, plus 500 Zlotys a year for rent (“Poddlasier Lebn”, issue 23, September 16, 1927).

The early budget for 1933 was 75,000 Zlotys. The expected income was from the following sourced: Tax to be collected for 1932 – 8,500 Zlotys; from the cemetery – 3,500 Zlotys; from the community houses – 7,000 Zlotys; tax to be collected for 1933 – 16,000 Zlotys; from slaughtering – 40,000 Zlotys.

The following expenses were expected: for the hospital – 10,000 Zlotys; for charity – 600 Zlotys; for the “taz” – 500 Zlotys; for the libraries” “Tarbut” and “the cultural league” 200 Zlotys; for “Talmud Tora” – 5,500 Zlotys; for the Jewish National Fund and the Foundation Fund – 200 Zlotys (“Poddlasier Lebn”, issue 5/70, February 3, 1933).

The above expenses mount up to 17,000 Zlotys. What were the other 58,000 Zlotys for? Most of it went to support the Yeshiva students, and a small part of it was allocated to the salaries of the office team. The later included: Baruch Vinodrag – secretary, Shlomo Hochberg and Yechiel Heibloom – clerks.

We learn that the major part of the early budget, 84.66%, had been assigned to support Yeshiva students and the “Talmud Tora”, where the standard of learning was very low. Cultural activity's share was 0.27%, and charity – 14% from the budget.

[Page 45]

It should be noted that the money allocated for the Yeshiva students and the “Talmud Tora” was spent immediately, while the other institutions rarely got their share. The Jewish hospital, for example, was closed more than it was open, because it never received the sum allocated to it.

The numbers cited for the community budget of 1933 show the activity in the community. No wonder it had no influence in town, not even on affairs that were under its authority. Thus, in 1927 all the butchers together raised the price of kosher meat: 3 Zlotys for one kilogram of veal, and 3.50 for beef. Only the Polish government managed to cut the price to 1.80 and 2.40 respectively (“Poddlasier Lebn”, issue 10, March 11, 1927).

A few years before WWII, the community experienced a bitter struggle regarding the choosing of a Rabbi to replace the deceased Rabbi, Shmuel Leib Zak. The decision had been delayed for years, and the position was temporarily filled by Rabbi Moshe Utshen. After a time, “Aguda” did not like him anymore, and started to demand that a permanent Rabbi be chosen. The Zionist leaders kept delaying the decision, but the religious sector started to push hard. Several candidates came to town, and Rabbi Tzvi Hirschhorn from Jaworzno was nominated.

There were also some positive actions taken by the community board.

There were public buildings in town that were registered as private property. Similarly, there were buildings whose income should have been public, but were also registered to private people. The community never had any control over this money, which was collected and distributed by private persons.

Changing the registration of this property to the community was not easy at all. It was a difficult, expensive, legal procedure demanding constant watch and monitoring.

In the end, following property was transferred to the community:

The Jewish Hospital, the “Beith Hamidrash” (the one in Vollia too), the synagogue, “Talmud Tora”, the inn, the Mikveh, Tile's house in the market square (where the stock bank used to be), the house named “Paradise” on 6, Brisk Street (the place of the community office), three stores in the market, three stores of 3, Brisk Street, and one store on the butchers' street.

The income from the cemetery was taken from “Hevra Kadisha”. Naturally, it was not easily done, as the cemetery had been considered to be the property of “Hevra Kadisha” from early days.

The Jewish hospital was supported by the community. The board chair, Benjamin Kriger and the secretary Baruch Vinodrag, managed to make it an institution of the community. The hospital's budget was also included in the community budget, and the community board did everything possible to keep it working.

The community had the synagogue and the Beith Hamidrash thoroughly renovated. Local and other painters were invited to decorate it.

A lot of effort was invested in the guest–synagogue and the synagogue's yard. The guest–synagogue had been “conquered” by poor persons from out of town, and local sick poor who had no roof over their head. The sanitary conditions in that place were terrible. The community invested many resources in its rehabilitation making it into a decent inn. The synagogue yard was dirty and neglected. The community invested in cleaning maintaining it.

All these consumed considerable time from the community authorities. Each change involved long negotiations with people who did not want it whatsoever.

After “Achiezer” was closed, its medical instruments were kept in the community's office. Until the last days of the Jewish community in Biala, people could borrow these instruments when needed.

Poor pregnant women could deliver in the Jewish hospital free of charge with a note from the community administration. Similarly, documents and writing letter services were offered to the poor for free.

From “Poddlasier Lebn” we learn that in the years 1926–1933 the chairs of the community board were: Jacob Aaron Rosenboim, Benjamin Kliger, Pinchas Nortman, Arke (Aaron) Weisman, Yitzhak Levy, Moshe Kaveh, Shamai Kalichstein.

We also find the names of the following leaders:

Motel Idelsberg, Sosha Rosen, Israel Cohen, Eliezer Tzelniker, Moshe Kramatzsh, Abraham Stricher, Fibel Sinter, Tzvi Halperin, Velvel Eisenstaedt, Moshe Melech Silberberg, Eitzik Sheinberg, Hanina Kashemacher, Yitzhak Petersburg, Mordechai Piekarski, Haim Levy Rubinstein, Mordechai Josef Goldstein, Joel Shtrumvaser, Saul Batchko, Alther Soknov, Yidel Eidelstein, Avogdor Fireman, Eliezer Applebaum, Itzhak Cohen, Shimon Lichtenstein, and Joshua Eidelstein.


Towards the end of this chapter, I would like to tell about a tragic event, that shook the Jewish population for a long time. The burning of the wooden house in the yard of Rabbi Aaron Landau.

“On September 4 1927, one hour after midnight, a fire broke on 25, Natrovitz Street, in the yard of Rabbi Aaron Landau. Five persons lost their lives:

[Page 46]

1. Yitzhak Rubinstein (holy–books writer, aged 60); 2. His wife Esther (aged 58); 3. Their son Israel (21 years old); 4. Their granddaughter Yocheved (aged 3); and 5. Yitzhak Rubinstein (aged 46) from Lubartow, a proofreader, who stayed the night over at the writer's house, and left at his own home a wife and three children. Three Torah books also burnt. The funeral took place the next day, the Rabbi ordered to close all shops, and declared a fast. Hundreds of people went to Beith Hamidrash after the funeral to read psalms. Some thought that the house had been set on fire after the people inside were robbed and murdered. At the same time, it is possible that they suffocated from the smoke in their sleep (Source: “Podalsier Leibn”, volume 22, September 9, 1927).

There was a rumor, that year later, on his deathbed in the Christian hospital, a Jewish water carrier admitted that he took part in robbing the writer's house and setting it on fire.

A few numbers regarding the size of the Jewish population in Biala, from the 19th century to 1939.

Year Number
of Jews
% of the
total
population
1827 1,091 54.8
1841 2,220 61.8
1857 2,564 66.1
1897 6,382 55.2
1921 6,874 52.9
1931 6,923 39.5
1939 7,493 36.9

 

From 1857 to 1897, the Jewish population grew by 148.9%. It is very possible that the earlier figures was not valid, while in 1897, the Czar's regime conducted a large–scale census, which included the great majority of the population. The imprecision of the earlier censuses is apparent from the size of the Christian population, which seems to have grown by 400% during the same 40 years. Consider, also, that in 1927 not all Jews registered, out of fear.

From 1921 to 1931, the natural growth of the Jewish population replaced the deficit caused by emigration. From 1931 to 1939, after emigration ceased, the Jewish population increased by 570 people.

Up to 1921, Jews were the majority of residents in town. The increase of the Christians population was the result of industrialization in the town, which increased the demands for workers, and only Christians were employed. To the airplane factory, for example, many workers were recruited from all over Poland. Moreover, as mentioned above, before the elections, rural areas, settled by Christians, were administratively annexed to Biala.

Biala's Jews entered the crucial year of 1939 under these conditions. The economic dispossession continued during the war.

The Jews lived 21 years under the free Polish regime, established after 150 of subordination. All Polish Jews dreamt of free a Poland and expected equal rights in accordance with the post WWI spirit. Yet disappointment was soon to come. Those who had recently been oppressed quickly became today's oppressors. The Jewish struggle for equality became, in the years to come, a struggle for survival.

WWII found Biala's Jewry depressed, apathetic, and hopeless. They were located close to the new German–Russian border, but only a handful crossed into Russia. Most stayed where they were until the German murderers came. In every corner one could hear the argument: why run away? What is Hitler going to do to us? Can our conditions get worse?...

Sources

  1. “Podalsier Leibn”, an independent social weekly, Biala, issues from 1926/7–1932/4.
  2. Memories told by: Alther Weinberg, Ashe Hofer, Moshe Ravon (Rubinstein) – Tel Aviv; Gdalyahu Braverman – Petah Tikva; Baruch Winograd – Ramat Gan; Jacob Aronowitz – Buenos Aires; Rabbi Shmuel Jacob Rubinstein – Paris.
  3. Janusz Urbach: “The participation of Jews in the fight for Poland's independence.” 1938 in Polish.
  4. B. Gorny: “Review of Bialski Region”. (In Polish).
  5. Bohdan Wasiutynski. Jewish population in Poland in the XIX and the XX centuries.” Warsaw 1930. Chapter: Jews in the cities.
  6. National Jewish club of Sejm delegates adjunct to the temporary Jewish leadership: “Jews and the Bolshevik invasion.” A collection of documents and notebooks I. Warsaw, 1921 (in Polosh).

 

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