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[Page 89]

Biala

by M.Y. Feignbaum, Ramat Gan

Translated by Libby Raichman

On the Warsaw–Moscow highway, 40 km west of Brisk–D'Lita [Brest] lies the town of Biala Podlaska that can be confidently regarded as one of the most beautiful towns in Poland. The town is beautifully built in urban style and is noted for its cleanliness. The River Kazhna flows through the town. Its source is at Lukov–Podlaski [Lukow]and in the vicinity of Brisk it flows into the River Bug. The Kazhne River divided the town into two sections: on the left is the town and the right – the suburb called Volye[Volia]. The train station is located in Volye [Volia] and from there the trains travel in the direction of Warsaw and Brisk.

In a few short lines we will trace the general history of the town.

The founder of the town was Piatr Yanovicz Biali and the town actually bears his name. Piatr Yanovicz Biali was the Governor of Trok, founding land–owner of Great Lithuania, the first Chief Commander of the Cossacks. He died in 1498. It is therefore acceptable to assume that the town was founded at the end of the 15th century. In the 16th century Biala was the property of the Lithuanian magnate Ilinicz and in 1568 Prince Radzhivil Sherotka bought the colony and from then on the town acquired additional names like: Radzhivilishe Biala, “Alba Dukalis” (in Latin: a Prince's Biale).

This very ancient colony was, it appears, a defence stronghold which is evident from the high rampart and deep ditches that encircle the castle. The high, strong tower of the castle still stands to this day. The beautiful castle was built by Radzhivil Sherotka. During the Swedish–Polish war a division of Swedish soldiers, at the command of the Swedish King Karl the 12th, destroyed the town and the castle in 1706. The castle was restored quite quickly and regained its former splendour. During the reign of the Polish King August the 2tnd, wealthy noblemen of Biala lived in the castle and the courtyard was used for entertaining guests, for recreation and for presentations. The last of the Radzhivils who spent time in the castle were: Karol, the Governor of Vilna who was called “Panye Kichanko” (died in the castle on 22nd November 1790) and Dominic.

In the year 1650 Biala received from Prince Michael Kazhimi–erzh Radzhivil, together with other freedoms, the town's coat–of–arms that represents the image of the holy Michael, who fought with the snake. The same coat–of–arms was used in the official seal of the town council.

Already in 1628, the Biala Gimnazye (High School) is mentioned which at that time was called Academy and was a branch of the Krakow Academy.

Amongst the oldest buildings in the town were the three churches. The church near the Gimnaziye was built in 1520, the church in Reformatzye Street – in 1671 and the church in Brisk Street was built at the end of the 17th century. In the course of these hundreds of years they were constantly renovated and their appearance was certainly altered.

Biala belonged to the former Lithuanian state and lay close to the Polish border. With the closing of the “Lubliner Unye”(Union of Lublin) in 1569 that united Poland and Lithuania, Lithuania became part of the Polish State and Biala fell under Polish rule. At the time of the last partition of Poland in 1795 (between Russia, Austria and Germany) the town was allocated to Austria and the Austrian government ruled until 1809 when it was transferred to the Warsaw Duchy. From 1815 Biala belonged to Poland that was then under Russian rule.

[Page 90]

During the former Polish rule, the town belonged to the district and circle of Brisk–D'Lita. Under Austrian rule Biala was converted to a circle–town. During the Russian governance of Poland, Biala again remained a circle–town and from the beginning belonged to the Shedletz [Siedlice]Province and later to the Province of Chelm. The annexation of Biala to the Province of Chelm happened for religious reasons. In the outer region of Chelm there was a greater number of Christians, called “Unitten”, so attaching the Biala region to the Province of Chelm, gave the Russian Church the upper hand over the Roman Catholic Church in Chelm and the Biala region (the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church at that time in the areas mentioned, is described in the collection: “Martyrologia Podlasia” and in the book “Z.Ziemi Chelmskiej” by the famous Polish writer ST Raimont).

 

bia090.gif
Town Plan
(excluding the suburb of “Volye” [Volia])

 

The name of the town was changed by the Russians to “Bi–ela”. The Gymnaziye was transformed into a Russian training institution and the Russian Government tried with all its might to Russianize the social life in the town.

[Page 91]

bia091a.jpg
The Railway Station

 

The people of Biala took an active part in the uprising against the Russian Government. In the town during Russian rule the following offices could be found: The District office, the District Court, the Peace Court of the 3rd circle for the people of Biala and Terespol, the Circle Court, the Tax Management of the 4th circle and the Finance office.

The District offices responsible to the Governor of the province in Polish times could be found in the market place in the building that later belonged to Shmuel Pizshitz. Later it moved into the Mevius building. The District Court called in Russian “Siyezd” was at first located in the High Court and later in the premises of: Fradel Shmad, Bergshtein, Avrom Urmacher [Ormacher] and finally in the Mevius building. The Peace–Court was at first located in the house of Kotshemoyenik, later – where the Polish Police Station stood on Brisk Street and finally in the Mevius building.

 

bia091b.jpg
The Mevius building (on Brisker Street) in which the Government offices and courts were housed

 

The Circle–Court called in Russian “Akruzshnayi Sud” was located in the High Court, later in the premises of Urmacher [Ormacher] and finally – also in the Mevius building. The finance office was located on Mezrich Street where later the Polish “Uzshond Skarbovi” was located.

The municipality was located in the same building in the market place as it is now. Even the oldest residents did not remember when the building was erected. They only remembered the big renovation that was carried out there.

The council was led in Russian times by a nominated Mayor and there was no elected administrative body. Council taxes were only paid by the wealthier people and the money was used to light the streets and clean the chimneys and another tax that was called “kanefatsedre”.

In 1915, during the 1st World War the town was occupied by the German army. The transition of the town from Russian to German rule did not create any disturbance to daily life. Both the town and its inhabitants hardly suffered at all.

Then the town was incorporated by the Germans into the territory of the “Bug Army” who made the entry into the town and the exit from it, difficult. The economic life was almost paralysed. The agriculturalists had to surrender their produce to the government who operated a strict regime of food distribution for the population.

The Civil Administration was led by the German Civilian organisation and also the German town Police at the head of which stood Mayor Punk. This mayor Punk already then had a reputation for his bestial attitude and draconian decrees. If the snow was not immediately cleared from the streets, he punished the merchants by ordering them to keep their shops closed for a few days. For not greeting him, although he did not respond to those who did, he sent them to the Police Station where they would receive a due portion of lashes. Throughout the time of the German occupation, the inhabitants were obliged to observe a strict curfew.

During the entire period of German occupation, for the first time the council began to function as an administrative body, dealing with matters of the town. These duties were carried out by local citizens. V. Klimetzki, a Pole, was nominated as Mayor and from the Jewish population the advocate Kalman Hartglas and Chaim Levi Rubinshtein were nominated as aldermen.

[Page 92]

A Peace–Court dealing with civil disputes functioned in the town. The judge was a German officer, Dr Hauser. Kalman Hartglas and Sholem Vinograd would appear as advocates. The assistant–secretary in court was Chaim Barlas. Grinshtein the Jew (Yechiel Hersh's grandson), was appointed bailiff.

The monument in the market place that was erected by the Russian Government to eternalise the transit of the last Russian Czar through the town, was removed by the Germans and the metal was transported to Germany.

German occupation lasted until the end of 1918, and after they left the government took over the newly elected Polish State.

The repossession of the town by the Polish Government occurred without incident. When the German army left in the direction of Brisk and a Polish Military division entered the town, it was welcomed with music by the Biala Maccabi Orchestra. The German army retreated slowly from the Brisk Circle and because of the rapid advance of the Polish Military division there were clashes between the Polish and German military units in a few places. One such incident occurred at Zalessiye [Silesia] where tens of Polish soldiers fell.

Biala again remained a circle–town and was attached to the Lublin military. The following offices existed in the town: the office of the Governor of the province, Circle and Peace– Courts, Finance office, Tax–office, the office of the Polish Government etc.

The Bolshevik invasion in 1920 did not avoid our town which was one of the main arteries through which the Russian army streamed into Warsaw. In the month of August, the town was occupied by the retreating Red Army because of the failure of the Russian offensive in Warsaw; and Biala, after one week of rule by the Red Army again came under the rule of the Polish Army.

Hitler's world–conflagration that flared up on the 1st September 1939, seized our Biala amongst the first Polish towns because of the local aeroplane factory. Biala was one of the few centres in Poland that was bombed by the German air force immediately after the outbreak of the War.

In the beginning Biala was settled by the Soviet Army but after two weeks rule, she withdrew and delivered the town into the hands of the Germans. The German occupation of the town lasted until the end of July 1944.

[Page 93]

In every war that cut its way through our town, the Jewish and Polish inhabitants had to endure suffering and pain. This time however, during the murderous rule of the Nazis, the Jewish population was entirely annihilated.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of this 20th century, fires and floods in Biala were a fairly frequent phenomenon. We will describe a few of them here:

Approximately in Elul 1883 at noon, a fire broke out that actually destroyed all the houses in the town. The houses at that time were mostly wooden houses. A fire started in Kshiver Street in Mayer Kroch's house next to Ky–yovske's [Kaiyovski's] brick house and ended at Brisk Street at Pizshitz's house.

The fire devoured the house of Ky–yovske [Kaiyovski] up to the church on Reformatzke Street, that means on both sides of Kshive Street; the more distant houses on the left side of Kshive Street (coming from the Volye) up to the Jewish bath house. All that remained was the wooden house on Reformatzke Street where the wash house was later located. The houses on Gimnazye Street, except for the Gimnazye building itself, the houses on Reformatzke Street, except for Klimetzki's house on Yatke Street and in the small streets of the bath house up to the winery, were all destroyed in the fire.

They did not manage to establish the cause of the fire. The Jewish inhabitants lived for a long time in the synagogue and the Chassidic prayer houses. They proceeded to build new wooden houses.

In approximately 1890, one Elul night a fire broke out at the “Deftik”(the name was taken from the fact that at that place a blind horse would constantly walk on a wheel that belonged to the mill) later known as the place of Shimmele (Shimon), the son of Chaye Raize. During the fire, the houses on Shmoller street burned down, Grabanove Street, Proste Street, except for the Talmud Torah.

At the place where the jail stands today, they quickly made “zemliankes”(earthen huts) and those who were burned settled there for a while. They again proceeded to rebuild the town but this time the government forbade the building of wooden houses and they were only permitted to build houses of stone.

In approximately 1904 on the night of Tishah B'Av, a fire broke out on Proste Street. Amongst others, the houses of Chaim Becker, Shlayme Stop, Yosef Itshe Ash and the winery burnt down.

In 1885 or 1886, Purim time, there was a huge flood in the town. The ice on the river melted and the floating ice–blocks on the river smashed all the bridges on the Volye river. The river overflowed its banks and flooded large areas. Communication between the town and the Volye was severed. The waves carried away a house. There were no human fatalities.

In addition to the frequent fires, in 1892 a plague of Cholera engulfed Poland at that time and brought devastation, sorrow and shock to the town.

The frequent fires and the growth of the population changed the appearance of the town.

Already in 1910 the booths and stalls on the market place (today called Volnoshtshi [Wolnosci] Place) were transferred to the new market. The market place was enlarged so that the centre of the town acquired a more beautiful appearance.

The inhabitants however could not grow accustomed to the idea that the market was situated “so far” behind the town so a large number of the stalls transferred to the yard of Chaim Levi Rubinshtein. This is where a section of the market was situated until 1919 when according to a decree, the market trade moved over to the new market place.

The town developed rapidly. Already during the German occupation in the 1st World War, when Biala was the seat of the headquarters of the Bug Army, there was an extension to the town particularly in the suburb of Volye. The Germans brought in a small train that isolated Biala from the surrounding small towns of Yaneve [Janow Podlaski] and Konstantin. They built an electricity station in the winery and Biala saw electric light for the first time. The inhabitants began to enjoy electric light only under Polish rule. The Germans also introduced numbers on the houses.

 

bia093.jpg
The “corner” of Volnotshti [Wolnosci] Place (Liberty Square) – the place of the porters of Biala

 

Intensive building development began in the town only after the end of the Polish–Bolshevik War, mainly after the establishment of the aeroplane factory alongside the Volye in whose vicinity a new neighbourhood was built.

In 1934 Biala occupied an area of 3200 hectares, of which 350 hectare was used for construction. The rest was agricultural land. In 1878 the number of house reached 350 and in 1934 – there were 1100 houses. In the years between 1926 and 1930, a strong building movement developed. In these years 193 wooden houses were built and 36 stone houses and together they contained 915 rooms. Thanks to this, Biala did not experience a shortage of housing. The largest number of houses was built on the Volye and only a very small percentage by Jews.

The beginning of the Biala local self–administration dates from the year 1919 when the first elected town council was constitutionalised. The following were the Mayors between 1919 and 1939: Barkovski, Kuchayevski. Klimetski, Zakshevski and Valovski.

Before the 2nd World War the town possessed two electricity stations that were managed by Kavalevski the engineer, in an exemplary way. Biala was preparing to supply electric current to Mezrich and Lukov. On the Brisk highway they built a modern local slaughterhouse with a cool room and a factory producing large blocks of ice.

There were two hospitals in the town – one, the so called, hospital of the nuns, and the second – the Jewish one.

In Biala there were 5 cinemas, 4 in the town and one at the Volye. (Before the 1st World War there was one cinema, in the house of Chaim Yoske). Of the most important monuments in the town, it is worthwhile to note:

  1. The monument on the market place that the Poles built from stones to remember the establishment of the government in 1918 (in the place where the Russian monument once stood).
  2. The Krashevski monument (of red granite) on the site of the Gimnazye on the Warsaw highway.
  3. The monument at the barracks of the 34th regiment (of concrete) on the Warsaw highway, in memory of the regiment of soldiers who fell during the war with Russia in 1920.

[Page 94]

bia094.jpg
Grabanover Street –seen from Proste Street (Winter 1944/5)

 

The Christian population lived on the periphery of the town and until 1918 were mainly engaged in agriculture. Some worked as clerks and workers in various factories. The Jewish population were engaged in commerce and worked as tradesmen. After the Polish State came into existence in 1918, large parts of the Christian population were employed as clerks in government and local offices, in factories and other enterprises. Some began entering into commerce and learning trades.

The numbers of the population showed no growth between 1827 and 1857. It started to grow recently as the table below illustrates:

1827 3818 inhabitants
1841 3588 inhabitants
1850 3456 inhabitants
1857 3881 inhabitants
1878 7112 inhabitants
1897 11556 inhabitants
1921 13005 inhabitants
1931 17620 inhabitants
1939 20307 inhabitants

The flood of blood and fire that lasted six years (1939 – 1945) was over. The town of Biala at that time emerged intact and was even beautified during the war. (From a few Jewish shops they built one large business with beautiful display windows); but the builders of the town , the Jews, were no longer there, and even the smallest sign that they were once there, did not exist. The synagogue and the houses of prayer and study were removed right down to their foundations. The grave stones in the cemetery were taken and the earth was ploughed and sown. The sign with the name of the family on every Jewish house was removed. And in case they would have wanted to erect a memorial on the site of the Jewish cemetery after the war, in memory of the holy ones who perished in that gruesome period, our former Polish neighbours could not bear it; and even the stones, the only trace that Jews once lived here, were destroyed.

We always used to hear this saying from the Christians: “The streets are ours and the houses, yours”. Jewish ownership of property would not let them rest. We acquired those properties over generations with so much toil and drudgery. Now they can paraphrase this saying: “The streets are ours and the houses are ours”.

Bibliography:

  1. “History of Polish kings” Warsaw 1880
  2. Bogdan Wasiutynsky: “Jewish People in Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries”, Warsaw 1930
  3. “Podlassiyer Leben” Independent Social Newspaper of Biala, examples from the years 1926/7 and 1932/4.
  4. Testimonies from: Alter Weinberg, Asher Hoffer, Moshe Reuven. Gedalyahu Braverman and Ya'kov Aronovicz.

 

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