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[Page 342]

Portraits

by M. Y. Feigenboin

Translated by Ofra Anson

1. Jacob Steinman

Jacob Steinmann was born to a poor family, and from early childhood had great passion for studying. Indeed, he left home and went to study in a Lithuanian yeshiva, something that was quite rare among Biala's youth those days. He was away from home for many years, and when he came back he was a grown man, yet he was neither a scholar nor a rabbi, which brought a lot of grief to his parents.

He came back with a thorough knowledge of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Hebrew language. Like other yeshiva students, beside his Jewish studies, he learned to read Russian, which was not completely a foreign language for him. He also learned, and excelled in, mathematics. The Russian revolution in those years also influenced him.

Equipped with his wide knowledge of Judaism, new information on current affairs and Russian, he entered teaching, starting by giving lectures in private homes. At the same time, he taught the Bible to a group of young men, and some youngsters whom he guided in acquiring knowledge.

Yet, Steinmann's real passion was to open a modern Heder. During that time in Biala, there were several “schools”, where the young boys of the Heder learnt little reading and writing in Russian and some mathematics for one hour a day. The rest of their time they spent in the traditional Heder. Steinmann, however, wanted to set up a Heder where the young Jewish children would get all their education, both Jewish and general, in one place, with a unified pedagogical approach and supervision. Heders like this had been opened in a number of towns and were called Heder Metukan (revised Heder).

To open such a Heder, one needed permission from the Russian administration. The Rabbi, who did not want to allow such a “heretic” institution, gave permission to inform on Steinmann to the Russian police, and the permission was denied.

Steinmann was not frightened, and with the help of a group of parents, who were religious, but not fanatic, and wanted a better education for their children, worked with all their resources to open a Heder Metukan. After several delays, the necessary permission was given to Jacob Steinmann's younger brother, Jonah Steinmann, and the new Heder opened.

The Bible and Hebrew were taught at a very high level in this Heder. It became the foundation of Hebrew education in Biala.

Characteristically, after the Rabbi gave permission to prosecute Jacob Steinmann and to inform on him to the Russian police, Rabbi Aaron Landau invited him to come and teach his daughter at home.

After Jacob Steinmann's marriage, his apartment became a meeting place for the youth, who did not realize how isolated they were.

The greatest time of his life was during WWI, when he, together with other Zionists, established the Hebrew school “Yavneh”. It was clear to everybody that the pedagogical leadership of the school should be entrusted to Jacob Steinmann. This was the happiest period in his life, which overall, was not very easy.

If a generation of young people who knew Hebrew and learnt to love the language grew up in Biala, it was definitely the work of Jacob Steinmann. Even now, when any of his students, who have spread all over the world, some of them cut off from the language for years, hear the word “Yavneh”, they will cite a Hebrew song learnt from Jacob Steinmann.

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It should be remembered that among the different problems which the “Yavneh” school had to deal with, was the parents of children of the same class. Some of them never went to school,and came from homes with a variety of educational approaches. Teaching and running the school were not easy task for Steinmann, especially as he wanted the school to be of a high level and run in good order.

No other teacher could attract the students the way he did. The discipline that students demonstrated during his lectures was the result of the respect, love, and the fear they felt for him. When he pointed a finger at a standing student and ordered him to sit, everybody knew that this student had already been sentenced.

When Steinmann left the public school, he left teaching altogether. His wife opened a haberdasher, and he helped her to earn a living. He was active in the Zionist organization, taking part in reading evenings.

During Grabski's time (Poland's prime minister in 1920 and in 1923-25, O.A.), who limited Jewish life, this affected Jacob Steinmann too. At that time, his wife fell ill and died.

Her death devastated him. He was left with four children. With all the hardships he encountered, he gave his children a good education. They went to the public high school, where they were among the best students. They were also among the few children who had Hebrew education at home.

The tragic death of his beloved younger daughter Godhe, who was active in the underground anti-Nazi organization, was caught and tortured, broke Steinmann completely. He spent his life in his room, stunned. He did not sit for long, as in Succoth 1942 he was transferred, together with almost all the Jewish population of Biala to Mezhyrichi, from where he was sent to the death camp of Treblinka.

(Moshe Rubinstein provided some of the details.)

 

2. Menachem Mendel Gelenberg

Gelenberg was not “a Bialer”, he came from Terespol, near Brest. The years he spent in Biala, however, left a distinctive mark on its cultural life.

Before he came to Biala, people did learn some Hebrew; but with him around, learning Hebrew became a mass phenomenon. Each evening the large hall in the public school was packed with people. Although Gelenberg was not a qualified teacher, he had the ability to excite both students and their parents to learn the language.

He was a thin man of average height, a pale face that showed his poor health, and shining eyes. You could see him always walking quickly, deep in thought, with a book under his arm. He never parted from a book and sometimes he was so deep in reading that he forgot to eat.

Because of his stormy temperament, evening courses in Hebrew were not enough for him. He looked for additional activity, and, as it happened, he found it in in Yiddish and not in Hebrew. This brought about conflicts with the Zionist organization. As a result, the Zionist organization denied responsibility and support from the evening courses of Hashomer Hazair. Gelenberg continued with the courses single-handed, without support.

The years Gelenberg stayed in Biala were a time of cultural activity, which enriched the life of the Jewish society.

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He was the initiator and executor of the publication “Undzer Wort” [Our Word, O.A.]. He aspired to make it a weekly journal, and accomplished it with the establishment of “Podlasier Laben” [Life in Podlaska, O.A.], which he edited. He was constantly watching out for creative activity. The weekly journal was of high quality and his article in memory of I. L. Peretz (11 years after his death), was read in the literary circles in Warsaw, who wondered about the talent brought up in the periphery.

He made a lot of effort to found a Jewish school in Biala. He had no success, mainly because he could not compete with the government's public schools, preferred by parents interested in general education. Moreover, during the period of economic hardship parents could not afford to pay the tuition fees of a private Jewish school.

Gelenberg was the first to introduce the work of I. L. Peretz to Biala. He directed the theatre group to perform Molière's show The Miser, translated by Peretz. The performance was a success.

He spent all the money he made on books, as he liked to read. In his home you could find the whole series of HaTkupha [The Period, a journal for literature and philosophical thought, O.A.], in an impressive binding. Yet, he sold the series when Habima [the theatre, O.A.] came to Warsaw and he needed money to go Warsaw to see the show.

Gelenberg brought the love of literature to Biala. He organized various literature activities and discussion evenings. Every Saturday he organized an open reading event, to which he invited a speaker from Warsaw. Thus, from the stage of Biala you could hear literature experts, philologists, and artists.

Despite his extensive activities, Gelenberg became bored with provincial life and went to Warsaw. In Warsaw, his talent was soon recognized and he was invited to edit the “Kleiner Volkszeitung” [Small Folk Newspaper, O.A.]. Anybody who knows what it means to entrust the editing of such a serious children's newspaper in the hands of a young, provincial, man, will appreciate Gelenberg's intellectual level of and his writing talent.

Gelenberg did not edit the children's newspaper for long. The active Jewish life in the capital drew him into the Communist organization. Understandably, not much is known about his activity there, but as a result, he was released from editing the newspaper.

Despite the secrecy of his communist activity, once I did find an item in a Warsaw newspaper:

In 1930 the Chief of staff Pilsudski went for a vacation to the Isle of Madeira. For his birthday, on 29 March, people organized to send him a greeting card by post. Gelenberg undertook the mission, and sent the card, but instead of congratulations, he sent allegations and kept a copy for himself. The police searched his room and found the copy. In those pre-war years, such a deed would have one sent for many years in jail and, indeed, Gelenberg did not escape such sentence.
Gelenberg disappeared during the WWII, and has not been heard of since.

Some details:

Gelenberg published articles in “Volks Zeitung” published in Warsaw [People's Newspaper, O. A.], “ Literaturbühne ” [Literature Stage, O. A.], and “Front”. Parts of his works published in “ Literarische Blätter ” from Warsaw [Literary Pages, O. A.], “Jiddish auf der Warschauer Gassen” [Yiddish on the Street of Warsaw, O. A.], an important work on Yiddish life (1930). He also published in the Warsaw journal “Foroint” (June 9th, 1930) [Forward, O. A.] “Problemen und Thematik” [Problems and Issues, O. A.]. He also translated a play in three acts by R. K. Sherif “The end of Wondering”, three acts play, Warsaw, 1930, 130-7 and wrote poetry in which he had a fine style. He was lost during WWII.
(Source: the Lexicon of New Yiddish Literature, volume 2, 207/8 – sent by Jacob Cohen, New York).

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3. Moshe Kave

I knew Moshe Kave since my early childhood. I remember him with a long, wide, white beard, because of which he was sometimes called “the grandfather”. A large, wide, person, with a majestic appearance. He looked more like a rabbi than like a bookbinder. Always dressed in long clothes, with a small hat on a big, silver, head and with a steady little smile on his clever face.

Rumor was that Moshe Kave became an apikoros when he was young. He worked at a bookbindery in Klimetzki's crystal shop, where he used to sit and work with a bare head. I those days, putting on a paper collar, or wearing shoes instead of boots, was perceived as getting into bad company. Moshe Kave's behavior was terribly delinquent. They said that he returned to the right way after the sudden death of his older brother, who was a great learner.

I knew Moshe Kave as an orthodox Jew, who read a chapter of Leviticus, for example to refresh himself on Saturday afternoon, when he got up. He was observant, but not fanatic, and tolerant of other people.

Moshe Kave had a weakness for the printed word. It was not common in those days that a simple worker will be literate, or interested in Yiddish newspapers and books. It is possible that this weakness was a result of his vocation. He was one of the first readers of a Yiddish newspaper in Biala. He was also subscribed to the “Freund ” [friend, O.A., sent to him from Petersburg. It was well known that he was up-to-date in world news; he even knew that over the seas was a state named America. There is no king there, but some sort of a governor named president, and that even a shoemaker can one day become the president.

He was so eager to read, that he used to cut out the chapters of serial stories and bind them together in the bookbindery where he worked. Over time, he collected quite a few books, and opened a small library.

Moshe Kave was a clever, outgoing person, and a good artisan. He was also a courageous man; he went against rabbis and rich, powerful, people, and called the ordinary people to revolt against them more than once.

He was the only artisan whom the powerful people in Biala called upon to take part in different activities in order to gain public trust and participation. He was on the committee that planned the Jewish hospital, and the committee for distributing financial assistance before Passover.

Moshe Kave also liked to write. He wrote in the first newspaper printed in Biala, “Antifanatism”, and in Gelenberg's “Podlasier Leben” [life in Podlaska, O.A.].

Moshe Kave was one of the organizers of the craftsmen in Biala, and was their president for many years. He was active in the community as their representative. He was also one of the first Zionists in town, and represented the organization in the municipal elections during the beginning of free Poland.

The Christians also had a lot of respect for him. He used to work for different property owners in the neighborhood, for clerks, and for organizations.

Moshe Kave was blessed with good common sense and wisdom. Once I asked, during a conversation, “why did you not send your son to study? You were always aware that children should develop, and I believe that you could afford it.”

He answered me, “yes, I understood this, but I did not send them to study because there should not be too much distance between parents and children, because they may become strangers. Do you see this person?” he asked, pointing at his neighbor, a Jewish craftsman, “he scarified himself to let his son study, and you should see how this son treats his father now, he is ashamed of him. What would happen if my son Antshel was a doctor? He would have lived in Warsaw, and if I wanted to visit him I would have to ring the doorbell first; the domestic help would go to inform him that some Jew wants to see him, and I would have to wait for an answer, whether or not I can come in. On the other hand, if my Antshel becomes a merchant and lives in Warsaw, and I come to Warsaw, I can go into his home as if it was mine. We would embrace each other and kiss. My Antshel will send his children to study and there will not be as large a gap between him and his children as there would be between my children and me if I let them study.”

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The name of Moshe Kave was commemorated in the town during his lifetime, with the establishment of a Minian after his name. As far as I know, he was the only one in town to gain such respect especially during his life. Similarly, people always called him by his full name, Moshe Kave, unlike other craftsmen, who were usually called according to their vocation: Alther the plasterer, Nachman the bookbinder.

For a long time, Moshe Kave's Minian prayed only on Saturday mornings. On Friday nights and the high holy days he used to pray in Tarshish, where I had the pleasure to hear him talking and discussing politics. I remember that after WWI he once said, “Ah, what an important process is taking place in the world, it is possible that more important events will happen in the future, and I would love to live and see them.”

Moshe Kave waited for the important events to happen, but, unfortunately, were extremely tragic. The Nazi occupation came. A Hitler follower cut his beautiful, majestic, beard, which survived 1920 when Polish soldiers cut Jews' beards, on the first day of the occupation.

With the loss of his beard, he lost his charm, and aged all of a sudden until it was difficult to remember the ever-young spirit and vital Moshe Kave. He hid his face in a kerchief. Instead of the Jewish small, woolen, hat, he wore working cloths and complained about the hardship of the times, something he never did before.

He was alone at home, while his daughter, who used to live with him, went to Russia with her husband and children. Moshe Kave, loved by all, stayed alone in the Jewish quarter until June 10th, 1942, when he voluntarily joined the transport to the death camp, Sobibor.

 

4. Idel Schwartz

Idel Schwartz was not born in Biala. He came to Biala as the son in law of Rabbi Yehezkel Shahor, and later the – of Rabbi Shmuel Pizshitz. He was knowledgeable in both Jewish and world literature. He had a nice library, including some rare books.

Idel Schwartz was one of the few people in Biala who travelled beyond the boundaries of the town, and even beyond the Polish border. He visited Western Europe, and knew well the big Russian cities, where he often visited for business. Wherever he went, he looked for libraries with interesting books.

Each time he visited Warsaw, he went to the library of the Jewish Institute and read for hours. About one of these visits he once wrote in “Podlasier Leben” [Life in Podlaska, O.A.]; you could read between the lines that a well-read person wrote it.

Idel Schwartz was very active on the Jewish hospital board. He was also one of the initiators of an old-aged home and other social services.

He was an aristocrat and learned man, but at the same time, a person of the people. He liked to talk to ordinary people, to tell them stories and jokes. He used to pray in the synagogue of ordinary people.

He had a well developed sense of justice. During the dispute between Shimele (Shimon) Kreidstein and Idel's father in law, Shmuel Pizshitz, Idel supported Shimele more than once. When Shimele was arrested during this dispute, it was Idel who collected the money to bail him out.

Idel Schwartz was observant, but a tolerant person, who hated the militant clergy. During the 1930's, the clergy in Biala became aggressive, he used to publish short articles in Talmudic Hebrew in the “Bialer Wochenblatt” [Biala's weekly, O.A.], arguing that aggressiveness is against the Jewish way of life. Only a few people knew that it was Idel Schwartz who wrote these articles.

All his life Idel Schwartz was one of biggest and more established merchants in town. He dealt mainly in forests [timber, O.A.], which brought him into contact with the property owners in the area.

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Often, such property owners would mock a Jewish merchant or show him their supremacy, but they treated Idel Schwartz correctly.

He went bankrupt during the economic crisis of the 1930's. He became poor, but remained the same pride aristocrat he had always been, dressed in a black jacket and a black brimmed hat.

He saw the Germans occupying Biala for the second time, but he did not share the tragic end of the Jewish life in Biala: he passed away in the summer of 1941.

 

5. Alter Zukerman
(The Edison of Biala)

An average person, with a short, trimmed, beard, dressed in a typical Jewish outfit: a long coat and a little hat. A pair of dreaming eyes, always deep in thoughts. He was a craftsman, but knowledgeable, who came to the workshop from learning, a rare phenomenon those days, as work was not appreciated.

For many years Alter studied Tora in the Rabbi of Biala' place, then he married and studied at his father in law's expense. During his studies, he always worked a bit with metal. When the time came to look for a livelihood, that is, at the end of the time his father in law had promised to support him, he opened locksmith's workshop, though it was only a hobby.

Alter had an artistic sense, and he could literally revive dead metal. Behind the artistic hands was a genius brain, which did not rest for a minute, always thinking about inventions and innovations. Some of these I will describe as best I can, either from my own memory, or from what I heard at home as a young child.

Once, the iron safe of Rabbi Shaul'ke Cohen, one of the rich people of the town, was shut tight and none of the professionals could open it. After all had failed, he decided to call in Alter, who just finished his studies and become a locksmith. Nobody believed he could do it, and Rabbi Shaul'ke sat calmly at his desk, leaving Alter to work on the safe, which had quite a few Imperials (Russian gold coins) inside it. Next to Alter stood a blacksmith, whose wife worked in Rabbi Shaul'ke's house. It did not take long before the heavy iron door gave in, and screeched open. Alter went to Rabbi Shaul'ke's office to tell him he was done. The blacksmith remained by the open safe, and helped himself to few Imperials. He later became a partner in a power plant, while Alter was just paid for his time.

Soon Alter's reputation as an expert in opening stubborn safe doors spread. Another artisan would have probably used it to charge high prices, but Alter had no drive to become rich, he did it for the art in it. This proved to be the right way.

He was often called in to open boxes in the country. In such cases, he would charge 10 rubles if he finished the work before midnight, and 25 rubles if he worked beyond midnight. Sometimes he worked for hours, and the case opened just few minutes before midnight and he got the 10 rubles. Another person would have fiddled around a little longer to make 25 rubles. Alter, however, never did, despite the urgent advice of his friends.

For a while, the post used to wash stamps and reuse them. Alter looked for ways to stop this fraud. He developed a device that made holes in the glued stamps, with no damage to the envelope of the stamp. Someone in the town sent it to Petersburg in order to register it as a patent. The machine did not reach Petersburg, and the person who was supposed to send it argued that it got lost on the way.

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Years later, a letter came from abroad with the holes invented by Alter.

For a long time Alter worked on a lock that only one key would open, so that even a good duplicate of that key would be useless. When the lock was finished, he gave it to a friend of his, a well-known merchant, to hang it on the door of his storeand said, If a thief breaks into your store, you should know that I am the thief. People said that thieves did try to break in, using all their knowledge and technology, but to no avail.

Alter was an excellent metal-engraver. Merchants used to order hooks with special signs from him to mark the logs in the forest. For the soap factory, he made a stamp with fish, the factory symbol. The fish on the soap looked alive, so detailed were the fish scales. Years later, when the stamp broke and Alter had already died, it was taken to Warsaw to be fixed. The people in Warsaw were amazed at the talent of the artisan who made it, and could not find anybody capable of such artistic work.

During WWI, the Germans recognized his talent and helped him build a large workshop with all the machinery. Surprisingly, this scholar knew each machine, how to operate it, although he never seen it before. You can imagine what a good professional he was, if the particular, pedant, Germans appreciated his work. He was the only Jew allowed by the Germans to walk outdoors during the night.

Alter also did repairs, and started to study telephones a long time before the first telephone was installed in Biala. I often heard from my mother that Alter and my grandfather, who too had weakness for technology, used to stretch a cable to the neighbor's house, and sent her home to hold a little box tied to the cable next to her ear. Alter and my grandfather would speak, and she could hear their voices in the box.

When the Germans left in 1918, they left electricity lines and turbines. No one knew how to use electric light, and the houses had no installations for electricity. Mysteriously, Alter knew about electricity and how to use it. In a short time, he taught his fellow-craftsmen, and together they started to prepare the houses in Biala for using electricity. They also electrified the synagogue.

Thanks to Alter, Biala's home were lit, but Alter himself started to deteriorate. He was always physically weak; he fell ill, and could not be cured. The brilliant brain of old Alter stopped along with his warm heart.

 

6. Hershel Zak
(The Mathematician)

A Hasid, with a wild-grown, black beard, two long hands, which were always in the way like two sticks. Hershel Zak used to mix with “the high windows” [important decision makers, O.A.], though he did not master the Russian language very well. He used to bribe people left and right. He was a contractor, and took building jobs. In his work, he used his knowledge in mathematics, which was much appreciated by the Christians and brought him a lot of work.

He never went to school, and his knowledge of mathematics was probably a result of natural talent.

Students from the Biala gymnasium often visited Hershel Zak, who was able to solve problems they couldn't. Within a few minutes he had it clearly written out for them.

When they built the military hospital, it was trusted in the hands of Hershel Zak. The military doctor responsible for the hospital's construction, a general, heard about Hershel Zak's mathematical ability and decided to put the legend to the test.

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The general gave Hershel a very difficult problem to solve. It did not take long before he had it solved, even without paper and pencil, leaving the general open-mouthed. The general then said that Hershel must have a strong visual memory.

When Hershel Zak gave the general a problem, he thought and calculated, but even using paper and pencil, and failed.

Hershel used to multiply large numbers by large numbers in one row very quickly. He calculated the sum of the largest columns of numbers with one hand on the sheet of paper while grumbling under his nose.

Before WWI, several cement producers became partners. They invited Hershel Zak from Biala to Warsaw to put all the accounts in order, which he did during a few evenings. He earned a nice sum of money for that work. Rumor was that anyone else would have needed many weeks to do the accounting.

This is what our Moshe Kerner, who was a senator in the Polish senate and a former director of a big factory in Biala, said:

“I remember a man, who was always thinking, walking like his head was in the clouds. His name was Hershel Zak, a Ger Hasid.

He came to my factory once, for some business. He sat in my office and explained to me what he wanted. He had a very special intonation. I felt the urge to examine whether or not what was said about his mathematical ability was true. He asked me to give him a problem. I remembered a problem I struggled with in my first year as a student. An exercise that even students of the polytechnic did not know how to approach.

Hershel got up from his chair, went to the corner of the room, turned to the wall, and covered his face with his hands. After several minutes, he returned to his chair and gave me the right answer. I was astonished.

I met him in Warsaw few years after WWI. He was quite poor.”

 

7. Haim Mustovitch
(The Kobryner)

His name was Haim Mustovitch. Yet, you could walk around the whole town looking for him under this name, and no one would know whom you were talking about. However, if you asked for Kobryner, everyone, young and old, would lead you straight to the feldsher (paramedic) called “Kobryner”.

As his nickname shows, he came from Kobryn. Although he lived most of his life in Biala, his dialect remained Lithuanian.

An average size man, with constant infection, leaking eyes, a bunch of hair on his chin, dressed in European cloths even though it was considered to be an apikorosim's outfit; yet he was forgiven. On Saturdays and holidays he came to pray dressed in a frock coat, with top hat, wrapped in a large tallit, praying with the ordinary people.

He did not receive medical training in any high school. Indeed, rumor has it that he never went to any school at all. He learnt medicine in a Russian hospital where he worked as an orderly, and from his rich practice.

There was no home in Biala, rich or poor, that the “Kobryner” was not the home-doctor. During WWI, there was a typhoid epidemic in Biala and

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the “Kobryner” went from home to home to heal the sick.

Rabbi Haim was a man of the people. He was committed to his work and he did not let others wait for his help and made home visits even in the middle of the night. When he entered a home to treat a sick person, he somehow brought with him an immediate sense of relief. After examining the patient, he used to say, in his Lithuanian accent, “sha, have no fear, he is not dying yet. Give him some chicken soup, milk, and compote”.

Sometimes he would stay by the sick person for a while, describing cases he has treated.

Once a little non-Jewish girl with a very swollen head was brought to him. The physicians did not know what was wrong with the child. The “Kobryner” examined her, and he diagnosed that the girl had put a pea into her nose. He took the pea out. The swelling started to go down and within a short time it was completely gone.

The “Kobryner” was called to a girl who suffered from a long-standing disease. All the doctors had given up on her life. Her family members were crying, asking him to have mercy on her and save the young life. He examined her and said that only warm liquefied lard would save her. After few weeks she started to recover and was completely healed. The other doctors could not believe the miracle. Later on this girl went to America.

The “Kobryner” had a very big practice, treating Jews and Christians. The farmers from the surrounding villages used to bring their sick family members, using wagons during the summer and on sled in the winter, to “Professor Kobrinski”, as they used to call him. He worked hard, but he was never nervous, and always welcomed everybody with a smile, ready to help. It was not necessary to make an appointment or take a number in his clinic. When he was at home, he was always ready to go to on a home visit. Even on Saturday during the meal, between eating the fish and eating the onions, he sometimes treated a patient.

He was very popular and well respected, but he never exploited these. He never bargained, putting whatever wax given to him in his wallet.

He was never full of himself, and never played the role of a doctor who had come to examine the patient and write a prescription. When necessary, he made the patient's bed by himself, or put a put a compress on him/her or whatever needed.

On Saturdays, one could find him in the company of artisans, talking politics with them. He always said, with regard to the declarations of the Polish government on the rights of the Jews, “what is the good of a written constitution, if it is not applied in real life?” He used to take walks with people and explain to them how the human body works.

He had a good sense of humor, and liked to tell jokes and anecdotes, which later were told in the town. His wife, who was quite a nervous woman, woke him at night once, and complained, “Oh, Haim, I am not feeling well. He answered, “Sleep, Rachel, sleep, who does feel good and happy these days?”

Writing prescriptions was a difficult task for him, as he never even went to elementary school. The local pharmacy, however, learnt to understand his handwriting. The Kobryner, however, was not a great believer in medications. Rather, he preferred to use his common sense to develop appropriate cures.

If a doctor visited a patient, the family would often call the “Kobryner” later and ask his opinion on the medication the doctor prescribed. The “Kobryner” was not insulted in these cases. Rich households often called in several doctors to treat their sick, hiding the prescriptions in order to have a few independent opinions. Then the called the “Kobryner”, showed him the prescriptions, asked for his advice, and followed his decision.

The doctors in town were too full of themselves to talk with the members of the household, but the “Kobryner” always explained the disease in his original way. He used to move his finger on the table, showing the human organism, and pointing at were the problem was. People said that one could see the disease on the palm of his hand!

Naturally, the “Kobryner” was like a thorn in the eye for the other doctors. The started to look for ways to get rid of him. One day they started to trouble him, demanding that he take examinations and provide diplomas.

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At the end, he had to take the exam, which he failed. And how could he pass it? It was in Polish, a language he did not understand properly! The authorities asked him sophisticated theoretical question instead of giving him a patient to treat. As a result of this failure, he had to stop practicing.

The “Kobryner” started to have a difficult time. How could the “Kobryner” stop treating patients? Even if he agreed to it, the public could not let him stop. People did not care whether he had a diploma of not. The “Kobryner” continued to be the doctor of the community. The pharmacies learnt to hide his prescriptions from the authorities. The other doctors, however, did not let go, which brought the “Kobryner” to court more than once. He was punished, but kept going from house to house to treat the sick.

This lasted until the Germans came in. on June 11th 1942, the “Kobryner” was sent, with the other Jews, to the death camp at Sobibor.

 

8. Benjamin Konolstein

He was a giant, tall, wide, strong hands, big head, and two small eyes. In my father's workshop, someone measured his back; its width was 80cm., summer and winter. He was dressed in a long frock and black boots. During the summer, he wore a small Jewish hat, in the winter an old cap.

Benjamin was born to a family of builders. All were heavy built, and like them, he became a builder too. There was a story about his father, Idl Tzines, that a log fell on his head at work once. He got angery and shouted to the other builders, “Hey there, why do you throw tooth-picks at me?” Once, after having a heavy lunch, Idl Tzines went to work on the scaffolding with a loaf of bread under his arm, and by the time he reached the top, the bread was all gone.

For years, Benjamin worked in Lodz and in Warsaw at a furniture workshop, and excelled in this too. Yet, his specialty was in smoothing the wood. With his sharp hammer, he made the wood so smooth, as if it was done with paper. Like many others in those days, he never attended school. Nevertheless, he could build according to a plan. When someone needed to build something, they would turn to Benjamin. When an improvisation was necessary, Benjamin could invent something.

Once he saw how porters struggled to get an iron box up some stairs. He commented that it would have been easier to take it in through the window. Indeed, when the bank had to move its big safe, the work was trusted to Benjamin's hands and the job was done without the noisy porters.

In the army camp on Artillery Street stood an old metal stable, tilted and almost falling over. The army officers asked the property owners to fix it or to build a new stable. The owners consulted Benjamin. He came with several other workers, and for a number of days they worked at the stable, laid cylinders, tied ropes, and cut pegs. When everything was ready, he sent the workers home. The next morning the stable stood upright. The columns in the corners and in the middle of the wooden walls had been straightened, and the stable stood as new, ready to be used. Other builders came around to try to understand how Benjamin managed to straighten such a ruin, but they could not find out.

Every time he finished a job, he was cheated, and he very often worked almost for free.

Sometimes he worked in the countryside, going out on Sunday early morning and coming back Friday evening.

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There were times when he worked with his brother, Gdalyahu, for the local Lord, Mevis. Other Jews also used to work there. They used to take with them food for the whole week, and live there. For all the other workers, their provisions lasted to Friday, but Benjamin and his brother declared on Wednesday that Friday had already arrived. They had sharp knives, and when they sliced bread, each slice was no less than 5-6 cm.

Benjamin had the hands of an artist. He could do whatever he saw. I remember that, when I was a child, he once told us how he tried to make a violin. He worked on it for a while and then, when it was almost finished, his children started jumping around and screaming, “Oh, a violin! Oh, a violin!” The noise upset Benjamin, and he gave a shout, “What? A violin? “ He banged the unfinished violin on the table and broke it.

Before soles for boots were produced in Biala, Benjamin supplied soles to the shoemakers. His endless curiosity lead him to take a new boot and examine it to learn how it was made.

No matter how busy and troubled by work he was, he always found the time to make his own wine for Passover. Sure, if one makes wine, one needs different tools. Benjamin made his own tub and wooden barrels. He used to go to others that made their own wine and give them a taste. He told my mother how he squeezed the raisins, demonstrated the action with his strong hands, and said with teeth grinding, “I grated the raisins like a rooster…”

Benjamin liked to talk to other craftsmen about their work and what they did. He could not stand sloppy performance at work. When asked by a fellow craftsman to show him how to make steps, which were not easily done by Biala's artisans, and only few were ready to take on such a job, Benjamin always did. He used to remove the tiles from the floor to the workshop, lie on the floor with the ends of his garment widely spread like two bats, mark the steps, calculate and explain how it should be done.

Although Benjamin looked like a strict person, he was soft hearted and loving, with a soul of an artist which had never been realized.

He died after a short illness at the beginning of the Nazi occupation, and thus was spared the tortures of the Holocaust.

 

9. Jacob Virnik

Born in 1889 in Vola. As a young man, he became a carpenter, and a member of the “Bund”. In 1906, he left Biala and settled in Warsaw, when he worked as a carpenter.

During WWI, he was recruited to the Russian army. He was decorated for his heroic performance in the battle by river Bzure.

After the war, he stopped building houses and started to manage houses.

During the Bolshevik occupation, in 1920, he fought in the Polish army. There too, he acted heroically by the Vistula River, and won the highest decoration of the Polish army.

After that war, he resumed his building operation and managing houses. He became a partner with some important Polish people.

During WWII, after the German occupation of Warsaw and the exile to the ghetto, he was the head of a quarter, and made his best to ease the life of the people. On August 22nd 1942, he was sent to Treblinka. Somehow, he succeeded to go to the work camp and not to the extermination camp. Thanks to his talent, which was obvious in each job allocated to him, the Germans respected him, and let him be the last candidate to go to the gas chambers.

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When they started to enlarge the gas chambers in the death camp, Jacob Virnik was assigned to this job. Because he was involved in different kinds of work, he could freely move between the camps, and frequently visited the death camp. No other person saw so many horrors as he did, and stayed alive.

The revolutionary spirit of his youth, which attracted him to the “Bund” in Biala, and was depressed later in Warsaw, woke up again in Treblinka. He was the living spirit among the Jews in the Treblinka work camp. He encouraged them to fight, and was one of the organizers of the uprising which broke out in August 1943.

During the uprising, he managed to run away, and after few day of wondering arrived in Warsaw, where he knew Christian members of the underground, who helped him to hide as a Christian. His appearance also helped him do so.

His fighting spirit did not let him to remain idle even in the worst of times. He often looked for hiding Jews, and brought them money, which he got from the underground movement. As for himself, he was a clerk in the Warsaw municipality.

At the end of 1943, he wrote a brochure about Terblinka, which the underground distributed all over the world, and made a lot of impression. His brochure was the first to let the world know what really went on in Treblinka, about the huge death camp the German monsters had built in the wilds of Treblinka. It was translated into many languages.

Virnik participated in the uprising against the Germans in Warsaw in 1944. Later he continued to fight in Pruszkow, where he was freed by the Soviet army during the winter offensive action.

After the war, Jacob Virnik settled in Wroclaw, where he became a building inspector.

He went to London to visit his relatives, and spent some time in Sweden. In 1949, he made Alia to Israel.

Here I am, sitting with Jacob Virnik, who, with his big, thick, mustache looks more like a Polish farmer than as a Jew, and he tells me episodes from his eventful life. He ensure me that he has a great passion to achieve one other thing in his life. He, who was one of the builders of the huge death-machine in Treblinka, who stood by the door of hell, wanted to build a model of the death chambers of Treblinka, the grave of so many Polish Jews.

And he realized his dream. A model of Treblinka was presented to the museum of Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta'ot, which Jacob Virnik planned and built [as of 2010, the museums exhibits a revised model. O.A.].

 

10. Hershel Nuchovitz

He taught himself furniture carpentry from a very young age. During WWI he worked in a German carpentry in Vola. It appears that he worked with an excellent German carpenter, and learnt the vocation thoroughly.

Hershel Nuchovitz was blessed with a lot of patience, and liked to be fully involved in his work. A lovely young man, who never got angry, and always had a cigarette in his mouth, even if it was not lit.

When Purim masked balls became fashionable in Biala, Hershel decided to have an original mask that will leave its impression in town. All winter he worked on it in the evening, keeping it secret, even those close to him and members of the household knew nothing about it. When his mother brought his dinner to his room, he never let her in, but stretched his hand through a crack in the door and took the food. When Purim came, Hershel and his brother went to the ball as Moses and Aaron, dressed in costumes made of different materials and fabrics. Indeed, he won the first prize.

For the next ball, Hershel made the costume of a goose. Again, he worked all the evenings of the winter, gluing feather to feather.

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We used to say that Hershel liked to get himself sucked into his work. Actually, he had an ambition to work out things that were outside his vocation. He wished to invent something in his life. I would like to write something related to this wish.

It was after General Nobile crashed in his failed attempt to reach the North Pole by airplane. Hershel read a lot about this expedition, and became interested in airplane building. Sometime later, he showed me many calculations, and explained to me that he had found a way to prevent airplanes from crashing in case they fall on the ground. I looked at his calculations, but did not understand much. I asked him if he learnt physics, and he replied that he read a lot on airplane building. He asked me to write up his invention in Polish.

Hershel did not speak to me about it anymore. I heard that he went with Isaak Pizshitz to an engineer of the airplane factory in town. The engineer looked at the calculations, and said that Hershel may have an original idea there, but each detail had to be further developed.

Hershel took to the work. Meanwhile, however, Hitler came with his airplanes. Hershel went to east Poland, but could not escape the Germans.


From the beginning of the century, Jewish children in Biala did not go to public schools. The Heartglass family was the only one to send its children to the state's high-school at the end of the 19th century. This family was a newcomer to Biala, and was an assimilated family. At the turn of the 20th century, things changed and even children from Hassidic families started to attend public schools. Still, very few went and acquired high education. The Nazis, of course, put an end to all this.

In the next sections, I will tell about some of the people who graduated from higher education.

11. Dr. David Cohen

He was born in Biala in 1889. His father, Moses Cohen, was a devoted Ger Hassid. When his father died, David was a young boy, and left in the custody of his brother-in-law, Herzl Halberstadt. In those years, Halberstadt was already a Zionist, and wore “German” cloths. Because of these sins, he had been exiled from the Ger synagogue. Herzl Halberstadt busied himself with his young brother-in-law David, and sent him to the state high school of Biala.

A few years later, the family moved to Warsaw, leaving David behind to finish the sixth year of the gymnasium. During his studies, he was caught up by revolutionary ideas, which were common among Jewish youth as well as among Christian youth.

David finished his studies in Warsaw, and went on to medical school. During WWI, Warsaw University was evacuated to Rostov (Russia). David went with the university to Russia, where he finished medical school. After the war, he returned to Warsaw, took some additional courses, got his diploma, and started practicing.

His desire was to specialize in surgery. He wished to become an assistant to the well-known surgeon, Professor Dr. Radlinski, who practiced in the university hospital “Swienti Duch”. This hospital was beyond reach of most students in Poland before WWI. Jewish students, who were subject to the numerus clausus, did not even dare to dream about specializing there.

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David Cohen had an extraordinary talent for surgery, and became Professor Radlinski's first assistant, which carried quite a high prestige in the Polish medical milieu.

In Warsaw, David married his school mate, Dr. F. Sirkin (from the famous Sirkin family), who was a Zionist activist.

David Cohen himself was a well-known Cosmo-political person, totally assimilated, with no understanding whatsoever of the Jewish problems. All the efforts of his wife and her friends to involve him in their Zionist enthusiasm were in vain. He had his own craze, medicine, to the study of which he devoted himself with all his might. Beyond his activity in the operating theatre, he was also involved in research, and he published in professional journals. Beside medicine, he also loved music.

When he took on a social activity, it also had to do with medicine. He sponsored an institute for the mentally ill, and was active in the association for medical help.

Despite assimilation and Cosmo political attitudes, David has a soft spot for his hometown, Biala. It was very difficult to visit him in the hospital “Swienti Duch”, and the Polish priesthood had strong influence on the hospital's religious approach. Nevertheless, Hershel Zak, the Ger Hassid from Biala, was a regular guest of David Cohen. Hershel Zak came to the hospital quite often, with his long coat (Capota), his boots, and his long, wild, knotted beard, talking to Dr. Cohen loudly in Yiddish in front of the Christian doctors. He used to bring stew (cholent) to the Jewish patients, some of whom came specially from Biala to be operated on by Dr. Cohen. Zak's word always helped, because Dr. Cohen respected him, remembering him as a neighbor from his childhood in Biala.

About 1934/5, Dr. David Cohen was nominated as the head surgeon in the Jewish hospital in Warsaw. The hospital had no shortage of candidate forthat position, but Dr. Cohen was elected unanimously. One had to be highly qualified to be able to get such a high position in such a large hospital, where physicians such as Dr. Nathanson, Dr. Platau, Dr. A. Soloveichick, Dr. G. Levin, and Dr. Lubelski were practicing.

On top of his work in the hospital, Dr. Cohen had a private surgery clinic in Warsaw, which was well known in Warsaw and in the whole province.

Dr. Cohen continued his medical practice and scientific activity until WWII broke out. At the end of August 1939 he was mobilized to the Polish army. He stayed with his unit in Rovno until they merged with the Soviet-Russian army.

He was afraid to return to Warsaw, which was already under German occupation. He stayed in Rovno, and threw himself completely into medical work. Soon he became famous as the “great surgeon from Warsaw”. The German blitz offensive of Russia caught him in Rovno. Yet, even under the German occupation, he continued his medical activity. The story goes, that the Germans took him from the operating table to his death.

His wife and daughter managed to escape the Nazis and immigrate to Israel via Italy. Dr. F. Sirkin-Cohen continued to practice medicine in Israel. Their daughter finished high school in Israel, graduated the Technion in Haifa, and works in architecture.

Dr. D. Cohen is still remembered as a distinguished surgeon, his name is carried with respect and gratitude. Some of his students are working in Israel in respected medical positions. Not once, when his assistants come across a difficult and complicated operation, they say to themselves, “Our Dr. Cohen did it 20 years ago, when medicine was not as developed as it is today.”

Written according to the information provided by: His spouse Dr. F. Sirkin-Cohen, Moshe Ravon, Yitzhak Shein.

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12. Dr. Butche Finkelstein

Born to Fishel and Tzipora, he was one of the few youngsters who attended the state gymnasium before WWI. The war interrupted his education, and after the war he was the first Jew to graduate from the state high school. He then went on to medical school in Vilnius University, where he earned his diploma.

He was a very nice young man, modest, with a good sense of humor and he loved socializing.

We knew several young men in Biala that, after finishing the gymnasium, became very snobbish, pretended not to know Yiddish, and never spoke it for fear that it would spoil their Polish accent. Butche Finkelstein was far from such a snob. He was an active member of Hashomer Hatsair, and was a group leader until he went to study out of town. He was friendly with everybody, and used to think of ways to develop a conversation on different subjects. He was also a teacher in the evening classes of Hashomer Hatsair, much liked by his students. He also improvised a lot on the melodies sang in Hashomer.

Despite all his activity in Hashomer Hatsair, he was one of the best students in his class, and still found time to be active in Maccabi, and to participate regularly in the dramatic club in “Beit Haam”, where he appeared on stage more than once. He did not worry about his Polish accent, and always spoke Yiddish, lively, vivacious Yiddish with a lot of humor.

When asked, “Butche, what will you do after graduation?” he used to answer, with his special humor, “I will return to Biala and set a business with the undertakers…”

He did, indeed, return to Biala and started practicing medicine. When he had time, he returned to social activities, this time working with the group that tried to revive Maccabi.

From Biala he moved to Biten (Wolyn). There, he continued to work in his profession, and built a family. As in his home-town, he became involved in social activities, and was much loved and appreciated by the community.

When WWII broke, he was recruited into the Polish army. He fell into the hands of the Germans, and has not been heard of since.

 

13. Dr. Nathan Tsigelnick

His father was very religious, a Melamed [a teacher of young children, O.A.] somewhere in East Poland. His mother was from Biala, from the Rosentswiges, who made up her mind to ensure her son's and daughter's future at all costs.

At first, she was not pleased with her son's performance in school.         His poor achievements in the preparatory course lead to his being expelled from the gymnasium. Yet, this expulsion shook young Nathan, and ignited in him a strong ambition.

He sat down to study, as if he was glued to the chair. A year later, he retook the exams, and was accepted to the second year of the gymnasium. It did not take long for him to become one of the best students in his class. He studied day and night, but still found time for Hashomer Hatsair.

In the upper classes, when a special event devoted to the sea took place, Nathan was nominated to prepare a lecture about the sea. The Polish teacher approached him after his speech, and said, “Very good, very good, but it lacked some warmth” (meaning it was not patriotic enough).

After finishing high school, Tsigrlnick chose medicine for a profession. He went to study in Vilnius, where he got his medical diploma. He must have excelled in the university, because he received many letters of recommendation from his professors, including one from Professor Rosee (Professor Rosee researched the brain of the late Marshall Pilsudski).

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These letters helped him to get a position in the Jewish hospital in Warsaw, a hospital to which many young Jewish doctors applied, but only few were accepted.

The German occupation caught him in Warsaw, where he continued to work in the Jewish hospital. In Warsaw's Ghetto he worked in a responsible position in the Ghetto's Jewish hospital. He got married in the Ghetto, hoping to see better days. The German killers, however, got him, and the shine of a bright star on the medical horizon was turned off.

 

14. Shimon Goldsmith

He was the son of Abraham Goldsmith. He was a short man, somewhat fat, with a round face and a pair of smiling eyes. From the Heder [religious school, mainly for young children. O.A.] of Aaron Yehiel he went to the gymnasium, and soon developed as an outstanding student. He was one of the few Jewish students in Biala's high school that took the matriculation exams at such a young age. He did the exams very well, but failed in the end, because he spelt Pilsudski's name with a “z” instead of an “s”.

That summer, his sorrow doubled with the death of his mother. Her death caused him a lot of grief. A year later, he took the exams again, and won his matriculation degree with no difficulty.

He could not enter a Polish university, and went to study in Bologna, Italy. During his studies, he took to writing in the Polish language. A serious publishing house in Warsaw published his book about Pirandello and his father. The book had very good reviews in the Polish press.

He was about to finish medical school in 1939, when the war broke out, and he was located by the Polish representative in Italy and returned home. He brought with him many manuscripts, but he never published any of them because of the war.

At first, Shimon was in Russia but quite soon he returned to Biala and went to Warsaw. There were rumors that he was on the German side of Warsaw. In the chaos of those days, he disappeared.

 

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