by A Bialer
Translated by Ofra Anson
The minute it became clear that the Russians were leaving Biala, a decision had to be taken: To take to wondering or stay home. The town was restless. People were divided into two camps: runners and stayers. It was not an ideological issue. The runners were motivated by fear of the Germans; The stayers were motivated by the fear of becoming homeless, and the belief that could hang on until the war was over.
A horse and a wagon stood in the yard of Abik Rosenbloom, with the belongings of his son, Yoske. He left the town with his wife and children. The family parted from the travelers. The mother bent towards her daughter Franie, and said: My daughter, take my suitcases, they hold all my property, go with Yoske and save yourself. Franie replied: not without you. All who were present wept.
Only a few of Biala's Jews fled to the other side of the river Bug. The border stayed open for a short time, people and commodities moved back and forth, and people established a new home on the Soviet territory. After a while, the border was closed, and the movement between the sides stopped. The economic behavior started to take shape according to the Soviet policy. Not all, locals as well as refugees, got used to it. Many refugees refused citizenship, being afraid that the Soviets will not let them return home after the war. Yet, there were refugees from Biala who decided to start new life, and travelled to central Russia. They turned to the right authorities and were sent to Ukraine and Byelorussia. These Jews became Russian citizens, had a place to live and a place of work.
Meanwhile, a German committee was set up in Brisk, trying to control the stream of people from Soviet Russia to the German–controlled territories in Poland. The committee sat in the train station in Brisk, and the roads leading to it were full of refugees, the majority of whom were Jews. The sight of long rows in front of the German committee was painful. The committee members did not treat them kindly and their sarcastic remark: Jews, where are you going? Our Fuhrer does not like you, made no impression on the Jews. The Russian also did not like the rushed return back to Poland. The refugees from Biala used all the connections they could to win their return home.
The committee finished its work. Only a few were allowed to go back to Biala. The Germans gave the list of the people who applied to return to Poland to the Soviet regime, who soon used it against them.
Those who did not get permission to return, expressed their disappointment. In Minsk, a demonstration was organized with the slogan: Send us home. The Soviet authorities demanded of the demonstrators to leave the area to a radius of 100 km. Since the refugees did not fill the orders quickly enough, harsh means were taken against them. One night, activists of the Soviet administration visited the houses of the refugees, taking them to a gathering point. By morning, they were on the train, on their way to their assigned destination in the far parts of Russia.
In 1941, when the war between Germany and Russia started, the refugees from Biala were spread over the remote areas of Russia. Many in working camps, a few in Polish areas, and the great majority in Ukraine and Byelorussia where they worked in Kolkhozes, factories, and cooperatives.
During the terrible war, the Biala refugees in Russia experienced difficult times along with the Soviet population. Jews were recruited to the Russian and the Polish army and fought against the Germans on different fronts. Those who lived in middle Asia worked in different places and some were in trade. Like other refugees, the Jews from Biala had no knowledge of the terrible fate of the Polish Jews.
After the war, Russia let the Polish refugees go back to Poland. At this point, people had already heard about the German murders, but they still hoped that it was not all true. They started their way home, but the closer they got to the border the less hope they had. Arriving in Terespol, the first border city in Poland, they immediately felt the Polish hate towards the Jews.
In Biala's train station they were welcomed with stoning. Most did not get off at home and choose to continue the journey. After a while, some returned to Biala to see the destruction, to stroke the stone over the mass grave, and shed tears. The home, of which we dreamt for seven years, was no longer a home, but a graveyard.
Translated by Ofra Anson
In October 1939, Biala's Jews became very depressed. They saw the Soviet army withdrawing behind the river Bug, which became the border between Germany and Russia. Some of them, mainly young people, decided to leave the town and cross to the other side of the Bug.
The majority of Biala's refugees concentrated in Brisk, where life was hard. As they started to get their life into some routine, the Soviet administration ordered all refugees to move 100Km away from the border.
Meanwhile, Russia opened a recruitment office for refugees who were willing to settle in Russia where each person would find work in his occupation. Many refugees, including some from Biala, registered. The first group traveled to Russia via Pinsk and Zhitkovichi. In Zhitkovichi, passengers were divided: half were sent to Mazyr, the other half to Gomel. From there they were distributed between different cities and towns in the far end of Russia.
Quite a few refugees from Biala ended in Gomel, where they established a community. When we arrived, we looked for other people who came from Biala, either in the First World War, or in 1920, when they joined the withdrawing Red Army. Among them were Yeshaya Idl Lemberg, an artist painter (son of Aharale Bekster), and the Oppenheim family (from the soap factory in Volya), who were very happy to meet us, and invited us to their homes.
Each of them wanted to hear news about their relatives and of Biala in general.
|Exhumation of the Kedoshim who were shot during the Nazi regime in Biala and buried in various places. After the war, they were interred in a communal grave in the destroyed Jewish cemetery|
Not all the refugees could adjust to the demands of the new life.
Some decided to find a way to go to Brisk, and from there to return to Biala. Some were caught by the Russians trying to cross the border, and were sent to Siberia to work in the fields. The work in freezing temperature was hard, the nutrition poor and insufficient, and quite a few lost their life.
|Exhumation of the Kedoshim who were shot during the Nazi regime in Biala and buried in various places. After the war, they were interred in a communal grave in the destroyed Jewish cemetery|
Those who stayed where they were sent could not relax for long. The war between Russia and Germany broke out and families were torn apart again. The men were recruited to the army, the women evacuated to the heart of Russia. Some of the Biala refugees remained in their place, and shared the tragic fate of Jews after the Germans marched in.
I remember the Biala men who went with me to the army, and were killed fighting the Germans.
Jacob Warsawski, a carpenter, lived on Sadower Street (his father was a builder). Left a wife and a daughter.
Tsemah Tuchmintz, a bookbinder. Left a wife and a son.
Simha Liberman )came from the Tshein area). Killed in service in the Polish army, freeing Warsaw.
The three mentioned above were my friends. Yet, many more Jews from Biala fell fighting against the Germans in the Russian and Polish army.
By early 1945, the German animal was already in pieces. People strated travelling across Europe. They were drawn back to their land, to their homes. Those from Biala who lived in Russia, sent to populated Russia's remote areas, also shared the hope to return and unite with their relatives.
Early 1946. The first transport of Polish Jews from Russia crossed the Polish border, but the local population was hostile. The train bringing the Jews was stoned. The Jews of Biala, who had left their homes in 1939, returned home, their hearts pounding, hoping to reunite with their loved ones; instead they found that almost all Jews had gone and those who were killed in Biala were buried haphazardly around the town. Their bones were exhumed and buried in a communal grave, in the ruined Jewish cemetery and a memorial stone was erected.
Some of those who returned from Russia continued and immigrated to Germany, Lower Silesia, Lodz, and Szczecin.
|The monument at the communal grave|
The few who stayed in Biala had set up a committee, which was in touch with the central Jewish committee in Warsaw and with Biala Jews around the world.
The actions of the Polish reactionaries in Biala soon started to shake up the small Jewish community. Soon, two victims were killed. Two young Jewish lives, who had survived Hitler's hell, shot by Poles. A young woman named Staretz (granddaughter of Harash), and a young man called Silberstein from Miedzyrec (the husband of Hanna Charny from Biala). They were shot on the train from Lukow to Miedzyrec.
One summer night in 1946, a loud explosion shook the town. The memorial stone on the communal grave had been destroyed. It was clear that it was impossible to stay in Biala, and one by one, the Jews left for Lower Silesia.
From what I heard, few dozen decided to settle, over this time, in Reichenbach. A help committee had been established there by: Baruch Vinograd, Sisl Izenberg, Ida Charny, Berish Osenholtz, Hershel Appelboim, Haim Josef Kanizshnik, Leon Pakman, and Hersh Joel Rotenberg.
This committee operated in all Lower Silesia, where people from Biala were settled. The committee was connected to people from Biala throughout the world, and collected donations, money and goods. These were distributed according to family size.
Every year, on the first day of Succoth, the committee organized a memorial service for the Kedoshim from Biala, to which people came from all over Lower Silesia. The people from Biala felt very close to one another. Mutual visits took place, as if all were members of one family.
The people from Biala in Poland and Lower Silesia took great pride in the establishment of the Jewish state. Like the rest of Polish Jewry, people from Biala supported the Jewish settlement in Palestine, and its help committee donated money to the Hagana (the largest organization that fought against the British mandate in Palestine between 1920 and 1948, O.A.). The committee also supported the Bialaorigin volunteers who went to fight in the Independence War.
In 1949/50, when the Polish government allowed Jews to immigrate to Israel, most of the people from Biala took the opportunity and made Alia. Jewish community life in Lower Silesia disappeared. With the immigration wave of 1956/7, the last Jews of Biala in Lower Silesia left for Israel.
|The monument destroyed|
M. Y. Fiegenboim
Translated by Ofra Anson
It is the second day that we are wandering around the bunkers and cannot believe that we are free from life in the bunker. Is it possible that the Nazis' chains, made of the hardest metal, have crumbled? Yet, next to the closed garden, where our bunker was, we saw soldiers from the Red Army, putting up a wire fence.
What do we do with this freedom? Where does one go? How do we start a new life after such bloodshed?
We did not want to leave the bunker without a sign from the owner of the garden. The desire to have a look at the town, to see what was going on was, however, strong. Thus, like Noah's dove, went into town to bring news from the new world.
The ways leading to the town were quite empty of people. A strange thought came to my mind: Is it possible that other Jews use different ways to go into town? Could there be many Jews, like me, coming out from their gravelife and I will be able to meet old friends and relations?
I remained standing at the entrance to the town, by the corner of Grobonower Street, shocked by its emptiness. I started to walk along the street, where the secret police had been located. I went slowly, step by step, like a thief. I was sure I would soon hear the frightening shout: Stop! Stay where you are! Yet nobody called, and I went on. It was very early in the morning, and all doors and windows were still shut, though some Christians were standing next to their houses. Wolnoztchi Square was empty. Two Red Army soldiers stood on the roofs of the municipality and the post office building. Flowers were lying next to the post office, probably in memory of the Poles shot by the Nazis. The doors of several stores were broken, clearly, they had been looted.
I arrived at my parents' house on Brisker Street. The thought that I was the only one of my whole family that came back, shattered every bit of me. A sad hope, that another family member may return, crossed my mind. The will to live left me at home. Our store was closed, and the gate broken. I saw some Christians, and we started to talk. The circle around us grew bigger. Some of them recognized me and kept asking: Where did you come from? I asked if they had seen any other Jews. One told me that, the day before, he saw a Jewish woman with two sons. They were walking on Lomaser Avenue. Later, I thought who could they be, but I did not pay attention to all the details, and I could not go to look for them.
I learnt that the Germanorigin people that had lived in my parents' house had left with the German army and that the house was empty. I wanted to climb into the house over the neighbor's fence (Moshe Liebenberg's yard), when a Christian stuck out his head from the window and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I wanted to climb over into my house. He understood that he was looking at a Jew, and started shouting:
Go away! This is not yours! Your good time here is over!
I answered him sharply, but did not climb over to my house. This first encounter was quite discouraging. I realized that, for the moment, the bunker is still the safest place for us. Indeed, I started walking in the direction of the bunker.
We went around the closed garden, enjoying the world in day light. Each of us took small steps, enveloped in our own thoughts. I am sure that everyone asked himself or herself the same question: why only me?
The camp of the Red Army, next to the garden, kept growing. From time to time soldiers entered the garden, for no reason, and asked us who we were. We told them our story in broken Russian. Every other word we emphasized that we were Jewish (Ivri).
They said that we are free to go into town. We were not in a hurry to leave the garden, until one day, at noon, soldiers came and asked us to leave. The led us to believe that the front line will soon be in this area. Having no alternative, we left and went into town.
We arrived at the corner of SadovePcehodnie and Wonska. We sat on a bench, and held a conversation with some Christians. We were immediately identified as Jews, and the crowd around us became bigger. People wanted to know where were we hiding, and we answered: In the forest. We looked around. We saw so many faces, and not one Jew. Here was the garden where the Gestapo soldiers had their bloodorgies with Jewish victims. The whole square had become one big communal grave.
A young woman came, and asked where the Jews were. People pointed at us. She came closer and with a compassionate voice said: You must have suffered a lot. I think I saw a tear in her eyes, and she left. Who knows, I thought, if she herself is not Jewish, who instead of hiding in a bunker, lived among the wolves.
We sat there quite a long time, talking with the Christians. Typically, none of them asked if we were hungry, none offered us a slice of bread.
When the sun started to set in the west, we heard shooting, a sound that grew stronger and stronger. The Germans lined on the other side of the town were shooting, and the Soviet Army shoot back.
With my bunker mate Kanyer, we automatically went back to the bunker. We left the town, but when we came to French Street, we saw several Red Army soldiers peacefully eating their dinner. We continued, undisturbed, constantly hearing the whistling of the bullets above our heads. A hundred and fifty meters before the garden, Red Army soldiers shouted to us that we should immediately leave, as this was the new frontline. Declaring that we are Jews did not help, and we had to turn back.
We went toward Lomaser Avenue. Yet, when we put a foot on Kschiwer Street, we felt such lethargy and apathy, that we started to walk back, agreeing to stay in our house, and, if necessary, to hide in the hiding place there.
We climbed over the fence, and sat on a bench in the midst of the overgrown grass. We sat for a while, listening to the silence of the night. Slowly we moved from the yard into the house, and fell on a mattress. After a year in the bunker, we finally spent the night like humans, in a house. When we woke up, it was already daylight. Fearfully, we peeped out of the window. After a while, we saw the Red Army, and we were relieved.
I started to look around the apartment. The Germans had taken almost everything. What left was thrown on the floor. The entrance door was a bit broken, it seems that someone came in and made himself at home.
I went out through the gate, and looked at the street. The same houses, the same shops, but the Jews had disappeared.
I reached the synagogue yard. I did not recognize it. The synagogue, Beit Hamidrash, had disappeared, and the other Beit Hamidrash had also disappeared. The Nazis had razed all these buildings to the ground. In the past, white haired heads filled the synagogue yard. Our children had been slaughtered, and in the synagogue yard and the narrow streets around it, where generations of Jews had experienced joy and sorrow, Christian children are now playing. We heard that the walls of Jewish dwellings had been broken down and tiles taken out in search for hidden treasures.
I went to the place where the Germans had their offices, to look for deserted documents, alas, in vain. The Christians told me that the Germans took some documents with them and burnt the rest. Similarly, I could not find anything where the Jewish police was, and had now become a Polish police station.
The same day that I stood by our house gate, the Christian neighbor told me that the apartment now belongs to him. I asked him: how come? He said that the previous tenant had sold him the apartment, and I had no more right to it. He started shouting that he will not let anybody take the apartment from him, and that the former tenant left him many things in it. I understood he intended to use the things left for him in order to establish his precedence before the authorities, and, for the moment, to prevent me from entering the apartment.
I went straight to the municipality, where I found a few clerks I knew, who were idly roaming the rooms. There were also people with a band on their arm, so called police or militias. I asked one of these militiamen to accompany me and take all the things out of the apartment. The made it clear that they cannot do it themselves. A soviet officer came in, and the clerks told me to talk to him. I told him in Polish what was going on, he understood, and immediately ordered one of the militiaman to go with me.
The Christian, however, also did not sit still. He brought some other Christians who started arguing with me, saying that I should not quarrel with the woman, and give up the apartment. I asked them: Is it right? She has an apartment and I have nowhere to stay. Do you want me to return to the forest? They said they could see my point, but since the previous tenant had given her the apartment, I should let her have it and not fight for it. They saw that they will not convince me and went away.
We started to get hungry. The little food we had was in the bunker. We went from one bakery to the other, and each one told us they had no bread. We did not want to turn to the Christian who hid us, because our close relationship with him could put him at risk. We tried to get some food in different places, with no success. A policeman promised to give us some eggs for Saturday. Yet, when we came to take the eggs, a Christian came in with a murderous look in his eyes and began shouting that we should leave the place. To the person who promised us the eggs he shouted: What? You give them food? Better give them some poison! Shoo them away! An upheaval started, children came running, and the policeman himself asked us to leave his home.
We left, and the children kept running after us screaming: Jews! Jews! The children harassed us for quite a while. The called after us Jews! when they saw us on the street or on the balcony of our apartment. We thus tried to avoid the streets.
At night, I went to a Christian that used to be our neighbor and asked for food. She gave me bread and marmalade. Her husband brought us some food few times, climbing over the fence and avoiding the gate.
A few days later, we made a deal with a bakery and regularly got bread.
On Saturday morning the Germans resumed artillery shooting on the town. The house of Benjamin Cohen and the house of Benjamin Leib Mandelbaum were hit and damaged.
On Sunday morning we went to the bunker to bring our stuff. In the garden, we saw clear signs of the front line. Many trees were lying broken; bullets had cut the fence on the side of the bunkers in several places. The barn too was in pieces. Our bunker, however, stood undamaged.
Jews that had been hiding in bunkers or in the forest returned to town. Haia Feldman, Daughter of Moshe Milner, with her two sons; Avraham Nochovitz, with his sister Rivka; Sara Weisenfeld, Rivka Bachrach (my first cousin, O.A.), Roske Dzebtchol, Shmuel Gwiosdo with his wife Elke, and Mrs. Morgenstern (from Grobonower Street) came first. Emil Weinberg, Berl Sondlarzch with his wife and daughter Hela, Michash Hofner (whose wife and daughter had survived), and the advocate Leon Goldfarb, who had all survived with Arian papers, came later.
Finding a roof over their head was not an easy task for the survivors.
We had to negotiate with the Christians delicately, not to fight with them harshly. It usually helped.
Meanwhile, the town had filled up with the Red Army, and military camps were moving towards the west, in the direction of Warsaw.
We longed to see a Jewish face, and we employed different tactics in order to identify Jewish soldiers in the Red Army. When we saw a soldier on the street, we used to loudly ask each other whether or not he is Jewish. Quit often the soldier would say: True, I am Jewish. If we saw a soldier who looked like a Jew, we used to ask: Amcha? (from out people, O.A.). In many cases he answered Amcha.
We started to meet with the Jews of the Soviet army. We looked for them, and they looked for us. We learnt from them of the Holocaust, how Hitler had spread destruction in the most remoted parts of Russia, wherever his army reached. The Jewish soldiers told us that all the way from Russia to Biala they had not meet any Jews but us. The Red Army soldiers were much friendlier than they were in 1939. Hitler's cruelty hit all of us. Everyone had something to moan for, survivors grew closer and more open to one another. Russian Jews rediscovered their ethnicity; soldiers were looking for Jews everywhere they went. They heard the tragic story of survivors, and told them their own sad experiences. They used to assure us that we are going towards a better future, that they are going to take revenge on the Fascists. In every conversation, someone would suddenly ask: Why don't we have a country of our own, like other people? We told them about the Zionist movement which strived to build a Jewish state in Eretz Israel.
Among the Jewish Red Army soldiers were some writers. They too came closer to us, but kept to the general party line.
I remember an episode that took place in my home. We, a group of Biala Jews, sat with a Jewish officer who visited me quite often. He was a bit drunk, and opened his heart. We finished eating and talked again on the experiences of recent times. He started to cry bitterly, and shouted: The Christians in my town killed my wife and child, robbed me of my home. We Jews are hated all over the world! It took a while for him to calm down.
Many of the Jewish officers wanted to help us in any possible way. I sent my first letter to Israel with their help. One of them told the chief army physician, General Ibragimow, that a young woman had come out of the bunker with a swollen leg. The general was so moved by her story that he arranged for her to be hospitalized for an operation free of charge (the young woman was R. Bachrah, my cousin, who wrote the chapter about Miedzyrec Ghetto O.A.).
Jews also served in the N.K.W.D. They too looked for contact with us. They wanted to find out who were the Christians who treated us badly, and to take revenge. We told them that if the problem had to do with individuals, it would worth it.
One day, a Jewish colonel brought me a letter from a Jewish Russian writer, Ilya Ehrenburg. He asked for material on the Nazi era, to help him write the Black Book which will describe the cruelty of the Nazis.
It seems that the Russian Jewish soldiers who came to visit me in my apartment and to whom I read parts of my memoirs that I had written in the bunker, had told I. Ehrenburg about it.
In my answer, I wrote that I wished that a search committee would be sent to look for the massgraves in Biala and around it. I never got a reply.
The second Polish government in Lublin sent out a manifesto, showing photographs of the members of the cabinet. It included the photo of Emil Sommerstein, the Jewish representative, with his patriarchal beard. The manifesto promised full equal rights to the remnants of the Polish Jews.
We believed that the higher authorities would indeed enforce a liberal policy with justice for the remaining Jews. Yet, how are they going to eradicate the widespread hatred towards the Jews? We had already seen that, though the Nazis had been expelled from Poland, Nazism remained deep in the heart of the Christian population.
|Letter from the JewishRussian writer llia Erenburg to M. J. Feigenbaum to send documents for a planned Black Book on German atrocities|
Walking with a young woman on Wolnoschtzi Square and speaking Yiddish, we heard two Christians that walked by saying: Here they come again. The other one answered: Lady, they will all come back, you will see. Yes, we were thinking, we wished his words would become true.
Christians from the town used to visit my home. Often, we discussed matters of the day. They wanted to show that Polish people had helped the Jew during the bad times. I used to push them to the wall with facts, from their general passivity to those who had actively helped our mass killing. Having no reply, they used to tell me that I should not spit in the well I was drinking from.
One rainy, early morning, a group of German prisoners of war marched on Brisker Street. How miserable the former murderers looked now.
Ripped clothes, bare feet, and untrimmed facial hair, some with no hats on. Good hearted Polish people gave them some bread.
A few Jewish young men came from the east, after staying with the partisans in Wolyn. They told us how the Christians partisans had harassed them, including killing some of the Jewish partisans. Hell and death awaited the Jews all over.
The first letters from Baila Jews who had gone to the far end of Russia began to arrive. The post delivered these letters to me. I used to read the letters, which came from Uzbekistan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and other remote places, and sarcastically smile. They were written in such a peaceful mood! The inquired about everything and everyone, full of joy and hope that we would see each other soon. I read and wondered: Don't people know that their families have been destroyed and their homes ruined? Did news about the brutal German conduct, in front of the whole world, never reach Russia? Is it possible that none of the people from Biala in Russia had heard about the Jewish bloodshed? Or maybe people there knew everything and believed that it would not happened to them?
What could we answer the letterwriters, who were there in Russia? That they do not have even a remote relative among the few survivors in Biala? How can one deliver news that will cause such a shock?
I waited a while before I composed a standard letter to reply all the letter writers.
My address became the place where people looked for their families. Through correspondence with me, they sometimes found relatives spread out in Russia, relatives they were looking for during the war. The two brothers Hershberg (sons of Jacob Velvel Kovals), from Wolia.
|Sunday, October 23, 1960, a memorial board for the Holocaust victims of Biala Podlaska was unveiled in the Chamber of the Holocaust on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Dozens of People born in Biala Podlaska participated in the event|
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