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Bielsk Podliasks in the Sources and the Book
of Bielsk: an Historical Survey

H. Rabin


I.        Antiquity of the Jewish Settlement of Bielsk

According to accounts found in various documents (e. g., documents of the monarchs, legal registers. etc.) we find a Jewish community in Bielsk which was already integrated into the economic life of the town by the 15th century and occupying an honorable position in the higher financial echelon of the princedom of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland during the reign of each over the area

It must be assumed that this growth did not take place during a short period of time, but was instead the result of decades — even centuries. In addition, if we take into account that in 1542 a Jewish synagogue existed in Bielsk” we may say with assurance that Jews had been in Bielsk for some time in these centuries, and that there existed a community identifiable in number as well as by the consolidation of its culture, religion and ethnic distinctiveness. In these times there were synagogues which were the legacy of large, well established communities, and it is not to be assumed that this had become the situation in a short period of time.

In any case Bielsk must be seen as one of the oldest Jewish communities in Eastern Poland near

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the borders of what had been the Kuzari Kingdom. We may safely assume that, along with the other communities of the area, Bielsk was settled at the time of the fall of the Kuzari Kingdom in the year 969 and that its settlement was among the first.

This is not an hypothesis without basis, but it must be taken into account that the histories of all common peoples,— the Jews included— during this period are based on assumptions made in the absence of adequate documentation.

In the absence of court, municipal or monarchical records on Bielsk from this period, we must rely on Dr. Yitzhak Shafer:

“There began, following the fall of the Kuzari Kingdom in 969 an emigration of Kuzari Jews; they strengthened existing settlements and created new Jewish settlements on the Slavic borders, and especially in the territories of Poland and Reissen... The Kuzari Jewish settlement developed mainly in the eastern provinces of Poland and in the Ukraine. the same regions which were on the borders of the Kuzari Kingdom... All information leads us to believe that in the period of time from the 10th century until the year 1241, the Kuzari Jews lived in Reissen and the eastern provinces of Poland”.

Up to this point, our conclusions are based on the research done by Shafer and cited above.

As is known, the Jews of this area in the 10th century were engaged in the industries of forestry, agriculture and fishing, and only later entered into trade of surplus produce in the markets outside the areas where they lived.

Bielsk, surrounded by forests and vast farm lands, attracted the Jews in their hurried flight from the Kuzari Kingdom. They brought with them their humanitarian-mystic religion with its concept of the fate of a dispossessed people.

The year 1941 is depicted by Shafer and Dubnov as the year of the destruction of Polish towns and their Jewish communities. This was the year of widerspread and violent Tatar raids which reached a peak in the time of Baati-Khan and cast Poland, along with its Jewish popu1ation, into a nightmare of terrors leaving in its path great distraction and suffering According to the historical explanation, the primary goal of the Tatar raids was from the large caches of foods and harvests which were of great renown in the region. If Bielsk had become attractive from repeated raiding parties it was because of the Jews who had, “after the fall of the Kuzari Kingdom favored the agricultural areas”, (Shafer: 220) and that in this decision brought to these areas, by way of the tales of wandering merchants, the story of their industriousness.

The supposition that the Jewish settlement of Bielsk dates back to 969 is well supported by the documentation. From records of the 15th century we find Bielsk described as having a well established community of Jews with its own synagogue.

The foundations of the Jewish community of Bielsk may be dated at 1000 years or more. There is no forgiving the Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians who aided those who murdered the Jews. With their aid in the destruction of the Jews settlement of Bielsk, they sealed their own fates as well, and in their oppression of local Jews undermined their own rights to the land, thus bringing about their open degradation.


II.        Business, Economy and Society in old Bielsk

It is difficult for us to determine from the documentation the exact nature of these spheres. The scientific methods of inquiry into such

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features as the economy, the behavior and customs of the people and local legal systems in such historical communities has, only of late, been developed.

Other studies have been primarily the analyses of sociologists concerned with class struggles and the suppression of ethnic and national groups. In addition, there are not reliable sources upon which a description of an ancient Jewish society might be based. What may be supposed is that a national and economic sense arose from being constantly surrounded by non-Jews. Jews were forced to base their physical security on self-reliance and on mutual trust. They had to develop a judicial system—first and foremost for the continued existence of their own society—that would instill within them feelings of Jewish brotherhood; thus, cushioning them from the non-Jews who tormented them, and providing them with neighborly dependence and a mutual assurance in their personal well-being and economic security. In one word: community.

It would be wrong to assume that Jews could, even for only a single year, survive in the absence of an organized legal, ethical and religious system with only their desire to bring forth bread from the new land upon which they had chanced. This was despite their specific religious, ethnic and historical background, for here the order of things had changed —man and society—bread was the condition and the means while ethnic character was the goal.

According to Shafer “...The Jews of Poland were organized in this period (1264) into communities administered by those who were called 'the Jews' Bishops' and in internal affairs they were the judges of autonomous Jewish courts delivering judgment according to the law of the Torah.”

These Jewish Bishops, also called the 'Jews' Doctors', served in their expertise in the law of the Torah as judges for the Jews. It is not accidental that the rabbis were given these titles. However, while the rabbi was concerned with ritual, and was also surely interested in the emotional factors which might impel the individual to be a participant in his society, his role as a judge did not include either the authority of police power nor the deep-rooted pedagogic intuition which could sway the masses. Still, in the eyes of non-Jews the similarity to their own bishops fit.

The logical conclusion which might be made from the existence of such descriptions is that, by the 13th century, there already existed Jewish communities with their own means of existence; i.e. taxes, clubs, an

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independent town gate, a synagogue, a council with chairman and a rabbi / judge.

The title of 'doctor' for the rabbi was also not accidental. A community of refugees — oppressed and persecuted, organizing themselves in a most temporary manner on foreign lands and in forgotten corners, lacking both living conditions and food as well as proper facilities for laundry and hygiene, is stricken by pestilence and skin diseases. A band such as this is in need of cleansing its camp in order to prevent the further spread of infection which afflicts its crowded population. This type of community developed an advanced social sense in relation to the times, and the concept of a 'purified camp' in contrast to the surrounding communities. The ideas of hygiene which originated with the cleanliness of the family, the ritual of the mikve, the possibility of banishment, etc., had always been confusing to the non-Jews who came into contact with them. When plagues did break out and the Jews were affected to a lesser degree, it was generally interpreted by the non-Jews as the result of sorcery or the poisoning of the wells by the Jews. As a result the laws of the halakha and the Torah administered by the rabbis were seen as strange curing practices, and the rabbis became known as 'doctors'.

We may assume that there were, by the 13th century, mikves as well as bath houses maintained through payment of taxes by the community and administered by the rabbi.

As far as these features apply to the Jewish settlements as a whole during this period, it must also follow that Bielsk, as well, maintained a similar type of community. In addition from the evidence, that in the 16th century “we find there a synagogue,” might we not conclude that there existed a community, active for years and over many generations?

With the passing of the first quarter of the 16th century the name of the Jewish community became established, and it may be assumed that the economic situation of the Jews there was firm. We may further assume that with the change from a subsistence based agriculture to the marketing of surplus crops and foodstuffs, that it was now possible for the Jews of Bielsk to organize their community through increased taxation.

According to Shafer (517), the Jews in the 15th century “were bringing ash, pitch and grain from Reissen and Poland, and shipping them to ponzig via Wolin and Mazovia”. The reference to ash and pitch relates to the forestry industries which the Jews had developed as their specialty. When speaking of Bielsk, Reissen and Poland, the significance

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of these felled stretches of forest can be seen, for the Jews were able to extract the ash and pitch used to develop agriculture through fertilization and, in industrialized areas, for lubrication.

The development of Bielsk is marked by the domination and exploitation of the area under one ruler after another. These rulers, after developing military strength, sought to conquer territories which would yield large amounts of revenue from taxation. During the 13th and 14th centuries Bielsk passed from one ruler to another, through conquest or as a political payoff. In the 14th century the town fell victim to 'the crusader knight Venerik Kniford”. This is known to us by way of signed and registered statements from the period.

Bielsk was then, a Jewish community which: 1) enriched the area through enterprise, 2) assured, through a well ordered tax levying system, an income for its conquerors, and 3) was the site of crusader activity in the attempt to rid Poland of anti-Christs.

Our characterization of the Jewish community of Bielsk in the 12th through the 16th centuries is one which was based, economically, on industrious farmers, enterprising merchants opening new markets, and a successful tax collection organization.

We bring these facts to light in order to show others that our forefathers in Bielsk, as Jews in other settlements in feudal Europe, were a creative and industrious element in the development and enrichment of the agriculture and productiveness of the citizens, and through their aid to the reigning authorities, ensured order for all the residents of the area. We state these facts not as an apology, nor as an attempt to justify ourselves, and certainly not in any attempt to quiet feelings of guilt. There is merit in airing these facts when, even today, there are those who would call us parasites.

We learn from the sources that in 1860 “...quantities of lumber are sent from here by water to Rega, there value being 1,700,000 rubles per annum. There are two factories producing fabrics, etc.” These achievements were known as exclusively of the Jewish community.

If these had been the result of non-Jewish productivity, this type of achievement might have continued to this day, but up to the time of the last generation of Jews in Bielsk these enterprises were not entered in to by non-Jews.


III        The Continuity of Jewish Settlement in Bielsk

The subsistence of the non-Jewish settlement of Bielsk, as of all towns in Poland, Russia, Ukrainia and Lithuania — having abundant forests, rich fields of grain, waterways and lakes — suffered recurrent

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interruptions due to the wars and conquests of tyrants and the raiding Tartars, Crusaders and Swedes. These disruptions naturally led to the disruption of the lives of the local Jews as well. But with the resumption of the normal life of the town. Jewish life also returned to its usual course.

In addition to these, there were also interruptions in the continuity of the Jewish community only, which came as the result of the struggle been the Church and the secular rulers. Both used the Jews as scapegoats whenever it became necessary to appease the angry citizenry and to restore calm among the general population. Attacks by the non-Jewish population were also a factor which affected the Jews. One such attack came in the wake of an epidemic, at which time the Jews were accused of having poisoned the town's wells: and this despite the fact that there were also many Jews among the victims. Pogroms were the occasional method used to wipe out the debts non-Jews owed to the town's Jews, and also as a means of protesting the heavy taxes imposed by the king which were to be collected by Jewish revenuers.

Thus we find, from the beginning of the 13th until the 14th century and again in the mid-16th and early 17th century, an absence in the record of Jewish life in Bielsk. We know for certain that the Jewish community ceased to exist as a result of the 'Black Program' toward the end of the 14th century, and again at the end of the 16th century when the Church in its continuing struggle with the rulers, became incensed by the special privileges granted by the authorities, to the Jews.

Until of the end of the 18th century there is no information on the Jews of Bielsk, and this may be due to the fact that, either there were no Jews living in Bielsk, or that those who were living there made no note of there presence to the outside world.

Beginning with the 19th century, Bielsk appears to have become a thriving community. From 94 in the year 1816, the population grew to 198 in 1847: 1256 in 1861 and 4,079 in the year 1897. The steady increase in the numbers of Jews in the town's population leads us to the conclusion that the fame of Bielsk as “the major town in the 'Land of Bielsk'” and the “Pearl of Podliaski” after reaching the Jews of the surrounding areas, resulted in large immigrations of Jews to Bielsk.

The Jewish community of Bielsk, greatly expanded in number, continued to exist uninterrupted until its destruction by the Nazis. For some reason, however, the number of the Jewish population was reduced at the beginning of this century. As already indicated, the Jewish

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population of Bielsk in 1877 was 4,079 — some 54% of the town's population as a whole. However, the figures from the year 1921 show a reduction in the population of 43% to 2367. Since the non-Jewish population for the same period also shows a decline (4%), we might assume that the changes were the result of World War I and the racial strife which followed. The sources do not state the reasons for either the growth or the decline of the Jewish population of Bielsk. It is entirely possible that the figures, found in the Encyclopedia Judaica, include only those residing in the town at the time of the survey, and do not take into account the many war refuges who were still in the process of returning to Bielsk. We have, therefore, some cause to question the validity of the statistics given in the Encyclopedia Judaica for the population figures of 1921.

Whatever the case, we do know that the Holocaust brought about the death of more than 5,000 Jews in Bielsk.


IV.        A Case of Blood Libel in Bielsk

At this point we should mention a tragic incident, which could have resulted in the annihilation of the Jewish community of Bielsk, had it not been for the intervention of a benevolent ruler.

It was in the year 1564 that some non-Jewish tax collectors accused their competitor Isaac Borodovka (the bearded one) of having murdered a Christian girl from Narev in order to make ritual use of her blood. Borodovka was put to death, and the entire Jewish community might have shared his fate, had it not been for the king, Sigmond August, who placed the Jews under his protection.

Interestingly enough no mention was made in this case of the use of the blood for the baking of matzot; the usual charge in cases of blood libel. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the accusation was made at the end of July, some three months after Passover. In any case, the indictment stated that the accused was guilty of having committed murder for the purpose of making ritual use of the victim's blood. The case is also unusual for the fact that it was rare in cases of blood libel that the accusers were able to bring the accused before a court of law and obtain a death sentence.

The Borodovka case is a reflection of the tragedy of the Jews in the diaspora. It was not Borodovka alone, rather the Jewish people as a whole who stood accused in this case. A capable and industrious people are entrusted by the rulers with the difficult task of collecting taxes, thereby helping to insure the security of the country — but the

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ignorant masses are far from appreciative. How ironic that in the conflict between the individual tax evader and the needs of the country, he people do not condemn this selfish individual, but instead, band together to destroy the stranger.

It was in this way that the tragedy of the Jew always grew out of racism, ignorance and the scheming ft individuals, a situation that resulted, ultimately, in the Nazi Holocaust. Incidents such as the Borodovka affair remain important to us as long as there remains a substantial diaspora.


V.         Bielsk in the Book of Bielsk

With the destruction of Bielsk in the Holocaust which began in 1939, this memorial volume becomes the last record of a community that ho since disappeared. Without this volume it would indeed be difficult to recall the image of the town and to reconstruct its life.

We state this with some reservation, knowing that the contributors to this volume were dependent on their memories in the matter, and that, therefore, their contributions may not be totally free of subjectivity. Nevertheless, we feel that we can accept this volume, a fairly authentic source, since in comparing the same details in various accounts, we found that they were treated as accurately as possible. The Book Committee took every precaution to guard against exaggerations and nostalgia in the various accounts, which is another reason why we may depend upon the material included herein.

We should also realize that because we are the generation that witnessed both the exterminations and the redemption of our people, it is incumbent upon us to memorialize the town in which we were reared. We must tell its story so that we and our children will realize what a price we paid in the attempt to have our people continue its existence in the spirit of the “Kingdom of the Almighty”, without a land, without a sovereign state and the security it affords It should serve as an important treasure, acquired with the book of our sons, the heroism of our remnant in the State of Israel, and the long suffering of our ancestors in the Diaspora.

We approached the task of compiling this volume without any preconceived notions. We handled its contents with honesty and objectivity. As already stated, we tried to avoid some exaggerations that come as a result of nostalgic feeling, but we didn't let that stop us from giving the fullest account possible of our dear ones, of their sufferings, their joys, their visions, and the purity of the society they created. This was

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done throughout the volume, including the historical survey appearing at the end.


VI.        Image of a Society

That which makes Bielsk unique, and reflects itself in the memoirs of those who survived, is the deep social instinct that guided and moved its people toward the creation of a community based upon mutual assistance. Both young and old were endowed with a deep sense of communal responsibility, which was to become the legacy of all of Bielsk's Jews. Though of limited means, the people of Bielsk did not want to see among them brothers who must beg for their meager existence, lowering themselves in order to survive. They realized that the wanderer's staff and pauper's bag were too often the mark of the Jewish people, who lacked a normal and secure economic base. They knew that no segment of the Jewish people was safe from this, for it came to be a recurring condition throughout the dispersion. It was therefore incumbent upon those who could to extend a helping hand and in a manner that would help the recipient preserve his self-respect.

Throughout the years of its existence, the Jewish community of Bielsk maintained a variety of charitable institutions, serving the needy in the most dignified manner. There was little notice given to those whose contributions made these institutions possible, just as the people served by them were never made to feel inferior because they required assistance.

There was the Linat Zedek, a society for the care of the sick. In other communities the task of such a society was to provide free bedside care in the sick individual's home, but in Bielsk the Linat Zedek sponsored a hospital, provided a doctor's care, as well as free medicine to the needy. Even the doctor, rejected by the Jews because of his apostasy. and hardly accepted as an equal by the Gentiles, became part of this community endeavor and served the needy Jewish sick in an exemplary manner.

No less outstanding was Bielsk's care for the stranger. It's 'Home for Wayfarers' ('Hakhnasat Orhim' or Hekdesh) was open to all poor, local and out-of-town, who needed a roof over their heads. In this instance, the Jews of Bielsk undertook a great deal, for they assumed responsibility for the well being of the needy stranger and cared for him as much as they did for their own poor.

Needless, to say, there was a Hevra Kadisha in Bielsk, and other societies, whose function was to take care of the dead in the finest traditional manner.

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Bielsk also maintained an orphanage. It was a small institution, limited to 23 children, but it was the only one of its kind in the area. It should also be pointed out that orphanages were rather rare in smaller communities. Here again we see the unusual sense of communal responsibility, and the fine charitable feelings, that were so typical of Bielsk.

An outstanding achievement was the “Committee”, organized by Bielsk Jewry, mentioned by many as an innovative approach to community organization. Apparently, the task of the “committee” was to centralize all charitable activities and serve as a central address for those in need, and to keep the poor from going door to door seeking alms. Begging in the streets, a degrading situation, indeed, did not exist in Bielsk at any time. All this is described in great detail in the accounts written by M. Alpert and Zvi ben Daat. Others, too, make much mention of Bielsk's charitable activities and point with pride to the fine spirit that prevailed in and around its social institutions.

It would be a mistake to assume that only the older generation of Bielsk concerned itself with the needs of the less fortunate. Though the young people were convinced that there was no future for them in their native town and made plans to leave Bielsk, they still involved themselves in its social activities. Even while on short visits from the far away places where they pursued their studies, they gave a helping hand and helped keep alive the tradition of the forefathers. The “Shublani”, a Passover project organized by Gymnasium students, who came home for the festival, gives us an idea of the younger generation's devotion to Bielsk and its ideals. It helps explain their great attachment to Bielsk and its society, and why they carried with them in their consciousness the pleasant memories and abiding values of their birthplace to the far away places of their migrations.

The “Shublani” project consisted of the renting of a bakery by these young students, in which they baked Matzot for the poor of Bielsk. The flour was purchased with money collected from the better-to-do and charitable individuals in town. This fine undertaking by the young people of Bielsk reflects the saying of the sages:

This, then, was the nature of the Jewish society of the Bielsk that was.

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VII.        Kehila and Rabbinate

It is interesting to note that the rabbinate of Bielsk functioned without the controversies usually found in this community office. We find that Bielsk always had only one Rabbi. He was always a true leader of his flock, their guide and judge in all matters pertaining to relationships between men and all in accordance with Halakhic teachings. In short, all facets of community were subject to his leadership, something that was very rare in other communities. What is amazing is that numerous synagogues and batei midrash existed in Bielsk, reflecting various differences in style of worship, socio-economic classes, and the like, and yet they all seemed to accept the leadership of one Rabbi! This phenomenon may have been the result of self-control on the part of the lay leadership whenever differences arose over worship style and other matters, or to a degree of restraint out of deference to the Rabbi: the man who personified Judaism and its unique traditions

Be it as it may, we cannot here delve further into this interesting situation, its causes and effects. We should, however, make the following assumptions. It seems that the people of Bielsk was concerned with deeds and not words, and therefore sought to avoid philosophical arguments and hair-splitting debates. Consequently, its Rabbis were outstanding men, respected for their learning, who always managed to steer the community away from petty personal and halachic quarrels and in the direction of unity and meaningful action.

The two most mentioned rabbis are Arieh Leib Yellin — known as “Pretty Eyes” — and Ben Zion Sternfeld, author of Sha'arei Zion. Both were known for their scholarship and leadership. Rabbi Yellin was one of the most outstanding interpreters of Jewish law in his time, and his fame reached many parts of the world. Rabbi Sternfeld's popularity did not go beyond the area of Bielsk; his strength lay more in the area of relationships with governmental authorities, municipal affairs and coordination of community activities.

One must wonder why these two famous rabbins, who, without doubt, would have been welcomed by large and better known communities, lived out their lives in Bielsk. Evidently, they preferred little Bielsk over the larger and richer cities, because they appreciated the greatness of this little town, because of the sincerity and the dedication of its people. If this was so, it cannot but add greatness to the character of Bielsk's two most famous rabbis.

The last rabbi of Bielsk, Rabbi Bendaat (Bendas), was designated

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by his father-in-law, Rabbi Sternfeld to be his successor, and guided by him to the end of his days. If our contributors take little time to speak of Rabbi Bendaat's personality and qualities, it is only because they relied completely upon Rabbi Sternfeld's judgment and it is enough for them to point out Rabbi Bendaat's great piety and integrity. We are not told about books that may bear his name, about interpretations of the Law, or about innovative changes in the life of the community that should be ascribed to him. But suffice it to say that he was the last rabbi of Bielsk: that, together with his flock, he was engulfed by the Holocaust and died the death of a martyr.

The Kehila of Bielsk, as an institution, as in other towns throughout Poland, was led by a Community Council. Its functions in a variety of areas were directed by committees and trustees (gabaim). But the Rabbi exerted the greatest control. In fact, no trustee or Kehila officer would remain in office for very long if he failed to acknowledge the authority of the man who commanded the respect of the community; namely the Rabbi of Bielsk. To be sure, these were trustees who knew how to gain the Rabbi's full confidence to such a degree that it was difficult to tell who influenced whom. But both the Rabbi and the trustees knew how and when to compromise, in order to avoid divisions and controversy, something that the community would never tolerate.

Based on the aforementioned facts we must conclude, then, that Bielsk, a fateful Jewish community, succeeded in creating for itself a system of values, the most important of which was the charitable deed. In Bielsk the needs of the community took precedence over the caprices of leaders, rabbis were treated as guardians of the community, and men were judged not by their words and eloquence, but by their deeds.

Small wonder that the Jewish community of Bielsk was able to continue from generation to generation in the life-style it chose for itself. There was something about it which we may call 'the spirit of Bielsk” —a spirit that permeated the hearts of her native sons and daughters. It is a fact that even the rebels, the most extreme among her young, nurtured in their hearts an everlasting love for Bielsk.


VIII.        Opinions Views and Ideological Movements

The first thirty-nine years of the present decade, when Bielsk was still in existence, left their mark on the community. It was a period of changing values, which lead to the shaking of the foundations, traditions, and a re-examination of that which had been sanctified by generations. The varying views and ideas that crystallized themselves during

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this period among Jews everywhere, resulted in ideological strife in most Jewish communities of Poland, and Bielsk was no exception. However, for some reason it was spared the agonies of the hatred and festering divisiveness bred by these inner struggles.

In a sense, it was a series of divisions within the different generations of the community. Within the older generation, the rift was over the attributes of Hasidism, the customs of its various branches, and the modes of life which properly direct the Jew toward path of redemption. And so, the Hasidic community was divided into several factions. (There is a peculiar story that deals with the early beginnings of Hasidism in Bielsk. It is told that a Hasid married into a Bielsk family and settled there and had once dared to use a candle from the cantor's podium to light his “tzibukh” pipe, and he was promptly rebuked by the worshippers. In revenge, the Hasid established a “shtibbel”, a Hasidic house of worship, and thus Hasidism became a permanent feature of Jewish life in Bielsk).

Other, more serious, changes were caused by the different approaches to the solution of the Jewish problem. Bielsk had its Zionists, General Zionists as well as the right and left wings of the Poale Zion movement, as well as Bundists and some adherents to Communism. In all of these areas there was much organizational activity, social action and campaigning for funds.

The ideological debates around various political issues, Jewish problems, in general, and the question of Eretz Yisrael, in particular, were frequent. This, of course, led to personal involvement, and there were many die-hards who were often ready to place their movements above all else.

For a time, it did seem that, like other communities, Bielsk too, would fall victim to the antagonism and quarrels of the various factions. But soon the overall needs of the community helped bring the diverse elements together. Level-headed individuals continued to serve on the different committees that concerned themselves with the general welfare of the community, while at the same time they identified themselves with one political group or another and remained active within its ranks. In this way, they not only helped maintain unity, but also demonstrated the importance of joint action in behalf of the community as a whole.

The gravest and most dangerous battle of all was that which raged in the area of education and over the question of the national language of the Jewish people. Long after the heated quarrels had subsided in

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most parts of the world, the fight broke out in Bielsk and continued, unabated, almost to its last day.

The pity of it was that the innocent children of Bielsk became the pawns of the two warring factions. The parents of these children were soon to feel great pressures. On the one hand, the sponsors of “torbuth” tried to convince them that their children should be educated in “the language of the future”, namely Hebrew. The 'tzisho” people, on the other hand, extolled the virtues as a living tongue and a sure means of communication among Jews, and urged the parents to give their children adequate preparation for life by sending them to the Yiddish school. For the parents, this was a great dilemma, and they had to face a very difficult decision.

The self-restraint for which Bielsk had become famous did not work in this instance. Here, the children and their future were involved. The “War of languages'” went on, unabated, and widened the rift in the community. This time Bielsk, too, fell victim to the disease of divisiveness that plagued most Jewish communities. Two schools came into being, representing opposing ideologies; each seeking to extend its influence into the community.

In the long run this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. These two institutions developed in time a variety of educational and cultural activities, each serving not only its perspective group, but also other elements in the community. They established libraries and organized a variety of educational and cultural activities of the highest order. Through these activities each institution helped bring enlightment into the culturally deprived segments of the population.

The younger generation had its own order of priorities. It should he pointed out that, unlike their parents who held diverse views as to the problem of the future, the youth of Bielsk were united through their halutz, or pioneer, movement and sought to shape their own destiny. Consequently the young people became less and less concerned with the community's immediate problems, which were of the highest priority as well as the unifying factor of their elders.

The generational gap was evident in many respects. Most of the young people were uncompromising in their fight for Hebrew. In elections for the various community offices, they supported candidates of their choice to the bitter end. As Zionists they were activists, they were involved in the sale of shakalim and campaigning for funds, and vigorously carried on cultural and information activities on various levels. Their major attention was focused on the General Halutz

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Organization and they were united in the task of assisting those who proposed to go to Eretz Yisrael, often against the wishes of their parents.

Most of Bielsk's young people identified with the Labor Zionist Movement. They joined the various divisions and factions within this movement, and promulgated various philosophies in so far as their Jewish state in the making was concerned. But it was precisely this goal that brought the venous groups together, despite the divergent views they held. For example, it was not unusual to see a member of Hashomer Hatzair in charge of the club house serving all groups, as the manager of a joint fund, etc. In all of this, the youth showed a great deal of maturity, as behooved a young generation whose chief aim it was to prepare itself for the great task of Aliyah and living a new life in the historic homeland.

From all accounts, it is clear that the younger generation showed much concern for youth's cultural advancement. True, each organized group sought to grow in membership and to expand its influence. However, these were times when the needs of the youth community as a whole took precedence over ideological differences. All of Bielsk benefited from this mature approach, for it became a town rich in cultural activities. The various youth organizations manned libraries and encouraged young people to read and become better informed. There were those who enjoyed theater and formed a dramatic group, whose high level performances, we are told, were enjoyed by young and old alike. Mock trials of a literary nature, as well as lectures and discussions were also among the numerous activities conducted by the youth organization. All of this contributed greatly to the advancement of the Jewish youth of Bielsk.

The generational gap was evident in many respects. Most of the community, busy with its civic affairs and rich in activity aimed at meeting the various social needs of its citizens. At the same time, there seems to have been a conscious effort on the part of many in Bielsk to deal with the future that seemed bleak for many reasons, and thoughts of emigration came as a possible solution.

Surrounded by hostile elements, Bielsk was like a besieged city, with little or no chance to break out. While the Jews of Bielsk tried in many ways to improve their lot, they did so with little faith in a brighter future. They knew the history of their community and were only too well aware of the fact that their forefathers had been forced to leave Bielsk more than once. Had they been given some time, many of Bielsk's Jews might have found refuge in Israel and in other lands,

[Page 18 - English]

and would have thus provided a solution to at least one of the many problems created by Poland's rabid anti-semites.

Polish Jews were just as eager to leave the country as the Poles were eager to get rid of them. The decline in the Bielsk Jewish population by 40% in the short period of Poland's independence may be seen as ample proof of the readiness of the Jew to leave the country of his birth. If only some of the more enlightened countries had opened their gates to the persecuted Jewish masses!

Hitler helped Poland solve her Jewish problem. But the truth is that Poland was not in need of this partnership with the crazed German murderer. Her own thirst for Jewish blood led her in this direction. Jews were murdered by Poles more than once throughout Poland's turbulent history. There are therefore no words strong enough to indict Poland and Germany for their genocide against the Jewish people. The practical conclusions we must draw from all this might be clear to us.

Let us hope that the Book of Bielsk will be more than just a memorial volume. It should serve to help us assimilate the lessons we must learn from the Holocaust, and to convince future generations in Israel that they cannot and must not ever depend on the hospitality of strange lands.


The lost grandeur of Bielsk


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