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[Page 93]

An Episode of One Underground

by Devora Frankel (Schitzky)

Translated by David Ziants

Reviewed by Andrew Blumberg

All my memories from Bielsk are connected with the school and the Hashomer Hatzair[1]. The movement gave us a lot. We lived in it, it made up for everything that we were lacking, and we took [inspiration] from there - whether on the street or in school, and in all kinds of situations at home. We would come to the movement because there we would live our full life and make up from there what was taken away from our lives. Here is an episode, which is connected to the [local youth] movement.

After we completed our elementary school, we had no place to go, so we went to study in the gymnasium[2]. By us, there was a Polish government gymnasium, but in this school very few Jews were accepted. I remember that in the government schools of Poland, they did not accept Jews at all. Ours was one of the few places that did accept a small number. That is why students would come to us from Bialystok, where they did not accept at Jews all any in their government gymnasium, so they could continue their studies.

One year, we, approximately twenty plus Jews, went to our exams. This was in the spring, at the end of the school year and the beginning of the next school year. All twenty two that were at the end of the school year of that year went for the exams and were allowed entry, but we had many troubles because they did not really like Jews, and especially it is out of the question that they did not like “Hashomer Hatzair”. And they did not agree that we should continue going there, because the students took part in all sorts of activities of Hashomer Hatzair and this, in their opinion, disturbed their progress in class.

In general, the school was a very difficult regime. From 7 o'clock it was forbidden for a student to be found on the street, and they were always forced to go around wearing the school uniform, including the hat that even had to be worn on the head. It happened more than once that we returned from the [youth movement] activities that finished at twelve o'clock and of course the hat was not always on the head and we bumped into teachers and our troubles became worse. It happened once that I bumped into a Polish teacher and he asked me where I had been, and I said that I was at the Uzchotzky family house, at Reizel's[3], and I did school homework. After a few minutes he continued on and met Reizel on the street, and [as a result] there was [more than] enough humiliation and anger that I had to suffer. In any case, we could not give up the youth movement, and not only did we take part in activities, but we were also educators, and we guided groups of children who were younger than us. We occasionally took the children outside the city, to the thickets and fields and more than once we had to run away from the teachers who saw us from afar. This was quite a small town. Our movement's ken [lit. nest – the youth group meeting place] was in a building of a cultural school, and next to the cultural school there lived a music teacher from the gymnasium. We considered him a detective and felt he was spying on us.

At one of the activities, when we were in the ken, we felt that he was getting ready to go up to his house, or [maybe] he wandered around to spy on the area. It was already eleven or twelve o'clock and we had no way that we could leave the ken, so we went down to the bottom. On the ground floor of this school lived a friend from our movement, from the Shaw family and we had no choice, but to go down the stairs to them and to hide there. Reizeland I hid under the beds, and we sat there the whole night until dawn approached when Reuven Uzchitzki came with a closed carriage

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“Trumpeldor” and the Hashomer Hatzair Union 1925


and took us out of there and brought us home. In every incident like this, we had troubles at home, because after these types of incidents our parents would be summoned to the school - to the headmaster of the school - and he was an antisemite. In this episode, our underground was discovered, and this time we had to decide which of the two we wanted to give up. In the end, we did not give up on the movement, but we did give up on the school. They expelled me from the school and I straight away travelled to Hachshara[4] in Lomza, and from there to Grodna. Thus, I made aliya to Israel and I was one of the happy few from the Bielsk youth that came to Israel. Reizel continued studying another half year. For some reason, they did not kick her out from the institution, but she decided not to continue studying and she made aliya.

Translator's Endnotes:

As is typical of many memoirs of this type, the original was written from the author's heart but might not always contain the best writing style of the language in which it is written. In some places, the translator adjusted the translation to conform to better English idiom, but in many places deliberately left the expression of words to be equivalent to the Hebrew original, and this can explain some of the awkwardness in part of the English.

Translator's footnotes
  1. Hashomer Hatzair (lit. The Young Guard), pronounced HaShomer HaTza'ir, is a Labor Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913 in the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, Austria-Hungary. Return
  2. Gymnasium is a term in various European languages for a secondary school that prepares students for higher education at a university. Return
  3. In most of the article, the Yiddish name “Reizel” was spelled with one yud in Hebrew – which might imply a pronunciation “Rizel” – but we can deduce that this name should be pronounced Reizel because in the last paragraph, when she makes aliya, the author uses two yudim. Return
  4. Hachshara is a pioneer training program. Return

[Page 95]

Centers of Interest in Bielsk

by B. Carmon

Translated by Nancy Schoenburg


In our town of Bielsk there were three synagogues and some additional minyans.

Until the age of 13, I was influenced more by my grandfather than even my parents. My parents were not religious and kept only the Passover seder, Yom Kippur fast, and prayers of the High Holy Days. Every synagogue had a special character. The oldest shul was called “Ichel's [איצ'לס] Beit Midrash.” Why that name? A hundred years ago or more there was a rabbi by that name, and they called the synagogue by his name. It was a typical Jewish shul. But in the tradition of Karaites[1], it was built below ground level in a cellar so you had to go down some stairs to order to enter.

It was a small synagogue that had an unusually exquisite Holy Ark. I have visited many synagogues and have seen many holy arks, but I have never seen an aron kodesh [holy ark] as lovely as the one in “Ichel's Beit Midrash.” What was so especially beautiful was the unique way that all the musical instruments, known from Jewish tradition to have been in the Temple [in Jerusalem], were carved into a first-class work of art. Neither in the diaspora nor in Israel have I seen such beauty and splendor as this. If my memory is not deceiving me, these adornments were done in pure silver.

Despite all that, the synagogue was the place of prayer for the poor and the artisans. The shul was located on a street where all the residents were Jewish - Orla Street. Not far from Bielsk was the town of Orla, to which that road led, and the street got its name from that town. Near the synagogue was a small brick building in which the Sabi Family worked as professional bakers. They had a great reputation in the city as professionals, Sabi and his son and daughter. They were even known by the name of their trade – De-Bakers, especially the name of Saraleh De-Bakerkeh. After the death of her husband, she began a trade by her own hands, not by hired laborers and helpers. She did well with her work and became very well-known as a matzo baker. This was of course handwork. Her matzos became famous in the area and were called: de matzos fon Saraleh de bakerkeh.

The synagogue was mainly a place of prayers for artisans. In any event the more distinguished people would not go to pray there. There was no class warfare, no differences of yicchus [lineage], and everyone had a good feeling. Also, its outward appearance and limited area were evidence of that.

Another synagogue, which was called “Yafeh Einayim” (lit. beautiful eyes), was the shul for the elites, the grand figures of the city, and even its place and form indicated that. It stood on a high location in the center of a spacious garden with fruit trees and with benches for resting, and so forth. The windows of the building were wide, the ceiling of the hall was supported by pillars, but the holy ark was “modern” as in every other place. This was where the rabbi of the city, Rav Bendas, prayed. It was where the wealthy merchants, who would only go to pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, would purchase their “seats” for the High Holidays. Here there was ongoing “class warfare,” especially on Yom Kippur – and almost every Yom Kippur. On that day there is, as you know, a very important “Maftir”

[Page 96]

reading called “Maftir Jonah” and whoever “purchases” Maftir Jonah is himself very important and highly honored. The money collected for this acquisition is then used for various things in the synagogue but also for other matters such as Keren Kayemet[2], Linat Hazedek [described below] and more. The well-to-do of the town would always sit by the eastern wall which is closer to the rabbi. These were the wealthy merchants, landlords, and people like themselves. In the last row of benches sat those rich enough but not elite enough – butchers, tailors and the like. And the battle was waged between the last row and the eastern wall as to who would deliver “Maftir Jonah.” From the eastern wall someone would proclaim his price for the maftir. Immediately the opposition answered from the butchers. For the most part, it would be the butcher, the successful butcher, whose shop was on Beit Midrash Street. When the golden prize would be declared at the eastern wall, he would raise it by half a gold coin. And at once they would jump up from the eastern wall and raise it again, and someone would follow suit, and so it would continue. The proclamations would sometimes continue for three-quarters of an hour to an hour. In most instances, they would give up and cease after they, even the wealthy elites, had no further strength for the competition.

It was like that year in and year out with the class warfare between the distinguished ones with their yicchus and those who, by way of their money, aspired to be in that position. This little war between the privileged of the eastern wall and those sitting in the last row of benches went on with another event – for the opening of the holy ark for “Neilah.”


The Controversy Over Hatikvah

Another contest in the synagogue involved completely different characters. This struggle was over the singing of Hatikvah at the completion of services. One Jew, Kaplanski, was a hide trader by profession and a Zionist by outlook. A tough Jew with a strong, deep voice, he expressed his Zionism in fighting for the singing of Hatikvah after prayers on Simchat Torah. The devout religious and even more so the haredim, who were not Zionists, were of course against this idea. They said that this was a Hilul Hashem [a desecration of God's name]. And the fight was harsh. In most cases, Kaplanski won the argument. When the fight would not end, he would stop and then open up with his strong bass voice and belt out Hatikvah. He swept away his following of a substantial part of the worshippers and that ended the differences of opinion. That was Yafeh Einayim Synagogue.

After that, in the early 1930s or at the end of the 1920s, the “ba'ala batim”[3] and the wealthy people started building a third synagogue called Shaarey Tzion [Gates of Zion]. It was a lovely, modern synagogue, and it stood on a tel on the road called Beit Midrash Street. There had been a synagogue building there at one time, but it burned down during World War I.


Charitable Institutions

Next to this synagogue were all the Jewish institutions. First of all, there was the “baad” – the bath house. Like all the other bath houses, this was on Beit Midrash Street, a center for arguments and politics, and all who were interested in that found what they wanted there. I remember that I would accompany my father there every Friday.

[Page 97]

On a different side, also not far from the synagogue, was the Talmud Torah. In one of the rooms of the Talmud Torah was a rabbi named Yankel Dovid. Another rabbi was called Shmuel Leib or Layzer Leib and a third, who as I recall, also had a double name. Next to the Talmud Torah was a yeshiva. This yeshiva was named in memory of the author Chaim Grade[4]. He studied there for a few years although he was from Vilna. In the yeshiva were many students who came from outside the city, and they had “eating-days” at the homes of local residents. We had a yeshiva boy come to us every Wednesday. I remember that on that day my mother would prepare some good, special dishes so he would enjoy it although my parents were not particularly religious. This tradition continued for many years, and every family had its own set “eating-day” with a yeshiva bachur [yeshiva youth]. The Talmud Torah had some classes running according to the progress of their studies.

The poor people lived on Beit Midrash Street: the shoemakers, the tailors and so forth. And for all that, on this street of religious foundations there was the “Bund”[5] with the greatest influence of all. At every time of tension between the Jews and gentiles there were non-Jews who were afraid to enter the street. The street had narrow alleyways, courtyards, and mazes. The only blacksmith in town was on that street. Non-Jews had to go there for their various needs. The gentile suburbs began just after that street.

Our town, unlike most towns in Poland, stood out because it had two rivers. One of them, the Lobcha River, was more like a stream. It passed through the center of the city and flowed into the Biala River. Apparently, the name of the city came from the name of the Biala River. Mostly White Russians lived in the Dubisch Quarter. They lived in great political tension. Some of them were White Russian nationalists, anti-Polish and anti-Semitic. Their leaders were the sons of the Russian priest; they were strong healthy men. The other part was Russian and Polish Communists. Their meeting place was on the shore of the river, and there they were joined by some Jewish girls recognized as Communists. During the summer months the riverbank was the place to be for vacationing and for bathing. Many young people congregated there.

This area was exceptionally beautiful with polished hills and ornamental trees and fruit trees. And in the center of all this – the river.

The Jewish center of the city was also lovely although most of the houses were built of wood. Even so, their appearance was elegant and fine. The streets were nice as well. On the shore were huts immersed in gardens and greenery, a thing that was not seen at all on the Jewish streets. The prettiest garden in the Jewish section of the city was around the Yafeh Einayim Synagogue.

On that same Beit Midrash Street, there was an institute called House of the Orphans. The director of Beit HaTeumim [the orphanage house] was what is now called a House Mother. She was my Aunt Chasia Shenios [שניאות]. She was widowed from her first husband, and her two sons died in a typhus epidemic during the First World War. As an independent, energetic woman, she overcame her sorrow and found comfort in taking care of orphaned girls. In her work she had a strong connection to all of the Jewish charities in the city, to Linat Hazedek and the like. It is difficult for me to say with certainty whether the public institutions like Linat Hazedek and the orphanage, which were founded by the community, were run by it or not. One thing is clear above all else

[Page 98]

was that all the people who worked at the foundations and other community work did not receive any remuneration. All their work was done as volunteers wishing to help others to not become overwhelmed by their difficulties. These people did their work out of love and their reward came from what they were giving to the institutions.

Linat Hazedek was an organization that gave support to those with serious illnesses, those who could not be left alone at night. In those days there was only one hospital in town. A non-Jew and members of Linat Hazedek would go and stay overnight with the sick and assist with the person's needs, such as giving medicine, giving them “the pan” and sometimes doing “bankes” - putting on cupping glasses.

In many towns in Poland, many heads of households were called by the name of their occupations or by their wife's name. Among those who gave aid to the sick was the father of Shmuelke Levine. They called him feldsher – a paramedic. He treated wounds; he did “bankes” and blood letting. He was not called by his family name, rather Velvel Raitches [approximate spelling], from his wife's name Raitcha. You might not know who Velvel Levine was, but Raitches – that's different.

Another custom that was widespread in our town, like all towns in Poland, was that almost all barbers were medics, laying on “bankes” and leeches, blood letting etc. I remember one of them, Maishkeh der Sherer (barber), who in addition to his main business, did massages.


Bielsk the Summer Residence of the Czar

Why do they call the city Bielsk-Podlaski? The meaning of Podlaski in Polish and Russian rendered in Hebrew means in English: from under the forests. Southwest of Bielsk is the beginning of the large and famous forest called Białowieża. The forest stretches out over hundreds and thousands of kilometers, and in the middle of it is the town of Białowieża. The name in Hebrew is the “white hill.” The name of the environs comes from White - Bialo.

In the forest was the summer residence of the Russian Czar, a very large mansion. The Czar and his family and friends would come there to hunt because the forest was full of many different animals. In the town of Białowieża there was also a museum of all these animals. The Białowieża Forest was so well-known as a place to hunt that in 1938, with the blossoming friendship between Poland and Germany, Goering came there for a hunting trip. He was invited by the Polish Government for appeasement.


A Herd of Cows and Sports

Something else in our town was the herd. Every householder in town had a cow. Every household made its milk products according to its own family's methods: butter, cream, cheese, and so forth. Early every morning you could hear the call of the non-Jewish shepherd, and every head of household would go outside to send his animals to pasture. The shepherd would get them all together and take them out until evening. And just as yeshiva boys would have “eating-days,” the opposite was true with the shepherd. He would go each day to eat at someone's house

[Page 99]

in the evening when he returned from the field. They would put together a package of food for him after the meal so he would have something to eat the next day.

Sports activities took place only in swimming and football. Outside the city there was a field called “der lager.” At the time the Poles had an army encampment situated there. The field was set up for basketball, football, etc. and in the 1930s the city had several Jewish football teams and some non-Jewish ones. Among the Jewish teams, as I recall, one was “Maccabi” and another one was put together by the Bund. It seems to me that before I left Bielsk, a “Hapoel” [workers sports organization] team was also organized.

A great deal of tension prevailed in the city when a game was taking place between a Jewish team and a Christian team. Tension was high on both sides. The fathers and mothers of the Jewish boys would then say that the completion of basketball games would bring disaster on the town. Why? – Because if the Jewish team wins, it always brings about anti-Semitism. These mixed games resulted in fighting afterward off the field and sometimes even during the game itself. Another team that was in Bielsk was “Kraft,” “the power” under the patronage of the Workers Parties of Eretz Yisroel. One time the games of “Kraft” were against a Christian team. It got my cousin to participate in the game. Kicking like that had him laying in bed for weeks afterward. To a certain extent it was a Kiddush HaShem[6]. The parents always asked: “Why do you have all this?” “It makes trouble for the Jews.” “It strengthens anti-Semitism.” But the youth did not care and would not give in. Serious riots were not caused by the kicking during the games but by the strong feelings on both sides. That's the way it was. The fields brought together almost all the youth from all sides who separated into two camps.

On the issue of sports, I must add something else about Shomer Hatzair. They also had basketball groups, and the Tarbut School had a basketball court set up with two poles and nets. The young people would often play there. Also gym classes took place as required although there was no one specifically trained for that. But one of the youth group leaders also taught sports.

Many issues occupied Bielsk, and at the center of all of them was man and his needs. In the beginning it is man and his Creator. After that it is man and his health and existence, and in the end the Jewish man and his future. If I were asked what was unique about Bielsk, I would answer - man and his needs as the public needs to see him.

Editor's notes

  1. Karaite Judaism is a Jewish religious movement that recognizes the Tanakh as the supreme authority in Jewish law and theology. In contrast to Rabbinic Judaism, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud. Return
  2. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – KKL, also known as Jewish National Fund – JNF, is a non-profit organization founded in 1901 charged with the task of fundraising in Jewish communities for the purpose of purchasing land in Eretz Yisrael to create a homeland for the Jewish people. Its Blue Boxes, which were used to collect funds, became known worldwide. Still in operation, it has planted over 220 million trees, built infrastructure for housing, parks and recreation areas, and assisted immigrants to Israel from around the world. Return
  3. Members of the congregation with voting rights and eligibility for executive office. Return
  4. Chaim Grade (April 4, 1910 - June 26, 1982) was one of the leading Yiddish writers of the twentieth century. He was praised by Elie Wiesel as “one of the great—if not the greatest—of living Yiddish novelists,” and in 1970 won the Itzik Manger Prize for contributions to Yiddish letters. Return
  5. General Jewish Labor Bund, The Bund, was a secular Jewish socialist party initially formed in the Russian Empire. In 1917 the Polish part of the Bund seceded from the Russian Bund and created a new Polish General Jewish Labor Bund which continued to operate in Poland in the years between the two world wars. A member of the Bund was called a Bundist. Return
Translator's footnote
  1. Lit. “sanctification of the Name.” It refers to conduct which reflects well, instead of poorly, on the Jewish people. Return


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