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[Page 369]

Women Characters


Translated by Ofra Anson

Edited by Libby Raichman

In presenting a few portraits of women, in the years before the genocide, particularly from the earlier period –– that is not to say, that this exhausts everything that can certainly be said about Biale women who were active in the political and social life in the town. If we relate here about Gadye Shteinman and Chavale Rodzinnek, we are mentioning only two young heroic women, but there was no shortage of women of the younger generation in the town, who languished in jail for years, for their political convictions; women who left their warm homes, went off as pioneers to the Land of Israel, and lived a difficult and heroic life, to build the country. There were of course, a significant number of women in the town that were active in providing social support for the needy classes.

We have only limited information on this topic; unfortunately, we did not manage to obtain sufficient material to increase the number of women's profiles.


Tille Berlin

by Yitzchak Shein, Tel Aviv

Translated by Ofra Anson

Edited by Libby Raichman

In the most beautiful part of the town, in the middle of the market, on the wide sidewalk, stood a big house. The courtyard was built up on all sides, with a thoroughfare into Zakashtshelne Street, across the road from the Catholic church. The entrance from the market side, was through a wide, carved gate, with a wooden floor. The walls were paneled with wood.

Ostrovsky's pharmacy was on the ground floor, and his apartment on the first floor had 6 –7 rooms and a balcony opposite the market orchard.

In the town the house was called the ‘communal house’. Not many knew how the name originated, or that the house once belonged to Tille Berlin.

Tille was the daughter of Reb Yitzchak Isaac Shocher, a wealthy landowner. She was married to Shmuel Falik (I do not remember his surname), a big, wealthy timber merchant who traded with Germany. One spring, when he dispatched a huge transport of timber on the Vistula River to Danzig, a catastrophe occurred. The stormy waves of the river tore the wooden rafts apart and the entire timber transport went into the sea and tens of boatmen drowned.

Besides the loss of money, he still had a lawsuit against him, and he had to pay large sums to compensate the families of the boatmen. He became an impoverished man. The disastrous situation affected him so severely that after a short time he died of a heart attack.

Tille, the surviving childless widow, did not panic and took over her husband's business. She set herself the goal of paying all the debts that she inherited. She began to buy timber herself, transporting it again by water.

At that time, in the 80's of the previous century [19th century], nearly all the forests around Biale and also the Biale estate, belonged to Duke Hohenlohe. When the Russians issued a decree forbidding foreign citizens from owning large estates, the Duke began to liquidate and sell off his fortune.

Tille was one of the largest buyers of the Duke's forests, and the transactions amounted to hundreds of thousands of Rubles. The Duke himself was a frequent visitor in Tille's house. It is understandable that from such huge transactions, she became very wealthy. She truly lived a royal life, with her own coaches and coachmen, yet, she kept a kosher home and wore a wig.

A few years later, she married a second time, to the Rabbi, the Gaon (genius), Reb Chaim Berlin, the eldest son of Reb Naftali Tzvi Yehuda [his initials] ( NTZY”B), head of the Yeshiva of Volozshin.

Reb Chaim Berlin was formerly a Rabbi in Moscow (before Rabbi MZA”H). After his marriage to Tille, he left the rabbinate and settled in Biale in a magnificent aristocratic home, and studied Torah, day and night. (Many years ago, when I met Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar–Ilan), I spoke to him about the family relationship –– I thought that he was Reb Chaim's nephew – he said to me: “we are closer than you thought – because he is my brother”. In answer to my question about the age difference,

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he replied: “Chaimke was born when my father was 19, and I was born 40 years later, to his second wife”).

One Saturday afternoon, in 1892 or 1893, when Tille went for a walk with her two nieces Henye and Rochel (my mother), Tille felt unwell and died of a heart attack at the age of 50.

After “shivah” [7 days of mourning], her husband Reb Chaim Berlin, opened the metal cash box in the presence of the heirs and counted 560 thousand Ruble in cash, besides expensive jewellery and valuable items. In those times, that was a colossal fortune. As mentioned, Tille was childless, and there and then her sisters and brothers divided her fortune amongst them, each one of them receiving their share of more than 60,000 Ruble in cash.

They also found items that people had pledged in exchange for loans for large sums, given by Tille. Every item was noted and to whom it belonged, and the heirs returned these to the owners without requesting repayment.

After receiving his inheritance, Reb Chaim left for the land of Israel, where he died in Jerusalem in Tishrei 5673, [corresponding to 1913] at a very old age.

The heirs gave away various buildings that had belonged to Tille, for benevolent purposes. The house on Potshtovve Street – for the Gerer house of prayer; shops on Yatke Street – for communal use, and the famous house at the market – for the Bikkur Cholim society that tended to the sick. The rules indicated that the income from the houses would be managed by the members of the family. This money was used to support the poor with prescriptions for medications that the pharmacist Ostrovsky used to distribute with a 50% discount. It was also used to send poor sick people to hospitals and spas. With the emergence of an elected Jewish community organization during Polish rule, everything came under its authority. During the 1930's the community provided premises in the house, and at the market, for: the “Tarbut Library”, the “Bet Ya'akov” School and the artisan organization.

I would like to add a few details about the family from which Tille Berlin is descended, a family that played an outstanding role in Jewish life in Biale.

The head of this dynasty was Reb Noach Shocher. Hs family were originally from Nis'vyezsh and Vilna. His son Reb Yitzchak Isaac Shocher had 9 children:

  1. Reb Noach Shocher – the father–in–law of the Gerer Chassiic Rabbi, author of “Sfat Emet” (“Words of Truth”) and father–in–law of the Gerer Rabbi, Avraham Mordechai Alter, who died in Jerusalem on the eve of Shavuot 5708 (1948).
  2. Reb David Shocher – my grandfather.
  3. Reb Saime Shocher – lived in Lublin
  4. Reb Yechezkel Shocher – father–in–law of Idl Shvartz (of the same family but from a different branch).
  5. Tille Berlin.
  6. Maite Rozenkrantz, wife of Nachman Rozenkrantz, an antagonist [orthodox Jew opposed to Hassidism] in this family. (Their house on Yanneve Street had a common border with the Jewish hospital).
  7. Zissl Mintz – mother of Motl Mintz.
  8. Chanele Alter–the wife of Yossele Alter, a brother of “Sfat Emet”.
  9. Chayele Rubinlicht – the grandmother of Shmuel and Yakov Kahan.
The family had a fund that held a very large sum of money that was established by the Nyes'vi'ezsh and Vilna Shochers. The interest from this fund was given as support for needy relatives, between 50 and 300 Ruble, distributed through a lottery. On the recommendation of two family members the needy relative was included in the lottery. The winner of the lottery had to wait 3 years to be able to participate in the lottery again. A significant sum of money from Tille's inheritance was given to this fund.

by B. Wineberg, London

Translated by Ofra Anson

Edited by Libby Raichman

1. Rivkah Akivaches

In Yatke Street, almost at the intersection of Briske Street, was a large courtyard, on which open wagons and covered wagons always stood, that had come from the surrounding small towns and villages. This was a large gateway courtyard that was always noisy and bustling with Jews and non–Jews who came to Biale to trade or to take care of other matters.

On the outskirts of the courtyard, stood a large house, that was very long and had steps leading up, to enter. The house was an inn, where the “guests” would warm themselves in the winter and drink a glass of tea, and in the summer, they would take off their heavy clothes.

The courtyard was known by the name “Rivka Akivaches's courtyard”, the name of the woman who managed the business. Rivkah Akivaches was an exceptionally beautiful woman. She was tall, slender and gracious in her movements and although she was dressed as was customary at that time: a turban on her head, and cheap non–matching dresses and blouses,

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her gracious and charming beauty was apparent. She was a very clever woman and even Chassidim came to take advice from her.

I did not know who her husband was. Since I can remember, from my earliest childhood, she had no husband, but she had daughters who were pretty and aristocratic in all their ways. Their beauty was a refined one, a heavenly one – if one can express oneself like that – and their attitude to people was most decent and courteous. Besides managing the inn, Rivkah Akivaches was engaged in making acid. The acid that she produced was not only for domestic use but also for “export” to the surrounding towns, hamlets and villages. She would also travel to Danzig and bring herring from there. She had a good income, and the children, her daughters, received a good upbringing for that time. People even mumbled that she was spoiling the girls, by allowing them to learn to read and write.

What seems to me today is, that there was a secret mystery surrounding Rivkah Akivaches's house. As much as was possible in those times, she separated herself from everyone and came into little contact with the town, even though so many people came into her house. Her seclusion was not due to arrogance, from looking down on others. No, it was more a restraint, a kind of withdrawal from the general public.

I remember, that every Yom Kippur eve, my father, may he rest in peace, would go to Rivkah Akivaches's house and bring a large wax candle from there that he put into a small box with sand, together with other candles that burnt from before “Kol Nidrei” [opening prayer for Yom Kippur] until after “Ne'ilah” [closing prayer]. These wax candles were designated for souls of someone in Rivkah Akivaches's family. For whom? Only Rivkah and my father knew that.

I met Rivkah Akivaches's daughter in London and I remembered these trivialities of that remarkable, almost biblical figure, Rivkah Akivaches. That was a woman who grew in my eyes like a giant, a mysterious giant, that overcomes a cruel life with firm resolute steps, for a specific purpose, with a specific goal, without taking into account what the world around says, or thinks about him. This was a rare woman, a rare person, of rare character, who, I am sure, was not forgotten by those who knew her, and can still remember her.

May this portrait be a replica of the wax candles that my father, may he rest in peace, placed for her in the house of prayer. May it be a memorial candle to the great soul of this remarkable woman, Rivkah Akivaches, who was distant, and carried her pain deeply buried within her, without looking for sympathy from the masses, who were often cynical about her.


2. Pesl the “Deaf”

Pesl the “deaf” was a woman of average height, with a very beautiful face. That was all, I think, one could say about a woman of those times, who was not permitted to show her own hair or her whole ear, and was not allowed to wear a corset … and as Pesl the “deaf” was an observant, kosher Jewish daughter, she wore a wig and did not wear a corset, yet she appeared gracious and full of charm.

If she was really deaf, I do not know; who her husband was, I do not know either. I only know one thing: whoever spoke of Pesl the “deaf”, mentioned her name with respect and with reverence. In the town, her name was a symbol of goodness, beauty and perfection.

Pesl the “deaf” was a woman of immense, almost insatiable energy, a woman with great business instincts and talent, which at that time was a rarity, even among the men of Biale. In addition, she was very charitable, and had a broad and open hand for anyone who needed help.

At the corner of the market place (today Volnoshtshy Place) and the street that leads to the Mezritsh Highway, stood the large shop that Pesl the “deaf” ran, with a large stock and a variety of merchandise, intended particularly, for people who could afford to spend money – a shop that could be compared to the big shops in Warsaw at that time.

I do not remember, a Biale Jew ever going into the shop of Pesl the “deaf” to buy something. No, this was a shop specifically for the noblemen, Polish Counts and local counts, who lived on their estates around Biale. These noblemen would descend a few times a week, with their carriages that were drawn

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by four horses, harnessed in “tandem” in the summer, and sleighs with “Troikas” – in the winter.

At Pesl the “deaf” you could procure all sorts of wines, liqueur and brandy (at that time there was still no monopoly on liquor), all spices, and in addition a variety of toys, and even cradles for children. The shop was always packed with merchandise and also with customers.

Already then, there were many military personnel in Biale. There were old barracks, new ones were built, and the town was always full of officers, colonels, and even generals. It is therefore understandable that the shop of Pesl the “deaf” also had many buyers from among the military personnel, and even they treated her with the greatest respect. With her aristocratic bearing, she also earned the greatest respect and the deepest regard from the Polish noblemen in the vicinity, who always liked to joke – often cruel jokes – about women, mainly about Jewish women.

Pesl ran her shop in a purely businesslike manner: “I have the merchandise that you need – buy, pay and enjoy”. It was not the humble spirit that we still see today, in the Jewish businesses in many European towns. She was a proud merchant, an honest merchant, who sold merchandise but not her soul.


3. Esther the “Lizard”

A small shriveled little woman, with a cap on her shaved little head, in which two lively eyes were set, that looked angrily at people and at the world; a small pointed nose, that hung over a small mouth, that talked constantly, mumbled constantly, cursed or blessed.

There was an enormous metal shop on the side of the market whose wall stretched from Briske to Grabanovve Street. The shop was very long and at the other end, it had a door that led out onto a large courtyard with warehouses, that were always filled with various metal products. One always saw buyers in the shop, both gentiles and Jews. On a Sunday, it was impossible to pass by on the sidewalk alongside the shop, because hundreds of gentiles were pushing to get into the shop to buy something: a file, a ploughshare, a pound of nails, a mechanical transmitter….

The owner of the shop was Esther the “Lizard”. She was not only the owner, but she ran the shop and was also the manager of this large business.

She was a physically weak woman, religious, and more than that, an extreme fanatic in all her prejudices. To this day, she is the greatest wonder to me, how she, with her lack of strength, could manage such a large business. It seems however, that often a strong spirit, striving to achieve something, has the power to fill the weakest body.

Esther the “Lizard” had this striving. Her ideal was the family, and this gave her the strength, to overcome her physical weakness.

Her husband Moshe Yosl was the opposite of his wife; a handsome Jew, with a fine pointed beard, that was not too large, and a smiling face, who constantly sat at home and studied. They had a large family and a high standard of living, that in those times, had high expenses. And Esther the “Lizard” had the task of providing the means for these expenses. The whole family: married sons and their children had all their needs satisfied by the income from the shop that was run by this weak little woman, who possessed such boundless strength and energy.

Every 15th of Shvat [Tu Bishvat], Esther would distribute presents to her customers –– “bags”, paper bags with a variety of fruit. I remember that my father, may he rest in peace, being one of her customers, would come home every “15th” with such a bag, filled with good things. She was very charitable and gave generously to charity. There was talk in the town, that she supported a few needy families. People knew about her secret donations and for that she was respected and valued, yet she was still regarded as an unpleasant person.

After her death, her children took to running the business, but it no longer functioned as it had before. With each passing day, it deteriorated, and the huge, famous metal shop became a small shop that did not provide sufficient income for those who worked there. It lacked the knowledge, the work and the spirit of the small emaciated little woman, that supported such a large family, and also fed many people outside of her family.

(The characters described by Boruch Wineberg, were extracted from a number of editions of “Podlassier Life” in 1933).

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Godya Shteinman

by Dina Arbitman, Kibbutz Ein Hashofet

Translated by Ofra Anson

Edited by Libby Raichman

Her name was Golda – we called her Godya, as this name suited her. She had golden hair, blue eyes, a friendly laugh and a constant smile. Her great charm and her good nature brought her many friends, amongst the children and also amongst the adults.

Our dear mother died when Godya was six years old. Godya was a baby who did not manage to be nourished by the love of her mother, who excelled in her wisdom and kindness. We were afraid that the sadness that prevailed in our home after the tragedy, would break Godya 's spirit, so we decided to send her to relatives in the neighbouring town of Mezritsh. Godya started going to the “Tarbut” school and although she did not know the Hebrew language, she soon caught up with the other children and was much loved by the teachers. The headmaster of the school asked her father to allow her to remain for at least one more year because, he said: “she is an example to all the children in her class”.

Godya returned home and began to study at the primary school. After a few weeks she was placed in a higher class. At home, she gladdened our hearts, she did not let her father wallow in sorrow, and she was a ray of light for us all. My father, of blessed memory, my sister Reizele, my brother Shmuel, of blessed memory, were primarily concerned for her.

After Reizele left for America and Shmuel, of blessed memory, went to Warsaw to study, the two of us remained at home with our father. I saw myself not only as an older sister to Godya, but also as a mother. I felt an enormous responsibility for her destiny, I wanted to give her the mother's love that she lost at such a young age. Despite her deprived childhood, she was happy and mischievous and thanks to her great talent, she also excelled in her studies. She stood out in primary school and later in High School. The Holocaust put an end to her studies.

Our home was a house of Hashomer Ha'tzair. Many friends found it a place of stimulus and calm. Lunches and dinners often became symposiums on literature, Bible etc. My father was like an older friend to us and guided us even in discussions in our group. He helped us to acquire knowledge in Hebrew and to read the newspapers that the movement published in Poland and in Israel. My father instilled in us a love of Israel, the pioneering movement and the Jewish people, both the good and the difficulties. Godya was a committed student and quickly understood what her role was in the Polish High School, where anti–Semitism permeated the entire environment. She proudly defended her people and did not hide her Jewish identity. At the age of 12, she joined Hashomer Ha'tzair. She was the first to participate in song and dance, and also the first to take on tasks that required effort. Her thirst for knowledge intensified her desire to read and to delve into social and sociological topics.

Once, a member of the central leadership of Hashomer Hatzair happened to come to Biale and was present at a discussion in Godya's group; when he listened to her eloquence and her serious train of thought, he requested from the movement that she be sent to a seminar. He remarked: “look after Godya, in the future she will fill a very important role in the movement”, but that was not to be her fate.

Godya was modest, forthright, helped her friends who had difficulties with their studies, and also found time to be active in the movement.

When I was about to immigrate to Israel and Godya was then just 16, she was made a member of the leadership of the movement. I made Aliyah on Rosh Hashanah 1938, and Godya was about to finish High school. Because she was so young, she took special examinations and received her matriculation certificate with distinction. All my hopes and all my efforts were to bring the two of them, my father and Godya, to Israel, to my kibbutz. I made many plans for Godya's future in Israel, but the cruel war broke out and ruined all my plans. Godya remained there to fulfil her role in the movement and also to support my aging father.

Recently I found out that people advised Godya to escape and that they were prepared to help her, but she refused. Without considering the many dangers, she devoted herself to working in the underground, and was even appointed to be a member of the central leadership of the movement.

The Nazis transferred her and her father, from the apartment in the main street, to a tiny room in the ghetto. The room was used for important meetings and decision making, and fateful decisions were often made there. Many young people found support and refuge there. Even in 1939, during the war, I received letters from them.

Godya was continually active in the ghetto and received instructions from the central leadership in Warsaw. The end came when a train worker was caught with a letter, containing instructions, addressed to her.

I did not manage to gather full details about her last moments, but I know only this: Godya, my wonderful, dear sister, still in the prime of her life, died a hero's death. Despite the cruelest torture in the Gestapo prison, and despite their promises of freedom – she remained loyal to her character until the last moment and did not reveal even one name to the enemy. Through punishment and torture, until the last moment, she gave her young soul with courage, holiness and purity.

* The article about Godya Shteinman is presented in the original Hebrew, as submitted by the writer.

Chavale Rodzinek

by M. Y. Feigenboim

Translated by Ofra Anson

Edited by Libby Raichman

She was a tall and slim girl with a pair of dreamy eyes; the daughter of Moshe Rodzinek, well –known in the town for his communal activities. The war of 1939 caught her on the threshold of her dreams:

she had completed her studies at the High School and wanted to study medicine. All the sorrow of the premature severance of her youth spilt out on her face. The most difficult experience for her was to see her father taken together with the members of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, to Majdanek,but at the same time, this was the spur for her to actively fight against the Germans.

Chavale wrote a valuable page in the history of the struggle and fight with the German beast.

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Her name is mentioned in the publication of the Jewish History Institute in Warsaw. We will note here, just a few episodes from Chavale's experiences in this dark period. At the time of the deportation from Biale during Succot 1942, when she and her mother were taken to Mezritsh, she decided that on no account would she allow herself to be locked up in the ghetto. She arranged with her mother that she, Chavale, would leave for Warsaw and that her mother would then follow. Chavale jumped down from the truck that was travelling in the direction of Mezritsh, was shot and lightly wounded in a foot and flung herself back on to the truck. On their approach to the Voronyetz forests, where the trucks stopped, together with her mother, she ran from the vehicle. After wandering in the Biale vicinity for a few weeks, her mother went to the Mezritsh ghetto and Chavale – to Warsaw.

By chance, in Warsaw she turned to a Christian man who worked at the Jewish Aid Council, who, already in Lodz, had been condemned to death by the Germans but managed to escape from the clutches of the Nazis. The Christian was the first person to report to London, the information about the extermination camps in Poland. Chavale trusted this man with the truth, that she was Jewish and expressed her preparedness to participate in actions against the Germans. He brought Chavale into the ranks of the underground movement as a liaison officer and distributor of illegal literature. A few days after her arrival in Warsaw, she received Aryan documents, and was provided with an apartment, where illegal leaflets were printed, and Aryan documents were produced. As a liaison officer, Chavale would often travel to Pyeterkov, Skarzshisk, Kyeltz, Radom and others. She used to manage to get into the ghettos and camps, where she distributed money, documents and illegal literature. She would bring Jews to Warsaw and put them in contact with appropriate persons. On one of these visits to Pyeterkov with a few other liaison officers, they were discovered by the Gestapo and while escaping, the gestapo opened fire and only Chavale and one other liaison officer survived.

During another visit in Lodz, together with the Christian man who brought her into the underground movement, they were detained by a member of the gestapo. It was clear that the man for whom there was already a warrant, would not come out alive. Chavale however, managed to influence the Gestapo member, with the promise that she would meet him the next day.

Once, just before the Warsaw uprising, Chavale and a girlfriend overheard German officials' telephone conversations, with the aid of a special device. When the colleague who was supposed to join them at a specific time did not arrive, they destroyed the device. They barely managed to do this when the gestapo arrived at their dwelling and took them to their headquarters in Warsaw. There they were undressed and although nothing was found on them, and they did not confess to anything, they were flogged that their bodies were completely black and blue. They had already lost all hope of gettingout of there, but with that, the murderers told them to go. They did not want to go home in such atate during the day, so they went into a church and stayed there until the night.

In Warsaw, Chavale had contact with more than a hundred Jews who were on the Aryan side and whom she used to provide with money and documents. From time to time, she also met with a few Biale residents who were on the Aryan side in Warsaw. In Autumn 1944, when the Warsaw uprising broke out, Chavale could be found among the ranks of the fighters against the Germans. She worked as a nurse, carrying aid to the wounded rebels. She was caught by the Germans, and together with other Warsaw residents, were chased ahead of the German tanks that were attacking a barricade of the rebels. There she was wounded in her right breast and in a leg.

With the collapse of the uprising, Chavale was taken to Germany. She worked there in a hospital for foreigners, as a nurse and an interpreter. She stole medications from the hospital and brought them into the camp where she found herself, in order to alleviate the suffering of the sick. With the approach of the front lines to the camp, the Germans decided to transfer the camp inmates to west Germany. Before their departure, camp inmates were confined to a shed. Chavale managed to persuade a German doctor to open the door of the shed for a few minutes, and together with others, she escaped to a village.

After the end of the war, Chavale went to Belgium and from there, back to Poland.


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