« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 122]

Chapter 7

Under the Rule
of Alexander I and Nicholas I

ד    D

The Relationship of the Bialystok Jews to the Russian Regime

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

During the entire time of their history under the rule of BRANICKI, Bialystok Jews were far from all of the external political movements and their influences because their only leader and protector was the liberal BRANICKI who had Bialystok in his possession. The political conditions for Bialystok Jews were in his hands. The Bialystok Jews had very little direct contact with the Polish regime; their representative in relation to it was Hetman [political title given to military commanders] BRANICKI.

During the short 12-year tyrannical regime of Prussia, the Bialystok Jews were degraded by its statutes to the level of the foreign, the enslaved, the subjugated; from then on they had to worry about their own means of existence. And naturally they were very distant from the state politics. As we saw, there was not one Jewish representative from the Bialystok department at the Kleszczewer meeting.

However, the Bialystok Jews breathed freely when Bialystok went over to the Russian state and Aleksander I assured the Bialystok population with his manifesto that the Bialystok residents would maintain their rights and privileges. [They felt] from that day on free subjects with all the remaining Russian Jews under the powerful, great, liberal Russian monarch who was considered a friend of the Jews by all of the Russian Jews. However, it immediately became clear that because they were included in the district of the Russian Empire, they lost the civil rights they had had as Jews in a Polish district and all laws and evil decrees were applied to them equally as to the Russian Jews. Their joy was deflated and dashed.

Meanwhile, Bialystok became the border city between Russia and Poland and it opened the gates of the richer Russian state for Bialystok Jewish merchants. And they began to carry out a large export business across both nearby Prussian borders – Grajewo and Wincenta, near Kolna. Therefore, we found that several respected Jews then entered the executive division of the Russian government in Bialystok county as political agents.

There were two Jewish deputies during the years 1812-1813 in the main districts of the Russian Army that penetrated into Western Europe:

[Page 123]

Zindl ZANENBERG from Grodno and Eliezer DILON from Neswiz [Nesvizh, Ukraine]. It seems these community workers played a double role: Firstly, they were large contractors; secondly, they were Jewish intercessors who needed to be of help with the needs of Jews before the Kaiser and highly placed men of importance.[12] However, the Bialystok Jews were not contractors, nor Jewish intercessors, but they were Russian diplomatic agents. The names Zelig PERSZIC (apparently the grandfather of Skharye FREIDENTAL, the later well-known Jewish rich man and donor in Moscow, who was the father-in-law of Shoshona PERSZIC, the current well-known publisher of Amnot [Fine Arts] and great Tarbot worker in Eretz-Yisroel), and still others whose names are unknown are remembered as diplomatic agents of the Bialystok Jews. This is also presented in the archive[13] of that time that SZCZEDRININ, the leader of the Bialystok county, announced to the minister on the 29th of April and the 6th of May 1812 that he had sent abroad the Bialystok Jew, Dovid WALLACH, for state reasons.[14]

Hirsh HAJLPERIN, a Bialystok Jewish merchant, was then attracted to service in the Russian state by the former Senator and then leader of Bialystok named GELIS, who considered [HAJLPERN] to be a very capable government man and prevailed upon him to discard his businesses and devote himself to service to the Russian state.

ה    E

Heshl Medalszczik (1781-1855)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

[Translator's note: Various spellings of Hirsh HEILPERN's name appear throughout the original text. For example: Heshl is a diminutive of Hirsh and HALPERN is an alternative spelling of HEILPERN. He is also referred to as Yehoshua-Heshl.

As explained in the text below, HEILPERN was referred to as Heshl Medalszczik because he wore the medals he received from the Russian government at every ceremonial opportunity.]

We find little mention in the archives of the first Bialystok Jewish diplomats who were employed by the Russian state service

[Page 124]

because they did not play a major role. However, the name above is often remembered because he was of great use to the Russian state and he played a large role on which it is worthwhile to dwell. It is told in the archive of the general headquarters from the month of May 1811 that Hirsh HALPERN was sent on a mission to the Duchy of Warsaw in order to learn about the French machinations in Poland against Russia. He was held by the local police in Chernovitz [Chernivtsi] because they had suspicions until he succeeded in bribing his way out. The information that he brought was placed in a separate report, which is still found among the material in the archive. It can be understood how valuable this information was in that in the month of September of the same year he [Hirsh HALPERN] was received by the War Minister [Prince Michael Andreas] Barclay DE TOLLY who notified the Tsar about the envoy's praiseworthy actions.

In a letter on the 3rd of October 1818 to Hirsh HALPERN from Barclay DE TOLLY, he writes: “I had the opportunity to tell the tsar about your zeal and the energy of your deeds for the benefit of the state. His majesty has granted you the most beautiful gift, a ring (priced at 4,000 rubles). It is my pleasure to fulfill the tsarist will in hoping that you will in the future again show your usefulness to the state.”

The state activities of Hirsh (his exact Jewish name was Yehoshua-Heshl) HEILPERN is also remembered complimentarily in the reports of the chief commander of the Western Army and Admiral of the Black Sea Fleet, [Pavel Vasilievich] CHICHAGOV in 1812: his energetic and intelligent work is especially praised there. He was given a medal for his service on the 22nd of December 1812, through the intervention of [Field Marshall Mikhail] KUTUZOV, and later was given a regular pension in the amount of 60 Dutch ducats. Count [Karl Robert] NESSELRODE, who then headed the Foreign Ministry and knew of HALPERN's service to the state, intervened to obtain the pension [for HALPERN].

However, the opportunity of working as a diplomat and secret agent for the ministry was taken from him, it seems, because of the intrigues of the higher anti-Semitic officials to whom he had referred with pride in his written requests and they, therefore, were his enemies. However, Count NESSELRODE stood by him and in 1818 he was designated as an agent of the Finance Ministry in the division to combat contraband [smuggling]. Because of his new

[Page 125]

office, he traveled around various cities in the Pale of Settlement, but his trip to Vilna in 1820 ended badly. When he returned to Petersburg, he was informed that he was no longer needed and he was dismissed from his office.

This is explained by the fact that, truly being a completely pious Jew and a scholar, he believed he was justified in being a diplomatic official and a secret agent to protect his state from its enemies, but not to bring with his office any harm to Jewish merchants, even when they were smugglers.[15] So as not to be shouted at by Jews as a denouncer, he did not hand over the Jewish smugglers to the state. He was, therefore, accused by the authorities as disloyal to his office, which was shown most clearly in Vilna where all of the merchants were Jewish. Therefore, he was let go.

Sh. GINSBURG,[16] and above all Y. HESEN,[17] who is known for his research of Jewish history in Russia, identify Hirsh HEILPERN as a well-known person, the so-called “Crimean” (from the Crimea area). That one [the “Crimean”] was a big swindler who appeared in Vilna in around 1810-1820 and rumors spread about him in the newspapers that he was a messenger of a Jewish-African Kaiser who was coming to Europe with an army to free the Jews. That one confused all of the Vilna Jews as well as the rabbis and religious judges, except for Reb Chaim WOLOCZINER, who asked that he be watched.[18] The Vilna writer, Ayzik-Meir DIK, made use of the swindler as a hero in his work.[19] As was later revealed, that one [the “Crimean”] actually was a government agent concerned with smuggling and while he was in Vilna, searches were made of all the Jewish shops. That one [the “Crimean”] also attained from Rabbi, Reb Avraham DANZIG, the author of Chayei Adam [Life of Man] the excommunication of smugglers. However, the identification [of HEILPERN as the “Crimean”] was completely false because it was impossible that a Bialystoker Jew, a respected person, who was well known, would not be afraid of being uncovered immediately by passersby from Bialystok in nearby Vilna where they often were because of business contacts. In addition, Hirsh HEILPERN was not successful in his government

[Page 126]

activities in Vilna and, therefore, was dismissed while the “Crimean” prospered. Also the responsibilities of the person from “Crimea” are not comparable with the responsibilities of Hirsh HEILPERN, the person from Bialystok, and above all – it was conceded by Ayzik Meir DIK, Sh. GINZBURG in Perezhitoe [Experience] as well as Khaykl LUNSKI in his book, The Rabbis and Gaonim [sages] from the Past, the “Crimean” was caught committing a great crime in Komenec and was deported to Siberia. However, Hirsh HEILPERN died in Bialystok well respected, with great eulogies and is buried in the local cemetery with a beautiful headstone. This finally was confirmed without a doubt through a copy of a letter published by Shaul GINZBURG[20] from the well-known Vilna scholar, author of Netivot Olam [Eternal Paths], Rabbi Tzevi Hirsch KATZENELLENBOGEN that he wrote in Adar (1847) in Vilna to his son-in-law whom he told:

Two weeks ago a Romanian Professor BONAVENTURA, a great scholar of Talmudic literature, a gentile, was invited by me for Shabbos and [he was well versed] in the Khoyshin Mishpet [fourth part of the Shulkhan Arukh – compilation of Jewish laws] and the Sema* on the folio and he conversed about Torah matters from 12 in the morning until 10 at night. The Bialystoker Reb Heshl HEILPERN was then also with us. I was dazed by the gentile's education and Reb Heshl's discourses; every moment I had to stop the arguing between them. It was comical to see how they would debate and make cutting remarks just like those young scholars who had a love of persuading one another…it can be seen from this that the Bialystoker Heshl HEILPERN was such a highly educated person and a great scholar that he could carry on a discussion with such a great scholar as the Romanian professor. We also see that Heshl HEILPERN was known and familiar in the great Vilna scholarly and educated circles and he could not disguise himself as a “Crimean” and swindler, nor present himself to all of Vilna as a messenger from a Jewish African king.

*[Translator's note: Sema is an acronym for Sefer Me'irat Enayim [Enlightening of the Eyes], a commentary on the Shulkan Arukh written by Joshua FALK.]

After Hirsh HEILPERN was removed from his position he submitted a request to the tsar. The consideration of the request was given to Prince GOLITSYN who partially acknowledged the complaints of Hirsh HEILPERN as correct and, therefore, gave him a salary for three months and in addition a one-time reward of 165 rubles. In his request to the tsar he [HEILPERN] writes:

“On the 15th of September 1808 on the great day that will never be forgotten not only in Russia but in all of Europe – and mainly will remain in the memory of Bialystok residents because on that day they had the good fortune to be accepted as subjects of your imperial majesty – I, according to the advice of Senator GEILS, who was designated to bring order to the conquered Bialystok province by the highest power, abandoned my trade-house and gave myself over to serve the needs of the state. I call God as a witness that from then on in peace-

[Page 127]

time or in wartime I never missed the smallest opportunity and I always was of the greatest use to the state that I was capable of being. In 1811 I received an important, high delegate, Prince [Michael Andreas] Barclay DE TOLLY, the war minister who was of great political significance. After this I had to languish in jail and yet I carried everything out precisely that was laid upon me. On the 19th of September of the same year I had the good fortune to be presented to your majesty: in addition to the gifts I had the honor to receive, I always was permitted to turn with a request of your imperial majesty.”

HEILPERN says further in the same request that he always found himself in the Russian Army, received several decorations and a yearly pension of 60 ducats.

Yehoshua-Heshl HEILPERN demanded a one-time reward of 3,000 rubles and when his efforts were unsuccessful, he again turned to the tsar. In his request he writes: “The Bialystok resident, Hirsh HEILPERN, an unfortunate man and father, who during 14 years time constantly did favors for the state, sacrificed his possessions, did not consider his health and life, has already sat in Petersburg for three years and lobbied for his just request, but without success and he is so devastated that he has no other way out than to die of hunger with his wife and children.”

His request also includes a plan to increase the state income, namely through decreasing the taxes on goods from the first guild in order to increase the number of merchants who have the right to travel abroad for trade. The tsar sent his plan to the finance ministry where it remained.

Hirsh HEILPERN risked disturbing the tsar again, but this time his request brought something new. He asked for an audience to verbally tell him everything that he did not have the audacity to write.

Aleksander I considered his request and ordered him to tell everything to [Aleksey] ARAKCHEYEV. After the audience his matter was turned over to his old friend Count Nesselrode, who had valued HEILPERN's service and asked ARAKCHEYEV to arrange for the appropriate reward for him. ARAKCHEYEV sent the matter to the then Finance Minister [Yegor Frantsevich] CANCRIN who agreed to pay Hirsh HEILPERN a sum

[Page 128]

of 2,200 rubles and in addition announced that secret agents were no longer necessary in the Finance Ministry.

The Council of Ministers agreed with the conclusion of Minister CANCRIN, but NESSELRODE maintained his opinion that Hirsh HEILPERN could be of future use to the state. He intervened, saying that there should be a raise in salary from 60 ducats to 200 ducats, until he received a state office that he would be capable of occupying. Count GOLITSYN agreed with NESSELRODE's opinion and a salary of 200 ducats was designated for him [HEILPERN].

In this way, the struggle of many years of Hirsh HEILPERN with an unknown enemy ended in a victory. The victory evokes the question: what service did HEILPERN actually perform for the state so that the tsar patiently accepted his various interventions and Count NESSELRODE opposed the ministerial council, recognizing the justice of his arguments? It is difficult to answer this, as his role was limited to only small functions of an intelligence [gathering] character. It definitely can be said that he carried out his responsible political missions of a particular importance, which were connected with mortal danger.

Hirsh HEILPERN was no longer mentioned in the general headquarter documents. He remained under the jurisdiction of the state with a designated salary. He was considered an official of the foreign ministry with the title “trade councilor,” “komertsheksi sovietnik,” until the time when he could find a suitable place for his capabilities.

Later, such a suitable place was found when the Russian government began to be involved with the education of the Jews and founded a separate commission to create schools for Jews with foreign, educated Jews as teachers. In a memorandum from the manager of the school reforms, DUKSHA-DUKSHINSKY, to the Education Ministry, suggesting the employment of several educated foreigners as teachers, he proposed Hirsh HEILPERN as an expert and authority in choosing them. In passing, the gmemorandum said:

“Determining if the teaching candidates are suitable for the proposed schools creates a very good opportunity; Hirsh HEILPERN, an official in the Foreign Ministry business council is personally acquainted with his majesty, the Grand Duke Mikhail PAVLOVITZ. And as a result of his work, the same Hirsh HEILPERN was designated as a Potomstveni Potshotni Grazhdanin [permanent honorary citizen] on the 7th of May of this year;

[Page 129]

he traveled to Germany in accordance with a mission of the Foreign Ministry. He is a judicious man who can be trusted. If the same Hirsh HEILPERN were allowed to find all of the facts in a private manner concerning the candidates, it would be on behalf of the state and for the general idea of educating the Jews. From all those candidates who were considered he chose 15 people whose residences lay along the route of his trip with whom he would have the opportunity to visit and to negotiate… HEILPERN had the honor of introducing himself to the minister in April of this year with still other Jews who were there because of their public service.” As is indicated, he engaged in mediation and was their mediator in the ministry.

The name Hirsh HEILPERN is mentioned for the last time in an official document with the memorandum in connection with the education of Jews. This is a basis on which to surmise that he carried out his office in the Foreign Ministry up until the last day of his life.[21]

In Bialystok he was referred to with mockery as Heshl MEDALSZCZIK, because at every ceremonial opportunity he would hang on his chest all of the medals he had received from the government for various services that were suspicious in the eyes of the Jewish population.[22] Even in my time, various stories were told about him based on this. They would have respect for him in the city as for someone close to the powers that be and for a person with a very generous hand and a pious way of life. He never used his power for evil, although during the transfer

Ten years later H. SALOMANOW (Dr. L. HEILPERN) wrote in the Bialystoker Shtime [Bialystok Voice], New York, February 1924, no. 8 on the same theme. He had a suitable comprehension there of the question as it corresponds to the most recent sources.

I wrote about Hershl MEDALSZCZIK the man and the Jews according to the old pinkasim [register books of records] of the local societies in his time and according to the local traditions, from his old contemporaries.

[Page 130]

period from the Prussian to the Russian regime many dealt with contraband. He had no interest in the city; he did not intervene in municipal matters nor in kehile [organized Jewish community] matters. However, he lived a rich man's life generously in his house opposite the Russian church on today's PILSUDSKI Street that was taken over after him by Motya Leyzer ZABLUDOWSKI and now by Moshe KRINSKI. He was a wonder for all. He would disappear for short and longer periods of times and it was not known to where. His appearance was as a member of the Enlightenment. He dressed in a short jacket, with a trimmed beard; he acted very pious. As is seen in the pinkasim of the societies in which he was a member, he would come to the old house of prayer to pray dressed in a silk caftan with a gartl [belt worn by pious men separating the spiritual from the worldly] and a fur hat on his head. He kept everything [his talis and tefilin – prayer shawl and phylacteries] prepared with the shamas [beadle]. After praying he would give it back to the shamas. When traveling he would take along his talis and tefilin and a kitl [white linen robe]. [People] rarely entered his house because although his wife was pious, she had a reputation for being mean.

He would come to the house of prayer very often to spend time with the Talmud scholars. He often would make feasts for them. It was told how he once played a practical joke on the then well-known wise man, Rabbi Gershon SZTAJN; he once made an appointment on a public holiday at a well known Jewish restaurant for a dairy lunch for an entire group of acquaintances. Among those invited was Reb Gershon SZTAJN. On entering, Hersh asked the [female] owner to place a plate of grievin [rendered chicken skins] on the table, which he [Reb Gershon] loved. When Reb Gershon saw the grievin he immediately grabbed them with desire, forgetting to what he had been invited. And then the very tasty dairy dishes were served, but Reb Gershon had already eaten meat and could not touch them.* It is said that he would invite the pious Jews, the Talmud scholars from the old house of prayer where he prayed, to inflict upon him all of the indignities that they knew so that he could atone for his sins. He was not observant of the laws of Kashrus; he could not refuse [to eat] when he would be invited to the tables of the powerful state officials.[23]

He strongly honored the learned men who engaged in study all of their lives. He was friends with them in order to find favor with them. As he was given the title “the distinguished scholar,” he also was a learned man. He was a great philanthropist and, therefore, he was respected in the old

*[Translator's note: the laws of Kashrus – Jewish laws concerning the preparation and consumption of food – prohibit the eating of dairy products with meat products. After consuming meat products, most pious Jews wait three to six hours before eating a dairy product.]

[Page 131]

house of study where he prayed. He was an honorable member of the Ner Tamid [Eternal light] Society. He was accepted into it in 5596 [1826]. “The great rabbinic scholar, our teacher-and-rabbi Yehoshua son of our teacher-and-rabbi Yosef, shall be one of us, by opinion and by ballot; the fourth day of Hol Hamoed Pesakh [the intermediate days of the Passover Holiday].”

In 5587 [1827] he was chosen, according to the old pinkas [registry] and in 5590 [1830] he was chosen as a registry trustee for the first time, as well as in 5594 [1834] (the minister and scribe), in 5599 [1839] and also in the years 5604-5605 [1844-1845], 5605-5610 [1845-1850]. These were great and important appointments.

What great respect he had in the kehile can be seen by the fact that he was the first to sign the records of the Khevre Kadishe [burial society] in the registry of the Torah Society to give permission to the Torah Society to study in the kehile shtibl [one room synagogue] that belonged to [the kehile]. After his death, he was inscribed in the pinkas of Ner Tamid; to his eternal memory for his good deeds (pages 71, 98): “May God watch over the deceased and spread His wings over him forever, for this respected communal leader, our teacher-and-rabbi Yehoshua Heshel son of our teacher-and-rabbi Yosef HEILPERN, was standing before kings and dignitaries and in spite of that he was modest and forgiving, honored his teachers and his students and considered them a crown on his head. All his life he spent money for the poor and unfortunate, and even now, after he completed his days he stepped in the light of righteousness and he donated to the Great Bet Midrash [house of prayer] in this community, for the perpetuation of his soul, the great Book of Arba Turim [The Fourth Row], printed in Slavita, new and bound in four volumes. The many learners who will study these books of Turim will be good agents and pray for his soul, that it return to its source. He died on the Holy Sabbath at dawn, 28 Tevet, and was buried on the eve of Rosh Khodesh [first day of the month] Shevat, may his name be remembered forever. His name is mentioned in the Book of Regulations, today Sunday 12th day in the month of Adar, the year 5614, here in the holy town of Bialystok.”

How much of a pious Jew can be seen from the fact that he was an active member of the holy Shomrim laBoker [Dawn Watches – a group that gathers for early prayer] Society (to observe the custom of khtsos [midnight prayer and study in memory of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem] and to recite Psalms in the early morning and observe certain rituals in praying and vatikin [prayers recited before sunrise]). Recorded in the pinkas for the society, which still exists today: Concerning the old pinkas [register] (from the year 5526) [1766], which contained the signatures of several very important and honored people, among them the signature of the famous rabbinic scholar, our teacher-and-rabbi Yehoshua Heshel, at the time when our teacher-and-rabbi Yosef HEILPERN of blessed memory was appointed, and today the Society confirmed this appointment in the pinkas that our teacher-and-rabbi Heshel, mentioned before, is considered one of us, by opinion and by ballot; he has already paid his dues and as confirmation he is listed in this pinkas (year 5590). On 6 Marcheshvan [Cheshvan] 5603 [10 October 1842] it was said: “…Therefore we consulted with the dayan [judge in the religious court], member of the Khevra Kadisha [Burial Society], the great scholar, the respected and generous leader, our teacher-and-rabbi Yehoshua Heshel, son of our teacher-and-rabbi Yosef HEILPERN, of our community, and all members of the Society agreed to add the judge.” And also with the date 5610 [1850]

[Page 132]

we find the following about him: All the above was done by legal voting in the house of our judge, the scholar Yehoshua Heshel HEILPERN, and as witnesses we all signed below.

He was mainly a very distinguished personality to the masses. When he was a member of their Magidei Tehilim Society [society for recitation of Psalms] that was already in existence, as is said above, in 5596 (1766), he was accepted as their leader and dayan [religious judge]. It is mentioned in the Magidei Tehilim pinkas of 5611 (1851) that the gabbaim [sextons] of the holy Magidei Tehilim Society came together and with the agreement of the dayan who was placed over the holy society, the great rabbinic scholar, leader and community worker, of great fame and renown, our teacher-and-rabbi Yehoshua Heshel, son of our teacher-and-rabbi Yosef HEILPERN, the gabbaim were appointed who are enumerated in the new pinkas of the same society. There is an official report from more recent times: given that it already has been 30 years since the great rabbinic scholar, leader and community worker has been the leader and supporter of this holy society and the guardian of the gabbaim of our synagogue and for the entire time he has stood watch over those reciting Psalms, particularly during the month of Elul during the Days of Awe. He also now supports creating a new pinkas for the society. Therefore, the society decided at a general meeting: to give Minister Yehoshua [HEILPERN] great respect and esteem and designate him as the head and officer and minister and arbitrator and religious judge over all matters of the holy society.

He gave a beautiful gift to the then synagogue – a velvet, expensive table covering with many embroidered verses for the Torah reading lectern. The table covering is still in the synagogue. It carries the date 5573 (1813), when Yehoshua Heshl HEILPERN was in Petersburg. It appears that he gave the gift to mark the great success he had filling his mission for the state in the Franco-Russian War.

On his headstone he is given the title of: Great among the Jews and loved by his brothers, known everywhere by his many qualities that made him famous, wise and respected, a man who was elevated by the king over the fellows of his community and appointed “commerce consultant” in the East and was given the title of Honored Citizen for all future generations, the honored rabbi, Reb Yehoshua Heshel, the son of rabbi Reb Yosef HEILPERN. He died on Motza'ei Shabbas Kodesh [the end of the Holy Sabbath] 25 Tevet 5614 [25 January 1854], at the age of seventy-four.

On his mother's side he was descended from a rabbinic family as is shown on the headstone of his mother at the old cemetery: Here is buried the modest and famous woman Mrs. Esther, daughter of the Rabbi, our teacher-and-rabbi Yosef TZIVYES from Horodna, mother of the famous leader, our teacher-and-rabbi Reb Yehoshua HEILPERN, died 4 Menachem-Av 5573 [31 July 1813]. They lie in the first row.

He wife was also pious. After his death she donated a collection of Mishnayos [compilation of Oral Torah] printed in Vilna bound in six volumes to the old cemetery. Therefore she was inscribed in the pinkas of the house of prayer: The esteemed woman, famous and respected Mrs. Cheyka, daughter of our teacher-and-rabbi Shimshon, widow of the late well-known leader, our teacher-and-rabbi Yehoshua Heshel HEILPERN of blessed memory (page 172).

[Page 133]

However, the higher circles of the Bialystok Jewish society, the more important scholars and esteemed business owners, looked askance at his political activity as a source of income because, as he himself said, it sometimes brought him into the sphere of higher officials of Russian government where he could not maintain his piety. It is said that he once recited the Geshem on Sukkous [the Feast of Tabernacles] [prayer for rain on the eighth day of Sukkous] at the Torah reading desk in the synagogue and it began to rain heavily. After the prayers he said to the then Rabbi Velvele, the author of Mar'ot Hatzov'ot [Mirrors of Legions]:

“Rebbe, you see my soul is apprehensive?”
Reb Velvele answered:
“It is no wonder. Those such as you once brought a great flood to the world.”
However, his political activity did not evoke any opposition at first because from the start he, as well as the esteemed Jews in Bialystok accepted diplomatic, political service with Aleksander I, whom the Bialystok Jews considered a liberator from the harsh and tyrannical Russian regime and, therefore, they were thankful to him and his devoted subjects.[24] However, after Aleksander 1 (1825), the political situation for the Jews in Russia changed for the worse; the Russian regimes from Nicholas 1 on became villainous regimes. And with regard to Poland, which the Russian regime had under its yoke, the Jews still felt an innermost loyalty because of the old political relationships and traditions. Therefore, Heshl HEILPERN's activity on behalf of the Russian government was condemned by higher Jewish Bialystok society as espionage activity against Poland and even today he is remembered with disdain because of it.

Therefore, it appears that Yehoshua Heshl HEILPERN was a great braggart about the deeds he did for the Russian regime. He bragged in Rebbe Avraham Kempner's society[25] that when Aleksander I entered Paris, he [Heshl HEILPERN] rode in front on a horse to show those places that he could safely travel through and when he [Aleksander I] entered Warsaw he [Heshl HEILPERN] entered before dressed as a poor Polish

[Page 134]

peasant carrying a sack of coal; he tested the bridge and he discovered that earlier it had been undermined and without his warning the tsar would have been killed. He also boasted to those attending his house of prayer that he once saved the life of the Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich during the first Polish Uprising, hiding him under a bridge. He would speak a great deal in Bialystok about his camaraderie with the Grand Duke, but as others said, it consisted of his being [the Grand Duke's] trusted writer because the Grand Duke himself was a boor. Heshl HEILPERN received all of the newspapers and correspondence arriving from abroad for him [the Grand Duke] in Bialystok and he would describe their contents to [the Grand Duke]. He would also write all of [the Grand Duke's] reports to Petersburg.

This boasting made him a spy for the Russian state in the eyes of the important Jews in Bialystok.

But despite everything, he still was a particularly capable and comprehensively educated man whose services to the Russian state in general were recognized by the Russian monarchs, Aleksander I and Nicholas I, and by their ministers and higher officials. If not for his Jewish origins he would have reached a high level in the government as is confirmed by the official Russian archives.

Indeed, the fact that he was a political agent of the Russian regime and of necessity acted against Poland makes it difficult to call him a traitor. As a result he did not stand lower or worse than all of the real Polish men of aristocratic birth who were loyal diplomatic and military servants of the Russian state against their own people during the entire time of the tyrannical Russian rule in Poland until the last war and during the war itself. And yet they are not ashamed to appear today as the true representatives of the Polish ultra-patriots, the so-called “national democrats.” Why should the Bialystok Jew, Heshl HEILPERN, be condemned for the same offense?

As a member of the old Jewish community in Bialystok, Yehoshua Heshl HEILPERN, was considered one of the best and most respected and exemplar members for his good deeds and pious way of life, as is documented in the pinkas of the old house of prayer and the wording on his headstone.

What he did for Jews in general – we do not know. We saw that he was a specialist in the eyes of the ministry even on the education question; that he was at the ministry with a Jewish deputation (he probably was its representative and intermediary). From Russian sources we see also that he gave the higher powers advice in various areas, for example, to decrease the payment for the first

[Page 135]

guild. Of concern to Jews, during his time many bad laws and edicts against Jews were issued from the same ministry, such as expulsions from the villages, military service and the like, and we must presume he used his intervention to weaken [these bad laws and edicts]. The expulsion edict in Grodno gubernia [province] was stopped for a time; for other reason did his reside in Petersburg for the final three years without work except that he had the right to intervene directly with the tsar at any time? Perhaps the Russian archives will give us the answer. About interventions there, we have to consider that the local police respected and feared him; they could not do anything bad to the Jews.

However, his continuous business with the Russian government had its revenge against him. One of his sons, Shmerl, converted in order to be accepted as a student at the Petersburg medical faculty. He was the first one in Bialystok gubernia to convert. He practiced as a medical doctor among the Jews for his entire life with the name “Doctor Shmerl HEILPERN the convert.” However, he was the best kind of convert. He lived as a Jew among Jews. One could not recognize his conversion in him. Yehoshua Heshl's other children were good Jews who were well known in the city during my time.[26]


  1. It is similarly related in the Talmud: Reb Eliezar son of Rebbe Shimeon was a police official on watch for thieves. Reb Yehosha ben Karha [said]: “You, sharp, son of wine, how long will you give the people of our God to the penalty of death?” He sent him to say: “Thorn, exterminate you from the wine garden.” He answered him: “Let the owner of the wine garden (God) come and let him exterminate his thorns.” Return
  2. Perezhitoe [Experience] Vol. II 236-247. Return
  3. Yu. ESSEN, “Who is He?” Novy Voskhod [New Sunrise] 1913 Return
  4. The Vineyard of Reb A. Atlas, no. 18. Return
  5. For his work, Der Yidisher Poslanik [The Jewish Diplomat], Vilna, 1880, indirectly also for his work, Shabtai Zvi, 1864, and also for others. Return
  6. Tsukunft [Future], New York, no. 8 (August). Return
  7. In the Bialystoker Tagenblat [Bialystok Daily Newspaper], 1913, no. 16-23, my coworker, Moshe TAJCZ, wrote about Heshl MEDALSZCZIK, using the material I had given him. However, now at the reworking of this chapter I could not make use of that work because Moshe TAJCZ wrote for a popular [newspaper] column. The most recent sources also were unavailable to him. Return
  8. One would usually say – MEDALCZIK, although the intention was MEDALSZCZIK. The doctrine to characterize a person by a nickname was very widespread in Bialystok (for example: Leyzer Blizzard, Leibl Destruction and other ugly nicknames). The Talmud warns against this: There are three who are bound for hell: he who attaches a nickname to his fellow man… (Talmud, Bava Metzi'a [The Middle Gate] 58, page 2.) Return
  9. Bialystoker Togenblat, 1913, no. 23. I have this information from the local old men. Return
  10. It may be that there is some truth in Heshl HEILPERN's words in his petition to the Russian Tsar that Bialystok Jews considered it fortunate to be taken in as subjects of the Russian Tsar after the harsh regimes of the Prussian authorities in regard to the Jews. Return
  11. This was told to me by his son, Mr. Falk Kempner, in the name of his respected father. Return
  12. The grave of a second son, our teacher and rabbi, Benyamin-Zev, son of our teacher and rabbi Yehoshua Heshl HEILPERN, who died on the day of the holy eve of the Sabbath, the 5th of Menakhem Av 5633 [22 July 1803] is in the old cemetery. Return

[Page 135]

ו    F

The Evil Cantonist Decree

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

When Nikolai I, Aleksander's brother, ascended the Czarist throne, a very bitter time for Jews in Russia began. The era of Nikolai I (1825-1855) belongs to the darkest in Jewish history, mainly because of the Cantonist Decree. On the 26th of August 1827, he issued the cruel recruiting law that had a very bad, actually a destructive effect, on the life of the individual and on the community at large. Jews were completely free of military service under the Polish regime. No general personal military duty existed in Poland. Military service was a privilege for the Polish nobility and compulsory for the peasantry, the property of the nobility. All Jews were considered as the merchant class and, therefore, were free from military service. For this the Jews had to pay 500 rubles for each recruit who would have been taken, according to the orders of September 1794 and January 1796.

[Page 136]

According to the state order that was promulgated on the 26th of August 1827 (5587), the Jewish kehile [organized community] had to fill the debt of military service with people, not with money. According to the 34th paragraph of military service and according to the supplement to the 37th, the kehile had the right to provide as a recruit each Jew at that time [punishable] for irregular payment of taxes, for roving (for being a “vagrant”), for not having a passport and for other disorders that the kehile did not have to tolerate. This statute was a terrible means in the hands of the influential people to provide whoever they wished for military service. And although according to the government law of 1827, the kehile was obliged to maintain books that showed the rank of the recruit, books in which all candidates for recruitment should be entered in a certain order, as a result of which there would have been a just division for military service among all of the classes, the kehile actually did not observe it in order to take care of the children of the rich and aristocratic families.

Since these recruit books were not in order, the government demanded of the Jews more recruits than were justified based on the size of the Jewish population. This caused the kehile in 1850 to begin to take all young men as recruits and even small children as well as old people and, in accordance with the law of 1853, even those from other communities. The rich would ransom themselves from military service with the recruit receipts, which cost 300 rubles.

Military service then amounted to 25 years, beginning at 25 years of age. The government would send away those young children who were caught to the Russian villages, to the peasants, to be raised and the older children were placed in, what were referred to as, “Cantonist schools” in order to convert them.

The most bitter of the cruel laws for Jews that Nikolai I issued and which places him in the ranks of the greatest enemies of the Jewish people was the ukase about military service for Jews that had a particularly hideous and ruthless purpose for them: conversion. The evil ukase was issued as a result of the report and the project of Nikolai's right hand, the leader of the secret police, Benckendorff, who had two purposes for taking the Jewish young for military service: first, decrease the number of Jews in general and secondly, force the Jews to convert. According to this ukase, Jews aged 12 to 25 should be taken as soldiers and child-recruits should be held in Cantonist institutions until their 18th year.

[Page 137]

The institutions for Cantonists had been founded in the year 1725, [in the time of] Peter the Great. Children who were born to soldiers were all considered as Cantonists. Cantonist battalions were in Novgorad, Smolensk, Woroniec, Troitsk, Uralsk, Omsk, Petrovsk, Tobolsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and Semipalatinsk. If there was no place for them in the battalion, the children were given to the peasants or artisans to work. It was worse for them there than in the battalions.

The kehile was responsible for presenting the required number of recruits, declaring that denouncers who revealed the hidden young Jews would receive 100 rubles a head as a reward.

This terrible edict touched only the poor class of children. They were not taken from the wealthy and powerful. It stands the hair on end when one reads the descriptions of the cruel deeds that were done by the Jewish snatchers employed by the kehile who would steal away small, weak, trembling children from their mothers. In certain cases – children of only 5-6 years of age. The children would be deported to the Siberian Cantonist battalions, where they would be forced to convert by frightening persecutions and torture. The children would die by the thousands on the way to Siberia or in the barracks for the young Cantonists. The edict was regularly strengthened; up to 36 decrees were issued until the year 1855. The most ruthless decrees concerned catching Jews without passports and taking double the number of recruits as a punishment for holding out recruits. The Jews had to provide double the number of recruits than the Christians. The heads of the kehilus also had the right to provide as soldiers everyone whom they found sinful and who did not find favor with them. They would also catch Jews from other kehilus to cover the number from their kehilus.

In 1856, Aleksander II repealed the edict permitting the taking of children up to 18 as soldiers, that is, the actual Cantonist edict. But the edicts concerning the responsibilities of the kehile for providing the demanded number of recruits remained in effect and because of this the sorrowful well known snatchers, denouncers and Sborshchikes [collectors] continued to rampage – until the year 1874.

According to the figures that are known for the years 1833-1854, it is calculated that approximately 70,000 Jewish children fell as victims of the Cantonist edict.

The Jewish soldiers having served 25 years did not have the right in Nikolai's time to remain living in their places in deep Russia, but they were sent back to their birthplaces. But in Alek-

[Page 138]

sander II's time, in 1867, they were given this right. And later, almost all of the Jewish kehilus consisted of these veteran Nikolayver soldiers in the city of that area of Russia where Jews were prohibited to live.[27] In Poland, the Russian regime first brought in military service in 1844 with less harsh regulations.

ז    G

Bialystok and the Evil Cantonist Decree

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

In Bialystok, military service created the greatest distress in the Jewish families. The Bialystok wives gave religious divorces to their husbands who were taken as recruits. The general-governor inquired about two such cases, asking whether such divorces were genuine. He asked the War Minister about it. The matter was forwarded for a decision by the Minister's Jewish Committee, which replied that if the rabbis acknowledge that the divorces are legal according to religious law, then they are lawful for the government and the divorced wives can be struck from the list of the battalion wives.

The first case involved a certain Yankl Gelbart from Bialystok, who was taken as a recruit. His wife, Dwoyra, at first agreed and went with him. But in Grodno, she had regrets and received a religious divorce from him at the Grodno beis-din [religious court] and came back and married a certain Leib Roczan in Bialystok. The Bialystok kehile was afraid to erase the divorced wife from the list of the military wives on its own responsibility, until it received permission from the general-governor.

Another case took place in Bialystok with a second woman who did not want to follow her husband, a recruit, to the city where his regiment was stationed. Bialystok police turned to the general-governor with a question, asking if the woman could be sent, despite her opposition, to her husband along with a procession of convicts. The matter was sent to Constantyn Pawlowitch (Nikolai's brother) and he answered that because of her hostility, the woman could not be sent.[28]

[Page 139]

The veteran Nikolai soldiers as well as the small number of Cantonists who remained Jews and returned to Bialystok were not treated with respect. They received the respect that was coming to them as Jews who resisted the greatest temptations and remained Jews. They sacrificed for the glory of God with this, but living for so many years among gentiles, separated entirely from Jews and Yidishkeit [Jewish way of life], they became very ignorant. They could not even speak Yiddish well.[29] Consequently, a Nikolai soldier was a curse word among Bialystok Jews. They had absolutely no esteem in the prayer houses and minyonim [10 men required for prayer].

Therefore they came together and themselves created their own soldier's minyon with the name Mesilat Yesharim [Path of the Just]. There they would study between Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] every day and Shabbos and holidays with a rabbi. The minyon still exists today with their children on Koluszinka (Yeshiva) Street number 26 in the small private residence of a friend.

They have a Pinkes [book of records or register], Registry of Military Men and Map of Where They Lived in Bialystok, 5631 (1871). There is a beautiful drawing on the title page of a golden crown supported by guns and a lion with other animals. There are also many precepts whose purpose was to motivate the members to go in the way of rectitude (righteousness) and would uphold the Jewish religion, innocence and honesty. They should also have love of friends, they should not come to quarrels, should support each other with interest-free loans and visit and care for sick members. The aliyahs [the act of being called up for the reading of a section of the Torah] for the weekly Torah portions Beshalach and Chukat belong to the members. Each member is obligated to give five guldn weekly to the group treasury. The language of the Pinkes is a very beautiful Hebrew, but it is a shame that the author of the Pinkes did not provide something about its history instead of florid language. As I was told by a member, there were several Cantonists among the members – his father was also a Cantonist.

Military service was despised among the Jews in Russia because of this. For a certain time one could be freed [from service] during the era of Aleksander with money. All of the rich children were freed with [the payment of] money. And for others, rabbis collected money for the ransom of prisoners and also to free poor, genteel children. Other remedies were used, also not legal. Even

[Page 140]

causing oneself to be crippled, so as not to serve. They would bribe members of the conscription commission because one was not obliged to serve a state in which Jews did not receive any rights as citizens and persecuted them with various restrictions; according to Jewish law it was a predatory regime. However, there were Jewish denouncers who would reveal all of this to the authorities if the kehile or those freed did not give them hush money. These denouncers were a plague on the Bialystok Jews.

The rabbis and community workers of that time groundlessly blamed the heads of the kehile for not standing against the Cantonist edicts, the snatchers and the denouncers. This was an impossibility, as with the Spanish Jews who in their time could not oppose a Torquemada. Nikolai I was a similar type – a tyrant, a foe of the Jewish people and a sadist. Converting Jews was a task of a lifetime for him, an idée fixe. The Russian Jews did everything possible to turn aside the edict, with taxes of great sums for all of their confidants – ministers, senators, high officials. One senator received 20,000 ducats and Count Mordvinov, 100,000 rubles, just for staying quiet. But nothing helped, the tyrannical czar personally employed all means to convert the Jewish Cantonists.

It is worthwhile to present a case of Kiddish-haShem [“Sanctification of God's name” – martyrdom] exhibited by the secret practitioners of Judaism. Several hundred Jewish child Cantonists were led out to the Volga [River] during a military parade before Nikolai in Kazakh [Kazakhstan], and spirituality in full parade awaited the Czar at the conversion ceremony. When he arrived, the Czar told the children to enter the river to immerse themselves to change their names. The children fulfilled his order. But according to an earlier agreed upon decision they all drowned themselves. Nikolai reached for his head with terror.

The rabbis could do nothing against the snatchers, the influential people, the leaders of the kehile; if they [the rabbis] had been pointed out as at troublemakers they would have felt the czar's ukase and they would all have been sent to Siberia for hard labor (see further Reb Lipele's biography). Still, many rabbis showed self-sacrifice by rescuing poor Jewish children from their hands, such as Reb Elihu Drecziner, Reb Yankele Boysker, Reb Elinke Lider, Reb Yakov Berlin[30] and Reb Lipele in Keidan. They would sentence informers to death according the law in The Breastplate of Judgment and this judgment on them was carried out, as was shown in the story of The New-Uszicer Judgment that for killing two Jewish informers, 70 esteemed Jews were sentenced to penal servitude, lashes with a riding crop and losing their possessions, among them rabbis (among them, the Ruzshiner Rebbe, who then escaped to Austria).[31]


  1. Ibid, vol. 7, pages 246-247. Return
  2. This is based on Y. HESEN's work and on Patriotic War of 1812 and Russian Jews, St. Petersburg, Razum [Reason] Publishers. Return
  3. He was the grandfather of Moshe WALLACH, who was the father of Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov.

    Yankl Dawidowicz WALLACH is also remembered among the esteemed Jews of Bialystok who made a special payment for being able to wear a yarmulke [skull cap] and Jewish clothing, that he was the diplomatic emissary of generous men abroad. His grandsons, whom I knew here, among them the Ruzhanoyer Rabbi, Reb Shabsil WALLACH, who was considered a Talmudic sage, were traditional Jews but it appears that Dovid WALLACH was a very capable person as was his grandson Meir WALLACH-LITVINOV and here was fulfilled: “haTorah mekhazeres al akhsanya shelah” [“The Torah returns to be hereditary in the family.”]. Return

  1. See: A. Levin, Kantonistn [Cantonists], Warsaw, 1934. The detailed picture is given there. Here I have shortened it, because as much as it also refers to Bialytstok, I have touched upon it, although many things are generally known. Return
  2. Ibid, p. 99. Return
  3. A relative, a veteran Cantonist who was taken from Bialystok as a child, once came to my father-in-law, Reb Mordekhai-Shlomo Wendl. He was very ignorant. He spoke Yiddish mixed with Russian. The family was ashamed of him. He went back to deep Russia where he had lived. Return
  4. A. Levin, as above, pages 133-135. Return
  5. Ibid, pages 128 on. Return

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Bialystok, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max G Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2017 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 21 May 2016 by MGH