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[Page 141]

Chapter 8

Features of Jewish Life
in Bialystok until the 1860's

א    A

The Economic Situation

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The economic situation in Bialystok became worse after BRANICKI's death because the extravagant life of the court of the last BRANICKI and his frequent royal guests created income for the Jewish merchants and shopkeepers in Bialystok.

The commercial situation improved during the short, malicious rule of Prussia because the businesses importing foreign goods from all over Poland and later from over all of Russia began to develop. At the beginning of Russian domination, when its government organs still strongly oppressed the Jews, the Bialystok merchants made use of this situation to enrich all branches of trade. Half smuggling played a role, as well as uncontrolled exploitation of the large Bialowieska Forest. There was progress in the considerable export trade in wood outside the country. Jews also became rich from the Russian government contracts. There were very rich Jewish families in Bialystok then, for instance, Itshe ZABLUDOWSKI, the large Bialowieska wood trader, and the rich contractors, the brothers Kopl and Dovid HEJLPERN[1], EPSZTAJN and the like.

In 1814 it appears that only three Jewish merchants were registered among the Bialystok traders in the first guilds: Gedaliah Abramowicz GRODZENSKI, Isak Dawidowicz ZABLUDOWSKI and Ahron Lejbowicz EBRSZTYN

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(EPSZTAJN)[2], but only those who had direct business with the government registered. The remaining did not register. The shops that were partly involved with the business of importing from abroad were in a good position.

In 1829 Frajde's son Shmuel, Leib HEJLPERN, Meir LEJZEROWICZ, Lipshe MOSZKOWICZ, the widow, Leib SZTAJNBERG, Leib ASZ, Izrail MUSZTARDE, Jankl TIKOCKI, Avraham RAFALOWSKI, Nekhe's son Matis and Avraham SEGAL were registered as Jewish shop owners in Bialystok and of those shops under the city council (Rotusz – Cignwolf): Zalel LIFSZIC, Tovya SLONIMSKI, Zindl LIPMANOWICZ, Leib ZELMANOWICZ, Meir TIFERMOS, Gitl DAWIDOWICZ, Hirsh BARASZ, Itske KOBRINSKI – all Jews, not one non-Jew among them. The lease for eight shops in Cignwolf brought into the city a yearly income of 7,250 rubles.[3]

The better economic situation was in the neighborhoods outside the ghetto and synagogue courtyard in Kipowe (today Pilsudski), Bazarne (Koszczuszke), Nikajwer (Senkewicza) Jurower, Aleksanderowske (Warszarske) Streets and the streets beyond, such as Gumiener (Kupiecka), Delcze (Kilinski), where the Jewish merchants from the world of commerce lived. Well-to-do rich Jews and individual wealthy men were found among them. The two brothers-in-law – Itshke ZABLUDOWSKI and Kopl HEJLPERN – stood at their head. The first, the above-mentioned Isak Dawidowicz ZABLUDOWSKI, exploited the nearby Bialowieska government forests and chopped down their famous oaks and transported them abroad. He became a very wealthy man from this. His rich children founded the first self-contained Jewish fine cloth factory in Bialystok and in addition expanded the commerce from the textile industry in the city.

His father-in-law, Jakov Kopl, son of our teacher, our rabbi, Yehoshua Heshl HEJLPERN, was the largest Jewish contractor in the vicinity. He worked for the Russian government in various areas. When he became rich, he bought one of the largest houses in the city from a Swiss man, which still belongs to his heirs (at the corner of Kilinksi bordering the Polish Catholic Church). Later, when he was totally occupied with the Brisk fortress, where he built the

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largest number of houses, he moved from Bialystok to Brisk. There his undertaking employed many Jews and his wife, Fayge, distinguished herself with large donations and charity. They died there (he – in 5613 [about 1853], she – in 5617 [about 1857]) and their children erected a marble matzevah [headstone], on which their deeds on behalf of Brisk are described.[4] His son, Dovid HEJLPERN, born in Bialystok, was also a well known rich man. He settled in Kovno, where he founded a large banking house. His son, Benyamin, Malka Rayzl's son-in-law, who founded a small spinning and finishing textile factory, remained here in Bialystok. His very respected son-in-law, Dovid Avraham KEMPNER, one of the greatest scholars in the city, the author of L'Mateh Yehuda [The Tribe of Yehuda], became the owner of his brother-in-law's house. He also was involved at first with the manufacture of cloth, but later he was occupied as a contractor. However, he did not become wealthy.

Wealthy merchants were then found among the manufacturers and tea traders in Bialystok. The majority were involved with export and import all over Poland and Russia.

I still found traces of them: Meir Elihayu ZYLBERBLAT, the respected merchant and proprietor, a son-in-law of “Birkat Rosh[1*] (his son, Yehoshua and his children were later great merchants and manufacturers in the Lodz textile region), and Hersh and Sheva FRAJDENBERG (their children later founded well known firms: Borukh FRAJDNEBERG, a large Moscow merchant and scholar and their sons, Berl and Meir, large firms in the Lodz textile trade) and still other such families.

They were from the area outside the ghetto. But Jews who supported their families through home-based earnings that were drawn from taverns, wine and tea houses, inns and small stores carrying all necessary products for exchange with the surrounding villages at the local market, lived in the entire synagogue area of the old ghetto with its back streets, where Surazer, Piaskes and Khanejkes Streets are found today. In addition, the involvement of the surrounding 59 Jewish settlements that were found in the surrounding villages was important. Jews there earned their livelihood from taverns, leased property, mills and the like. They would buy agricultural products from the peasants and deliver them to Jewish merchants in the city and for it buy

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all of their needs from the village. The price of the most needed articles was very cheap at that time. In 1820 a ram could be bought for 40-50 groshn. A bushel of barley cost 6-8 zlotys, a bushel of corn 4 zlotys, a bushel of oats, 1 zloty and 10 groshn and so on.[5]

No great earnings were made or could be made in the ghetto quarter. There a family was barely supported. If someone got rich there, he moved from the ghetto quarter to the quarter outside the ghetto. Thus, a move from one class to another, from the lower, poorer neighborhood to the higher, richer one always took place. Today, even with a smaller group, the difference between the two parts of the city can still be seen. The Jews in the synagogue courtyard neighborhood are referred to with the invective, Khanajkowe, by those living outside the synagogue courtyard neighborhoods, from the name Khanajkows, which is one of the poorest synagogue courtyard neighborhoods that is inhabited by what is considered the lowest and poorest class.

The Russian leadership had various effects here, good and bad, on the economic condition of the Bialystok Jews in their two parts of the city. It affected the Jews in the neighborhoods outside the ghetto very favorably because it opened the great Russian market without any limits for their trade and industry and through this, Bialystok became a famous commercial city with very rich merchants and manufacturers. But the Jews from the ghetto quarter remained in their provincial condition and with informal income, with their primitive trade with peasants and with the surrounding communities that already felt the restrictive Russian laws and the harsh attitudes toward Jewish retail trade. The Russian government gradually carried out and sharpened the malicious laws of Prussian Jewish regulations that were directed at distancing the Jews from the villages and limiting their ownership and trade opportunities, until they were driven entirely from the village. During this time, almost no Jews remained in any of the 59 Jewish communities around Bialystok.

From the beginning, the Russian government fought both living in the village and earning a living by selling liquor. In 1845, a general law was issued: a) Jews, in general, of all classes, are forbidden to live in all villages without exception and to open taverns and inns; b) Jews are forbidden to be personally employed or through other Jews or Christians in the retail sale of bread, wine, whiskey, alcohol;

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c) they are forbidden to carry and transport these drinks; d) they are forbidden to have breweries; e) they are forbidden to distill liquor.[6]

In addition to all of this, competition occurred with the Polish nobility concerning the land of the arende [lessee]. The Polish nobility carried out a struggle with the Jewish lessees and tavern owners from the 18th century on, since the recognition of an expansion of the foreign market for agricultural products. The economic essence of the struggle consisted of this: both the Polish noble estate owner and the others who would rent estates as arendes, strove as owners or lessees to exploit the various income possibilities of the estate. Since the Polish noble had decided to open his own taverns, he no longer needed the Jews – he tried to drive out the Jew entirely from the village.

A law was issued in 1825 about forcing Jews from the villages of the entire area from 50 verst [two-thirds of a mile] from the border.[7] In 1843, all Jews who lived inside the 50-verst line near the border with Prussia and Austria were driven out.[8] Then a series of preliminary methods for new expulsions from Grodno, Podolie, Kiev gubernias were issued from 1827 to 1835.[9]

Little by little, the Jews, ejected and driven out of surrounding communities, moved to the nearby shtetlekh and cities. Almost everyone from the 59 communities around Bialystok entered the capital – Bialystok itself. They settled in the synagogue courtyard neighborhoods which were cheaper for them and more comfortable and more appropriate to their life and employment up to that point. They created competition with the old settled Bialystok residents here with their communal employment. Therefore, the poverty in the synagogue courtyard neighborhoods was greater. As a result, the Bialystok Jews from the richer quarters always had to come to their aid, creating various philanthropic and cultural institutions for this purpose. Because of

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this, the result in time was that the synagogue courtyard neighborhoods were always the recipients of charity and the neighborhoods outside the ghetto were the givers. Although there were exceptions found in both categories, this was the consciousness that prevailed there.[10]

The bad economic situation of the Bialystok ghetto residents is shown in the forward to the Pinkes [register] of the gemiles hesidim [interest free loan societies] with Reb Welwele's signature. There it is clearly said: “We have recognized the miserable, oppressed condition of our city poor for whom God has embittered their lives and there is no one to help them and very few are found who will support a poor and oppressed man and will lift a hand and give him how much he needs in the current oppressive times. God should take pity on them and bring them to freedom; many people and generous men have no ability to lend money at this time, when he (that is, the poor man) is in need…”

This life in the houses of the Jewish synagogue courtyard neighborhoods, whose condition and appearance we can have an idea of according to the remaining bod geslekh [street leading to the bathhouse] of the synagogue courtyard, corresponded to the description of the Jewish way of life in the shtetlekh of Grodner gubernia [province] which BOBROWSKI[11] gives in the later 1850's:

“The most significant number of Jews are poor; they are always in need, they are always absorbed in finding a piece of bread. Assailed with large families, they live in great crowdedness that cannot be described. Very often a house of three to four rooms houses up to 12 families. The appearance of these apartments is sufficiently wretched. The dirt from the inside goes outside. It is enough to go through the city to recognize where these unfortunate souls live by the exterior appearance of a particular part of it.

“Life among Jews in this class passes in misery, deprivation and eternal embarrassment. The poor Jews do not nourish themselves enough; entire families are often satisfied with only a pound of bread, a herring and a few onions. Their clothing is always torn, dirty. For 15 kopekes, a Jew becomes someone who works from job to job, running around the entire day.”

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Yehezkiel KOTIK describes the way of life in a shtetl in Grodner gubernia at that time: “The shtetl was poor and it was drudgery to earn a poor piece of bread. No one tasted any meat for an entire week or even a small white bread, and fresh baked goods were only eaten in a few houses. They ate black bread, which everyone would bake for themselves once a week or once every two weeks, because it was believed that when a bread was old, even less would be eaten. In the morning, they ate krupnik [groats], grits and potatoes, or an ounce of butter or a half quart of milk or a whole quart was put in a large pot of krupnik for perhaps six people. For lunch they ate borsht and bread and ate a piece of herring. In the evening, they cooked farfel or lukhshen [noodles] with the same portion of milk. The lower classes make noodles from root flour.”[12]

It could be that this description is a little exaggerated for the Bialystok synagogue courtyard because its residents received support from their more prosperous brothers in the other, richer half of the city, particularly in the 50's to 70's of the last century [19th century], when the textile and other industries began to spread. However, from the description by a contemporary about life in the better neighborhoods of Bialystok in the 60's it can be seen that Jewish life was also not so splendid there.[13]

Translator's Footnote

  1. Birkat Rosh is the name of a book concerned with abstinence according to Jewish religious law, written by Rabbi Asher haCohen. There is no indication why Meir Elihayu ZYLBERBLAT's father-in-law was referred to in this way. Return

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ה    E

A Payment for the
Right to Wear a Yarmulke [skullcap]

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

We further present here several facts and documents that give an idea about Jewish life in the middle 19th century from various perspectives. We begin with a story about a specific Jewish tax.

We find registered in the treasury of the duma (city hall) of 1850 a remarkable Jewish tax: five rubles from the son, Pinkhas, of Benyamin Kapelowicz HALPERIN, first guild merchant, for the right to wear a yarmulke, and 53 rubles for being able to wear Jewish clothing from the same HALPERIN, from Mikhal Chajmowicz ZABLODOWSKI, from Shmuel Chaimowicz JAFFA, from Yankl Davido-

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wicz WALACH, from Chaim Yanowicz AJZENBERG, from Leizer Shmuelewicz PIGIAN, from Eliahu Perec Berkowicz BAGENON, from Gabriel Yankelewicz FRAJDKES, from Dovid-Avraham KEMPNER, and Yankl Mowszowicz KOTLOWSKI. To all of those who made payment to the city duma, tickets were given with the signature: Glasni (deputy) KARAFIOL (a Jew), accountant RADKOWSKI. It was said on the ticket that for payment by the user of the ticket of such and such sum imposed money, with the favor of the highest supervision over the meat-tax income, from December 1844, according to this and this ukaze of the Grodno gubernia [province] managing committee – permission is given the wearer of Jewish clothing as before and further until 1851. It is remarkable that several of the people mentioned stated (as is required by one stipulated form) a request about yarmulkes and Jewish clothing in the name of the Czar.[18]

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ו    F

A Judgment Over a Dowry

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

We find a picture of a wealthy man's marriage arrangement that was agreed to in Bialystok in the 1840's in The Book of Responsa Bigdei Yesha (question 31) of Reb Shmuel, a scribe and a dayan [judge]:

A rich Jew from Bialystok, the owner of a tavern and a house of residence, had a married daughter, his only daughter who he had married off to a young man whom he absolutely promised to give a dowry of 3,000 gulden in addition to a brick house. He also pledged to give the married couple cash for nearly 10 years from the time of the wedding and to clothe them and provide them with shoes and with support for all of their necessities, from the smallest to the greatest. He also promised to give his son-in-law books worth 200 Prussian Reich's Dollars and holiday and Shabbos clothing for 150 ducats and, also, clothing for the weekdays and for beds and linens and a gift for his daughter – everything one is wont to do among very rich men. He gave promissory notes for everything for the benefit of the inheritors before the wedding with money set aside for them. Only for the gift of jewelry for his daughter did he not designate a price.

In order to fulfill the obligation, he mortgaged all of his properties. His son and daughter-in-law also signed for the fulfillment of the obligations of the contracts. The groom's brother gave a debenture for

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a sum of 4,500 gulden to assure the obligation of a Levirate marriage,[2*] God forbid. The in-law obligated himself to gave the bride a banknote for half the inheritance received by the son of 3,000 gulden. According to the custom in our country, the debenture to assure the halitzah [ceremony undertaken to avoid a Levirate marriage] must be half of the addition to the marriage contract[19] and the sum of the debenture was half of the dowry.

Not long after the wedding the father died rich in property and houses and estates and residences. He left a will in which he made his wife the guardian of all of his possessions and stated that she should fulfill his obligations and desires. His wife fulfilled them and supported the match for 10 years and seven months of every need from the tavern (the son sold the residence). After this, when the match had eaten up the time of kest [room and board for a set number of years given to a son-in-law by the bride's father] and he had to [make it on his own] (it appears that the mother, the guardian, also died and the son became the inheritor of all the property), the marriage agreement demanded that the inheritor fulfill all of the commitments of the deceased father. The inheritor complained about the commitments. The entire matter resulted in a Din-Torah [law suit before a religious court] in front of the three Bialystok dayanim [religious judges], among them the author of Bigdei Yesha, the scribe and dayan, Reb Shmuel, the son of our teacher and rabbi, the Rabbi, Reb Josef SEGAL and his uncle's son, the Rabbi, Reb Naftali KHAC. The three judges disagreed among themselves on five points and came to an understanding: They lay the matter before the greatest Talmudic authority of that time – the Poyzner Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva EIGER.[20]


  1. It was said in Bialystok at the time that when Itshe ZABLUDOWSKI built his Beis-Medrash [house of prayer or synagogue] that was later converted by his children into the Choral Synagogue, he turned to his brother-in-law, Kopl HEJLPERN, the contractor: “I, a simple person, have built a Beis-Medrash and you, a scholar, have built, lehavdel [word used to separate the holy from the secular] a Catholic Church in Brisk on contract.” He answered: “I have built for your children (who were already educated and free-thinking) and you for my children (who were scholars and pious) Return
  2. See Sprawaczni Kalendar, Bialystok, 1913, p. 73. Return
  3. Ibid. Return
  4. See details of the style of the matzevah in Ir Tehillah [City of Praise], Warsaw, 1886, pp. 234-237. Return
  5. H. Moscicki, Bialystok, Zarys Historyczny [Historical Sketch], p. 148. Return
  6. Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire, vol. 20: 19289 Return
  7. Ibid, V.II, 30581.
    See Levanda's Chronology of Russian Laws and Rules Which Concern Jews, Petersburg, 1874, p. 58. Return
  8. Levanda's Chronology, 1874, p. 545. Return
  9. Details about this can be found in A. Margolis's History of Jews in Russia, Moscow-Kharkov-Minsk, 1930, vol. I, study 3-4. Return
  10. In 1913, the ghetto neighborhoods were still accused of the fact that even their rich Jewish residents take little part in supporting kehile institutions and are wont to leave everything to the residents of the neighborhoods outside the ghetto. My Bialystoker Togeblat [Bialystok Daily Newspaper] carried out a campaign against the “custom.” Return
  11. BOBOVSKY, T. I. p. 858. Return
  12. Yehezkiel Kotik, My Memories, Berlin, 1922, Part 1, pages 45-46. Return
  13. See Yisroel Guterman's memoir in Bialystoker Shtime [Bialystok Voice], New York, October, 1924, No. 10.; Return
  14. See Sfrawoczni Kalendar, Bialystok, 1913, p. 74. Return
  15. It is more important that such useful and important customs, which were spread in accordance with his words throughout the country, later were entirely annulled. I have not found them mentioned anywhere else. Return
  16. Details about this are seen in Questions and Answers by Reb Akiva Eiger, Part B. Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A Levirate marriage is a marriage in which the brother of a deceased husband is under obligation to marry the widow of his brother and the widow is under obligation to marry her deceased husband's brother Return


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