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[Page 41]

Bielsk the District Town

by Motos Kaplansk

Translated by Nancy Schoenburg

I arrived in Bielsk in 1922. In truth I was born in Bielsk but during the 1st World War I left for Russian Ukraine. I returned to Bielsk-Podlaski, my birthplace, as an 8-year-old boy.

Actually, my background was as a member of the proletariat, since I managed to start working at a factory at the age of 6. Besides that, we spent the entire War with hunger and constant changes of government rule in Ukraine, and with every change it meant starting all over again from scratch. There were the Bolsheviks and Kerensky, and after that the Germans came in, and after that Hetman and Makhno the murderer and after that Petlyura's followers who were Ukrainian nationals full of anti-Semitism. At the time I was used to suffering and distress. But then I also had to absorb the most difficult of Jewish experiences. One time I happened to be present when two men entered with a gun and set it up opposite my father and threatened him until he gave them what they wanted before they would leave. A second time I was present when a pogrom was taking place in town. Everyone was fleeing or hiding inside the cellars. We children went outside and saw what was happening. We saw a large procession of enflamed murderers gathering at the road, taking Jews prisoner and beating them cruelly.


Hindenburg Street in Bielsk


Usually before a regime change, its soldiers were commanded to blow up existing facilities in the town. It is difficult to say that these facilities were for all intents and purposes military installations, but they thought it was right to bomb the train station and other “fortresses” and such as a means of gaining victory. Between one rule and another we would all just lie in our beds or under the beds.


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the cellars and other secure places, we trembled at every sound of voices, of firing and bombardment. And with the next morning's light, a new wave of fear flowed through us as a new authority began to appear. I remember that my mother walked out one morning to get water and some riders came upon her. She was walking with empty pails, which was not a good sign, and for that they were ready to beat her – to kill her, because she was going toward them with empty pails as if to bring down upon them some kind of disaster. There were also some ridiculous situations at a time like this, with one group on the way out and others already pursuing them from the other side of the road. Very slowly yesterday's ruling group began tossing out the booty that they had snatched by force just the day before. This was to lighten the load for their horses. They would toss out furs and pitchers and all kinds of valuable items, everything that was making the wagon heavier. After that the road would be littered with all kinds of things left from the brief battle that had been brewing. There were piles of trash and dirt all around. All of this was set on fire and we children would throw bullets into the bonfire and hide so we could watch the bullets explode. That this did not result in a disaster is only a matter of luck and a miracle.

Basically, I remember Bielsk as a clean and pretty town whose leaders took an interest in its appearance. From time to time, they would put a fresh coat of paint on all the fences out front –white or blue-white paint - and this made it a beautiful, colorful place. The main street and the side streets where the Jews lived were clean and lovely. The Jews on the Council had an influence in matters relating to the efficiency of services in the town and its economy. As for the economic life there, it was the central place for all the surrounding villages in the area.

The province that Bielsk belonged to at the time was bigger than Belgium and sometimes we would wonder at how it was that the capital of the largest region in Poland was a city like Białystok and Bielsk was the District City. Towns such as Siemictycze, Brjansk [Bransk, Poland], Białowieża and Haluvka[1] belonged to the District of Bielsk. They were about the same size or even larger than she was. Białowieża Forest, the biggest forest in Europe, was also a part of this region. There was a famous place whose size was just 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer where about 40 different types of trees were growing. It was known to be a special place, and indeed it was. It was chosen in its day to be the summer residence of the Russian Czar.

Bielsk in this regard served as an important transit location when the Czar would go through there. In fact, that might have been what influenced them to choose it as the District City. It was a transit point between Bialystok and Brisk to Warsaw. You could go on the Brisk road or on the Bialystok road to Warsaw. Bielsk was situated between these two large cities and the overall area surrounding Bielsk was similar in size to Belgium. Many towns could be found around that area, and every one of them had a considerable number of Jews. This included Orla and Hinsika[2] and Kleszczele and other spots. In Hinsika, which was connected to the forest, there were large sawmills processing the wood. Jews were in this industry but not as workers. They were sawmill owners. I did not know any who were laborers, not one.

It was at the center of the Polish proletariat. Other places were filled with farmers, and laborers were almost nonexistent.

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In Bielsk itself there were no factories. It had a workshop for felt boots which employed not more than 10 – 15 workers. That was Bider and there also was Michalchik. I worked at one of them for a time. At Michalchik they processed the felt boots, and I was the only Jewish person in the entire shop. All the others were gentiles. Jewish workshop owners thus were in Bielsk, even in “heavy” trades. There were carpenters, cart owners and porters. I also worked in a store as a porter and transporter. It was there that I saw an interesting occurrence. There was a young woman, daughter of a grain salesman in one of the towns. She was about 18 years old. She lifted up onto herself a 100-kilo sack of sugar. The community of working people doing physical labor was very interesting. They were not cultured people, not the cartmen nor the porters. But they were good, devoted Jews, and they did their work faithfully. They lived their lives with honesty and family values.

Translator's footnotes

  1. No reference to a town named Haluvka could be found on JewishGen, Wikipedia, in Where Once We Walked, or on the internet. Return
  2. Although no reference to a town named Hinsika could be found on JewishGen, Wilipedia, in Where Once We Walked, or on the internet, its description as being connected to the Białowieża Forest could mean that Hinsika is actually a reference to the town of Hajnówka. Return

[Page 44]

Special Bielsk

by Fanya Greenberg

Translated by Nancy Schoenburg

I was a refugee in Bielsk before my parents were. I completed gymnasia [secondary school] in Volodymyr-Volynsk [in NW Ukraine]. I traveled to visit there, and I became a refugee from the Austrian Front before my parents became refugees of the German Front [during WWI]. We met in Kiev in 1915. In any event, this was a small chapter of my life, yet my connection to Bielsk is very strong indeed. I thought about this. It is very possible that this is an idealization and perhaps I am not being objective. I thought – why is that? It goes without saying – it is because these were the best years of my life. Without any doubt it was connected to my good childhood. We traveled to Kharkov. My father was killed in 1919 in Kharkov, and we did not return. I left here [Israel at the time of writing] in the year 1937 to go to Bielsk, and of course, I found a different city. I thought a lot about what characterizes this city and why my connection to it is so strong.

Bielsk has a nickname “Zyaidna Tarbes [Yiddish meaning Silk Rucksack].[1] I searched for an exact translation of “turbes” [sic] but did not find one. A “tarmeel” [satchel] is a “turba.” In Yiddish it is also a symbol of poverty. When I tell people the nickname of the town, they say: “How fitting that is!” Bielsk was in general a poor city. Of course, there were some [people] less poor and some poorer and some richer. But every concern for the city, its local public service, was limited by the framework of poverty. This was a city without industry and without sources of livelihood. The youth did not have an opportunity to go away to study and would really just deteriorate. If they wanted to survive, they had to leave and go to study in Lodz or Bialystok. The city by itself was not able to support the next generations. I recall that it was a normal occurrence for people to be both poor and well-respected. They were poor but not down-and-out. Despite not being able to even buy themselves salt-herring, they did not feel that they were poor.


Bialystok Street in Bielsk

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So they would eat potatoes and dip them in lyag (zamit in Hebrew) [brine]. In addition to that, people taught their own children. We had a woman butcher, who would bring meat to my mother, from what I remember. She had two daughters, and she made an effort to educate them outside the city. Bielsk did not have a gymnasia (secondary school); they only had a pro-gymnasia.[2] We would study for four years and then continue in another city. The daughters of the butcher also studied in Kobryn. The difference in their ages was small, and they were both in the same class. They would buy black bread and hold it, so the bread would dry out and it would last longer. They would bring 25 kopecks per week. But – they were studying at the gymnasia.

The people of Bielsk were blessed with a sense of aesthetics, cleanliness and strictness in dress. One of the things that was characteristic of the city was that I almost never saw someone in Bielsk who was not neatly dressed. This was all connected to that idea of “Zyaidna Tarbes.”

I do not recall a difference by class. Not everyone was wretchedly poor. We, for example, had an affluent home. Some families were snobs who did not mix with others, but that depended more on the nature of the individual than on his standing. There were also several families that kept away from the affairs of the city, and some were almost indifferent to the city. My friends were all girls my age, beginning with Sirkin, lord of the city, and ending with Malka the butcher. All these, who were from one age group, were friends. It was hard to say that this was all one family, but I did not know the difference.

My mother was born in a village not far from Bielsk. At that time it was forbidden for Jews to be farmers and landowners. They were tenants of large farms and worked there. Our farm belonged to Rozen Einkovsky, and he was a Socialist. My mother was the eldest daughter of my grandfather who was a tenant farmer on the arid land mentioned above. All the Polish nobility was then rebelling within a nationalist sentiment. They would take my mother into the courtyard, and there she was given a socialistic influence. We received a “non-Jewish” education. At the age of ten I had to do my wash, or we had to work in the garden and water it. These things were unusual in the small Jewish community. However, it also set the atmosphere in the home. And I think that it was a common atmosphere for everyone's home.

I am always surprised about why my friend does not tell me even one time about the city where she was born, while I go on and on telling stories about Bielsk. It cannot be anything except that Bielsk was so different.

At the time that I was living there, Bielsk had 8,000 residents and of those 7,000 were Jews. It had only one chazirnik [pig farmer], and naturally not one Jew would go there. In any event, we had many non-Jewish friends, and I did not feel that I was a Jewess – as if there was something unusual in that. Besides, in general it had a Jewish spirit. We were very patriotic. We did not have very Orthodox people around us. Bendas' mother, the elderly rebbetzin, was the only one who wore a wig. In order to say what Bielsk was like, I always give as an example the home of our rabbi. All of Bendas' children were friendly to us, both because they lived next to us in the courtyard and also because they were our relatives going way back. They had a grown daughter, Rachela, whom I had brought here from Belgium with four children. Another one of the rabbi's daughters is a member of a moshav. One son is a Communist. One son lived on a kibbutz, and another son was a chemist. It is true that Rachela married a rabbi, but she was a very progressive woman. She gave the children a very nationalist Jewish education.[3]

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That was pretty characteristic of Bielsk; there was no rigidity – with religion or otherwise. In Bielsk there were no payot [sidelocks worn by some religious Jews], as I had seen in Volodymyr-Volynsk, where I had studied.

Everything in Bielsk was organized, clean and pretty. Even the streets were clean. I do not recall any particular people that cleaned the streets. I do remember that prisoners would prepare wood for the winter. My father used to spend time with the prisoners all day, and I do not remember whether the prisoners were involved in cleaning.

Homes did not have running water. We had a copper barrel. My father gave it away as a contribution at the time of the War. A barrel could hold 40 pails of water. There was a mikvah [ritual bath] and a bathhouse. I remember going with Mother to the bathhouse. She would disappear for a minute and go to the mikvah. At home we also had a bathtub that they would fill with water. We did not have indoor plumbing. Transportation was by cart. We were very good friends with the carter when I was studying in Volodymyr-Volynsk. When I would come back as a surprise or when the train came early, he would tell me everything, who had died, who had gotten married. Transportation between cities was by train.

When I returned to Bielsk in the year 1937, I was disappointed to a certain extent. Usually if you have memories of a particular place, don't go back to it again. But the main thing that I said was: “You have ruined the city for me.”

Bielsk had female students who studied outside of the country because in Russia they would not be accepted to the university. One girl, Roza Bermes, was a Bundist. She brought home expropriators[4] who robbed her father. One of the men was hung. He was an anarchist. I recall that there was a pogrom [a massacre of Jews] in Bialystok and the refugees slept at our house on the floor.

The Jews lived by helping one another, and from trade with the gentiles around the area. In Bielsk there was a fair once a week, and it was a big event. They would bring in farm products, and people would make purchases for the entire week. On the day of the fair in the winter, in the cold, the men and women who were sellers would have standing between their legs a pot of charcoal with burning embers. We the children really loved the fair. That day was a social event. In the year 1937, I came to Bielsk and waited for it to be Thursday. They did not let me go out because the Polish were beating Jews. In my time there I do not recall any gentile store.

The very first time I read a Yiddish book was after I completed gymnasia [secondary school]. I came to Bielsk and people were speaking about Jewish literature. I knew nothing about it. I was so embarrassed, so I started to read. My very first book was “Yosele Solovy” by Dinnezohn.[5] Afterwards, I became a Yiddish teacher in Tiflis [i.e. Tblisi, capital city of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic].

In Bielsk the internal social administration among the Jews was socialistic. For example, a needy widow was being supported and at the time there were monopolies making distributions to needy people like her and helping them make a living. One example of that was Etti the butcher who sold them black bread. They also told her to make the porridge. So, they did not buy any porridge at the makolet [food store]. They would go specially to her because she was a widow.

In 1926, I was sent to Siberia. From there I got to Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel] in 1927. At the time, I did not think about looking for people from Bielsk. One bright day a person appeared before me, a Jew, tall and handsome. He was tall and erect wearing a wide-brimmed hat; he had a splendid beard, and looked like Yeshu.[6] He approached me, but I had no idea who he was. He asked: “Don't you recognize me?” I felt terrible. Then he said:

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“I am Mashkeh of Isser the Shamash.[7] Beware! I will steal some more oranges in the park.” This was a joke that was reminiscent of a scene of an ongoing Bielsk desire. He was Moshe Alpert, a friend of ours from Bielsk, and he brought with him the aroma of Bielsk here in Eretz Yisrael. And this was the year 1927 – a year of great crisis in The Land [of Israel]. To speak about [finding] work was like our saying here now that I want a private airplane. He invited me to the Bar Mitzvah of his son Yitzchak. There I again met Bielskim [people from Bielsk], and that re-started my romance with Bielsk. My girlfriend asked me: “What do you see in these Bielskim?” I said: “Come with me to Mashkeh's to eat chamin[8] and you will know.” We went, and the house was not closed. Everyone greeted me. Finally, Mashke raised a cup and said: “We will drink to good health with you. I make a request that you write to your mother and say that you ate chamin {cholent] at the home of Mashkeh, the son of Isser the Shamash.” My friend was so touched and said that now she understood why I ran there. Whenever my mother would write to me from Russia, at the end of the letter she always added – “Give my best wishes to all the Bielskim.” That is to say, that also in her soul Bielsk was engraved, engraved with an affection for and a connection to Bielsk.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Zyaidna Tarbes: Alternatively spelled zeydene torbe. See the chapter “Bielsk – Its Rabbis, Teachers and Jews” on page 48 for a more detailed explanation of this phrase. Return
  2. Pro-gymnasia: middle school. Return
  3. A nationalist education was oriented toward the founding of a Jewish state, i.e. Zionist. Return
  4. Expropriator: confiscator of others' property, generally referring to government taking someone's property for the public treasury. Return
  5. Yacob Dinnezohn, 1856-1919, was a Yiddish novelist. His 1899 book about Yosele, a poor Jewish child subjected to the old cruel teaching methods of the time, resulted in a movement for change in education. Return
  6. Yeshu: Jesus. Return
  7. Shamash: synagogue beadle. Return
  8. Chamin: cholent, the Sabbath food dish that is kept warm overnight on a plata / a warming tray. Return

[Page 48]

Bielsk - Its Rabbis, Teachers and Jews

by Tzvi Ben-Daat[1]

Translated by David Ziants

Edited by Andrew Blumberg

For each of the towns in our area, there was a nickname – whether to portray it positively or negatively, or whether to just remember an incident that happened there. I will not spend time concerning the nicknames of the other towns as this is of no interest. I will tell about our town. It had a typifying name “die zeydene torbe” [Yiddish meaning The Silk Rucksack], “torbe” is a rucksack used by beggars. “Zeyd” means silk – meaning that in Bielsk there were not wealthy people, but there were beggars and their beggar bags were from silk. A torn and worn-away bag made from silk. So, why do people call our town that? Because it was not known for treasures and did not excel in industry. In many towns smaller than this, there were factories - not large ones, a little bit of textile or other industry. But they were considered in comparison to this town, sort-of wealthy settlements. On the other hand, Bielsk had a good name and reputation. It was known for the politeness between the people, its cleanliness, its nicely laid-out streets and its institutions that it set up, all with the external grandeur, appearance, and culture that it cared about. With this, it fared better than towns which were better financially – and for this reason it was called “die zeydene torbe.” For this reason, it follows that various regimes decided to choose this as a regional city despite that the fact that the city of Siemiatycze was larger. Further away from this district were cities in the Bialystok region which were larger. This is not the case with Bielsk, they chose this town because it was cleaner than other towns, the roads were wider and the character of the town to a certain degree was such that it was suitable for this task and title.

I will dwell on a number of details that typify this. The town excelled in its approach to education and culture above the average – for Jews who were craftsmen or small-time shop keepers and whose income was the most limited, the most important expenditure in their budget was education. People would save from their mouths [make do with less food] in order to send their son to a good school, to either a high school in a big city in the region, or a school far away. Here in Bielsk, there were cultural establishments par-excellence. The city library was large, central, and with all this there was also the sole Jewish library


Teachers of the Hebrew school in year 1920, its founders and committee members

[From our right to left] sitting: Moshe Epstein [or Epshtein], principal, Rivka Appelbaum – mathematics teacher, Ephrayim Melamdowitch [or Melamedowitz], Hochman, Menachem Stophnitzky [or Stophanitzky], Avraham Bakerman [or Bekerman]
Standing: Yaakov Golomb, Herlichman – Polish language teacher, Moshe Schtern (or Stern), Tzvi Kadelvovski, Cha'im Radilavski [or Radilvaski], Yaakov Appelbaum

[Page 49]

which was also available for non-Jews. Among them were activists, present there to promote reading and literature. There was one person by the name of Alexnaderovski, who spoke fluent Yiddish, because the Russian intellectuals had no other place to meet within an intellectual crowd and also obtain a Russian book, except in the library. It was a library of Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Polish books and it was sometimes possible to see non-Jewish intellectuals who came to exchange a book or collaborate. There were good relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish activists.

The Jews were approximately 80% of the inhabitants of Bielsk. The non-Jews lived in the suburbs. Within the city were just the intellectuals among them. The administrative staff, the family of the church priest and his sons lived within the city. These circles of people did not have another social group of friends, and among them were Yiddish speakers. The priest also knew Yiddish.

It happened more than once, that the priest would give a letter to a non-Jew, who claimed that Jews had “swindled” him, and he would come to us, to our house, to abba [dad], may his memory be for a blessing, who was the city rav [rabbi], with the note “Behold, I know this farmer who is selling his horse that is all the property he has[2], etc., etc., and I request that as much as you can, you should organise so that what was taken is returned to the non-Jew.” So they would call the Jew, and go with him into a second room to speak with him. As a child, I listened once from the other side of the door and I remember the words “rebbe, parnosso” [Yiddish meaning “Rabbi, livelihood”] “wos toot nisht a yid tzoilib parnosso” [Yiddish meaning “What does a Jew not do because of livelihood?”].

It happened a number of times that Jews and non-Jews came together to request arbitration by the city rav. There were situations that a non-Jew would bring something for charity because of a miracle that happened to him, or because he made a pledge, or because of other things. There was a relationship of trust towards the rav, and those who passed him on the street would greet him with honour. Also the rav's face radiated in a way that aroused a relationship of honour and exaltation. This primarily was prominent with sabba [grandpa], but a radiant face was passed down the generations. Abba also merited what sabba merited and the rabbinate turned into an institution. Moreover, at difficult times when gangs with no discipline threatened disturbances, then both the rav and the priest would run to the authorities together. This means actually, that first they would go to the priest to get him involved, but he, together with the representative of the Jews would try to intervene with the authorities.

Sabba did not want to separate from his only daughter, he loved her with a love of no constraints, because the children he had, besides her, died in front of him and so when he went to choose a groom for her, there was a condition: not to separate from his daughter. And how did he choose the groom? He entered the yeshiva[3] and spoke with the candidate groom on subjects of Torah [Jewish learning] and when the candidate groom seemed fit for the rav, and they came to an agreement, then sabba would say to him – “You should know my avraich [older yeshiva student – usually appertaining to those who are married and this young man will hopefully soon be married], that I am not going to separate from my daughter, and you should know that you will establish your household by me [in my house]. I am becoming old, and soon you will take over my position – and if you do not want this, then you will be the rav and I will come to live with you. And if you throw me out [“divorce me”], I will not separate from my daughter.” It was said in such a way that it would be impossible not to accept this condition. He also was alone and connected to his daughter with soulful love.

So it happened that abba managed the rabbinate whilst the elderly man [his father-in-law] was still alive. Also abba was already not young. In practice they worked together, one a little less and one a little more. Someone offered my father a rabbinate in another place – but this was out of the question, there was a gentleman's agreement throughout their lives.

Regarding the general institutions of this town that it earned the name “Die Zeydene Torbe,” first of all there was a developed mutual help organisation in Bielsk. And I mean, for justice, for matters of charity, and for matters appertaining to helping refugees who were always found by us. But also, for special incidents that demand a special effort, the help could be found. And “help” meant

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both material financial help and moral aid. There was much “willingness” to give aid in this town. When it was made known that a misfortune fell on someone or there was another trouble that came about, the response was “kumt lomir geyn” [Yiddish for “come let's go”].

It happened more than once, something burnt, something was in a difficult state, here there was some illness - so immediately “kumt lomir geyn,” and when going out to the incident they would take advice on where it would be worthwhile to go first to have a good start. Then more people joined having weighed up [evaluated] the situation, and then another person and another and the organisation was on the way. As it is written [in the Torah] “as you are walking [on the way[4]]” - whilst moving forward, there is ceremony and advice and resourcefulness.[5]

The same would apply if there was a danger to the whole city. If people are saying that there are soldiers who are going wild or something like this, they would go, as previously mentioned, first to enlist the priest or seek advice from him on whether it would be worthwhile to go alone with money. That a non-anonymous donation ruled[6], can always be said concerning the town and its rulers. The mayor had to be a non-Jew because they did not allow Jews. But since Jews were 80% of the population they were the ones to decide which non-Jew would be chosen so that he would be amenable towards the Jews, and he would know [understand] the limits of his rule. They would choose according to majority [vote] a paritz [Yiddish for “noble”] who was less concerned about his property and is known as a non-Jew who is amenable towards everyone, who doesn't do anything bad, and that one can get along with. A secretary was always chosen from among the Jews, he would manage the accounts and he was the signatory. They also tried to find a non-Jew with a radiant face who would at least give an impression of being a ruler.

The town was well remembered as a city of proud Jews. I have no recollections of incidences of pogroms or attacks explicitly against Jews.

The relationships between neighbours were good, but there were times of danger that projected themselves towards the Jews. At the time of enlistment and conscription, for example, a lot of lowlifes [lit. abomination] came from the villages and they liked to get drunk and go wild. At this opportunity, because the mayor[7] drank, often arose within him the will, here and there, to set his heart a little bit concerning the abuse of the Jews. So he would immediately enlist a defense, of course not with live ammunition, but with strength and spirit, and of course most of the time it was the butchers who gave this strength. But there was willingness, and the trouble-makers knew it would not be to their glory to take this path. I do not remember at a young age that there was anything similar to this happening in other towns. Moreover, when the Russian army withdrew in the year 1914, there was fear that the soldiers, as they were withdrawing, would use up their energy and wrath on the defenseless. Also then, there were men ready by the door with axes – but it did not reach the point to which it could have reached. The soldiers knew that harm to a Jew would not pass without a suitable response, and so there was quiet and there were relationships.

After I arrived in the Land [of Israel][8] there was one attempt of a pogrom in Bielsk. Already then the Poles were the majority in the surrounding area, because there was deliberate Polonism and they wanted to teach the Jews a lesson and hit them with death blows. After this, there were court cases upon court cases. This is what I was told, because I made aliya[9] to the Land in the year of 1925 and these pogroms were later on, and the Jews taught the Poles a lesson. One son of the leaders of the city, a student from Warsaw, was pushed around like a football and they turned him into a cripple for the rest of his life. There were court cases and troubles upon troubles, but the Jews did what they were supposed to do, and the response was in place. This also acted as a shutter against antisemitism, because when they respect you, they do not hate you.

What happened with the Belarusians y'mach sh'mam [may their names be wiped out][10] during the period of the Holocaust was one of the surprises. They had not been considered Sona'ei Yisrael [Haters of Israel, i.e. Jews], and there were good relationships with them. But during this war [WWII and the Holocaust], it became clear that they were no better than the Poles.

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This town was in the center of forests. Not far from the town there is the biggest forest in Europe. It was not just a forest; it was like a whole continent. It was a jungle. There were rare creatures, there were also bison. From a long distance, world rulers would come there for hunting. This forest was being cut down for decades. Cutting down and cutting down and they never would finish it off. Now it is on the Russian-Polish border, it seems that the two countries divided it. It was an inexhaustible repository of trees.

I remember an incident [lit. episode], at the time a notice reached the minister of the district that an English business delegation would be arriving to discuss matters regarding the trees in the Białowieża Forest, and they should be received at the train station with the warranted honour. All the top-nobs of the senior Polish administration were at the train station with complete certainty that lords wearing tzylinders [Yiddish for cylinder hats or top hats] and frocks [tailed coats] would come. All the exports of the trees at that time went to England and they wanted to flatter the English. But how it turned out was that the representatives of the British firm were Jewish merchants from Lodz, all of them came in long clothes - religious Jews of the type wearing kappatot [Yiddish (as pronounced in Israeli Hebrew) for long coats] and kashkatim [Yiddish for casquette caps] were the representatives of the British firm. The Polish elite of Bielsk were struck with shock and their wrath burned within like fire, but they were forced to restrain their wrath and receive the delegation with honour and the town was rolling in laughter for many years, whenever this scene was mentioned, on how the Polish braggarts waited and waited and didn't pay attention to even those who came. They waited for tzylinders and frocks, until the mistake became apparent and they had to quickly correct their misunderstanding and receive them with a king's honour.

In the Białowieża forests was the summer residence of the czar and Bielsk was the station that he would always pass through when the time came for the summer hunting trek. At this station there was a siding for the train and parking that was especially for Bielsk-Białowieża. It is told that when the czar would pass through the town, everything had to be closed and under curfew, because mankind cannot see him and live[11].


Mitzkevitch Street in Bielsk

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This willingness to extend needed help these days is a sad issue of our lives in Israel.[12] We occasionally come across incidents that when there is an accident, people walk away so as not to be caught up in having to give evidence and be involved in court cases. Or, when hearing screams from a house, then one distances oneself and it doesn't occur to think about poking ones nose into a trouble which is not yours. These sorts of matters [attitudes] here highlight even more this willingness to help in Bielsk.

The incident is known of someone in Bielsk who hit his wife and a group of men, not particularly youngsters, went to him and told him that if this happens again, he will come out of this “with [the author uses a Hebrew idiom that has a level of sarcasm and of course means without] a tooth and eye.”[13] This response from the men was obvious there in Bielsk.

Also, if someone got into a difficulty which was not so straight forward and there was a special danger to be involved in the matter, people would get into danger and do what was necessary, l'hatzalat nephesh m'yisrael [to save the life of a Jew]. And so there was an incident on Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement][14], and the rav and dignitaries of the city travelled in a carriage to save a Jew: In Lubitch [Lubicz], there was someone with the name Avramovitz who ran away in 1914 with the Russian army. When he saw that the army was going too far away from home, he decided to return. He deserted and returned to his city. It turned out that German patrols spotted him. They caught him and recognised that he was the one who rode in the wagon with the Russians. In a search, they found in his possession money from different countries. The young man was intelligent and spoke with them in fluent German. So, certainly they had no doubt that he was a spy. They arrested him. They held him in prison two or three days, starved him, tortured him and danger hovered over him. Knowledge of this reached our city and then haRav [Rabbi] Kalman Maza[15] went out, and another two who travelled with him, to save the young man. It was impossible to travel the normal way, because there was a state of war and resounding shooting and death[16] was on the move [lit. death is walking], and there was no one with whom or anything with which to travel. The dignitaries turned to the Kommandant [German for commander] and said that they were sure that the man was clean [innocent of wrongdoing]. This was still the “prehistoric” period when the Germans were still “human,” and the commander was convinced that it was true. So he set aside for their use an army carriage, they didn't have cars then, only heavy army carriages with iron wheels and with them a soldier with a carriage driving license, and they travelled to the prison to report for the mission. When they arrived and said what it was about, the prison commander gave them the reception they deserved. He simply and rudely sent them away. When they went outside, each one said to the other, that this is fine. Whatever else that might happen, the prison commander will now not kill the prisoner. After this, there was an investigation, and a demand and they freed the young man. If it were not for Hitler, whose men killed him, the young man would still be alive to this very day.

In Bielsk and only in Bielsk, it seems this could happen[17] that an honored rav with another few G-d fearing and complete with themselves Jews from the dignitaries of the city took it upon themselves to go out in the middle of Yom Kippur, riding on a wagon, in order to save a Jew from danger. There was no hesitance [lit. weighing up a decision], not even the slightest with regards to what takes precedence over what. The priority [lit. weighed up decision] was that hatzalat nephesh m'yisrael [saving a life of a Jew] from imprisonment and torture supersedes Yom Kippur.

I remember that people used to say, rebbi [rabbi], you can bring tragedy upon us if you become involved in matters like these, that have an element of danger to life, and it is not the correct time to be involved. When the Bolsheviks left, and the Poles came in, they would shoot anyone they suspected as a collaborator with the Bolsheviks. A man could be saved if he swore profusely an oath that he was not a Bolshevik. During the time he was indeed an active communist, they did this, and people took an oath on falsehood. To their luck, the Kommandants changed a lot. There was a state of war and if it were not for this, it could have ended in tragedy, but they were not discouraged, because before anything else, it is necessary to save lives.

Concerning the character of the city, one needs to add, that if they needed to do something the main aspect of which was following in the ways of the non-Jews and their armies, then the Jews of Bielsk did this perfectly. For example, the firemen,

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the fire Maccabees[18] in Bielsk terminology, was a kind of an army formation. They were excellently organized, their leader was someone from Bialystok who was an expert and well versed in these matters. In the places where he previously lived, this was a Jewish profession, because he could not be a policeman, nor could he be an officer and he wanted to be a man in uniform, a decorated man, this was his charm, it was nice for him in his shining brass helmet. What did he do, he stood up and established the Maccabees in Bielsk and he had success in this. The Bielsk Jews did this in the best possible way.

Distorted concepts are used to portray the Jews of chutz la'aretz [outside the Land of Israel, i.e., the diaspora]. But chutz la'aretz is a full world, full of shades and differences. For it is not the case that a Jew from Bialystok is like a Jew from Warsaw, and it is not the case that a Jew from Warsaw is like a Jew from Galicia [more-or-less present day Ukraine]. The truth is that Polish Jews in the area of Warsaw wore long clothes and their faces were decorated with peyot[19] looking like creatures not from here. They were also far from village life and possibly less healthy than people of our town. In Bialystok, there were eighty thousand Jews and in our town, at its peak period, eight thousand Jews. By us, you would not find a Jew with long clothes except for the rav, or two or three who were actually from Poland, some individual chassidim,[20] who were bachurai yeshiva [yeshiva boys]. My two brothers learned in yeshiva all the days of their lives and also my brother-in-law was a bachur yeshiva [yeshiva boy], and if you were to see him, you would not believe that he has a connection to orthodoxy, except he never took his hat off, and was stringent in always keeping his head covered. He was always careful in tidy and clean clothing, with a smart suit, not distinguishable from a student anywhere else.

Our boys in Bielsk were also healthy, unlike some other Jewish boys of the diaspora. This was a town that had a rural character. There was not a family who didn't have a cow. In the morning, they would take her out from the courtyard and there was one sheygetz[21] who would collect all the Jewish cows and bring them out for grazing and in the evening return them to their homes. Every cow knew her courtyard. The Jewish wife would know about milking and milk products, and that's it. Our town had a village character and its people were healthy and strong. Close to us was the town of Botzki [Bocki]. This was also like Bielsk. The non-Jews in the area shook with fear of a Jewess. They especially braved all the horse traders. There were many manly Jews, so it never happened that non-Jews would hurt a Jew. If there were incidents, these were by the river where sh'katzim [plural of shaygetz] would bathe with those of our age, and we were not deterred. There were fights. Usually, we were not left as the losers.


The new railway station

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In his time, there was one doctor, Dr. Epshtein, whose wife was not a Jewess, and she would call him with insulting names when they were arguing. The entire city's people adored him despite him being a meshumad [apostate]. He was accepted as a deprived person who suffered from the non-Jewess. But, it cannot be said that there were mixed marriages in Bielsk, something that gives witness to a developed level of Jewish pride. There were young men that got involved with shiktzot [Yiddish derogatory word for non-Jewish young ladies], but never “for the long-term,” because the Jews in Bielsk kept their uniqueness.

The center of Bielsk was the rathojz, [pronounced “rat hoiz”], this is the city hall. It was a large building of two stories with a clock that could be seen from afar on different streets in the city. At the bottom it had shops for generating income. Around it was the market where on every Thursday, the non-Jews of the area would gather to make a fayre. The streets were generally straight and the main street that led to the train station was a wide road, the majority of its houses were one story and there were also two story. The majority were made from wood but within the wood were also insulating walls. The wooden houses had a wall to protect against fires. When people built a wooden house, they would build one wall from bricks at the border of the second house. Also the remaining smaller roads were more-or-less straight. The main thing was the main road, the train station was central.

There was on the outskirts of Bielsk a stream where people would go to bathe. The name of the stream was Biała [in Hebrew “Bila”]. Around the stream was grass that stretched for hundreds of acres. People would harvest natural hay without having to sow. The river was as high as a man, and not wide. The town lay on a slope. Outside the city, there was one hill, a mound is more correct, that when it would splendor with its beauty, it would be completely covered with lilac bushes. In Israel, there does not exist something like this. There was a place for taking walks. People would say that Napoleon's soldiers were buried there. All sorts of legends were tied to this hill. Adgora[22] is what they called it. What is the truth I do not know, but people loved to go out to take walks there. In the area of the stream, and mainly outside the city, wherever you turned, there were forests and fields and one would go out for kilometers without fear. Quietness and tranquility prevailed on the forested expanse. You would go out for 4 or 5 kilometers into the forest and return with plentiful mushrooms and different kinds of grain. You could make a living from the forest. From the point of view of the gifts of nature – the place was a paradise [lit. Garden of Eden]. Fruits were plentiful and cheap.

People did not buy fruit per kilo; instead they bought half sacks. There was also a group of leytzim [Yiddish for pranksters] who would go out to the market and pilfer fruit without paying a cent. This was a kind of a sport. They would approach a non-Jew and ask what do you have - pears? They would taste something from all the carts and then the owners would let off shouts. The truth is that the non-Jews were very poor and there was much jealousy of the Jews. The non-Jew did not know how much effort the shop keeper or the shoe-maker put in and winded around in order to make a living, but he saw that he was eating white bread[23], and he saw him dressed nicely on Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath]. That he does not drink to get drunk, and doesn't waste money on other things – the non-Jew did not think about. If the non-Jew once bought himself a pair of trousers, this was for his whole lifetime. A non-Jewish lady, if she bought a pair of shoes – this was for her whole lifetime, because she did not wear them, she always went bare-footed. She entered a church on Sunday and wore them, but she was not able to stand up because her foot became swollen because of the tightness of the shoe. With difficulty, she was able to withstand the suffering from the shoes until she finished praying - the poor lady, she would then take her shoes off and would breathe a sigh of relief.

Jews, the non-Jews thought, become wealthy because they would immerse themselves [spend a lot of time] in the grocery store, in food, in everything. Leave them in whatever shop, then they will buy whatever they want and eat. There was also an expression that a Jew eats “butter with bread” [rather than “bread and butter”] because the non-Jew would eat a lot of bread garnished

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with pieces of chazir [pig's meat – which is forbidden for Jews according to their religious laws]. And the Jew would not eat so much bread at all. In addition to this, the Jew would buy products he needed or wanted, while he did not permit himself to benefit from many of the things that he himself produced. The non-Jew would have a feeling that they were deceiving him, but each one of the non-Jews would have a Jew in whom he trusted. Especially when he needed his Yosska[24], he would rely on the trusted Jew. Being like an ostrich [with his head in the sand], because he doesn't know how to read and write, he would always need some Jewish advice or something similar to this. For every non-Jew, there was a Jew who was trustworthy to him, and on him he would rely, and it was specifically this person that he would deal with. Sometimes, the Jew would indeed give him intelligent advice, when he would need some legal advice, or would write for him some referral to the government. Matters like these raised in his eyes the worth of the Jew as a human of all capability, and when he came into the city, the non-Jew would need a courtyard to place his cart, so he would bring it to his Yosska. And more than once, he would leave him items, which later he would sell with full trust.

Like in any other town, we may have had fights, arguments and disputes of different types, but, it seems to me, that I will not be exaggerating if I were to say that regarding this subject, there was something in our town which slowed down the inclination to fight, and neighbors' arguments were subdued and did not depart from an acceptable norm. There were not incidents of snitching or a person descending into [interfering with] the life of his neighbor. There was some self-restraint in not a small way, and they did not exceed acceptable proportions. It did not get to the point where one would eat the other. Even in matters of political parties, the personal relationships remained good.

I do not remember highly wealthy Jews. Sirkin had a manufacturing shop, and he also had his own house. There was not even medium stability [possibly meaning middle class], I do not remember a trader who was just a wholesaler. Billis was a wholesaler. There were no whales [very wealthy people] by us. There were carp that were not large and of those traders who were considered stable - it could just be enough to have a short crisis that would happen because of an illness that broke-out, heaven forbid, and the gentleman was as if he did not exist [lit. was as if he was not].

There were in the city “house owners,” but I cannot estimate them with a monetary value. A “house owner” in Bielsk meant a style, an external display, politeness, nice clothes. With all this, there was something aristocratic, but from a financial point of view they were beggars. There were speculations, the dollars [U.S. currency] were always rising, and people would trade in them. The father of a friend of ours was a skin trader, not in a central shop, but inside his house. People would come to his house to buy, and he was a beggar and his house was full of children. He would also here and there buy dollars, but I do not remember a Jew who dealt in finances as his primary business.

The Jews would finance non-Jewish farmer's seasons. The non-Jew was the kind of beggar that if a Jew who would trade with him would not give him a few rubles in advance for the crop, he would not have what he needed to work his fields. What is a beggar farmer? A Jew would own a cow, a single cow, and the non-Jew gave him the straw so that in return he can take the manure, because the Jew would not need the manure. The non-Jewish farmer would come from the village at the time that he was travelling to the market and since there were no combine-harvesters and the harvesting was done by hand and in large sheaves, then he would bring with him these sheaves. And when it would be time to sow the potatoes, he would come from the market with the pitchfork, fill up the wagon and travel with the fresh manure wagon for approximately five kilometers. This was in the arrangement. Sometimes, the non-Jew would also add eggs. It is easy to describe what kind of profitability there was in his farming. He would travel for half a day in a wagon to bring manure; this was the non-Jew, a beggar among beggars whose needs in the city boil down to salt and petroleum [fuel]. The majority of the time, the non-Jew would go

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to sleep at seven o'clock in the evening and so his need for petroleum was small. On a market day, if he sold well, then he would buy himself a “ma'adan” [delicacy] of semi-black-bread “shtikol breyt” [Yiddish for “a piece of bread”] - on market day the bakers would also fry salty fish as a side income. The baker knew in advance, if this non-Jew entered into the shop in a good mood from his business, then he would take half a loaf of bread with fried salty fish, and an alcoholic drink of course. Jews would make the strong drink from potatoes and beets at home. Jews would make at home all sorts of self-made products. This was the heaven on earth for the non-Jew. In the villages there was the most deprived poorness, but the relationships were good. A Jew was able to go to the village and they would not hurt him, he would give on credit, and the villagers would repay him - this is called normal relations.

* * *

In the last days of the life of my grandfather, his eyes dimmed, and he was unable to see, and to learn and to gain knowledge. But he learned and repeated by heart from what he remembered. He would walk back and forth in the house and learn from memory. And then he tripped and fell. Since he was a man of a large size, he was injured, and he was not able to get up. They laid him down and alerted Dr. Kagan. The doctor checked him, and by the serious look on the doctor's face, we understood that the condition was serious. The doctor also told us that his condition was not good and he would come back after a short hour after his other visits in the city. The doctor left, and when he returned he stayed standing by the door thunderstruck when he saw sabba walking around again backwards and forwards, learning by heart. He didn't believe the sight of his own eyes. After that, sabba lived another few weeks.

At the time the Germans entered during the First World War, the Jews needed to reach the authorities, who were still in a state of war, for two endeavors: a) That they will allow the organization of the eruv[25], that is to say that they will allow a string to be stretched across the tops of a few telephone poles and; b) that they will release the bath house that soldiers occupied, in order that the Jews are able to use the mikva[26] at least a few times in a week. Because it was clear, that no lady would go to the mikva at any time that there were soldiers around[27]. When he [the author's grandfather who was the rav] came in to the Kommandant, the Kommandant got up from his place and said:

“I have already been in the city for a few days and I did not know that there was a patriarchal figure like this.”

The commander asked him to sit down and when sabba said what his request was, the commander fulfilled with great honor all that was requested. Afterwards the commander said to him:

“I have a small request for you and I hope that you will also fulfill my request. I want from you a photograph of your likeness.”

Here it must be mentioned, this Jew had his photo taken once in his life and it was not with intention, because he was meticulous on his desire not to be photographed. As a devout Jew, he was careful not to break the law[28] of the Torah commandment “pesel oomasecha” [“a statue and graven image”] but the city photographer, Doksy, was interested in his picture and wanted to bring him to his workshop to photograph him there. He found a “pattent,”[29] [had an idea]. What he did was, that he came to the rav once and asked him an innocent question: there is over there a large fruit tree – it is forbidden to cut down a fruit tree because that breaks the [Jewish] law of ba'al tashchit [unwarranted destruction], but if one is forced to under certain circumstances, as is known, a heter [Jewish legal permission] is given. He had a large pear or apple tree and this creates [lit. gives him] shade and so he cannot photograph there [because the shade interferes with lighting required for photographs]. Somehow, the photographer caught the rav on the street and led him into his courtyard. The photographer spoke to the rav, honored him with refreshments and the rav did not feel at all that he was being photographed. After that, when he heard that he was photographed, he of course was very angry, but for us, this photo was left as a souvenir

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– a one and only picture of him that exists. After the German Kommandant said that I give you everything, but you give a picture, sabba said: “It is forbidden to think badly of a Jew. See now, what merit has rolled to the hands of this photographer, for prophecy came out of his mouth and now, here I can fulfill the request of the Kommandant and save the city from two serious difficulties, techum Shabbat[30] and mikva tahora [purifying ritual bath].”

I will talk about the cheder [Hebrew word meaning “room” and would be pronounced in Yiddish cheyder, the classroom where children study Torah] and myself, I remember that they brought me, when I was at the age of 4 or 5, to the cheder wrapped in a tallit [prayer garment]. Sh'muel Bochka [pronounced “ch” as in English] was then my first little ones' m'lamed [teacher]. First they started with a verse in Vayikra [Leviticus][31]. They did this with festivities and a child who could not yet read or write was already entering the yolk [obligations] of mitzvot [commandments] and from above people threw sweets onto him and they said that the angel did it. This was the first semester. The children were taught by him for either one winter or one summer period and afterwards they would move to a more senior m'lamed. Bochka was a beggar m'lamed amongst the beggars –12 children sat with him around one table and each one paid whatever he paid, and on Shabbat, they would sometimes send him some food items[32]. After Sh'muel Bochka, I moved over to Rav Moshe-Bar, a Jew with a well-kempt beard, and he was paid five rubles [Russian currency] a month and this was a huge amount of money. And I remember that this was with a gold coin, of the size of our 5 agorot[33]. But it was made of gold and this was five rubles. The same day I brought this, he showed me great kindness. He was in a very elated mood, afterwards they started reading and writing and a little bit of Chumash [the Pentateuch]. On Shabbat, the father would test his son on what he knew from his week of learning.

After this, we went from m'lamed to m'lamed, each one according to his kind. The last one was a modern and learned Jew - Yongerman[34] was his name. This was a Jew with whom one learned Tanach [the Jewish Bible] and Hebrew.[35] One learned grammar from the book “Moreh Halashon” [“A Guide of the Language”] by Lerner.[36] Those students who excelled, knew and learned about the dagesh[37] and about the sh'va na'[38] and sh'va nach[39] and they did dictation. He called this “transcription” - he would read something in Yiddish and we wrote it in Hebrew. For those who excelled, he allowed them to learn Tanach by heart in a special room so they would not disturb each other. There were approximately 40 pupils who sat with him and those who excelled were just a few individuals. I was among the three who excelled and he allowed us to go into his bedroom with the Tanach and told us to learn by heart the books of Yishayahu [Isaiah] and the Trai Asar [The Twelve Prophets]. I was first, the second was Gedalia Shteinberg [or Steinberg], and third was Simcha who is now in Argentina. We learned with great desire, he would tell us to learn two chapters by heart, and we studied those a number of times and one of us would recite it to the other. After this, we would go into the rav for a test, to make it clear that we have already passed the test for those chapters.

Abba was very hesitant[40] in giving me over to Yongerman to teach us, but when he saw that this Yongerman was a heaven fearing Jew who never once missed a t'philla [prayer service], he decided to take the risk, and this was a sign to many people that Yongerman was kasher l'mehadrin [religiously fit for the most meticulous]. This was a Jew with a very large family. It was forbidden for him to teach so many pupils, because he did not have a license, and when he saw a policeman on his way, he would immediately take some of the pupils outside. He had a license for fifteen, and there were already 40 sitting with him. This was almost the size of a whole school with different departments. His son helped him, and later on, another son was added to help.

The son taught with a modern commentary. The way he tested the chapters that were finished is that he would say something at the beginning of the verse in Yiddish, and you needed to continue the rest of the verse. One of the days, after many years, when I stood for an exam in Warsaw, there was the examiner Kanterovitz, the one who published books on grammar, he was a distinguished scholar; he tested me in Tanach and asked me

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a question from Yishayahu which I answered immediately and continued with the content as well. He asked – do you know the whole chapter by heart? I said that I knew the whole of Yishayahu by heart, so he tested me and gave me a “5.”[41]

This was the achievement of Yongerman. When we reached the age of bar-mitzva[42] he called the three of us and said:

– “It is a time of war now, and there is nowhere to continue, and for myself – I already have no possibility to give [no place to teach] you more. This is because I have children here, a large crowd. During this time, you can continue to sit here until you are able to continue repeating things by heart, but I am unable to give to you anymore of my time.”

By the way, concerning this “modern person,” when I traveled to visit him in the hospital in Warsaw, I thought to bring him something to read. Then the idylls [short stories] by Shimonovitz became available, and this made an impression on us, because the story Yovel HaEglonim [Jubilee of the Wagons] by Shimonovitz was not so modern, and was influenced by eloquent language. I thought that he would enjoy this, but he gave a glance, read a bit and said – “This is not Hebrew. This is too modern for me. One cannot say the word “telefon” in Hebrew.” Sach-rechok[43] was the word close to his heart. Just like the phrase taken from the daily prayers “v'techezena ainainu b'shoov'cha” [“and may our eyes see on your return”][44] sounded better to him than l'hitra'ot [goodbye].[45]


Translator's endnotes
  1. As is typical of many memoirs of this type, the original was written from the author's heart but might not always contain the best writing style of the language in which it was written. In most places the translation was adjusted to conform to better English idiom, but there still might be places where I deliberately left the expression of words to be equivalent to the Hebrew original. This can sometimes create some awkwardness in the English translation, but conveys the best meaning.
  2. The first time a transliterated non-English word or phrase appears in this translation, a short explanation follows in brackets (or sometimes in the footnote). This word would be a Hebrew word (the language of the original memoir), unless stated otherwise.
  3. The transliteration of Hebrew words reflects the pronunciation of the author when he wrote the memoir. As a modern Israeli in the 1960s and 1970s, this would often be slightly different than the pronunciation of Hebrew used in Bielsk. Occasionally, an Eastern European Hebrew pronunciation or Yiddish pronunciation is provided in the translation in brackets, but this might not be exactly of how they pronounced it in Bielsk as each part of Europe had its own nuance of pronunciation.
  4. Yiddish expressions used in the original Hebrew were transliterated, not just translated to English, as the author no doubt used Yiddish in an otherwise Hebrew memoir in order to convey some of the culture of the place and time. I hope that the transliteration helps to convey the pronunciation but this might not be exact – see my note on the transliteration of Hebrew words. In some instances, the original Hebrew did not always include a translation or explanation of these expressions, and since I am not fluent in Yiddish, I apologize if some errors were made in the English translations.
  5. Most of the time, when the letters “ch” appear in the transliteration of a Hebrew or Yiddish name or word, this is pronounced as a guttural from the back of the throat, like in the Scottish “loch.” If there is an exception, it is mentioned as a note on the relevant word.
  6. I also added, where I have the knowledge, explanations of the context of some of the ideas that were expressed or hinted at by the author, which might not always be understood to English readers.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Tzvi Ben-Daat was the son of Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ben-Daat, who in this chapter is generally referred to by his son as “abba,” but is never named. Murdered in the Holocaust, he was the last rabbi of Bielsk Podlaski. Tzvi Ben-Daat died in Israel in 1970 at the age of 66, before the publication of this book. He is eulogized in two chapters, on pages 315 and 317. Tzvi Ben-Daat's maternal grandfather, generally referred to as sabba, is likely Rabbi Ben Zion Sternfeld. Both he and Rabbi Ben-Daat are mentioned on page 13. Return
  2. It is a bit unclear in the story line, whether there was a swindle or if the non-Jew agreed to the sale – but it appears that the non-Jew felt he made a mistake in selling his only horse. Return
  3. This is a college where Jewish boys and young men would study Jewish religious texts, primarily the Talmud [the main early source of Jewish law and belief]. Often a religious Jew of that period, especially in Eastern Europe, was happy for his daughter to marry a Talmudic scholar. Return
  4. Deut 6:4 and Deut 11:19 and although the context of each of the Biblical verses is the study and teaching of Torah, the author explains in a few words his own context for making the quote. Return
  5. It seems that the author is trying to explain that the organisation learns from its own experience as it moves forward. Return
  6. Judaism gives a lot of merit for anonymous worthy donations – so the author is being sarcastic and is hinting that bribes ruled, when it comes to the town and her rulers. (The Hebrew here for “ruled” and “ruler” are of the same root.) Return
  7. The author starts using the singular pronoun thus referring to a specific person, so it is not exactly clear to whom the author was referring, but because of the language used, it is likely to be the mayor. Return
  8. Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews all over the world referred to the geographic area as “Eretz Yisrael” [“the Land of Israel”]. In recent generations, this is shortened to “Ha'aretz” [“the Land”] similar to the Biblical expression. Return
  9. “Aliya” ]lit. “going up”] is the Hebrew term that means immigrating to Israel or pre-state Israel. Return
  10. ימח שמם”” )“may their names be wiped out”) is a Hebrew expression used in reference to those who hate and harm Jews. Return
  11. It seems this is based on a phrase in Exodus 33:20 “”.… כי לא?יראני האד?ם וחי, “…. because the human is not able to see me [i.e., G-d] and live.” The author expressed the subject “human” in plural form, and without the definite article, so this translates to “mankind.” Return
  12. Israel is strong when it comes to helping strangers in trouble. In some of the examples the author cites, the methods of involvement in Israel at the time of his writing would be different to that in Bielsk at that earlier time. Return
  13. There is a well know expression in the Torah which is translated “a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye,” which according to Jewish oral tradition, as documented in the Talmud, was never taken literally but refers to monetary payment in case of bodily injury – but no doubt the threats here were literal enough to have the correct effect. Return
  14. This is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, and as well as being a fast day, the laws of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) apply, which includes not traveling in a vehicle. Return
  15. His family name is spelled in Hebrew מז”א as an abbreviation for אהרון מזרע, meaning from the seed of Aharon (Aaron), which implies that he was a kohen. Return
  16. The Hebrew here seems to be based on the Talmudic expression “the Angel of Death walks in the middle of the road”(Babylonian Talmud, Babba Kamma 60b). Return
  17. In Jewish law, saving a life takes precedence even over the observance of Shabbat and Yom Kippur. A point that the author seems to be making, and can be understood from the next paragraph, that trying to save the young man might have put them or the community in danger, and in other towns such a risk would not be taken at any time. Another interpretation could be that there was not the attitude in Bielsk that this mission could wait another day or that waiting wouldn't make a difference to the life-and-death situation, and the rav and the dignitaries understood it might make a difference, and so they needed to act on this immediately. Return
  18. Hebrew Maccabi here is used as a play on the Hebrew expression כבאי השריפות kabayi has'raifot which in today's Hebrew is usually rendered מכבאי האש m'kabayai ha'esh and means the firemen. But, here, the author spells the first Hebrew word without the aleph, to read מכבי – Maccabi – the Jewish fighters of the second century BCE. This is also the name that was given to the Maccabi sports youth movement founded in 1929. If Jews of Bielsk used this expression before 1929 to refer to the firefighters, then they are alluding to the Maccabees. Return
  19. Peyot is the Hebrew word for the long hair grown at the sides of the head by many orthodox Jews. Return
  20. A chassid (pl chassidim) is a follower of the religious Jewish movement that puts more of an emphasis on prayer and joy, rather than technical Torah learning. This movement was more prevalent in the south of Poland and Galicia, rather than the towns like Bialystok and Bielsk which took their influence from the yeshivot of Lithuania and a follower of this Lithuanian path is often called a Litta'i. The author is explaining the dress differences between these populations. Return
  21. Shaygetz (pl. sh'katzim using a Hebrew plural rendering) is a derogatory Yiddish word generally referring to either a non-Jewish or a non-observant boy or man. This word can also be used affectionately towards a teenager, but this doesn't seem to be the context here. Return
  22. This may be a play on the Hebrew word “aggada” which in English is translated to “story” or “legend”. Return
  23. White bread is more refined bread and thus more costly. Return
  24. Yosska – a Yiddish way of saying the Hebrew name Yosseph usually rendered in English as Joseph. Because it is a very common Jewish name – the author is alluding that it became a generic way of referring to a Jew who was trusted. Return
  25. An ערוב - eruv is a Talmudic rabbinic enactment to permit certain activity that would otherwise be rabbinically forbidden as a guard of the Torah laws, and to act as a reminder of this. Making an eruv of the type mentioned here involves having a wire run from pole to pole around the city. (In principle carrying in the public domain is a Torah prohibition and an eruv won't help, but in practice for various technical reasons, in almost all built up areas today, carrying is a rabbinic prohibition so an eruv can be made according to the enactment). Within this boundary Jews are allowed to carry things in the street on Shabbat and on Yom Kippur. Return
  26. A מקוה - mikva is a special pool of water that contains some natural (usually rain) source of water and is used by Jews for ritual immersion to become spiritually pure. This is primarily used by a married woman following a seven day waiting period after her menstrual cycle, in order to be permitted again to her husband. Return
  27. Not just because of the physical danger of having such men around, but also, by Jewish law, the immersion must always be done very discretely, and the usage is no one's business except the husband's and the female curator who is there to help. Return
  28. Deut. 27:15. The vast majority of authorities of Jewish law allow a person to be photographed for any reason, and don't consider it under the category of idols or graven images. There are, though, a few authorities who forbid this and the rav here was strict on this matter. Return
  29. A Modern Hebrew colloquialism based on the English word “patent” and means an ad-hoc invention or innovation. Return
  30. “Techum Shabbat” is the technical term for the restriction of walking outside the city area past a certain distance, and probably the rav did not have this in mind, but he used this phrase in a much loser sense in reference to the eruv. Techum Shabbat could still be relevant in the thoughts of the rav, because without an eruv around the city, the permitted walking distance is calculated from the last house in each direction, and with this type of an eruv the walking distance is greater, as this is calculated on the basis of the border set by the eruv. (There is also another type of eruv that doubles the distance of “techum Shabbat,” but that does not seem to be relevant here.) Return
  31. This is the book of the Torah that primarily gives the laws of the sacrificial service and the laws of purity, and one explanation for the tradition that this is taught to little children can be found in the Midrash Vayikra Rabba 7 - a Rabbinic homiletical work from 5th-7th cent. CE: “Rabbi Assi says: Why do young children start with Torat Kohanim (another name for Vayikra)? Why not let them start with B'raishit [Genesis which is the first book of the Torah]? Because the sacrifices are pure and the children are pure, let the pure come and deal with the pure.” Return
  32. On Shabbat, one is not allowed to make monetary payments, so bringing food is a form of substitute. Return
  33. The author is referring to a unit of Israeli currency of the 1960s and 1970s when this was written. Return
  34. Alternatively Youngerman or Jaungerman. See Moyshe Jaungerman, page 500. Return
  35. From the context, it seems that they studied both Biblical Hebrew and the newly emerging Modern Hebrew which has a slightly different style. Return
  36. Chaim Tzvi Lerner (1815-1889) Return
  37. A dagesh is a dot placed inside a Hebrew letter to indicate in the case of most letters certain grammar issues concerning the syllables of the word, and for a few of the letters a lack of dagesh indicates a modification in how the letter is pronounced. Return
  38. Sh'va na' (lit. moving sh'va) is a mark of two vertical dots underneath a Hebrew letter that indicates a short “e” sound. Return
  39. Sh'va nach (lit. resting sh'va) is a mark of two vertical dots underneath a Hebrew letter that indicates silence – thus the letter is at the end of the syllable. Grammatical knowledge is required to distinguish between the two types of sh'va mentioned here, in order to know the correct pronunciation of the word. Return
  40. It seems that the issue here is that an emphasis was put on teaching Tanach and learning it by memorization, rather than learning the Talmud, which is a more traditional approach. Return
  41. This is likely the highest score - like an “A” Return
  42. This is the age of 13, when a Jewish boy is considered a fully responsible man with respect to following the religion. Return
  43. טלפון (telefon) is the Modern Israeli Hebrew word. As Modern Hebrew was being developed at the beginning of the 20th century, there was much debate about to what extent modern words should be built from existing words of the ancient language, and to what extent they should be borrowed from other languages. An official word for telephone is still סח-רחוק (sach-rechok) – based on the Greek meanings of “tele” [distance] and “phone” [voice]. But the word telefon is almost always used. Return
  44. The context of the prayer being the return of the divine presence to Zion – “May our eyes see, on your return to Zion.” Return
  45. A very touching ending! Yongerman is close to death. And this is a warm way of saying they look forward to being reunited. It's a more poetic way of saying this – like saying “so long” rather than “goodbye.” Return


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