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Yiddish Section

[Page 339]

My Dear Bielsk

(Matti Leib Paszarnik / Jewish Occupations /
Hilke the Butcher's [son] Big Day / Random Episodes)

by Jeruchem Kleszczelski, Brooklyn, United States

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

If one wanted to describe everything, one could fill many books. I have to limit myself because there is too much to tell.

I best remember the town of Bielsk-Podlaski (Nearby were the great Bialowieza forest, whence comes part of the name). As a young boy, I would run around barefoot in the summertime, play in the street with other children, passing the time in various games.

Life was hard. The economic means of earning a living were limited. There were few large workshops that employed more than ten men. People would work at wool manufacturing, and although the bosses were Jewish, there were also Christian workers. The Jews were mostly merchants who had large or small shops. Others were middlemen. Some would buy a horse from one peasant and sell it to another. Jews were also artisans and craftsmen.

Aside from the economic difficulties, daily life was beset by antisemitism. In fact, I must tell of a case that left a deep impression on me in later years and influenced my way of thinking. It happened when I was about six years old. I was a student in the city Talmud Torah. Once in the early morning, the rabbi's monotonous drone was interrupted by a great to-do. Looking through the window, we saw a half-dead man with a bandaged head being dragged to the guesthouse. Later, after school, we heard from some Jews who were standing around and discussing the matter that the injured man was a pauper, one of a group of beggars who came every Thursday seeking alms. Every day they went to a different city. The Bielsk police seized him, dealt him murderous blows, and threw him into the street, from which people brought him to the guesthouse. He lay there for about ten days.

All of the Jews in the city were upset. People spoke about sending accusations to higher authorities and so on. We were amazed

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at the solidarity of the entire city over this stranger whom no one knew personally.

As the years went by, such events were repeated, but instead of attacking individuals, hooligans attacked groups of Jews. As news of such beatings spread, a large group of Jews quickly came to help their brothers. “You shall come to his aid” [Exodus 23:5].


The depot in Bielsk


There were many such attacks, but I will recount one that stands out in my memory.

It happened one evening that a group of antisemites planned to attack the Jews near the theater, where they had gone to see a group of actors perform. News of the attack brought many Jews to the place. Among them was one who stood out. Everyone knew him as Hillke the butcher's son. He was a big fellow with a hard body and a hoarse voice. He ran among the hooligans holding a stick in his hand with which he struck out right and left, crying out with each blow: “This is for my wife. This one is for Shmulik, for Moshe” until he had named every child and broken the stick.

The whole Jewish populace talked about this for weeks and were proud of Hilke the butcher's son.

A month later, my father, who would not hurt

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a fly on the wall, came running in from the street, looking for a stick. I asked him what had happened.

“People are fighting,” he began to say, and he ran out into the street.

I choked up and tears stood in my eyes. I ran after him. Later it appeared that it was only a rumor. When I think back to those years, when the Jews of Bielsk began to feel to me like a family, if misfortune befell one, the whole town sorrowed. A simcha for one–the whole town rejoiced. It made me feel something was there to feel proud of.

There were few rich people in Bielsk. What did “rich” mean? If a family lived comfortably, had enough money and clothing for different occasions, that was what we called a rich man. Yes, he should have his own house. The majority could barely sustain themselves and lived from day to day. And understand, there were some who didn't even have that much and sometimes went to sleep hungry.

There was also a group of Jews who were symbolized as Beis-Medresh Street dwellers, who received funds from America. They might have a groschen [a small denomination of currency], but they were far from rich.

People could see all of Bielsk's Jews on holidays, like the first day of Pesach or Rosh Hashanah, dressed in new clothes in the newest styles. The people of Bielsk had the nickname “die zeydene torbe” [The Silk Rucksack][1] because they were so dressed up. On holidays, young and old would come out on the promenade route, which went from the patched house to Beis-Medresh Street.

The Jewish population also had a high cultural level.

Bielsk had two drama groups that were quite good and took the stage like professionals, not like amateurs. The evening when one of them would perform was like a holiday in town. The income of one group went to the Jewish school that had the poorest students and always ran a deficit. The other group played for the charity fund that aided the sick, paid for doctors, and often provided medications for those who could not afford them.

The Jewish population was no larger than that of the Christians, but the life of the city was greatly influenced by the Jews in labor and business, as well as in city functions. For

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example, the voluntary fire department with its band was 80 or 90% Jewish. This could be seen when they paraded on two traditional Polish holidays: the third of May and the eleventh of November. One of the leaders was a Jew named Moti-Leib, a prominent Jew, one of the city's wealthy men. He would walk at the head of the parade and when he called out, “Attention,” his lower lip would jerk up, and his stomach, which was of a good size, would jut out; he would raise his hand to his visor. Then everything would start to move. Even the stones under his feet appeared to move…

In case of a fire, when the siren sounded, it was marvelous how the Jewish wagoneers would unharness their horses and hasten to harness them to the fire wagons. In later years they had one automobile.

Bielsk also had a sports club, with a football team that belonged to a central league, and they would play against other cities from the Bialystok voivodeship [district]. These were the pride of the young people.

There was no lack of political parties. All political parties of all stripes were represented in Bielsk. There were organized evenings when discussions took place. One thing was in every Jew's mind, how to read the Jewish problem. This was always in the subconscious. No Jew could free himself from it.

I left Bielsk at the end of 1926, and I know little of what followed after that. At the time of the war, I was in France. Earlier I was in the Polish army and then in the French. After the French army capitulated, I joined the partisans. Along with me were many Jewish young people and boys. I will describe their heroism in another place.

I will recount one episode that happened to me. I was responsible for several partisan groups, one of which was in the woods in central France. I visited them from time to time. At one such visit, two of the leaders asked me to accompany them at mealtime to a farmer who helped them out with food and clothing. He had been an officer in the French army during the First World War. After eating, “when the heart of the king was warm with wine,” we were talking and the farmer posed some questions. He was told that I had come from Paris and could answer him, which I intended to do. Despite everything, he came out with antisemitic

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points that he had heard from German propaganda on the radio, such as that Jews were cowards and fearful, that they stood aside and allowed the French to fight for them. I felt that I could not stay silent, that he had crossed the line. I asked him whether he believed that I was a Jew. It was as if a bomb had hit him. He almost fell off his chair. His eyes popped out from his forehead, and I assured him that if he did not believe me, I could prove it…

He never repeated such things…


[At bottom of picture: Bielsk Drama Studio in Siematycze]


Editor's footnote
  1. This Yiddish term translates to the “Silk Rucksack,” a name by which Bielsk Podlaski was known. See the first paragraph of Bielsk - Its Rabbis, Teachers and Jews, by Tzvi Ben-Daat, on page 48 for an explanation. Return

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Community Life in Bielsk

by Zvi Kadlabowski

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

Edited by Andrew Blumberg

Our Bielsk had no industry and there were no factories. In later years there were a few little factories that worked in woolens, felt winter shoes; and there were other workshops that made bricks and ceramics. That was the whole of manufacturing. But we also had artisans. Our district was large and its markets were also very large. The entire surrounding population came to the markets and had to buy various articles from the artisans, such as shoes, clothing, furniture, etc. We in Bielsk had one of the largest markets, where commerce was concentrated. But a proletariat, in the full sense of the word, we did not have. This all describes Bielsk before the war, before the First World War.

There was a group of Chasidim in Bielsk, but a small group. Aside from the five known beis-medreshes, the big ones, we had minyans. The minyans were on the periphery, far from the city center where the big beis-medreshes were located. There were Jews who wanted to pray quickly but in the large, old beis-medreshes prayers lasted a long time, but in the minyans it was one-two-and-done. There were five or six minyans. Permanent minyans were held in homes. One of them was called “the electric minyan,” because electricity operates quickly and the praying there went so quickly. Another place was called “Rosenberg's minyan” after the owner of the apartment where the minyan was located. I think that one of his sons lives in Russia now.

There were many “cheders” in town, because all of one's young children, before going to work or to gymnasium, would go to cheder for a year. For going to cheder, there was no difference from child to child. There was no other school, so everyone went to cheder. Before the First World War, every boy did his first learning in the cheder. And all the “cheders” were almost the same, except for Yungerman's, which was an “advanced cheder,” where they also learned to write Hebrew. The cheder was led by a father and son. It was considered a very progressive place. There was also a “Talmud Torah,” which was

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a kind of “cheder” for the poor who could not afford to pay the teachers in the “cheders.”

When the father died as a young man, his son continued on until later, and when the Jewish school opened, he became a teacher there. In time, a yeshiva also opened by us. But this was after the First World War. I learned with three rabbis. My first rabbi was R. Shmule. His cheder was on Beis-Medresh Street and there were about 20 children. With him I started to learn Hebrew. Later, after one or two “semesters,” I went to a second cheder, to Moyshe-Boruch. At Moyshe-Boruch's there were also 20-30 students in a single room. Moyshe-Boruch's cheder bordered on one side by a Polish church, and on the other side of the church was a second cheder. As children, we used to have “wars” between the cheders. I remember that with me in the cheder was Bladavski, whose father was a butcher. He brought us dried tails from cows, which we called “basiakes” [literally “tramps”], and when someone received a slap from one of those, one did not soon forget it. Thanks to these basiakes, we were the most powerful cheder. In the cheder we sat at a long table with single benches on both sides, and the rabbi sat in the middle. He would read from the Torah and translate it into Yiddish, and all 20-30 children—all at the same age and level—repeated the words together.

Thus did boys learn in the cheder from the age of 5, for 3 or 4 years. After that, some of them went to work.

Before the war there was in Bielsk a Jewish school run by the Karabchi Zaba, that is, it was sustained by the taxes or payment that people paid to the government for kosher slaughtering. In this Jewish school, people studied only Russian, writing, reading, and speaking. The chief teacher was Edelman in my years, and later, when he became ill, his daughter took his place. She was helped by Sherira. In the school, people learned in two classes. Aside from this school, there was what people called the city school—“Gorodskaya Utshilitsha” in Russian. Those who had graduated from the Jewish school studied there, and graduating from this school was equivalent to finishing four grades of gymnasium, aside from foreign languages, because in the gymnasium, in the second class, one began to study German and French.

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In later years a gymnasium opened in Bielsk, that is, a four- grade gymnasium. Most of our young people went to study there. For all the young people of Bielsk who went to university, it was thanks to this gymnasium, because only the very rich could send their children to study in gymnasia in other cities. I remember now that aside from tuition, which was paid for me when I studied in Brisk, it cost 25 rubles per month to live away from home. Twenty-five rubles a month was a lot of money. In Bielsk there was also a pension [a boarding house], but only for girls. And there was a four-class gymnasium only for girls, Jewish and Christian, local and out-of-town. People came there even from Bialystok, because in Russian times it was difficult to go to gymnasium. From the start, people wanted me to go to the gymnasium, but Jews were limited to ten percent. My parents decided—since they knew that in the city of Sandomir in Poland a Russian gymnasium had opened and the populace there was Polish and they did not want me to go to a Russian gymnasium—to send me there. I took the examination for the gymnasium and I was accepted in Sandomir. But as a young man, I knew no Polish and I did not understand their Yiddish—I could not take it, and so I left.

In Bielsk there were broad possibilities for education, whether Russian or Yiddish. I must add that the teacher who had opened the gymnasium—her name was Babilov—was a socialist. The government regarded her as evil because she belonged to the S.R. [Social Revolutionary] Party. The teachers, all of whom she had hired, were not professional teachers. She had brought some well-known people to the city, such as Lyonteib, the manager of the forest. He was the teacher of natural history. The second teacher was Sovitsky, who was an inspector for the tax department. He taught mathematics. There was also a teacher, the lawyer Gavarski, who taught Russian, a veterinarian who taught biology. All of the teachers were socialists. They instilled in the children an anti-capitalist spirit.

A river runs through the city—the Bialka. The river runs through the city from the train station and across fields, then through Rabitshe—a Christian area—and exits the city further on. People bathed

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in the river, Jews and Christians, separately. Jews simply were afraid to bathe where the Christian ruffians bathed, because anyone who ventured there got smacked around. Therefore the Jews would go bathe at Dobitch or in other spots closer to the Jewish area. Bathing and swimming were the only Jewish sports. There was no other sport in pre-war Bielsk. All developments in that sphere came after the First World War. One game that could be considered a sport was skating. Near the Polish priest's house was a so-dzewke, a frozen lake where people would skate. Nearby there were other such sa-dzewkem [frozen lakes]. That was the winter sport. The summer sport was bathing.

In 1915 my mother, my three brothers, and I went to Russia, in fear of the Germans, who were approaching Bielsk. My father remained in Bielsk on the condition that if the Germans got too close, he would flee and come to us.

We went to Warsaw. Because in 1915 the Germans came so quickly, almost the whole city fled. Perhaps a hundred remained in Bielsk. These hundred people avoided the prayer houses and gathered in the beis-medreshes, where they hid. Among the hundred were perhaps ten victims who were shot, and one can assume that if the Jews of Bielsk had not fled, there would have been more victims. In response to battles and to the course of the war, there were Jews who went ten kilometers from the city as far as Arly[1], because it was a smaller town. Aside from the city folk, the peasants also fled. The roads were crowded with people, because not only those from Bielsk had fled but the whole area from Bielsk to the border. Jews and Christians. The main highway of the area to Russia and Pruzhany passed through Bielsk.

The whole road was packed. We traveled by train. My father had good contacts, so we had a train car to Cherveka. There the local official, our acquaintance, would allow us to go no further. We wanted to go to Brisk, but he warned us that one could not go through Brisk. “I would get onto a train,” he said, “going in another direction, in the direction of

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Volkovisk, and from there try to get through.”

We came to the city of Arsha. We stopped and stayed there for a couple of weeks, thinking that perhaps our father had fled and would follow us—but he did not. It happened that we had to move on, because the Germans were progressing. We chose Tambawo Gubernia [Tambov Governorate], deep in Russia. I was then the oldest man in the family and I chose the place, because I wanted to continue my education. Until then I had studied in Brisk. I wanted to graduate, and in that city there was a school. We decided to settle there. We remained cut off from Father, four boys and their mother in Kirsanov, Tambawo Gubernia.

I enrolled in school there and began my studies. The city had Nikolayevsky soldiers and some wealthy Jewish merchants, the first who had the ability to live there according to the merchants' association. The city was quite large, but the Russian commercial class and the Jewish population were small. I wanted to find out what was happening with my father, so I wrote to the Tatianowski Commission, an institute where the czar's daughter Tatyana had established and led a commission to aid refugees. I told them the whole story, and a year-and-a-half later I received a response saying that they found our father living at 7 Hindenburg Street.

Hindenburg was then a general who was leading the war, so I understood, since 7 was the number of our house, that our house was still standing and that Father still lived.

In a little while I received another letter from the committee saying that my grandfather had died. Meanwhile, I learned that in Russia there was a Zionist, a member of a young people's learning circle with students from Moscow. He held lectures and reading. In Russia, the revolution began. Elections were held in the Jewish communities in the cities for the Jewish Founding Assembly of Russia. I was active, and I was transformed from a boy into a man.

The war had not yet ended. The Germans were still in our region. In Russia we had Kerensky's regime and then the Bolsheviks. I decided to see what was going on at home. Since Brisk was in German hands and we were on the Russian side, I was assisted

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by acquaintances in the city. They wrote a note that I was allegedly handling matters for refugees in a border town. At that time Arsha was a border town. By chance it happened, when I came to Arsha, I was sitting in the station drinking tea and a young man came in with whom I had studied in Brisk. I told him my story, and he said to me, “Don't say a word. Come!” We went to the door of the train station. The militia man who was standing there saluted and opened the door. My friend led me through and into a train car. He was a communist, the leader of the Ukrainians. Arsha was divided between the Russians and the Germans. On one side were the former and on the other the latter. I had gone only 20 meters and I was now in German territory. He told me not to move much from there and what sort of a train I needed. I got into a train, ignorant of where it was going. I sat silently and traveled. After going for several days, I had to see where I was going. It turned out that this was a train taking wounded German soldiers from the front to Kovno. I was trying to get to Bielsk. In Kovno I was taken to a camp, a transit camp, and later I received permission to go to Bialystok. From Bialystok it was easy to get to Bielsk. There I met my father and went home. After we spent several days at home, because Father feared that the Germans would seize me to work for the city government, I went out to seek someone with whom I could live.

My goal was to see how my father was and then to return. I saw that Father lacked nothing, that he had survived the hard time, and that the house was empty, you see. One had to do something. I went to my friend Goldstein and I began to meet and become familiar with the community—with our friends. They were of a low status. The occupation put them at a level that I had never experienced. People of any age whom I had left behind were taken aback. Everything that I told them was like a new world to them. And they told me that a Zionist movement had formed, as well as a branch of the “Bund.”[2] In that neighborhood the Germans had created large work projects, had built a highway from Bielsk to Bialystok, etc. Jewish workers worked on these projects. In addition, many workers came

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here from near and far, simply because of hunger. It appears that in this way the new ideas of worker solidarity came to Bielsk.

I did not do things correctly and did not begin to work[3]; I only sought to return. Among the other community institutions was one called “The Fellowship of Past Language.” Speakers about Zionism came there. They told me that there was a group of Zionists whose leaders were Efraim Melamdovitz[4] and Stopnitzki[5]; later I became acquainted with them. There was also a group of unorganized “Zionist Youth.” In this way the seeds of community activity were planted in Bielsk. The opportunity was provided when the Germans entered Bielsk and the Jews fled. But soon the Germans arrived and in a short time the Jews found themselves under German occupation in the whole area. The Jews started to return. About 40% of the population returned. Some stayed in Russia and some did not return to the city.

Among those who returned were many from the surrounding towns and villages. The Germans also brought Jews from around Polesia. [The result was that] many Jews who lived in Bielsk at that time were not from the city, but the community leaders were.

One evening, I remember, I sat in my room and saw the train. I saw something burning. I wanted to go out, but my father would not let me. He told me that people said there was a revolution in Germany. Every Jew had a German among his acquaintances, as did my father. Furthermore, we had a German living with us. He seems to have told about the revolution. We had an echo of that great revolution. As soon as they heard about the revolution, our German occupiers overthrew their administration, their officers, and installed others. In the morning, I heard that a workers council had been created in Bielsk, a German one. By the soldiers. Soon there was a meeting in the city, a Jewish meeting. This was the first meeting that I attended. Stopnitzki was there. One could say that after the German revolution, a new community life began in Bielsk. A short time later, the Germans left Bielsk and were replaced by a Polish government. The Germans went to Bialystok and the Poles [Polish forces] came from the direction of Brisk.

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When the Poles arrived, they began to organize a new way of life. Jewish life, too, began to reorganize under the Poles. But all of this was temporary. It all tasted of war. Not much time passed before there was a war between Poland and Russia. The Poles were in Kiev and the Russians began to drive them out. Finally the Russians returned to Bielsk, this time Bolsheviks, and the Poles retreated.

Like in other cities at the time, we in Bielsk had “Zionist Youth,” a large organization with over a hundred members, with a nice office in the center of the city. Every Shabbos there were gatherings that drew great crowds. The Zionist organization also grew large. At that time the leftist Poalei Tzion[6] was also a fine organization. Yankel Bronshteyn, a member from Russia, came. He had a great influence on the left. At that time, the Bund was one of the weakest parties. The strongest were the Zionist Youth and Poalei Tzion, with their own offices, with assemblies, with libraries, with everything. So what was the difference between the Poalei Tzion and the Zeiri Zionist Youth. The Zionist Youth were not an actual party but a faction of the general Zionists. They were called the People's Faction, Zionist Youth. The Poalei Tzion was a socialist party with strong communist inclinations.

Not long after the Bolsheviks arrived, they were informed that I was a Jew, that I had been in Russia, and that I opposed them. They had me arrested. This was my first arrest. This was in 1920. I was arrested because of an accident. A long time had passed, a year of Polish rule, during which we had organized elections for the Jewish community organization. The elections in Bielsk were organized to be highly democratic. There were slates, party slates, and the whole populace took part in the elections. The election campaign was hard fought. The slates were varied. There was an Orthodox slate, that included Yungerman's father. The General Zionists had a slate that included Stupinski and Melamdovitz. The Zionist Youth had their own slate that included Kadluvuski and Moyshe Shtern as candidates. Bronshteyn, Finya Rabinovitch (now in Russia) were the leading figures of the Poalei Tzion. Gurnyatsky stood out among the artisans. The Folkists were barely a party

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led by Dr. Cohen. The “Bund” was led by Tikotski and Deidbak. Thus was organized the first democratic election for the board of the community organization. Before the election there were two months of meetings, large meetings, extraordinarily large. The community then numbered perhaps 7000-8000 people.

After the elections a great struggle began for a variety of reasons. The first gathering of the Kehillah [the community organization] was open. Almost the whole Kehillah, led by the young people, came to see and be heard. Also there was our rabbi, who was on the board of the Kehillah, from the Orthodox, Rabbi Bendas, a very religious Jew, very far from worldly. He understood little of party matters, and his children belonged to other parties, even the Bund. In the community sense, he was, I reckon, somewhat backwards. At the opening of the first session of the Kehilla board, the representative of the Bund came out with a declaration, and he said that the first thing the Bund would fight for was to separate religion from the Kehillah. The Kehillah must be secular, he maintained. When the rabbi heard this, he tore his clothes[7] [as a sign of mourning]. The main battle in the city was over whether the Kehillah should take over various community institutions. One such institution was the Jewish cemetery, which was totally under the influence of the black-hatted Orthodox. They had a monopoly over the Chevra Kadisha [the Burial Society] and they took money under the pretext that the money was for the needs of the community. There were errors made by the rich that were accounted as insignificant, while the poor were penalized for the same things. The cemetery was divided into categories: here lay the “elite,” here lay the poor folk, etc. The democratic part of the Kehillah wanted to take the monopoly away from them. This was quite a struggle because they had the Burial Society on their side.

We did not want to go and form a new Burial Society! Time had passed since the formation of a new Burial Society, but we did not choose to do so. At that first assembly we decided that representatives would get together, two from each party and two from each beis-medresh. I forget where we got together. A certain man came and asked, “Who is this one, and who is this one?” I was, you understand, known. Someone asked where I was from. From where? I said, “I am from Tz'irei Tzion[8]. But where are you from?” “What do you mean,” he said. “We are

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from the city. Their understanding was that they represented the city, that is, the whole city, and we had to clarify for them that we had to have discussions. The Kehillah meetings were open. A large number of young people attended; people made speeches there and the young people laughed. The upshot was, after great difficulties, that the institutions were all given over to the Kehillah, including the Burial Society.

An important institution was the communal bath. In this instance, the Orthodox feared for the mikveh [the ritual bathing area] and fought strongly against turning the bath over to the Kehillah. They even went to the city council with proposals and complaints, and there was a danger that the matter would be turned over to the Gentiles. But the result was that the mikveh, too, was turned over to the Kehillah. The Gentiles understood that the Kehillah was the governing body of the Jews and not the Orthodox, who were subservient.

In the city we had a guest house. This community institution also came into the control of the Kehillah. They put a man in charge of it, because until then no one had been in charge of the tasks there. One time this man came to us and told us this story:

“You know,” he said, “that poor people come to us with large wagons, with horses, and they have dogs and they bring with them women and after they go through the streets of the city and collect alms, they sit under their wagons and drink liquor and rent out the women.”
This is what he told us.

Someone from the Orthodox group came to us and said, “Do you see what you've brought us to? Such things did not used to happen, and now look!!!” We decided at this meeting that it was not becoming for us not to react, so we ordered that each poor person should get a card with a stamp that would regulate their visits to the city and we would arrange with the police that anyone who lacked the stamp on his card from the Kehillah should be arrested, so that the poor people would know that they could not just go around collecting in the city. They were given to understand that when they came to the city early in the morning, they had to register with the Kehillah, take what was offered to them—five zlotys—and leave. To rest in the city—permitted; to beg in the city—no! We would give money to the poor from the taxes that we collected from the population. Was that good? But the Orthodox faction began to complain:

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“They're turning over our poor to the Gentiles!” they complained.
And they conducted a big fight. The police did not want to mix in. They enjoyed the arrangement, because in addition to actual poor people, under the old arrangement, thieves and underworld figures also used to come. Now that came to an end. Our stamp regulated the visits of undesirables and established a kind of control, so that people received what they deserved and did not have to roam around the city. Poor people could come once a month. In general they could not come to the city more often. (Would that such a system as we had then in Bielsk could be instituted in Tel Aviv or Haifa).

We did not take it lightly that people told such stories about bacchanalia among the Jewish poor in the city, so we sent three members of the Kehillah to see whether such stories were accurate. The three were Yechielchik, Kadluvuski, and Peshkin. They stood near a wall. They stood there and paid attention. And the story was accurate. Not far from them stood a huge wagon, with a pair of horses. Six or seven of the poor sat there with two women. They drank liquor and smacked their lips. And one told a story while three of them listened:

“What do you suppose,” he said, “that I am as foolish as you? You go only to the Jewish streets. I,” he said, “when I'm ready to go out, put on a Polish hat and I run over to Sinkievich Street. I go to the notary and he always gives me a half zloty. From him I move on and I collect more money. Only then do I go to the Jewish streets.”
Thus he told how he made money, and the three spies from the Kehillah heard him. Afterwards they came to a meeting and told what they had heard.

There were a lot of opponents to our agreement with the police. But this story helped us a lot.

One of our biggest opponents to all of our arrangements was from the so-called Orthodox, Sholem Minovitzki. He was, I must say, an honest man, and everything he did was innocent and “for the sake of Heaven.” He did what he believed. He truly believed that it was unheard of that the Kehillah should set up representatives who were distant from religion. Such Jews, over whom the rabbi had torn kriah [ripped his clothing] and who yet wanted to be custodians of the cemetery. He believed that the dead who would be brought for burial [and] would simply be tossed away. And

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he was distraught. We spoke to him in a friendly way, with honor and tried to make him understand that we would uphold burial and monuments with the greatest respect for the person. This did not require religion. We told him that all over the world people were buried in such a way—by the Russians and by the Poles people were buried and monuments erected. Why should he think that we would do differently? Why should we be worse?! Why among us would the dead wait for burial while the Burial Society would extort money from the family! Who was worse, us or him?! With such open discussions, we finally came to an understanding.

America has spoiled us. The religious ones have gone to America. Our Americans are not


The Jewish Children's Kitchen—1920


[Page 356]

religious. We know them. They think that when they receive a letter from a religious Jew, they have a purchase on the next world. They have been sent money, so they have the money, but we have the power.

After the war, the cemetery was abandoned. There were no monuments; we had to put them up. But we had some power. The Polish population and government wanted to have an organized Jewish kehillah. A kehillah with power on which they could rely. This was the advantage that helped us to succeed. The cemetery [beit olam in the original Yiddish] in every Jewish city in Poland reverted to the kehillah's control. The Christians had separate cemeteries, one for Orthodox[9] and one for Catholics. In other cities the cemetery was for all Christians. The Christian cemeteries were controlled by the Russian or Polish communities, just like their schools. The same holds true for the kehillah.

The first kehillah board did not last long, because in 1920 the Bolsheviks came. They told the kehillah board:

“What you have done until now—that you have done, but now this is Russia and everything will be different.”
With that, they dissolved the kehillah board. Until then the Kehillah had maintained a kitchen for poor children, so they could have breakfast and lunch. We got some of the food from the Joint [the Joint Distribution Committee], and a room was arranged in the kitchen where the children could come to eat. Young women from our membership worked there without pay. But the Bolsheviks took no account of this and liquidated the kitchen.

When the Bolsheviks came and created the so-called revolutionary committees, I remained sitting at home. I would not mix in community and party matters, because I knew the Bolsheviks from earlier times, and I knew how they smelled. One morning Avrume Veinshtein came to me. He was a member of the leftist Poalei-Tzion and a secretary in their newly created “Revcom”—revolutionary committee. He said to me: “Kadlubovski, you'll be in trouble. People are already speaking against you and saying that you should be sent to labor. Come work with me. You'll work in the division of social supplies that I oversee. This is “kosher” work. Come, you'll do the work!”

I understood well what he was saying and I agreed to go. I worked

[Page 357]

in that division. Since there were still food products, we decided to reopen a kitchen for Jewish children. And so we did. This was a result of the Kehillah. We had many cases—the ill, the poor, the mentally deficient, and so on. The situation in the city was quite bad. People lacked food, bread, and there was nothing: one time Veinshtein came and told us that it had been decided that each manager of a section could provide his co-workers with food. So we had cocoa, and each person could take every day a quarter kilo of cocoa. Thus we drank cocoa. Other divisions had similar situations with other goods. The manager of the kitchen was Shepsel Eizenberg from the leftist Poalei-Tzion and the director was Veinshtein and other members who had to care for the army and had more than enough provisions.

So people drank cocoa with pleasure for over a week. Then along came to two Jewish young men, militiamen, and said, “The cocoa is at an end.” We laughed a little at such an announcement. I had already told Avrume that this would end badly. “What do you mean,” he said. “It's been permitted. It's all written down.” But I was right.

A few hours later there was a commotion—Avrume was called to Revcom. At Revcom there was a Gentile, a fellow citizen. Avrume said to me:

“You were in Russia. You know Russians and Russian. I want you to come with me. You should tell them that all decisions are made collectively. We do nothing individually.”
We got ready to go and we were brought to the presiders. The first thing they said to us were:
“We work in Soviet Russia.”
Veinshtein, began to speak and said that we had done according to the decision, but he was not allowed to speak and they sent us away. As we walked to the door, I already understood that this was bad. Soon after a militiaman came and said that we were being taken to prison. We were led away to the prison and we remained there for several days. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks began to arrest the leading people in the city. They told us that the situation outside was fine. The Bolsheviks were fleeing and their wagons were going four and five at a time on the road. They were evacuating the city. Shepsel Eizenberg was sitting with us. Hearing this news, he began to rap on the door. The prison elder came over.

[Page 358]

Eizenberg said to him, “You must know that I cannot sit with these people.” He asked, “Why not,” and Eizenberg answered, “They are all counterrevolutionaries! I can't listen to what they say. I can't tolerate it! Take me to another room.” A day later Aharon-Yosef Levartovski came running and said, “Veinshtein, you should know that Eizenberg and you are being released. Kadlubovski not so.” Veinshtein responded, “Tell them that without Kadlubovski I won't go. If he is not released, we will stay here.”

Levartovski ran back. Veinshtein said to me, “What should I do, now that the Russians are leaving and the Poles are coming!” I told him, “Avrume, don't worry. Nothing will happen. You are better off staying in prison, and the Poles will see that you were opposed to the Russian regime.” So I arranged for him to stay until the last minutes of the Bolshevik power's presence in the city. Then we were all released. Veinshtein immediately went to Bialystok. He was afraid to remain in the city. Eizenberg remained. Our young men also fled. They were afraid of the Poles. All together the Bolsheviks were with us for three weeks.

Since we were back to Poland, we could not recreate the Kehillah as it had been earlier, because so many were no longer there. They had fled. Bronshtein and Finia Rabinovich from the leftist Poalei Tzion went with the Russians. The proportions between the various parties was altered—we decided to an equal Kehilla board, with two representatives from each party.

The first chair of the Kehillah directorate was Dr. Cohen (Kohan). Dr. Cohen was not from Bielsk. At the time of the German occupation, he came to hide in Bielsk. Members of the Folkists slate chose him as their chair, so that he would not be in opposition to them. He was, so to speak, “neither milchik nor fleishik—pareve.”

In addition to being chair, Dr. Cohen was also vice-chair and secretary. The secretary was required to write, to prepare, and to examine the protocols. The work of the Kehillah then proceeded normally. We set up a list of the whole population and established taxes according to everyone's ability to pay. The wealthy paid more and the poor paid less, in any case. The whole tax system was established on clear democratic and progressive foundations. This was without doubt a revolution in the whole community life of the city. We set up a city committee and we chose people who made

[Page 359]

up rosters and determined who could pay and how much. As I have already said, it was already decided that the Kehillah should be the custodian of Jewish life in the city. There was one detail over which we could not come to an understanding: this was the school system. In the city at that time there was already a Hebrew school, a Jewish school, and a Talmud Torah. People thought that only the Talmud Torah should be maintained by the Kehillah, but not the other institutions. The Orthodox fought bitterly and would not give up, maintaining that the secular schools should also be controlled by the Kehillah.

Aside from school matters, which were not settled, all the other institutions, like the board of the cemetery, were under the influence of the Kehillah. The Kehillah was also involved in all the deliberations about relief. I must describe how after the German occupation there was great need among the people of the city. A large proportion of the people simply needed wood for heating their homes, clothing, and shoes, and we had to concern ourselves with everyone's needs. Then help arrived from the American-Bielsk Relief. They, however, sent their aid directly to the Orthodox, which caused strife in the Kehillah. There were also a number of people in the city who had children or relatives in America and who wrote to them for help. The Americans decided to collect for all of their Bielsk relatives a sum of money and send it to us through a delegate, a certain Hochman. He came to Bielsk to come to an understanding with the Kehillah and to discuss the question of relief. The money that he brought was a great help. But he made a huge mistake. The value of money by us often fluctuated, which Hochman never considered. He knew that in America the dollar was pretty consistent. On his way here, he converted the funds in Germany. So the children of Bielsk parents would write, for example, “Poppa, I have sent you a hundred dollars,” and the delegate did not know that the dollar held its value and he only brought the converted value. The Kehillah suffered greatly. It was difficult to explain why he had brought so little money. The Kehillah suffered at the hands of the people. Some of them came shouting that they should not lose out, as if someone had cheated them on purpose.

I worked on the social committee, and to this day I am proud of the Kehillah's activities. It took the food from the Joint and created a kitchen for the poor, and for a long time after, it provided food for children.

[Page 360]

We conducted many activities before Pesach. This was not like the “Ma'os Chitim” [the responsibility to give charity for use at Passover] of old, when each little congregation would collect and some benefitted while others did not. We did not allow anyone to make “Pesach for himself.” We took the poor into the protection of the Kehillah. This was not like “Ma'os Chitim,” when people would come to my grandfather's home to ask for money. But this was only before Pesach.

In the city there were several parties, and each one, you understand, took a position on every issue. But most of the work went normally. When there were great outcries and excitement, most people would laugh at them. But there were episodes of conflict between the parties. In general, however, the Kehillah was one of the institutions that transformed the outlook of our population. The poor began to feel equal membership in the Kehillah.


The children of the Orphan's Institute with Dr. Cohen—1920


The transfer of the various institutions to the Kehillah was simple. There was no governing body to whom the institutions would turn. For example, there was a building in the city that had no owner. It was an orphan home—a community building with no owner. By us, nothing was recorded. The bath,

[Page 361]

for example, belonged neither to the bathers nor to anyone else. The ground of the building belonged to no one, but by right of possession it belonged to the Jewish Kehillah. When the board of the Kehillah was created, we officially notified city hall that from such and such a date, the Kehillah would begin to pay taxes for the ground. And all of the buildings were then given over to the custody of the Kehillah. Other properties that had been designated for use by all were co-opted by the Kehillah. Once, someone abandoned a store. We took legal action and thus the Kehillah board became a legal corporate body, recognized by the government. We even had the legal right to collect taxes. Over all, in our area Poland desired that such corporate bodies would increase. The Kehillas were to be democratically organized.

Our activities in the Kehillah were also fruitful in areas in which the Kehillah had not agreed to operate. The Kehillah had not wished to engage in school matters, as I mentioned earlier, because of the fanatical, egotistical elements. However, we Zionist protectors of the Kehillah could not long endure such a situation, seeing that a minority of the Kehillah wanted us to stay out of developing advanced educational institutions. We decided to proceed on our own initiative and responsibility. We established the Hebrew school. Our work together in the Kehillah brought us closer together, and we brought our collective energy into other areas and achievements. The most prominent was the development and support of the Hebrew school. We were a group of Tz'irei Tzion and general Zionists who undertook to work together on school matters and we created a Hebrew school, a modern, rented location with benches and furniture, without anyone's help. There was no central organization that could have helped. We alone managed. Teachers, for example, volunteered to work every day for no pay. They were all from the city—from Bielsk. Later, however, when the school began to develop and students came and people began to pay tuition—then we brought in a director, someone from outside the city. This was in 1920. The Polish regime at that time had not given permission for such a school, if there was no director who knew the Polish language and had the right to lead a school. Consequently, there were always strangers in the school, mostly teachers, who had been brought in from Galicia. In our area people generally

[Page 362]

had little facility in Polish. We found a young woman from Lodz who had graduated from a gymnasium and knew Polish well. She was the first “director” of the Jewish school in the city. At that time, Gelman was the director of Hebrew, and the permit for the school was in the name of a Catholic teacher who taught Polish. With Gelman's arrival, the school developed and earned a reputation, because Gelman was a person who could perform well at meetings. He held a number of lectures in the city that were effective. Most of the Jewish population of the city supported the Hebrew school. Gradually the school went from volunteer teachers to stable, qualified teachers.

In general it must be said that thanks to our community intuition, we were in a battle for a progressive Kehillah, and we owed even more to our Zionist achievements.


Editor's footnotes
  1. This is likely the town of Orla, which is approximately 12 km from Bielsk Podlaski. Return
  2. General Jewish Labor Bund, The Bund, was a secular Jewish socialist party initially formed in the Russian Empire. In 1917 the Polish part of the Bund seceded from the Russian Bund and created a new Polish General Jewish Labor Bund which continued to operate in Poland in the years between the two world wars. A member of the Bund was called a Bundist. Return
  3. It isn't clear from the text whether he deliberately didn't look for work or for some reason wasn't able to work. Return
  4. In the Hebrew section, see the chapter on page 204 titled “Efraim Melamdovitz.” Return
  5. Stopnitzki was the principal of Tarbut School in Bielsk Podlaski. He was among the veteran Zionists in the city. In the Hebrew section, he is mentioned on page 143 in the chapter “In the Holocaust in Russia, and also Bielsk Before and After its Destruction.” Return
  6. Poale Zion (meaning “Workers of Zion”) was a movement of Marxist–Zionist Jewish workers founded in various cities of Poland, Europe and the Russian Empire around the 20th century after the Bund rejected Zionism in 1901. Return
  7. The Hebrew word used here in the text was kriah (קריעה) meaning “tearing,” which is an expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one. The torn garment or a cut black ribbon is worn during the seven days of shiva. Some people continue for sheloshim, the 30-day period of mourning. Return
  8. Tze'irei Zion, or Zeire Zion, translates as “Youth of Zion” or “Young Zionists,” was a socialist Zionist youth movement in Eastern Europe, movement originated in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Return
  9. In Yiddish the word used here was Pravoslavin, referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church which includes among others Greek and Russian Orthodox. A Polish Orthodox church was established in 1924. The text does not indicate which of these the church belonged to. Return


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