by Tziril Lev (Edna Schwartz)
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
My mother died when I was three years old. And my father was a shoemaker and toiled many hours of the day. He was not able to take care of his numerous children. Thus, I was placed in the orphanage and remained there until the age of ten.
I remember our orphanage well, but only things connected to my life and the lives of the rest of the children who were with me at the institution. There were times that I was obligated to remember; I only remembered the meager food and the distress of the house but many days my attitude changed toward it and I appreciated it. Now it seems to me to have been an institution which saved children from a terrible fate at home and from a stepmother relationship of darkness and gloom. Because I now understand my father, which to my regret and our regret, he had to give up on educating me and fatherhood for my sake and our sake, and to deliver me to an institution. And thus I am filled with understanding for the institute, for its administration and its founders.
In the beginning the orphanage was in a small house on Beit Midrash Street. Later it was moved to a different street, and when the Russians came, they took the institution under their aegis. It was moved to the modnik [Russian meaning trendy, elegant, fashionable] estate next to the train station in a very lovely villa. They improved its condition but turned it into a large, multi-national institution which was not distinctly Bielsk.
Under the Jewish authority there were about 20 to 30 children in the institute. The management was very limited, and its means were very meager. The effect seemed to us to be a lack of responsibility, resulting in the suffering of the children. But over time our wonder grew. When we got older, we wondered how Bielsk could dare to establish with limited means such an institution as this? You see, towns in the area that were much larger did not have such courage, and they did not take upon themselves the burden of alleviating the distress of the children and the parents beaten down by a family disaster. They were frightened by the lack of funds and lack of friends, people devoted to this. Bielsk was bold and in this way saved the lives and souls of tens of Jewish children deprived of their childhood.
The first director during my time there was Elka Winograd, a very good woman, full of sensitive compassion and love for us. She was very weak as an administrator, and the regime which founded it was very lax. But we loved her dearly. She tended to our injured souls with her mothering and devotion.
When Elka got married, she left the orphanage and Batsheva arrived in her place. I do not recall her last name. She was very pretty, single and forceful in her authority. During her term the orphanage was very clean and orderly. Batsheva was incredibly clean, and this she strongly demanded of residents and of the cleaning workers. Our relationship with Batsheva was one of discipline bordering on fear. Elka before her we loved and were happy to fulfill her requests. We were always weighing the comparison between her and Elka, and it was always to her disadvantage. Though, over the years, as I said, we realized that Batsheva did compare well.
The children slept in very crowded conditions. The institution only had two rooms for the children - a room for the boys and a room for the girls. The dining room was not one of the larger rooms. There was also a room for the administration and a kitchen and bathrooms. Among the children were also some from outside the town. One girl from Siemiatycze was my best friend, and there were those from other towns.
The yard was neat and clean and in it was a serious vegetable garden that the children worked in and helped to cultivate.
Food was meager. Thin bread in the morning, butter and coffee; lunch was rarely any meat. Most days of the week we almost never saw meat. We received clothing from rich people in town. In these actions of concern for clothing and other things, it was very much Yacha, an aunt of Zipporah
Kdelobovsky, and Chaya Mlodovsky. The latter was received by us and was well loved. She is located in Israel, and I once visited her in her apartment in Kiryat Bialystok in gratitude for the years gone by. She was the daughter of the butcher and lived near the orphanage on Beit Midrash Street. Her concern for the institution was very much felt and was continuous. On the board was another person, Rosenberg, who lived on Mitzkovitz [Mickiewicza] Street and had a warm relationship with us. These three I remember well because they would visit us frequently, and we would go to see them, and in an institution like this one connections such as these are very important, almost as much as food - and perhaps more so.
The highlight of the services that the institute provided was going to summer camp. Every year we would go for a month to a camp in Dubna, Miliachich [Milejczyce] or Druzgnik. The flavor of these camps followed us the entire year, health-wise and in spirit. We drew from this one month many emotional and uplifting experiences. Meeting with nature in the world for those without parents blurred our gloomy distinctiveness and anointed us with a good feeling that we were like all the [other] children.
The kitchen and clean-up worker was a Polish lady, a devoted and good woman. She was a good cook, and I remember her well.
On the holidays we always had parties. We would sit at long tables and sing. It was so nice. Neighbors on the street would come to us for the parties, and it was very joyful with them.
The orphanage was our home, the place where we ate and lodged. It was not a closed institution, where our studies also took place, coordinated to the spirit of the institute and its line of education. Instead, we went to school in town. When it came to education the Yiddish School controlled the institution. We did not learn Hebrew. The teachers were good, but they were always changing.
When the children reached the age of 14 and completed seven grades of school, the administrators of the orphanage saw to it that the children learned a trade and would be able to stand on their own. They would arrange to have the orphans placed with experts in a craft, or they would send them to Bialystok. There the children would continue to live in a local orphanage and learn occupations at a trade school or with a master craftsman. Completing their education in this way raised many difficulties for the board. They had to worry about money for clothing and food, and here I saw the greatness of volunteers of Bielsk, the public figures of the orphanage. We were small, and I remember the concern for our independence was very heavy on our little hearts. But we trusted the good hearts of our patrons and knew we were in good hands.
Even when the children went out on their own, that is, when they were earning money for their work, the committee would arrange a place of work and see that salary conditions were decent, just as they arranged a place for them to live and other things.
From previous years would come echoes of the warm care the committee gave us, and it was easy for us to think that there was concern for us. We knew details about the classes, and we saw them graduate with a healthy spirit of independence and freedom like all the graduates their age.
At the end of 1939, the Russians came to Bielsk, and they stayed until mid-1941. During that period of time the institution grew too much and lost its warm, Jewish character. It is true that the living conditions and the food greatly improved. However, the children began suffering; social suffering was very hard. The institute had over 200 children. Among them were some street children, criminals who really destroyed everything
that had been built and obtained in the institution. We suffered terribly. We were afraid of the criminals who bullied and persecuted us and brought fear on the administrators of the institution, as well, until there was no one left to turn to with our complaint and no one who would defend us. In the end, the Russians themselves saw that the institute could not have a period of time like that and in that framework, and they reduced the number to 40 children.
The Russians also continued in a tradition of reducing it until it was as it had been previously.
When the Russians left, the institution was abandoned, and I do not know what was the fate of the children in it. I was staying in Druzgnik and thus I stayed alive. The rest of the children were abandoned, and shared the fate of the rest of the martyrs of our town.
The Russian Period and the Continuation
When the Russian-German War broke out in June 1941, nearly 300 of us sick children without parents were brought into Druzgnik. I was sent there after being ill the entire winter with a terrible case of bronchitis and chronic bronchitis. The place is located on the border of Lithuania and was amazingly beautiful. I had already been there a few times and loved it. But this time it was in a different season, in June, and everything stood in a state of flowering and deep green; as if to cause anger, I enjoyed this time more than ever. And here it is The War, and I am alone amidst children gathered from different institutions. I wanted to go home; I was dying of homesickness but the way was closed. Vilna Bridge was completely burned, and the roads around it were destroyed. The director of the orphanage, a Jew from Leningrad, was anti-Semitic and had a virulent hatred of Zion. He assembled all of us and loaded us onto wagons heading to Russia for the dangerous withdrawal.
The director, who belonged to an obscure party, was Orthodox and strict. However, in regard to the order of the trip, he was like all of his management sloppy and not organized. We traveled without bread, without clothes, and it was not just one time that we were hungry. We were actually at the edge of dying from starvation. He moved us about from one place to another. Perhaps he wanted to come with all of us to Russia. For the privilege of his rank in a new situation or perhaps he did all that in order to be saved from a fate of the front and being mobilized in the army. In any event, his concern was as of a stepfather and hostile person. The one thing he did not forget to cram into us was Jewish self-hatred and humiliation of Zionism. All the time he would bring up his discussions along these lines. Luckily for us we had with us a Jewish counselor, David Tobias, who worked at the institute on a community mission, and he brought forth the opposite of the sabotage that the director was striving for. Tobias, a young man from Lomza, was implanted with us in the institution and everything was a secret. He himself was a man full of secrets and mystery. He was all the time in contact with Israel. I do not know where he pulled his information from. But he always had something fresh to relate to us on Eretz Yisrael [The Land of Israel] that from detail to detail he portrayed before us as a land of freedom, successfully fighting for its existence and rescuing Jews dispossessed of a home, deprived of existence and parents. Tobias was our comfort and the light of our lives.
The entire way we were subjected to German bombs. We jumped from the train each time and hid in the forests, on the sides of the road and in ditches of the field, waiting until the bombs passed and continuing like that without shelter or concern for shelter.
For two long weeks this was a road of suffering until we arrived in Russia. Of all the suffering,
the torments of hunger and doing our needs (defecating) in public were great. It is difficult to explain especially this second one how great was the suffering for maturing young men and young women.
Our first stopping point in Russia was Sarapul in the Ural Mountains. We did not manage to get situated there and rest a bit when we already had to leave the place and go to Karakulina on the Kama River. Sarapul was turned into a medical camp for the tens of thousands of injured soldiers who were returning from the front lines. There they were hidden from the view of the residents in order not to break their spirits. This is what Tobias explained to us; also we were not permitted to be witnesses to the signs of the defeat of Russia at the Front. Thus we had to move out of there to another place.
In Karakulina, which was a large village, though not according to our concept of dimensions, they put us in a structure at an abandoned school, and there we stayed for five years. Actually, it was almost solely Jewish children who stayed. Most of the Poles left the institution before we left for Russia, and the Russian children were slowly spread out here in Russia with each going to his home or over time finding a relative or redeemer to take him in. The Russians cared for us well. We had good food and were well clothed, even while around us there was hunger and distress. I remember this well. We continued to study at a school with the customary ten grades in Russia, and those who graduated were even sent to study at a university or a technical school or in an upper-level trade school.
At the end of the War in the year 1945, the few Polish children returned to their land and only the Jews who had nowhere to go remained. David Tobias stayed with them as the only one who cared and was faithful.
In 1946, Yakov decided to have us make aliyah [emigrate to The Land of Israel] and worried about every detail in the process of aliyah. But out of caution, he arranged things officially as if the intention was to repatriate to Polin, to parents. Only in that way was Tobias able to overcome the Jewish manager who wanted to keep us as proof of his rights in the party like a crop from his Russian upbringing in the Komsomol and Russian culture.
The struggle between the two ended with Tobias winning out. The Polish Embassy passed us on to Lodz and from there to Wrocław and Kudowa-Zdroj. The last place was on the Czech border and Tobias was able to smuggle us from there to France, to a place next to Paris called Ch âteau de la Gite. From there the route to Israel was open. Nevertheless, we boarded the Theodore Herzl for the migration and after three days of waiting in Haifa, as captives were transported by the British to Cyprus.
Here we had another new chapter of suffering and torment without water and food with dreadful living conditions in shabby tents and waiting in line for water that was in a measured cup. The Shlichim [emissaries of the Jewish Agency] Zeev Boxter, from Gesher, Yitzchak Zickerman from Kinneret, and Mindel from Alonim eased our suffering by making efforts to shorten the route for a return to Israel.
Thus ended the path of affliction for an orphan wandering about from Bielsk to Israel. These are also among the glorious chapters of Bielsk and the stories of suffering of a girl from Bielsk.
Translator's and Editor's Notes
by Malka Goldvitz
Translated by Sara Mages
The orphanage was initially on Josephs Street in a two-story building, and as my mother told me there was a separate room for two children with tuberculosis, because there was no small hospital for them elsewhere. The institution had 120-140 children, and almost one hundred percent of them were from outside Bielsk, there were no children from Bielsk. These were children from nearby towns and even from Bialystok, even though there was a large orphanage there. Later, a girl from Bielsk was admitted, but this was an exceptional case - she had a father and a stepmother who neglected her and did not take care of her cleanliness and health. The girl was afflicted with wounds that spread on most of her body and there was no way out except in the orphanage.
Later, the financial situation of the institution worsened and it was moved to a smaller apartment. In the meantime the children grew up and did not fit the institution's terms. The only way out was to move them to nearby towns, to families who adopted them and the orphanage was closed. It was in renewed and destroyed Poland after the war. It was in the 1920s. My mother worked from1922 to1924. It also had school-aged orphans. The orphanage did not employ paid workers. Two received payment, Bar Levin who was a bookkeeper and another one. The treasurer was Michel Weinstein. My mother worked after the number of children was reduced, and then they also took a caregiver named Pribalistin. My mother was the house mother and responsible for everything.
It is worth mentioning Miss Fraulein Sarashnovsky, who was literally a mother to all the orphans in the city and the surrounding area. She came from a very intelligent family. This was her emotional satisfaction. She was already sixty years old then, and maybe older than that. When I was a little girl she looked awfully old to me, but her kindness and her dedication to the children endeared her to all of us, and her old age seemed to have disappeared. Among the activists who supported the orphanage were: Chone Tykocki who was very active, Alexander Weinstein a lawyer who was a native of a town near Bielsk, and Moshka Rosenberg brother of Leah Rosenberg.
These personalities influenced the success of the fundraising. Alexander Weinstein, for example, invited a young dancer to perform a ballet dance, or they held a singing ball with non-professional actors, and the income from the ticket sales was for the benefit of the orphanage. The hall was always full when the lawyer Weinstein took care of such balls for the benefit of the orphanage.
The balls, in support of the orphanage, became an event in the city. Wide circles mobilized for the success of the operation. The schools' students made themselves available to the activists, their choirs performed at the balls and contributed to the enrichment of the program.
The municipality made itself the guardian of the institution, supporting it with food, and also from time to time with financial aid.
According to the plan of the orphanage directors, the children started to learn a trade when they reached the age of fourteen. They did it in the afternoon at the end of school hours. The maturation problems of these unfortunate children were difficult. The institution
could not meet the needs of the child who marched towards independence in his life. Nevertheless, the orphanage supported them at that age, and they received food rations for work and school even though they didn't live in the institution itself.
As mentioned, the older children were organized with families, mostly in the surrounding towns, and in most cases they lived in the house of their employers who trained them in their profession.
Over time, very interesting relationships developed between the children, the apprentices, and the families. Most of the children maintained contact with their adoptive families for a very long time.
The orphanage in Bielsk was founded out of the great spirit of tortured people, who commanded themselves to continue its existence. Their concern for orphaned Jewish children, which exceeded the limits of their ability, was a direct continuation of an absolute and deep-rooted popular national feeling.
The period of the orphanage in Bielsk was relatively short, but in this short period Bielsk passed a great test in its achievements in the field of mutual aid. The story of the history of the orphanage adds a special charm to the Jews of Zeydene Torbe.
The old orphanage
by Rivka Slutsky
Translated by Sara Mages
From the mists of the past, from oblivion, fragmented memories arise and float to the sight of the photos of the Hebrew school in Bielsk, my first place of work as a teacher and educator. The experiences I had later, over the course of decades, do not have the power to make me forget the first feeling, and this first experience, when the schoolchildren were handed over to me immediately after I finished the Tarbut teachers' seminary in Vilnius, when I was young and started working in the profession.
Here is Arey'le Bielski, here is Rachele', here is Chaya'le. Here is Leible' Bider, Gitale' etc. etc. Here are all my dear ones, my sacred flock, for whom I have been tasked with shaping the soul of their future.
A class at the Hebrew School in Bielsk 1929. The teacher - R. Slutsky
The photo is of the first grade at the end of the school year, it is necessary to go on the annual vacation and take a goodbye photo. But these children are not happy to go on vacation, as can be seen in the thousands of photos of Jewish children. A kind of expression of sadness surrounds everyone's face. After all, for two months they will not be told stories about Eretz Yisrael, and they will not sing the songs of Eretz Yisrael. Following the separation from the school, also comes the separation from the desired country whose legendary scenery, and its ancient echoes, they managed to absorb in the first year of school.
For the little ones this was not the Eretz Yisrael of history, or of the Bible. It is difficult to define the magic that this word had. This word evoked in these children
a kind of elevation of the soul, and national human pride of ancient times, but it was theirs. It is theirs now, here, also in Bielsk. And an additional soul came to them, a kind of a Hasidic devotion which, over the years, has taken on a clear meaning and a clear path - aliyah!
Over time, when the grandchildren of the Jews of Bielsk will flip through the tattered pages of this book, these small figures will stand before them and tell about a forgotten fact, that the first threads of longing to the State of Israel were woven somewhere in the cities of the Diaspora, many years before its official establishment, and one of them is the city of their forefathers, Bielsk.
The military campaign in the homeland was preceded by a spiritual campaign with many deliberations and actions on foreign land, and thanks to which a first generation arose to redemption, a generation who knew how to translate longings and dreams into fulfillment and reality, and was ready, capable and worthy, for exemplary deeds on the soil of the motherland.
This book is not only a memorial and a Kaddish to the Jews of Bielsk, who perished in the past, but also reminders for the future, and a binding reminder!
And at the end: I lament you, my students, my first flock, where are you? Where are your pure souls? Where have the innocent looks for love of people and the nation disappeared?
The cruel death did not stop your song of redemption, but you were not rewarded to the acts of redemption and their results.
The voice of your blood shouts to us from the Nazi inferno. It will shout forever and demand reparations for you. We will remember you at every opportunity, and we will put the horror of your fate above all our joys in our country.
by Y. Chrabolowski
Translated by Sara Mages
Bielsk was a clean city, very beautiful and teeming with cultural life. The Jewish street in Bielsk was different from the streets of other Jewish cities. It was evident that Bielsk Jewry longed for open spaces and was wary of the image of the ghetto and crowded alleys. Maybe there is some connection between this healthy feature of the Jews of Bielsk and the tendency of its young people to go on trips, to open spaces and bodybuilding, to sports and beauty.
When the Russians occupied it for the first time it had about fifteen thousand Jews. This is a record. Many Jews from the surrounding area came to it. There were many refugees from Warsaw, maybe five thousand Poles. At the time of the Poles, there were a number of Jews in the municipality who sat in the council and in its administration. For example Muzykant who was the deputy mayor. Yudka Chrabolowski was a member of the municipality. There was a community committee in the city in which all the parties and all the strata were represented.
When I was a boy there was one Jewish sports club inspired by the Bund. When the Zionist movements started to organize we said why we don't [i.e., asked why don't we] have a sports movement. Then, these movements reached an agreement and organized the Maccabi. All the movements were included in Maccabi, the Zionist-Socialist movements came and said that they want Hapoel, and we will share. At once, three sports teams were established, Hapoel, Maccabi and the Central Sports Committee. It was difficult for all three to exist. Those from the Bund somehow existed, because they received support from the Central Committee. Maccabi was closed and Hapoel remained. There was football [soccer] and a playground. Every Saturday there was a football game, with each other or with the gentiles. There was a military sports club, K. S., and we also played with them. Mishka Grodensky also played in the Jewish team. Hashomer Hatzair, and Central Committee Sport, had basketball teams with two courts, apart from the municipal court which was outside the city and was also used for tennis games. The municipal field was located in an army base from the First World War. There were also shooting ranges there, and the games between the Jews and Poles were held there. These games ended with beatings and a shower of stones. There were troubles with the Poles in the years 1930-1935.
The religious in the city had one Hassidim sect who had a synagogue, a kind of a shtiebel that they rented from the city's wealthy, the Bundists. We lived in peace with them and said: we will not bother you and you will not disturb us. There were no conflicts with them. In times of trouble we worked together with them and it was quiet. Everyone went their separate ways.
On Lag Ba'omer, all the movements left for the forests together with the parents in carts. We stayed all day in the Pinza Forests. We held sports games there. We made a procession and passed through the city with trumpets. It was one day a year. The Mizrachi also went. Talmud Torah was under the influence of Mizrahi. The principal, who was also a cantor at the synagogue (he has a daughter here in Israel), was a liberal and organized the Torah Talmud in Lag Ba'Omer to go to the forest together as a demonstration of Jewish unity.
There were Hebrew auditoriums in the city and all the members of the Zionist parties
gathered there. There were lectures, each movement gave a lecture, and there were debates about the issues of Eretz Yisrael. There was a great struggle between the revisionists and the workers' youth movements.
There were also party arguments that caused quarrels and sometimes also the separation of hearts, but one thing I remember, mutual aid was [more] precious to Bielsk than anything else. When it was necessary to help someone in need, parties' boundaries and differences of opinion were erased, and all the Jews were one body.
Great is the grief that they perished as one body. We will remember Bielsk as an example of brotherhood and we will not forget it.
by B. Carmon
Translated by Sara Mages
Six years ago a Jew knocked on my door, and when I opened the door I saw a man from abroad. It was Dr. Herzog from Columbia University in the City of New York. He came especially on behalf of the university's philological department to research different dialects in the Yiddish language, and Bielsk was on his map. He had several cities in Poland, at a distance of one hundred kilometers from each other, in which he was going to research his subject. Through Yad Vashem he somehow found out that I was from Bielsk.
After he finished five recordings with me, he explained to me that this town, which resided on three borders: Russia, Germany and Poland (and in a slightly earlier period - also Lithuania), was chosen for his research because the Jewish speech in this town, and its surroundings, was influenced by these four languages. With the help of the microphone he demonstrated, here you see - this and that expression is from the German language, and this and that expression is from Lithuanian, and this and that expression is from a third language, etc. This is one of the typical things of our Bielsk and this environment. Since it was a border town of four countries a special language developed there, and manners and customs were influenced by the customs of the neighboring countries.
It is possible, that the proximity of the various borders to Bielsk left its marks in the social life of the city, its customs, the relations between fathers and sons, man and his friend, man and his God, etc. However, at the moment I cannot say how this was manifested in the various areas of the society. But it was greatly expressed in the language. The creator of Esperano, Dr. Zamenhof, who is from Bialystok - fifty kilometers from Bielsk - wrote in his memoirs that the push to create the international language, Esperanto, lies in the fact that he came from an area in which he met, in his city and its surroundings, with long time residents, family members, who lived there for hundreds of years and spoke in these four languages.
Dr. Herzog collected recordings from former residents of Poland and Romania in Israel, and later wrote a large study about it that was published in YIVO. Two years ago YIVO held a special conference dedicated to the results of Dr. Herzog's work. It's a pity that I haven't seen the complete research, and I don't know if Bielsk occupies a chapter in it for itself, or it is mentioned each time according to the subject.
The Poles in the town highly valued the town because of the ruins of the Polish-Catholic monastery that were there. It was built in the 17th century by the Polish king, Stephen Báthory, who was a very popular king in Poland because he was a victorious king in his wars.
In Bielsk remained traces of a monastery that was called Łysa Góra, meaning the naked hill. It was a kind of holy place, holy to such an extent that until several generations ago, and some say several hundred years ago, Jews were not allowed to live in this town. In towns near Bielsk, about ten kilometers, such as Orla, the age of the Jewish community is about a thousand years. But in Bielsk, because of the aforementioned monastery, the Jewish community, as it appears in basic historical books, is only about four hundred and fifty years old. King Stephen Báthory,
lived, if I am not mistaken, in the 17th century, but Bielsk itself was already a well-known town in the 15th century.
The town hall, according to tradition, is from the 15th century. It stood in its place until I left Bielsk. Over the years it has been renovated many times, but its general appearance is the same as it has been since it was built. It stood in the center of the city and the Jews and also the Poles called this center rynek, meaning, the market. All around was a large market, empty, without buildings, and every Thursday gentiles came from the nearby towns, and villages, and the trade was concentrated there. They sold agricultural products and bought everything they needed in the city. The number of Jews in the city was about 50%, and even though they were only 50%, their weight in the central streets was about 90%.They lived in the city center and were the owners of the big stores, the owners of the kiosks and small businesses, and in general concentrated in their hands more than half of the trade and craft. The Christians lived in the city's neighborhoods and suburbs.
This was until the beginning of the 1930s. At this time, anti-Semitism developed in Poland following the strengthening of right-wing parties. The establishment of Polish cooperatives, sort of small scale Polish supermarkets, began, and then started the pushing of the Jews from economic positions. As mentioned, it was at the beginning of the 1930s. Against this background there were also cases of anti-Semitic pogroms. It was in the year 1932, or 1933, when the violent pogroms broke out in Bielsk. Local Polish students, who studied at a university in Warsaw, or in Krakow, came for the Christmas vacation and they set them in motion. Their leader was the son of the city's doctor, Osmolski. His father also belonged to an anti-Semitic Polish party called Endecja, meaning, national democracy. Nevertheless, his father was a doctor loved by the Jews. His anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of his older generation was, so to speak, an elegant anti-Semitism, who maintained the hatred of Jews but not pogroms against the Jews. But the sons were different. This son who studied in Warsaw, fat and blond, belonged to Endecja's student union called Nara, Narovtzim. I remember that Christmas, because I also came to the city for school vacation. He organized a group that stood near the Jewish cinemas and prevented Christians from entering with the slogans - Do not enter! This is Jewish cinema! Next to another Jewish cinema, that I no longer remember its name, a fight broke out with blows. And that Osmolski, the doctor's son, was severely beaten by the Jews. Spontaneously, and also not so spontaneously, a kind of self-defense was created in the city. At the head of the defense, and the big and strong, were Yisrael Rosenberg and one of the three brothers, porters by profession, one of whom still lives in Bielsk among the few families who remained in the city. They were simply called Di Tregers, the porters. They were three brothers. They were well built young men, strong, I am not sure if they were members of the Bund, but, in any case, they were from the same stratum that was under the influence of the Bund.
Tikotzki was also very active in these matters. I was maybe sixteen years old when the meeting was held at Beit HaMidrash Yafeh Einayim regarding this defense. Everyone came. From the communists to the city's rabbi, R' Moshe Aharon Bendas. Arguments broke out
between the youth and the community elders. The elders argued that it is necessary to act with moderation, there is no need to rush, and we should use the path of lobbying and turn to the mayor who is not anti-Semitic, and the young people, without party difference, were more agitated and more active. Then, a decision was made that Yisrael Rosenberg, and a few others, should hide and not be at home because the police were looking for them after Osmolski's son was beaten. They talked about organizing and providing legal help. One of the leaders who beat the shkotzim was a Jewish butcher. I think his name was Ilka, was also a healthy and very strong Jew. He was arrested, or they searched for him, and he hid. At home it has been told that bribes in large sums were given to the authorities in order not to touch him. But all of this quieted down by itself when those students who incited the riots on the Jews, returned to their places of study at the end of Christmas and the school vacation.
And more about one case of protecting Jews. My grandfather was also involved in this. In our town there were three synagogues. The greatest among them was called Yafeh Einayim. My grandfather, may he rest in peace, was called Fajwel Der Ribelech, because he lived for many years in a village by that name near Bielsk where he owned an inn. After his sons and daughters grew up and married he moved to the city. He was a Jew with a pleasant voice and served as Baal Koreh in this synagogue. He especially served as Baal Koreh during the High Holidays, Shabbat Shuvah and Tisha B'Av, when the Torah is being read in a special tone. And he was not a simple Baal Koreh, but Baal Koreh for important events. Once, in the early 1930s, when the authorities began to develop the Polish trade and set up shifts to beat the Jews, a shop and a butcher shop for non-kosher meat were opened right next to the synagogue. This upset all the Jews and not just the religious ones. A series of trials began at the Bialystok District Court. The lawyers argued that this was an attack on the Jewish religion, while legally there was freedom of religion in Poland - and Poland declared itself a democratic country. My grandfather, may he rest in peace, was in contact with the lawyers who managed the legal campaign in Bialystok on behalf of the Jewish community. One of these lawyers was a converted Jew, but it is possible that the Jewish feeling arose in him, and he passionately defended the matter of the community of Bielsk. The lawsuit went through several courts until in the end the Jews won the case. The joy then - as I remember - was very great.
In Bielsk there were, what can be called home owners, meaning, wealthy Jews, property owners. They believed that all the troubles of anti-Semitism came to the Jews only because of the Polish youth and students. And according to their view, the remedy for this was the tested Jewish remedy: lobbying and mission. They said that it is possible to get along with the authorities. That's why they always argued, also in the meetings in the synagogue that I've mentioned, that we must not rush. It is necessary to talk to this gentile, and meet with this gentile, to lobby with a Pole and send messengers to so-and-so, and as opposed to them - the Jewish youth, and not only the youth - were agitated. Parties, such as the Bund, Poalei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair, Betar and the communists, were also among them. All of them were agitated. The opponents of the we will wait and see method, also received some assistance from non-Jews, righteous gentiles. The father of the beaten student, Osmolski, who was himself a right-winger
and a member of the Endecja party, was against riots against the Jews and encouraged the Jews to defend their lives and property.
In this manner Bielsk defended itself many years before the Holocaust. This is how Jewish life looked in the so-called democratic Poland. It is important to remember that the history of self-defense is the history of a tragic situation whose name is Diaspora, in order to remember, that we will not move from here.
by Gedalia Shtaynberg
Translated by Nancy Schoenburg
Jews lived in hundreds and thousands of cities and towns in Poland and Lithuania for about a thousand years. With all the similarities in living conditions the economy, culture, and political conditions each settlement also had a uniqueness of its own, a uniqueness that stemmed from the history of the location and its physical and social conditions.
The Jewish community in our city was relatively young in years (the existence of the ancient Jewish community in our city ceased hundreds of years beforehand without leaving a trace of its buildings, graves, or the uniqueness of generations). For this reason, it had considerable influence on the fabric of social life, on its culture, and on the outer appearance of its settlement. Although in the surrounding cities and towns there existed continuous Jewish settlements for a long period of time - for700-800 years - the new Jewish settlement in our city was apparently only in existence for about 150 years or maybe less than that.
For some reason unknown to us (perhaps the opposition of the heads of the local Christian churches), it was forbidden for Jews to settle permanently in the city. According to tradition in our family, the early head of our family Ich'leh, born in the city of Kamenets-Litovsk, was the one who received the very first permit to settle there permanently with a minyan of Jews [literally, a quorum of ten adult Jewish males needed for a group prayer]. This may have been one of the conditions for the agreement so that they could have public prayer. The fact is that even after that and for decades, they had no Jewish cemetery and their dead would be buried in Orla, a town about 10 kilometers away from the city. The Jews built their residential quarter separate from the Christians, some of whom were Russians (Belorussians) and some Polish. Our city was situated on the border, though certainly not a political border, but rather an ethnic border, which, like a physical border, separated people; the inhabitants of the villages to the south and west were of Polish origin and from the north and east - Russians.
The Jewish quarter arose and developed adjacent to the old city and separate from it. While in the old city staro misshetza, and the outskirts of the city had Christian residences, the new city was a purely Jewish settlement.
Displayed in the center of the city was a multi-dimensional building, the Duma. It was a round, two-story building topped by a Gothic-style clock tower, an ancient building, built 800 years ago and renovated in the last 200 years. It seems that at the time it was used as a government fortress and perhaps also as a prison. In recent times, there were shops on the lower floor, and the magistrate on the upper floor the Town Hall. Around that same building was a large square.
The city developed and grew at a considerable speed in the beginning, especially the Jewish community and this was a result of three main factors:  The building of the southwest railroad track which was already used as a square for the market that took place weekly on Thursdays.  Russians whose path passed through our city, because of the development of a network of roads (the Warsaw-Moscow Road). And  a negative factor the expulsion of the Jews from the villages by order of the Tsars. Actually,
the deportation was not complete, because even in recent times, some individual Jews still lived in the villages, but those who were deported added energy to Bielsk, which was in the process of developing.
An additional factor in the development of the city was its designation as a District City. In truth, there was another city in our district whose population was surely greater than that of Bielsk. Was that not Siemiatycze? Nevertheless, the tsarist government set our city as the capital of the district, and it can be assumed that the choice was due to Russian political considerations. Siemiatycze, as we know, was located within a concentration of the Polish settlement of Rogen. That is not the case with our city, which, as mentioned above, was mixed by race and nationality. But even when the power passed to the Poles, Bielsk remained the district capital with only a small difference. In the days of the Russians, all the officials were Russian, and in the days of the Poles, exclusively Polish. The transportation arteries connected the city with the center of the country. They were an important factor in the development of trade and the stimulation of foreign trade with Germany for the export of wood from the many forests in the vicinity and produce from the crops of the country.
In our city we have counted dozens of families among our relatives without our knowing exactly the family tree and its branches because a long time has passed since its beginning. Also, there remained many buildings in the city which were known to have been built by the first members of our family, for example, the Avstaria [Hebrew: האבסטריה.] which was destroyed by the Nazis. These were buildings of a special size and shape that at the time were used as guesthouses for wayfarers and their vehicles.
In recent times they have been used as residences and shops. There was also a synagogue in our city that bore the name Itzela.
On the Aliya of Gedalia Shtaynberg 1930
Gedalia is fourth from the right of those sitting
A significant portion of the residents lived in extreme poverty, with the main source of their livelihood coming from shopkeeping, crafts and trade in grains. There were those who went to America
far away to find their livelihood there. Industry was almost non-existent. Even the traditional Jewish industries such as tanneries and textiles were absent from the city. At the same time, a cultured atmosphere prevailed in the city; it excelled in cleanliness and meticulousness in its external appearance perhaps that is why the people of our city earned the nickname Zyaidna Tarbes [Yiddish, meaning Silk Rucksach.]
The relative youthfulness of the city in the renewal of its Jewish settlement and its accelerated growth left a special mark in it. Its inhabitants came from afar, from different settlement centers. They brought with them a spirit of modern culture and progress. The city was open to all gusts of wind in the Jewish world, and all the movements found their supporters in it without arousing the irritation of religious fanatics or people in authority. This is how the Zionist movement was preserved in our city in all its guises, and the socialist movement in its varieties. Among the citizens of our city were revolutionaries who went to the gallows in the days of the tzars. There were Zionists in the city from the beginning days of Herzl.
Especially lively were the activities of the institutions of mutual aid, and in every period of distress that visited them, the appropriate institutions stepped up to take care of current problems. The settlement did not remain unconcerned. Among the well-known institutions in the city Linat HaTzedek for visiting and taking care of the sick, benevolence funds, giving in secret to support the needy, Talmud Torah schooling for those of limited means, for the underprivileged, which was mainly supported by donations from volunteer fire brigades, and then the cooperative bank, the orphanage and at a certain period an urban hospital in which some of its employees worked as volunteers.
Until the end of the 18th century, Jewish education existed separate from the Christian world. Children learned in cheders, beit midrashes and at home with private teachers. The latter was for girls' education and general education. A special factor in fostering education in the city was the Cheder by Shulman and after him his son-in-law Yitzchak Yacov Jungerman and his son Moshe. It was somewhat like a cheder mitukan [a modern cheder] in which they studied basic Hebrew language, grammar, and literature, including religious studies with special emphasis being placed on the study of Tanach [Hebrew Bible]. At the beginning of the 19th century, regular post-primary schools began taking in Jewish students. There the language of instruction was, of course, Russian. These schools were separate for boys and girls.
This is how life in the city carried on peacefully [lit. on still waters] until the First World War broke out. The announcement of the outbreak of the War fell in our city like thunder on a clear day. The settlement was stunned. General recruitment encompassed many young people as well as breadwinners, those with families. The livelihood of many was broken.
In those days the Jewish community in our city was faced with a difficult task. Camps of Jews deported from areas near the German border began to flood our city. They were suddenly and cruelly uprooted from their places of residence and many of them arrived destitute. In the city a committee was immediately formed to help. Volunteering encompassed all layers of the settlement, and those in need were given help with food, clothing, and money. There were also those who were absorbed by the community and stayed put. The blow was hard, and from it the economic and public crisis was seven times as hard
with the outbreak of the War. But soon a recovery occurred. Contractors won large orders for military equipment, and in the city even an economic boom began. However, these days did not last. About a year later the German Army broke through the Russian front, advanced rapidly, flooded our city as well and was stopped only by the Polesia marshes [a marshy area touching Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland]. Most of the residents managed to escape from the city to Greater Russia and remained stuck there until the end of the War. Most of the inhabitants of the villages also fled. The city took a breath; sowing and harvesting stopped; even the orchards were neglected. The sad results were not long in coming. German occupation lasted for three years, of which two were years of real famine. Contact with the center of the country was cut off. Sources of livelihood were blocked. Movement was also limited in the occupied territory. Without a special license, it was forbidden to move from place to place; confiscations and prohibitions began, and most of the economic activity was conducted underground. On an irregular road, by foot or in carts, farmers would smuggle goods around hidden clandestinely on the body, and the shortages increased. Following the war and hardship, many diseases spread. And epidemics. On the settlement's own initiative, a hospital and an orphanage were established. Two big fires severely damaged the city, one during the battles when the three synagogues that were concentrated on one square were burned. The Alter, The Alt-Niya and the Hachnasaat Orchim Synagogue as well as the shtibel [small prayer house or room] of the chassidim, the municipal bath and the Hekdesh the shelter for paupers. After that, a large fire destroyed almost an entire street in the center of the city.
To help alleviate the plight of hunger, the German government encouraged residents to sow potatoes, and for that purpose they distributed seeds and allotted plots of land. Vegetables were also grown in the yards next to the canal (this is the drainage channel that transferred water from Krynica Spring to the Biala River by the village of Dovitz.) Despite all of this, the famine was extremely severe and not just a few walked around bloated from hunger. But there was also progress during the occupation. Some partners acquired a generator, and the city was illuminated for the first time with electric light. Likewise, the Germans established an elementary school in which the language of instruction was German. The principal of the school was a German military man, but all the other teachers were residents.
The end of the war in 1918, found in our city a poor and depleted yishuv [settlement], beaten down by starvation. The Germans, confused by the destruction in their country and the fall of their emperor, retreated before a handful of Polish cavalrymen armed with only rifles. The Polish Republic rose again, and our city was under its rule. The Poles were unable to provide any help to the settlement, but the help came from far away. Jews of the United States awakened and started sending help on a large scale. Envoys of the Joint [Joint Distribution Committee] brought food and clothing and money, sent as aid from the Jews in the United States to their relatives. Masses of refugees returned from the Soviet Union. Residents of the nearby villages also returned. Yes, many Poles came back from the Americas. The sound of the national revival of Poland could be heard, exciting many of their own people. Those who had spent decades in a foreign country also returned. New horizons opened and everything awakened, trade, crafts, construction, and agricultural restoration. A new commercial branch developed, trading in money and valuables. The returnees brought with them money from all periods of Russian rule. Also, gold coins and valuable jewelry, and diamonds. There was an abundance of dollars and various foreign currencies, German Marks and more… In the course of time, this trade brought on an economic catastrophe for many.
During the period of galloping inflation, they were left with a lot of worthless paper.
But with the defeat of the Germans in 1918, the wars still did not end. About a year later, the Russo-Polish War [1919-1920] broke out, and in 1920 our city was occupied by the Soviets for a period of three weeks, a short but terrible period.
The Jews, the shopkeepers and the tradespeople were standing at the edge of an abyss, fearing confiscation of property, imprisonment and expulsion. Utter chaos reigned everywhere, and it was impossible to get even a piece of bread. The victory of the Poles (with the generous help of France) returned the Soviets back to their borders, and Polish rule was established. It was, in truth, a fundamentally democratic regime but imbued with an anti-Semitic spirit. It was not the brutal anti-Semitism of the tzars when the Jewish Yishuv [settlement] was relegated to the Pale of Settlement and it was impossible for Jews to hold any government office even at the lowest level. Under the Polish police, everyone had equal rights before the law; however, anti-Semitism manifested itself in the imposition of discriminatory taxes, incitement against trade with Jews, restrictions on academic schools, etc.
But democracy did its part. All parties, except for the Communists, acted openly, organized and were involved in the political life of the entire country.
During periods of elections for the community committee, for the Sejm (the Polish House of Representatives) or for the Senate (the Upper House), debates were conducted in the form of symposia on the bimahs [pulpits] of synagogues. The ongoing operation was conducted in clubhouses or in the homes of active members. As for the field of education, there were two Jewish elementary schools one in Hebrew, Tarbut, and one in Yiddish. Extensive public activities developed around these two schools with Tarbut supported by the General Zionists and Shomer Hatsair, and the Yiddish school supported by the left-wing parties, the Bund, Poale Tzion and the Communists who were organized in the underground. The two schools were constantly struggling hard for their financial survival. Their situation especially worsened when a government school was opened in which the language of instruction was Polish and studies there were free of charge. In addition to the parties, there were also branches of HeChalutz and Young Halutz in the city. At the end of 1923, during Hanukkah, a ken [chapter; lit. nest] of Hashomer Hatzair was formed by J. Kowarski, a man from Bialystok who belonged to a Hashomer Hatzair chapter called Trumpeldor. This group was different in that it intended to include working youth in its ranks. In fact, the young people who were studying were concentrated in Hashomer Hatzair, whereas the working youth were in Hechalutz Hatzair [Young Pioneers]. The initiator of establishing the ken was Monya Vadaman, one of the students at the local Polish gymnasium. The slogans and direction of the Hashomer Hatzair movement were a great innovation for the youth. Combining sports activities and drill exercises with carrying out orders of moral behavior the Ten Commandments of Hashomer Hatzair together with the idea of Zionism got many fired up. In addition to this, the symbols of clothing, adherence to Hebrew as a spoken language and going out into nature, all of this constituted a real revolution in their lifestyles. More than once the operations were conducted in the surrounding hills and in the forests. They also went to summer camps in the villages. Indeed, there was a lot of participation. However, there was a lack of experienced training forces and therefore the dropout rate was also high. Adherence to the Hebrew language led the ken activists to concentrate around and support the Tarbut School. And that was a blessing
for both sides. It is worthwhile pointing out that the innovation of taking school-aged children to summer camps and out into nature also excited some of the Polish intelligentsia in the city, and when the leadership of the ken under the guidance of a member of the city council, Attorney Muzikant, applied to receive support from the municipality for the summer camp it was allocated an amount of 300 gold coins [zlotys] with the support of the Polish representatives. Representatives of the ken were made partners in the management of the Tarbut School, and the ken found a home for its operations within the walls of the school. And so it happened that when the school management could not meet its financial obligations and the teachers' center severed ties with it, the people of Hashomer Hatzair brought in teachers who were graduates of the Tarbut Gymnasium in Bialystok and members of Hashomer Hatzair. And that is how they solved the problem of instruction. These teachers made themselves partners in the activities of the ken.
The assistance of ken members in the school was also financial because of their organizing parties and plays with the revenue being dedicated to the school. However, when the ken graduates left for training, they made aliyah [emigrated to the Land of Israel] and the problem for instruction arose once again.
One of the undertakings of the ken, in which a great effort was invested, was the establishment of a string orchestra under the direction of Gutman. Most of the money for purchasing instruments was obtained from the proceeds of a theatrical performance by a troupe of ken members. In this show, Mina Bernholtz especially excelled. She was the future famous actress Mina Bern [1911-2010]. In this performance an interesting thing happened that proved the talent of Mina for acting and she was only 15 years old in her debut performance. At the end of the play, the inexperienced supervisor forgot to lower the curtain and Mina was still on stage. But the young actress did not lose her train of thought. In a flash with witty brilliance, she added something of her own to the end of the show. Suddenly she let out a shocking and terrifying scream and fell fainting onto the stage boards. The supervisor then remembered his role and lowered the curtain. The excited audience erupted in thunderous applause. Indeed, her training at home stood her in good stead. Her brother, M. Bernholtz, and her parents had already had some experience as amateur actors in our city.
The early days of the ken took place in a rented apartment on Orla Street, but the residents of the area were not pleased with their young neighbors and demanded our eviction. The singing and dancing until the late hours of the evening disturbed their rest. Having no other choice, they folded up and then breathed a sigh of relief when the walls of the Tarbut School opened before them.
Subsequently, some members left Hashomer Hatzair and founded a ken of Beitar. Among them were David Melamdovitz and Shlomo Epstein. Many members of Hashomer Hatzair made aliyah to The Land of Israel, some in an organized manner to kibbutzim Hasolel, Mesilot and Ramat Hashofet (in Gan Shmuel Moshe Gilboa) and some individually to a city. But most of the members were captured in the city during the Nazi occupation and met their bitter end together with all the people of our holy community. May their memory be for a blessing.
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