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[Page 363]

Victims of the Communist Idea in Bielsk

by Khava Kestin

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

When I came to Bielsk, I became politically close to a group of young people who participated in the school organization that was associated with the Bund. The school organization was called in Polish “Swiatlo” (“Light”). But we quickly broke away from them. The leftist youth sought me out. I came to teach at the gymnasium. Their circle took me in and for a time I taught them political economy. They were all young and good people. I was then 19 years old–most were younger than me–16-17-years-old. But I was only with them for a while. As I recall, we used to come together as an organization. Later on I distanced myself from them and had no intimate, personal relationships with them, because I was then absorbed in community work at the gymnasium where I taught. I was quite active in the gymnasium, and at 24 I became a candidate for the city council. From that point, I was entirely separated from that group.

In Bielsk the communist movement was strongly tied to the White Russian movement. Everything that it did came from there. Their work was very intense, and despite the terroristic methods used against them, they posted placards and proclamations in the city and published announcements in a number of languages, including Yiddish, Russian, and Polish. I learned this later from young people who fled illegally to Russia, such as the two Alpert brothers, two brothers from the Eisenberg family, and a niece of the Eisenbergs. They came to bid me farewell, and so I found out things. There were also two Briker brothers, who left their mother in Bielsk. They later returned and urged people to travel to Russia. In the meantime, a new generation of young people grew up in Bielsk and studied in the schools. I myself, being in the gymnasium, worked for the Soviet Union. My students belonged to the communist movement in the city. Teachers in the school, too, were communists: Shepsl Eisenberg[1], Sonia Eisenberg, and Ettl, Shepsl Eisenberg's wife. One of the Bider brothers was also a communist. His name was Duvid.

Almost all of the teachers inclined toward socialism, but Shepsl and Sarah Eisenberg were active and representative.

One of the young communists, Abedan, was sentenced

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in a trial to seven years in “Swiety Krzyz”, that is, “Holy Cross.” That was one of the most severe prisons in Poland. The detainees, confined there, never saw daylight. He served the full 7 years. I do not know what happened to him later. He was freed before the Second World War. In addition there were also a couple of my students. One was Doba Zinger–she is today in Vilna and I correspond with her. She served a long sentence. She is ill. She married and lives there. The second student, who left and then returned, was Mina Peshkin. She is now in Poland. She visited me. I could not get close to her. She arrived here all broken, and we could find no common language.

The group to which Doba Zinger, Lyuba Peshkin, and Agres belonged studied in the Vilna Teacher's College and left in the thirties. Also Menuchah Agres and Teibka Agres[2], two sisters, left for Paris before the last war with Kosovksi (who is now in America). She is now a national heroine of the French Resistance. There is even a book about her. She was awarded a medal as a national hero in France. Her husband can talk about her in better detail, because he knows about all of her heroic deeds. He was also in the Resistance. She is now called Kosovksi (or Osovski).

In the years 1920-25 the Poles carried out “pacification” in order to clear the area of communists, and since Bielsk was in the midst of a number of villages, it was decided that a prison would be built in Bielsk. All of the arrested communists were brought here, as well as all who helped them. Outside of Bielsk they began to build high walls for the hospital, and they transformed them into prisons where they confined all who were suspected from every city, town, and village. The suspects were tortured terribly. In fact, what they did was to lock up anyone who had been fingered as interested in communism or associated with it.

They came to us every couple of months for searches. I was always being watched. They had a file on me, and underlined in red, it said that I was a teacher but I never went to the school.

Yes, Chaya Gittl Golda was also my student. She lives now in Paris and works for the “New Press.” Her husband is an artist. She came to communism via propaganda in the newspapers and through the influence of her companions. Actually, she was not among my students

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because she graduated a year before I arrived.

Cultural life in Bielsk was joined to earlier traditions. From Bielsk came the Syrkins and Yasha Bronshteyn, who was in the Soviet Union. Now he has been rehabilitated–he is a well-known literary critic and an overall active man. It appears that the influence of democracy in Russian literature was deeply rooted in Bielsk. Many young people in the city were involved with Russian literature and all the struggles of “Narodnaya Volya” [“People's Will”: a socialist and sometimes terrorist organization in 19th-century Russia] and Lermontov [19th-century Russian Romantic writer], Pushkin, and of the whole democratic Russian progressive movement–all of these were very influential.

The general level of life in Bielsk was quite low, although there were also some wealthy people in what we would call the periphery. There were many poor people, and there was also a middle class that included the biggest merchants of the city, among them the Milners and others. One could say that Bielsk was not the most likely place for revolutionary activity. So how did I get there? I came to Bielsk totally voluntarily. I graduated from college and sought employment. Shepsl Eisenberg suggested that I was suitable for Bielsk. Why? I knew Yiddish and Polish and I could be an administrator in the school with my work certificate; I had had offers from other cities, such as Brisk and others, but he convinced me that I should go to Bielsk. When I got there–it was then my custom that I would go around with a cane as a fantasy–I chased the chickens away with the cane. When I was brought into the city, I said to those who were leading me, “Now take me into the city,” and they said to me, “This is the city.” So then I decided to stay.

People here lived quietly, calmly, very modestly, but at the same time there was a strong push for culture. Even my mother-in-law would do some reading. She wrote a beautiful Yiddish and she was well-versed in Jewish folklore. I wish that I'd had the sense to write down her stories, jokes, and themes from the people. All of this was an expression of the inner spiritual needs of the people in the city. So, too, did I understand communism and related revolutionary strivings. They did not understand that as they sought spiritual and community repair, they blundered into extremist lectures. I will tell an interesting fact about Jews aiding Jewish communists: the late Chuna Tikotzky[3] was a

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contractor for the city council. Before there were electric lights even for the first Germans, he was a contractor. People had a little trust in him until all the letters that Chaim had written from Warsaw were taken from me. In the letters he had written about demonstrations and described them in detail. People took from me a whole pack of letters and brought them to the city council. Then they sought a Jew who could read the anti-Polish letters and they came upon Chuna Tikotzky. He was closed up in a room and told to read the letters. We were close friends, and from the beginning instead of “Dear Evetshke” he read “Leyzer-Betshke.” He overhauled the whole meaning of the letters and thereby saved me from falling into their hands.[4] A second case: In Bielsk there was a large Jewish library where Kaplanski was the librarian. The library was large and full, which was rare for such a city. I used to go there to read and borrow books. Yocha worked there. Her husband was Melamed. People knew that my Chaim was in the hospital-prison. A Polish policeman came to me to deliver greetings from him, and he told me that today he was being taken to an inquest. I do not know whether the policeman was a communist. Melamed intervened with the prosecutor and was given to understand that without money, the whole thing would go ahead. Then he was released. The bribe was put out there openly on the table, and that helped. The attitude of the public to the men who were led by the hundreds to the train station was not hostile. The people on the streets of Bielsk, one could say, were not hostile to these men, because Bielsk had a substantial number of active Zionists and ordinary people who did not know how to be mean-spirited.

Moyshe Teichman was a student at the university in Prague, and he later married Chanah, a long-time teacher of German. Her father was a religious judge. Moyshe Teichman was a recent arrival in Bielsk, knew much about literature, and was by profession a mathematician. He was also a writer, a translator, and altogether a fine person. Later on he, along with Herman, published a children's periodical in Warsaw. He was the editor and writer. He was a distinguished educator. There was a dentist named Germazia. She was also an outstanding personality in the city–active in the Hebrew school. Melamedovitch was also a cultured person. So, too, Appelboym, who was a Zionist, an activist, and a writer. When something had to be done in a loud voice, people sent Appelboym.

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And there was Stupnitski, a real personality, although his approach to matters was narrower. The city rabbi was not such an outstanding, deep person, though he was a fine, good man and very modest.

It happened that I, a leftist, was like a member of his household. In his home, the mama dominated. She was from 19 generations of rabbinical families. Rabbi Bendas[5] was, as I said, a good and tolerant man. He was not esteemed by the population for his deeds but for his character, which was good-natured and mild. He appealed to everyone, but in terms of personality, his wife was far stronger.

The school was a major factor in the Jewish life of the city. Children of workmen and of small merchants learned there, as did children of the lower middle class. Children of middleclass parents studied in the Hebrew school. In the general school, secular students studied. People regarded the school from the standpoint of income. A school for the poor–the Jewish school had limited resources. Its central headquarters was the TSISHA[6] organization, which supported the school so that all of these children learned for a minimal tuition, even just making symbolic payments. Many children learned there for free. The folk-character of the school played a role here. Its nearness to the people influenced the school's activities. It raised the level of the poorer population through the school's untiring education work. It was the heartbeat of that little world that constituted Bielsk and its surroundings.

The school was outside the city, but that was not important since the city was not so large. The school experienced many bumps and obstacles. One time the premises were seized for the Polish gymnasium and the school had to move from place to place. After that, we had other problems. For example, it was next to a church, so that there could be no studies on Sunday. And there were no studies on Shabbos. We had to curtail study hours, and so there was a suspicion that the school was under socialist-communist influence, which led the municipal authorities to place obstacles in our way and to try to find means to close the school altogether, just to be free of it. But when I became a teacher there, people gained respect for my Polish lessons and the Polish school inspector praised the level of the school. So it was not shut down. In all of Poland there were 2 or 3 schools that

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received government subsidies, even if they were minimal and symbolic. Still, they meant something. Our school was one of them.

The level of education, as I said, in comparison to other schools, was very high because our teachers had better educations. They regarded it as an honor to teach in our school. The best teachers would offer their services to our school. Those who controlled the city had no special control over us. To them we were treif [not kosher], upstarts. I cannot remember how the Jewish community board supported the school. I was distant from such things. The school was standard, with a standard program, like all Polish-Jewish schools; but, as I said, it was distinguished by its talented teachers–people who were devoted to their duties. Also working in the school were the two Berezinski sisters, one of whom also had a university education. There were about 150 students in the school. The upper classes had fewer students. The school had the same curriculum as a normal general school. In Poland there was a law that every child must attend school, but there were parents who ignored that law. It was really compulsory, but the government did not penalize parents who failed to send their children to school.

Understandably, there were homes that sent their children out to earn money. Of course there were. On the other hand, there were cases where parents sent their children to the teachers college. Velvel Kaplanski was an artist-painter and also a teacher, and he studied at the Vilna college. Yossl Katz, Peshkin, Agnes, and Levartovski , now in Kfar Saba, also studied there. In any case, there were many children in the city who had a great desire to learn more.

The school had a high-level school committee. In order to describe how high the level of their cultural work for the school was, we should recall that the school committee would invite personalities to deliver lectures, and the well-known Peretz Markish[7] delivered a lecture in Bielsk about Mayakovsky and all that he had written in the first Russian epoch.

When we speak about the school as a community force in the city, we must stress that the school had a great influence on cultural life in the city. The school committee was represented through the Bund, Poalei Tzion, and also non-party

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circles, like the artisans. The artisans had their own organization, and their leader was an activist of wide culture. The school committee was, so to speak, the father of the school. They were in charge of collecting funds for the school and they did the entire economic and administrative work of the school. The teachers received their pay on a regular basis. It was not always enough to live on, but that was what they were paid.

When people organized an open school evening, it was a holiday for the whole town. Masses of people would gather, and the teachers worked selflessly so that the evening would be a success. I myself was a member of the school committee representing the leftist Poalei Tzion. I took part in staging performances–the school had a drama club with gifted actors. Among them was one named Duksin, a photographer. He was also the director. Other participants were Kash, Avrahamel, and Lifkin. Sadly, these men are no longer alive. The evenings that the drama club organized required a lot of time, energy, and exertion from both the actors and the organizers. I myself was no actor, but I still did plenty of work. This institution was a purely cultural-educational factor in the school. In truth, their evenings were not purely cultural but were also a way to raise funds to supplement the leaky budget, but that was not its only purpose. The school was also supported by certain Jewish-American groups, who also supported the town's Hebrew school.

A student who graduated from our school could only go to the Jewish gymnasium, because all of the others were too expensive. But few of our students actually went to the gymnasium. Those who really wanted to further their studies went to the real gymnasium in Vilna. Why Vilna? First of all because there were great difficulties involved. At our school, everything was taught in Yiddish, but in the gymnasia everything was taught in Polish. In our school, Polish was not required. Students learned it as a second language, but the general Jewish populace seldom used it. There were parts of Poland, for example, that were Russified, which made it very difficult for the children. My daughter graduated from a Jewish folk-school, but she knew Polish from home. She did her first year at the Jewish gymnasium in Vilna, but then she went to the Polish gymnasium without difficulty, because she

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was comfortable with Polish. It was not so easy for Jews in the Polish gymnasia. In Bielsk there was only a Polish government gymnasium–there was no Jewish gymnasium there. Who went to the Bielsk gymnasium? Children of wealthy parents sought and found ways to get into the gymnasium, but it was not a common phenomenon. Every student, even the best, without consideration of class, had terrible difficulties being accepted in the Polish gymnasia. Those who desired further study went to Vilna or Bialystok, where there were Jewish gymnasia.

In general, Bielsk was a city that valued education and culture and did everything so that children could learn and study. Had Bielsk continued to exist, it would have been a masterful city with a synthesis of Yiddishkeit and secular culture. Bielsk, sadly, was destroyed, and with it went a rare experiment in education and culture. My heart is pained for beautiful Jewish Bielsk.


The gymnasium in Bielsk


Translator's footnotes
  1. See From the Lerer Yizkor Book - Shepsl Eisenberg on page 496 for a brief biography, as well as The Jewish School in Bielsk, and The Jewish Folk School in Bielsk - A Second Home. Return
  2. Teibel Agres-Kleszczelski and her work with the partisans was written about in the chapter Three Heroes and Martyrs of Bielsk on page 507. Return
  3. Chuna Tikotzky wrote “We Will Not Forget the Bielsk that Was Destroyed” on page 445 and “In Bielsk after the Destruction” on page 448, and is mentioned elsewhere in the book. Return
  4. The wording of this portion is a bit unclear, but the crux seems to be that Chuna Tikotzky demonstrated his trustworthiness by reading the letters in the way that he did. Return
  5. Rabbi Moshe Aharon Bendas (Ben Daat or Bendaat) is written about in the chapters Bielsk - its Rabbis, Teachers and Jews on page 48 and the Kehila and Rabbinate section on page 13. Return
  6. Also TZISH”A, TZISHA, or TZISHO. Acronym for “Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye” (Central Yiddish School Organization). They were Yiddishist schools which included girls in their student bodies. A memorial book dedicated to the schools is titled In Lerer- yisker-bukh: fun Tsisha Shuln in Poyln (לערער-יזכור-בוך :די אומגעקומענע לערער פון צישא שולן אין פויל), Teacher Yizkor Book: The Deceased Teachers of the Tsisha Schools in Poland. Return
  7. Peretz Markish (1895 –1952). Yiddish poet, prose writer, playwright, and essayist. Killed by the Soviet secret police, his work was later translated and published by his widow and sons. Return

[Page 371]

Once there Was…

by Itskhak Crystel

(Dedicated to my dear daughter Mindel)

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

Come here, my child.
Sit near me.
A little story I will tell
Both you and me.

Far away, on a little hill,
Across the sea, the hills, the valleys,
There once was
A little town.

Surrounded, hidden
With railroads, highways,
With fields and gardens
And shady little streets.

A town clock
That rang the hours
Stood with its striker
Right there in the market.

Old prayer-halls with fading lights,
Built by our grandfathers,
Stand hidden in each corner
With long-lasting foundations.

For many generations
Jews lived there,
And each of them in sorrow
Wove his dreams.

Here were institutions–
Schools, shuls, and parties–
Places full of
Dreams, ideas.

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People lived together there,
The merchant and the worker,
As if a single family,
Like sisters, brothers, husband, wife.

And if, years back,
A wrong occurred, a grudge was held,
'Twas no big deal–
A court of rabbis heard the case.

And if a “stranger”
Attacked a Bielsker,
Everyone felt the pain,
And everyone was shocked.

And thus did years go by,
It seemed that it would last forever.
But then the Germans came,
And then it all was done!

Bielsk is no more. My heart
Knows no such love–
My heart is black with pain
And wounded grievously.

Dear are memories of the town
For your parents
Because this is the place
From which they came.

Remember, my dear child,
What I have said to you.
Bielsk is now a wound in hearts
That never will be healed.

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A Little Bielsk Legend

by Z. Kadlabovski

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

Bielsk is historically an old city with a many-sided culture, or traces of a many-sided culture.

There was once a Karelian inn in the city, so Swedish was often heard.

Bielsk borders a purely Polish area on its south. Around it were Bransk, Cuchow, Siemiatycze, near the Bug River, by the Polish border. On the east we were very close to Russia, and from there the Russian influence came. Our White Russians came from there. The Bielsk district was the largest territory in all of Russia, and the largest part of that was around Bialowieza where the Tsar's Palace was. There was a whole population of White Russians there. On the side were Kleszczele, Orla, Pruzhany, Narewka. To the north of Bielsk was Bialystok. In Bialystok there was a strong Lithuanian influence, with Lithuanians having played a large role near Bielsk.

In the middle of the city was a hill, a small hill, and on the hill stood a church. The hill was called Lisaya Gara, that is, the naked, bald hill [with overtones of spookiness]. According to the stories that I remember, a building stood there in which an old Lithuanian lived. Later, when the Russian occupied the area, it was taken by a Russian. The story told about the hill and its house is as follows:

The Jewish population did not live in Bielsk itself, but far outside the city. The Bielsk community formed late, because they were simply not allowed to live in the city. Many times when people had to transport a dead body, the Christians would not allow them to carry it on the main streets. The Jews took their dead on back roads, near Lisaya Gara. Once a great tzaddik [a righteous/learned man] passed away and his body was taken near Lisaya Gara, and the Christians did not want to allow it to pass. Our tzaddik arose and cursed them, and after the curse, the building fell right down. Later the Christians built on that spot a small church. According to our stories and legends, after the curse the top of the hill collapsed into a hole. I myself went there to examine the place, and I saw that the church was built at the top of the hill about a meter deep in the earth, so that one had to go down to enter it.

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Bielsk Fifty Years Ago

by B. Shtern[1]

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

Bielsk's misfortune was its geographic situation, located between Brisk and Bialystok. Although closer to Bialystok–between Bialystok and Bielsk–was the Biala River. Between Bielsk and Brisk was the Brisk Fortress. [Brisk is the Yiddish name of Brest, so this refers to the Brest Fortress.] Thus the city of Bielsk lay between two large fires at the time of both world wars in the last fifty years, and so it suffered heavily–what one army chose not to destroy and demolish, the other put an end to. Until Hitler finally annihilated everything.

But in my memory is engraved the city of Bielsk as it appeared half a century ago. The time when I saw and understood, in over twenty years that I passed there, that will I try to describe.

Bielsk was the “capital city” for a number of smaller towns in the neighborhood, such as Orla, Bodka, Breinsk [Bransk], Semiatitsh [Siemiatycze], Tchechonowtsa [Ciechanowiec], Klishtshel [Kleszczele]–from which came the late writer Peretz Hirschbein[2] –and a number of villages around the towns–Bielsk itself taking up no great territory: about a verst and a half in length and somewhat less in breadth. [A verst is about .66 miles.] One could say that it was laid out well: a large, long street bisected the city from one end to the other so that it was divided into two sections. Parallel to that main street were two smaller streets, with even smaller streets and alleys in the length and breadth. A small channel ran through the whole town. A larger river, called the “Dubitsher River” after the Christian area of the same name–surrounded one side of the city–and divided the largest Christian neighborhood from the Jewish area on the other side of the river, which was located in the center of the city and the surrounding streets.

There were yet other Christian areas in other sections of the city, such as Pozamshe, Poswanta, Vifus Halevsk–that was where Smolsky's courtyard was, surrounded by fruit trees, as thick as a forest.

The streets of Bielsk were paved with stones and in a few places with asphalt. The houses were mostly made of wood, usually planks. A small number were made of brick. Most of them were single-storied, but a small number had two stories

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or even more. A few houses in which poor Christians lived were covered with straw roofs. In the center of the city stood a large walled building with a high tower in which there was a large clock that people called “the city clock.” That large building with the clock housed the city management, which was called the “gorodskaya duma“ [city council]. All around this huge building there was a big, empty plaza, the “ploshtshad” [the square], as it was known, for the markets that were held every week and for fairs from time to time. All around the square there were crowded shops with all sorts of goods: businesses large and small. Two buildings near the center of the city struck one with their peculiarities. These were large wooden buildings. Each of them took up half the area, and they were filled with shops, with dwellings behind. One was called the “Shalegoyda,” where dry-goods could be found, merchandise for clothing and costumes, and a wine business whose owner was Itza Minkens–a government middleman who supplied all the necessities for the royal castle in Bielovezh, about twenty versts from Bielsk. The second building was called the “lansteria.” Smaller, poorer stores were there, where it was difficult to earn a living.

Bielsk had a train station, a depot. Trains from the South-West Railroad used to go back and forth four times in twenty-four hours, twice by day and twice by night, going from Brisk to Bialystok–they would stop for a certain time to discharge and accept passengers. Bielsk had two highways: one led from Bielsk to Warsaw and the other from Bielsk to Bielovezh, to the royal castle, in order to make it easier for the royal family to arrive.


The Population and their Ways of Earning a Living

The population of Bielsk was estimated to be about five thousand souls, Jews and Christians. The greater part was made up of Jewish families. People earned a living from a variety of jobs. Christians earned their living from grain that they harvested from their fields and sold at the markets and fairs. Jews had various professions. A majority were merchants in various sorts of merchandise: there were food merchants, spice merchants, merchants in sewing goods, dry-goods merchants,

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meat merchants, jewelers and watchmakers, pubs and taverns, teashops, inns, hospitality spots (for wealthier guests). Some Jews were traders in whatever came into their hands. Chiefly in the markets and fairs they dealt in chickens, eggs, pelts, pig bristles, and various kinds of grain. Some did not wait for these things to be brought to the markets and fairs. They would go to the villages to buy them. Some worked as laborers and in crafts, as factory workers and at hard day-labor. Bielsk had a tobacco factory, two cigarette paper factories, two polished-brick factories for ovens, three oil factories that people used for baking and frying, and two breweries.

The majority of craftspeople in Bielsk were in men's and women's clothing, undergarments, makers of men's and women's shoes, hatmakers, work in old clothing that was not made to order, only for the marketplace, carpenters, locksmiths, turners, sharpeners, tinsmiths, and blacksmiths. There were housepainters who also limed houses and rooms, carpenters who built wooden houses, masons who built brick houses and ovens for houses. There were also overseers in larger businesses–for instance in mills or other food businesses, writers, bookkeepers in the offices and insurance businesses. The entire working class in Bielsk numbered around five hundred. Most of the people in the garment industry were Jews.

Even with this list of professions, the largest part of the Bielsk populace lived in poverty and need. A small number of well-established bigwigs, owners of larger stores, of workshops and factories–lived a comfortable life. A few families lived in luxury and wealth. These were, so to say, the princely families, such as the Shliuzbergs, the Sirkins, the Mazias, the Zams, the Maltzavas, their sons-in-law, Brahms and Neumark, Lehrman, and others. The differences in economic status created classes, castes, in the populace. The old rich families were at the top, the aristocrats of the city. They controlled the city's concerns in the synagogue and the beis-medresh. They looked down on everyone else. The bigwigs and big businesspeople had the same attitude toward those poorer than they, and they scorned the working people: they totally ignored them; they were embarrassed to be seen walking in the street with them or talking with them, not to speak of being related to them by marriage.

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In order to relieve the need of the populace, Bielsk created three institutions:

  1. A “committee” that every week collected five or ten kopeks from everyone who wanted to donate. The collected funds were divided in small sums to those in need.
  2. A “bikur cholim” [literally “visiting the sick”], which would take care of the ill who were found in one of the two “hospitals” in Bielsk–a Jewish one on Orler Street and a city-run one on Breinsker Street, opposite the Catholic church. Also, those who were ill at home were helped with prescriptions, medications, with (unlicensed) practitioners, or with doctors.
  3. An “overnight group,” which would send people to stay over night to help the already weary families take care of those who were ill.
But that was far from enough, because poverty and illness were a general plague. The impoverished householders, the small merchants, the business people–were ashamed of their poverty and suffered with their need–but they suffered and were silent. Upstanding women cared for families with food, clothing, and footwear. On the eve of Shabbos or holidays, these women would go to houses, businesses, bakeries, butchers, and gather food, clothing, shoes, and other things and distribute them among the needy–quietly, nobly. On Purim, these same women would go to the homes of the rich to play, to dance, to sing, and they would collect some rubles to help provide dowries for poor brides. Often the city' rabbi, R. Benzion, would go around with some respected householders to collect money in order to buy wood for poor families. This idealistic relief work was surely the finest chapter in the history of the former Bielsk.


The Spiritual Condition of the population

The Jewish population of Bielsk was traditionally Orthodox. No one dared fight against it or protest against compliance with the rabbis. The following facts will throw some light on that situation:

Leibl the teacher, for example, one of the teachers in the Talmud Torah, every Friday evening a half hour before candle lighting time, all bathed and with washed hair, with polished boots and a long caftan, would march up and back along the city's main street, where most of the stores and shops were located, and call out loud:--“Shabbos is here”–and then he would add in a commanding tone–“Close up!”–and

[Page 378]

If someone did not close on time, when he returned, he would angrily enter the store or the shop and say:--“It's late now! You must close immediately!”–People did what he said and closed up. And it was not a seldom occurrence that on Friday night, after the cholents and kugels had long ago been placed in the ovens so that they were baking in their own juices, while everyone was gathered in their beis-medreshes to welcome in Shabbos, the sexton would hit the reading stand with his hand and read out a proclamation, that he was making it known in the name of the rabbi and letting everyone know that anyone who had bought meat from such and such a butcher (whom he would name), that their cholent and kugel are treif and should not be eaten! The earthenware pots should be discarded, and those made of iron should be koshered!… And some of the people (after this proclamation), would be left without anything to eat for that Shabbos.


Rabbis, Fellowships, Beis-Medreshes, and Talmud Torah

Bielsk had three rabbis and three shochets [ritual slaughterers]. These were supported by those who had the lease on the bathhouse, who had to contribute a certain sum, and also by the tax on kosher meat that applied to those who wanted to slaughter fowl. The cost of between three and five kopeks. The cost of slaughtering a larger animal was–understandably–higher. From these sources, the tax raised enough to pay the rabbis and the shochets, and there was even money left over as a profit.

Bielsk also had five beis-medreshes for prayer and study, and even one Chasidic prayer house. Each beis-medresh had its own fellowship. The greater scholars had a Talmud fellowship. Every evening, between minchah [the afternoon prayers] and ma'ariv [the evening prayers], they would study a page of the Gemara with Tosafos and Maharsha [two Talmudic commentaries]. Lesser scholars had a Mishneh fellowship where they would study every evening. A fellowship called “Chai ha-Adam” for those who were less learned had a rabbi who would study with them every evening. A Psalms fellowship would recite Psalms every morning before prayers and also between minchah and ma'ariv, as well as on Shabbos after the Shabbos nap. These were the so-called cultural fellowships that dealt with “spirituality.” But there were other fellowships as well: a chevra kaddisha and a chevra levaya whose took care to have a minyan [a prayer quorum] to accompany those who had passed away on their way to the cemetery. Bielsk had two cemeteries–an old one and a new one. Actually they were one and the same: the old one was reached via the Yagustover

[Page 379]

Road and the new one via the Breinsker road. The cemetery extended through the whole breadth of the city. When one side became full–people began to have funerals on the other side, and so they gave it a name: the new cemetery.

Bielsk had a Talmud Torah that was supported by the city. The studies went from simple aleph-beis to a page of Gemara with Tosafos. Children from poor families did not have to pay tuition. Children from families that were better off did have to pay. But the tuition was quite small. They studied in private classrooms. In one of the classes they would also study Yiddish and Hebrew. Russian, Polish, or German people would study with private tutors or in one of the “public schools” that were found in Bielsk, among them one only for Jewish children, which had few students. This was because students there had to wear a Russian-style shirt with a stripe and a hat with a shiny visor, which Orthodox Bielsk at that time considered to be forbidden because they were worn by Christian children, “scamps.” Wealthier families hired private tutors for their children and sent their children to gymnasia and universities in bigger cities.

Editor's footnote

  1. Beryl Stern is the author of Zikhroynè fun sht?urmishe yorn: Bielsk?, 1898-1907 (Memories of Stormy Years, Bielsk 1898-1907.) Published by A Committee of the Workmen's Circle in Newark, N.J., 1954. Return
  2. Peretz Hirschbein (1880-1948), was a Yiddish-language playwright, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director. Return

[Page 380]

My Shtetl Bielsk

by D. Crystel

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

I come from a little town–Bielsk is its name,
Not big, but not so small;
With nice enough houses and neat little streets,
A shtetl that was fine indeed.

I see here the little place where I was born
And happily passed my childhood;
And now no trace of my shtetl remains–
Who thought it would ever be thus!

The old prayer house, bent out of shape,
Its windows so close to the ground,
But all of it so beloved–as if
No finer town could be found.

How well I remember those Shabbos evenings,
The stroll on Nievsky Prospect,
Where young people had assignations,
And love awoke in their hearts.

And the “festivals” in the city's fine garden
That young people once undertook,
And sold flowers, then donated the proceeds
To the Jewish hospital in Bielsk.

That's the shtetl from which I came,
So dear, so deeply beloved;
The shtetl that I hoped once to see again
Long ago went up in flames.

(Published in “Der Tog,” New York, March, 1952)

[Page 381]

A List of the First Bielsk Revolutionaries

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

At the beginning of the first epoch of the Bielsk workers movement, the very first of them, the “forerunners,” were noted down. These were: Yossel's Kelman Todres [meaning Kelman Todres was the son of Yossel], Moyshe Kapeliowves, Tzalkeh the Turner, and Mendel the Sharpener, Gershon the Turner and the writer of numbers.

By the beginning of the second epoch, none of them, aside from myself, was any longer in Bielsk. But there were a number of others who deserve to be recorded in the history of the Bielsk workers movement. A few of them stood at the helm of the movement. These were:

Rufke, the younger brother of Kelman. He had a barber shop in his home;

Reishke, Leibl the teacher's son. He helped to found the organization. He was arrested together with Yehoshua the barber;

Hersh Leib the tailor. He was the son of Itshe the miner. He assisted in organizing his profession;

Moyshe Chaim the tailor. He was a son of Chatzkl the coachman. He had the same job as his close friend Hersh Leib;

The Vashinsky Brothers. Berka, Yoelke, and Duvid, sons of Yehuda Zavelis. The first two were carpenters. The third was a tailor. All were devoted to the movement.

Yudel Sanes. A son of Sana the men's tailor. He participated in organizing his profession and was a member of the central organization, which used his father's workshop for smaller gatherings;

Chaimke. A son of the Widewer saloonkeeper Yossl. He had a childlike face–so people called him “Chaimke.” Later he was promoted to assistant bookkeeper. He was distinguished for his daring. He was arrested for distributing proclamations to soldiers;

Itsche the mute. A son of Tanchum the furrier. An outstandingly observant Jew in Bielsk. This mute man did more for the movement than did many eloquent people. He did all sorts of things. He worked as a tobacco cutter. He worked at Eisenberg's tobacco factory. He was arrested for possessing illegal literature;

Shepsel. The son of Zalmen Shayes the tailor. He was a tailor himself. He was very intelligent, with a sharp mind. He participated in the lectures and political discussions;

[Page 382]

Shimon Pliomba. He got the name Pliomba because of his weight. He was as heavy as the lead from which metal seals [known as plambes, a word of Slavic origin] are made. He was the son of Feivel the rebel. By profession he was a steward. He played a large role in organizing his profession. He was one of those taken in a mass arrest;

Bendet. A son of Duvid the cabinetmaker. He was also a cabinetmaker. He greatly helped to organize the cabinetmakers in Bielsk. He was a member of the central organization and was one of those arrested in the mass arrest;

Yitzchakl. His name was Yitzchak, but he was very small and looked quite young, so people called him Yitzchakl. He was the son of Nachum the scribe. By profession he was a tinsmith. He was a member of the anarchist group. Yitzchakl paid with his life for an armed resistance in Bialystok when people came to arrest him.


Female Pioneers

Several women who played a role in the revolutionary movement in Bielsk deserve to be noted. They made connections between women in different professions and brought them into the organization. They are:

Rachtshe. The daughter of Fishke the tailor. By profession she was a milliner, a very intelligent young woman. She was a member of the central organization. She exercised a good influence over the working women and was active in the agitation.

Sarah Feiga. A daughter of Gershon the shoemaker. By profession she was a seamstress. She was a member of the central organization. She was very active in organizing her profession.

Yenta. A daughter of the Brisk housepainter. By profession she was a seamstress. She had her own workshop. The organization used her workshop for various purposes. She was a member of the central organization.

Sarahke. The daughter of Kalman Ber the baker, the wife of the writer of these lines. She worked with her father in the bakery, selling the baked goods; she was a member of the central organization and was beloved by the working women.

Goldke. A daughter of Nachum the teacher, a seamstress. She greatly helped to organize her profession. She was a member of the central committee.


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