The Bialystoker Memorial Book Der Bialystoker
Yizkor Buch, the Bialystoker Center, New York 1982
(c) Copyright by the Bialystoker Center
Bialystokers All Over the World
In the United States
|Table of Contents||
|David Sohn||The First Bialystoker in America||
|Bialystok Relief Work||
Founders and Leaders of the Bialystok Center
Louis Davis, Alter Kushes, Philip Rosenthal, Jacob Cohen
Bialystoker Center and Home - 50 Years
The Bialystok Spirit; Beginning with Devotion; A Home with Heart and Soul; From a Modest Beginning to Great Accomplishments; A Fine Institution in Good Hands
|60th Anniversary of Bialystoker Stimme||
|The Ladies Auxiliary||
|The Young Men's Benevolent Association||
Club of Bialystoker Friends
Bialystoker Jews in America - A Record of Proud Achievement; The David Sohn Picture Album
|Pejsach Albert||The Bialystoker Synagogue in New York||
Max Ratner - A Bialystoker with a Heart
The Ratner Brothers: Max, Leonard, Harry, Charles
|Irving I. Stone||My Bialystoker Connection||
|Rabbi Lowell S. Kronick||Izaak Rybal - A Profile||
|Louis Silver||David Sohn, Leader of the Landsleit||
|Zalman Heller||The Family of David Sohn||
|Noami Kavee and Mildred Spiegel||David Sohn, Husband and Father||
THE FIRST BIALYSTOKER IN AMERICA
Who was the first Jew from Bialystok to arrive in America? I often discussed this matter with many older landsleit, people who were in the United States for many years. When they reached these shores, they already found a significant Bialystoker community going back to the 1880's.
In fact, Bialystoker Jews lived in America starting in the 1850's. We found a charter issued by the State of New York dated 1864, to a "Bialystoker Unterstitzungs Verein," an aid society for Bialystoker landsleit that existed two years and then fell apart because of conflicts among the members. I uncovered this document quite by accident, when I was elected president of the "Bialystoker Somach Noflim" in 1925.
We realized that the "Somach Noflim", founded in 1886 and one of the oldest Bialystoker societies, operated without a charter. As president, I sought to modernize the society, which had been neglected.
First I obtained a charter from the State of New York, legally recognizing the society. When we applied for the charter, we found government records that revealed a "Bialystoker Unterstitzungs Verein" was incorporated in 1864.
The first Bialystoker Jew to arrive in America was Simcha Tzfas, who died in New York at the age of 103.
Several weeks after I came to the United States I met Simcha at a Bialystoker's house on Henry Street, where he was a frequent guest. Someone pointed him out to me, indicating he was almost 100. I refused to believe it because Simcha looked much younger and was full of life.
Later I heard many interesting tales about Simcha, including his frequent trips to distant lands and his numerous adventures.
Simcha Tzfas first arrived in America in 1842, on a sailboat that embarked from London and sailed on the high seas for several months. Once in New York, he did not find any other Jews from Bialystok. His first home was with a Dutch family on Water Street, near the East River.
Simcha was twenty-eight years old then, a tall and brawny youth, a real he-man. His fearlessness amazed his gentile neighbors, who did not let his Jewish manners interfere with their close friendship. Simcha worked as a longshoreman for an export firm, loading cargo on ships and performing other strenuous labor. Apparently he earned a satisfactory living at the time.
When the famous California gold rush began in 1848, Simcha was among the first to leave on this mad quest for gold. For months he walked or traveled by horse and buggy along with some daring young people through the wilds of America, fighting Indians and robbers who attacked them on their journeys. Simcha was wounded twice. Finally he arrived in California, where he spent two years, failing to discover any gold.
He went back to Bialystok, stayed awhile and then sailed to Israel, where he had close relatives. Two years later he returned to the United States, joined the American Army and served under General McClellan for three years. Subsequently he became a farmer in Minnesota.
In 1860, a year before the Civil War broke out, he returned once again to Bialystok for a short time and then to Israel. Some claimed that during this trip Simcha married, at the age of forty-six, in Israel.
In 1865 Simcha came back to the United States. During this voyage he became friendly with Jacob Schiff, a fellow passenger who later became a wealthy banker and Jewish philanthropist. Schiff liked this down-to-earth, hulking man with handsome black beard and steel-like hands. Talking to him, Schiff saw, possibly for the first time, a simple and strong Russian Jew. Their friendship continued for many years, and even after Schiff became a millionaire he arranged that Simcha receive a monthly check.
Some of our landsleit claim that once, when Schiff was on an extended trip to Europe, his office in New York neglected to send Simcha his regular check for several months. In a rage, he descended upon Schiff's office and when the staff attempted to eject him, Simcha bellowed at the top of his lungs: "Where is my Yankele? I demand to see my Yankele!" In his inner office, having already returned from his European trip, Schiff heard the tumult and emerged to find out what was happening.
Simcha was furious, ready to tear everyone apart. Schiff took him into his private office and ordered a check drawn at once to compensate Simcha for the months he received nothing. At the same time Schiff scolded the bookkeeper who had failed to exercise proper oversight over his charity affairs in his absence.
Simcha visited Israel five times, never paying for his voyages. He had his methods of obtaining free passage. At that time, traveling by ship was relatively inexpensive anyway. On several occasions, Simcha left Israel for Europe on ships carrying oxen, where he worked, earned his fare, and even a few dollars for his trouble.
Every five or six years he went to Israel to see his wife and daughter. Because she was strictly Orthodox, Mrs. Tzfas refused to leave Israel for America. But Simcha managed to bring his daughter here. Whatever became of her is unknown.
During the many years he lived in America, Simcha Tzfas worked at various jobs: longshoreman, laborer, fisherman, coal miner, soldier, farmer, night watchman. His adventurous nature and brute strength drove him to the most hazardous activities. He loved to take risks and enjoyed life. He was a connoisseur of good food and drink. As a matter of fact, his appetite was legendary.
When Simcha grew older, he arranged to take his meals with different landsleit each day. This was known in Yiddish as "eating days." When Simcha Tzfas visited a well-known Bialystoker butcher, Philip Tashman of Yonkers, he found on the table a two and a half pound loaf of bread, several rolls, and a whole herring with onions soaked in vinegar. Then he devoured a large plate of meat (a butcher always had meat — particularly when a pound cost seven to eight cents). Simcha was also treated to a large bowl of barley soup, after which he consumed an entire salami weighing a pound and a half. Certainly no good meal could pass without "some spirits" and a pint of beer.
On another occasion a Bialystoker housewife prepared a dairy meal for Simcha consisting of several pounds of fish, noodles and cheese, grits and milk, pancakes, coffee and a dozen rolls. Surely this great repast would be considered excessive for the average person. Simcha left the table hungry, complaining to another neighbor that he was famished. Perhaps she could offer him some food to "restore his strength." This second lady, who possessed great compassion, prepared a lovely banquet fit for a king. Simcha finished everything in front of him as though he had not eaten for days.
He was a frequent visitor at meetings of various Bialystoker societies. Usually he asked for a new suit, rent for his room, or something else. Once he went to the Somach Noflim, requesting a "new shoe." Immediately he was asked why only one shoe. He answered that he would get the second shoe from the Bialystoker Brotherly Love Association, another society. And that's the way it was: the Somach Noflim gave him a dollar and a half for one shoe and the Brotherly Love the same amount for the other shoe. Faithfully these two societies granted him a new shoe every year until he died.
When Bialystoker landsleit multiplied in later years, people celebrated weddings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, and so forth. Simcha was not embarrassed to show up at these parties uninvited. Invariably he jumped up onto a chair in the middle of the hall, with a large glass filled with liquor in his hand, shouting at the top of his lungs, "Without Simcha there can be no Simcha! Mazel Tov, L'Chaim," and drank the entire glass of whiskey.
Simcha was never sick. At no time did he wear eyeglasses. He possessed all of his faculties until the last day of his life.
Simcha Tzfas died peacefully in his lonely room on Division Street in 1917.
* * *
As soon as Bialystoker Jews began arriving in the United States, they formed their own organizations and societies, which united and strengthened the Bialystoker community, absorbing the larger Jewish population. These groups, working separately and together, extended the Bialystoker landsmanschaft influence throughout America. As mentioned earlier, the first organized society was the "Bialystoker Unterstitzungs Verein" established in 1864. What follows is a list of almost fifty societies founded between 1868 and 1949. Although most of them no longer exist, they made a major contribution to the development of the landsmanschaft, its relief work and other communal activities that served Jews from Bialystok for almost a century:
Mesillat Yesharim - 1868
Anshei Chesed - 1878
Ahavat Achim - 1884
Somach Noflim - 1886
Brotherly Love Association - 1890
Bikur Cholim, New York - 1897
Bikur Cholim, Brooklyn - 1898
Ladies Aid Society, Tomchei Aniyim - 1899
Brit Avraham Lodge, Philadelphia - 1901
Unterstitzungs-Verein, Brooklyn - 1902
Bricklayers Benevolent Association - 1905
Branch 88, Workmen's Circle - 1905
Young Mens Association - 1906
Branch 127, Workmen's Circle, Chicago - 1906
Branch 137, Workmen's Circle, Philadelphia - 1906
Branch 121, Workmen's Circle, Paterson, N.J. -1908
Branch 256, Workmen's Circle, Newark -1908
Ladies Aid Society, Harlem and the Bronx - 1909
Kranken Unterstitzungs-Verein, Newark -1912
Relief Committee, Chicago - 1919
Relief Committee, Paterson, N.J. - 1919
Bialystoker Culture Society - 1921
Bialystoker Social Club, Chicago - 1922
Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary, New York - 1923
Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary, Chicago - 1925
Rabbi Brodsky Ladies Auxiliary, Newark -1927
Bialystoker Home for the Aged, New York - 1927
Social Center, Los Angeles - 1928
Bialystoker Credit Union, New York - 1933
Bialystoker Painters Club, New York - 1934
Bialystoker Operators Club, New York - 1934
Bialystoker Cutters Club, New York - 1935
Bialystoker Aid Society, Detroit - 1936
Bronx League of the Bialystoker Home - 1936
Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary of Borough Park - 1937
Bialystoker Branch 142, Workmen's Circle, Paterson, N.J. - 1939
Bialystoker Benevolent Society, Milwaukee, - 1940
Bialystoker Branch 202, Workmen's Circle, Newark -1940
Bialystoker Social Club, New York - 1942
Bialystoker Victory Club, New York - 1942
Bialystoker Center, Montreal, Canada - 1943
Bialystoker and Vicinity Aid Society, Toronto, Canada - 1944
Bialystoker Young Womens League, New York - 1944
Club of Bialystoker Friends - 1946
Bialystoker Historical Society - 1947
Kiryat Bialystok Foundation - 1949
(established by the Bialystoker Center in New York)
BIALYSTOK RELIEF WORK
One of the vital organizations established by Bialystoker Jews in the United States in 1919 to assist needy landsleit in Bialystok was the Bialystoker Relief Committee in America. David Sohn and others founded it to alleviate hunger and poverty among Bialystoker Jews. Soon after World War I, when news of their difficult circumstances reached the United States, landsleit in America raised $5 million, which they sent to their kinsmen in Bialystok. Moreover, Jews in more than sixty towns around Bialystok also were granted financial support. Finally the Bialystoker Relief Committee in New York sent half a million dollars to strengthen various institutions in Bialystok.
This relief committee grew out of the old Bikur Cholim that helped landsleit in need. The committee was housed after World War I in a cellar at 246 East Broadway. In addition to relief work, it conducted various activities for the landsleit and other Jews in New York. Indeed, the Bialystoker Center, which grew into a major Jewish organization in the United States, evolved from the Bialystoker Relief Committee.
David Sohn expressed the committee's humanitarian ideals in the following way: "From the depths of the 'Bialystoker Cellar,' the noble ideal of an organized landsmanschaft that would serve as a model for Jews from other origins who came to America emerged, uniting our diverse constituency from the strictly Orthodox to the radically assimilated, from conservative to progressive, from first-generation immigrants to second-generation American-born Jews. We seek to blend all of them within the melting pot of fraternal solidarity, mutual assistance and philanthropy."
Founders and Leaders of the Bialystoker Center
President of the Home
President of the Home
IZAAK RYBAL-RYBALOWSKI, General Secretary
AND HOME — 50 YEARS
Last year, 1981, Bialystoker landsleit in New York, all over America and throughout the world celebrated a most important event: the fiftieth anniversary of the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged. During this half century, our Home has developed into one of the finest geriatric facilities in the country, a model of modern, compassionate care for the elderly. Moreover, our Center is the international headquarters of Bialystokers in many lands, among them survivors of the Nazi Holocaust that annihilated one of the great centers of Eastern European Jewry.
This institution gives renewed life to the humanitarian tradition that Bialystok taught. Indeed, its founders translated into reality their desire to assist people in need generally and, in particular, the elderly. A small group of dedicated Jews, determined to construct a home for the aged under Bialystoker auspices, launched a frenetic series of meetings and festivities to draw support for their ambitious project. Their leader was the late David Sohn, affectionately called "Mr. Bialystok." Despite the formidable obstacles facing them, these men and women pushed on to achieve their goal.
The Bialystoker Spirit
These activists planned the nursing home and the landsmanschaft headquarters in June 1926. They confronted the tragedy of elderly Bialystokers without proper care, all alone and in desperate straits, a problem affecting many aged immigrants at that time. Imbued with a passion for assisting the elderly and the needy who would follow, the committee assured that their desperate charges would be well treated.
Beginning with Devotion
The plenary meeting of Bialystoker landsleit held in June 1926 investigated the feasibility of building a nursing home. It appointed a special committee to formulate an appropriate plan. The committee worked for almost a year before it delivered its final report in May 1927 at a general meeting of the Bialystoker Center and Bikur Cholim. It reviewed the possibilities of going ahead with the project and the numerous anticipated difficulties. Nonetheless, everyone was optimistic. Mr. Sohn wrote, "One thing is clear: we will build a home for our elderly people sooner or later."
Cast Us Not Away in Our Old Age
Leafing through the pages of the Bialystoker Stimme, one notices the love and devotion with which the landsleit built the Bialystoker Home, one of the finest in the country. In a moving article in the September 1927 issue, the author linked the new Home with prayers chanted on the High Holidays. "We recite the prayer, 'Cast us not away in our old age.' To lessen the isolation and loneliness of old age, the directors of the Bialystoker Center and Bikur Cholim decided to establish their own nursing home for elderly people, where they can spend their remaining years in comfortable rooms among their own friends."
Much effort went into erecting the Home. Fund-raising activities proceeded; donations poured in, swelling the Home's coffers. In July 1928, more than $40,000 was raised, a substantial sum at that time. As the Stimme proclaimed, "The plans for the old age home are complete and we contemplate more than an institution for the elderly. Our Home will combine modernity with compassion — 'A Home with a Heart' that will stand as a monument for succeeding generations of our landsmanschaft."
A Home with a Heart and Soul
On Monday, September 16, 1929, the contract to build the Home was signed. One week later, the cornerstone was laid. Bialystoker landsleit all over America contributed in many ways. Several condemned buildings were demolished along East Broadway to make room for the new structure. Festivities to launch the building campaign were held on September 22, 1929. Thousands of Bialystoker Jews, friends, and official representatives of numerous organizations joined in laying the cornerstone. The building committee estimated the cost of erecting the Home at around $400,000. The Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary undertook to raise $20,000, donating $5,000 right away.
The Home was completed in 22 months. Finally, the day arrived for moving into the handsome new building. In the balmy days of May 1931, the Bialystoker Home officially opened and regular meetings of the landsmanschaft were held in the new quarters amid much celebration.
The ten-story building of the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged at 228-230 East Broadway, New York, which serves as the world headquarters for Bialystoker landsleit.
The dedication festivities extended from Saturday night, June 20, to Sunday, June 28, 1931. A committee of one hundred Bialystoker Jews planned the proceedings. Each landsmanschaft organization selected a particular evening during that week to mark the joyous occasion. The public at large was invited to participate in each party. Thousands of people came to visit the Home to admire the tireless efforts of Bialystokers.
A parade swelled the Lower East Side on Sunday, June 21, 1931, the Home's grand opening. Almost everyone connected with Bialystok participated, as well as Jews from other places of origin. The closing banquet was held at Beethoven Hall, 210 East 5th Street in New York. More than five hundred people attended, including all the directors of the Bialystoker Center, representatives of Bialystoker organizations and leading Jewish figures.
Many political and Jewish community leaders sent congratulatory telegrams to the Bialystoker Home, including Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lieutenant Governor Herbert Lehman, New York Mayor James Walker, Manhattan Borough President Samuel Levy, and B. Vladek, Manager of the Jewish Daily Forward.
Mr. Sohn, in honor of the grand opening, wrote in the Stimme that the new facility would care not only for the elderly population at the time of its construction but would serve future generations of old and infirm people. His words were prophetic. Toward the end of his life, he was admitted as a resident of the Home, where he died on February 10, 1968. Many years earlier, he exhorted his followers to support the Home, for no one could know when he or she might need its services.
From a Modest Beginning to Great Accomplishments
The first fifty residents of the Home were admitted shortly after it opened in September 1931. The Rosh Hashanah issue of the Bialystoker Stimme of that year stated, "Several hundred men and women came to worship in our new synagogue on both days of Rosh Hashanah. Our cantors uplifted them with their inspiring services. On Yom Kippur, a memorial service was held in our shul for deceased members and landsleit.
The Home's operating costs increased, because the directors were determined to provide excellent care for the residents and admit additional people. At first there was a waiting list of twenty; several months later it grew to seventy-five. More people, hearing how wonderful the Bialystoker Home was, applied for admission. Many thousands of visitors passed through the corridors of the Home and went away greatly impressed.
A Fine institution in Good Hands
Devoted people who invested their energies and concern have ensured the Home's continued excellence. Our organization will exist for many more years because we enjoy the support of new members prepared to carry on the work of their predecessors.
The Bialystoker Home is a traditional kosher institution dedicated to bringing comfort and dignity to the lives of Jewish senior citizens. It has a fully staffed medical and nursing department, as well as modern food services, chaplaincy, recreation, rehabilitation and maintenance departments. Our Health Related Facility serves people requiring some medical supervision but able to carry out their activities of daily living with minimal assistance. For those needing complete care around the clock, there is a dedicated staff of professionals in all relevant disciplines.
Our Bialystoker landsleit can be proud of what they and their forefathers accomplished — a geriatric facility that can compete most favorably with similar institutions. The Bialystoker Center, the governing body of the Home, will continue shepherding it to even greater accomplishments after we round out our first half century.
60th ANNIVERSARY OF BIALYSTOKER STIMME
The year 1981 also marked the 60th year of publication of our highly regarded magazine, Bialystoker Stimme. Published by our landsmanschaft twice a year, before Passover and Rosh Hashanah, the Stimme is one of the most important publications founded by immigrant Jews and remains one of the few significant magazines published regularly for sixty years.
With great pride we salute the Bialystoker Stimme, which celebrates our Center and Home for the Aged in New York among landsleit everywhere. If solidarity exists among Bialystokers all over the world, most of the credit belongs to the Stimme.
Its original editor for many years was David Sohn. After his death on February 10, 1968, no effort was spared to ensure the Stimme would continue publication.
Mr. Sohn's successor as the Stimme's editor is Izaak Rybal, General Secretary of the Bialystoker Center. The co-editor of the English section is Rabbi Lowell, S. Kronick, Chaplain. The Stimme, which in recent years expanded its content and format, is read by Bialystoker landsleit and friends everywhere.
Concerning the Bialystoker Stimme's founding sixty years ago, Mr. Sohn often told the following story:
"In 1921, I and other people active in the Bialystoker Center were inspired to issue a periodical that described our activities, recorded the accomplishments of our societies, recognized landsleit who worked for the institution, bound together Bialystokers in America with our brothers and sisters in the old country, and collated the historical events of the Jewish community in Bialystok.
We also wanted to let other landsmanschaften know about the achievements of the Bialystoker landsleit. Furthermore, approximately 40,000 Bialystoker Jews in America needed their own publication, devoted to their interests, which the Yiddish press at large could not always satisfy."
* * *
The first issue appeared on a trial basis in November 1921. Whether succeeding issues were published depended on the response of landsleit in America, which was positive. Afterward, the magazine appeared every three months. In the thirties, it became a monthly. Some of those early issues varied in size and content. Some were scanty, from eight to sixteen pages, and others contained about one hundred pages. The Passover and Rosh Hashanah issues were consistently large and rich in content. Several special issues, containing about one hundred pages, honored milestones of the Bialystoker Young Men's Association, Bialystoker Somach Noflim, Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary, Relief Society of Paterson, and Club of Bialystoker Friends, among others.
Among the early writers for the Stimme were:
Jakow Krepliak, Herman Frank, Sam Kosel, Jechiel Wajntrojb, Louis Grynhojz, Pejsach Kaplan, Nojach Zabludowski, Awrom Kotik, Isroel Lipski, L. Fejgin, M. Goldman, J.J. Indicki and Litman Rozental.
When one leafs through more than three hundred editions of the Stimme, comprising many thousands of pages, one discovers a treasury of materials.
Every subject of consequence to Bialystokers found recognition in the Stimme. The magazine reaches all geographical locations where landsleit live - Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Israel, Paris and Bialystok. The Stimme served as a monument to the 60,000 martyrs of Bialystok, as well as a beacon of hope that its ideals and traditions will live on long after the city's destruction. This publication contains thousands of documents, articles and pictures that cannot be found anywhere else. The Stimme must be regarded as a worthy archive and everlasting tribute to everything Bialystokers loved and lost.
* * *
While the Stimme has done much to enshrine the past, it also helps the Bialystoker landsmanschaft in America expand. Who can adequately assess the work of the Bialystoker Relief Committee, after World War I, which sent millions of dollars to save Bialystok's institutions? Moreover, the Stimme popularized the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged in New York, the international headquarters of the landsmanschaft. It encouraged Bialystoker Jews in America and elsewhere to send assistance to our unfortunate brothers and sisters in Bialystok during World War II. The magazine has also helped reunite relatives who had been out of touch for many years.
The Stimme encouraged Bialystokers to appreciate culture. It also faithfully recorded births, bar mitzvahs, bas mitzvahs, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and deaths of landsleit. The Stimme has enabled all Bialystokers to feel like one extended family, sharing good times and bad.
* * *
Let us hope the Bialystoker Stimme will continue to fulfill its mission: uniting our beloved landsleit throughout the world despite great distances separating them.
THE LADIES AUXILIARY
The Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary helped develop the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged. Founded in February 1923, the auxiliary invigorated people active in the Center and launched many social and fund-raising events.
From a small group, the Ladies Auxiliary grew into a strong affiliate of the Center. Its members served with supreme devotion, raising large sums of money to help needy landsleit and, especially, the elderly residents of the Bialystoker Home.
These women always brought beauty and festivity to the Center's activities. The auxiliary involved itself in three areas: visiting and arranging medical treatment for the sick, implementing social and cultural activities for its members and friends, and fund-raising for the Home. Whenever the Home was financially strapped, the Ladies Auxiliary was the first to secure loans to rescue it. In fact, in 1930-31, when the Home was built, during the Great Depression, members of the auxiliary borrowed $50,000 to promote the building project. Later these loans were repaid with gratitude to each woman.
The founders and top officers of the Ladies Auxiliary were: Ida Aidak, President; Rose Lipman, Treasurer; and Sophie Cohen, Financial Secretary. They served for more than ten years. The auxiliary organized sub-groups that was active in New York and other cities in America and Canada. It exemplified humanitarian work. Fortunately, the present officers and active members of the Ladies Auxiliary continue its hallowed traditions.
THE YOUNG MEN'S BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATION
One of the few Bialystoker societies founded at the start of the twentieth century still in existence is the Bialystoker Young Men's Benevolent Association. Its longevity may be credited to a handful of active officers and members who are elderly, but insist on carrying on the important work of the organization, despite changing circumstances and the passage of time. The "Young Men's" significantly assisted the Bialystoker Center in New York, as well as the State of Israel and other causes dear to the hearts of American Jews.
The society was founded October 21, 1906. Its present officers are Charles Koss, Manuel Grodnick, Emily Grodnick, Herman Schwartz, David Fine and others. Mr. Fine is the current president. Charles Koss, the driving force behind the society, was honored several years ago at a banquet given by the group in recognition of his many years of devoted service.
When the Bialystoker Home was built, the members of the "Young Men's" made generous donations and raised funds from other sources. The society also aided in establishing Kiryat Bialystok, a village near Tel Aviv (see page 187) in Israel. The year 1981 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of this worthy organization.
CLUB OF BIALYSTOKER FRIENDS
An important affiliate of the Bialystoker Center in New York is the Club of Bialystoker Friends, organized in 1945. When I came to the United States in June 1947, I found the club quite active and joined its energetic members as an active participant. Among them were: Sam Mines, Bernard Kaganowski, Barney Sacks, Harry Feinberg, Nathan Mines, Sam Saide, Saul Saide, Sol Mines, Marvin Fine, Sol Krim, Louis Krim, Julius Zabludowski, Harry Lazar, Nachum Gross, William Perl, Harry Silver, George Lozoff and Dave Miller.
When the Holocaust survivors and Bialystoker Jews who had returned from exile in Siberia came to America, they found a welcome at the Bialystoker Center, which helped put them on their feet. The club's members became one large, happy family. This camaraderie had, in fact, inspired the formation of the Club of Bialystoker Friends, which sponsored social and cultural events and raised funds for the Center.
The Club sent food, clothing, books, newspapers, medicine and other important items to Jews remaining in Bialystok as well as to those interned in the displaced-persons camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. We also assisted our landsleit who were interned in Cyprus and those who went to Switzerland to cure their ailments. We financed the vital restoration of the Bialystok ghetto cemetery on Zabia Street and installed a protective fence around it.
In 1947, we formed a group within the club to preserve the cultural and spiritual heritage of Bialystok. These activities generated much enthusiasm among our landsleit and friends. For example, we published an album, which I brought from Paris, containing songs and pictures from the Bialystok ghetto. The club also established annual memorial assemblies in tribute to the 60,000 martyrs of Bialystok and immediate vicinity who perished during the Holocaust. This custom has continued. Furthermore, when the State of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, our members were among its first enthusiastic supporters, purchasing Israel bonds and contributing to the United Jewish Appeal. In 1949, at the world conference of Bialystoker landsleit held in New York, the club made a generous contribution to establishing Kiryat Bialystok.
Bialystoker Jews in America — A Record of Proud Achievement
As we review the one-hundred-year experience of Bialystoker Jews in the United States, we can be proud of their achievements and the prestige they brought to Bialystok, their birthplace and spiritual cradle.
Despite the difficult economic and social circumstances the early immigrants from Bialystok found in America, their drive, courage and boundless optimism permitted them to overcome all obstacles.
Laborers, craftsmen, manufacturers, builders, industrialists — the Jews of Bialystok helped to enrich life in America with their energy, enthusiasm and talent. Many assisted in building homes and hotels. Others developed large clothing, furniture, cigar and cigarette, gold and diamond, leather, publishing, bookbinding and upholstery businesses. Bialystoker Jews expanded American commerce, on both a large and small scale. Bialystokers excelled in medicine, science, research, literature, music, entertainment, the press and many other areas. These men and women often proudly disclose their Bialystoker origins.
Generations of Bialystoker Jews have also played an important role within the Jewish community in the United States. We can find Bialystokers in Jewish organizations, institutions, clubs and religious life. They occupy important places in the Yiddish press, literature, theater, music, art, and liturgical music. They have brought honor to the Bialystoker community in America.
The great losses we sustained during World War II can never be replaced. But I believe we can draw some comfort that Bialystoker survivors and immigrants in America insisted on continuing the wonderful traditions of our hometown. The Bialystoker Center in New York is promoting solidarity between landsleit and their children.
Let us never ignore our Bialystoker legacy. We are obliged to imbue our successors with determination to remember their past and do their heritage proud by carrying on in our footsteps. This memorial volume will help in this effort.
The David Sohn Picture Album
In 1951, the Bialystoker Center in New York published a large album containing 1,200 pictures, with a Yiddish and English text, compiled by the late David Sohn. This album, which reviews three hundred years of Jewish life in Bialystok and activities of landsleit throughout the world, has 386 pages and is titled: Bialystok Picture Album — A Famous City and Its Jews Throughout the World. The Bialystoker Center in New York is proud of this important pictorial record.
THE BIALYSTOKER SYNAGOGUE IN NEW YORK
One of the oldest synagogues on New York's Lower East Side, Bet Haknesset Anshei Bialystok, located at 7 Willet Street, was founded more than one hundred years ago by Jews from Bialystok. In 1868, two Bialystoker societies, the Anshei Chesed and the Adath Jeshurun, whose members included carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, painters and other tradesmen, formed small prayer groups. Later on, they merged and, pooling their resources and making generous donations, built the impressive edifice in 1868 known today as the Bialystoker Synagogue.
A prominent Orthodox house of worship, the Bialystoker Shul is one of the few remaining synagogues on the Lower East Side. Its interior — the Holy Ark, paintings and massive wooden pews — was designed to resemble the Great Synagogue in Bialystok, burned by the Nazis in 1941. In 1978, the Bialystoker Synagogue in New York celebrated its one hundredth anniversary and, at the same time, was designated an historic landmark by the City and State of New York. For many years, its spiritual leader was Rabbi Jacob Eskolsky, who died in 1931. His son, Rabbi Michael Eskolsky, succeeded him until his death in 1951.
Many founders and leaders of the Bialystoker Shul in its early years subsequently helped build the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged.
RABBI JACOB ESKOLSKY
Spiritual leader of the Bialystoker Synagogue for many years; died in 1931.
MAX RATNER — A BIALYSTOKER WITH A HEART
One's background inevitably influences the course one's life will take, regardless of changing circumstances. This holds true for those who rarely give any thought to their origins. But how much more does one's past guide his behavior when he often reminisces about it?
One such man is Max Ratner of Cleveland, a most distinguished Bialystoker, a prosperous industrialist and leading philanthropist on the American Jewish scene. Living in America for six decades has not weakened Mr. Ratner's Jewish spirit, which was nurtured in his youth in that magnificent Bialystok that exists no more.
Ratner's humanitarianism is not mere inclination; he translates it into concrete action. His contact with the Bialystoker Center in New York is frequent and regular. Routinely he inquires how he can help, always available to render guidance, generate ideas, and encourage the completion of goals the institution has set for itself — all this despite numerous demands upon his time and the fact that he lives in Cleveland. On several occasions in the recent past, Ratner has visited the Center while on business in New York, finding a small slot in his frenetic schedule to devote to Bialystoker interests.
Max Ratner has won, over his long and fruitful career, the respect of colleagues in business, as well as the gratitude of those who have benefited from his largesse. Bialystoker landsleit, however, developed a special love and warmth for this man who is one of their own and profoundly committed to their well-being. Notwithstanding his importance, Ratner impresses one as humble. No airs or pretense exist in this man who holds the position of President of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a major catalyst for enhanced trade between the two countries. Mention Bialystok to him and Mr. Ratner will share at length memories and anecdotes of his childhood there. He also enjoys talking about how his star rose in the face of difficult times once he came to the United States.
His family lived at the corner of Polna and Czysta streets in Bialystok. His parents, Mojsze and Pesze Ratowcer, owned weaving looms and were textile manufacturers. In 1921, the entire family left Bialystok and came to America. There were eight children, four brothers and four sisters.
His oldest brother, Charles (Kalman), had come to America in 1905. In Bialystok, his brother, as a young lad, was active in the local revolutionary movement. The Czarist police tracked him down and almost exiled him to Siberia. But when Charles was only thirteen years old, he fled Bialystok and came to the United States. In those days life for immigrants in America was very hard. Charles was forced, because he could find no lodging, to sleep for three weeks in Hester Park on the Lower East Side in New York. In the street he would sing Yiddish songs, such as A Brievele der Mamen, to earn a little money.
When the other members of the Ratner family came to the United States in 1921, they immediately settled in Cleveland. One of their cousins, George Sogg, had a lumber business. Max Ratner's two brothers, Charles and Leonard (Lazar), went to work for their cousin. Later on, Leonard opened a grocery store and Charles a lumber yard. Meir, later known as Max Ratner, assisted Charles and at the same time went to school, graduating as an attorney in 1929. After finishing his studies, Max became Charles' partner in the wood business. Leonard sold his grocery and founded his own lumber company. In 1929, the four Ratner brothers merged their businesses and established "Forest City Enterprises." This firm became very successful. Max Ratner was selected president of Forest City Enterprises in 1929, and more recently has served as chairman of the Board of Directors. His nephew, Albert, Leonard's son, is currently president.
The Ratner family did not spare themselves work, and thanks to their industriousness their firm grew very large. Forest City Enterprises in Cleveland now employs 3,000 workers. It has branches in Chicago, Detroit, Portland and elsewhere. Not only does this firm produce all kinds of wooden articles, but also builds shopping centers, hotels, motels and similar developments in many different places. Furthermore, it features a patented high-rise-building system sold in many foreign countries.
Max Ratner's wife, Betty, was born in Cleveland. They have four sons, all married. The family is greatly involved in the business. Three of Max and Betty's sons — Charles, a lawyer; James, a Harvard University business school graduate; and Ronnie, an architect - work for the company. The fourth son, Mark, is a physics professor at Northwestern University.
Max Ratner is celebrated in the Cleveland Jewish community as an activist in numerous philanthropic and social organizations. He occupies important positions in many Jewish institutions. He was the president of the Park Synagogue in Cleveland, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America.
THE RATNER BROTHERS (r. to 1:) The distinguished industrialist and philanthropist, Jewish community leader, and our devoted landsman, Max Ratner; Leonard, who passed away in 1975; Harry (passed away in 1961), father of Bruce Ratner, former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs; and Charles, who passed away in 1939.
Needless to say, this warm, loving human being firmly supports the State of Israel. Not only has he helped raise large sums of money for the Jewish state, giving generous, personal donations, but he also has had close connections with Israeli businesses since 1951, three years after the State's establishment. Mr. Ratner has been to Israel more than a hundred times, visiting his various enterprises there, one of them an electrochemical production company in Haifa and Acco.
As the president of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Ratner tries to strengthen trade and industrial cooperation between the United States and Israel. He has successfully urged many Americans to invest in various Israeli projects. "This helps Israel in its development," Mr. Ratner said a few years ago. "This also opens up new jobs for its population. We have to assist one another, not only philanthropically, but also with timely, practical acts. We, the Jews of this generation, must do everything possible to bolster Israeli industry so the Jewish state will in time be able to sustain itself and not depend upon outside help. We must do this now, because for coming Jewish generations, this self-sufficiency will be more difficult to achieve."
In 1917, when Ratner was eight years old, Britain issued its Balfour Declaration and Bialystok's response was enthusiastic. He still remembers how his beloved mother gave away her golden earrings to a fund for those wishing to become pioneers in Palestine. Mr. Ratner studied in the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok, where Hebrew was the language of instruction.
At the beginning of 1976, Max Ratner visited contemporary Bialystok. He took with him his son, Charles, 16 members of his family; Leonard's son Albert and wife, Harry's son Bruce and wife, Harry's daughter Ellen, Ambassador Milt Woof and wife (children of his sister Irene and grandchildren), several cousins and a few other relatives from America. He wanted to show them his old home, so they would appreciate his origins, what Jewish Bialystok meant many years ago.
"Arriving in Bialystok fifty-five years after I left as a young boy," Mr. Ratner recounted, "I met a handful of Jews, all old and sick, all requiring help. I was reminded of my youth. When I walked through streets where Jews lived, where there had been a sophisticated, vibrant, Jewish life, I could not comprehend how today everything has vanished. How is this possible? Every street has been rebuilt, with a new appearance and name. Nothing Jewish remains…"
Mr. Ratner showed his relatives the house where he spent his childhood, on 4 Czysta, corner Polna Street. While in Bialystok, he still remembered all his childhood experiences, as if seeing everything once again. Here his mother occasionally bought fish; not far from his house was a synagogue. There he used to play with other children. "I looked at these places," Mr. Ratner said. "I used to think about them once in a while, but all that is left of Bialystok is memories..."
While in Poland, Mr. Ratner also visited Warsaw. There it is the same as regards Jewish life. Everything vanished. Mr. Ratner went to the Nozyk Shul on Twarda Street, where he found a few elderly Jews. The tables in the synagogue, the chairs, prayer books and religious tomes were covered with dust from disuse.
Max Ratner brought his relatives to Auschwitz. "A visit to Auschwitz," Mr. Ratner said, "leaves a horrendous impression. It is as though you were surrounded by the ghosts of the millions liquidated. No matter how much you read and hear about the Nazi atrocities, it is impossible to grasp fully their import, unless you see Auschwitz with your own eyes. Only then can you comprehend how Hitler and his henchmen planned and executed with great premeditation the terrible crimes against our people. This we must never forget."
Thus it is with tremendous loyalty that Mr. Ratner relates to his Bialystoker origins, even after so many years. His example cannot fail but inspire other landsleit who feel the same way toward their beloved hometown.
IRVING I. STONE
MY BIALYSTOK CONNECTION
My father, Jacob Sapirstein, was born in Bialystok and later lived in Grajewo, a nearby village. In 1905, the Cossacks came and burned it down. At that time the Russo-Japanese War was being fought, and my father decided to leave rather than go into the army, because he had seen his friends coming back as cripples. He watched despairingly as straw-filled wagons pulled up, disgorging maimed soldiers with no concern for their welfare. Families and friends had to take care of them as best they could. My father vowed to leave home to escape the Czarist oppression.
He went to Szczecin, then crossed the border into Germany. The Jewish community there put him in a hospital for six weeks to build him up because of malnutrition.
The Joint Distribution Committee brought him to America. He arrived in Boston in 1905 and then went to Chicago, where HIAS secured a job for him as an apprentice tailor at Hart, Schaffner & Marx. He did not like this work and contacted an uncle in Cleveland who owned a postcard store in the old Hollenden Hotel.
Coming to Cleveland in 1906, he became a clerk in his uncle's store. At that time stores sold a lot of postcards. Within a year his relatives announced they were closing the card shop because they could barely make a living wage, and advised him to seek other employment.
Not knowing any other work, Jacob Sapirstein set up business for himself in his boardinghouse room. He bought postcards and sold them out of a suitcase to drug stores, candy stores and novelty shops. Operating from a horse-drawn wagon, he was buyer, salesman, order filler, delivery boy and bookkeeper.
Prior to World War I, most postcards were imported from Germany. When imports stopped, Jacob Sapirstein bought the new "folder" cards made in America. As his sons Irving, Morris and Harry grew up, they joined the business.
In the late 1920's the family published and manufactured their own greeting cards, recognizing this was more profitable. The Depression saw great growth in greeting cards, because people could not afford gifts and sent cards instead. World War II brought further growth as families moved about the country and sent more cards to keep in touch.
Today the company started by Jacob Sapirstein — American Greeting Corporation — has 19,000 employees and does over $500 million worth of business a year. There are 24 plants in the United States, Mexico and Canada and four plants in Europe.
Throughout his life, Jacob Sapirstein has observed the Sabbath and remained active in Jewish organizations. He was one of the founders of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, a day school with over 800 students. He purchased 400 dunams of land in Israel and helped establish Kiryat Telshe -Stone, a growing city.
He married the former Jennie Kantor, a native of his hometown, in Cleveland on June 7, 1908. She worked at his side during the early days of the business; both filled postcard orders at night. Mrs. Sapirstein died on November 29, 1969. They had four children: Irving I. Stone, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of American Greetings Corporation; Morris S. Stone, Vice Chairman of the Company; Harry R. Stone, President of Courtland Management, Inc.; and Mrs. David E. Davis (Bernice M.). The family also includes twelve grandchildren, twenty-one great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
American Greetings Corporation, founded by Jacob Sapirstein in 1906, celebrated its seventy-fifth year in 1981. The company blossomed from a small one-man enterprise into a multinational, publicly owned corporation, the largest of its kind in the world.
Despite the difficult economic climate it faced, American Greetings reported record achievement in both sales and earnings. It is encouraged by a clear upward trend in greeting card sales, reflecting people's need to express their sentiments on both joyous and sad occasions.
The company employs 19,000 staff, whose creative talents are demonstrated in American Greetings' product diversity and design. Once again, Bialystoker enterprise and ambition have been well demonstrated.
RABBI LOWELL S. KRONICK
IZAAK RYBAL — A PROFILE
I have known Izaak Rybal and worked closely with him on a daily basis for the past nine years. In that length of time, you get to recognize another's total personality, his ideals, joys, sorrows and hopes. I would like to share with you some of my perceptions of Mr. Rybal.
He is totally devoted to the memory of Bialystok and anyone having any connection with Bialystok and its provinces, including landsleit, friends, members of our Center and Home, the well-to-do and the needful. Whoever utters the word Bialystok possesses the passkey to Mr. Rybal's heart.
In pursuing his many humanitarian activities on behalf of these people, Mr. Rybal demonstrates remarkable energy. Never running out of steam, he is constantly working, planning, arranging and relating to others. In the office he is indefatigable; I have never seen him relax for a moment, whether physically or intellectually.
He values precision. He is a stickler for detail; everything must be just right, whether a letter, punctuality for an appointment, or detailed planning of the many functions the Bialystoker Center and Home conducts throughout the year. While he delegates responsibility, he always makes sure that those working with him give the same painstaking attention to detail he does.
He will not tolerate any error that he perceives as diminishing the Center's prestige or threatening its harmonious operations. Izaak Rybal is a fierce, skilled infighter for his principles, unaccustomed to defeat or to serious challenge. He can also be, as many know, a warm, thoughtful and sentimental human being whose friendship can prove valuable.
What I have described is a man whose total dedication to his role as "Mr. Bialystok" was shaped by long devotion to family and friends, reinforced by his experiences during the horrible years of World War II in which he lost his entire family and beloved hometown — events that would have destroyed a lesser person.
Born in Bialystok to Dwejre and Meir Rybalowski, one of eight children, he grew up in an environment where you helped other people in need, whether related or not, and where you valued friendship.
The Rybalowski family owned a kosher restaurant-catering hall in Bialystok, near the railroad station (Rybalowski lebn Bahn), where many Jewish weddings took place. Open twenty-four hours a day except on the Sabbath, the restaurant was founded about a hundred years ago by Mr. Rybal's grandmother, known as "Sarah of the Railroad" (Sore fun Bahn). It was a place where travelers waited for the next train and ate a good meal before continuing on to the next destination.
In 1941, when the Germans invaded Russian-administered Bialystok, Mr. Rybal was swiftly drafted into the Russian Army because of his skills as a printer. He was taken away from his family, his friends and his beloved hometown, never to be reunited with them. In fierce battle he was severely wounded and discharged from the army. Good medical care restored him to sound health, however, and he spent the remainder of the war years first traveling, then settling in Tashkent to rejoin landsleit there and, finally, along with other Polish citizens, was exiled to Siberia.
Throughout these years, he constantly sought out other people from Bialystok. Feeling lonely, he wished to contact friends from his birthplace, whom he considered part of his extended family.
In Tashkent, placed in charge of a large restaurant for travelers who could obtain their meals only by presenting a special card, Mr. Rybal arranged that Bialystoker landsleit and friends without this card receive wholesome meals. Moreover, he assisted eight couples in leaving Tashkent for Lemberg (Lwow, Lviv) after the war ended. From there they went to Poland and other countries.
Returning to Bialystok in 1945, at the end of the war, he was devastated on learning that none of his family survived the Bialystok ghetto and the concentration camps. He was also deeply saddened that his beloved city was so utterly destroyed by the war, including its once large and proud Jewish community. The joys of his youth were now just memories, never to be recaptured. It was time to move on and make a new life for himself.
This was not easy. Six months in Prague and eleven months in Paris were agonizing steps toward that goal. While in Paris, Mr. Rybal contacted the local Bialystoker community, made wonderful friends and joined a Bialystoker relief committee, where he was able to assist other landsleit passing through Paris.
In 1947, he arrived in the United States and was introduced by his late brother, Leon Rubin, to David Sohn, the founder of the Bialystoker landsmanschaft in New York. Mr. Rybal had earlier corresponded with Mr. Sohn from Paris. The latter received him in New York with open arms, and from that time on, a strong bond existed between the two. Sohn devoted his entire life to the Jews living in Bialystok before the war and to Bialystokers in other countries. He imparted this profound sense of commitment to Mr. Rybal, often repeating the desire that the Bialystoker Center and Home remain a living monument to the war-torn Jewish community of Bialystok.
Mr. Rybal met Molly Goldberg, whom he married a short time later. Molly, the daughter of the late Hyman and Jean Goldberg, was also born in Bialystok. Her mother was fluent in several languages; her father was a manager and accountant of a textile factory in Bialystok and later worked as an accountant in America. Molly received her education at the Spoleczna Gymnasium, a private school for Jewish children, and in the Bialystok public schools. She came to the United States in 1930, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn and attended City College of New York. She became a full-fledged bookkeeper in 1941, working until she retired in 1977. She held the position of bookkeeper at the Atalanta Trading Corporation from 1947 until 1968.
Things began looking up for Mr. Rybal. He got a job in the printing trade and within two years went to work for the Jewish Daily Forward, where he remained for 24 years, the last fifteen as foreman.
Mr. Sohn asked him to take over the responsibility of preparing the Bialystoker Stimme and putting together the historic Bialystok Photo Album issued in 1951. These two publications served to keep Bialystoker landsleit, in whatever country they lived, informed about one another and united.
Since 1947, Mr. Rybal served on the Home's Board of Directors, later as its Vice-Chairman and, in 1967, shortly before Mr. Sohn's death, succeeded him as General Secretary. In 1973, Izaak Rybal became the full-time General Secretary of the Bialystoker Center, Home and Infirmary for the Aged.
In this position, which he assumed upon his retirement from the Forward, he has almost single-handedly kept the worldwide Bialystoker landsmanschaft united in deed and spirit. Traveling to Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Uruguay, European countries and various parts of the United States at his own expense, he has strengthened the close ties between our Center and these landsleit, always bringing contributions back with him. As the editor of the Bialystoker Stimme, he has prepared interesting and literary issues, inviting landsleit in distant parts of the world to contribute articles about their communities' activities.
Mr. Rybal's many experiences and memories could fill a volume. The purpose of this article was to share with you glimpses of the life and colorful character of an unusual man.
DAVID SOHN, LEADER OF THE LANDSLEIT
Writer and Jewish community leader, founder and Executive Director of the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged in New York. Died February 10, 1968.
David Sohn was a leader, a distinguished personality that Bialystok produced. He dedicated his life to his landsleit and to the American Jewish community. As a young man in Bialystok, and later in the United States, he devoted himself to public service. He cared for Bialystokers wherever they lived. Despite the fact that he spent most of his life in America, he never lost touch with Bialystok and its Jews all over the world.
For almost fifty years, David Sohn led the Bialystoker Center and Home in New York. He was the focal point of landsleit everywhere, a charismatic and compassionate man. He struggled to alleviate the isolation of the elderly and calm their fears with a friendly residence where they could feel at home. He personified Bialystoker creativity and initiative to expand and enrich Jewish life everywhere.
His death in 1968 came as a blow to all who knew and loved him. Wherever Bialystokers lived, worked and achieved, David Sohn was revered. Respected as a founder of a great institution, he was also loved as a warm friend with roots among the people, who introduced a populist spirit to the Bialystoker landsmanschaft. His relations with individuals were close and informal, his approach to the public sophisticated and forward looking. He loved literature and was highly cultured; a man of the people, he was nevertheless an uncommon man.
In 1919, World War I came to an end. But Bialystok's troubles began, for it was caught in a conflict between Russia and a resurgent Poland. At that time Mr. Sohn founded the Bialystoker Relief Committee in America and, despite the carnage, he went to Bialystok as its delegate, ignoring his personal safety. From then on he was perceived by Bialystokers and non-Bialystokers, Jews and gentiles, as a dedicated and profoundly humane man. He was the driving force, the inspiration, behind the Bialystoker landsmanschaft's far-flung philanthropic efforts.
Bialystok disappeared in fire and smoke together with six million Jewish martyrs and thousands of other once-proud communities. Such widespread devastation tends to leave many cynical, without faith in God or man. Under such circumstances, we must have leaders who possess spirit, courage and vision. Our landsmanschaft was fortunate in having such a leader in David Sohn.
Under his guidance, countless Bialystokers in desperate need received food and clothing packages, as well as many thousands of dollars in financial aid. Furthermore, he maintained a large personal correspondence with these unfortunates, encouraging and uplifting them.
Often leaders lose some of their humanity as they gain power. Not so with David Sohn. The more influential he became, the more his feelings for his fellow man deepened. He was blessed with personal magnetism, numerous talents and leadership qualities. He endeared himself to the landsleit with his beautiful Yiddish articles published in the magazine he founded, the Bialystoker Stimme. Many of his contemporaries became deeply involved in the affairs of the Bialystoker Center and Home because of his example.
David Sohn will be remembered as long as people understand what Bialystok and its heritage mean.
THE FAMILY OF DAVID SOHN
Many Bialystokers are familiar with David Sohn the public man, but few know about his private life.
Sohn's maternal grandfather, Mojsze Dowid Bialostocki, and his grandmother, Szejne, the well-known Zalman Kalisker's daughter, were respected in Bialystok for their charity and good nature. They raised four daughters and one son in a traditional Jewish home. Their daughter, Nechome, David Sohn's mother, was unusually bright and beautiful; all who knew her marveled at her intelligence. When she reached marriageable age, her father insisted she wed a Torah scholar. Mojsze Dowid Bialostocki offered the winning candidate, financial support and a generous dowry.
Nechome found such a man in Mojsze Sohn, erudite in religious studies, an expert in Hebrew and several European languages. Although ordained a rabbi at 17, he never practiced. His father, Mendel, came from one of the oldest, most honored Bialystok families. Mendel was well educated and one of the first silk manufacturers in Bialystok, starting his in 1842. With such a background, Mojsze Sohn was chosen Nechome's bridegroom.
After they wed, Nechome, not satisfied to stay at home, started a wholesale-retail meat supply business; the military was her main customer. She became one of the most successful businesswomen in Bialystok. The Sohns, who lived on Jurowcer Street, were unusually generous to the poor. Mojkze Sohn spent more of his time in the bet midrash than at the store and increasingly was honored for his scholarship and piety. Years later in New York, he became one of the pillars of the Norfolk Street shul, and was greatly esteemed by the community.
David Sohn, the youngest of Nechome's and Mojsze's eight children, studied Torah in cheder and received instruction in Hebrew, Russian and German from private tutors. He read many books in these languages and, as a young boy, developed a knack for writing. Various journals published his poems and short stories. He came to America in 1911, and became deeply interested in Jewish communal matters.
In 1916, Sohn married Vera Epstein in New York. They had three children, Sylvia, Naomi and Mildred. Sylvia died in 1946.
He inherited diverse talents and a sharp mind from his father, a kind heart from his mother. Alternately working as a furrier, reporter, raincoat maker and painter, none of Mr. Sohn's jobs satisfied him. He preferred serving the Jewish community, and after World War I he became active in relief work — helping Jewish war victims in Bialystok and vicinity rebuild their lives. With his organizational prowess and dedication, he inspired hundreds to join him in these efforts.
But Sohn was not content with these achievements. Thus he conceived the idea of creating a Bialystoker Center that would represent landsleit throughout the world, and a home for the aged that would translate their humanitarian strivings into concrete action.
He spent several years persuading Bialystokers all over the United States to finance building the Home. The institution opened in 1931, thanks to his tireless efforts. He encouraged the Bialystoker Ladies Auxiliary to expand, for he believed women could play a vital role in the Home's development. In 1932, the Auxiliary numbered 1300 members. Over the years, the Center and Ladies Auxiliary trained many landsleit in communal service.
Mr. Sohn was Executive Director of the Bialystoker Center and Home until shortly before his death in February 1968. At the time of his death, he was a resident of the facility he built. To this day we remember him with respect and affection.
NAOMI KAVEE AND MILDRED SPIEGEL
DAVID SOHN, HUSBAND AND FATHER
Our father, David Sohn, taught us that Judaism requires helping others; getting rich is not what brings joy.
As youngsters, we could not understand why Papa spent less time with us than other fathers did. We couldn't even spend a summer vacation with him, because he worked endlessly to establish the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged.
When we complained about his absences, he handled us cleverly. Describing in detail the wonderful time he was going to give us at the ballet or Radio City Music Hall on our annual outing, he succeeded in quieting us for weeks at a time. These treats usually took place during Passover. Anticipating a whole day with father made it easier to tolerate not having him around on Sundays and holidays.
Friday nights were special in our house because Papa ate with us. Mama was a wonderful cook, but everything smelled and tasted better than usual on Friday nights.
After the Sabbath meal, he took us into the living room and told us Bible stories that always had a moral, or tales of Bialystok when he was a boy. Nostalgia crept into his voice as he reminisced about his house on Jurowcer Street and the walks he and Mama took in the forest with their friends. Nobody told a story like Papa.
When we grew up and had our own children, we realized what a great man our father was in placing the landsleit's interests above his and his family's. This could not have been easy for him, but he felt a duty to personify Bialystok's compassionate traditions.
The Presidium of the First National Bialystoker Convention convoked by the Bialystoker Center in August, 1934.
Seated right to left: Louis Davis, Treasurer of the Bialystoker Home for the Aged; Philip Schneider, Comptroller; Sam Babier, Director; Louis Cohn, Vice-Chairman of the Center; Benjamin Tabachinsky, Representative of the Yiddish Schools in Poland; Jacob Krepliak, Chairman of the Center Board of Directors; William Abramson, Vice-Chairman of the Convention; Alexander Kahn, General Manager of the Jewish Daily Forward; Chaim Weintraub, "Ort"; Rabbi Mordechai Kirshblum, Mizrachi Organization of America.
Standing: Philip Rosenthal, President of the Home for the Aged; Sam Kassel, Auditor; David Sohn, General Secretary of the Center; and Joseph Lipnik, Chairman of the Home for the Aged.
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Last updated July 22nd, 2005