The Bialystoker Memorial Book - Der Bialystoker
Yizkor Buch, the Bialystoker Center, New York 1982
(c) Copyright by the Bialystoker Center
BIALYSTOK the Modern Period
|Table of Contents||
|Pejsach Kaplan||Recalling Our Proud Past||
|Emanuel Nowogrodski||The "Bund" in Bialystok||
|Dowid Klementynowski||The Labor Zionist Movement||
Some of the Well-Known Jewish Physicians in Bialystok
Dr. Joseph Rubenstein, Dr. Leon Pines, Dr. Moses Zyman
|Ossip Dymow||The Habimah National Theater||
|Maks Babicz||The First Jewish Art Exhibition||
|M. Sirota||Torah Institutions and Leaders||
|The Athletes and Heroes||
|Y. H. Kancypolski||The Growth of the Silk Industry||
|Pynchos Ginzburg||The Jewish Sports Movement||
|Szeftel Zak||The Jewish Theater 1919-1939||
Women of Bialystoker Jewish Aristocracy
Sarah Rybalowski, Sarah Tzivya Rapoport, Feigele Gordon
RECALLING OUR PROUD PAST
(Editor’s note: The following impressions of his hometown were written by Pejsach Kaplan, a prominent Bialystoker writer and social activist.)
Bialystok! My feelings toward it are not motivated by patriotism alone, which warms the heart of every proud person when he thinks and talks about his birthplace. Bialystok was unique, its specialness lying in the boundless, untiring energies of its populace. Surely the appearance of the town reflected this immense vitality.
For example, all of the newer three-story buildings on the main streets, erected within a fifteen-year period at the end of the 19th century, were not built in response to a sudden increase in population but resulted from a compulsive drive for expansion. Often construction took place without sufficient finances or the necessary assessment of how these new units would be utilized. People simply assumed the banks would supply the cash and tenants would automatically move in. These fresh “skyscrapers” reflected the indefatigable energy of Bialystoker Jews.
In and around the town stood tall, round factory chimneys, belching forth industrial smoke. Whether these plants multiplied because the earlier German authorities would not permit Jews to live in Bialystok without jobs or whether the later Russian occupation wanted Bialystok’s industry to outproduce the mills in Polish Lodz, Jewish initiative developed the commercial network in Bialystok to an enormous degree, paving the way for similar industrialization deep inside Russia and even as far as China.
Also Bialystoker Jews’ approach to life was more inspired than in other places. The pursuit of life and happiness, of achievement and humanitarian causes was much more extensive than elsewhere. Truly the Bialystoker Jew’s creative drive, which percolated in his blood, did not let him rest. He was impelled toward action, oftentimes above and beyond his stamina.
Almost all of Bialystok’s social institutions emerged from this limitless urge to create. Organizations multiplied, housed in large buildings, many of which were decorated, fitted with all kinds of equipment, and well maintained. Their continued existence frequently depended on the expenditure of blood, sweat and tears, each corner of those scores of buildings paying tribute to the massive energy of their architects and administrators.
Even amidst poverty Bialystok was a princess among other towns. In its decline Bialystok still shone through the beauty and the love of life of its youth.
A number of individuals, profoundly energized by the ambitious environment in which they lived, have attained great heights of achievement, and are now serving in various countries as beacons of light reflecting Bialystoker ingenuity. To be sure, every town has produced its great people, but which can claim such a singular native son as Dr. Josef Chazanowicz, for example, who despite his poverty laid the cornerstone of a Jewish national library in Israel, rousing and electrifying world Jewry with his almost superhuman verve?
Another illustrious scion of Bialystok was Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof. This man, who with his prophetic vision observed nations and states, was concerned about the future of mankind, and invented for all people one language, Esperanto. Its revolutionary force broke through all barriers, recruiting converts from the courts of kings as well as the shacks of menial laborers.
And what of the Zionist movement? Its breeding ground in Eastern Europe was for a long time located in Bialystok, in the home of Rabbi Szmuel Mohilewer. With his characteristic boldness, he made contact with the Jewish magnate, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, winning him over to the great Zionist ideal, and creating a place for thousands of pioneers to work in the land of Jewish hope and aspiration.
When the first clandestine stirrings of the Russian Revolution convulsed the world, it was on the anvil of Bialystok that the formidable power was forged to smash the massive Czarist empire into dust. Bialystok paid for this privilege with 130 Jewish lives lost during two pogroms. In the annals of the freedom movement the name of Bialystok will be forever engraved in golden letters.
I do not wish to deliver a requiem to Bialystok’s greatness. It is altogether possible that also in a negative sense — in terms of crime or crooked business dealings — Bialystok distinguished itself, thanks to its capacity for surpassing the average. But there can be no doubt that it possessed a certain exceptional quality vis-à-vis other cities in Poland. Every Bialystoker Jew has felt this uniqueness as has anyone else who has ever had any contact with our town.
I would dare say that even foreign lands were aware of Bialystok’s singularity. In New York, for example, there are several hundred organized Jewish landsmanschaften, but not one of them is as sophisticated and as versatile as the Bialystoker Center. The same is true of our landsmanschaft in Chicago. All over the world, in fact, wherever a few Bialystoker Jews gather, regardless of their number, they immediately organize themselves into a colony, in touch with other Bialystoker communities and with their birthplace.
Bialystok’s strength rests not only in its extraordinary features but in its normal characteristics as well. The fifty thousand living there are doing reasonably well financially and also spiritually, like other Jews in Poland.
Still, Bialystok was the first, at the end of the German occupation after World War I, to abolish its autocratic community leadership, replacing it with an exemplary democratic system that will go down in history.
The Hebraist movement in Bialystok was only a part of the diffuse cultural advance in all of Poland. But when Bialystok established its Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), it was the rank and file Jews, not the radical Hebraists, who erected it. The tall, sturdy building evoked the admiration of the local community as well as of visitors from near and far, especially since it could accommodate seven hundred students.
The Yiddish influence in Bialystok was also only a part of the Yiddish movement in all of Poland and in the entire world. But with the exception of Wilno, no other Jewish town besides Bialystok was able to fashion such an intricate Yiddish school network, let alone a high school, despite difficult circumstances.
The orphan problem became one of the most critical social issues in Bialystok after World War I. Surely no other city had someone like Mrs. Rabinowicz, who, when the situation became next to hopeless, was the only leader in all of Poland who went to America to obtain the necessary assistance for these unfortunate children.
It is possible to mention hundreds of other examples of community and private initiatives in Bialystok, which clearly depict its special atmosphere of effervescing creativity — a contagion transmitted from one to another — compelling everyone to outdo his neighbor. Such is the breeding ground for important accomplishments.
THE “BUND” IN BIALYSTOK
The “Bund” in Poland consisted of several hundred organizations. There was virtually no Jewish community in Poland without a Bundist representation. Each group had the same program, purpose and ideal. The Bund’s discipline was legendary.
Nevertheless, the larger Bundist organizations were individualistic. This was especially true of the Bundist town collectives. Each collective had not only its own approach but its own color, smell and appearance as well.
The Bund in Bialystok had existed for a long time, deeply rooted in the Jewish population. It possessed a glorious history. Once upon a time, when Poland still belonged to the Czarist empire of Nicholas II, Bialystok was the headquarters of the central committee of the then outlawed Bund. The first mass arrest of Bundists took place there, carried out by the Czarist Ochrana. Also in Bialystok the first mass strikes of Jewish weavers broke out, led by the Bund.
Behind the city was a forest that was the traditional place for unauthorized meetings of the Bund, not only throughout the Russian occupation but also later during the years of the first German administration. In the beerhalls of Bialystok, where Russian weavers, tanners and porters used to go for a drink or to eat goose meat after a hard day’s work, they would tell each other stories about the Bundist representatives, their strengths and weaknesses, their heroism or their oratorical ability. During work breaks in the factories, political discussions among the Bundists and their opponents — anarchists, socialists, Labor Zionists —took place. The proud Jewish white-collar worker, a second- or third-generation Bialystoker whose grandfather and great-grandfather were weavers, held these Bund adversaries in low esteem. He usually ridiculed them in a good-natured Bialystoker style. It was well known in the city: A worker is a Bundist; a middle-class young man is a socialist or a Labor Zionist.
* * *
Through the years of German occupation, from 1915 to 1918, and during the later period of the Polish-Russian War when Bialystok passed from one national jurisdiction to another, ultimately becoming a part of Poland, its outward appearance changed little. The life of the people generally and the Jews in particular, however, did undergo significant shifts. The Bund in Bialystok also went through a radical transformation.
Large textile industries in Bialystok lost their distant Russian markets. As a result, the Bialystok manufacturers began seeking new outlets for their wares. In the meantime, chronic unemployment developed among Bialystoker weavers and other workers in the large factories. The crisis in the textile industry made a major impact upon the economic life of the city.
At the time the Russian-Polish War of 1920-21 was about to end, the first emissaries of the central committee of the Polish Bund arrived in Bialystok to reestablish contact with its former establishment. As it turned out, these representatives came upon a true disaster. The arrogance and anti-Semitism of the new Polish leaders only aggravated the situation. The city teemed with scores of Communist agents who carried out a systematic campaign against the Polish authorities. This agitation and propaganda enjoyed much success. The old Bund activists were no longer around. The Bundist youth was heavily dominated by Communist ideologies. To join the Polish Bund, to recognize the leadership of its central committee in Warsaw, was viewed by many of these young Bundists as a self-defeating act that would link them more strongly with Poland, contrary to their leftist, revolutionary orientation. Only a few Jewish workers of the old Bundist school remained dedicated to their democratic convictions and were not infected by the Communist fever.
To this small group fell the task of building a new Bundist movement from scratch. This very difficult reconstruction effort in a Polish Bialystok was routinely thwarted by the Communists, who stopped at nothing — character assassination and other shameful tactics —in order to undermine the Bund in the eyes of the Bialystoker Jewish proletariat. Nonetheless, the Bundist loyalists assumed their heavy burden, knowing in advance they were risking not only denigration by the Jewish Communists but also endangering their very lives.
The full resources of the government were, after all, at the disposal of the Communists in their campaign against the Bund. But the Bundist stalwarts were not intimidated, each one carrying out his specific mission for the Bund. During the quarter century between the two World Wars, the most favorable conditions for the growth of Jewish Communism prevailed in Bialystok, at the expense of the Polish Bund.
BUND COMMITTEE IN BIALYSTOK IN 1906
Right to left: Albert Lurie, Ana and Pawel Rozental (Anman) and Taras.
Despite these disadvantageous circumstances, the Bund did succeed in rebuilding a strong organization in Bialystok that won a majority of Jewish working-class votes during municipal and community elections. Through a broad network of schools and cultural institutions that gained prominence throughout Poland and with a Bund majority in the trade unions, the conclusion that the natural, historical party of the Jewish working class was and remained the Bund became inescapable.
* * *
Bialystok was not just another Jewish city. Bialystoker Jews were true Yiddishists. The Bund in Bialystok prided itself on its multifaceted Yiddish cultural and educational work. The four large day schools that it operated, educating many hundreds of students, were all in the heavily Jewish-populated workers’ neighborhoods.
It was truly a remarkable group of Bundists who carried on the Yiddish school movement in Bialystok. In addition to the external threats — constant edicts from the government and the municipal bureaucrats, a chronic shortage of funds, rendering the Bundist schools liable to eviction because the rent could not be paid — there were internal problems within the Bund as well. Often the teachers would attack the administration, because they went many months without receiving their meager wages. Patience wore thin.
It should not be forgotten that the Jewish Communists did everything possible to inflame the teachers and the technical personnel in Bialystok even further, in order to leave the unmistakable impression that the school board was a band of bloodsuckers, indifferent to the fate of teachers and support personnel.
One really had to possess an inexhaustable enthusiasm, a profound belief in the creative powers of the Jewish masses and true Bundist dedication, in order to operate the Bundist school movement in Bialystok under such conditions.
A word about the Sholem Aleichem Library in Bialystok. It was celebrated throughout Poland as the largest Jewish library, containing the most Yiddish books. There was virtually no Yiddish publication that could not be found in this library.
This veritable treasury was collected over a period of years. The founder of the library, who gave it all his free time and full commitment, was the Bundist Izchok Rywkin. All of Bialystok knew that he was not just the library’s administrator but its heart and soul as well. His life was devoted to Yiddish books and rare manuscripts. Always striving to enlarge the collection of the Sholem Aleichem Library, he often traveled to Warsaw to buy new books for his beloved child, the library. He frequently confronted people with his inability to understand how they could occupy themselves with other matters besides the library. Later he was exterminated by the Nazis.
* * *
The small group of Bundist loyalists in Bialystok wrested the Jewish trade unions from Communist control, restoring them to the influence of Jewish Socialism under the Bund’s banner. Ultimately, the Bund regained its status as the representative of the Jewish working class both within the Bialystok City Council and its Jewish community.
The Bundist leaders spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism, and as a result the Bund in Bialystok proved itself the strongest and most influential Jewish political party. It was always a pleasure for me to work with Bundist leaders. Although they were laborers without special education, they were capable of grasping the most complicated issues. They truly had common sense and a keen intelligence, characteristic of many of their peers. Raised in the Bundist traditions, they understood how to respond with realism to circumstances of the moment combined with a long-range view of the future. They were also guided by an almost romantic love for the socialist ideal. These qualities enabled them to oppose the Communist craze successfully on the Jewish scene and assume the number .one position in Jewish communal life.
When World War II broke out in 1939, destroying the Kehilla in Bialystok, the Bund once again became the recognized leader of the Jewish working masses. Jewish trade unionists in Bialystok were heavily influenced politically by the Bund, which filled the administration of the unions with its spokesmen.
During the last May Day celebration in Bialystok in 1939, many of the unions marched together behind the Bundist leadership. Tragically, it was not then known that in the Kremlin a shameful Hitler-Stalin pact was being prepared that would in several months lead to World War II, the catastrophe that brought ruin to the thousand-year-old Jewish experience in Poland.
THE LABOR ZIONIST MOVEMENT
Like other cities and towns in Russia and Poland, Bialystok had its fair share of Labor Zionists (Poale Zion).
Young textile workers of Chasidic or Mitnagdic backgrounds, virtually all of them raised in the cheder where they received a Jewish nationalistic education, and whose fathers were more or less connected with the Poale Zion (literally, Workers of Zion), formed clubs that worked on behalf of the Jewish National Fund. They also distributed Jewish New Year cards within the city before Rosh Hashanah and generally helped the movement for Jewish self-emancipation. This group was the avant garde of Labor Zionists everywhere, particularly in Bialystok.
The Bundists, who several years earlier were successful in organizing the Jewish working masses in Bialystok, generally looked down on the Labor Zionist movement. To be sure, we suffered no small anguish from their attitude, considering it terribly insulting. We exerted every effort to attract many more members with sincerity and ingenuity to the Poale Zion.
The Labor Zionists were motivated by Jewish nationalistic resentment against the political and economic oppressors — the ruling Czarist regime, which propagated anti-Semitism and hooliganism — and sensitivity to the interests of workers and factory owners. In order to function effectively, we recognized early on the need to coordinate our efforts and to unite into a workable organization.
How to achieve this solidarity was disputed among the leading Jewish intelligentsia within the Labor Zionist movement between 1901 and 1906. Many points of view were offered, each neighborhood arguing for its approach, each town championing its own program.
Many heated debates arose among the best of friends over how to resolve the issue of a Jewish homeland, the problems of the working class, and how to mount the revolutionary effort in bringing down the oppressive Czarist government. Not only were there intramural conflicts among various Labor Zionist groups, but, in addition, there was a severe schism separating the Labor Zionists, the Bund and the anarchists. These rifts took place in Bialystok and reflected the difficulties afflicting all of Eastern European Jewry.
Ultimately, the problem of adapting revolutionary socialism to Zionism was solved, and in Bialystok the first proclamation was issued in January 1905 recognizing the local Labor Zionist organization. With this official status granted by the Labor Zionists in Russia, our Bialystok party began to feel on a par with the Bund, that we were truly active revolutionaries and Zionists seeking to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The Labor Zionists in Bialystok began an intensive propaganda campaign among the Jewish youth. Public assemblies in various batei midrashim were conducted; the leader of the Bialystok party, Jankl Janowski, a fine speaker with a sharp mind, led these meetings. The party also gathered smaller groups of young Jewish boys and girls, teaching them history, political economy, current events, Zionism, discussing the question of labor strikes, etc. Conducting these lectures were: Lipa Sukenik, Josef Antokolski, Chajkel Oldak, Maks Chmelnik, Dowid Klementynowski, Ana Alperin, Chaszke Fajnsod and Awrom Liberman.
We had a particularly great influence on the workers and the better educated, mediating disputes between management and labor, purchasing and distributing arms for Jewish self-defense, and circulating literature explaining the revolutionary goals of the Labor Zionists.
Among the active young members of the Labor Zionist Party I still recall are: Zelda Kagan, Michle Fridman and her brother, Herszl; Becalel Maranc, Noske Pam, and Jekusiel Dziwak, Awrom Kagan, and Lejbel Liberman.
FIRST REGIONAL COMMITTEE OF THR POALE ZION IN 1906
Right to Left: Dowid Klementynowski, Ch. Oldak, Josef Antokolski, Janet Janowski, Fajwel the Weaver (Szrajbman).
Although the party was smaller in numbers than the Bund, it managed to develop a popular program of activities. The Labor Zionists participated in the May Day demonstrations and in the worker outings in the forest, where in October 1904 the first serious clash took place with the police. As our members marched together to jail, Bialystoker workers stormed the tower to free political prisoners. Many Jewish laborers were killed or wounded by police gunfire. The Labor Zionists conducted their own political activities, making daring attacks on postal wagons in the smaller towns around Bialystok for the purpose of expropriating Czarist blood money with which to enhance party activities.
After the organizing convention of the International Labor Zionist Party in 1906, a Russian periodical, Jewish Workers Chronicle, began publication. It was always a delight, particularly in Bialystok, to receive this magazine. It provided the theories and principles upon which the party was founded and helped the organizers influence the masses. Only the more educated appreciated this journal, because it was more technical than popular. The leaders translated it from Russian into Yiddish and made it easier to understand. The Jewish Workers Chronicle was read not only by Labor Zionists but also by Bundists. This growing prominence made our party in Bialystok more accepted. Our organizational activities, as a result, were strengthened.
In April 1906, a regional conference of Labor Zionists was held in Bialystok at which Grodno, Brisk, Grajewo, Wolkowisk, Horodok and other communities were represented. A regional committee was appointed including: Jankl Janowski, Josef Antokolski, Chajkel Oldak, Fajwel Weber and me.
Important leaders of the Jewish community began to realize that Zionism had to become a people’s movement and that the Zionist Congress should assume the role of a Jewish parliament, where workers could participate.
The Czarist police kept the members of the Labor Zionist Party continually under surveillance. Safe houses had to be found where activities could be carried on without arrests and reprisals. As the party became more prestigious, sympathizers grew increasingly willing to risk providing its members with these havens.
The bloody pogrom in Bialystok of June 1-3, 1906 virtually destroyed the regional committee of the Labor Zionist Party. For a time it was necessary to focus our efforts on self-defense and helping the wounded.
In 1908 the Labor Zionist Party faded in Bialystok, as did the entire socialist movement in Russia. Later on, however, it enjoyed a short-lived resurgence until the period between the two World Wars, when the Bialystok Labor Zionists once again carried out important activities.
Some of the Well-Known Jewish Physicians in Bialystok
Dr. Joseph Rubenstein: Gynecologist since 1897. Very active in many organizations; chairman of "Linas Hatzedek" and of a unit of TOZ (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności – the Jewish National Health Organization in Poland between the two World Wars).
Dr. Leon Pines: Famous eye specialist whose clinic in Bialystok was known throughout Poland and in foreign lands.
Dr. Moses Zyman: Executive Director, Jewish Hospital; practiced in Bialystok for 40 years.
THE HABIMAH NATIONAL THEATER
My memory conjures up the following picture: It was a hot, beautiful day in Bialystok. I, a student of the institute in St. Petersburg, had returned here on vacation to see my mother, brothers, sisters and friends. Although still quite young, I had already written the play Shma Yisroel. I was ambling down the lovely Lipowa Street when a young man with cunning eyes and a pointed black moustache stopped me. I didn’t know him, never having seen him before, but apparently he knew me:
“Allow me to translate your play into Hebrew,” he said to me.
I looked at him incredulously, but inwardly I was quite pleased.
“With pleasure,” I answered. “Who are you?”
“Nochum Cemach,” the young man replied. “And what do you wish in exchange for your granting permission? What will it cost?”
“Into Hebrew, nothing,” I answered, a trifle embarrassed.
He squeezed my hand and disappeared. Cemach subsequently organized a dramatic troupe and staged my play. But the Czarist government interfered and he was unable to be very successful.
Several year later we met again in Vienna, at the time of the Zionist Congress meeting. One of my plays was included in his repertoire; he had evidently studied it quite well and cleverly produced it. Still it did not yet meet the standards of Habimah, Cemach’s Hebrew-language theater company. This was just the beginning, the first step.
I did not have the pleasure of seeing the Habimah players perform in their full glory until Cemach and his troupe arrived in New York. In America it soon became apparent why the Habimah Company, so well put together by Cemach, disbanded amidst failure because of internal frictions. Either he quit or he was fired.
“I should never have come to America,” he told me again and again. Immediately he made new plans, which were never carried out.
“I wish to create a new revue,” he explained to me, “whose title will be ‘The Queen of Sheba’ and whose theme should be appropriate to the title. It will feature singing, dancing and several short one-act sketches. Could you write a few of these skits? Try, I beg of you.”
Was it possible to refuse Cemach anything? I did compose a few one-act sketches, then read them for him and his players. Nothing came of these efforts. “The Queen of Sheba” remained a dream. Very few people knew that Cemach even carried such an idea in his head.
Instead of “The Queen of Sheba” Cemach became involved in American drama. After all, one must make a living. He went to California, and worked for the English theater and in films. At that time I was in Germany. When I returned to America we met again.
“You must go to Israel,” he told me in a tone sounding more like an order than a bit of friendly advice. “There you will write a real play for us.” Probably he told this to other playwrights as well, because Habimah needed new material.
Later on, Habimah captured the attention of the world like a flaming torch. Everywhere, in every world capital, his plays provoked raves. It was a long time since the theatrical community had been so stirred. Russians, Germans, French, British, Americans —Christians and Jews alike — sang the same songs of praise for Cemach and his troupe, and, if I am not mistaken, Christians in greater numbers than Jews.
Only a small portion of Habimah’s fans understood Hebrew. Nevertheless, they grasped the beautiful message Cemach and his actors communicated through speech, song and dance. The fact that the language was unfamiliar — a “dead” tongue, as it was known then —did not disturb anyone. On the contrary, perhaps it helped. The lovely ancient sounds were fresh to the ear. The “dead” language enlivened audiences and was more dynamic than many of the modern and popular languages. The message of Habimah and The Dybbuk suddenly became world acclaimed, comprehended by everyone — a sort of Esperanto, a means of uniting people and nations, art and spirit.
Generations will come and go and people will wonder how all this could happen. How did Habimah start, only to conquer the world? The name of Cemach will never be forgotten. People will say: “During an earlier era before the black, gruesome, Fascist hand descended upon the Jews, Habimah was created in Bialystok. The presentations of Anski’s Dybbuk were shown. They portrayed to the world, both in Europe and in America, the cultural beauty which the Jewish people, so unjustly oppressed, possesses.
But Cemach’s later life was difficult. People did forget him and he died disappointed and lonely on September 8, 1939 at the age of 52.
THE FIRST JEWISH ART EXHIBITION
In 1919, soon after the end of World War I, the first Jewish Art Exposition took place in Bialystok. Poland was then independent, and the Jewish population, particularly the young, was gripped by nationalistic fervor. Various art clubs were founded, and a number of talented artists and singers emerged. Jewish life was filled with optimism and hope.
A culture league was formed in Bialystok, consisting of representatives of the labor parties as well as Yiddishists. Its purpose was to popularize Jewish culture in all forms within Bialystok. Thus arose the idea of mounting the first art exhibition. To be sure, such a plan was daring, since Bialystok was primarily a city known for its textile manufacturing, commerce and industry. Young people in those days either wished to establish their own factories or businesses, or alternatively were preoccupied with fighting for social justice.
Consequently, the atmosphere in Bialystok was not conducive to artists and dreamers. Painters, poets and writers had found no welcome there, needing to travel instead to St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Wilno and other more inviting places. Bialystok did have one painter, Rozenecki, who used to take walks in the streets dressed in a uniform and wearing long hair. He did not earn a living from his painting and gave art lectures in schools for an income. Rozenecki taught and encouraged the famous Bialystoker painter, Benn (Ben-Zion Rabinowicz), who now lives in Paris and whose artistic works are quite popular.
The Bialystok Culture League turned to the artists in Warsaw and Lodz to assist them in setting up an art exhibition. Responding to this request enthusiastically, the outside artists decided to lend to the Bialystok exhibition many of their works.
The very center of Bialystok was selected as the most appropriate location for the show. The famous artists from other towns brought with them numerous boxes filled with works of art. These paintings were unpacked with great joy and were carefully hung on the walls of the exhibition hall. Several of the organizers of the exhibition felt it should not only be aesthetically successful but should generate revenues that would be paid to the artists, encouraging them to continue their creative work.
The display officially opened September 20, 1918, and continued for ten days. Many hundreds of visitors, from all strata of the Jewish population in Bialystok, came to see the art exhibits. Among the viewers were entire Jewish schools led by their teachers. In addition, professional groups and organizations attended. Even guests from surrounding towns came to participate in this joyous celebration of art.
Many of the paintings dealt with specifically Jewish themes, such as women blessing the Sabbath candles, people going to synagogue, dancing at weddings, how they appeared during the week and how they dressed for the Sabbath — the gamut of Jewish life. But totally absent were paintings of landscapes, the sea or nature in general. This was understandable because these painters were children of Eastern European Jews, to many of whom these subjects were entirely alien. The world in which they lived and with which they were most familiar was the Jewish community in Poland’s towns and cities.
Although the art exhibition enjoyed great success, it could hardly have been considered a financial coup. The wealthy Jews in Bialystok saw fit to purchase only twenty-four paintings at this show. As much as the exhibition excited and enlivened the community, it was evident from this poor financial showing that art remained on the periphery of Bialystoker Jewish interests.
Isaac Goldberg and his wife Deborah-Gitel the baker, some
90 years ago in Bialystok
TORAH INSTITUTIONS AND LEADERS
Bialystok was well known as one of the centers of Torah learning. Saturated with batei midrashim, there was virtually no street without a synagogue. All kinds of Chasidic and Mitnagdic sects were represented. Many worshippers spent their free time studying Torah, Talmud, Midrashic literature and Jewish ethical lore. Those more learned immersed themselves in advanced texts; others reviewed the elementary religious sources. It was commonplace to see Jews sitting around a table, their eyes riveted on their gemorahs, raptly listening to the rabbi explaining the subject matter.
Many of these synagogues and batei midrashim were virtual libraries housing the full range of Jewish halachic and ethical literature. Wall-to-wall bookcases contained nicely bound volumes of Mishnayos, Maimonides, Zohar, rabbinic commentaries, Aggadic literature, and the like. Jews prayed regularly three times a day in their respective synagogues. Also, study groups at night called mishmarim convened to fulfill the precept, “Thou shalt meditate upon it day and night.” Participants in these late-night sessions were kept awake with two servings of tea and sugar, and three cigarettes for smokers.
When the study of a Talmudic tractate was completed, the students joined in a celebration. Well-known rabbis from nearby towns came especially to participate, deeply impressed with the brilliance of the students. Not only were these occasions spiritually rewarding but they also provided an opportunity for gastronomic delights.
A bet midrash founded by Meir Fisz, a wealthy moneylender, attracted the following scholars: the Chasidic Kobriner rebbe, Rabbi Nochumke, and his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Meir Szczedrowicki.
Bialystok prided itself on its talmud torah and yeshiva. Several of the rabbinic instructors came to Bialystok from other cities, as did many of its pupils because of the celebrated hospitality and graciousness of its Jewish community. Most of the students were poor, unable to pay tuition. This did not prevent them from being accepted at the yeshiva if they qualified on the basis of knowledge and personal piety.
The talmud torah, or elementary religious school, consisted of twelve classes. The yeshiva had four grades. Each section contained twenty to thirty students. The lower talmud torah classes offered the pupils basic Jewish knowledge, like the aleph bais and Bible with Rashi (Biblical commentary). In the eleventh and twelfth grades, the students began studying gemorah. The advanced talmud torah classes prepared many to enter the yeshiva.
Because of Bialystok’s generosity in accepting youngsters from other communities, it became a popular place for studying the Torah. This was a measure of the Jewish community’s humanitarianism. Children returned to their parents’ homes in other towns during vacations twice a year, before Passover and before the High Holidays.
Two students engaged in the study of the Talmud.
Not every student was qualified, however, to pursue advanced yeshiva studies. For those who passed through talmud torah and did not show special interest or talent, the best course was trade apprenticeship. Thus, pupils were treated as individuals, and religious education was tailored to meet the needs of each child.
I remember Szyele (Jehoszua) Rapoport, who was in my class at the yeshiva and who became a prominent essayist and critic. He was more interested in secular subjects than gemorah. Our rabbi had more trouble from him than from any other student. This was especially irksome in light of his fine background: Rabbi Mojsze Rapoport on his father’s side and the famed Torah authority, Rabbi Jojnoson, on his mother’s. With such a mind, how could it be that Szyele was not at the head of the class?
Following World War I, when the Polish government ruled Bialystok, the yeshiva grew into a large educational institution. The Polish authorities did require that secular studies, particularly the Polish language, be taught in order to round out the education of the yeshiva students.
Among the prominent rabbis and religious leaders in Bialystok, Rabbi Meir Rapoport, known as the Bialystoker magid, gained prominence not only there but elsewhere. He was revered for his masterful sermons, which he delivered in a sing-song style, offering a treasure of anecdotes, parables, humor and spiritual insight. Rabbi Rapoport died at the Bialystoker Home in New York in 1963.
When the Nazis overran Bialystok, all its glorious Torah institutions were destroyed and most of its august rabbis were killed. Succeeding generations of assimilated Jews bear the burden of this loss.
THE ATHLETES AND HEROES
During the reign of Czar Nicholas II, most Bialystoker Jews were indifferent to sports, which were frowned upon. They considered athletics an arena for gentiles.
Nevertheless, there were Jewish youngsters who did poorly in their religious studies but well in sports. Bialystok was destined to have Jewish athletes in its ranks.
One young man, H. Osynski, was considered a latter-day Samson. For him lifting weights of fifty pounds was like picking up a piece of balsa wood. His dream was to spar with other husky men in town and eventually with professional athletes. Osynski organized a group of energetic boys to study the art of boxing. He taught them how professional boxers fight, which parts of the body may be struck and which ought not to be touched.
Osynski himself would often participate in public bouts with professional athletes and succeeded, from time to time, in flooring a celebrated champion. He was on friendly terms with many international boxing stars, some of whom considered him an intimate. It may be said that he was the pioneer of Jewish athletes in Bialystok.
Another young man with a reputation as a sportsman was Motel Ostrynski. Also able to lift heavy weights, when Motel squeezed someone’s hand, the latter invariably grimaced in pain. But his primary specialty was firefighting. He was an important member of the voluntary fire department in Bialystok.
During outbreaks of fire, he would gravitate to the most dangerous places, demonstrating great heroism in saving people and containing the fire. In those days fire equipment was rare and in poor condition. It was often necessary for the firemen to climb walls without a ladder. Motel Ostrynski was the right man for these challenges.
Ostrynski, like Osynski, had a weakness for sports. Whenever a group of champion boxers came to town and the director invited a member of the audience to go a few rounds with a boxer, Ostrynski was the first to accept the challenge.
In the early 1920’s, he left Bialystok for the United States but returned from time to time for vacation. In 1923, Bialystok was drenched by incessant rains for several days. The Biala River overflowed its banks, flooding a large portion of the town. A group of good samaritans saved people from drowning in the floodwaters and preserved property. Motel Ostrynski was adept not only at putting out fires but was courageous during a flood as well. He built a rowboat from a few pieces of lumber and headed for the most hazardous places to bring relief. If not for his great efforts, together with others, that flood would have ended in mass tragedy for Bialystok.
Perhaps not as well known or as conspicuous among the heroes of Bialystok were the porters, the wagon drivers and the coach drivers. In the late 19th century, under Czarist rule, Jewish porters worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, lifting and delivering back-breaking loads to their destinations. Under both the Russian and German administrations, they were paid starvation wages.
After World War I, the porters and drivers organized into a union of transport workers. Their lot significantly improved, and a strict division of labor among these three job categories was thereafter observed.
The Bund and other revolutionary movements attempted to indoctrinate these exploited workers with socialist propaganda. Many were receptive to the constant agitation against the “exploiters of the proletariat” and the need to struggle against the bourgeoisie.
As we have seen, Bialystok had its intellectuals, thinkers and scholars. But it was also well endowed with athletes and laborers whose work required brawn. Although knowledge was more respected than strength, the athlete did command a grudging admiration.
The Bialystoker "Samson," who went to Israel in the 30's.
Y. H. KANCYPOLSKI
THE GROWTH OF THE SILK INDUSTRY
While Bialystok was not a very large city, it remained a vibrant and creative international trade center. It not only manufactured textiles and silks but also processed leather, iron and other commodities.
The silk industry in Bialystok came into existence about 150 years ago. The German government, having wrested control of Bialystok from Russia about thirty years before that, sent hundreds of people from its overpopulated country to settle in Bialystok, among them many weavers and artisans. Under the Germans the silk industry gradually developed in Bialystok. The Jews, besting their German teachers, made it the largest industrial center in the northwestern region of Russia.
From 1840-1880, Jewish manufacturing was primitive; weaving looms were operated by hand. Consequently, the manufacturers, lacking technical knowledge, did not stay in business for long. Later, new entrepreneurs like Aron Suraski, Tewja Slonimski, Eliezer Abramowski, Binjomin Amdurski, and Judl Kronenberg had more success; their factories existed for a long time.
Although they had to face competiton from the German manufacturers, Jewish industrialists, spurred on by their legendary drive and ambition, distributed their wares in the remote Russian markets through traveling salesmen. In 1880 the Jewish contribution to manufacturing in Bialystok was already discernible.
Before 1880, circumstances in the Jewish factories were abysmal. No longer able to tolerate the injustice and extreme poverty, Jewish workers in Aron Suraski’s factory organized a wildcat strike that gradually brought about improved working conditions. In the 1880’s, handwork was largely replaced by steam-powered machines, which were monopolized by the German, Polish and Russian citizens of Bialystok. The Jews still were limited to manual labor but did make advances in silk production.
During the war between Russia and Turkey, business picked up; products were sold at much higher prices. But often factories did close down because of plummeting demand. Workers were laid off and the eight thousand textile employees in Bialystok fell on hard times. Unions did not exist. The government gave no support and workers had no savings. People literally suffered from starvation. Bankruptcies increased and once-successful business people jumped from their windows.
A particularly difficult crisis took place in Bialystok in 1899. Throughout Russia poverty prevailed and the average person couldn’t buy clothes. Many of the merchants who bought commodities on credit were unable to sell their merchandise because there were no buyers. Factories had to close.
In 1900, conditions improved. New manufacturers moved in, replacing the unsuccessful ones. The PoreckiGawenski firm introduced new textiles for producing suits, woolen covers, etc. The town expanded, mechanized its means of production, and inundated Russia with its products. Realizing it could not compete with their counterparts in other cities, Bialystok manufactured wares from inferior materials, selling them at lower prices. Naturally, these poor-quality products soon wore out and had to be replaced in a short period of time, which spurred demand.
In 1907, the silk industry in Bialystok flourished with the mass mechanization of the factories. Jewish manufacturers, motivated by nationalistic ideals, hired Jewish workers to operate the machines, but were thwarted by gentile employees who claimed they had been involved with these machines long before. This provoked many altercations between Jews and Poles. But the matter was settled by a rule mandating that half the operators of the machines were to be Jews and the other half non-Jews.
The silk industry became even more sophisticated with the advent of electrification in Bialystok, beginning in 1909. Continuing until 1914, electric-powered machines increased productivity threefold. This cheap energy and easy credit enabled many people to purchase and operate powered silk looms.
With the outbreak of World War I, the silk producers grew rich from the heavy demand generated by the Russian government. When the German army neared Poland, the Jewish manufacturers transferred their products to the Russian interior: Jeruchem Bril to Klynci, Porecki-Gawenski to the Kiev area, Triling to Moscow. But when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czarist regime, they confiscated many of the goods manufactured by Bialystok’s industries. When the Jewish industrialists returned to Bialystok under Polish rule, they found the factories dilapidated and neglected.
Under the Polish regime, Bialystok’s industries fared poorly. Later on, the factories formed commercial associations that solicited orders from the government, negotiated with labor unions during strikes and purchased raw materials from abroad. Among these were the large factories: Nowick, Porecki-Gawenski, Triling, Szmuel Cytrin and Izaak Pines. The medium-sized companies organized a second association. They included Sokol and Zylberfenig, Iser Szapira, Chana Marajn, Amiel Kulikowski, Icze Meir Sokol and Son, and others. Sometimes individual factories would compete with each other for orders, and graft was not unknown in obtaining a contract.
Bialystok did try to export its goods to remote lands like China, India and England, but these ventures proved unsuccessful. Factories and manufacturers began to leave Bialystok. Some went to Rumania, like the Porecki brothers; others moved to Israel, Yugoslavia, and Argentina. The Nowicks gradually sold most of their factories, but retained their millinery division. Porecki-Gawenski did the same, holding on to a small concern in Waszlykowa. Others went to Australia and other countries. Those who remained found themselves totally impoverished until the outbreak of World War II.
THE JEWISH SPORTS MOVEMENT
In 1918, a Maccabee sports group was formed in Bialystok, headquartered at the Linas Hatzedek. No official approval for this club was granted by the Polish authorities. Shortly afterwards, a second group, the “Record,” was organized.
In 1920, under orders from the Polish government, these sports activities ceased. Several Bialystoker Jews made attempts to obtain the requisite permits from the Polish officials for Jewish sports clubs to function. Petitions were distributed and signed by the most prestigious Jews, only to have their signatures voided by the government. Finally, although the authorities later conceded that all petitions were correct, they refused permission on the grounds that the name “Maccabee” was improper. The Jewish community responded by changing the name to “Jewish Sports Club in Bialystok” (ISK). It still took two years for the permits to be granted.
In 1921-22, ISK rented a building, with guarantees provided by Jakow Beker, leather manufacturer, and Szymon Sokolski, of Nadreczna Street. Soon gymnastics, soccer, light sports and bicycling departments were organized. A series of public soccer games was launched — in which Dowid Plawski, Samuelke Halpern, Repelski, Dowid Gotlib, and Misza Wargaftik participated — as well as a marathon bicycle race through the streets of Bialystok, organized by Lejzer Plawskin.
Once again in 1922, the Polish regime ordered the cessation of these activities. Many secret sessions were held among the Jewish leaders to formulate strategy with a view toward making this Sports Club legal.
ISK was finally chartered in June 1923. With the help of its members, a wonderful place was secured to conduct gymnastics, light sports, soccer and tennis. Efforts were made by S. Lewin, P. Ginzburg, and Pejsach Pomeranc, with the assistance of Jakow Beker, Chairman of ISK, and Szymon Sokolski, Vice-Chairman, to attract the support of wealthy Jews, like Nowick, Triling, Janowski and others, whose financial help would expand the scope of ISK’s activities. Many Jews in Bialystok were interested in the club and became active members.
Besides the executive board, a technical advisory committee of thirty, including the Meler (construction), Plawski, Krinski (dyeing), and Frejdkin (silk) brothers, and Henach Slon, was formed. But the involvement of the wealthy industrialists, while at first profound, soon diminished to the point where they withdrew entirely from ISK’s activities. There was disagreement subsequently whether the wealthy should be excluded from further participation in light of their previous unreliability.
In 1924, following tremendous efforts, the renowned Hakoach sports group of Vienna was invited to play in Bialystok. On the early morning of their arrival, at 3:00 a.m., the entire Jewish population was on its feet, streaming to the railroad station to greet them. All the officers and members of Bialystok’s ISK Club, in uniform, marched proudly behind their flag to greet their guests with a band playing. From 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon until after the soccer game, Bialystok was empty; it was even impossible to hail a buggy.
At the urging of P. Ginzburg, the young soccer team led by Gerszon Lach became a part of ISK’s soccer section. These youngsters beat the older teams.
In 1927, because of S. Sokolski’s departure, A. Kniazew (administrator of the Jewish Hospital) was appointed ISK chairman and Henrich Zebin, director of the Manufacturers’ Association, vice-chairman. Kniazew was the best chief executive ISK ever had.
In 1928, ISK’s fifth anniversary was celebrated. A committee to plan the festivities consisted of Dr. Rejgrodski, Pejsach Kaplan, Dr. Wolf, Dr. Szacki, Mordechaj Zabludowski, Racki, Wider, and others. The party, attended by 500 members and friends, took place the day before Shavuos.
ISK expanded its activities until 1928, moving into several headquarters in different locations. Other sports were added, including chess and ping pong. The various clubs were well attended by men, women and children every evening. ISK enjoyed a fine income from its patrons. It even had its own orchestra, directed by Gerszon Lozowski (Lozow), and reading room, where Yiddish and Polish newspapers were available.
In the five years from 1928 to 1933, the Jewish Sports Club of Bialystok was at the pinnacle of its success. Every section reached the highest levels of achievement; the club was in its glory.
A group of cyclists of the Jewish Sports Club in Bialystok in 1926
The soccer stars were: Lach, Froftiker, Goldfarb, the Fuchaczewski brothers, Fridman, Gold, Faktor, Henach Jaczmenik, Bulgar and Berele Zawacki (Barney Sacks). The bicyclists included Zalman Olianski and Sasza Jutkowski (a dental technician from Krinki), who pedaled through Poland, Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Yugoslavia, Denmark and other countries in six months. The locksmith, Mejszke Chemiowicz, designed the bicycles especially for this international journey. Nachman Suchowolski headed the cyclists’ section.
ISK also offered programs of an intellectual and cultural nature. Its administration often arranged discussions, debates and musical entertainment evenings. At its various anniversary celebrations, the club awarded medals and trophies to its top athletes.
Although Bialystok had six different Jewish sports organizations, ISK was the only one not bound to a particular political party. The competition among the sports clubs was great and Bialystok was not able to subsidize all of them. In fact, their respective financial circumstances became more critical each day. Finally, ISK was forced to give up its sports arena, which was vital to the club’s future.
In 1935, both 15K and its rival, the Maccabees, found they had no other choice but to merge, a step fiercely opposed by officers of both clubs. The following officers discussed this question at secret meetings: Cale Frenkl, Maccabee chairman; Izaak Lewin, R. Racki, Izaak Rybalowski, Pynchos Ginzburg, J. Froftiker, S. Lewin, Pejsach Pomeranc and Nachman Suchowolski. Finally, the merger did go through and the new organization was called “ISK-Maccabee.” A new, unified administration was elected representing both clubs, including: Awrom Sokol, chairman, Zejdl Frid, vice-chairman, P. Ginzburg, secretary.
In 1936-37 numerous soccer and light sports games were organized in a large arena, involving teams from Bialystok and other cities in Poland. Since Bialystok had never before hosted games on such a large scale, these events were nicknamed the “Miniature Olympics.”
In 1939, when the Soviet Union occupied Bialystok, the structure of the sports club was changed to conform to the Soviet organizational style. Russian names were given to each club, and membership was assigned according to the work place. The excellent athletes in Bialystok distinguished themselves throughout the Russian occupation.
When the Nazis invaded Bialystok, many of its finest sportsmen, who earned such prestige for their hometown, perished, mostly in the Bialystok ghetto. They included: Szoul Osowicki — soccer player, ghetto resister; Orkin — light athletics; Izchok Brzezinski — boxer; Galand — soccer player, ghetto fighter. Tortured and murdered by the Gestapo after his capture for attempting to buy arms for his resistance organizations: Gerszuni — electrical engineer. Perished in July 1941 after being accused by Polish Fascists of being a Communist: Lowke Grinberg — sportsman. Died in the “Thursday” or “Saturday” massacre: Becalel Wigodski — light athletics; Izchok Lach — light athletics. Died in Great Synagogue fire: Nochum Machaj — basketball player; Mojshe Salman — secretary of Maccabee Club and sports editor of Das Neue Leben: Luba Subotnik — light athletics; Spektor — tennis player. Perished during the first liquidation: Pejsach Pomeranc — sportsman and athletics instructor; Szoul Pastrigacz — boxer. Perished in Saturday massacre: Becalel Frenkl — tennis player. Died during Thursday massacre: Sarezyk Frenkl — the above’s brother. Tennis player; Boruch Kagan — basketball player; Binjomm Kameniecki — secretary of Maccabee and Kehilla secretary; Chackel Kusznier— boxer; Andrzej Robel — light athletics; Aron Rubin — bicyclist.
THE JEWISH THEATER 1919 – 1939
Bialystok was one of a number of provincial cities where a Jewish theater troupe could, during the German occupation in World War I, rest for a couple of weeks. Nevertheless, the drama companies had difficulties. For example, in order to travel to the so-called “Eastern Territory,” one needed a special permit, which was not easily obtainable. Moreover, there was the problem of securing a theater.
The Palace was the only legitimate theater in town. Russian and Polish theater ensembles and the “German Theater for the Eastern Front” appeared there. Celebrations, assemblies and concerts also took place. Regardless of the difficulties, Jewish actors were resourceful and entertained in Bialystok for weeks at a time.
The economic situation in that period was quite onerous. The Germans took over the large factories and exploited the workers. Raw materials were scarce in the smaller factories, which often led to their shutdown. Most of the Jewish population suffered from hunger and poverty.
Nonetheless, the Jewish community in Bialystok supported cultural activities, carried on by the Jewish Arts Association, which had three sections: drama, music and literature. The music department featured a choir of seventy people whose director was Pejsach Kaplan, later the editor and theater critic of the Bialystok daily newspaper, Unzer Leben. The drama section was led by the author and teacher, Jakow Pat. Both put on programs in the Palace Theater, which attracted large audiences. A second cultural organization was also active, known as Hazamir. It distinguished itself with its large and high-quality orchestra. This creative atmosphere stimulated the growth of Jewish theater, even in those difficult times.
Under the German regime until February 1919, theatrical and comedy groups from Wilno, Warsaw and Lodz, as well as native talent from Bialystok, performed in the town. With the advent of the Polish administration in early 1919, rampant anti-Semitism, assaults and trumped-up charges against the Jews plagued the city. It was pointless to even think about developing Jewish theater. However, as soon as the political and economic situation returned to normal, play-bills advertising Jewish theater companies turned up on walls in the streets. But the Polish authorities did not allow these posters to have any Yiddish words on them until later.
In a few months, Yiddish theater was reactivated in Bialystok, the groups from Wilno and Warsaw returning to the Palace. In addition, a smaller theater, the Luxe, opened at 18 Lipowa Street, presenting actors from Warsaw and Lodz: Szlojme Kutner, character actor; Pejsachke Bursztejn, song and dance man; Ida Erwest, Krojze-Miler and a dance group. This “miniature” theater advertised grandiosely that it would follow the example of the best European miniature theaters — an exaggeration, judging by its low-quality repertoire.
Entertainers from Bialystok who appeared in programs of a light genre organized into a permanent ensemble under the name “Artistic Corner.” The performers included: Jehuda Grynhojz, Lyfszic, Herszberg, Meir Szwarc, Szolem Szwarc, Dorina and others. Unzer Leben, the Bialystok daily, commented that the Artistic Corner “has demonstrated it is strongly influenced by the serious Jewish theater companies, particularly the Wilno troupe.” The theater critic of Unzer Leben railed against vaudeville productions “that are hammered out in a day or two.” He went on to say that “the programs like Die Puste Kreczme (The Empty Tavern] and A Verworfen Winkel [A Remote Corner] put on by the Wilno and better companies have made it clear that the public longs for something finer and nicer.” Nonetheless, vaudeville did find an audience in Bialystok, as demonstrated by the fact it could stage two performances every evening.
During the 1919 winter season, two Yiddish drama troupes played at the Palace: Yiddish Artistic Drama, led by L. Sniegow, included the following artists: Sonja Elmit, Lejzer Zelaza, Leja Nojmi, Orzewska and others who starred in: Der Vater (The Father), Dei Puste Kreczme, Die Newela (The Carcass), Mirele Efros, Die Herbstfiedlen (The Fiddles of Fall) and Die Teg von Unzer Leben (Days of our Lives).
In the Mozajika Hall, a vaudeville company appeared, directed by Solomon Kustin. The following actors participated: Ryta Grej, Dzafe, Manja Szejn, Regina Bojman, M. Szwarc and Pejsachke Bursztejn. Their repertoire: Wenn Essen Weiber (When Do Women Eat?) A Mann A Szmate (My Husband the Rag), Die Barimte Komedie (Famous Comedy), Mendel Bejlis, Komedies und Farsen (Comedies and Farces).
All this Yiddish theatrical activity was a thorn in the side of the new Polish government. The authorities made obtaining permits for Yiddish theater almost impossible. Severe taxes were levied on the theater tickets, and the Polish newspapers constantly raged against the Yiddish playbills. One anti-Semitic publication in Warsaw, in a dispatch from Bialystok, spewed its venom in the following typical lines: “While Poles are fighting with self-sacrifice for their patriotic ideals, the Jewish kaisers have a good time in the theater. On their playbills, in order to meet the minimum requirements of law, there may be found a small message in Polish, while the rest is in the Yiddish jargon printed in gigantic letters.”
Bialystoker Jews paid little attention to these transparent instigations, whose sole motive was jealousy. Once again, however, Jewish Bialystok carried out a campaign for political rights, for easing the economic burden and satisfying the cultural needs of the Jewish population.
Yiddish theater announcements did not disappear from the streets of Bialystok. In fact, the popularity of the Yiddish language, resurrected through Yiddish theater, stimulated the demand that foreign films contain Yiddish subtitles.
Bialystok produced a significant number of its own actors and entertainers: Jehuda Grynhojz, Isroel Beker, actor and director of Habimah National Theater in Israel; Jakow Suzanowicz, Zalmen Kolesznikow, Renje Glikman, Ester Zewkina, Isroel Birnbojm, Szymon Osowicki, Izchok Gelczynski, Nina Sibircowa and others. In the late 1920’s a small Yiddish theater troupe named Gilah Rinah was established, funded by the Linas Hatzedek (charity institution) in Bialystok. Its founders were Wiktor Bubrik and Tepicer. Its first programs consisted of Russian comedy, translated into Yiddish by: Pejsach Kaplan, Mendl Goldman, Sztejnsapir and others. The musical director was M. Szaberman, the art director, Rozenecki. This company came to enjoy much success, specializing in original Yiddish repertoire and songs, and avoiding translations from other languages.
In the early l930’s, three leading figures in the Yiddish theater movement in Bialystok, Jehuda Grynhojz, Szeftel Zak and Hersz Flojm, organized a permanent cooperative troupe at the Palace Theater, which routinely invited guest stars. This company stayed in Bialystok for eight years, also entertaining in approximately twenty towns and villages in surrounding provinces.
Particularly during its first season, 1931-32, the company was quite successful. A committee known as “Friends of Yiddish Theater” was formed. One of the long-time members of the Bialystok Municipal Council, Binjomin Tabaczynski, after great efforts obtained several subsidies for the troupe as well as a tax reduction from the local government. This significantly improved the financial condition of the Bialystok Cooperative Theater Company.
Bialystok, being a relatively smaller city, had to depend on artists from larger communities in order to generate a diversified repertoire. For this reason, Bialystoker Jews were fortunate in having some of the best performers appear in their theater including: Ajzik Samberg, Zygmunt Turkow, Ida Kaminska, Jonas Turkow, Dyana Blumenfeld, Cyli Adler, Kurt Kacz, Dina Halperin, Sam Bronecki, Moris Lampe, Roz Szoszana, Simche Natan, Maurice Schwartz, Dowid Zajderman, Chana Lerner, S. Goldberg, Szlojme Prizament, Gizi Hajdn, Wiera Kaniewska, Pol Brajtman, Regina Cuker, Karl Cymbalist, Drzeni Lowicz, Chaim Lewin, Ben-Cion Witler, Jack Rechtzeit, Irving Jacobson, Pejsachke Bursztejn, Aleksander Gornach, Ana and Hajmi Jakubowicz, and others.
The Jewish press in Bialystok and at large warmly received the permanent ensemble, gratifying not only our city but also the towns surrounding it.
After the Soviet occupation in World War II, the state-run Yiddish theater got off to a promising start in the Palace. In June 1941, when this company traveled outside Bialystok for summer stock, its future was shortened by the brutal Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
Women of Bialystoker Jewish Aristocracy
Sarah Rybalowski: Known as "Sarah from the Railroad". She was the owner of the hotel near the station; well-known for her many charities and good deeds; dies in 1925.
Sarah Tzivya Rapoport: A beloved personality and famous for her kindness and charitable good deeds to the poor and unfortunate. She was the wife of the famous citizen and scholar, Abraham Zalman Rapoport, and the mother of the writer, I. Rapoport.
Feigele Gordon: Socialite and wife of the well-known Reb Mordechai Gordon. She was known for ther kindness and charitable deeds.
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Last updated July 14th, 2005