The Bialystoker Memorial Book - Der Bialystoker
Yizkor Buch, the Bialystoker Center, New York 1982
(c) Copyright by the Bialystoker Center
The Tragic Beginning
|Table of Contents||
|Jakow Pat||As the Borders Go Up in Flames||
|The Yahrzeit Candle||
|Awrom Zbar||The Rise and Fall of Bialystok||
|Awrom Zbar||In Trying Times||
The Suffering Commences
Bialystok under Soviet Control, A New Life for the Jews
The Jewish War Refugees
A Temporary Home for Jewish Writers and Artists; Bialystok
|Chaim Lejb Fuks||The Jews Welcome the Refugees||
AS THE BORDERS GO UP IN FLAME
(Editor’s note: The following article was written in New York on the day war broke out in Poland — September 1, 1939.)
I had wanted to write about our Bialystok and the heroism of the ordinary Bialystoker Jews in the difficult months of resistance against anti-Semitism. I had planned to tell about the Jewish workers, the weavers and tailors, the hard-working housewives.
Unfortunately, I must cancel these plans. For as I write, the borders of Poland are in flames; Hitler’s bombs fall upon Warsaw and Wilno, Katowice and Krakow, Czestochowa and Lodz.
A wild horde of barbarians has attacked Poland. Today the destroyer of the world, Adolf Hitler, proclaimed in the Reichstag: “I will spare women and children, but if they do not surrender, we will show them!” What he means is that plans for slaughter are ready. Hitler intends to unleash a bloodbath in Poland.
Across the sea the terror that has captured Poland and our beloved Bialystok has also engulfed us in America. Now, as I write these words, we stand at only the beginning of the catastrophe. It is difficult to consider the matter calmly or to write about it dispassionately. But this we must do: rationally consider our next steps and our responsibilities. Our brothers and sisters need our help, lots of it. We must broaden our assistance to them, both moral and material.
The fifty thousand Jews in Bialystok must know that the thousands of Bialystoker Jews in America join with them in fraternal solidarity.
The Jews in Bialystok must realize they are not alone; they have not been abandoned to face the cannons and bombs by themselves. On this side of the ocean those who love them feel their pain; our hearts beat to the same rhythm as theirs. That is the moral support we can offer them.
Material relief must also issue forth from individuals and organizations. If bombs and weapons of war fail to destroy our fellow Jews, let them not perish from hunger and poverty. The social institutions in Bialystok are at this moment the most potent weapons our kinsmen have to fight this war. The orphanages, synagogues and public kitchens constitute the wellspring of the people’s energy, as well as a source of comfort for the suffering.
Until now these institutions were sustained by the generosity and dedication of the Jews in Bialystok, with only modest donations from the poor masses. Assistance from abroad has unfortunately played a minor role in bringing relief to our hapless Iandsleit. In the main, they have helped themselves, but all that is now impossible. Now the Bialystokers in America will have to do their part.
Let us awaken our consciences to the demands of this difficult hour. Let us open our hearts to our heavy responsibility of saving the lives of those in Poland.
This is a tragic period, when we will be called upon to make extraordinary sacrifices. Is it not a miracle that a second Bialystok exists in America, fortified by five million Jews throughout our land, which is our insurance policy as well as a basis of hope for our people in Bialystok. Let us loudly and unmistakably proclaim: “Brothers, we are with you!”
Bialystoker landsleit in various places in America have distinguished themselves with their singular compassion for others. Now is the time to show it as never before.
As the borders of Poland burn, let us do our duty.
The sorrowful Yahrzeit candle blew out,
A flame for a full day and night
Quieting my longing and grief,
By conjuring up memories of the dead.
Next year on the same day
This candle will again be lit,
Only to flicker out in sadness
And one’s duty shall once more be done.
Every part of me burns with fever
My eyes fill with tears of pain
After me who will know when to light the Yahrzeit candle
In memory of the martyrs falling in the war?
Will anyone know at which burial ground to weep
Or to erect a monument inscribed?
Will future generations shine again?
Whose heart can stand the pain?
So I stand at the flickering Yahrzeit lamp
The wisps of smoke darkening my mood,
In my head a stream of blood
Winds its way through my song.
THE RISE AND FALL OF BIALYSTOK
The name Bialystok sounds like a symphony to me. Which other city could have produced so many outstanding people, institutions and a grass-roots movement, to expand and to excel? Names such as Chazanowicz, Zamenhof, Mohilewer, M.M. Dolicki (a son of a Bialystoker shochet who became a prominent Hebrew poet), Nochum Cemach, Dr. Lipa Sukenik (archaeologist of the Hebrew University who conducted major excavations in Israel), Ossip Dymow, Pejsach Kaplan, Dr. Szymon Dawidowicz (translator of Spinoza into Hebrew), the poet M. Segalowicz, and the opera star, Rosa Rajisa.
The downfall of the Czarist regime was enhanced by efforts of Bialystoker Jewish revolutionaries. The previously autocratic Vaad Hakahal (Jewish Community Council) was replaced by an exemplary democratic Kehilla that could have endured for many generations were it not for the Nazi Holocaust.
And in the heart of the most severely impoverished neighborhood in Bialystok a children’s home was established, which served more than five hundred Jewish children of working parents, reared to honor the working life and the struggle against injustice. These children frequently sang the song that began: “To life, where all people are brothers.”
So Bialystok lived and functioned, warmly and lovingly embracing all of its sixty thousand Jews with a generous heart, encouraging all that was dear to them.
All this, until the mighty German Luftwaffe, the so called “Iron Eagles,” began to thunder with their threats, completely blanketing the Polish skies. It did not take long for them to capture Poland’s cities, nor did they hesitate in carrying out the physical extermination of the Jews.
Cramming more than 1,500 Jewish men, women and children into the Great Synagogue in Bialystok, setting them afire while they were still alive, was the tragic beginning of a period of constant, escalating suffering. Nevertheless, in spite of these inhuman circumstances, the Jews once again proved their uncanny ability to continue living — even in the ghetto. They went about their business, published newspapers, got married, bore children and even staged theatrical performances. They never lost hope.
After all, perhaps Germany’s attempt to set the clock back to the Middle Ages with its primitive brutality may, in fact, bring about the opposite result: that after such a monstrous phenomenon the world might eventually take a giant leap forward into a new period of positive change, a breath of fresh air that will totally banish Germany’s ugly ruthlessness. Surely this hope must have motivated the Jews, for otherwise they would not have so determinedly continued building their lives in ghetto conditions. Their overwhelming hope enabled them temporarily to forget their hunger and the hardness of the wooden boards upon which they slept, despite the nightly resonances of shooting, the persistent police raids and the other horrors that afflicted them. These hungry, wretched souls, their bodies emaciated, frequently failed to smell the odor of the dead with whom they were constrained to sleep. Instead, they often indulged in sweet fantasies and denial, which enabled them to exist in the midst of hell.
But the moment finally came when the Jews could no longer transcend their pathetic surroundings. During a bitter morning they were suddenly rudely awakened from their sweet dreams, as the liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto began. Its choked voice was heard wherever our landsleit were to be found in other lands, proclaiming in blood-curdling words: “We are being liquidated, but we shall never surrender. We will fight the beasts to the end! Avenge us! Tell the world of the tortured bodies of your brothers!”
By any standard, the fight was lost before it began. How could a few Jews, surrounded by iron fences and electrified wires, stand against thousands of murderers, heartless hooligans and inhuman sadists armed to the teeth? It was in fact a hopeless fight because the odds were overwhelming. But the resistance was worthwhile and necessary.
Warsaw was not the only city in Poland that rose up against its invaders. Its brothers and sisters in Bialystok, with full blown Jewish pride, had mercilessly plunged a knife into the spine of the enemy.
IN TRYING TIMES
The terrible suffering inflicted on the Jews of Bialystok by the gruesome Nazi occupation was not unexpected, just as Jews in other parts of Poland anticipated it. While it could take time in arriving, people felt that a fearsome period for Jews was indeed approaching. Yet nobody foresaw the extent and severity of Jewish destruction as it tragically evolved. The restless mood of the Jews in Bialystok, as elsewhere, intensifed at the end of the summer of 1939. Dark storm clouds gathered on the horizon, foretelling an ominous period.
It soon became clear that these fears were totally justified. At the same time that the Polish government mobilized its army, people heard shocking news. From the radio they suddenly learned that Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia had just completed a friendship treaty. At that point no one doubted any longer that the horrible storm would soon burst with explosive impact. Jews were particularly apprehensive, for they felt that tragedy was zeroing in on them. Hitler was constantly threatening the Jews with destruction.
Friday, September 1, 1939, well before sunrise, when no one yet knew of Hitler’s unexpected invasion of Poland, Nazi airplanes were already flying over Polish cities, dropping their deadly bombs. Bialystok, which until the war was officially in East Prussia, was not immediately targeted for these bombing raids. The reason was that Hitler initially launched his blitzkrieg against the western portions of Poland. After the first two weeks of war, when the German armies penetrated various parts of Poland, Bialystok began enduring the full effect of the air raids. The locations most vulnerable were rail lines, railroad stations, and significant military and industrial targets. Understandably, many in the civilian population also fell victim to these attacks.
Massive waves of Jewish refugees arrived in Bialystok from other Polish cities. To a large extent they were motivated by a desire to cross the adjacent border into the Soviet Union. Furthermore, these refugees heard rumors that the Soviet Army planned to march on Bialystok and occupy the entire area, which would probably remain under Soviet jurisdiction according to the treaty between Berlin and Moscow — the lesser of two evils. Those first two weeks of the war found Bialystok in chaos, without any governmental control. Soon thereafter, the tragedy for the Jewish community in Bialystok commenced.
THE SUFFERING COMMENCES
On Friday, September 15, 1939, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as most of the Jews in Bialystok were praying in their synagogues, the news that a division of the Nazi Army was at the gates of the city spread like wildfire. Panic erupted as Jews fled in all directions to hide from the murderers’ onslaught. At midday, the first platoons of German soldiers appeared in Bialystok. Shortly thereafter, as the streets of the city were practically emptied of people, the Nazi soldiers scattered all over the town with their weapons. Not encountering any passersby, the Germans began firing their guns into the windows of buildings. That was the bloody beginning, a weird introduction to the calamities that would come later. The shooting left many dead and wounded. Most of the victims were Jews. At the same time the new Nazi authorities declared a state of emergency in Bialystok, imposing a curfew from 8:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. The Germans participated in and inspired a wave of robberies of Jewish homes. A number of Jewish women were shot for refusing to part with their rings. The Nazi murderers routinely beat and shot anyone resisting the robberies.
There was a rumor that the Nazis would not long remain in power in Bialystok. In fact, the German soldiers of the Wehrmacht themselves spread the word that they would soon be gone, to be replaced by the Russians. Adding to this widespread belief were official Soviet radio reports that on September 17 the Russian Army would occupy all of the areas of Poland that once belonged to the western Ukraine and western Byelorussia. Such announcements were soothing to the Jews, although no one could predict how the Soviet authorities would treat them. Everyone felt it was better to get rid of Hilter’s murderers, who displayed their brutality from the very beginning. It did not take long until the rumor became reality.
Thursday, September 21, during the day, three Soviet airplanes flew over Bialystok, dropping leaflets over the city. The people were informed that the Soviet Army would shortly take over. The next day, the eve of Yom Kippur, the Germans were seen packing their bags, heading for Warsaw. The Jews were greatly relieved, hoping that a new and better period was approaching.
At the time of the Nazi withdrawal from Bialystok, a special committee of Jews and non-Jews was formed. They made preparations to celebrate the arrival of the Russian Army. Bialystok was notified that the Soviets would be entering the city that very day. Flags and flowers were feverishly hung at the entrance of the town, so the Red Army would feel it was being properly welcomed. All this excitement was understandable, since the prior Nazi regime in Bialystok revealed how much worse the Germans were and what might develop later should they return. It soon became known that during the week Hitler’s soldiers were in Bialystok several hundred Jews were killed. Moreover, many Jews were robbed, their property confiscated. The Nazis’ short sojourn in the town would never be forgotten.
Bialystok under Soviet Control
“People in the streets greeted the Russian Army with great warmth. The professional associations and political organizations in the city filled the streets with red flags and flowers. The encounter was enthusiastic and friendly. Jewish youth, at that time already alienated from traditional Judaism, embraced the Russian soldiers, who returned their friendliness. The Russians told of their life style in the Soviet Union, emphasizing that only there could people live in freedom.”
That is how the arrival of the Red Army in Bialystok on Friday, September 22, 1939, was described by Refoel Rajzner at the beginning of his book, The Fall of Bialystok Jewry — 1939 to 1945. The book continues to portray the influence of Soviet control in Bialystok and the events that took place shortly after the Russian occupation:
“The day after the Soviets arrived, the local commandant issued an order rescinding the state of emergency that was in effect since the beginning of the war. Because of this the city was once again illuminated after three weeks of darkness. People began moving about in a normal fashion. The Jews in Bialystok were able to breathe freely. Under the Soviets, a new economic and social order was formed, totally unlike what had prevailed before. Some of these changes, however, made the lives of the inhabitants more difficult. For example, it was virtually impossible to obtain necessary commodities. As it turned out, during an unusually bitter winter, 1939-40, people were forced to get up very early in the morning to stand on line in order to obtain bread and other vital staples. Not infrequently some had to remain on line round the clock, in the bitter cold. Finally, when one would reach the door of the store, he would be bitterly disappointed to learn that everything was sold out. People would leave these stores frozen, ravenously hungry and deeply embittered because life had become so difficult.
Severe unemployment ensued under Soviet rule. People went around idle, life becoming more unmanageable from day to day. Later on, however, at the end of the winter of 1940, unemployment eased. Life gradually returned to normal and, ultimately, necessary consumer goods became more attainable. In addition, the population grew accustomed to the new way of life, reinvigorated with hope for better times to come.
But there were other difficulties as well. A profound housing shortage emerged in Bialystok caused by various factors. First, a large number of dwelling places were converted into factories. Second, thousands of Russians — Soviet officials, soldiers, commissars and many others — arrived, most of them with their wives and children, entire families occupying many houses. Third, tens of thousands of Jewish war refugees from various parts of Poland descended upon Bialystok. It was well known that most of these unfortunate men, women and children wandered on foot from place to place as they fled the Nazis.
One was fortunate to succeed in running away from the German hell and to enter areas under Soviet control. Until the war, Bialystok numbered approximately 100,000 residents. All of a sudden, in the first months of the Russian occupation, the town swelled to almost 200,000 people. The housing shortage was therefore acute.
It should not be forgotten, however, that after the Russians succeeded in “normalizing” life in Bialystok, the new authorities also carried out a “house-cleaning operation” among the local population, including many Jews. When Jewish and gentile refugees were expelled from Bialystok for refusing Soviet citizenship, thousands were arrested and banished to Siberia. The official Soviet reason for these expulsions was that those deported — “the dangerous elements” — must not be allowed to live in Bialystok, since it was too close to the border. Among the “menaces” deported to Siberia were former manufacturers and merchants, leaders of the various political parties, activists in Jewish institutions before the war, clergy of all faiths, former Polish officials and ordinary people the authorities considered “unstable.” These sweeping expulsions, particularly when they involved the deportation of the Bialystoker Jews and Jewish refugees, left a bad impression on the Jewish community. For a long time the fate of the deportees was unknown. Only months later were their letters received by their families and friends. The exiles wrote that they were dying of hunger and that they required immediate relief. Various measures were taken at once to assist them. Food packages were dispatched, bringing about an improvement in their condition.
A New Life for the Jews
In time, life in Bialystok gradually returned to normal. All factories in the city operated at full capacity, and even some new businesses were created. Naturally, everything in the town belonged to and was under the supervision of the Soviet authorities. State-operated stores multiplied from day to day and scarce commodities became more plentiful. Jews in Bialystok were hired for various jobs; others in time were transferred to other occupations and agencies.
The Jewish social organizations were also revamped. The aged and infirm Jews, previously housed in the incurable home, received better treatment. In fact, for a while, these unfortunates even ate kosher food. Later, on, however, the elderly residents were relocated to a more pleasant facility in Suprasle, where they were placed with non-Jewish residents. Most of the Jewish elderly were not happy with the new living arrangements, for they knew that in addition to the unfamiliar environment, they would be forced to eat non-kosher food. Those who were observant Jews did leave the new facility, having no alternative but to live with relatives or friends.
Changes also took place in the Jewish orphanages. Three separate facilities were combined into one large orphans’ home in a beautiful building. The local Soviet authorities appointed Szymon Braude, formerly the Secretary of the Society for Orphans, as the director of the new institution. Under Braude’s competent management, the children received top-quality care.
Education and culture in Bialystok underwent profound alterations. Because of the large numbers of students, two or three shifts of classes throughout the day were scheduled. Moreover, new schools were opened. Additional Jewish newspapers began to publish. The influx of refugee Jewish writers from Warsaw, Lodz and other places in Poland applied their journalistic skills in the service of the new publications. A Jewish theater sponsored by the government was formed, as well as a Jewish vaudeville company. Some of the best Jewish actors in Poland, who were in Bialystok as refugees from the Nazis, performed in these two newly established theaters. In addition, guest stars from the Soviet Union entertained. A fine choir was formed under the direction of the famous choirmaster from Warsaw, M. Sznejur. A jazz orchestra, art exhibits and concerts surfaced in the city. Also, gambling casinos went into operation. They attracted quite a few patrons.
Neither was Jewish religious life in Bialystok spared from these shifts. Because factory employment occupied such a major segment of the Jewish population — both young and old, from morning until night — it became exceedingly difficult for the orthodox to pray with a minyan and many were forced to work on the Sabbath. Most of the synagogues and batei midrashim were empty and because of the severe housing shortage, the Soviet administration commandeered the Jewish houses of worship for their own purposes. For example, a brick-constructed bet hamidrash was converted into a new sports club. Other chapels became staff quarters for the Russian Army. Still other synagogues were used as granaries.
On the other hand, the congregation of the Great Synagogue in Bialystok was to pay the most exorbitant rent to the Soviet regime. Electricity imposed a heavy financial burden on the religious institutions, costs far exceeding those for secular buildings. These discriminatory charges forced the synagogues to use electricity sparingly, so most of the time they were dark. Only on Jewish holidays did the congregations allow lights be to be used. But the mood was gloomy and strained.
Despite these difficult circumstances created by the authorities, some religious Jews did manage to form a special carpentry cooperative, where it was possible to avoid working on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Understandably, this cooperative attracted observant Jews who became the chief advocates for the religious needs of other Jews in Bialystok who wanted to continue observing their traditions.
The public bath, which the municipality of Bialystok had sponsored, became the domain of the State. As a result, the mikvah, which had been part of the public bath, was liquidated. The leaders of the carpentry cooperative succeeded in raising enough funds to build a new mikvah in the home of one of their members. Not only did the residents of Bialystok use this new facility, but Jews from surrounding communities did so as well.
In summary, the atheistic Russian administration in Bialystok was unable to eradicate Jewish religious life. The observant Jews did everything possible to perpetuate their traditions and beliefs, often demonstrating great ingenuity in circumventing the obstacles created by the Soviets. No religious Jew would accept employment, even with decent working conditions, if he was required to violate the Sabbath, regardless of the loss of considerable income. Orthodox Jews would rather take lower paying jobs and remain true to their heritage. Many accepted employment as watchmen in State-run stores. When people passed by these stores in the early morning, they would notice these religious watchmen wrapped in talis and tefillin, immersed in prayer.
THE JEWISH WAR REFUGEES
One of the reasons many Polish Jews, in fleeing from the Nazis, were interested in reaching Bialystok was that it was easier to steal into this city than into other places. Moreover, once in Bialystok, there was not too much difficulty in crossing the border into the Soviet Union. The peasants who lived in border areas at that time profited financially from assisting the uninterrupted flow of refugees in entering Russia. At first, frontier crossings were not too arduous. A short time after the war’s outbreak, however, the Soviet border guards, increasingly vigilant, succeeded in repelling illegal aliens back into Nazi-occupied Poland. It often occurred that the unsuccessful refugees, driven back across the border, were brutally beaten by Nazi soldiers for their attempt to leave German jurisdiction.
When Bialystok was completely overrun by the Soviet Army on September 17, 1939, the influx of refugees from Poland increased. Furthermore, many preferred to live in Bialystok because Jewish life there had reportedly improved under Soviet hegemony. Among these refugees from Poland and immigrants from Russia were Jewish actors, artists, musicians and writers.
Since a severe housing shortage developed, a number of refugees elected to travel to more interior Russian cities and towns to live and work. In a short time, however, many returned to Bialystok, disappointed and depressed. They told of the hard life in the Soviet Union, thereby discouraging others from following in their mistaken footsteps. On the other hand, Jews streaming to Bialystok from Warsaw recounted the inhuman treatment they had received at the hands of the Nazi invaders. Some Jewish men and women, disregarding the horrifying anecdotes about life under the Nazis, sneaked back into Poland. How tragic it was to watch the endless traffic across the Russo-Polish border in both directions, some Jews seeking the promised land in Bialystok and Russia, others yearning to return to their Polish homeland.
Ultimately, the Soviet authorities required all refugees in Soviet-occupied territory to obtain a Soviet passport and become citizens of Russia. Those who obeyed this regulation were permitted to travel to the Soviet interior. Those refusing were arrested and banished to Siberia. Entire Jewish families were sent away to remote detention farms, while individuals were dispatched to camps in various parts of the Soviet north, where disfavored Russians were also incarcerated. For the most part, many of the emigrants did not want to have passports because Soviet citizens were not permitted to live in border areas near Poland, a category into which Bialystok fell.
At the end of April 1940, almost overnight, Russian secret police surrounded all the places where the refugees hid, including the batei midrashim and communal institutions. Most were arrested, taken to the railroad in Bialystok and loaded into trains. They were transported to remote areas in Siberia and other brutally cold places in the Soviet Union. The same night several thousand native Bialystoker Jews were also apprehended, as well as non-Jews, and exiled. The reason for these forced transfers was that Jews in Bialystok had Soviet passports, were considered citizens and were not allowed to live in the city, which was a border area.
Nonetheless, a number of Jewish refugees continued to live in Bialystok illegally, despite the April banishments. But even this ended on June 19, 1941, shortly before Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Local authorities in Bialystok, wishing once and for all to rid the city of “unstable elements,” conducted a lightning raid on Jews and non-Jews. Most of those arrested were leaders and activists of various Zionist and Bundist organizations, clergy, erstwhile rich people, manufacturers, homeowners, peasants and anyone else the authorities suspected. Most of the men arrested were sent to prison. Their wives and children were taken to the railroad station and exiled to the Russian interior. When the Nazis retook Bialystok, these imprisoned men were at first freed and then liquidated by Hitler’s henchmen.
A Temporary Home for Jewish Writers and Artists
A number of writers who came to Bialystok with the Jewish expatriates from Poland joined the staff of the new Soviet-controlled newspaper, Bialystoker Stern. This paper had an unmistakable Communist orientation, because of its sponsorship and because most of its top staff were Jews from the Soviet Union. Later on, when it became known that the newly arrived Polish Jewish journalists had previously been Zionists and Bundists, they were unceremoniously fired. Jewish actors from Poland fared somewhat better. They received many opportunities to appear as guest stars in Russian theaters.
The Russian Jewish writers told their Polish Jewish counterparts that before the latter could expect to be accepted into their profession, they would have to learn about “Soviet reality.”
Because the Jewish writers from Poland lived in constant fear of arrest for their Zionist, Bundist or religious backgrounds, and because they were not hired for suitable work, most of them finally applied for travel to the Russian interior. Others managed to reach Wilno, from which they later escaped into the free world.
Perhaps the most disturbing fact about the Bialystoker Stern is that it deliberately concealed the Nazi inhumanity against the Jews in Poland. Until 1941 the friendship treaty between Germany and Russia remained in effect. This meant that the Soviet Union stood silent and even acquiesced in the brutal treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. To be sure, the Bialystoker Jews knew what was going on through the grapevine, every morsel of news disseminated by whisper. But the Jewish newspaper dared not publish anything critical about Germany, much less expose how the Nazi murderers beat, tortured, robbed, humiliated and persecuted Polish Jewry. The famous Jewish writer, poet and playwright, Mojsze Broderzon of Lodz, who was one of the war refugees in Bialystok at the time, complained bitterly: “A Jewish newspaper in a Jewish city, several kilometers from the German murder inferno, refuses to devote one line or even one word to the gruesome experiences of Jews on the other side of the border, in Poland where Jewish blood is being spilled with abandon.”
The Jewish writers from Warsaw, Lodz and other places who fled to Bialystok knew the true nature of “Soviet reality” and the dim prospects for Jews within it. Only after the war, did many of them finally publish memoirs about the bitter environment in which exiled Jews found themselves in Russian-occupied Bialystok. One poet, Josef Rubinsztejn, wrote a poem about Bialystok in the first weeks after the outbreak of World War II. The following are excerpts from the poem:
Bialystok, I still picture you, in those stormy days,
In those days, when I, a refugee, was your guest.
I still envision the town clock atop the fireman’s tower.
Following Moscow standard time, it proclaimed loudly to the Street below: You are no longer in control! In your stores, homes,
An alien sits, claiming he has liberated you.
Silently you close your doors, but above you, the hands of the clock
Advance an hour — pointing to the arrival of a new era!
The “new era” was ushered in by breadlines surrounding stores.
It marched in with the harsh cadence of the Red Army’s song,
Loudly resounding in the streets: “Tomorrow let there be war”
And lurked in the night amidst strange steps of fear....
Although you tried to go on according to the days of old,
Pretending not to know, in spite of the change,
And yet the clock atop the tower advanced another hour
Pointing with its hands: a new era has come!
In those days, Bialystok, I came to you covered with dust,
Along winding paths of restlessness, I fled from Hitler’s Germany.
Then you, Bialystok, greeted me with kindness,
Sharing everything you had in your hour of pain.
CHAIM LEJB FUKS
THE JEWS WELCOME THE REFUGEES
(Editor’s note: The author, originally from Lodz, was one of the Jewish refugees who fled to Bialystok at the beginning of World War II. In the September 1955 issue of the Bialystoker Stimme, Fuks described how the Jews of Bialystok received and helped the refugees who arrived in the city.)
Was it possible for Bialystok to accommodate a massive entry of hundreds of thousands of Jews? We know that Bialystoker Jews did not have spacious homes or enough public places to admit the large numbers who with each passing day flooded their city.
And yet, as we look back upon that tragic period, we must reverently remember all those who ignored the difficulties to alleviate the needs of the unfortunate.
The Bialystoker Jewish Kehilla, in addition to opening scores of public kitchens that provided free lunches for all the refugees as well as special help for small children, made places available for hundreds of Jews to sleep at night. The synagogues and batei midrashim temporarily suspended their religious functions in order to serve as lodgings for the homeless, whose lives were thus saved. Many factory owners and artisans, without permission from the Russian authorities, employed the new arrivals in their factories. Despite the abject poverty of many Jews in Bialystok, they literally sacrificed their last morsels and gave up their beds to help their hapless guests.
The same spirit later inspired the Bialystoker Jews to launch an armed resistance against the Nazis in the ghetto of Bialystok. Many merchants were arrested and exiled to Siberia for disobeying the authorities, for allowing the displaced to work in their shops. These banishments were an excellent excuse for the Soviet secret police to take over the merchants’ homes.
Credit must go to the Jewish intelligentsia of Bialystok, which, refusing to be intimidated by the Communist terror in the city, hid Zionist and Bundist transients who sought to go to Wilno. People helped those in need despite reprisal, loss of freedom and of life itself. Writers sympathetic to the refugees were blacklisted from gainful employment.
It is clear that without the help of Bialystoker Jews in the first few months of the war, many thousands who survived the Holocaust would have perished. That is the legacy the Jews of Bialystok left before it was their great misfortune to be exterminated by the Nazis and for their city to be wiped off the face of the earth. May their souls repose in Paradise.
An aged woman praying.
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Last updated October 10th, 2005