The Bialystoker Memorial Book - Der Bialystoker
Yizkor Buch, the Bialystoker Center, New York 1982
(c) Copyright by the Bialystoker Center
Under Nazi Oppression
|Table of Contents||
The Beginning of the Holocaust
THE BEGINNING OF THE HOLOCAUST
For the Jews in Bialystok, as in many other places, the unexpected German invasion of the Soviet Union on Sunday, June 22, 1941, struck like a bolt of lightning. The night before, they slept peacefully, not foreseeing what was about to happen. Suddenly the drone of airplanes was heard overhead. At first, people thought these were routine exercises of the Soviet Air Force. Then there were explosions, bombs detonating, and it seemed as though the whole city was under attack.
It soon became clear that the Germans and the Russians were conducting an air war over Bialystok. Several bombs fell on the Soviet military base, others exploding within Jewish neighborhoods. Large numbers were killed or wounded. The first who were killed included Zalmen Wajnrajch, longtime Treasurer of the Municipal Administration and his only daughter; Goldberg the baker and many others. Among the wounded was J.J. Indicki, former newspaper and book dealer, who later succumbed. His wife was killed instantly. The news from Berlin broadcast over the radio brought home the tragic realization that war had erupted between Hitler’s Germany and Soviet Russia.
Yet the Soviet authorities in Bialystok at first denied the grim reality of war between the former allies, insisting the Air Force was merely involved in training exercises. Nevertheless, it was evident that the events of this day dealt a severe blow to the Soviet military. Chaos ensued. Soviet officers and soldiers quickly loaded their jeeps with their wives and children, as well as with irreplaceable possessions, and immediately took off.
Then-Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov delivered his historic address conceding that Hitler had deceived Stalin and that a horrible war between the two nations would lead to grim consequences. Jews in particular felt that difficult and tragic times lay ahead.
Fear and Uncertainty
The Jews of Bialystok, as elsewhere, were consumed by panic and confusion. No one knew what to do. People asked their family and friends for advice, but no one could predict what the future would bring. With the frenetic departure of the Soviet military, the Jews felt insecure and abandoned. Soon the Nazis would replace the Russians, their arrival presaging robbery, suffering, and extermination. After all, it was well known what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in the rest of Poland.
The roads leading out of Bialystok soon overflowed with fleeing, freshly uprooted Jews from Bialystok. Their destination was the Russian interior, the farther from the Nazi attackers the better. It was virtually impossible to move along these roads, but panic eclipsed whatever reluctance there may have been to encounter the difficulties along the highways. On that day in Bialystok no one slept; everyone kept a nervous vigil for the forthcoming Nazi onslaught.
On Monday morning, June 23, it appeared that the prison guards had also departed, thereby turning loose the more than 2,000 prisoners the Soviets had earlier incarcerated, including Jakow Goldberg, Zionist activist; Bunem Farbsztejn, Agudath Israel leader in Bialystok; Michl Kancypolski, representative of the left-wing of the Labor Zionists; Hersz Szwec, right-wing faction leader of the Labor Zionists; Aron Brzezinski, writer for Unzer Leben; Josef Rubinlicht and others. The Russians arrested them for “unsuitable political activities.” Mordechaj Chmelnik, right-wing Labor Zionist, returned to Bialystok from a year’s imprisonment in Brisk. Bialystokers who were freed from the Minsk jail included Szmuel Finkel, former textile manufacturer, and Cybulkin, longtime head of the Pajen Bank. Finkel died shortly after his return. So did manufacturer Oswald Trilings’s youngest son, who remained incarcerated at Minsk. Shortly thereafter, the prison tower was set afire, and many of the former prisoners ran wild into the streets, robbing and looting businesses and the like. They were seen carrying off bundles of clothing, home appliances, furniture, etc. Those Soviet police who remained attempted to restrain the criminals, wounding a number of them.
All along the highways Bialystoker Jews fled in the direction of the Russian interior, pursued overhead by Nazi airplanes. The murderers dropped incendiary bombs and fired upon the runaways with machine guns. Those who managed to return to Bialystok told of many dead and wounded, of overturned tanks and cars. People were warned of the dangers of leaving the city. Paying no attention, many young Jewish Bialystokers took to the roads. Most others, however, remained in Bialystok. Some vainly hoped that the Russians would ultimately succeed in repelling the Nazi attack, but they were destined for bitter disappointment.
The remaining Soviet personnel in Bialystok and the surrounding communities were in full retreat, leaving the area in a state of abandonment. On June 26, one day before the Nazis entered the city, no Soviet soldiers were visible. That evening a deathly silence prevailed, the lull before the storm.
The Arrival of the Nazi Murderers
Hell on earth for the Jews of Bialystok began on Friday morning, June 27, 1941, when the Nazis entered the city. Without delay, they streamed to the Jewish neighborhoods, throwing grenades into Jewish homes and wounding many. With unbelievable brutality the Nazis dragged Jewish men from their dwellings, beat them over their heads and forced them into the Great Synagogue. As this august house of worship filled with people, it was surrounded by Nazi vandals. Armed from head to toe, they hurled grenades into the synagogue, which immediately went up in flames. Crammed with more than 2,000 Jews, the synagogue burned for twenty-four hours until Saturday morning. Only then came the order to extinguish the fire.
The victims included: Dr. Kracowski, Note Jakobson (accountant), Kaplan (manufacturer-merchant on Kupiecka Street); the famous chess master Aron Zabludowski; Poliak (pharmacist); the comic Alter Sztajnberg (Chalele); Izchok Brener; Radzinower (restaurateur of the “Aquarium”); the cork manufacturer Jamnik; restaurateurs Michel Grodzenski, his son and son-in-law; the merchant Byspucki; Fuksman (son of the former furniture manufacturer); the football player Izchok Lach; Awram Spektor and his two sons; and Dowid Wisocki.
Disregarding danger, Gitl Chajkowski-Plac saved sixty Jewish orphans and became their substitute mother. She hid them in a cellar, where they remained throughout the early days of the Nazi invasion of Bialystok.
The Nazis forced other Jews, beating and chasing them from their homes, to put out the flames. Many human tragedies took place in the synagogue inferno. No longer able to withstand the putrid smoke, a son, following the wishes of his father, hanged him with his belt on a menorah. In many instances, people slashed their friend’s and neighbor’s wrists in order to shorten their ordeal. A daring young man, not yet overcome by the gas, climbed up to a window inside the sanctuary, where he knocked out several panes and spoke harsh words against the Nazis. The brutes fired upon this young man, who immediately fell from the window but survived. Because of the fumes, the Nazi soldiers were forced to put some distance between themselves and the synagogue. At that moment, the Polish watchman, risking his life, opened a side door, enabling several Jews to escape, among them the young man who had dared insult the Nazis. While 2,000 Jews were perishing in the synagogue fire, Nazi soldiers moved through the Jewish sections of Bialystok, hauling men out of their homes and shooting them in front of their wives and children.
The Tragic Results of the First Two Days of Nazi Rule
In addition to the 2,000 who died in the synagogue fire, more than thirty Jewish streets, which accounted for a third of all Jewish homes in Bialystok, were gutted.
Despite the fact that the burning houses were surrounded by cordons of heavily armed Nazis, it was possible for some Jews to escape. Because of the resistance of a few remaining Red Army soldiers, the Nazi murderers threw incendiary bombs on many homes. Entire streets and buildings disappeared, replaced by mountains of ash.
The first two days of Nazi rule in Bialystok brought about tragic consequences. But this was to be only the beginning in a series of catastrophes that would befall the Jews of Bialystok throughout the years of Nazi occupation.
The Judenrat and the Beginning of Oppression
Sunday, June 29, 1941, two days after the Nazis entered Bialystok, their commandant summoned Chief Rabbi Gedalja Rozenman and the former Director of the Kehilla, the engineer Efrajim Barasz. He ordered them to form a Judenrat (a Jewish council), through which the local Nazi authorities could issue all kinds of ordinances and regulations affecting the Jews. Rabbi Rosenman and Engineer Barasz conveyed the new edict to other leading Jewish figures. Soon afterward, a Judenrat was appointed containing twenty-four Jews including two women. They included: Rabbi Rozenman, Efrajim Barasz, Dowid Subotnik, Mr. Liman, Jakow Goldberg (these five constituted the executive committee); Mendl Kaplan, Dr. M. Kacenelson, H. Glikson, Pejsach Kaplan, Mordechaj Chmelnik, Szmuel Punianski, Rabbi Boruch Eli Halpern, Rabbi Pinje Ajzensztat, Jakow Lifszic, Aba Furman, Mojsze Szwif, Izak Markus; Awrom Tyktin, Cwi Wider, Pejsach Chmelnicki and Szmuel Polonski.
Even before the Judenrat went into operation. The Nazis demanded thousands of Jewish men and women for forced labor. The Jews had to work under exceedingly difficult conditions, and they were often beaten and tortured. At the same time, they had to surrender their jewelry, fur coats, leather jackets, satin covers, down cushions and similar items.
Every Nazi order had to be carried out exactly as issued, in forty-eight hours, under threat of severe sanctions. But in addition to these commands and forced contributions, Gestapo officers would frequently seize Jews in the streets for the ostensible purpose of assigning them to slave labor. The truth was that these Jews were tortured by the Nazi murderers. They also robbed Jewish homes, confiscating everything of value. The henchmen of the Third Reich cordoned off entire streets in the Jewish areas of Bialystok, where they parked huge trucks for loading expropriated Jewish property and valuables representing many years of hard work and savings.
Most of the Jewish citizenry in Bialystok, particularly the economically deprived classes and those who had lost their possessions through arson and robbery of the Nazis, began to feel the hunger and poverty. It was an ordeal to get through each day. Some 2,000 men and women voluntarily sought work from the Nazis in order to receive some food in return for their services. Many found themselves foregoing one day’s food in order to sustain young children who were literally starving. This self-sacrifice, in addition to the slave labor the Nazis imposed on many of these Jews, meant they were virtually giving up their lives.
The “Thursday” Victims
The first mass slaughter of Jews in Bialystok carried out by the Nazis occurred on Thursday, July 3, 1941. Those who perished on that day came to be known as the “Thursday martyrs.” Dr. Szymon Datner, well-known educator and historian, who was a witness to these Nazi crimes in Bialystok and later participated in the resistance, tells of this slaughter in the November-December 1946 issue of the Bialystoker Stimme as follows:
“At four in the morning on Thursday, July 3, the Nazis dragged from their homes men from the ages of 16 to 60. They closed off the following streets: Przejarz, Grochowa, Krakowska, Dambrowski, Kupiecka, Zamenhof, Bialystoczanska, Ruzanski, Zydowska, Bronska, Geldowa and Lipowa. Many foresaw what was coming and were able to hide. Approximately a thousand of the arrested men were lined up for ‘selection.’ [Who would live and who would die.] Workmen and artisans able to show callouses on their hands were separated from the rest and freed. The others, members of the intelligentsia and merchants, were detained. They were tortured all night and into the morning. Finally two hundred were loaded onto a truck that headed out of town. From that moment on, every trace of those Jews disappeared. It later became known that these two hundred were shot by the Nazis at Pietrasze Field, approximately two kilometers outside the city in the direction of Waszlykowa. They included: Dr. Jakow Rajfer; Wajnszel, instructor at Druskeniki Gymnasium; Aron Murkis, instructor at Zeligman Gymnasium; the merchant Rotsztejn and his son; Berl Zabludowski, Herszl Maze, owner of a dairy; Becalel Frenkl, “Maccabee” sportsman; Orlowski, instructor at Druskeniki Gymnasium; Lancberg and others. This tragic mass murder destroyed the lives of a large number of Jewish intelligentsia in Bialystok.
“The Black Saturday”
“Two days later, Saturday, July 5, 1941, a second, larger bloodbath was carried out against the Bialystoker Jews. This time several thousand were exterminated — the ‘Saturday Martyrs.’
“On that day a band of wild Gestapo officers, Nazi police and other henchmen fanned out into the Jewish neighborhoods. Everywhere they captured Jews, chasing them, heaping ridicule upon them and ordering them to run fast. Some of these Jews were finally put on trucks and taken away to an unknown location. Others were driven through the streets and beaten. Later on, Polish citizens stated they had seen between five and six thousand Jews brutally beaten, tortured, chased and sent away on trucks. Although the Nazis later claimed they had sent these people to work, the fact is they were never seen or heard from again.
“These events generated panic among the wives and children of the deported Jewish men. Shortly after this attack, the Nazi commandant told the members of the Judenrat that those who vanished would be returned if the Jews of Bialystok would make a contribution of five kilograms of gold, two million Soviet rubles, one hundred kilograms of silver and similar valuable items.
“The Judenrat immediately called an urgent meeting at which, in an atmosphere of acute pain and anxiety, the entire matter was considered. Under such circumstances, there was very little discussion, since there was no alternative. It was decided immediately to collect the required sums, with the hope that the several thousand men would soon return. As it turned out, this was yet another in a series of Nazi swindles and hoaxes perpetrated on the hapless Jews.
“The wives, mothers and children of the victims played a major role in contributing to the ransom. They gave away all of their jewelry, large sums of money and everything else they owned in order to help free their loved ones. The Judenrat appointed special collectors who, during a period of three days, uninterruptedly approached all the Jews for contributions. Everyone gave with generosity and compassion. When the total ransom was finally collected, a delegation from the Judenrat went to the headquarters of the Nazi commandant. After making them wait for several hours, the commandant announced with a smirk on his face that the victims would not return, that they had been sent away to labor camps in Germany.
“The representatives of the Judenrat, hearing the cold-blooded words of the Nazi commander, went away mutely but with heavy hearts, unable to speak even to one another. As soon as they returned to the office of the Judenrat they called a plenary meeting of the council. Its members were stunned after hearing their emmisaries’ report. No one uttered a word; a paralysis of silence gripped the room. Ultimately it was decided that the grim news of the victims’ permanent disappearance would not be made public and that the entire Jewish community would be allowed to continue hoping for their return.
The Anxious Wives
“But it was difficult to conceal such realities for very long. The truth was leaked to the populace, even by some members of the Judenrat itself, reaching the wives, mothers and children of the vanished thousands. The victims’ wives began to feel that the Judenrat was deceiving them and concealing the truth. Consequently, they conducted daily, loud demonstrations outside the Judenrat building. Angered and embittered because they were misled, some of these women attacked various members of the council. In addition to lying to them, the wives and mothers complained that the Judenrat had taken away all their belongings when, in fact, they knew there was no hope for their husbands and sons.
“The Saturday victims included: Dr. Dowid Kagan, pediatrician, and his elder son, Lola; Mojsze Zabludowski, instructor at the Hebrew Gymnasium; Pynchos Wajnrajch; Jerachmiel Lewin; A. Szliaser and his son; Meir Ajnsztejn; Dowid Kriwiaticki; Mordechaj Okun, a 16-year-old; Doniel Frank of Kowno, wholesale cigar dealer; Rozenberg, realtor from Bielsk; Rozental with his two sons and two sons-in-law; the four Kaszicer brothers; Mojsze Farber, a weaver; Motl Makowski, an ordained rabbi; Mojsze Kramer, coppersmith; Kapustin, a teacher from Zabludowa; Nochum Wilenski; Icze Kon, who worked at Malinjak’s formica factory; Grysze Halpern, the 16-year-old son of a feldsher [medic]; Gutman and his two sons who were students at the Hebrew Gymnasium; Ize Demoracki, bookbinder; Jakow Golombowicz, carpenter, who returned from Israel in 1938; Ch. Babicz, a tanner; Nichtfinster, a brushmaker; Kagan, a yeshiva instructor, his son and grandchild; Mordechaj Saciler, principal of Shalmei Emunah school, and his son; Jankl Fostat, carpenter; Szlojme Akronowicz, a tailor, and his cousin, Awreml Akronowicz, apprentice tailor; Judl Tankus; Ajzenberg from Luniniec; Lejb Jabka, tinsmith; Szlojme Motilski, a baker and his son, Jankl; Mojsze Faktor, a dairy merchant; Dr. Boris Pines, ophthalmologist; Dr. Josef Welian; Dr. Jerenburg, dentist; Nochum Szmusz, an underground-pipes contractor; Mine Szmusz, kerosene salesman; Markuze, an 18-year-old; Bez, a 17-year-old weaver, Lejzer and Icze Grynzwajg, weavers; Chaim and Motl Knyszinski, shoemakers; Nochum Markman, water installations; Szmulke Szturmakewicz, an expert weaver; Diade Lew; Motl Grosman, printer, Izak Lewin, a sportsman; Mordechaj Nachimowski; Dr. Wilenski, engineer; Dr. Gerszuni; Dr. Fiszer; Hemin, the medic’s 80-year-old father; Awrom Fiszer, Liowa Grynberg, sportswriter; Finja Fridman, a footfall player, and thousands more.
“Later the families of the victims formed their own committee, no longer having any confidence in the Judenrat. They made further collections of money, hoping that this might bring their loved ones back. It soon became apparent, however, that the situation was hopeless. The money was returned to the contributors. The ad hoc committee was dissolved. People feared, quite justifiably as it turned out, that this was just the beginning of a much worse future.”
The “Saturday Martyrs” were never seen or heard from again. Pejsach Kaplan, the prominent author, culturalist and chronicler of the Bialystok Ghetto, composed a poem in memory of these victims titled, “Rivkele, the Victim of Saturday”. The following is an English translation of this heartrending poem:
RIVKELE THE SHABBOSDIKE
Rivkele the victim of Saturday
Is working in the factory,
Twisting threads together,
Fashioning a length of rope.
Alas the somber ghetto
Lasts too long
And, with a heavy heart,
I feel so sorry for her lot.
Her devoted son Herszele
Is gone, is no longer.
Since that Saturday,
Since that hour,
Rivkele is in mourning,
Crying day and night.
And now she sits at her spinning wheel
Bemused in deep thought.
Where is my beloved son?
Is he alive somewhere?
Perhaps in a concentration camp,
He works hard without rest.
How bleak it must be for him there;
How bitter it is for her here,
Since that Saturday,
Since that hour....
The above lyrics were sung by the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto during their worst oppression. It will always be remembered by survivors as a poignant elegy to the victims of that “Black Saturday.”
THE JUDENRAT’S MINUTES AND ORDERS
Published by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
Volume 4 of the documents of Yad Vashem, published in Jerusalem in 1962, carries the title: “The Path of the Judenrat,” which is entirely devoted to “the minutes of the meetings and announcements to the Jewish population of the Bialystok ghetto by the Judenrat.”
The author, Nachman Blumental, asserts that there is a dearth of primary sources describing the destruction of Eastern European Jewry during World War II. Only a few ghettos in the larger cities were able, with great ingenuity, to preserve documents. Most other communities failed to leave anything behind because the Nazis managed to destroy most of the Judenrat archives in the various ghettos.
The records that were recovered either had been hidden in undetectable places so the Nazis would be unable to burn them or were retrieved in the files of German ministries after the war. The Jewish communities that took great pains to safeguard these materials had a double purpose in mind: providing evidence against Nazi war criminals in future prosecutions and leaving an historical record for succeeding generations of Jews, which would remind them never to forgive or forget the most barbaric crimes ever perpetrated against an entire people by another nation. Not only did these archives contain minutes of meetings and announcements of the Judenrat but also diaries and letters of individuals and correspondence between the Judenrat and the Gestapo within the ghettos themselves. The archives of the Bialystok Judenrat occupy a prominent place in the Yad Vashem collection.
While survivors like Chajke Grosman, Srolke Kot, Bronja Klibanski, Dr. Szymon Datner, Berel Mark, Refoel Rajzner, Dowid Klementynowski and others provided a rich bibliography about the Holocaust in Bialystok, it is still interesting to examine the minutes of the Judenrat meetings.
Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof foresaw that the Bialystok ghetto would be destroyed. It was up to him, as its archivist, to ensure their retrievability after the war. He entrusted the documents to a female friend and a Jewish doctor who had reliable connections outside the ghetto. After the war, the papers were recovered by these individuals, and eventually made their way to Israel, where they were later stored by the Yad Vashem documentation center.
The condition of the records was quite good. On the whole, they were written in a clear Yiddish. The information they provide, covering the period from July 8, 1941, to April 1, 1943, offers a penetrating insight into life in the ghetto — particularly Jewish resourcefulness, endurance, ingenuity and the indestructible will to survive and transcend adversity.
It is not my intention to pass judgment on the actions of the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto. In hindsight, we can always find fault with one or another decision. It is clear, however, that the Judenrat often succeeded in having adverse edicts rescinded or their effects mitigated. We must be aware that life in the ghetto was characterized by increasingly harsh rules and regulations issued every day, making the existence of the masses in a tight, overcrowded, fenced-in section of Bialystok more and more hopeless and intolerable.
In the minutes of Judenrat meetings, we often find that Rabbi Rozenman and Efrajim Barasz chided the population for being lax in reporting to work. At one meeting in the hall of the Linas Hatzedek, Dr. Rozenman proclaimed in a doomsday tone, “An orgy of rebellion is rampant throughout the ghetto. The rules are disobeyed. People do not show up for work. All of this will rain destruction upon our heads.”
At the same meeting, Barasz made the following statement: “Several weeks ago, the German labor authority demanded two hundred women for work. From a pool of six thousand, it was not possible to find the necessary two hundred. Only after the police threatened to line up all the unemployed in one place and shoot them did the ghetto provide the two hundred women. We later discovered that people hid these women in their homes. It seems a battle is being waged between the Judenrat and the people... When the women were taken to work on the wagons, others ran after them shouting ‘Shma Yisroel.’ Let us hope that this make-believe ‘Shma Yisroel’ will not bring the day closer when we will all have to utter the true ‘Shma Yisroel!’....”
It is interesting to note that in all of its minutes and announcements, the Judenrat made no mention of the evacuations to Treblinka, evidently because it was afraid to reveal the truth. Moreover, Izchok Malmed’s tragedy was never acknowledged within the documents. [The details of Malmed’s heroism will be provided later on.] There are, however, brief allusions in cryptic form to some of the grisly events that took place, such as “the last difficult days we endured” and in a terse footnote: “2-5-1943 until 2-12-1943, an operation in Bialystok... ten thousand Jews evacuated to Treblinka... nine hundred Jews shot on the spot.” In two announcements to the people, it was revealed that five Jews, accused of stealing goods from a factory, were hung. Other notices contained reports of ten Jews flogged by the Nazis for leaving the ghetto without special permits or for not reporting for work. In yet another bulletin, it was reported that thirty-five Jews were publicly humiliated at the stock, accused of “robbing the homes of the ‘evacuated’ during the recent tragic days.” Finally, the people were warned that “for not completely blacking out your homes during the nights, shots will be fired into your houses.”
The documents of the Bialystok ghetto offer us a glimpse into the nightmare the Jews of Bialystok experienced. We become more aware of the murders, robberies, harsh rules, the inhumanity visited on a helpless population by the unquenchable thirst for domination of what was supposedly a civilized nation. Only when all hope was lost did our brothers and sisters in Bialystok emulate the example of the Warsaw ghetto, which posed armed resistance against the Nazis. The Bialystok uprising lasted on month until the ghetto was razed.
* * *
A few months after the “evacuation” of 200,000 Jews from the provinces surrounding Bialystok, its ghetto was to suffer the “February action.” This constituted the Nazis’ first serious effort to liquidate the ghetto. Despite the widespread assumption that as long as the people were useful to the Third Reich they would be unharmed, the “February operation” dashed the hopes of even the most outspoken optimists.
THE YELLOW BADGE ORDINANCE
Monday, before the Saturday massacre, a new edict was issued by the Nazi authorities in Bialystok. The Gestapo ordered the Judenrat to require every Jew ten years and older, to wear a yellow badge on his clothes. It had to be in the form of a Jewish star, everyone required to wear it on the left front and back of his upper garment. Understandably, the Jews carried out this order immediately, though humiliated and ashamed.
Even before the imposition of the yellow badge, a rumor created much anxiety among the Jews in Bialystok. It was said that the Germans would soon push all the Jews into several cordoned-off streets, thus forming a ghetto in the city. This meant they would be evicted from their homes, separated and isolated from the rest of the population. Although this rumor was openly discussed, there were many Jews who refused to believe it. But the horrible reality would soon emerge; the Bialystok ghetto would shortly come into being.
The Life and Struggle of the Jews in the Ghetto
On Friday, August 1, 1941, several weeks after the Nazis occupied Bialystok, the ghetto for the Jews was completed. Ghettos were also built in smaller towns near Bialystok. Each day the Jews learned of new edicts that made their lives more unbearable. The introduction of the ghetto shattered all hope. That they would be forced to live in a barricaded enclosure, in severe overcrowding, struck fear into their hearts.
At first the Nazis defined the ghetto area as several small streets, in the poor Jewish section, whose limited space would have imposed impossible hardships on the victims, with no chance of survival in such conditions. After the Judenrat intervened, however, promising the Nazis additional contributions of jewelry and other valuables, the Germans agreed to extend the ghetto over a wider area, including Czestochowska, Polna, Kupiecka, Lipowa, Czepla, Jurowecka, Fabryczna, Bialystoczanska, Neuwelt and the adjacent streets. The Jews were given just three days to abandon their homes and move into the ghetto.
The elderly, women and small children were a tragic scene, dragging their possessions through the streets or transporting them on wagons, fatigued and exhausted. The Polish peasants smelled a chance to profit from this Jewish misfortune. Offering their services with alacrity, they assisted the Jews in moving their households to the ghetto but demanded clothes, furniture, jewelry and other items as payment, which they were given. Mostly women and children were involved, since the men had earlier been sent by the Nazis to forced labor in other places.
One observer later recalled that those three days of moving into the ghetto were like the continuous wandering of a nomadic tribe. It was difficult to pass through the streets; people were forced to push their way to their bleak destination. The thoroughfares were crammed with humanity.
Non-Jewish hooligans took advantage of the Jews’ calamity — attacking, beating and robbing them. Witnessing this, the Nazi soldiers laughed and ridiculed the Jews. The children of the “Aryan Race” took photographs to send to their families and friends in Germany, showing the tremendous German victory over the Jewish people. The ghetto was to be completely blockaded by August 1. The Jews were required to obtain all the necessary materials to build a fence around the ghetto. They chopped and sawed wood to construct the barricade. How sad it was to watch a once-thriving community forced to create a prison around itself, a massive jail for 60,000 Jews.
The fence around the ghetto had three gates. The main gate was at Jurowecka and Szienkewycza Streets. The second was at Kupiecka Street, at the end of the marketplace. The third was at Czysta. They were guarded on the outside by Nazi soldiers and on the inside by Jewish guards wearing circular hats with an inscription in German reading “Jewish Law Enforcement Service.” These Jewish police carried nightsticks or rubber truncheons.
Many women and children, unable to tolerate the panic-provoking conditions in the ghetto, cried unconsolably. Old men, tears streaming down their faces, lamented the bitter fate of the Jews of Bialystok. But finally people began to adjust to the new environment, comforting and reassuring one another. The hope that traditionally springs eternal in the Jewish heart did not die. People awaited Hitler’s speedy downfall.
Inside the ghetto, wretched and miserable conditions prevailed. Many had no place in which to settle or facilities with which to wash themselves, no place to eat or sleep. Entire families had to squeeze into cramped quarters. Formerly well-to-do citizens descended into the pit of poverty.
The ravished Cooperative Bank (founded 1901).
A writer later described the shouting, blood curdling screeches and bitter arguments contaminating the air. Little annoyances provoked blows among friends and relatives. Stoves were not to be found in the cramped houses. Ghetto inmates built scores of fires in the streets to cook soup.
Several days after the ghetto was established, a cemetery area was set aside, which was named Zabia Cemetery, located at Polna Street behind Katok’s mill.
Each day thousands of Jewish men, women and children were taken out of the ghetto and sent to various parts of the city to work. At night they were returned to the ghetto and locked inside. Everyone was stringently searched by Nazi soldiers on leaving and entering the ghetto to make certain that no one was carrying anything out or bringing anything in. The guards were especially strict about smuggled food. Thanks to Jewish ingenuity, however, food was sneaked inside; it helped sustain lives for a little while longer.
Days of Uncertainty and Hope
Although life in the Bialystok ghetto produced anguish and uncertainty among the Jews, they refused to give up hope. They concentrated on making it through each day. When the Polish peasants learned that the Jews would give away their jewelry for various necessities, the peasants brought all kinds of commodities into Bialystok in return for the precious gems.
But severe hunger prevailed, particularly among those who had no jewels to give. Because of this, the Judenrat opened two kitchens: one, designated a public facility for everyone, provided a watery soup for a minimal charge, whereas the other, which offered the same fare, accommodated the “upper class” of the ghetto. People understood that the Judenrat could not provide better facilities. The two kitchens produced several thousand lunches per day. Furthermore, several small gardens were planted to grow vegetables for the kitchens.
The ghetto also featured an old-age home, an orphanage, a school and other informal facilities. The Nazi command had previously forbidden the continued existence of the established social institutions in Bialystok before the war.
An extraordinary phenomenon in the ghetto was the continuity and the growth of the Tel Chai Kibbutz (commune). This Kibbutz, which was founded before the war, was enlarged and strengthened by the arrival in the ghetto of member-refugees from other places. The commune consisted of young people of various pro-Zionist organizations and was supported by the Labor Zionist Party. Members of the kibbutz secured an abandoned house in which to carry on their activities. In time, the commune organized its own kitchen, and planted a garden that generated a significant quantity of vegetables. The Kibbutz in the ghetto also continued training exercises, just like before the war, preparing its members for eventual settlement in Israel. Moreover, seminars and indoctrination sessions were conducted. One writer described the Kibbutz as a “bright corner of the ghetto in which people sang in the evenings, joined together in gatherings and managed to forget their troubles for a while.”
The driving force behind the Tel Chai Kibbutz, who later would be one of the heroes in the Bialystoker resistance against the Nazis, was Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof. He came to Bialystok during the war from Wilno, Warsaw and other places where he had been active in organizing and leading resistance campaigns against the Nazis. The Kibbutz boasted of other young leaders and several scores of members committed to make Aliyah who later demonstrated tremendous heroism against the Nazi oppressors.
They included: Cwi Hersz Mersik of Melnice, near Kowel; Herszl Cwi Rozental of Jaszynowka; Ruwen Rozenberg of Suchowolja; Chanoch Zelaznagora of Szedliec; Jochewed Wajnsztein of Knyszin; Gedalja Petljuk of Knyszin; Cypora Birman of Rozyszcze; Tema Sznajderman of Warsaw, and others.
Jewish youth in the ghetto, representing all political parties and persuasions, did not permit themselves to crumble under the terror and brutality of Nazi occupation. They, as well as most of their elders, coped with the fearsome circumstances to the best of their ability, continuing to study and to draw inspiration from their Jewish traditions. The Nazis failed to destroy Jewish honor. Nonetheless, the spiritual as well as the physical dimensions of Jewish life followed a thorny path in the ghetto.
It was impossible to carry on an extensive cultural program. Zionist, Socialist, and Communist activities, which blossomed in Bialystok before the Nazi occupation, now could only be carried on underground, their main purpose opposition to the Nazis. These groups fashioned the beginnings of the later resistance in the Bialystok ghetto and maintained contact with other opposition cadres in the Wilno and Warsaw ghettos. A few individuals — including Pejsach Kaplan, AS. Herszberg, the historian, and Jehoszua Heszl Klementynowski, founder of the Linas Hatzedek and senior Zionist activist in Bialystok — clandestinely advanced Jewish culture in the ghetto. They wrote about other tragic episodes in Jewish history and chronicled the daily atrocities in their own environment.
The days, weeks and months in the Bialystok ghetto seemed like an eternity to the inmates forced to live in severely congested quarters, poverty, hunger and squalor. Thousands of men and women were let out daily to perform slave labor for the Nazis. Tragic news reached the ghetto in grim detail about the suffering and extermination of Jews in surrounding communities such as Slonim, Lomza, Bielsk, Grajewo, Tyktin and other places. These reports were brought to Bialystok by Jews who had managed to escape from these other liquidated towns. Many Bialystoker Jews had relatives in these places, and the news of their annihilation brought even more pain to their lives.
THE BITTER TRUTH
The people in the Bialystok ghetto hoped that although their circumstances were wretched and life was scarcely tolerable, they would be spared because the Nazis needed their labor. But rumors persisted that entire villages and towns in the vicinity of Bialystok were being systematically emptied of Jews, their destination unknown but their macabre fate imaginable. Indeed, the Jews of Bialystok had already experienced the expulsion of thousands of their own citizens to unnamed places.
No one wanted to believe the worst. After all, people thought, the Judenrat in Bialystok had thus far enjoyed modest success in restraining the Nazi savagery. Perhaps the council would be able ultimately to save the ghetto inmates. As it turned out, several of the Judenrat members secretly knew that the Nazis were making preperations to deport the Jews out of the ghetto. In fact, the Judenrat, from the very beginning of its existence, tried to delay this grim finale. But nothing could stand in the way of Hitler’s maniacal plan to exterminate the Jews, even those who had been forced to give up their last bit of energy to support the Third Reich and its war machine.
Word spread that the German command was about to remove a certain number of Jews from the ghetto on the pretext that conditions were overcrowded and that these “transfers” were necessary to prevent epidemics. Shortly thereafter, before Rosh Hashanah, 1941, the Judenrat received an order from the Gestapo that 12,000 Jews were to be moved out. The council was ordered to arrange for buses, for which the Jews themselves would have to pay. People were promised they would be able to take their belongings with them.
An urgent session of the Judenrat was called. It turned out to be a painful and anguishing proceeding. Upon the council fell the nightmarish task of selecting those Jews who would constitute the 12,000 deportees. After much debate and soul searching, it was decided that those who did no work outside the ghetto, and who were poor, would be the first to go. The next group would consist of those who lived in the most squalid buildings bursting at the seams from overcrowding. The remainder would be chosen by name, in alphabetical order. It was understood that the council members themselves were exempt from deportation, as were those who worked outside the ghetto by day.
Various Jews who had access, or so they claimed, to jobs for the unemployed, many of which offered no wages or were sinecures, began to sell these positions to the impoverished for large sums of money. Some of those able to raise these large sums managed to have their status changed from unemployed to employed —the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the poor and jobless failed to obtain the funds and were deported. It is sadly ironic that most of the wives and children of those who perished in the “Saturday Massacre,” left without support, joined the 12,000 martyrs of the first expulsion from the Bialystok ghetto.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, 1941, a large number of Jews received summonses from the Judenrat, commanding them to appear with their possessions at 8 A.M. the next day at a point of embarkation, from which they would be sent to Pruzane, a village not far from Bialystok. No one believed the Nazis would allow this group to reach their destination alive. Families were plunged into terror, panic and deep mourning as they contemplated what lay ahead.
Suddenly everyone realized this was the beginning of the end.
BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH
At the end of October 1942, a most unusual event occurred. A Jewish woman in the Bialystok ghetto, Jenta Lejzerson, and her children received permission from the Gestapo to go to Israel, then known as Palestine. This came about as a result of a prisoner exchange negotiated between the German and British governments. Although Mrs. Lejzerson and her family were the only ones from Bialystok legally allowed to settle in Israel, there were Jews from other Polish cities who had the good fortune to be included in this prisoner exchange.
Jenta Lejzerson’s husband already had been living in Israel before the war. The Gestapo issued an order to the Judenrat in Bialystok that Mrs. Lejzerson and her children were to dress up in their finest clothes. They traveled by railroad to Vienna, where they were taken to a special terminal. There they met other Jews allowed to go to Israel. Several days later, the group departed Vienna for Turkey, accompanied the entire way by a Nazi officer and two nurses. The liberated Jews went from Istanbul to Syria and, in mid-November 1942, arrived in Israel. Throughout the war, the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto never knew for sure whether Mrs. Lejzerson and her children had ever reached Israel.
Bialystoker Jewish settlers in Israel, who had relatives and friends in the ghetto, fell upon Mrs. Lejzerson, desperate to discover what was happening to their loved ones under the Nazis. The report she gave them was horrifying. The following are excerpts from an article written by the Palestine correspondent of the Jewish Daily Forward, Menachem Trajster, which was reprinted in the February 1943 issue of the Bialystoker Stimme:
“Jenta Lejzerson revealed that Bialystok, the center of Jewish industry, political diversity and cultural prolificacy, existed no more. In its place stood an inhumanly congested ghetto, occupying one small section of the entire town, into which 60,000 Jews were cramped. People once free were now enslaved, and the threat of deportation and liquidation was always there.
“She told of the Great Synagogue incinerated with 2,000 Jews inside. The Nazis had the audacity to tell people, fleeing in panic from their Nazi-torched homes, that the Soviets had set fire to their dwellings and they should all run into the synagogue, where God would save them. Obediently, these panicked souls sought refuge in their temple, which was transformed into a mass funeral pyre.
“Mrs. Lejzerson related that the Nazi command had appointed a Bialystoker Jew, who before the war had been arrested several times for criminal activities, as the superintendent of the Jewish police force. This man was an expert at manipulating the Gestapo commandant, finagling numerous special privileges for himself. For example, he was permitted to go to Switzerland for a rest cure. Moreover, a taxi was placed at his disposal for transportation throughout the ghetto, which was unheard of for any other Jew. Subsequently, he amassed a fortune in diamonds, hiding them in the walls and under the ground of his residence. Finally he came to the end of his nefarious road when he made the mistake of informing on another favorite of the Gestapo commandant, who, angered at this conduct, ordered him arrested and beaten. As additional punishment, he was forced to march through the streets of the ghetto proclaiming in a loud voice: “I am the worst of criminals.” His home was searched and the gems found. After a three-month stint in the ghetto jail, he was stripped of his rank and influence, which enabled the Jews to breathe easier.
“Another anecdote Mrs. Lejzerson shared with her friends in Israel involved a Nazi officer who ordered whisky in a Jewish restaurant. No sooner did he drink the contents of his glass than he fell to the floor dead. The entire Gestapo brigade was summoned and ten Jewish prisoners were taken. Only after two medical specialists were called to examine the body and the officer’s wife testified to his history of heart disease were the Jews exonerated. This miraculous salvation, it should be added, was spurred by yet another massive “contribution” to the Nazis.
“Jenta Lejzerson described how all Jews from the ages of fourteen to sixty were sent away for slave labor. They worked in three shifts, covering a span of twenty-four hours a day. She told of the pitifully meager wages paid for this forced work and how the black market raged in the ghetto, supplying necessities unavailable through normal channels. The ghetto itself was indescribably constricted and crammed with people. The population was susceptible to epidemics of dysentery and typhus. Most of the cultural institutions in Bialystok had been eliminated, yet the irrepressible Jews maintained several schools and underground religious services, as well as various social and health organizations.
“In September 1942, a new rumor circulated that another expulsion of Jews in the ghetto was imminent. Religious leaders promptly proclaimed a public fast, fearing that the “Black Corps,” the Nazi extermination brigade, was on its way to Bialystok. Later, the people were told they had been granted a reprieve until January 1943, because the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto were still needed to provide support for the Nazi war machine.
“Mrs. Jenta Lejzerson concluded her bone-chilling story by saying, in Bialystok, Jews are living in constant fear of death. The members of the Judenrat continually reassure them that thanks to their labor, extermination will be delayed.’”
When it became known that Mrs. Lejzerson received permission to leave the ghetto for Israel, many of her fellow inmates begged her to get in touch with family and friends in the Holy Land. She was also asked to tell the awful truth about their situation. She honored both requests.
By order of the Nazis, Jews of Bialystok move into the ghetto.
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Last updated July 15th, 2005