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Professor Menachem Stern


Page 9

A visitor from Israel who happens to visit his birthplace, the City of Bialystok, wanders through its streets as if in a trance. Men and women pass him by, and he does not recognize a single face. In vain do his ears search for the sounds of Hebrew and Yiddish. And yet, behold, these are the same houses, the same pavements where throngs of Jews came out to watch the parade of students of the Hebrew Gymnasium and members of the youth movements, and listen to their singing on Lag B'Omer (New Year for Trees). Behold, these are the same streets that became silent on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when all the inhabitants of the city gathered in the synagogues. It is as if it had all never existed. The City, which was Jewish until Polish Jewry was cut down, exists only in the memory.

Today, Bialystok is empty of Jews. Up until the First World War, Bialystok had been predominantly Jewish (70% in 1857), but this majority gradually shrank (51% in 1932). The Bialystokers were mostly "Litvaks" - "Misnagdim" and intellectuals. They consisted of industrialists and workers, merchants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, authors, poets, community activists and party officials, artisans, butchers, porters and carters, and also beggars. The smoke-laden skies of Bialystok always appeared grey. The river Biala which crosses the city, and from which its name derives, was shallow, and polluted by industrial waste from factories. The two or three-story houses were also grey, but the newer buildings were finished in white plaster. The municipal park was situated in the heart of the forest near the city, and every Sunday festivities took place there and an orchestra played. Entry to the park was free, and on weekdays housemaids and pauper children congregated there. It was also loved by the youth. Bialystok was no holiday resort but a typical industrial town. The foundations for Jewish settlement in the village of Bialystok were laid by ten families from Grodno who answered the invitation of the Paritz (Squire) Gottschald from Tiktin in the Sixteenth Century. For economic reasons, Gottschald and his successors granted benefits to the Jews who were within the boundaries of their jurisdiction; the Jews lent them money and developed the commerce in the district. (CAPTION to photo: Branitzky Palace, built in 1703, in the style of the Palace of Versailles). For many years (till 1745), the Bialystok community was subordinate to the Tiktin community, and when describing its whereabouts people would say: "Bialystok near Tiktin", and in letters: "Bialystok next to the Holy Community of Tiktin". In the Seventeenth Century, when the District came under the authority of the family of Paritz (Squire) Branitzky,

the community expanded greatly, and in the Eighteenth Century the Jews of the District were granted equal rights to those of the Christians, and the village of Bialystok became a town. The leaders of the Jewish community participated in municipal elections, and the town's Jews received permission to join the artists' guilds even though they paid no taxes to the Church. In 1745 the Bialystok and Tiktin communities separated. Jews also continued to flock to Bialystok under the Prussian regime - from 1795 until the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 - which abolished equal rights for the Jews, and also during the period when Czarist Russia ruled the District (from 1809, the Peace of Vienna, until the First World War), carrying into effect the anti-Jewish edicts of its Prussian predecessor. Those flocking to the town were Jews who had been expelled from their villages by edict of the Czar, and also resourceful Jews looking for means of employment near the border. In 1842 Bialystok was declared the district capital. The Christian mayor had two assistants, one of whom was a Jew. Two Christians and two Jews sat on the Town Council. During the period of the Haskalah (The Enlightenment Movement) "Reformed Heders" were established in the town, in which the language of instruction was Russian, whilst Hebrew was just one of the subjects being taught. (Reformed Heders - a nickname for religious elementary schools for Jewish children in various communities in the past, in which in addition to studying the holy scriptures, the foundations of the Hebrew language were taught, and elementary general subjects such as arithmetic, Jewish history, and sometimes even reading and writing in the language of the country). Industry came to Bialystok following the unsuccessful Polish revolt of 1830. In order to reduce imports from Poland, the Russian Government invited German entrepreneurs to the border town, and they built its first textile factories.

The Jews, noting their success, set up similar factories. The number of Jewish factories grew from year to year, and the number of Jewish textile workers increased considerably. For most of this period the majority of Bialystok's textile factories were under Jewish ownership. On the attachment of the Bialystockers to the Hebrew language, Zeev Golan (Goldstein), one of the Gymnasium's teachers, relates: "The teacher Mr. Menachem Halevi opened a Reformed Heder in our town in which Hebrew was taught in Hebrew, and after six months, Hebrew became for us, his pupils, virtually our mother tongue. We asked our fathers, who were familiar with Hebrew from the Bible and the Talmud, to speak to us in Hebrew, and thus partly Hebrew-speaking families sprang up in the town. This was the beginning of the revival of the language". Towards the end of the last Century, dozens of families emigrated to Eretz Yisrael and some of these were amongst the founders of the Moshava Petah Tikva. At the outbreak of the First World War (1914), there were about one hundred thousand inhabitants in Bialystok, and seventy thousand of these were Jews. A year later, in August 1915, the German Army entered the town.

Before retreating, the Russian soldiers burnt many of the factories, and those which were later rebuilt and supplied their products to the German Army did not prosper. Although money depreciated in value during the war and German supervision was strict and efficient, Bialystok's Jews were not sorry to part from the Czar's rule. They recalled the riots of 1906 in the town, which were the most catastrophic of the wave of disturbances which that year engulfed Jewish townships in Russia (seventy dead, and ninety severely wounded). The Germans proved a disappointment in many ways, but from several aspects the situation of the Jews improved. One of these improvements was recognition by the authorities of the Zionist organizations and parties which had been proscribed during the period of Russian rule. The Zionists were provided with accommodation which they called "The Centre".

In this building, Hebrew lessons were given, lectures took place, and a theatrical group which called itself "The Hebrew Stage" mounted plays in the ancient tongue. The townsfolk exchanged books in the Centre's library, and many of them attended the celebrations which were held there. In 1917 the authorities requisitioned this residence, and Zionist activity then wandered from apartment to apartment until it finally settled down (in 1919) in the "Bet Ha'Am" ("House of the People").

1917 - the last year of the war - was a stormy one in Bialystok, as it was throughout Russia. Young people, who were bewitched by the slogans of the Revolution, argued with their Zionist friends in the street, in public places, and in their homes, and on more than one occasion words developed into fisticuffs. The "Young Zion" movement opened Hebrew courses for adults (one of the teachers in these courses was Shimon Ravidowitz, later professor, an historian of Hebrew literature and Jewish philosophy, and the founder of the "World Hebrew Union"). The 2 November 1917 was a holiday in Bialystok. When news of the Balfour Declaration became known, a large audience gathered in the courtyard of the Crafts School and listened, with tears in their eyes, to speeches promising that a National Home for the Jewish People would be built in the land of their forefathers. One can assume that only a minority of the listeners intended to be amongst the builders of the Home, but the aspiration to emigrate to Israel certainly germinated then in the hearts of many young people. With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, Bialystok was included within the borders of a reborn Poland. The rumours of disturbances perpetrated by the "Hallerchiks" against the Jews of Poznan (by order of the anti-Semitic Polish General Haller) alarmed the inhabitants of the town, and a little while later rumours of the disturbances in the Ukraine during the civil war reached their ears. The rioters did not reach Bialystok that year, life in the city returned to normal, and the name of a newspaper which was published then - "Dos Naaye Leiben" ("The New Life") - bears witness to the hopes of its editors. The following article was written by Yitzhak Dzivak, father of Naomi Shahar, a graduate of the Gymnasium. It helps to explain to some degree the phenomenon of Zionist Bialystok, and answers the question as to why the majority of the city's Jews were Zionists, and sent their children to Hebrew educational institutions.

The Story of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok find out more!

(c) Ya`acov Samid, 2003 Contact Ya`acov Samid