To the Heroes of Bialystok
Commemoration to the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising
Bialystok Poland - August 16, 2018
On Friday, June 27, 1941, at 6PM, here in Bialystok, some 2000 Jewish souls, including my two grandmothers, my father's only sister, all my other relatives, friends and neighbors, were marched under gun-point by Nazi soldiers into the Bialystoker Grosse Shul---the famous synagogue of Bialystok---all the doors and windows were locked and the entire structure was hosed down with gasoline---and set on fire.
All that remains today is a memorial with the steel skeleton of its famous Byzantine Dome.
The first Jewish settlers in Bialystok can be traced back to 1514. Two hundred years later, in 1742, Polish Count, Jan Klements Branicki, elevated the village of Bialystok to the status of a city. Aware of the talents and values of Jews, he offered them land and materials to settle in the new city. Most important, Count Branicki granted Jews equal rights. It was an historic act and the pivotal reason why Jews settled here. The Count also built the towering clock-tower as a symbol for innovation and advancement of the city Bialystok.
Thus, from its the inception, the Jews of Bialystok played a major role in the life and growth of this city. Throughout the following centuries, in spite of bursts of anti-Semitism and Pogroms which plagued Jews over much of Russia and Poland, Bialystok continued to grow and prosper. Life was normal. Still, the overwhelming majority of Bialystok Jews remained poor workers and small shopkeepers. But they were resourceful. Bialystok became a center in textiles, ultimately becoming the third largest textile manufacturer in Europe. And some of them became famous. It was the birthplace of Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, the International Language, and Yizhak Shamir, the Israeli Prime Minister.
Bialystok’s unique history also became known for founding cultural and social institutions. It gained an intelligentsia that included writers, scientists, actors, musicians, artists, and political and religious scholars. It boasted more than one hundred synagogues.
In the late 18th century, Jews in Vilna and Bialystok founded an anti-Communist labor movement known as the Bund. It fought for better worker conditions for both Poles and Jews. Its chief architect, Vladimir Medem, promoted cultural autonomy for Jews, embracing the Yiddish language as its core feature, and advocating that Jews become citizens within the nation they lived, rather than being a separate religious sect. This Bund’s vision attracted great Jewish masses to its fold.
Both my parents were ardent Bundistn as well as teachers in a Yiddish public school, The Grosser shul---named after Bronislaw Grosser--- the legendary Bundist writer and theorist. The Grosser school had the distinction of being accredited by the Polish government, allowing its grammar school graduates to be accepted into the Polish Gymnasium. It represented a defining moment in Poland’s history---a clear sign that the Polish population on the whole was accepting the integration of Jewish and Polish cultures. Although anti-Semitism remained endemic with vicious Pogroms throughout Poland’s and Russian history, Bialystok was far and away the leader in advancing harmony
Before the war there were 110,000 Jews living in Bialystok representing over 60 percent of the city's population---higher even than the percentage of Jews in Warsaw. Sadly, when my family returned to Bialystok in year 2000---a homecoming of sorts---the Mayor of Bialystok, Richard Tur advised us that we had come too late. The last Bialystok Jew had died three weeks before we came. There were no Jews in Bialystok.
Almost immediately upon its recapture of Bialystok in 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto for the remaining 50,000 Jews. It wasn’t long before the ghetto inhabitants began to talk about organizing a resistance movement.
The concept of staying vigilant was born with the Jewish Self-Defense League formed during the Pogrom in June 1906--which fought against the advancing Czarist soldiers with arms and hand grenades. At that juncture Bialystok had become the hotbed of revolutionary political activity where Jews in unison with Polish workers fought side by side with a goal to improving working conditions and overthrowing the Tsar.
The Second World War version of Self Defense was entirely different---without any hope or chance of success. The Jews would be taking on the might of the German Wehrmacht. The brazen group of Jewish leaders were mostly young, in their twenties and thirties and had no military experience. They were led by the likes of Mordechai Tenenbaum, Daniel Moszkowicz, Yitzhak Fleischer, Zivia Lbetkin, Abba Kovner, Alexander Bogen and others. Tenenbaum had been one of the organizers of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters. He had the same mission in Bialystok. Upon his arrival in Bialystok in November 1942, Tenenbaum’s message was unbelievable but clear: The Germans meant to murder them all. It was an insane concept. Such an idea may have been possible in ancient times, but in the 20th Century? Tenenbaum’s solution was even more difficult to embrace:
“Let us fall as heroes, and though we die, yet we shall live.”
During that moment in history for many Poles there seemed to be a mutual recognition of the evil the Nazis represented. It is estimated that the Nazis killed over five million non-Jewish civilians during World War II. In May of 1940, the German occupation authorities launched AB-Aktion, a plan to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia and leadership class. Many Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. Over 6,600 individuals are recognized as the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel---more than from any other country. Similarly, Jews were serving in the Polish Army, 38,000 of them, the highest percentage of Jews in any army in the new world.
Jewish political factions within the ghetto, Zionist, Bundists along with other political parties, had differing opinions on organizing for resistance. In January 1942, the Jewish underground in the Vilna ghetto sent Chaika Grosman back to her hometown of Bialystok to organize a united front and overcome differences in ideology and strategy.
Chaika Grosman became one of the glorious heroes in Bialystok, constantly risking her life by working on both sides of the wall. In similar fashion as Valdka Meed did in Warsaw. Her real name was Feigele Pettel. Both women, using Aryan names, became instrumental in the resistance movement collecting information and bringing guns and ammunition to the ghetto.
Miraculously, both women survived the Holocaust. In 1948, Chaika settled in Israel and was elected to Parliament, the Knesset. She died on May 26, 1996. Vladka fought in the Warsaw ghetto alongside her future husband, Benjamin Miedzyrzecki (Meed.) Both survived and made it to the US. Benjamin was a principal leader in the construction of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. He passed away on October 26, 2006 and Vladka on November 21, 2012
Finally, at the end of July 1943, all the Jewish underground groups in the ghetto agreed to form a united armed front called The Bialystok Organization of Jewish Self-Defense. Chaika Grosman was elected as a member of the command staff. The unified organization issued the following proclamation to the entire Jewish population. As a child, I proudly memorized those words:
Don’t be lambs for slaughter! Fight for your life to the last breath.... Remember the example and tradition of numerous generations of Jewish fighters, martyrs, thinkers and builders, pioneers, and creators. Come out to the streets and fight.
In normal time, I would have just entered fourth grade in grammar school. Probably, at the Grosser Shul. We would have been learning the multiplication tables and about the history of Poland.
All of my would-be classmates are gone. Instead of arithmetic Hitler turned Poland into a factory of death. Instead of learning geography, they were taken unto cattle trains, instead of writing, they were taken to gas chambers, or starved, or to forced labor, infectious diseases, individual execution or medical experiments.
Fate chose that I should survive. What possessed my parents to leave house and household, their jobs as schoolteachers, all our relatives, friends, all their possessions, and run? But where? There was no destination. And this was before anyone in the world knew what the Nazis planned.
Our miraculous escape was made possible by my parents who sensed what was coming and judged to flee, and Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara who gave out over 2000 Transit Visas, over objections from his Foreign Office, to all of us trapped in Lithuania with nowhere to go and the hangman coming to murder us all. Our journey to safety spanned two years, three contents, six languages, the Trans-Siberian Railroad across all of Siberia to Vladivostok, then to Tsuruga Japan, and finally the US. In this circuitous fashion, I was among the fortunate few who escaped the unspeakable horrors in Europe.
Chiune Sugihara is today among the most lauded humanitarians in world history. He is recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. I am committed to perpetuate his memory and his singular message: Every individual has within him the power to make a difference!
But let there be no doubt about it. Although---Treblinka, Gross-Rosen, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and other killing centers---were in Poland, they were built by the Nazis under orders from Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Goebbels, and Hermann Goering, to name just a few---indescribable villains of the Third Reich who perpetrated the world’s most heinous act of genocide---known today as the Holocaust.
Barbaric atrocities that President Dwight D. Eisenhower found impossible to describe. “How is it possible to do justice to demonic acts that beggar[ed] description?" He asked.
Alas, the world closed its eyes and shut its ears while an act of monstrous proportion—one that left an indelible blot on human history---was inflicted on the Jewish people.
On the night of August 15, 1943, German soldiers and SS units began preparations for the final liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto. After surrounding the ghetto, they sent troops into the factory area. The following day, German authorities ordered the remaining Jews to assemble for deportation. They were met by the Bialystok Self-Defense Organization.
It is recorded that a group of about 300 to 500 Jewish insurgents armed with only one machine gun, 25 rifles and 100 pistols as well as home-made Molotov cocktails for grenades, attacked the overwhelming German force.
Although the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the ghetto fighting in Bialystok lasted six days; the Germans had to use tanks, artillery, and even airplanes to quell the uprising. Unofficial data and eyewitness accounts put the Nazi losses at 100 soldiers killed. The fight left a smoldering Białystok in ruins.
As with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising earlier in May of 1943, and as with similar rebellions in more than 60 ghettos and in about 100 regions---including those well-documented in Kovno, Vilna, Minsk, Lachva, Novogruok, Lublin, and Krakow, as well as uprisings in death camps, irrespective of fences, guard towers, machine guns, searchlights, and vicious dogs, including those in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz/Birkenau---the Białystok Uprising had no chance for military success. Nor was that ever the goal.
The Jews of Bialystok, as those in all the Uprisings, answered the call: Fight for your life to the last breath. It was a tradition that is thousands of years old---like the Maccabees, who in ancient times, against the odds, took on the forces of Antiochus, the Hellenistic Greek King after he forbade Jews from practicing their religion.
Like the Macabees, the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising will forever remain an exalted flashpoint of pride for Jewish people everywhere.
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