The oldest part of the Jewish district called Szulhof (Shulhof), with the majority of its inhabitants being orthodox, was concentrated around the main synagogue and it was located in the southern part of Suraska Street. The second center of religious life was located in the vicinity of Kupiecka (Malmeda) Street, Żydowska (Fornalska) Street and Giełdowa (Spółdzielcza) Street. Its center was a modern synagogue called Chorszul [6.1] . In the 18th and the 19th centuries, the districts ”Chanajki” and “Piaski” (Streets: Młynowa, Grunwaldzka, Kijowska, Mławska, Cieszyńska, Angielska, Sosnowa and Rynek Sienny), were home to the poorest members of the Jewish population of Białystok. These districts were dominated by single storey wooden buildings, though some brick buildings did also appear, including a three-storey building at 23 Młynowa Street, where a Jewish nail factory had been located before the war.
The years of World War I, which took the life of about 6,000 Jews from Białystok, were a time of deepening economic crisis. The community fought the crisis by organizing aid for the most needy. The city’s aid and philanthropy societies arranged homes for children, sleeping places and eating-houses. The number of Jewish persons had fallen almost by half already during the years of World War I. There were 39,602 living there in 1921, that is 51% of the total population. The difficult economic situation caused by recession, rapid economic changes and general crises in the textile industry, contributed to another emigration wave of Jews from Białystok, which continued in the 1920s and 1930s. After a short period of relative prosperity (1926–1928), when Jewish textile producers and merchants from Białystok begun to expand onto far-east markets, Hungary and the Balkans, the 1930’s welcomed yet another period of stagnation. Some of the largest factories were demolished at that time, causing a 25% drop in production and contributing to a further deepening of the economic crisis. Only 110 factories survived till 1939 [6.2] .
During the interwar period, due to, among other factors, mass migration of Jews from Białystok to the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Palestine, and also because of the gradual processes of assimilation and secularization which touched some of the Jewish intelligentsia, the percentage of Jewish believers in Białystok started to decline, reaching a low of 43% of the city population in 1936.
The interwar period was also a time of political activity – all of the most prominent Jewish political parties of Poland functioned in the city, and the Białystok Jewish society was a mosaic of quite antagonized and diversified political opinions. The conservative groups (Agudas Israel), aimed at maintaining the community’s unity based on a common religious identity functioned aside Zionist parties (Poalej Syjon, Mizrachi), whose goal was to create the state of Israel on Palestinian territory and also the worker’s party Bund, which claimed Poland to be the homeland to all Jews. Associated with each particular political group were the youth organizations and organizations dealing with social, cultural and charity matters. The city’s Jewish educational system (elementary and secondary level) was prospering and cultural life was booming. In 1912, Nahum Zemach set up the Jewish theatre “Habima” (Hebrew for scene) in Białystok, which later laid foundations for the Jewish National Theatre in Tel Aviv. The theatre staged mainly modern plays in the Hebrew language. In 1913, a theatre group from Białystok went on tour to Vienna, where, during the 11th Zionist Congress, they performed a play by Osip Dymow, Szma Isroel (Listen Israel). The theatre, abolished during World War I, was reactivated by N. Zemach in Moscow. In 1915, on the initiative of the Association of Jewish Youth and the Association of Polish Youth, the Szolem Alejchem library was opened in Białystok. It had over 10,000 Polish and Yiddish books and a rich collection of Judaica. In 1921, the Jewish Literary Association was brought to life [6.3] Moreover, there were two Jewish cinemas (“Apollo” and “Modern”) operating there, as well as sports clubs, including the Jewish Sports Club “Makabi” or “Morgensztern”. Several Jewish daily newspapers were published in the city, including (founded in 1919) “Dos Naye Leben”, “Unser Leben”, leftist: “Bialistoker Werker”, “Der Bialistoker Arbajter” (issued since 1897) and “Bialistoker Sztern”, Zionist “Unser Weg”, ”Bialistoker Tagblatt” to name a few [6.4] .
[6.1] T. Wiśniewski, Bóżnice..., p. 136, compare: M. Sokołowski, Historia….
[6.2] Białystok [entry] [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish …, p. 139.
[6.3] M. Sokołowski, Historia….
[6.4] Białystok [entry] [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish …, p. 140.
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