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 [6.1] 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 [6.2] .
In this period, Białystok was also an important Jewish religious center. Almost all existing religious groups and sects were active there, both orthodox and Hasidic alike. Apart from two large synagogues, there were about 100 beit ha-midrashes and private prayer houses, often having their own large libraries. Moreover, functioning under the community’s patronage was a twelve-grade Talmud Torah School and a yeshiva, which gained a significant position after World War I [6.3] .
On 15 September 1939, the city was taken over by Germans, however, merely a week later, the Red Army entered Białystok under the German-Soviet agreement. On 27 September, the city was incorporated into the USSR as a part of the Byelorussian People’s Republic. Jewish companies were then closed down, while Jewish political, social and educational institutions were to be from then on considered illegal. Many Jewish and also Polish “capitalists” were arrested and deported to Siberia. At the same time thousands of refugees from other parts of the country occupied by the German army began to pour into the city. According to estimates, the number of Jews staying in the city at the turn of 1939 and 1940 could have been anywhere from about fifty to sixty thousand.
Germans seized Białystok again on 27 June 1941, and stayed there until 27 July 1944. On 28 June 1941, the Nazis quenched and burned down the Jewish district “Chanajki”, together with the building of the Great Synagogue, with 1,000 – 2,000 people locked inside (“Red Friday”). According to records, about 5,000 Jews died at that time [6.4] . On 3rd July, in the fields of nearby Pietrasze, Germans committed a mass murder of about 300 Jewish intellectualists. A similar execution was carried out in that same place on 12th July – about 2,000 – 5,000 men were killed (“Black Saturday”)[6.5]
[6.1] M. Sokołowski, Historia….
[6.2] Białystok [entry] [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish …, p. 140.
[6.3] M. Sirota, Torah Institutions And Leaders [in:] The Białystoker Memorial Book…, p. 28.
[6.4] According to: http://www.Białystoker.org/Białystok.htm [accessed on 2nd February 2009
[6.5] Białystok [entry] [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish …, p. 140; Białystok [entry] [in:] Encyclopaedia Judaica…, p. 567; R. Rajzner, The Last Chapter Of The Community [in:] The Białystoker Memorial Book…, p. 89;http://polin.org.pl/cities/165/takbylo/15/ [accessed on 2nd February 2009].
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