Industrial city in northeastern Poland, Białystok (Rus., Belostok) sits nestled in a heavily wooded area that divides central Poland from Belarus and Lithuania. The town, originally founded in 1320, remained part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1795, after which it became part of Prussia. In 1807, Białystok was incorporated into the Russian Empire, and in 1921 it fell under the aegis of the Second Polish Republic. As it shifted between these regimes, Białystok grew into a multiethnic, industrial city, home to Poles, Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, and an unusually large Jewish population—both in absolute numbers and in its percentage of the total population.
“The Role Played by Jews in the Growth of Białystok and Its Industry.” Exhibition at a school belonging to TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization). Among the posters are (left) a map showing exports shipped internationally from Białystok and (to its right) a drawing stating (in Yiddish and Polish) “The Białystok textile workers are united!” (YIVO)
While the first record of Jewish settlement in the city dates from 1588, by the late nineteenth century, Jews made up more than 75 percent of the city’s 62,993 residents. Their dominating presence drove the city’s industrial expansion. Prussian weavers founded Białystok’s first textile factories in the eighteenth century, producing high-quality woolen fabrics. Jewish entrepreneurs, who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, focused on producing lower-quality synthetic wool, which was marketed to Russia’s growing middle class. Increased demand for such fabric, along with the establishment of Białystok as a central depot in the Warsaw–Saint Petersburg railway line, enabled the city’s textile industry to flourish: while only 89 mills existed in Białystok in 1867, by 1897 there were 309. By 1898, Jews owned 80 percent of the city’s large mills; Jewish workers constituted 83.9 percent of the workforce in nonmechanized factories; and Jews comprised 88 percent of the city’s shopkeepers. By 1921, Jews ran 93 percent of the city’s businesses and owned 89 percent of its factories.
Long periods of economic recession along with the exploitative methods employed by factory owners provoked labor unrest in nineteenth-century Białystok, leading to the establishment of revolutionary Jewish political parties. In 1882, 70 weavers abandoned their looms in one textile factory and demanded increased wages, an act considered the first major strike in Russian Jewish society. Its success prompted other workers to organize similar protests. In later years, the Bund attracted many Jews in Białystok; indeed, between 1900 and 1902 its central committee, in exile from Vilna, directed its operations from Białystok. The local Bund’s underground newspaper, Der bialistoker arbayter (The Białystoker Worker) inculcated in its readers the idea that Jewish socialism entailed a commitment to improving working conditions for Jewish workers and overthrowing the tsar. By the end of the nineteenth century, Białystok had become a hotbed of revolutionary political activity with Jews swelling the ranks of dozens of illegal political organizations; among these was the Socialist Revolutionary Party that successfully orchestrated the 1903 assassination of Białystok’s chief of police.
Street in the Jewish neighborhood, Białystok, Poland, ca. 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (YIVO)
Białystok also served as a center for the Ḥibat Tsiyon and Esperanto movements. The former, founded in 1882, was led by Białystok’s chief rabbi, Shemu’el Mohilewer (1824–1898), who successfully persuaded Baron Edmund de Rothschild to support settlement in Palestine. Following Mohilewer’s death, Józef Chazanowicz (1844–1919), founder of the National Library in Jerusalem, assumed Mohilewer’s mantle, inspiring thousands to rally behind the Zionist cause. Ludwik Zamenhof (1859–1917), the architect of the Esperanto movement, wrote Lingvo internacia (The International Language) in 1887 to promote ethnic understanding and eradicate senseless violence; he claimed that his childhood experiences in Białystok, where he watched Jews, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians taunt each other, convinced him of the need for a common language.
A large pogrom erupted in Białystok on 1 June 1906, leaving more than 200 Jews dead, 700 wounded, and hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses destroyed. While there were many pogroms in Russia during the period of the 1905 Revolution, the ferocity of anti-Jewish violence in Białystok had a formative impact on both Russian and Russian Jewish society. The Duma openly clashed with the central tsarist government, blaming them along with local police for promoting and tolerating such violence. Jews responded by openly questioning their political future in the Russian Empire through the embrace of radical political movements, mass migration, and Zionism.
Passover seder organized after World War II by the reconstituted kehilah, Białystok, 1945. (YIVO)
During World War I, Białystok found itself at the center of heavy fighting. Tactics employed by Russian and German armies devastated the local economy, uprooted thousands, spread famine and disease throughout the region, and decimated the local population. The city’s Jewish population plummeted from 70,000 in 1913 to only 37,186 in 1921. Białystok’s economy never fully recovered from the devastation of the war. The loss of the Russian market in 1920, the Polish government’s unwillingness to invest in Białystok’s redevelopment, and hyperinflation compounded these difficulties. A boycott of Jewish businesses in 1937 left many Jews in Białystok unemployed and impoverished. With the help of overseas Jewish philanthropy, Białystok’s Jewish community rebuilt communal welfare institutions and supported a vibrant Jewish cultural life. Białystok Jewry supported the publication of four daily Yiddish newspapers and the development of an extensive array of Jewish schools, most notably a Zionist Tarbut educational system, whose teachers inspired many of its graduates, such as future Israeli prime minister Yitsḥak Shamir, to settle in Palestine.
March commemorating the sixth anniversary of the uprising in the Białystok ghetto, Białystok, 1949. (YIVO)
During World War II, Białystok was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Thousands fleeing Nazi clutches settled in Białystok, and the city’s Jewish population swelled to more than 200,000. By 27 June 1941, when Białystok fell under Nazi control, approximately 50,000 Jews remained in the city. Shortly after occupying Białystok, Nazi forces massacred hundreds, and burned down the main Jewish neighborhood and the chief synagogue with more than 1,000 people inside; a ghetto was established in July 1941 for the city’s remaining Jews. Between 1941 and 1942, the ghetto operated as a forced labor camp. In 1942, the Jewish Fighting Organization in Warsaw sent Mordekhai Tenenbaum (1916–1943) to organize a resistance movement in the Białystok ghetto. Initially, his efforts were supported by Judenrat leaders, and the Białystok ghetto revolt began in August 1943. After three days, when his ammunition ran out, Tenenbaum committed suicide and many of his followers fled to the forest to join the partisans. The final liquidation of the ghetto took place on 16 August 1943. After the war, approximately 1,100 Jews returned to Białystok; few Jews remained in the city after 1950, and by 1997, just 5 Jews lived in Białystok.
Sara Bender, Mul mavet orev: Yehude Byalistok be-Milḥemet ha-‘Olam ha-Sheniyah, 1939–1943 (Tel Aviv, 1997); Herman Frank, David Klementinowski, and Zeydl Khabatski, eds., Natsyonale un politishe bavegungen bay yidn in Byalistok: Materyal tsu der geshikhte (New York, 1951); Abraham Herschberg and Mark Yudl, eds., Pinkes Bialystok: Grunt-materyaln tsu der geshikhte fun di yidn in Bialystok biz nokh der ershter velt-milkhome, 2 vols. (New York, 1949–1950); Yisra’el Shmulewitsch, ed., Der Byalistoker yizker bukh (New York, 1982).