Section of the urban area of Bielsko-Biała, Silesia, in southern Poland. Bielsko (Ger., Bielitz) was a Bohemian town until about 990, then Polish until 1327, when it was once more under Bohemian rule. Beginning in 1526 it was ruled by the Habsburgs; after World War I (in 1920) it became part of Poland, then fell under Nazi rule from 1939 to 1945, after which it became Polish again. Until 1951 it was an independent town, with municipal rights dating to before 1312. The first mention of Jews in Bielsko comes from 1653; and two complaints about Jewish tax collectors were recorded in 1677. Subsequent legislation hindered Jewish settlement.
In 1737, one Jewish family was living legally in Bielsko, along with a small number of textile traders who were there unofficially. In 1746, Bielsko had five Jewish taxpayers; in 1780 records indicate seven families (40 persons) and a certain number of Jews residing there without legal standing. Main occupations during the eighteenth century involved trade, including licensed tobacco trade, and the production and distribution of alcohol. Emperor Joseph II’s Toleranzpatent (Edict of Toleration) in 1781 improved the legal situation, leading to a rise in numbers. In 1790, there were 86 Jews; in 1837 this population was 426. Jews occupied prominent positions in the international textile trade, owning 32 of 59 companies in 1812.
Jews in Bielsko strove to establish an independent community from the beginning of the nineteenth century, but until 1865 they were formally part of the community of Cieszyn. A synagogue was built in 1838 or 1839, followed in 1849 by the founding of a cemetery and in 1850 by the establishment of a religious school. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Jews of Bielsko became strongly Germanized, and in 1848 some participated in the revolution. From 1860 they usually sent five or six councillors to the town’s municipal council.
The Jewish population of Bielsko continued to grow. In 1869, it totaled 1,102 people (10.3% of the town’s population); in 1880 the numbers had grown to 1,660 (12.7%); in 1890 to 1,977 (13.6%); in 1900 to 2,439 (15%); and in 1910 to 3,010 (16.9%). An outstanding scholar, Sha’ul Horowitz, was the rabbi in Bielsko from 1888 to 1896. His successor was Marcus Steiner, who held this position until World War II. Other important personalities were Salomon Halberstamm, a scholar and bibliophile, and Michael Berkowicz, who was Theodor Herzl’s Hebrew secretary.
Cultural and community life flourished in Bielsko. The B’nai B’rith “Austria” lodge (the first in Austria-Hungary), charity organizations, and the town’s first Zionist organization, known as Emunah (from 1896), were all active. Many institutions shared functions with Biała, even though the communities were formally independent. In the 1920s and 1930s, Bielsko was simultaneously an important center of Zionism and of pro-German integration; for the entire interwar period the community was torn by conflicts between these two orientations. The press developed initially in German and from the mid-1930s in Polish as well. In the 1930s antisemitic propaganda intensified, and in 1937 anti-Jewish riots took place.
In 1921, the Jewish community numbered 3,928 persons (20.1% of the population), and by 1930 it had risen to 4,430 (19.8%). On 3 September 1939, German troops marched into Bielsko and immediately burned two synagogues. In the winter of 1939, some Jews were resettled in the area near the Soviet border as a part of the Nisko Aktion. In 1941, a ghetto was created and was liquidated on 20 June 1942, when approximately 400 Jews were transported to Auschwitz and murdered. The remaining population was resettled in other ghettos.
In July 1946, the number of Jewish repatriates in Bielsko and Biała was 2,685. By November of that year it had fallen to 1,695 and by 1949 to 1,041. There were political parties, a weaving school, a Jewish committee, an orphanage, and a religious community. In the early twenty-first century, the Jewish community in Bielsko-Biała numbered about 50.
“Beyelsko-Beya’lah (Bielsko-Biała),” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 3, Galitsyah ha-ma’arivit ve-Silezyah, pp. 78–88 (Jerusalem, 1984); The History of the Jews from Bielsko-Biala (Tel Aviv, 1987); Elijahu Miron, ed., Bilits Byala (Bielsko Biyala): Pirke ‘avar (Tel Aviv, 1973); Jerzy Polak and Janusz Spyra, eds., Żydzi w Bielsku, Białej i okolicy: Materiały z sesji naukowej odbytej w dniu 19 stycznia 1996 r. (Bielsko-Biała, Pol., 1996), summaries in English.
Translated from Polish by Bartek Madejski