Bialystok [Yiddish, Bialistok] - Granted its
town charter in 1749, Bialystok was owned by the Branickis, and served
as their family seat. The Jews were invited to the town in the second
half of the seventeenth century; their presence was first noted in a
document from 1658. In the beginning, the Community was under the
jurisdiction of the kahal in Tykocin; in 1745, it gained full
independence. In 1765, according to the census, there were 761 Jews
living in Bialystok; by 1799, there were already 1788 (almost 50% of the
town's total residents). Beginning in 1795, Bialystok was under the
Prussian partition; after 1809, it fell under Russian rule.
In the nineteenth century, the city became an important hub for the
textile industry as the center of the Bialystok Industrial District. The
development of the textile industry prompted the introduction of
customs duties on textile products manufactured in the Kingdom of Poland
that were then exported to Russia proper. In order to avoid these fees,
the textile plants in the Kingdom were moved to the Bialystok District.
During this period, the Bialystok Jewish Community became one of the
most influential in all the lands of the old Commonwealth. The railroad
links to Warsaw and Petersburg also spurred economic development, and
the population increased several times over.
Jews began arriving who had been forced to leave the guberniia that
lay outside the pale of settlement, as well as those from nearby small
towns and villages who came in search of work in the large factories.
In 1878, over 20,000 Jews were living in
Bialystok, or 59% of its total residents. In 1895, this figure was
47,000 (76%). In 1899, Jews owned 299 of the 372 textile manufacturing
plants, most of which were small workshops producing cheap, low-quality
textiles. In the late nineteenth century, Bialystok became an important
center of Jewish political life. In 1880, the Zionist group Mizrachi was
founded there, led by Rabbi S. Mohilewer. Beginning in 1897, the Bund
party was active in Bialystok as well, and published a newspaper, Der
Bialistoker Arbaiter (Yiddish, The Bialystok Worker). There were also
Jewish unions and professional organizations. The city became a
significant cultural center. The Haskalah wielded a strong influence
there, and there were many progressive Jewish schools, as well as sports
and youth organizations.
On June 3, 1906, Bialystok was the scene of a violent pogrom
instigated by the tsarist secret police, the okhrana. Seventy people
died, and ninety were wounded. In the early twentieth century, the city
began to lose its importance as an industrial center. Many of its
residents decided to move in search of work, mostly to the United
States, where they founded organizations for Jews from Bialystok.
Although emigration meant the proportion of
Jews in Bialystok's total population fell significantly, the city
remained home to one of the largest Jewish communities in interwar
Poland. In 1932, there were approximately 39,000 Jews living in
Bialystok, or 52% of its population.
In 1939, the city found itself under Soviet occupation. After the
Germans entered on July 26, 1941, a ghetto was created, which grouped
together Jews from the surrounding area and held a total of 40,000
people. In November 1942, M. Tenenbaum, sent from the Warsaw ghetto,
managed to enter the ghetto in Bialystok; his mission was to organize a
resistance movement. In February 1943, during the first liquidation
action, at which time approximately 10,000 people were sent to
Treblinka, an attempt was made to wage an armed resistance. During the
final liquidation of the ghetto on August 16, 1943, there was an
uprising, led by Tenenbaum and D. Moskowicz. After it failed, both
committed suicide. In the course of five days, all the ghetto's
residents were sent to the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps.
After the Second World War, a Jewish Committee was active in
Bialystok until 1947, as well as numerous cultural, religious and
professional institutions. Currently, the city has no Jewish
organizations. Only one synagogue remains in Bialystok, dating back to
the early twentieth century, the "Beit Shmuel", which today houses a
sports center; one of the five original cemeteries remains, which has
several thousand graves.