Although Jews had already been settling in the area of Biała Podlask in the 16th century, the first Jewish people to live in the town itself most probably arrived there in early 17th century. The oldest references to the Jewish community of Biała can be found in the privilege granted to the town by Prince Alexander Radziwiłł in 1621. However, the Jewish settlers must have appeared in Biała earlier. According to the historical sources, in 1621 the number of houses purchased in Biała by Jews exceeded 30, which may indicate that at least 30 Jewish families had been living there by that time. Initially, the community was subordinate to the kehilla in Brześć, but it quickly gained independence. The Jewish people living in Biała, similarly to those who lived in other Polish towns, earned a living from trade and crafts, as well as from inn-keeping, tenancy and conducting credit and monetary transactions[1.1]. A characteristic feature of Biała and the entire Podlasie region was a relatively high percentage of Jewish people employed in the production and sale of alcoholic beverages (over 50% in the whole region)[1.2].

After 1817, a noticeable decrease in the activity of Jewish entrepreneurs was observed in Biała and in the entire Kingdom of Poland. A series of edicts was issued at that time, limiting the scope of the economic activity of Jewry, as well as the scope of their personal freedom. The ban on selling real estate to Jews was strictly obeyed; also the so-called Jewish districts were introduced in towns. The  situation changed in favour of Jews in the 1860s, causing considerable expansion of the Jewish population in the business and industry.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the Jewish population of Biała prevailed demographically over other ethnic and religious groups. In 1841, it amounted to 2,200 people, constituting 61% of the town’s population. In 1850, the number increased up to 3,500 Jewish residents, constituting  63% of the town total population.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Jewish community of Biała consisted mainly of poor citizens. They were involved in petty trade and crafts. However, there were also several dozen of entrepreneurs and manufacturers belonging to the financial elite of the town. These were, among others: Rubin – a merchant, Hoffer – the owner of the pharmaceutical warehouse in Brzeska Street, Piżyc – owner of many tenement houses, Ordański and Finhelsztejn – merchants, Lustigman and Goldsztejn – co-owners of the ritual meat factory at 19 Wolności Square[1.3].

According to the national census of 1921, the Jewish people constituted the majority of residents in Biała, i.e. over 66% percentage of the town population[1.4]. The Jewish community was in charge of five synagogues, six houses of prayer, a mikveh, two cemeteries, a Jewish hospital, three residential houses, a Talmud Torah school, seven shops and several squares and gardens[1.5].

In the interwar period, a factory of wooden goods owned Jewish entrepreneur Raabe, producing pins and lasts for internal sale and for export, was operating in Biała. In 1925, it employed 133 people[1.6].

The activity of the Jewish population in Biała Podlaska was also focused on co-operative work. There were three co-operative banks in the town: Shareholders’ Bank (est. 1923), Merchants’ Bank (est. 1925) and People’s Bank (est. in 1926, dissolved in 1932[1.7].

In the interwar period, Jewish people played a significant role in the town council of Biała Podlaska. The Jewish parties gained 11 seats in the 1923 election, 10 seats in 1927, and only four seats in elections held in 1935 and 1939. The outcomes were caused by the weakening position and role of Jewry in the political and social life of Biała Podlaska in the period before World War II, as well as by a noticeable decrease in the number of Jews living in Biała (in 1938, the Jewish community amounted only to 36% of the town’s population) caused by mass emigration of the local Jewish residents to the USA and Palestine[1.8].

In the years 1918–1939, four Yiddish magazines were published in Biała Podlaska. From 1926, the local branch of the Zionist Organisation issued a magazine called Bialer Wochenblat. It was a weekly newspaper published in Polish and Yiddish at the amount of 500 copies, covering social, cultural and political issues, edited initially by Szmul Wierenfeld, and later by Chaim Miodek[1.9]. Another magazine published in the town was Podlasier Lebn, which was formally independent, although actually sympathising with the Zionist Organisation. Chaim Rozmaryn was its publisher. Naj Podlasier Lebn was another independent paper; however, it was published for only a short period of time. In 1938, a weekly paper called Podlasjer Sztyme was published; it was first edited by Noech Kramarz, and later by Herszk Nuchowicz[1.10].

In September 1939, Biała Podlaska was conquered by the Soviet Army, and in October the German Army entered the town. In December, Germans deported about 3,000 Jewish people from Suwałki and Serock to Biała, and some time later – about 1,000 Jewish POWs, i.e. soldiers of the Polish Army imprisoned by the Soviet Army. Germans also demolished the brick synagogue located at Szkolny Dwór Street. From 1941 to 17 November 1942, a labour camp for Jews existed in Biała Podlaska. It was called “Vineta” and was located in barracks in the suburbs of the Wola district. Its prisoners (around 3,000 people) worked in locksmith workshops and performed melioration works. Most of them died of hunger, exhaustion and illnesses, including a typhus epidemic. On 15 December 1942, 40 camp prisoners were executed in the nearby Grabarka forest; the remaining ones were transported in an unknown direction[1.11].

A ghetto was established in Biała Podlaska in March 1941. About 8,400 people from the town and the county were placed there. The ghetto was situated in the town centre, within the following streets: Grabanowska (present: Moniuszki), Janowska, Prosta and Sadowa. People living in the ghetto were employed to clear debris from the destroyed Brześć fortress, regulate the River Krzna and build an airport in Małaszewicze. Moreover, they worked at the construction of new streets in the town and performed cleaning services. People who were ill or unable to work were executed at the local Jewish cemetery. Many Jews from the ghetto died of typhoid fever and typhus spreading in the ghetto, especially in the spring of 1942 (due to abhorrent sanitary conditions). Initially, the ill were transported to the Jewish hospital, but later on, due to lack of places there, they were executed. The total number of people from the Biała Podlaska ghetto shot in four executions in the Grabarka forest from June to August amounted to about 680-880. Their bodies were buried at the place of their execution[1.12].

The dissolution of the ghetto began on 10 June 1942. A group of over 3,000 Jews from Biała Podlaska was deported to the death camp in Sobibór. Over the following months, people from dissolved ghettos in smaller localities were resettled in Biała Podlaska, i.a. 378 Jews from Podedworze, 1,883 Jews from Janów Podlaski and 1,150 Jews from Konstantynów[1.13].

In September 1942, the final dissolution began. Ca. 3,600 Jewish people were killed in the town in September and October. Some of them were executed inside the ghetto (ca. 600 people), some at the cemetery (ca. 1,000 people) and others at the square called “Popówka” (ca. 2,000 people). The remaining Jews from Biała Podlaska, together with those from Podedworze, Janów Podlaski and Konstantynów (ca. 6,000 people in total) were transported in wagons and later forced to go on foot to Międzyrzec Podlaski. The Jewish people gathered in Międzyrzec were transported by trains to the death camp in Treblinka. The last transport of Jews to Treblinka departed from Biała Podlaska in July 1943[1.14]. In total, ca. 5,424 Jewish people from the town and municipality of Biała Podlaska were killed; only ca. 30 people managed to escape while they were being transported and survive in hiding until the end of the war.

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Leszczyński A., Z dziejów Żydów Podlasia (1487–1795), „Studia Podlaskie” 1989, vol. II, p. 7.
  • [1.2] Goldberg J., Żyd i karczma miejska na Podlasiu w XVIII wieku, „Studia Podlaskie” 1989, vol. 2, pp. 28–29.
  • [1.3] Jadczak S., Biała Podlaska, dzieje miasta i jego zabytki, Lublin 1993, p. 44.
  • [1.4] Informator Powszechny Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej z kalendarzem Policji Państwowej na rok 1922, Warszawa, n.d., p. 357.
  • [1.5] Zaporowski Z., Ludność żydowska w Białej Podlaskiej w latach 1918–1939, Studia Podlaskie 1989, vol. II, p. 272.
  • [1.6] Zaporowski Z., Ludność żydowska w Białej Podlaskiej w latach 1918–1939, Studia Podlaskie 1989, vol. II, p. 271.
  • [1.7] Zaporowski Z., Ludność żydowska w Białej Podlaskiej w latach 1918–1939, „Studia Podlaskie” 1989, vol. II, pp. 281–282.
  • [1.8] Zaporowski Z., Ludność żydowska w Białej Podlaskiej w latach 1918–1939, „Studia Podlaskie” 1989, vol. II, pp. 271, 282.
  • [1.9] Zaporowski Z., Ludność żydowska w Białej Podlaskiej w latach 1918–1939, „Studia Podlaskie” 1989, vol. II, p. 275.
  • [1.10] Jadczak S., Biała Podlaska, dzieje miasta i jego zabytki, Lublin 1993, pp. 44–45.
  • [1.11] Doroszuk J., Zagłada obywateli polskich pochodzenia żydowskiego [in] Zbrodnie hitlerowskie w regionie bialskopodlaskim 1939–1944, Lublin 1997, p. 140.
  • [1.12] Jadczak S., Biała Podlaska, dzieje miasta i jego zabytki, Lublin 1993, p. 59; Doroszuk J., Zagłada obywateli polskich pochodzenia żydowskiego [in] Zbrodnie hitlerowskie w regionie bialskopodlaskim 1939–1944, Lublin 1997, p. 140.
  • [1.13] Doroszuk J., Zagłada obywateli polskich pochodzenia żydowskiego, [in] Zbrodnie hitlerowskie w regionie bialskopodlaskim 1939–1944, Lublin 1997, p. 135; Leszczyński K., Eksterminacja ludności na ziemiach polskich w latach 1939–1945, „Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce” 1957, vol. IX, pp. 172, 174, 243.
  • [1.14] Siemion L., Egzekucje na Lubelszczyźnie, „Zeszyty Majdanka” 1969, vol. 3, p. 168; Doroszuk J., Zagłada obywateli polskich pochodzenia żydowskiego, [in] Zbrodnie hitlerowskie w regionie bialskopodlaskim 1939–1944, Lublin 1997, p. 137.