It has always amazed me how a 5-year-old child could remember so vividly 70 years later the tragic events which he witnessed. But my father, somehow, remembered. Perhaps it was discussed in his family years after the event occurred when he was old enough to understand.
The big city of Bialystok was a paradise for Jews. More than 60 percent of the city’s population were Jews, mainly in the textile business. Relations between Jews, Russians and Poles were usually cordial and they met one another every Thursday morning in the large central market square where peasants came to sell their fruits and vegetables.
The mayor of Bialystok was a Polish Catholic and enjoyed good relations with the Jewish citizens who valued his friendship.
In the early 1900’s the cauldron was already on the fire in Czarist Russia. Revolutionaries, many of them Jews, were stirring up troubles which Czar Nicholas II could not permit. They were a threat to the stability of the Russian empire. Assassinations were frequent for leaders of the revolutions in an attempt to instill fear into the hearts of the followers.
On Thursday morning, June 14, 1906 hundreds of Cossack riders appeared on the streets of Bialystok waving swords to behead anyone who stood in their path. They were joined by several hundred Russian troops of the Czar’s army.
A few days earlier the city’s chief of police had been assassinated and the Czar used it to create a pogrom of monumental destruction.
In order to gain support of the non-Jewish population, rumors had been spread that Jews were planning to burn down the city’s Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. The effect of the false rumors enflamed the non-Jews who eagerly joined forces with Cossacks and Russian troops.
The Polish Catholic mayor of Bialystok was sincere in his efforts to protect the Jews, even offering to provide them shelter in the churches. For his good intentions, he was assassinated by the Russian troops.
The Cossacks rode wildly on their steeds striking down a Jew wherever one was found.
It happened unfortunately at the time when my grandmother and my father were in the city of Bialystok. They had travelled there from their home in a small village of Grodno gubernia to consult with a noted Jewish ophthalmologist for treatment of my grandmother’s glaucoma.
My five year old father had been playing outside of the home in which they were staying. When he saw row after row of Cossacks riding at full speed on their horses, he became frightened and ran into the house.
His mother locked the door and carried my father to a large wooden wardrobe closet with many draws. In one draw she placed my father, covering him with many blankets, leaving only a tip of his nose to enable him to breathe and she gave him firm instructions not to move and to remain completely silent.
When the invading Cossacks broke into the house they searched for money and jewelry and objects of value. Finding none, they attacked my grandmother and left the house. She and my father were saved from death but due to the beatings she received from the Cossacks, one of my grandmother’s arms was paralyzed and she had to wear it in a sling until her death in 1921.
For three days the pogrom continued resulting in the murders of 200 Jews and more than 80 wounded. On Saturday, June 16, 1906 the Cossacks and the Czarist army retreated from Bialystok and the surviving Jews ran to the synagogue to pray. There they were welcomed and comforted by other survivors in the synagogue of the late and great Bialystok Rabbi, a founder of the early religious Zionist movement, Chovevei Zion, Rabbi Samuel Mohiliver who died in 1898.
From 1906 until the outbreak of war in 1914 and the overthrow of the Czar and his family by Russian communist revolutionaries a few years later, the Jewish population of Bialystok lived in relative peace and security. All of that came tragically to an end in 1939 with the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany. Only a few of Bialystok’s large Jewish population survived the war.
In 1945-1946, 81 Jewish survivors of Auschwitz, Maidanek and Treblinka returned to their former homes in the city of Kielce, now occupied by Poles. The Jews came in search of their homes and property only to be massacred by the Polish Catholics who refused to return anything to the Jewish survivors. 81 Jews were murdered in the first pogrom in Poland immediately after the end of the war.
The vast numbers of murdered Jews in the 1906 pogrom, one of the largest in Russia, is in recorded history. Since that time, until 1939, there were very few attacks against Jews in the Russian empire.
My father often spoke of his memories of the Bialystok pogrom. As a five year old boy he knew very little of the Russian language and spoke only Yiddish. The one Russian word which he did remember was “morozheneh”… ice cream.
Memories, happy and sad ones, affect our lives in different ways. For my father, the memory of Cossacks beating his mother and causing her paralysis never left his mind.
70 years later he could still tell me his story of fear and survival over and over again.