Mendel Balberyszski on arriving, ties backward, new beginnings and the desire to flee further
Mendel Balberyszski (1894-1966) was born in Vilnius but had been living in Łódź for over a decade at the outbreak of the Second World War. After fleeing through Poland and over Ukrainian villages for almost a month, he arrived in his home town of Vilnius on 29 September 1939 by foot. As a refugee/homecomer Balberyszski had a special position within the refugee community, which he used in various ways in support work.
אַנדערע װידער האָבן דורכגעמאַכט שװערע טראַגעדיעס צוליבן אַרעסטירן זײער פֿאַמיליען־מיטגלידער אין װעג דורך די רוסן, בײַם אַריבערגײן די גרענעץ. […]
פֿון װילנע האָט מען געקענט שיקן פּעקלעך פּראָדוקטן אין די אָקופּירטע געביטן. אַלע פּליטים האָבן זיך אויף דעם אַ װאָרף געטאָן, װי אויף דער אײנציקער מעגלעכקײט אויפֿצוהאַלטן זײערע פֿאַמיליעס בײַם לעבן. יעדער האָט פֿון זיך דאָס לעצטע פֿאַרקויפֿט, אַבּי װאָס אָפֿטער צו שיקן אַ פּעקל. פֿון יענער זײַט, פֿון לאָדזש און װאַרשע, פֿלעגן צו מיר אָנקומען האַרצרײַסנדיקע בריװ װעגן הונגער און נויט. און לויט מײַנע באַשײדענע מעגלעכקײטן האָב איך זײער פֿיל געשיקט צו פֿרײַנט און חבֿרים. דאָס לעצטע פּעקל האָב איך באַװיזן אַרויסצושיקן צו מײַן חבֿר און פֿרײַנט אַדװאָקאַט יוסף װײצמאַן אין װאַרשע. כּדי צו שיקן אַ פּעקל, האָט מען געמוזט האָבן אַ פּאַס פֿון אַ ליטװישן בירגער. אַזוי האָבן מיר, אַלס װילנער, פֿאַרלײַכטערט דעם ביטערן גורל פֿון די פּליטים.
Life in Vilnius stabilized. Some of the refugees who arrived started to work, others traded [on the black market] to earn a living. However, a large number of them were dependent on grants from various organisations, and everyone was looking for ways to move on.
“Here is a volcano,” everyone said in one voice, “you have to keep running.” At that time, the elite of Polish Jewry arrived in Vilnius – the Sejm 11Sejm is the name for one of the two chambers of the Polish National Assembly. representative Leybl Mintsberg, Senator Trokenheym, Rabbi Dr. Yitskhok Levin, a representative of the Łódźer city council (the son of the Rabbi of Reysh), the representative of the Łódźer city council lawyer Reykhman, a great many rabbis and yeshiva people from various yeshivot. 22A Yeshiva is a Jewish educational insitution for religious studies. Many Bundists with the leaders of the Łódźer Bund with Shmuel Milman as their head, many Zionist leaders and ordinary Jews who managed to escape from the Hitlerian hell. Already then, the illegal crossing of the borders was connected with a great danger for life. So the lawyer Reykhman arrived with frozen feet. We took him to the hospital of “Mishmeres-Kholim” 33A Jewish hospital in Vilnius for patients who were unable to pay for their stay where he lay for a long time. There were many letters addressed to my address all the time, especially to Łódźer and Warsaw refugees. I contacted the Łódźer Landsmener [compatriots] in America and they sent me a small amount of money twice, which I distributed among the refugees together with Dr. Wygodski and L. Mintsberg.
The Łódźer Landsmener in New York barely supported the refugees on the ground. They proposed that they had to get out of the occupied territories (their help was virtually non-existent: two hundred dollars twice) That was a nice wish. Unfortunately, it was not a feasible one. At that time you could hardly get out of Łódź. Even the trip from Łódź to Warsaw was so expensive that only some people could afford it. Not to mention the trip from Warsaw to Vilnius, which was almost impossible. Only very few succeeded. […] A great many refugees were separated from their families because mainly men and adult youths had fled. Women and children remained at home. And exactly these men stayed in Vilnius until the very last moment to support the families, they had left behind, with packages. Many men among them fell into the hands of the Germans.
Others had suffered severe tragedies because their family members had been arrested by the Russians while crossing the border. […]
From Vilnius it was possible to send parcels with food to the occupied territories. All refugees threw themselves on it as if it was the only way to keep their families alive. Everyone sold everything they had, everything, as often as possible to be able to send parcels. From the other side, from Łódź and Warsaw, heartbreaking letters were constantly coming to me, telling me about hunger and need. And with my modest means I sent a lot to my friends and comrades. The last package I managed to send to my friend and comrade, the lawyer Yoysef Veytsman, in Warsaw. In order to send a parcel, you had to have a Lithuanian passport. So, as Vilner, we relieved the bitter fate of the refugees.
1Sejm is the name for one of the two chambers of the Polish National Assembly.
2A Yeshiva is a Jewish educational insitution for religious studies.
3A Jewish hospital in Vilnius for patients who were unable to pay for their stay
In the interwar period Mendel Balberyszski was editor of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog (The Day) in his home town of Vilnius. He left Vilnius and became a member of the Polish Jewish Folkspartey (People’s Party) to fight for cultural autonomy for Polish Jewry. In 1925 Balberyszski founded the Association of Jewish Craftsmen and Small Entrepreneurs in Łódź and became the president of Noten Lekhem (Bread Giver), the largest Jewish aid organization. In 1939 he led the Polish Democratic Party, one of the three most important political parties in Poland between the wars.
In the first days of September 1939 he decided to flee from the German Wehrmacht to Vilnius, where he arrived relieved on 29 September. He was one of many, especially men, who found their way here. However, he had the advantage of being from Vilnius himself and thus being able to fall back on certain structures and privileges, which he used in various ways to support other refugees. Unlike many, Balberyszski stayed in Vilnius. Most of the refugees were looking for ways to escape further. Others felt tied to Vilnius, as it was from here that contact and support for those who remained behind in the occupied Polish territories was still possible.
After the German occupation of Lithuania, Balberyszski survived the “liquidation” of the small and large ghetto in Vilnius and experienced liberation by the Red Army in a concentration camp in Estonia. After the end of the war, he emigrated to Australia and continued to be actively involved in Jewish community work. He founded the Society of Partisans and Camp Survivors, of which he became president. His memoirs, including this text, were published in 1967 under the title Shtarker fun ayzn: Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe (Stronger than Iron: Surviving in Hitler’s era).
Mendel Balberyszski, 1967: Shtarker fun ayzn: Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1. Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, pp. 88–90.