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/returnee, Balberyszski himself became directly involved in local relief work for refugees in Vilnius.
The Lithuanians started with the administration. At that time the city was starving, so they directly organized a stable inflow of food from Lithuania. Meat, butter, white flour, milk, eggs and the like appeared in the city, but in the beginning the products were distributed in limited numbers. […]
During this period (end of October – beginning of September) I met in Vilnius the director of the Joint in Poland Prof. Giterman. Since I was at home in Vilnius, I did a lot of work organizing help for refugees, to provide them with winter coats, because everyone had run to Vilnius with summer coats, after all. During this time my friends arrived in Vilnius – Noyekh Prilutski, Lazar Kahan, Shushne and others. Many of my old friends got help at my home.
In that year there was an early and hard winter, the cold was terrible. We provided many refugees with warm clothes and underwear.
Many other refugees got fabric from the Joint. So they got a piece of clothing sewn for a small price. Noyekh Prilutski was a little bit sick in his kidneys, Lazar Kahan, too – so they came to me almost every day for a tea with jam. The majority of Jewish writers and political activists lived in the dormitory at 4 Sadowa Street; others rented rooms, or were simply invited to private homes. N. Prilutski, for example, stayed with the well-known philanthropist D. Kaplan-Kaplanski. Many refugees began to trade in order to earn a bite of bread for themselves and not to be dependent on other people’s tables.
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. In the interwar period, Balberyszski was an editor of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog (The Day) in Vilnius. He became a member of the Polish Jewish Folkspartey (People’s Party) and, as part of it, fought 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 the largest Jewish aid organization Noten Lekhem (Bread Giver). In 1939, he became the leader of the Polish Democratic Party, one of the three most important political parties in interwar Poland.
In the first days of September 1939, he decided to flee from the German Wehrmacht to Vilnius, where he arrived in relief on September 29. Here he directly took over various aid activities for refugees for whom, unlike him, Vilnius was not their home town and who were dependent on other support. Balberyszski is thus an interesting case of a refugee who arrived in his hometown by chance, knowing the structures and being able and willing to use them for the necessary relief work.
Balberyszski survived the “liquidation” of the small and large ghetto in Vilnius and experienced the 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 Association of Partisans and Camp Survivors, of which he became president. His memoir Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe (“Stronger than Iron, Surviving in Hitlers era”), this text being among them, was published in 1967.
Mendel Balberyszski, Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 1967), pp. 75–77.