Mendel Balberyszski on his relief work in Vilnius

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.

די ליטװינטער האָבן גענומען באַלעבאַטעװען. די שטאָט איז דעמאָלט געװען אוסגעהונגערט, האָבן זײ גלײַך אָרגאַניזירט אַ סטבילן צופֿלוס פֿון שפּײַז־פּראָדוקטן פֿון ליטע. פֿלײַש, פּוטער, װײַס מעל, מילך, אײַער אד”גל האָבן זיך באַװיזן אין שטאָט, הגם די ערשטע צײַט, פֿלעגט מען פּראָדוקטן אַרויסגעבן אין אַ באַגרענצטער צאָל. […]

צו דער צײַט (סוף אָקטאָבער – אָנהויב נאָװעמבער) האָב איך זיך אין װילנע געטראָפֿן מיטן דירעקטאָר פֿון “דזשאָינט” אין פּוילן פּר. גיטערמאַן. היות װי אין װילנע בין איך געװען װי בײַ זיך אינדערהײם, האָב איך אים פֿיל געהאָלפֿן בײַם אָרגאַניזירן הילף פֿאַר די פּליטים, בײַם באַזאָרגן זײ מיט װינטערדיקע פּאָלטנס, װײַל אַלע זײַנען קײן װילנע דאָך געקומען צעלויפֿן אין זומערדיקע מאַנטלען. אין דער צײַט זײַנען קײן װילנע אָנגעקומען מײַנע פֿרײַנט – נח פּרילוצקי, לאַזאַר קאַהאַן, שושנה א.אַ. פֿיל פֿון מײַנע אַלטע פֿרײַנט האָבן באַקומען הילף בײַ מיר אין שטוב.

אין יענעם יאָר האָט זיך געשטעלט אַ פֿריער און שװערער װינטער, די פֿרעסט זײַנען געװען מוראדיקע. מיר האָבן אַ סך פּליטים באַזאָרגט מיט װאַרעמע בגדים און װעש.

פֿיל אַנדערע פּליטים האָבן בעקומען פֿון “דזשאָינט” שטאָף, האָט מען זײ, פֿאַר ביליקע פּרײַזן, בײַ אונדז אויפֿגענײט אַ מלבוש. נח פּרילוצקי איז אַ ביסל קראַנק געװען אויף די נירן, לאַזאַר קאַהאַן אויך – פֿלעגן זײ, כּמעט טאָג־טעגלעך, קומען אויף טײ מיט װאַרעניעס (קאָנפֿיטורן). דאָס רובֿ ייִדישע שרײַבער און פּאָליטישע טוערס האָבן געװוינט אין דער “אָבשטשעזשיציע” אויף סאַדאָװע 4; אַנדערע האָבן געדונגען זיך צימערן, אָדער זײַנען סתּם אײַנגעלאַדן געװאָרן אין פּריװאַטע הײַזער. נ. פּרילוצקי האָט געװוינט בײַם באַקאַנטן קולטור־טוער ד. קאַפּלאַן־קאַפּלאַנסקי. זײער פֿיל פֿון די פּליטים האָבן גלײַך גענומען האַנדלען, כּדי צו פֿאַרדינען דעם ביסן ברויט און ניט דאַרפֿן אָנקמען צו קײנעמס טיש.

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.

In the interwar period 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 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, 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 in relief on 29 September. 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 support from others. Balberyszski is therefore an interesting case of a refugee who arrived in his home town by chance, knowing the structures and being able and willing to use them for the necessary relief work.

After the Germans occupied Lithuania, he 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, Balberyszski 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.

Excerpt:

Mendel Balberyszski, Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 1967), pp. 75–77.

From the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.

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