Mendel Balberyszski on the arrival in Vilnius 1939
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 Ukrainian villages for almost a month, he arrived in his home town of Vilnius on foot on 29 September 1939.
On Friday night we arrived in Vilnius. Since it was after curfew, we had to sit all night in the waiting room of the first class. The whole station was full of people. Getting a seat was not an easy thing.
Only the next morning they let us out of the station. On Shabbat, September 30, 1939, I arrived at home to my mother and sister, at Wide Street 50 (formerly the Nevsky Prospekt, opposite the Russian Theater).
What a surprise at home, what heartbreaking crying, as if they had a person from the realm of the dead before them.
Only then did I find out what they told about me – that I went abroad with the lawyer Josef Veytsman. A second version said that I ran away to England with the consul Max Kohn, the son of the chairman Oskar Kohn – the owner of the “Vidzever Manufaktur” –, others still had allegedly seen me at the Romanian border.
After an intermission of 14 years, which I had spent in Łódź, I came back to Vilnius, my old hometown, where I spent most of my life, my childhood, my youth, where I went to school and studied, celebrated my wedding and started my activist work.
My heart ached when I saw the destruction, the misfortune we were thrown into in just one month…
My arrival in Vilnius was the second miracle that happened to me and my family during this terrible time.
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. He arrived in Vilnius on 29 September 1939. 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.
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.
Mendel Balberyszski, 1967: Shtarker fun ayzn: Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1. Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, pp. 69–70.