Mendel Balberyszski on the difficult decision to keep fleeing
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 unique insights into the refugee community as a kind of insider- outsider and learned various reasons for or against further flight, especially when emigration under the Soviet occupation and later annexation of Lithuania in the summer of 1940 became an option for many.
איצט, װוּהין זאָל איך פֿאָרן? קײן אַמעריקע? און זײַן פֿאַראורטײלט “נאַ כליעב לאַסקאַװי” (אויף חסד־ברויט) פֿון אַב. קאַהאַן און אַנדערע. איך בין געװען אין אַמעריקע און װײס, װי ס’זעט דאָרט אויס דאָס ייִדישע לעבן. ס’איז ניט קײן אָרט פֿאַר מיר”.
Quite a number of refugees have done nothing at all but looking for ways to flee on somehow. Passports were given to all of them. The visa problem was also solved quickly: on many streets of Vilnius new “consuls” had been established, who usually issued visas for all countries of the world for a small fee. Almost all the ambassadors in Kovno were also happy to issue exit visas… At that time, many refugees even escaped from Vilnius via Vladivostok to Japan; via Odessa to Palestine etc. The refugees sold everything just to get the necessary money in valid dollars to pay the travel expenses. Especially the Joint was very helpful here as well as various other Jewish political organizations.
Strange scenes took place in the Soviet embassy. They usually only charged valid dollars for transit visas and travel tickets to Vladivostok. In response to the reply that it was forbidden to trade in currencies and that the State Bank did not sell currencies, they advised to buy them on the black market, or in the cafe “Monika”, assuring that nothing bad would happen to anyone. […]
At that time there were also masses of false visas in circulation. The Soviet embassy knew this very well. One morning, when the embassy was opened and the waiting room directly filled up with Jews, the official came out and said: “Citizens, today we only give visas to those who have correct final destination visas. Others shall come tomorrow…” Within a minute the room was empty.
Many could not continue their journey, among them former Sejm representative Leybl Mintsberg, 11Sejm is the name for one of the two chambers of the Polish National Assembly. Orthodox Senator Trokenheym, Bundist Herman Kruk, etc. When we were in a concentration camp in Estonia, 22The concentration camp Klooga, where also Herman Kruk was detained and murdered in September 1944, shortly before the arrvial of the Red Army. Kruk showed me that he was carrying a pouch with foreign documents, which were eventually burned together with him. […]
Noyekh 33Noyekh Prilutski (1882-1942). For biographical details see Weiser, Kalman: Pryłucki, Noah, in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pry%C5%82ucki_Noah (25.9.2019). was a hopeless optimist. His optimism was ultimately his misfortune. At a time when most refugees, especially Jewish writers, were making every effort to obtain passports and exit visas, Noyekh would not hear of it. He was truly enchanted by the power of the Soviet Union and the new opportunities that were emerging. “In no other country in the world will I have such opportunities for my scientific work as in the Soviet Union,” was his opinion. He had furnished himself a beautiful apartment, with the necessary furniture and above all with books, books without end from the university library of Vilnius and from the Soviet Union.
In these days I often talked with Noyekh about fleeing on, which many refugees now decided to take. Of course we were also afraid of possible reprisals due to our former activities in Poland. But Noyekh always replied: “The Bolsheviks use reprisals against the Bundists because Lenin and Stalin already fought the “Bund” as a counter-revolutionary, Menshevik movement. 44Mensheviks were defined as supporters of socialism based on the revolution and rule of the masses, not a cadre party. This was in contrast to the Bolsheviks around Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) and as such they were persecuted after the October Revolution. For decades the “Bund” has been dangerous for them because they work and act among workers and speak in the name of socialism. Zionism, in turn, is fought by them as a reactionary, pro-English movement. We, in contrast, the Folkists, 55Term for members of the Polish-Jewish Folkspartey. were a bourgeois party that had little to do with workers and socialism. On the contrary, in the end, we were the only Jewish bourgeois party that united with the communists in the popular front. There can and will be no reprisals against us. That is one thing.
Furthermore, where should I go now? To America? And there be sentenced to plead with Ab Cahan 66Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), founder and editor of the Yiddish journal Forverts/The Forward, which was one of the most important Yiddish journals in the USA. and others. I have been to America and know what Yiddish life there looks like. That is no place for me.
1Sejm is the name for one of the two chambers of the Polish National Assembly.
2The concentration camp Klooga, where also Herman Kruk was detained and murdered in September 1944, shortly before the arrvial of the Red Army.
3Noyekh Prilutski (1882-1942). For biographical details see Weiser, Kalman: Pryłucki, Noah, in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pry%C5%82ucki_Noah (25.9.2019).
4Mensheviks were defined as supporters of socialism based on the revolution and rule of the masses, not a cadre party. This was in contrast to the Bolsheviks around Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) and as such they were persecuted after the October Revolution.
5Term for members of the Polish-Jewish Folkspartey.
6Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), founder and editor of the Yiddish journal Forverts/The Forward, which was one of the most important Yiddish journals in the USA.
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 (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. Here, by chance, he met a whole refugee community consisting of old friends and new faces, most of whom tried to use Vilnius as a transit station on their further escape while others intended to make Vilnius their new home. Obtaining visas was not always easy, but the new Soviet rule of Lithuania in the summer of 1940 in particular offered new opportunities in this respect. And although most of them did not want to live under Soviet rule, there were some who were able to take advantage of it and saw a future here, especially in the state support of Yiddish cultural life. The decision to flee further or to stay in Vilnius therefore differed from person to person, as Balberyszski found out in his conversations, and depended on political views, identities before the forced migration to Vilnius and individual visions for the future.
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 era”).
Balberyszski, Mendel, 1967: Shtarker fun ayzn: Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1.Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, pp. 97–98, 105.