Mendel Balberyszski on the refugee situation 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 over Ukrainian villages for almost a month, he arrived in his home town of Vilnius on 29 September 1939 by foot.
At that moment, Vilnius was a huge Jewish refugee centre. Refugees came here from all over Poland: rich Jewish factory owners, merchants, deputies, senators, writers, journalists, actors and simply the Jewish intelligentsia and workers. Everyone and everyone was looking for a place of refuge. In this first period of the war Vilnius hardly suffered at all. […]
The Red Army took over Vilnius on September 19 and was warmly welcomed by the population as the saviour from the war nightmare. A provisional government was immediately established. […]
There was a sense of insecurity, of uncertainty. People began to talk – quietly at first, then louder – about Vilnius being united with Lithuania and becoming its capital again. […]
Many political activists of all nationalities were arrested. […] Those arrested disappeared immediately and this created a depressing atmosphere in the city. It was understood that the Soviet power does not forget or give anything away. At the first opportunity it will settle accounts with its opponents, even if they are not its citizens. […]
All the time new refugees came to Vilnius from all corners of Poland. They told of terrible incidents concerning the treatment of the Jewish population by the Hitlerists, so that the body trembled. My only goal now was to tear my family from the murderous hands. But how? Meanwhile, my old friend and colleague, Miron Tsukerzis, suggested that I go to work as an administrator in the Paks Pharmacy, which was located in Antokolye (a suburb of Vilnius). The salary was not very high, but I understood the situation and accepted the job. […]
Vilnius became the source of a new Jewish renaissance – a new Jewish national thought, a Jewish democratic spirit and the Jewish revolutionary movement. The new Jewish secular school was produced and built in Vilnius. Vilnius was known for its huge cultural treasures accumulated over centuries, for its libraries, for its philanthropic, economic, medical and all sorts of other institutes; for its synagogues, bote-midroshim (houses of prayer and study), kloyzn (small synagogues of a particular prayer community), the Vilner Shul-hoyf (court of the synagogue), the Vilner Rabbis and the Gdoyle-HaDor (the great thinkers of the generation). In Vilnius lived and worked at that moment the Gaon HaRov Reb Khaym Oyzer Grodzensky z “l. 11z”l is an acronym of zikhronó liv’rakhá – זיכרונו לברכה, which means “may his memory be a blessing.” In Judaism, this acronym is traditionally added to the name of a deceased person.
It is precisely this old familiar Vilnius that has now been enriched with new intellectual forces, which stranded here from all corners of Poland.
1z”l is an acronym of zikhronó liv’rakhá – זיכרונו לברכה, which means “may his memory be a blessing.” In Judaism, this acronym is traditionally added to the name of a deceased person.
In the first months of the war in 1939, thanks to the new fugitive community, Vilnius became the site of a new Jewish Renaissance, which was able to build on the existing infrastructure.
During the interwar period, Mendel Balberyszski (1894-1966) was an 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 Folk 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 the largest Jewish aid organization Noten Lekhem. 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 and his family decided to flee from the German Wehrmacht to Vilnius.
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 Society of Partisans and Camp Survivors, of which he became president.
Balberyszski’s memoirs, including this text, were published in 1967.
Mendel Balberyszski, Shtarker fun ayzn : Iberlebungen in der Hitler-tkufe, Vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: HaMenorah, 1967), pp. 70–73.