Jew­ish Bia­lystok and Its Diaspora

Rebec­ca Kobrin
  • Review
By – December 27, 2011
This engag­ing book is a cre­ative effort to retell and explore the East Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence by focus­ing on Jews from Bia­lystok who set­tled across the seas in Amer­i­ca, Africa, Aus­tralia, Palestine/​Israel, and beyond, while main­tain­ing their transna­tion­al links to their Pol­ish home­town. The author argues that there were ongo­ing mutu­al con­tacts between the cap­i­tal of the Bia­lystok­er Empire” and its colonies abroad. Those colonies grew in con­fi­dence, espe­cial­ly in New York City with its icon­ic Bia­lystok­er Cen­ter on the Low­er East Side of Man­hat­tan.

The author’s sources include mate­ri­als in a vari­ety of lan­guages drawn from archives in five coun­tries, as well as numer­ous inter­views, press sources, and oth­er pub­lished mate­ri­als, along with pho­tographs and draw­ings. Of spe­cial val­ue is the wealth of mate­r­i­al orig­i­nat­ing from the Bia­lystok­er Cen­ter and its analogs in oth­er coun­tries.

A small com­plaint can be raised about clum­si­ness in tran­scrip­tion and trans­la­tion of a num­ber of Yid­dish and Pol­ish terms, as well as typo­graph­ic errors. How­ev­er, these defects do not detract from the fas­ci­na­tion of the tour through the regions of the transna­tion­al Bia­lystok­er Empire that con­tin­ues to exist even after the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in that Pol­ish city was anni­hi­lat­ed by the Nazi Ger­mans.

Begin­ning with an account of Jew­ish Bia­lystok, this book itself exam­ines the effects of mass immi­gra­tion on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in a vari­ety of set­tings: New York, Argenti­na, Aus­tralia, Israel, and more. Bia­lystok­ers in exile clear­ly attempt­ed to rebuild their home­town in new promised lands of oppor­tu­ni­ty, where those same Bia­lystok­ers and their chil­dren under­took to care for their home­town by send­ing remit­tances and aid home. Bia­lystok­ers in Amer­i­ca and else­where became experts at orga­niz­ing to mobi­lize aid for the needy, both in their old home­town and in their new home­towns, and ulti­mate­ly also in the reborn State of Israel. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, maps, notes, photographs. 
Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions