The Jews of Bia­lystok Dur­ing World War II and the Holocaust

Sara Ben­der
  • Review
By – October 28, 2011

In August, 1939, the Sovi­et Union and Nazi Ger­many signed a pact that divid­ed Poland between them. When Ger­many invad­ed Poland in Sep­tem­ber, 1939, the Sovi­et army occu­pied east­ern Poland, includ­ing the dis­trict of Bia­lystok. Under Sovi­et rule, the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Bia­lystok, num­ber­ing some 50,000, which includ­ed refugees who fled from Nazi-occu­pied ter­ri­to­ry, soon found that their Com­mu­nist occu­piers sought to destroy Jew­ish cul­ture and insti­tu­tions. Nev­er­the­less, the Jews of Bia­lystok adapt­ed to the new regime, and although the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty lost its inde­pen­dence, it con­tin­ued to func­tion. In the after­math of the Ger­man inva­sion of the Sovi­et Union in August, 1941, how­ev­er, cir­cum­stances dras­ti­cal­ly changed as the Jews faced ghet­toiza­tion, fol­lowed by destruc­tion and death under their new occupiers. 

This entire his­to­ry is told in this indis­pens­able account of the Jews of Bia­lystok under both the Sovi­et and lat­er Nazi occu­pa­tions. Focus­ing on the lead­er­ship of Ephraim Barash, the head of the Bia­lystok Juden­rat, and Morde­cai Tenebaum, the leader of the Jew­ish under­ground, Ben­der has pro­vid­ed us with what should become the defin­i­tive his­to­ry of the ghet­to. Barash’s great achieve­ment, states Ben­der, was to gain the con­fi­dence of the Ger­mans; in so doing, he sought to improve the liv­ing con­di­tions of the ghet­to Jews. Under his lead­er­ship, the Jews of the Bia­lystok ghet­to came to believe that through their labor, they would become indis­pens­able to the Ger­man war effort, and unlike oth­er ghet­tos, would not be sub­ject to depor­ta­tions to such death camps as Tre­blin­ka and Auschwitz. This belief lulled them into a false sense of secu­ri­ty rein­forced by Barash’s opti­mistic appraisal of the sit­u­a­tion man­i­fest­ed in the slo­gan sal­va­tion through work.” Accord­ing to Ben­der, who is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at Haifa Uni­ver­si­ty, this trust in Barash’s lead­er­ship accounts for the ghetto’s lack of sup­port for the Jew­ish under­ground, when the Nazis turned to the depor­ta­tion of the ghetto’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. Once the roundups began, Tenebaum attempt­ed to ral­ly the ghet­to to fight against the Ger­mans for the sake of Jew­ish hon­or, but it was too late. 

Ben­der also includes an invalu­able com­par­i­son of the response of the Bia­lystok ghet­to to oth­er major ghet­tos such as War­saw, Vil­na, and Lodz, con­trast­ing the efforts of Barash’s lead­er­ship with those of oth­er major Juden­rat lead­ers such as Adam Cer­ni­akow, Jacob Gens, and Chaim Rumkowski.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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