Esther Wisznia lived in Bialystok between September of 1939 and September of 1940. She had “the time of her life.”
Young people filled the street and theaters. Yiddish and Jewish culture were everywhere. The Yiddish theater – Habimah – was just down the street from the center of town and just a few doors from the beautiful home of the wife of the Nobleman – Jan Klemens Branicki (yes, she had her own home – sometimes you just need to get away from the Palace).
In 1939 Bialystok had over 100 Synagogues, a Jewish Hospital, a Yiddish library, Yiddish newspapers, and many Zionist organizations who held events, including speeches and classes. Coming from the small town of Stoczek to the big city of Bialystok for the 19-year-old Esther was exciting.
Her family lived together, at first, in an apartment building that was inhabited by refugees from Stoczek. The city was crowded with refugees from the German-controlled side of Poland. Bialystok had electricity and many buildings had running water as well. Esther got a job at first knitting hats and then later working for one of Bialystok’s wealthy families. We saw some pre-war homes that are still standing and they are beautiful. Here is an example.
As we exited the train station on a cold April morning, I looked at the long building and knew that this is where Esther arrived in September of 1939. As we went from the train station towards the center of town, I imagined Esther walking this path. The pre-war buildings, with their stunning adornments and intricate wrought iron balconies are impressive. This was a wealthy city.
On one side of town near the train station, there is a broad white church with a tall steeple, topped with gold. The main street leads to the center of town where there is an even larger church made of red brick with double steeples and three grand doorways in the front. It looks like the Stoczek church on steroids. Just before you reach the red church, the white clock tower draws your eye. It is not as tall as the red church, but it is topped with a round cast iron dome. A crown-like appendage sits above the dome like a cherry on top of an ice cream cone. Just to one side of the clock tower is an open square with a fountain in the center. After visiting Rome, this fountain is modest, but for Esther, coming from Stoczek, I am sure it seemed quite grand.
In 1939 Esther would have found dirt streets that were filled with people walking, riding horses (some pulling buggies, some not) and cars. There was a “bus station” where jeep-like cars were lined up to take people to other cities. There is a picture from the early 1930’s in which you can see cars lined up on a dirt road with signs: “Bialystok – Grodek” or “Bialystok – Lomza.” In this picture, most of the men are dressed in suits and the women in dresses and coast. It gives a sense of a cosmopolitan city where things were happening and people were enjoying themselves. A few trees dot the main road, but if you head down past the red church, you arrive at the Branicki Palace. Modeled after Versailles, it is a monumental building with an impressive courtyard in the front and a beautiful, manicured garden with naked and semi-naked roman style, sculptures in the back. While the Soviets used this palace as administrative offices, the gardens were open to residents to enjoy. Just next to the garden, there is a long park that stretches for a couple of kilometers. The walking path in the park is tree-lined and very green, even on a cold April day (which it was – freezing – it snowed, hailed and rained during our visit!) I imagined Esther and her family or friends taking a spatzir (walk) on Shabbes afternoon here in this beautiful setting.
Though he did not live there when Esther did, Bialystok was the home of Ludwig Zamenhof, the inventor of the language – Esperanto. His hope was to make a language that would be used all peoples and would unite the world. He moved to Warsaw before the war and died there. He is buried in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. We visited the site of his home. On the outside wall of the building where his home used to be, there is a mural that depicts him, as well as two others who were supporters of Esperanto.
As we walked down the main street, just next the big red church, I glanced across the street and could not believe my eyes. Through the snow flakes, there stood, what looked like, German soldiers from World War II. They were standing in a group, talking, with one especially scary looking soldier, smoking a small cigar. I thought – either we are on a movie set – or no one told Bialystok that the war is over. With some trepidation, I crossed the street to take a picture and find out who they were. It turns out that they were participating in a World War II reenactment. We left them to their cigars and guns.
There were many choices in Bialystok as to where to send your Jewish child to school. We saw the building – rather plain, but sturdy, with a grey concrete exterior – that served as the Jewish gymnasium. Then we walked over to see the Tarbut School – this was a Zionist school where all classes were taught in Hebrew. It is a beautiful old building that was used as a Polish school after the war, but now stands empty. The exterior used to be adorned with Jewish stars. But these were taken off the building after the war, under Soviet control.
Getting back on the train for our return trip to Warsaw was a relief. We had been walking around outside for three hours and we were frozen. I never thought I would be so happy to get on a train heading towards Malkinia.