of the Jewish Quarter in Bialystok, 1920, with a view
of the famous clock tower
The earliest Fajn ancestor that we have traced was born in
1797 in Bialystok. This was my 3rd great grandfather, Oswiej
Fajn. At this time, Bialystok was ruled by Prussia, but shortly
after it came under Russian jurisdiction. In 1800, Bialystok
became a central city surrounded by ten smaller satellite
communities. Even though Bialystok was the central city, it
retained the feeling of a small shtetl through 1880. The town
consisted mostly of small wooden and a few shingled dwellings.
Fences partitioned these modest residences. There was no running
water and people depended upon water carriers. No electric
lighting existed at the time. Social life was almost entirely
interwoven with the religious. The Torah ignoramus received
no respect whatsoever. Only a laborer who knew how to study
the Torah was honored. The Talmud Torah and the yeshiva were
located in four wooden houses built at the beginning of the
Russian administration. In these buildings, 450 pupils (275
Bialystokers and 175 from surrounding towns) studied in cramped
quarters, Everyone knew everyone else's business. Gossip was
never lacking. Yet the main topics of conversation were political.
The large manufacturers of Bialystok were German. The Jews
were the small factory owners.
Around 1860, the lottery tickets, which had been popular among
Jews in Lithuania, came into vogue. Bialystoker Jews were
enchanted by this novel temptation. They borrowed money, pawning
all they had to purchase these tickets. Some were wiped out
as a result. For a long time, Bialystoker Jews gained very
little from these lottery tickets. In 1870 though, one Bialystoker
Jew received a telegram informing him that his ticket had
won 450,000 German marks, a fortune. The money was later divided
among several poor families and created an upheaval in the
city. The newly rich managed to arrange high class marriage
matches with the finest families because of their recently
acquired wealth from the lottery. For many years the town
talked about "the big win".
In the last twenty years of the 19th century, Jewish merchants
and factory owners began to develop markets in other countries.
They did not feel comfortable with their "small town"
status. Never again would the modest wooden dwellings be adequate.
At the first opportunity, and sometimes even without the necessary
funds, people began building three and four-story houses with
every modern innovation known at the time. New apartment houses
sprang up out of nowhere.
People built homes for themselves or rented them to others.
After several decades, Bialystok burgeoned with buildings
and the vacant spaces virtually vanished. No longer was there
any room for fences between homes. New streets opened; new
neighborhoods formed. Jews created a village from a hamlet,
and later a city from a town. If this construction surge had
continued, Bialystok would have grown to a truly large city
through Jewish initiative, but the process was interrupted
by the industrial crisis of 1900.
Construction depended on easy and cheap credit, and on the
premise that there would always be a booming textile industry.
That rosy outlook, however, changed dramatically. From that
time on, Bialystok grew no more. It remained more or less
the same size it was in 1900, even after the economic crisis
passed and the population increased. A housing shortage developed
and rents soared to an all time high. The situation continued
until the end of World War I.
The Freedom Movement of 1903-1906 put its stamp on Jewish
life in Russia and Poland. In Bialystok, that revolutionary
fervor left an even deeper imprint. Waves of change hit the
city with great force, and when the tide began to ebb, a complete
transformation had been effected. Both the labor movement
and the young student organizations brought about alterations
in Bialystok's life style. Jews did not seem to be interested
in studying the Torah any longer. It became fashionable among
the more educated and the well-to-do to be anti-religious.
No one thought of teaching their children how to pray and
the young began to work on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
For three whole days, June 1-3, 1906, Czarist murderers ravaged
the people and property of the defenseless Jewish community
in Bialystok. The sound of gunfire echoed throughout the city.
Armed soldiers and police went shooting into the streets and
houses while bandits broke into and robbed the stores and
committed brutal murders in many Jewish homes. Worst of all
was when these vicious criminals gouged people's eyes out
with their nails or stuffed their cut open abdomens with feathers.
Some of the victims included small children, whose heads and
organs were removed. Several Jewish leaders risked their lives
by appealing to the authorities, pleading with them to stop
the killing and looting, but to no avail. One of these leaders
did manage, however, to get out of Bialystok, and from a neighboring
town he sent a telegram to the Duma, the Russian parliament
in St. Petersburg.
This cable, revealing the pogrom in Bialystok, generated a
storm of protest in the Duma, which immediately sent a delegation
of three deputies to Bialystok. They arrived on Saturday June
3rd, the third day of the pogrom. As soon as they appeared
on the scene, the bloodshed ended and the police unsuccessfully
attempted to erase the grisly signs of the slaughter. Eighty
dead bodies lay outside on the hospital grounds and more than
two hundred wounded were treated in the hospital, nineteen
of whom later died of their wounds. All the victims of this
pogrom were buried in a mass grave, in a prestigious place
within the old Jewish cemetery in Bialystok. Above this grave,
a tall monument was erected, inscribed with a special epitaph,
in Hebrew by the well-known poet Zalman Sznejur. This monument
stood for decades in the Bagnowke Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok.
It reminded many of the three horrible days of the pogrom.
After World War II, the Poles vandalized this monument and
discarded it near the outskirts of the cemetery.