Bielsko Biala

photo taken by lifebeginsat50mm, on Fevruary 24, 2008, CC licensing


Column published on 20.08.2009 -  ©: all pictures by Ruth Ellen Gruber (except where notified)

-- Before visiting Bielsko-Biala in southern Poland, I went online to check hotels. One of them, I found, was offering what it called a "Jewish Heritage Package."

Terrific, I thought. I was going to Bielsko-Biala for something else -- an international performance art festival. But I knew the town is rich in Jewish history, and I was looking forward to exploring it in more detail.

Then I clicked the link and saw the itinerary.

To my dismay, the so-called "Jewish Heritage Package" was nothing more than a round trip to Auschwitz, with 3-1/2 hours allowed there for "sightseeing" at the memorial museum and then dinner back at the hotel's restaurant.
Bielsko Biala is only 40 kilometers from Auschwitz. And I would urge anyone visiting the town to take a day and go there.

But does "Jewish Heritage" just mean somewhere where more than 1 million Jews were killed? Promoting a tour of the Nazis' most notorious death camp as a "Jewish Heritage Package" ignores -- and insults -- the lives, culture and enduring legacy of the Jews who lived in this part of the world for centuries.
Needless to say, I did not stay in that hotel on this trip.

I did, however, take time off from the performance art festival to spend hours walking around Bielsko-Biala's compact urban center to gain an appreciation of the important contribution of Jews to the city. And I was happy to see that many Jewish heritage sites are marked by plaques -- and are also included on tourist maps and in local guidebooks.

 Today, only a small Jewish community lives here (the address of the Jewish community office is ul. 3 Maja, 7). But Jews were key players in the city's complex history and in the 19th century helped build it into a major industrial center -- one of the biggest textile producers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Located at the foot of the Beskidy Mountains, Bielsko-Biala was officially established in 1951 with the amalgamation of Bielsko and Biala, two independent towns on the opposite sides of the Biala River, which for centuries formed the border between the Austrian Empire and Poland, and then the regions of Silesia and Galicia.

Located at the foot of the Beskidy Mountains, Bielsko-Biala was officially established in 1951 with the amalgamation of Bielsko and Biala, two independent towns on the opposite sides of the Biala River, which for centuries formed the border between the Austrian Empire and Poland, and then the regions of Silesia and Galicia.

Before 1939, the population was divided among ethnic Germans, Jews and Poles, and the city remains a stronghold of Protestantism. The Nazis absorbed it into the Reich, and almost all the Jews were killed. After World War II, Poland took it over and expelled the ethnic Germans.
Much of the town is still somewhat rundown, with sooty grime obscuring the facades of elegant buildings. But restoration work has begun on some of the architectural gems that in the latter part of the 19th century won the town the nickname "little Vienna."

A Jewish architect, Karl (or Karol) Korn, in fact, was instrumental in shaping the urban landscape we see today -- so much so that a street in town was even named in his honor.

Korn, who lived from 1852-1906, designed many of the sumptuous mansions and apartment buildings that still line the city's main boulevard, ul. 3 Maja, and near by streets. Some of them show art nouveau, or secessionist, features. His used Italian and neo-renaissance touched for his own mansion, built on ul. 3 Maja in 1883 -- it incorporates a sculptural representation of Korn's emblem above the entrance: an arrangement of the measuring tools and other instruments used by architects and builders.

Korn also designed other important buildings, such as the elegant President Hotel and the central Post Office, that are landmarks on the avenues that spread out from Bielsko's medieval core of 14th century castle and arcaded market square.

His most elaborate building, however, no longer exists. This was the opulent, Moorish-style synagogue that dominated ul. 3 Maja until the Nazis destroyed it in 1939.

It was an imposing structure with two big towers, lotus domes, decorated cupolas, arched windows and a red and orange striped façade -- old postcards, on sale at the local tourist office, demonstrate that it was one of the city's most prominent attractions.
Today, a contemporary art gallery stands on the spot -- ironically this is where the performance art festival I was attending took place. It is marked by a small memorial plaque on an outer wall.

Next door, a puppet theatre stands on the site of the one-time Jewish school, and across the street is the former Jewish Community building. I was told that the carved decoration represents the various fruits mentioned in the Torah.

The most impressive Jewish site to survive is the Jewish cemetery, dominated by a large ceremonial hall that was also designed by Karol Korn, in the same red-and-orange striped Moorish style as the destroyed synagogue, and decorated inside with elaborate frescoes.

The cemetery, founded in 1849, has about 1200 graves. It is well maintained, and work was going on when I visited. Among those buried here is Michael Berkowicz, who was the Hebrew secretary of Theodore Herzl and translated Herzl's Zionist manifesto "Der Judenstaat" -- "The Jewish State" -- into Hebrew.

I was particularly struck by a memorial to local Jewish soldiers who were killed in World War I, fighting on the Austrian side (and some later fighting in the Polish Legion). It is a wall of names, fronted by a small field of graves.

The Israeli political scientist Sholmo Avinieri, who was born in Bielsko-Biala and who has restored the tombs of his grandparents in the cemetery, told me that the list of names included those of three Muslims -- two Bosniak Austrian soldiers (Dedo Karahodic and Bego Turonowicz), and one Muslim Russian prisoner of war (Chabibulin Chatybarachman) who died in an adjacent POW camp. "Who would bury them if not the Jews?" Shlomo commented.

Other Jewish sites in town, all of them included in a Jewish heritage route that forms part of a cultural heritage guidebook and map that I obtained at the city museum, are:

The workshop of the painter Jakub Glasner, a landscape and graphic artist who was killed in the Holocaust

-- Barlickiego and Cechowa streets, which run parallel to ul. 3 Maja and formed an upscale Jewish neighborhood before World War II -- the site of Bielsko's first synagogue is here, as is the site of the former Hotel Langer, which had a kosher restaurant. As today, these streets were mixed business and residential. A kitschy-looking "Jewish-style" restaurant -- the Rabina, or Rabbi, similar to the Jewish-style cafes found in Krakow -- is now located here, at ul. Barlickiego 13.


-- The Technology and Textile Industry Museum, a fascinating collection of old looms and other machinery that gives a sense of Bielsko Biala's hey-dey as a textile center. There is some documentation about the Jewish industrialists who helped build the modern city -- and some striking paintings of the Biala River as it was a century ago, lined by a forest of factory chimneys.


-- Jewish sites in the Biala side of the river. There is little trace of the Jewish presence in Biala, but a plaque, in the northwest of the town, marks the site of the Biala Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed in the 1960s. An orthodox synagogue with a tall dome once stood on ul. 11 Listopada, and at the edge of what is now a park between the Town Hall and the river was found a cluster of buildings including a prayer house, a kosher butcher, and a mikveh, or ritual bath.

©: all pictures by Ruth Ellen Gruber