1891 – 1941
The name Bela Szapiro is inextricably linked with the history of the Bund in Lublin, of which she was a leader in the years between the two world wars. At the same time, she is also considered “the soul” of the secular Yiddish-language school system in Lublin, since she combined her political activities with a tireless commitment to the TSYSHO (CISZO) Central Jewish School Organization.
Bela Szapiro was born into a pious Hasidic family in Lublin around 1891. Her father, Shlomo Szapiro, owned a stationery shop and printing house. While her brothers received religious instruction at the heder and yeshiva, Bela and her two sisters attended an academic secondary school and were introduced to Yiddish literature by their well-educated mother. Bela Szapiro entered into a traditional arranged marriage at the age of eighteen. Her husband devoted himself to the study of the Talmud with the financial support of his parents-in-law, while Bela worked in her father’s shop and bore two sons. Unable to reconcile herself to this way of life and to her unhappy marriage, she divorced her husband, choosing independence and a break with tradition. She nevertheless maintained a close relationship with her mother, and after her father’s death during World War I she and her children moved back to her parental home.
Alongside her work as a bookkeeper, Bela Szapiro developed an early interest in secular Yiddish cultural and educational work. Through the Bund’s Grosser library she came into contact with the Jewish labor party, which she joined in 1918. Looking back at this period, she later reported: “It was only in the Bund that I discovered my city’s heritage.” Just one year later Szapiro was elected to the Lublin city council on the Bund list. For the two decades up to the outbreak of World War II she headed the Bund’s council faction. After giving a speech in the city council in 1920, in which she sharply criticized the Polish attack on the Soviet Ukraine as the catalyst of the Polish-Soviet war, she was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. She was freed a year later as part of a general amnesty.
After the Bund’s great success in the 1927 municipal elections Bela Szapiro was appointed assessor for economic affairs in the Lublin city council. Her tireless efforts on behalf of socially disadvantaged groups made her the hope not only of Jewish but also Polish workers and small tradesmen. In the 1930s she frequently put rising antisemitism on the agenda of the city council. Her political activism was closely tied to her work in Yiddish cultural and educational institutions, where she met her second husband, Jakub Nisnboym, editor of the Lubliner Shtime newspaper. An elementary school for working-class Jewish children had been established in Lublin in November 1919, which was later run by the TSYSHO. Bela Szapiro became chairwoman of the school committee, which henceforth engaged in fundraising for the chronically underfinanced school. She constantly fought for subsidies not only from the municipal administration and the Jewish community, but also from American Jewish organizations, such as the Lublin landsmanshaft in New York.
Although the antisemitic climate in Poland worsened dramatically in the second half of the 1930s and the situation of Polish Jews became increasingly difficult, under Bela Szapiro’s leadership the Bund in Lublin underwent an unprecedented upswing in the years preceding World War II. In the municipal elections of 1938 some eighty percent of Jewish voters chose the labor party, which then provided eight out of the ten Jewish members of the city council. The efforts on behalf of the Jewish school also met with success: there were plans for a spacious new building, the “Y. L. Peretz Community Center,” which was also to include a kindergarten, theater and sports facilities, and a library. However, the outbreak of World War II prevented the complex from going into permanent operation.
In September 1939 Bela Szapiro, together with her husband and eldest son, fled the approaching German troops to Soviet-occupied territory. Soviet oppression and news of the arrest of the two Bund leaders Henryk Erlich (1882–1941) and Victor Alter (1890–1941), however, caused her to return to German-occupied Lublin, where she did underground work for the Bund until her arrest in 1941. Her chief task was maintaining contacts with the Polish underground together with her husband. At the same time, she represented the Lublin branch of the party in the newly formed Bund party council in occupied Poland. She lived in hiding for a time with the help of Polish comrades, but in 1941 she and her husband fell into the hands of the Gestapo. Witnesses report having seen her in Lublin prison, bearing the marks of torture. We have no information about the circumstances of her death, but it is likely that she died in one of the extermination camps.
Before World War II, Lublin was one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland. Bela Szapiro’s activities contributed to making it the vibrant cultural and political center of Polish Jewry that it was.
Blatman, Daniel. “Women in the Jewish Labor Bund in Interwar Poland.” In Women in the Holocaust. edited by Dalia Ofer and Leonore Weitzman, 68–84. New Haven and London: 1998; Hertz, J. S., ed. Generations of Bundists (Yiddish). Vol. 2. New York: 1956, 93–98; Goldstein, Bernard. Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto (Yiddish). New York: 1958; Kasperek, Józef. A Chronicle of the Events in Lublin During the Nazi Occupation (Polish). Lublin: 1983; Bela Szapiro. The Popular Woman (Yiddish). Paris: 1986.