Bielsk Podlaski

The Kleszczelski and Kremberg Families of Bielsk Podlaski

Prologue: The following narrative provides some background to my father Jeruchem Kleszczelski’s chapter in the Bielsk Yizkor book, as well as his wartime exploits mentioned in other chapters. Like many people who lived through the Holocaust my parents spoke little of the family members who remained in Bielsk at the start of the war and subsequently perished. As a young man I instinctively knew that the topic was very painful for them to discuss and did not press them for details. In my discussions with them toward the end of their lives, their pain was clear, as was an element of survivor’s guilt. Much of the information below comes from a memoir my father wrote in the third person using his French Resistance codename “Alfred.” In it he mentions his siblings but does not name them. The names of his oldest brothers were obtained from Wolf Younin’s contribution to the Bielsk Yizkor book. The name of one older sister comes from a search of Yad Vashem records. The existence of an additional older and younger brother and two younger sisters (? twins) are only inferred from the included photographs. My mother’s family was not mentioned in the original Bielsk Yizkor book so I felt obligated to describe their life, as told to me by my mother. Fortunately, my mother took a collection of photographs with her when she left Bielsk in 1938, which provide a good illustration the Krembergs’ life in Bielsk. In that collection is a final family photo that reveals five unnamed sisters as well as a niece and nephew. With regard to my father’s wartime exploits, the sources were his memoir and multiple descriptions from his comrades in David Diamant’s book 250 Combatants De La Resistance Temoignent.

Geoffrey Wolfe Krystal


    My father Jeruchem was born in Bielsk in 1915 to Gedalje Kleszczelski and Szossa (Jósefa) Rabinowicz Kleszczelski, the fifth of 8 children (5 boys and 3 girls). His oldest brother Avrum left Bielsk for South America and his next oldest brother Nachum left for Israel, both well before the outbreak of WW II. An unnamed older brother also departed for Russia before the war. An older sister Chana perished in or on the way to Treblinka, as did an unnamed younger brother, two younger sisters, and his father.

1. Jeruchem (left) with older brother and three sisters

2. Jeruchem (left) with younger brother

Gedalje was a carpenter, like his father Mendel and brothers Louis and Itzchak, both of whom immigrated to the US before the war. The family’s carpentry shop was on Kryniczna Street. His mother worked in the Rabinowicz family bakery.

    Jeruchem attended a Talmud Torah in Bielsk until the age of 12, when his parents noted his aptitude for learning and decided to send him to high school at a boarding Yeshiva in Bialystok, returning on weekends and vacations to work in his father’s carpentry shop.

3. Jeruchem (extreme left) and friends, including Tobja Agres (kneeling right) in Bielsk

4. Jeruchem (extreme right) picnicking with friends in Bielsk

In school he excelled at learning languages, which, in addition to his native Yiddish and Polish, included Hebrew, German, Russian and some English. His ability to pick up languages with the appropriate accents would contribute to his survival during the war. Unfortunately prior to his last year of high school his mother developed a terminal cancer and he was forced to leave school to care for her, since his older siblings had already left home and his father needed to keep his business running to provide for the family. During this period Jeruchem became increasingly upset by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Bielsk. Numerous attacks on Jews had taken place and when Jeruchem witnessed such an attack on an acquaintance he and some friends intervened and when the police came, instead of arresting the attackers, they arrested Jeruchem and the other Jews. Jeruchem was eventually released on bail but his attorney was very pessimistic about his chances of remaining out of jail and advised him to leave the country. The attorney assisted him in obtaining a passport and falsifying his birth year to 1912 so that he would appear to be beyond the age of mandatory military service.

    Jeruchem arrived penniless in Paris in 1936 but with the help of an acquaintance from Bialystok found work in a carpentry shop and quickly became fluent in French. In 1938 he met a female friend from Bielsk in Paris, Tobja (Taibke) Agres, and they were married in October 1939.

5. Jeruchem and Tobja wedding picture 1939

Shortly before they were married, following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Jeruchem had joined the Polish Army in France and was given the rank of corporal. He left Paris for training in Brittany followed by the Army’s movement south to Toulouse as the Nazis were advancing in the north. After France fell, the weaponless Polish Army in France was disbanded and Jeruchem bought civilian clothes and made his way back to Paris and his wife.

    In May 1941 the Nazis ordered all Jews in Paris to wear the Star of David and to register with the police but Jeruchem recognized that would make them easy targets. He and his comrades attempted to dissuade as many as possible not to wear the Star and go into hiding if necessary. In the second half of 1941 the French Resistance began to take shape with the organization of small groups of fighters. In June 1941 David Diamant, a Resistance organizer, convinced Jeruchem and Tobja to join one of these groups in the FTP-MOI led by a French Armenian, Missak Manouchian. Because of their success against Nazi targets, the group would eventually be named “L’Armée du Crime” by the Nazis. Initial missions were designed to disrupt Nazi supply lines and develop techniques to avoid detection and limit damage to the organization should fighters be captured. To the latter end, Jeruchem and Tobja decided to live separately, assuming false identities and meeting only a few times per week in different places in the city. Tobja assumed the role of a “liaison girl” whose job it was to move arms, munitions, and messages to various fighters and also served as an assistant to a bomb-maker. Jeruchem, who was given the codename “Alfred”, initially began participating in grenade and pistol attacks on single or small groups of Nazi soldiers. In time he was also given the responsibility of distributing false identity papers, money and ration stamps to members of the group and training new recruits. In January 1943 Jeruchem, along with fellow Polish Jews Marcel Rayman and Wolf Wasjbrot, took part in one of the best known actions of the group, an early morning bombing of Nazi troops parading past the l’Ecole Militare. They set off two serially-timed bombs resulting in dozens of casualties, helping to establish the Resistance as a force to be reckoned with. This was followed by a series of attacks including the assassination of a Gestapo colonel by a group led by Jeruchem and an assassination of a Gestapo general by Marcel Rayman. The latter resulted in extreme pressure to end the group’s activities and in November 1943 it was infiltrated by French secret police and many members were captured including Manouchian, Rayman, and Wasjbrot. Their capture was publicized by the Nazis in the infamous “L’Affiche Rouge” and resulted in their execution in February 1944.

    Fortunately for Jeruchem in the late summer of 1943 Resistance leadership in Paris decided to disperse experienced members of military units to other regions in occupied France to coordinate the activities of local resistance groups and to facilitate training as well as distribution of arms and funds. Initially he was assigned to groups in the countryside surrounding Paris. However, in part because of the concentration of Polish and Russian forced laborers and escaped POWs in the region, with whom Jeruchem could easily communicate, he was additionally assigned to the Department du Nord, including Normandy and Pas de Calais. He spent most of his time shuttling between this region and Paris with little contact with his former group and thus avoided being traced and entrapped by the French secret police. Given the shortage of available arms, he focused on training the groups in sabotage of supply lines and communications, especially train derailment. At the end of 1943 one of his assignments was to go to Lille to resurrect a resistance group that had been decimated in a shoot-out with Nazi troops and distribute compensatory payments to the widows. Unfortunately the remaining group leader had been followed to the meeting by one of the widows who in turn was tailed by the gendarmes, resulting in the arrest of the group leader and Jeruchem. At this point in the war the sympathies of gendarmes and judiciary in the region were in favor of the Allies and with the help of the Resistance command he was convicted on the lesser charge of consorting with a known criminal and released after 2-3 months of time served. Throughout his imprisonment he was informed of the Resistance command’s efforts to get him released in messages written on cigarette paper imbedded in sugar cubes contained in packages sent by his wife Tobja. On his return to Paris in April 1944, Jeruchem was devastated to learn that Tobja had been killed in the premature explosion of a bomb she had been transporting under her skirt just days before. He spent the rest of the time before D-Day shuttling between Paris, Normandy and Calais, making certain that the resistance groups were prepared for the invasion. He was last in Normandy on June 4 and after reporting back to Paris on June 5 he was dispatched to Calais in a final effort to convince a company of Russian soldiers fighting with the Nazis to switch allegiance. On getting off the early morning train in Lille on June 6 his contact informed him that the Nazis had confined the Russians to base under guard and the invasion was already under way. His return to Paris was delayed due to disruption of rail and road traffic by Allied bombing but after a couple of days he was able to hitch a ride in a produce delivery truck. On the journey the truck was strafed by Allied planes and he and the driver barely escaped by jumping into a road-side ditch.

    On entering Paris Jeruchem noted barricades were already going up and requested that he be allowed to return to the remnants of his former group to join the battle for Paris. However Resistance leadership ordered him to play the same role he had in Normandy and Calais, shuttling between the various groups that were engaging the Nazis to ensure their activities were coordinated and they had adequate supplies to accomplish their missions. Following the liberation of Paris he was inducted into the French Army at the rank of captain and three weeks later he was promoted to major and given command of Battalion 51/22, which consisted of four companies representing men of Jewish, Italian, Hungarian and French descent respectively. Battalion 51/22 provided security in the region around Paris for the remainder of the war. In October 1944 Jeruchem personally gave General de Gaulle, whom he had met on Liberation Day, a tour of the graves of the Resistance war dead buried at Cemetiere d’Ivry, including that of his wife Tobja. Following the Nazi surrender, the Polish company with Jeruchem in command formed a part of the Allied occupation force in Germany. After approximately a month in Germany the Poles were repatriated, Jeruchem returned to France and was discharged from the army with the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and La Medaille de la Resistance. He returned to his occupation as a carpenter in addition to working for the Polish Red Cross resettlement agency in Paris.

    In 1947 a New York Yiddish language newspaper published an account of Jeruchem’s wartime exploits and Shirley Kremberg, the sister of one of his childhood friends and soccer teammates, Velvel, recognized him. Shirley (Sprinza) was born in 1918 in Bielsk, the youngest of 10 children born to Moshe and Rivka Kremberg. Moshe also had at least two sons with a previous wife who passed away. The Krembergs were tenant farmers raising livestock and tending orchards on the outskirts of Bielsk, with the children providing much of the labor. In addition, Rivka and her daughters earned extra money as seamstresses in their spare time. Unfortunately Rivka passed away from cancer at the age of 49, leaving 10 year-old Shirley to be raised largely by her older siblings.

16. Shirley (middle), age 11, with sisters

She was very attached to her brother Velvel, who was three years older, and admired his soccer teammate Jeruchem but lost touch with him when he went off to school in Bialystok. Velvel continued on to play soccer and became one of the top goalies in the region until he was drafted into the Polish Cavalry.

22. Wolf (Velvel) Kremberg

With the exception of Velvel, the older Kremberg sons (Samuel, Joseph, Jacob, Nathan) and two daughters (Anna, Esther) had immigrated to the US in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Shirley attended Yiddish school through the eighth grade and then helped her sisters out on the farm and learned the seamstress trade. Esther’s husband Harry Simon, a furniture store owner in Connecticut who had political connections, became increasingly concerned about family members still in Europe due to increasing Nazi aggression and obtained a visa and passage for Shirley in late 1938. She found a home in Brooklyn with her brother Jacob, 20 years her senior and his wife Pauline and began working in the New York garment district as a seamstress. Unlike most of her brothers with the exception of Joseph she did not change her surname to Greenberg, keeping the Kremberg family name. Shirley was devastated when she eventually learned that Velvel likely died in battle in the early days of the war and the rest of the family, including her elderly father, 5 sisters, and a young niece and nephew with whom she was very close, all perished in the Holocaust.

    When Shirley realized that Jeruchem was alive and living in Paris they began to correspond, with Shirley traveling to Paris in April 1947. They began a whirlwind romance and traveled throughout France, thanks in part to the generosity of the families of Jeruchem’s wartime comrades. They were married in June 1947 in Paris.

12. Jerry and Shirley’s wedding picture, Paris 1947

Jeruchem was initially inclined to remain in France but given that all their surviving family members were in the US, they ultimately decided to make Brooklyn their home. On arrival Jeruchem changed his name to Jerry Krystal, given that the French had difficulty pronouncing his name and he thought it would be even more difficult for Americans. His spelling of the surname is different from his two uncles (Crystel), because I suspect he wanted to keep his initials unchanged. For the first 3 years the Krystal’s resided with Jacob and Pauline Greenberg until they were able to find an apartment of their own. Jerry resumed his career as a cabinet maker/carpenter, finished high school in the evenings, and was active in the Bielsk Society. Jerry contributed the associated chapter to the Bielsk Yizkor book in the mid-1970’s. Shirley continued to work as a seamstress until their first child Geoffrey was born, followed 3 years later by Mark. They resided in Brooklyn, spending the summers in the Catskills until 1981. Upon Jerry’s retirement they moved to Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, where they enjoyed life until they succumbed to cancer, with Jerry passing away in 1987 and Shirley passing away in 1989. They were buried in the Bielsk Society section of the Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Queens, adjacent to Herman and Libe Elson* and in proximity to Jerry’s uncle Itzchak and his wife Dobe, who also contributed chapters to the Yizkor book.

* [Libe Utzyski (Ferber) Elson wrote three entries in the Yiddish section of the Bielsk Podlaski Yizkor Book and later translated them into English. The translations can be read here. The Krystals and Elsons were lifelong friends.]

Additional Photographs:

6. Jeruchem’s French Army military ID, late 1944

7. Jeruchem (front row center) with the officers of Batallion 51/22

8. Jeruchem leading his men, probably the Polish company in occupied Germany

9. Jeruchem’s FFI service record

10. Jeruchem’s Croix De Geurre citation

11. Tobja’s grave in the Cemetiere d’Ivry, 2014

13. The Kremberg family raking hay in Bielsk. Shirley (Sprinza) is second from right, late 1930s

14. Kremberg sisters in the apple orchard with Shirley in the middle, late 1930's

15. Shirley (top row, fourth from left) in 1928 class picture

17. The caption translates to "Excursion of the Jewish school [transliteration: Yiddisher shul] in May 1929 Bielsk."
אויספלוג פון דער יידישער שול מאי 1929 ביעלסק
Shirley is in the middle of fourth row from top

18. Shirley (top row, fourth from left) in class picture 1932

19. Kremberg sisters, brother-in-law and friends in Bielsk in mid-1930s

20. Kremberg women sewing, 1937, with Shirley holding iron

21. The Kremberg family in 1938 with patriarch Moshe in the middle and Shirley, the only survivor, to his right

23. Shirley’s niece and nephew with her sister

24. Shirley with niece and nephew, late 1930’s

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Updated January 22, 2023

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