Rabbis of Bialowieza

In contrary to the opinions, found in the very limited number of papers concerning Bialowieza, that there was no Rabbi at all, it turns out that Rabbis were here from the very beginning of the Jewish society. It is confirmed in some publications, documents and also by the oldest residents of Bialowieza.

Jacob Mejer Halperin

The first Rabbi traced in the sources was Jacob Mejer Halperin. He was mentioned in Memorial Book of Sokółka , where he is mentioned as a father in law of Rabbi from Zabludów - Jossele. The text clearly states, that Jacob Mejer Halperin was a Rabbi in Bialowieża (Grodno Governorate), and in Voranawa (then Vilna now Grodno Governorate) during the times when Jossele was a Rabbi in Sokółka - before 1856 [1]. In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Jacob Halperin is described as the successor of Rabbi Mejer - the head of Qahal in Jałówka in the beginning of XIX century, with a comment, that he later moved to Voranava [2]. Very often the smaller Jewish communities had Rabbis which were commuting from other villages and cities. In this way, one person could serve as a Rabbi for several communities at once or sequentially. We find name Halperin in the sources from XIXth and XXth centuries, which suggest, that Jakob Meyer might have lived in Bialowieza long enough for his family (sibling, or his own children) to settle. Because we know that the Halperin/Galperin/Galpern family lived in Bialowieza before the Second World War - brother Abraham and sister Cila died with their parents during the Holocaust [3], Yaffa (Szejna) Halperin Kartzinel, their sister survived in the emigration in Izrael, so as their brother Lazar Halperin survived in Russia. Unfortunately children of the mentioned above do not have any knowledge about the Rabbi Halperin [4].

Koppel Kahana Kagan
Rabbin Kopel Kahana_copyright Michael Wallach (in the collection of NPG London)

Rabbin Kopel Kahana - copyright Michael Wallach (in the collection of NPG London)

We know a little more about the second Rabbi from Bialowieza, but the sources are not always coherent with each other. Rabbi Kahana Koppel, who signed documents as Rabbi K. Kagan was a Jewish, Roman and English law scholar [5]. He was born in 1895 in Ejszyszki or Kupiszki (both are today in Lithuania) he studied in Yeshivas in Lithuania and was serving as a Rabbi in Bialowieza and Rużany (Grodno Governorate). He moved to London in the 30s as reported by The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History [7] or before the war as Rabbi Raymond Apple says [6] to study law at the Cambridge University, that is why he survived the War.

As we know from the Yad Vashem Archives, his wife Sosza (Sarah) stayed and died in Bialowieza, during the Holocaust, she came from Kobrin, from the Szmojsz family. Her father Michael Szmojsz was a well-known Rabbi in Kobrin, also her uncle and brother were Rabbis, her sister just like her was a Rabbi's wife. In "The Book of the memory of Kobryn", in the chapter about Rabbi Michael Szmojsz we read the note about his son in law - Rabbi Koppel Kahana is the famous scholar, graduate of Beit Ichak Yeshiva, the head of Bejt din in "Yalovitch" [9, 10], however we couldn't find this city in any sources. But if the letter B was the first in the name of the mentioned place, it could give - Bialovitch (Białowieża), however the place "Yalovitch" no where could be found. In the British Archives, we have found the certificate of Naturalisation of a Rabbi and a Lecturer - Kopel Kahan Kagan. It seems highly improbable, that the scholar with the same double-name emigrated to the United Kingdom at the same time. We may assume that it concerns the same Rabbi, however part of sources does not support the above-mentioned facts. The document states the birth date - May 15, 1882, not 1885, Polish nationality and the stated birthplace is Kiszyski, not Ejszyszki (Eišiškės) [11]. We failed to establish the existence of the village of that name. In the document, we also see a different name of his wife - Ada, not Sosza, but the document was written in 1949, so there is a chance that they have married one more time. The document also states the names of his parents: Leah and Judel. Jenny Martin, a relative of the Rabbi, who lives in Cape Town in South Africa reports the same names of the Rabbi parents, but the place of birth is different again - Kupiszki (In Yiddish - Kupishok, in Lithuanian - Kupiškis, today Lithuania) There is a large group of descendants of Jews from Kupiszki in Cape Town in South Africa, who were emigrating here from the end of XIXth century [14]. The family from Cape Town reports, that maiden name of Lea - Rabbi's Koppel Kahan mother - was Kagan. It could explain the double-name of the Rabbi - Kahan/Kagan. Lea and Judel Kahana had two more daughters - Nechama Kahan, Raja Witz and a son David Falke Kahan. There is no record about the ancestors of Rabbi's father - Judel, but the genealogy of Rabbi's mother goes many generations [12]. Jenny Marin, remember that her grandmother recalled the visit of Rabbi Koppel Kahan in Cape Town, who came there to collect money to support the community in Kupiszki. Jenny Martin had no knowledge about the fate of the Rabbi, nor about his stay in the United Kingdom. This may mean that Koppel had come to collect the money from the community Kupiszki in Africa from Poland, it is not known whether the Bialowieza, or from another location, where he studied at the famous Lithuanian yeshivas. Jenny Marin also remembers, that Rabbi Koppel Kahana (Kagan) was preaching in Cape Town [13].

The proof that Koppel Kahana was a Rabbi in Białowieża, and at the same time proof that Białowieża had a rabbi, is (among other sources) the letter from 1930 written in Yiddish by rabbi Kopel Kahana to rabbi Woodridge. The letter has a double signature stamp - in English and in Yiddish: Rabbi Kopel Kagan Białowieża Poland.

The letter from 1930 written in Yiddish by rabbi Kopel Kahana to rabbi Woodridge

Kopel Kagan
Białowieża Polska

With God's blessing, in the morning of the 2nd month Mar-Cheszwan (November) 1930, New York Dear friend of my soul, Rabbi Gaon, my righteous teacher etc, etc, of the wonderful name Teubenifliegel, Kanfej Jona, rabbi Woodrige, may you live long and happily, with my gratitude, respect and blessings,

a week ago I wrote to the Estimable Scholar from the city of New York, that I was planning to travel to the holy yeshiva.

And now I am writing a second letter to the Estimable Scholar with a request for your Father, generous in his good deeds, that he would vouch for Aron Simanowicz, may he live, who told me, that he is a candidate to become a shamash and a teacher of children in the gmina (?) mentioned above. And he is a great follower of the commandments, full of love for Tora, very dear, and a specialist in teaching, a well behaved and affable man. And I shall ask You, my Estimable Scholar, to fulfil this plea, and I ensure you that you shall be satisfied with his work in every detail.

(?) With every blessing (?)

Kind regards,
Kopel Kagan Rabbi in Białowieża
Currently in Makowa ?

tłum. z hebrajskiego dr Marek Tuszewicki

? - znakiem zapytania oznaczono nieczytelne miejsca

[1]hebr. Skrzydła gołębia, nawiązanie do nazwiska Taubenfliegel.

list z 1930 roku pisany w jidysz przez rabina Kopel Kahana

List z 1930 roku pisany w jidysz przez rabina Kopel Kahana

The letter seems to be written in New York - and Kopel Kagan can be found on the list of passengers of the Berengari ship accessible in the Ellis Island Museum (link to Ellis Island). The ship left the port Cherbourg in France on the 26th of February 1930 and arrived in New York on the 4th of March 1930.

The document from the museum gives us very specific data: Kopel Kahana, born in 1892 in Olszyszki, Poland, 38 years old, of Polish nationality and Jewish race, rabbi, permanent resident of Białowieża (written “Białowicz”) on street Stoczek, living with his wife (illegible: perhaps Kacan lub Kahan Rosla), speaks and writes in Jewish language, he is 5ft tall [152cm], has grey eyes, hair and skin fr. [t/n: “fr” probably refers to fair], of good mental and physical health. He received a half-year visa (number 1122) on the 25th of December 1929, and on Ellis Island he received a residence permit valid till 20.04.1931. He was never in USA before, and the main reason for his trip was to visit his friend, mister Tendler (unknown first name), living in New York on 147 Essex Str. [24]

Unfortunately, the data doesn’t clarify the place of Rabbi’s birth as “Olszyszki”, just like “Kiszyszki” stated in the naturalisation act, doesn’t exist on the map. The document also gives us the third version of his wife’s name - Rozla (probably Roza), next to previous Sosza and Ada.

We don’t know for how long did Kahana return to Białowieża after his stay in New York and whether this trip influenced his move to Cambridge.

After graduating from Cambridge in the years 1946 -1968 Kopel Kahana was a lecturer of law and Talmud at the Jews' College in London (today known as the High School of Jewish Studies), where he "brought a new generation of British Rabbis fascinated by his teachings" [5]. In the 60's he also worked as a visiting professor of Talmud and allied studies at the Bar-Ilan University in Negev, Israel. Among the number of his publications, we find: "Three Great Systems of Jurisprudence" (1955), "The Case for Jewish Civil Law in the Jewish State" (1960), "The Theory of Marriage in Jewish Law" (1966), "Personal Status in Jewish Law". He published his articles in few top American and English law journals as K. Kagan. All biographical notes about Rabbi Kopel Kahan describe him as a great scholar and a fantastic academic teacher with a great charisma. In the Encyclopedia Judaica, we read: "Kahana represented the rare type of Lithuanian Gaon, who was acquainted with modern legal studies and whose contributions in this field were considerable" [5]. Rabbi Tovi Preschel, who himself was considered an expert on the Talmud describes a meeting with Kopel Kahan in the 40s in the house of Rabbi Abba Bornstein in London, where Kahana "presented his spectacular Talmudic erudition" in the game with a needle. One person stuck a needle into a page of the Talmud and when informed of the last of the pages through which the needle had penetrated, Rabbi Kahana would tell you the word on that page, that the needle had touched [17].

Elazar Kalman Tiefenbrum (whom the text by Preschel, recalling Kahana is dedicated), a well known Hassid painter, who was specialised in portraying great Rabbis, has painted also a portrait of Kopel Kahana. Tifenbrum tried to depict not only the resemblance to the people he painted but also their moral and spiritual strength. His portraits hang in many Jewish homes and institutions, in many countries and were often published in many newspapers and journals [17].

The words of praise on Kopel Kahana, leaving for the retirement was also written by Rabbi Raymond Apple in 1970. Among other things we read there: "the master of jurisprudence and the Jewish sage — meet and combine harmoniously to produce a unique personality, respected by lawyers and revered by Rabbis the world over" [24].

It is known that after his retirement in 1968, Rabbi Kahana has left to Israel, but it is unclear for how long [18]. Rabbi Kopel Kahana Kagan died in 1978. The Jewish Chronicle has denoted it on July 21, 1978: "Rabbi KopelKahana, the eminent Talmudist who was a world authority on the Halacha, died last Friday in Bournemouth" [19].

Memories of the Bialowieza residents about the Rabbi

The residents of Bialowieza recalls the Rabbi. It is not clear whether it is about Kopel Kahana or the Rabbi who has taken his place when Kopel left to Cambridge. The villagers recall the years before and during the World War II, so this is certainly the memories above same one - the last Rabbi of Bialowieza. Unfortunately, no one remembers his first or last name. Zinaida Buszko (born 1928) says, "I remember, the Rabbi had a beard. He was not young anymore, he was in his 40s, or maybe he was older" [14]. Jan Sawicki (born 1929) says: "I remember the Rabbi only by appearance, he was wearing a gaberdine, and he was about 60 years old" [15]. Jan Sawicki remembers the Rabbi to be 20 years older, than Buszko says, however, we need to remember, that for a young person every adult is "old", so we can not take the age stated by our interviewers as true.

Ulica Waszkiewicza 108, współczesny widok domu, w którym rabin wynajmował pokój.

Ulica Waszkiewicza 108, współczesny widok domu, w którym rabin wynajmował pokój.

Thanks to the memory of Dackiewicz we learn that the Rabbi lived closed to the synagogue. He rented a house owned by Buszko family, on Waszkiewicza street, formerly known as Stoczek. "The Rabbi? Where he lived? It's almost the very centre of Bialowieza, at the Buszko's house. He was renting it vis a vis Rapczuk's house. The Rabbi's landlord - the old Buszko has become very alike the Rabbi himself, he had a long beard, and he read the Bible. I worked as a tailor, just in front at the workshop of master Naumnik. When the old Buszko sat by the window, with his beard, he looked just like the Rabbi" [15; 16].


The errant Rabbi

Pinkas Ha Kehilot - the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, which ceased to exist after the Holocaust, compiled by Yad Vashem lists Eliezer Pupko as the Rabbi of Bialowieza, hired by the society in the 20s of XX century [20]. Later he emigrated to the United States and became the Rabbi in Philadelphia [21]. However, it seems that this Rabbi had never lived in Bialowieza. This errant information was produced by the editor who did not know the Polish language. The note was edited on the basis of post-war sources, not on the testimonies and memories of the members of  the Jewish community of Bialowieza, which were the base of the other notes, published by the Survivors of the Holocaust.

Eliezer Pupko (Poupko) born in Raduń in 1886 (formerly Vilna Governorate, in Russia; today Belarus) after the completion of the most famous Lithuanian yeshiva in Telsze (Lithuanian Telšiai, Yiddish Telz) and after obtaining the Smicha which allowed him to be a Rabbi in 1908, for next 23 years he worked as the main Rabbi in Vieliż in Russia. For someone who doesn't know Polish, the name of the city in Cyrillic - Ве́лиж might have some resemblance to the written name of Bialowieza - Беловежа. In 1930 he was deported to Siberia, and he spends one year there. In 1931 he emigrated to the USA. Concluding, it is not possible, that Poupko could be the Rabbi in Bialowieza, in the 20s, living in Vieliż which was 1700 km away, at the same time.

Eliezer Poupko is mentioned also in the Memorial Book of Białobrzegi [23], probably by mistake. The name of the city Bialobrzegi in Hebrew, transcribed into Latin has few variations: Bialobzig, Bialovzigl, Byalovzig, which again resembles the name of Bialowieza - Belovezha, Bialoviezha, Belovezh, Bialovezh.



  1. A. Rabbis of Sokolka, Translated by Selwyn Rose in the Memorial Book of Sokolka, translation of Sefer Sokolka, Encyclopedia of Jewish Diaspora, Jerusalem, 1968 http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/sokolka/Sok055.html
  2. Pinkas HaKehillot, Poland, Volume 8, password Heifer, Translated by David Gordon, Yad Vashem http://www.avotaynu.com/jalowka/Jalowka.html
  3. Testimony of Halperins family from Bialowieza filed by Yaffe Kartzinel at Yad Vashem;
  4. Memories of Tatiana Halperin written by Mila Malitz (letters to Katarzyna Winiarska, 3rd of February, 3rd and 6th of March 2016) and memories of Dvora Lev-Tov written by Tamara Paz, 5th of February 2016, and memories of Yael Peer, unregistered meeting with Katarzyna Winiarska, 23th of March, 2016).
  5. Encyclopedia Judaica, password Koppel Kahana;
  6. Rabbi Raymond Apple, Kopel Kahana, in Rivon, magazine of the Hampstead Synagogue, February, 1970, vol.7, no.3. http://www.oztorah.com/2014/03/kopel-kahana/
  7. The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History: https://books.google.pl/books?id=spOxzrifZjcC&pg=PT979&lpg=PT979&dq=koppel+kahana&source=bl&ots=C7LvuT19MA&sig=-rAa1Wl1HOqcw5kL_brR7RDGSlk&hl=pl&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiK_NWM9erLAhXJShQKHeFFCMQQ6AEIPjAF#v=onepage&q=koppel%20kahana&f=false
  8. Testimony of Sosza Kahana, Yad Vashem;
  9. M. Tzinovitz, Rabbi Michael Shmoish, of Blessed Memory in Book of Kobrin; the scroll of life and destruction, translation of Sefer Kobryn; Megilat Hayim ve-Hurban, edited by Betzalel Shwartz, Israel Chaim Bil (e) tzki, Tel Aviv 1951 http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/kobrin1/kob331.html
  10. I. Vishengrad, The Life and Work of Rabbi Michael, of Blessed Memory in Book of Kobrin; the scroll of life and destruction, translation of Sefer Kobryn; Megilat Hayim ve-Hurban, edited by Betzalel Shwartz, Israel Chaim Bil (e) tzki, Tel Aviv 1951 http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/kobrin1/kob331.html
  11. The documentation in the possession of the author;
  12. Family tree Koppel Kahana in portal Geni: https://www.geni.com/people/Koppel-Kahana/6000000026188017899?through=6000000026187424792
  13. Information from Jenny Marin, correspondence with Katarzyna Winiarska, 11th and 25th of November 2015, 1st of April 2016;
  14. JewishGen's ShtetLinks site: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/kupiskis/kupishok.htm
  15. Włodzimierz Dackiewicz, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 9th of June 2015;
  16. Włodzimierz Dackiewicz, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 21th of July 2015;
  17. Tovi Preschel, K.Tiefenbrun - Painter of Gedolei Yisrael in http://www.toviapreschel.com/ek-tiefenbrun-painter-of-gedolei-yisrael/
  18. The Jewish Chronicle, 22th of November 1968;
  19. The Jewish Chronicle, 21th of July 1978;
  20. Pinkas HaKehilot, Poland Vo. 8 (2005) p. 139-140, password Bialowieza crowd. on eng. Matan Shefi
  21. Rabbi Eliezer Poupko (or Pupko) biography in Wikipedia En. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliezer_Poupko
  22. Rabbi Eliezer Poupko, biography in http://www.hawaiilibrary.net/articles/Eliezer_Poupko
  23.  The Book of Remembrance of the Community of Białobrzeg (Białobrzegi, Poland), Rabbi David Avraham Mendelbaum, Tel Aviv in 1991 http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Bialobrzegi/Bialobrzegi.html#toc