A Border Town in Poland by Hirsch Bieler as told to Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin


Thousands of Russian Jews fleeing Tsarist persecution in the late 19th/early 20th centuries reached East Prussia through the Russian-Polish town Grajewo - a major illicit land crossing for waves of political, religious and economic emigrés. The 1870s rail link connecting Great Russia to Germany though Grajewo had created this East-West commercial junction. Hirsch Bieler, born 1900 in Grajewo, was among them.  The Great War, begun at his doorstep, launched his journey to three Promised Lands. In 1919 teenage Hirsch left Poland forever for Leipzig in Weimar Germany. There he found a new home through ‘adult adoption’ by a childless Lutheran couple; community among other Zionist-leaning Eastern European Jews; a rich cultural life; and an entrepreneurial career in the rising petroleum trade.  In 1931 he married Anna Burstein, a talented young Romanian concert pianist. That life was upended by Hitler’s 1933 rise to power. In 1936 the couple fled with their small daughter - first, to Tel Aviv, then to America, overcoming onerous “Papers, please” barriers as world doors slammed shut for those seeking refuge.  Meanwhile Soviet occupation, Nazi invasions and the Holocaust trapped Hirsch’s friends and family still in Europe, scattering others across continents.  He saved their correspondence chronicling those desperate years. In 1978 Hirsch and Anna revisited Leipzig. He began sharing his formative experiences as teen smuggler, fur trader, and oil supplier to I. G. Farben with us: his daughter Nora Jean and son-in-law Michael. We transcribed his recollections. He revised and expanded them, still managing the Philadelphia industrial lubricants firm he founded, until his death in 1985.  His colorful recollections, plus extensive research, the inherited contents of his secret steel “strong box,” and materials shared by his Suwalski/Antman family, resulted in this book.

The Levins are authors of Two Pianos: Playing for Life, a concert documentary about Anna and her colleagues concertizing under and after the Third Reich in which Hirsch makes a cameo appearance. https://www.twopianosplayingforlife.org/

“A memorable memoir -- a fabulous book -- a major work of love and devotion.  Revolutions in Poland, Russia and Germany are described vividly, with their effects. . . . Surviving by smuggling, by entrepreneurship, by obtaining papers legal and otherwise, are rendered like a major thriller.  Everyone with relatives who came to America to escape persecution will find something remarkable here." - Bonnie Squires, Main Line Times, Nov. 2021

"What stories Hirsch Bieler and the authors have to tell!  Some of the most vivid involve Zelde, the ugly but clever crone who ran Grajewo's smuggling business that helped Hirsch survive [Great War] poverty but also resulted in hair-raising narrow escapes. . . .Through nimble footwork he prospers in Weimar Germany, the Third Reich and British Palestine, eventually reaching the U.S.  Then the book's final sections reprint his Polish family's heartbreaking 1939-41 letters pleading for help, and recount his desperate doomed attempts to provide it. . . .A tale of displacement, resilience, loss, and hope." - Karen Lyon, "Beyond the Pale," [Capitol] Hill Rag, December 2021

“An important addition to twentieth century history.  Hirsch Bieler was born in 1900 in Grajewo, a town in Tsarist Poland on Germany’s East Prussian border.  He left in 1919 for a better life in Germany, and the move lights the touch paper for a series of further moves . . . The book is very carefully researched with terrific visuals of maps and family photos rendered by the editors, to carry along a vivid and energising oral history. . . now published in its full glory. " - Richard Lofthouse, Editor, Quad (formerly Oxford Today), Alumni Newsletter of Oxford University (January 2022)

Hirsch immerses us in the life and memorable inhabitants of Grajewo, including his involvement in smuggling that contributed a major part of the town’s economy, [then moves on to prosper in Weimar Germany] before being dismissed under the Nazis. . . .It took a year and an enormous amount of money before he, his pianist wife and small daughter could escape. From Palestine, miraculously they were able to immigrate to the U.S. in 1938, though his extended family in Germany, Denmark, and Poland were threatened. . . .Essential to the book is what the Levins write — that Bieler’s “painstakingly detailed tales were an act of recreation, a memorial meant to make his times and their inhabitants live again.”" - Abby Remer, Martha's Vineyard Times (May 2023)