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Ciechanow and its Jewish Kehillah Historical Notes

Ciechanow, the shtetl where, during World War II, the German mass-murderer ruled limitlessly, the Gauleiter Robert Koch, belonged to the oldest communities in Poland. Proof of this are the remains of the ancient kloiz (small synagogue) that is found beside the Lydinya River and the ancient church on the hillock, rising high above the city.

The beginning of Ciechanow is rooted in the beginning of the Polish state. In the eleventh century, the community started to be built, bordering on the River Lydinya.

In a document from the year 1065, this community is mentioned as having paid taxes, at the command of King Bolesov Shmiali, to the Benedictines. In 1207, after the inner partitioning of the Polish state, during the period of Leshek Biyali, the city belonged to his brother Conrad – the squire of Mazovich.

In the above-mentioned century, when the Lithuanian and Prussian invasion of Poland increases, Ciechanow and the surrounding area becomes an arena of constant wars that Poland carried on to protect their soil. Because of this, Ciechanow is wiped off the face of the earth several times, and each time it gets rebuilt. In the year 1267, the Prussians and Lithuanians destroyed the city. Seventy years later in 1337, when the city was already properly rebuilt, and led a normal life, an invasion of Lithuanians once again destroyed Ciechanow.

After the khurban (destruction) of Ciechanow, it is restarted under the rule of the Mazovich fiefdom/rule. Yanush, the Mazovich nobleman, rebuilt the yishuv and moved it to a more comfortable location. In the year 1400, Ciechanow received city privileges, and sixty-three years later, a great battle with the Crusaders once more took place in Ciechanow, and the Mazovich rulers once more suffered a defeat.

In the sixteenth century a revival of Ciechanow begins and it comes under the crown's possession. And so the city develops and grows. The clay soil around the city helps to develop brick-making there.

The wars ceased in Ciechanow region, and the yishuv carried on its normal life until 1657, when the Swedes attacked the city, plundered it and burned it. Since that year, continual misfortunes befell the yishuv.

In 1662, when the yishuv was already built up, a fire brought a new khurban. When the city revived after the fire, an epidemic broke out amongst the Ciechanow residents. The government officials who took over, after the epidemic was over, asserted that Ciechanow was left without inhabitants. Since then a hillock remains beneath the shtetl and it is called Famrak. There, supposedly, is the grave of those who died during the epidemic. Every year, at the time of the Green Holiday (Zieloneh Shvionski) the Christians of Ciechanow march in a procession to Famrak.

After the aforementioned misfortunes, Ciechanow no longer reached its previous status. The small yishuv found itself under the control of local government, and only the ruins of the former castle beside the Ladinya River remained, which told of the former great days of the city on whose behalf great battles were fought – days when noblemen and kings visited the castle.

Remainder of an ancient destroyed castle in Ciechanow
Remainder of an ancient destroyed castle in Ciechanow

Picture Index

Of the four churches that Ciechanow once had, only two remain. One church, the oldest, that stands on the hillock, is for the whole region, and for hundreds of years maintained the Gothic crusader style.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century Ciechanow lived through all the historical storms that occurred in Poland: division of Poland, Polish uprising, occupation of Napoleonic army that turned the famous old church into a military warehouse.

After all the divisions of Poland, revolutions and uprisings, Ciechanow, in the second half of the nineteenth century, remained a typical Polish-Yiddish shtetl in the province of Plotz, with its own train station, ninety kilometers from Warsaw and thirty-five kilometers from the shtetl Mlova.

Local government building
Local government building

Picture Index

Jews of Ciechanow and their First Rov

Until the sixteenth century there were no Jews in Ciechanow. It is only by the year 1569 that Jewish names are first mentioned in Ciechanow. In 1656, while the Swedes attacked Poland and the battles took place around Ciechanow, fifty Jewish families perished at the hands of Hetman Charnetski's army. A false accusation was made against the Jews of Ciechanow that they were on friendly terms with the Swedish army that had occupied the city. In general, the Jews suffered greatly from the Polish-Swedish wars.

In the eighteenth century we once again encounter an organized Kehillah in Ciechanow that builds a center for all the small communities in its surroundings. It had a population of 1,670 that was quite a large number for that time. The shtetl that built a center, under the Polish administration also had a prominent role in the Jewish Kehillah management called (in Hebrew) Vaad Arba Artzot. The Ciechanow Kehillah was one of the fifteen regional Kehillas in Poland that had their own autonomy in the Vaad Arba Artzot. The Jewish residents of the shtetlech Mlova, Reishtat and Plonsk paid Kehillah and governmental taxes which also provided the above-named shtetlech with religious functionaries and sacred objects.

At the plenary meeting of the Vaad Arba Artzot that took place in Yaraslov in 1753, a struggle took place between the representative of Ciechanow, Avram ben Eliezer and the representative of the smaller communities in the region that fought for their independence. They not only tore themselves away from the Ciechanow Regional Kehillah, but they also took upon themselves the leadership regarding every act for the smaller communities that were connected with Ciechanow.

The representative of the Polish Finance Ministry, Kazinyes Grachovsky, who was present at the meeting of the Vaad Arba Artzot, in Yaraslov, brought reasons to the rabbonim and leaders of the Ciechanow region to concern themselves with this struggle between Ciechanow and the smaller communities.

In the archive material there is no proof of results of this struggle between the Kehillahs. It is known, though, that the Ciechanow Kehillah lost its hegemony of the Kehillahs in its region that grew larger in number of their membership and became independent in their activities and in the collection of general and local taxes. In the nineteenth century, when the shtetl Ciechanow reached a higher level of development, the Yiddish Kehillah also grew, both in number and in appearance.

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In the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews become a majority in Ciechanow and remain so until the '80's of that century. In future years the number of Jews grows even larger when the Polish population greatly increases because of an influx of peasants from the surrounding villages, as can be seen from the table below:

According to the survivors of Ciechanow in the year 1939, before the outbreak of war, there were 2,000 Jewish families in Ciechanow.

*

As already shown, Ciechanow had a significant Kehillah already in the second half of the eighteenth century. It is therefore clear that such a Kehillah could already afford its own Rov.

Information about the first Rov in Ciechanow exists from the year 1786. The name of the first Rov was Rov Yitzhak Kahane. In the aforementioned year he gave his endorsement of the sefer (book) P'nai Aryeh, whose author was Rov Aryeh-Leib Brebi Moshe Katz, the in-law of Rov Yitzhak Kahane. He signed his endorsement to the book with the title “The Rav of Ciechanow.” His endorsement appears together with other great rabbis of that time, such as: Rov Yosef Katzenelenboign – Rov of Brisk in Litn; Rebbe Tzvi Hersh – Rov of Herandeh and Rebbe Klunumees Kalman Lichtenstein – Rov of Bialystok.* It must therefore be accepted that the first Rov of Ciechanow occupied an important position amongst the Rebbes of Poland at that time. It is not known exactly when he died. His replacement was Reb Laibish Kharif Tzinty, who took the Ciechanow rabbinic position in the year 1820.

* The sefer, Pnai Aryeh of Rav Aryeh-Leib Brebi Moshe Katz of Tallin appeared in Navidvar and contains new Talmud explanations on the portion Moed.

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The first Rov of the Ciechanow Kehillah had a great influence on his congregants. Under his leadership the Ciechanow Kehillah developed very much and there were established a number of religious and educational institutions that spiritually uplifted and strengthened the Jews in this Polish shtetl.

 

Economic & Social Conditions in the '80s of the Nineteenth Century

We did not succeed in finding any information on the life of the Jews in Ciechanow during the stormy years of the multiple divisions of Poland, and later, during the Polish rebellions at the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was only when the Hebrew newspapers started to appear, in the '80s of the aforementioned century, that the life of the smaller Kehillahs is reflected.

According to the Hatzfira, there was no Jewish hospital in Ciechanow in 1884, nor was there an orphanage or guest house for the poor. Because of this the Bais Hamidrash (House of Study) became a place for the poor and sick and elderly. They slept on the floor together with children – orphans who did not have a home. In the year 1886 a Bikur Cholim Society (Society for visiting the sick) was established. The communal leaders drew up a list of 140 Jews who distinguished themselves with their willingness to help and care for the poor sick. They slept over with the sick ones and helped them with medicine and money.

Regarding the relationships of Jews in that region, the Hatzfira reports in No.15 of the year 1885: The peasants from the neighboring area have suddenly started to show hatred to the Jews, who had always lived in peace with the peasant population; they attacked and struck at Jews and thereby warned them: “If they will not leave their places there will be a shchita (slaughter).

The Jews of the village came to the Rov and poured out to him their bitter hearts. The Rov immediately called a meeting of the heads of the community and consulted with them. A plea-letter was sent to the local council, who immediately dispatched police and officials to prevent a pogrom. The local council warned the hooligans that they would have a bitter end. An inquest was conducted to determine where the source of this even originated amongst the peasants.”

*

The Hatzfira No. 204, of the year 1887, brings the following information about the professional figures of the Jewish population in Ciechanow:

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Merchants of various guilds - 12; their assistants - 8; shopkeepers of various merchandise - 195; their helpers - 38; brewers - 17; inns (taverns) - 2; distillers - 3; exporters - 3; wheat merchants - 55; brick-makers - 1; soda-water plants - 3; innkeepers - 4; forest merchants - 4; owners of equipment for cutting hay - 10.

Tradesmen: tailors, craftsmen and journeymen of all kinds - 306; cobblers - 300; hatters - 18; woodcarvers - 9; locksmiths - 10; weavers of tallises -3; tinsmiths - 11; goldsmiths - 2; clock-makers - 4; rope weavers - 19; painters - 4; candle-makers - 2; bookbinders - 2; comb makers - 1; house painters - 2; bakers - 19; furriers - 9; butchers and their helpers - 38; manufacturers of candies - 4; carriers - 28; stonecutters - 2; klezmorim (musicians) - 4; barber-surgeons and doctors - 4; teachers - 3; printers - 1; letter-writers - 3; dealers in hides - 8; Hebrew teachers - 21; shoichtim (ritual slaughterers) - 3; rabbonim - 2; synagogue beadles (shamashim) - 5; brokers - 4; village peddlers - 28; market dealers - 78; egg and poultry dealers - 25; miscellaneous - 55.

Of the 3500 souls who were in Ciechanow at that time, 1600 were economically active. That is, 45.7 % of the Jewish population were occupied in productive activities. Because actually the trade of that period - that actually created the business handling between village and city – also belonged to the productive field.

In the aforementioned year, 1887, Jewish Ciechanow had the following societies: Talmud Torah, Bikur Cholim, Eyin Yaacov, Tiferet Bchorim, Baalei Mlochets, Chevra T'hillim and Chevra Kadisha.

The Bikur Cholim Society was supported by the wealthy townsman, I. Lakh, who lent the Chevra Kadisha 50 rubles (a large sum at that time). In the Chevra Eyin Yaacov, that was founded in the year 1850 approximately, there assembled - nearly every evening - around fifty people to hear words of Torah. Winter time – every day, and summer time only on Shabbat, tradesmen gathered, members of the Chevra Tiferet Bchorim, and studied with a rebbe.

 

The Cholera Epidemic in the Shtetl in 1894

In the year 1894, a cholera epidemic broke out in Ciechanow, from which the Jewish population suffered greatly. In the first three months ninety people died and a large number lay sick in the hospital.

Because of the epidemic the Jewish population in Ciechanow was impoverished.

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The more prosperous Jews ran away from the city. Those who remained had to support the sick in the hospital and feed more than one hundred families who were driven out of their homes that were overcome with the epidemic. Trade also ceased. The stores were closed. A false accusation was spread that the Jews were responsible for the outbreak of the epidemic, because the Jews are the most sick. Because of this the peasants did not come to the city, and all business ceased.

The local governor of Plotsk denounced the accusation against the Jews. He gave a speech to the meeting of the Ciechanow inhabitants that the epidemic is a general one and that the rumor is false when it says that Jews are responsible for the plague. In one city there are a large number of Jews amongst the sick while in another there are a large number of Christians who are sick with this contagious illness. The local government called upon everyone to contribute and help people, then the plague will end. This speech encouraged the Jews and calmed the Jews.

 

The Beginning of the Zionist Movement in Ciechanow

After the cholera epidemic ended, the Jewish life of Ciechanow returned to normal.

In the year 1899 a Zionist Committee was established in the shtetl, consisting of approximately eighty members. The number grew daily. At the head of the committee were Waxman and Nathan Tzeitag.

In the year 1900, Ciechanow men joined the fire brigade that had been in existence for eighteen years. The Christian members of the fire brigade did not warmly welcome the Jews, and only when it was absolutely necessary they called the Jews to help.

Sources: Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego i innych Krajow Slowianskich, Warszawa 1880.

Dr. Ignacy Schiper: Dzieje Handlu Zydowskiego na Ziemiach Polski Str. 25g.

Hatzfira - 1884, No.5, 46; 1885, No.15; 1886, No. 190; 1887, No. 204. The correspondents who contributed the articles in Hatzfira were: S. Alishever and Moishe Kirshenbaum. The material from the named newspapers was gathered by M. Tzinovich. The complete article was composed by the editor, A. Wolf Yasni.

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