« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

The History of the
Jews in Chelm

 

The Beginning and the
History of a Yiddish Community

Dr. Philip Frydman, America

Translated by Rae Meltzer

About 40 miles from Lublin in the southeasterly direction is Khelm [Chelm]. In Russian the name of the shtetl is “Kholm”. The Hebrew origin of the name is Helm, Him, Hel”ma,

The date of the founding of Khelm is not certain. Apparently, a community existed here in the time of the “Ruthenian” [Little-Russian] Duke Roman Mstyslavysh who died in 1205. During his reign he often resided in his official residence in Khelm. Twenty years later during the reign of his son, Danilo Romanovitsh, the town became an official ducal residence, about 1235. He also built a fortress around 1240. When the Tartars invaded Poland they tried to capture Khelm, but the fortress held fast against the Tartars. Because of the security of the fortress and the nature of the terrain, which helped to defend the town, Danilo decided to make Khelm his capital city. In a second Tartar attack in 1261, the town and the fortress were partly destroyed.

In 1377, Khelm and the entire duchy were incorporated into Poland. This was an important event in the development of the state and of Khelm. At that time Poland was a leading power in the economic and political affairs of Eastern Europe. The separation from the static Little Russian regime to the advanced and large Polish state meant new economic opportunities and development for Khelm.

Khelm was situated on the big international commercial routes from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea into middle Europe. The international trade route brought the first Jews to Khelm. At that time there was intensive colonization in Khelm. From the East came “Ruthenians” and from the West, Polish colonizers.

Since we do not have direct data to tell us when the first Jews settled in Khelm, let us look at the data from the neighboring Jewish communities. We have documents from nearby Lubomil [by the Bug] that a Jewish community existed there from 1370-1382. This, of course, does not confirm that Jews first came there in those years; but it does confirm that during those years Jews were certainly there.

[Page 13]

It is possible to imagine that the Jews had already lived in Lubomil for some time prior to the first recording in a legal document of Jews living in Lubomil. In a neighboring town to the east is Ludmir [Vladimir Volinski] where the Jews are noted around 1171-1180. [This data is questioned by some historians who believe that the reference is not to Ludmir, but to Valdemar in Meklenburg, in northern Germany]. Thus it would appear that in the 13th and 14th Century several Jewish communities existed. We have not yet found any direct documentation for the date when Jews came to Khelm. We will have to appeal to the Talmud for enlightenment on that question.

Among the Jews of Khelm there was a traditional legend, and the elders of the community told this legend around 1900. According to the legend, the oldest Jewish gravestone in the Khelm cemetery is dated 700 years earlier. The local Jewish tradition held that the Jewish community in Khelm was already organized by 1300 when it established its own cemetery. Another, not entirely reliable hypothesis, is based on a quote from “Original Seed” [a publication written around 1200] which refers to the Jews of Khelm and Vladimir. The author of this article was not able to see this rare publication, and he simply reports this unverified data.

Nevertheless a Jewish community existed in Khelm in the 15th century. Around 1900 it was still possible to decipher the dates on the old gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Khelm. The worthy researcher and first historian of the Jews of Khelm discusses his findings in his work (1,2). According to his findings, the following dates were still legible on the gravestones in 1900.

1 gravestone marked 1442
l gravestone marked 1483
2 gravestones marked 1484
1 gravestone marked 1496

[Page 14]

[2]

It appears that the Jewish community of Khelm was well established and had some rich merchants. In 1492 a Pole mentions a Khelmer Jew, named Yekov, a tax lessee of the Polish King. In that time, a tax lessee was a business that required a lot of capital and brought in a huge profit.

In the 16th century, more facts emerged about the economic life of the Khelmer Jews and the life of the Jewish community.

According to the Polish tax registry of that time [about 1518], the first place in commerce was held by the southeastern part of Poland where the Jews of Lemberg, Khelm, Pshemysh, and Belzer lived. The Jewish merchants played a big role in the commerce of “Red Russia” [Rustshervana].

According to other information from the year 1530, the majority of goods that came through the Lublin tollbooth to the famous Lublin markets belonged to the Belzer, Khelmer and Lemberger merchants. The important Belzer and Khelmer merchants traded [about 1569] in leather, flour, oxen, textiles, wool, and merchandise from the Black Sea.

In that time there were big Jewish capitalists in Khelm. One of them, R'Yehudeh Ahrun from Khelm was appointed by the King to the position of tax collector for the entire district of Khelm [in 1520]. Two years later he was elected to head up the organization of Jewish communities from Lublin, Khelm, and Belzer districts. This was a very important position, which led to Jewish autonomy in Poland and to the significant role played by Khelm in the life of Polish Jews. Documents from 1520 indicate that R'Yehudeh Ahrun was given the title of “Doctor of Jewish Law” [legis mosaicae]. It is possible that he was a Rabbi.

There is information that in that period Jews were farmers. There are documents from the 16th century that show that Jews from Khelm paid the local priest tithes for their fields. The Christian farmers were excused from paying this tithe. The priests would complain whenever a Jew bought a piece of land that the church should not bear the loss from such a transaction and again collected the tithe from the new buyer.

[Page 15]

[3]

The Khelm community at that time belonged to the larger Jewish community in Poland. The first official census of the Jewish population in Poland was held in 1550 with the following census data for Khelm: 371 Jewish souls who lived in 40 houses. A comparison with the census of other larger Jewish communities in Poland were: Cracow, the capital, had a census count of 1800 souls; Posen had 83 Jewish houses, Lemberg 71; Lublin 42; Lubomil 39, Ludmir 30, Belz 22. On the average one can estimate 9-10 souls per Jewish house. In the larger towns and cities, where there were two-and three storied houses, as for example in Posen, there were more than twice as many souls per household.

In that time the Jewish community in Khelm was in debt to the Polish King for 171 florins. Another document of that time gave evidence of the important role the Khelm Jewish community played in the life of Polish Jews. In 1557, King Zygmunt August issued a decree that Jews from Cracow, Posen, Lublin, Lvov [Lemberg], and Khelm were forbidden to involve themselves in matters concerning other Jewish communities. According to the King's decree, Jews could act only on matters involving the community in which they lived and should not get involved in the affairs of another community.

(Drawing by E. Shishier of the “Crest & Coat - of - Arms” of Chelm)

[Page 16]

[4]

It appears that some influential Jews from the aforementioned five communities, or perhaps official community representatives from the “big five” wanted to take the power over all Jewish matters into their own hands and the King issued his decree to protect the smaller communities from usurpation [illegal seizure of power].

From the second half of the 16th century there are a series of archival materials from which we can deduce the pattern of various financial enterprises of the Jews of Khelm. This information was limited and restricted. We learn of local credit operations that were apparently not from the very large financial enterprises of the Khelmer Jews. The information about the income and charitable activities of the largest Jewish banking institutions is missing. In the archival materials that exist, there is reference to financial dealings with the priests. In the years 1577- 1594, many financial transactions between the Russian-Orthodox Bishop of Khelm and the Jews of Khelm are in the archival records. [In Russian the Bishop is called “Vladyke”] This “Vladyke” took out loans from Jews for various amounts ranging from 40 zlotys to as much as 170 zlotys. They were short-term loans for up to 6 months to one year. For that time the amounts were significant. For a loan of 170 zlotys [in 1580] the Bishop had to give, as a guarantee, his entire estate, which was not “small potatoes”; it included several villages and also their houses. In general, “Vladyke” conducted business with the Jews. In 1582, the contract is extended for another 4 years. The Bishop is not only a “borrower”, he is also a “lender'. In 1594 he makes a loan of 78 zlotys [plus interest] to a Jew of Khelm.

[Page 17]

[5]

The close economic ties are already evidence that the mutual relations between Jew and non-Jews were not bad. A curious light on these relations comes from another archival source of that time.

Through a mysterious chance, a judicial complaint is reported in the year 1550. The Christian woman “Marushya” files a complaint that the “Jewish Doctor” [which refers to the rabbi “Reb” Yuda], where she was employed as a servant, raped her and she bore him a child. He promised her to provide for the child and he has not kept his word. The priests of Khelm began circling around this “spicy” matter. The Khelmer “Vladyke” [Bishop] Vasily Baka wrote to his superior a report that “the Hebrew [Jewish] Rabbi had a child, a son, with “Marushya” and the child had already been baptized by the priest Sylvester.

The correspondence ends with this report. No Jewish sources about this whole matter were found, and it is therefore difficult to research this affair and decide whether there was any concrete evidence to support the accusations or was it just a frame-up. In general, Jewish sources do not know anything about Reb Yuda and it is almost unbelievable that this event had any connection to R'Yhudh Ahrun, referred to above. In 1522, he was already a man of advanced age. Jewish Law was very strict about acts of prostitution, especially involving a respected representative of the Jewish community and moreover a rabbi.

[Page 18]

[6]

It is possible that this was a process conducted by the priests to pursue a certain Polish cause. In that time the church agitated fiercely for Jewish households to employ Christian domestics, until 1565 when the legislature passed a new law forbidding Jews to employ Christian domestics. The scandal of the Khelmer Rabbi may have been factor in the turn-around of the decree.

It is interesting and characteristic that the opposite attitude prevailed in the judicial complaints about fights between Jews and gentiles. These fights did not have the character of anti-Jewish pogroms. The attackers were not always the gentiles. In one instance the Jews started the assault. In the year l559 a Jew filed a complaint that he was beaten by the servant of the Bishop. In 1514, a complaint was filed by an employee of the Khelmer “Vladyke” that some Jews severely injured him. In the same year a Jew filed a complaint to the effect that a servant in the Greek Orthodox Church physically attacked him. A third complaint in that same year was from a gentile, claiming that a group of Jews bloodied his nose and destroyed his clothes.

A serious case was reported in the year 1580. The synagogue sexton, Shmeun, declared to the court that “citizen Timosh” with a group of his friends, “armed with bombs, clubs and stones”, entered the synagogue on the holy Passover during prayer time. They threw stones and fired their weapons, destroying the roof and 11 doors. They smashed the pulpit and lectern and wounded 4 Jews. They stole various silver and gold ritual objects from the synagogue. The cost of the damage and destruction was estimated by the leaders of the community to be 2,000 zlotys.

[7]

The wounded Jews: Avrum Zakhnovytsh [Avrum Ben Shkhna?], Mashko Yoviovitsh (Moyshe Ben Yual], Yekov Zyv, and the sexton [”Shkolnik” in the original text]. Bysko also brought a complaint to the court. Both complaints were confirmed and supported by the leaders of the community. For the first time we learn the names of the Khelmer community leaders. They were: Pinhas, Shaul, Avrum Festytsh, and Kalmen. Also the sexton, Shmeun, and the “Shkolnik” Bysko were not officers of the synagogue, as we understand it in our day. The sexton Shmeun steps forward as an official representative of the Synagogue. Also Byska the “Shkolnik” is apparently an important officer of the community. The office of “Shkolnik” or “syndicate” [?] in that time meant a judicial or legal consultant and lobbyist for the government posts, church and royal court affairs.

A second less serious event happened two years later. In April, 1582, five Khelmer Jews, including Shaul Novokovytsh, Shloymeh Yakubovitsh, Marek, “Yakubk Doktor” [apparently the Rabbi] and the “Shkolnik” Byska brought a complaint against the director of the local Christian school. The complaint was that the director was drunk and with one of his students came into the Synagogue during prayer time and began to mock the prayer service. They punched the cantor in the face and tore his clothes. They stole some candelabras and went away. During the night at 3:00 a.m., the director returned with some of his students with clubs and burning torches. The Synagogue was locked for the night, and the drunken adventurer -director ran to the house of an officer of the Jewish community screaming, “Get up you robber, you Shkolnik! Your Synagogue is burning!

[Page 19]

[8]

Whether the director really intended to set fire to the synagogue, or he was just threatening, cannot be confirmed from his actions.

The names of the Jews who filed a complaint were the elite leaders of the community. The five who filed the complaint included 2 who held high office in the community [the Rabbi and the “Shkolnik”]; perhaps the other 3 who were involved in filing the complaint were not private citizens.

Almost all the above mentioned rogues and adventurers were from the circles that were directly connected to the church. This was not an accident. There were other similar accidents. Often students from Christian schools attacked Jews, as the Jews walked past the church, cathedrals and Christian schools. These types of attacks upon Jews occurred in many Polish towns. Often the goal was to arouse anti-Semitic baiting or a pogrom. Sometimes the purpose was to force Jews to pay a bribe to the students and to the church. Perhaps, these attacks on Jews were more common and severe in the Khelm district than elsewhere. In the 18th century, a special assessment for the church workers in the Lubliner and Khelmer district was instituted where none had previously been levied.

But all these events pale in comparison to the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Khelm and all the Jews of southeastern Poland when the Cossacks and Tartars attacked from the Ukraine.

[Page 20]

[9]

In Khelm, where at that time about 400 Jews lived, The Cossacks beleaguered the Castle in November 1648. The Cossacks burned the Castle and the entire town. In this fire many Jews were killed. Reb Nison Hanover, the classic chronicler, does not mention the massacre by the Cossacks in Khelm. Other sources say this explicitly. A book published in Cracow in 1650 by an author who came from a neighboring town [Zamoshtsh or Shebreshin] refers to the massacre of 1648 in his book. In the “prayer for the dead” contemporaneous with the massacre, the martyrs of Khelm are mentioned. It appears that the pogroms were repeated once again in 1655-1656, when the Cossacks together with the Moskoviter assaulted Poland and the area of Lublin and Khelm. The chronicle of Shmual Fybysh describes the evil government decrees in the years 1655-1656 when almost all the Khelmer Jews were slaughtered! It is difficult to ascertain how much of this information is supported by the facts, and how much of it is exaggerated. In spite of these events, the Jewish community in Khelm quite quickly revived.

The Christian citizens were apparently astonished by the speedy recovery of the Jewish community in Khelm. They used their political clout in 1659 to organize an economic action against the Jews demanding that officials should prohibit Jews from making and selling liquor. This business was the major source of income for Jews during that time.

[10]

The “Dominicans” also wanted to use the political situation for their own purposes. They filed a lawsuit demanding land that had belonged to the Jews of Khelm. This land was taken from the Jews by the Dominicans during the pogroms by the Cossacks. When the Jews were able to return to Khelm and claim their land, the priests insisted that the land belonged to them. Similar situations happened in other Polish towns, during and after pogroms. Attempts were made by gentiles to steal or confiscate Jewish inheritances. The provisional legislature of the Bratslaver province, which included Khelm, supported the demands of the Dominicans and insisted that their deputies in the central parliament in Warsaw do the same [1666]

In general, the situation of the Jews of Khelm got worse. All the Jewish communities, including Khelm, had heavy expenses after the Cossacks onslaught and destruction. In 1684, we find the first record of a huge loan that the Jews were forced to take from the priests. In that year, the leaders of the Jewish community of Khelm, ltska Aronovytsh, Haym Shmeunovitsh, Itska Levkovitsh and Zusman Levkovitsh took a loan of 1 000 Polish zlotys from the priest of Dubno. On this sum they had to pay annually, on St. Bartholomew's holy day, interest of 10% . After the death of the priest, the interest would be reduced to 8% forever. Of the 8%, half would go to the Catholic Church of Khelm and the other half to the magistrate of Khelm. The contract does not say anything about paying back the principal investment; but stipulates that the interest must be paid forever. These conditions make the contract very dubious. In this time there were many instances of extortion from Jews. This was a dark and dreadful time for the Jews because the Catholic anti-Semitism was very strong and they constantly incited ritual-murder and other frame-ups.

[Page 21]

Often the churches or the priests threatened to extort huge sums of money from the Jews. They “prettied up” the extortion in various ways. The Jewish community paid a bribe over and above the sum of the loan, which loan they never received. They often obligated themselves to pay a high interest rate on a loan, which was actually a bribe for a fictitious loan. Perhaps, the Khelmer Jew's loan was also a bribe to avoid a fateful sentence. Whether the loan was real or fictitious, the important point is that this is evidence that the situation of the Jewish community in Khelm was not as good as in previous times.

The Jewish community in Khelm slowly pulled out of the severe crises of the 17th century. Jewish commerce began to thrive again, particularly the export of leather to Prussia and Silesia. In the export of leather, the Jews of Warsaw and Khelm played a major role. The leather trade with Breslau and Silesia was brisk. In 1722 several Jewish families settled in Breslau. Among the 159 Polish Jews who settled in Breslau, it was recorded that 9 were from Khelm. In the years 1763-1764, reference was made to the famous trading fairs in Breslau, which attracted many merchants, among them Jews from Khelm. The horse trade for export and domestic commerce, in both Poland and Lithuania, was controlled by Jews. A Polish writer, using a pseudonym “khelmer”, complained bitterly in a Polish-Warsaw newspaper [end of the 18th century] about the Jewish trade in horses. He recalled that in 1554 Jews were forbidden to trade in horses. Luckily, his complaints had no practical effect. However, a new tax on leather merchants aroused great concern and confusion among the Jewish leather merchants.

[12]

In 1789 the Polish legislature decided to levy a new tax. The butchers had to pay the tax on every head of cattle, and they also had to pay a stamp tax on every calf, sheep and goat. At the same time the Polish legislature passed a law forbidding the export of raw leather, thus banning and outlawing the participation of Jews in the leather business. This new law was a serious blow to Jewish merchants, leather tanners, and artisans. It started consternation in the Jewish community, which prepared for speculation and a big rise in prices. The Jewish leather merchants, to avoid severe financial losses, hid their leather and pelts. The Polish government punished the Jewish tanners and artisans in the Khelmer and Krasnostaver region, confiscating their leather reserves, and distributing this leather among the gentile tanners and shoemakers.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community in Khelm once again pulled together after the discriminations and great hardships of the second half of the 1700s. The Khelmer community once again achieved prominence in the Jewish community of Poland, but she never regained the great status she once held.

In the census of 1765, the Jewish community of Khelm reached 1,418 souls, and in the whole Khelm region, the Jewish population was 9,787. The census did not count children less than one year of age because they were not taxed, and so the government was not interested in including them in the census. A more factual count would add about 82 children less than one year of age, bringing the total population to about 1,500. Even this figure is an undercount because the Jewish community hid the very poor Children and orphans over age one [an additional 20-30%] to reduce their head-tax

[Page 22]

[13]

However, during that time Khelm no longer belonged to the larger Jewish communities in the land. According to the census of 1765, twelve large Jewish communities had populations of over 2,000. They were:

Brod 7,200
Lemberg 61,160
Clita [Leshno] 51,000
Cracow 3,500

Communities that were close neighbors of Khelm had census counts as follows:

Lublin 1,460
Ludmir 1,400

In the above census data, the children under one year of age are included. The “hidden” population is not included in this census.

The Khelmer community regained an honorable place in the activities and commitments of the autonomous organization of Poland. The Council of Four Lands, an autonomous Jewish governing body in Eastern Europe in the 16th-18th century, became the responsibility of several smaller autonomous provinces. One of these was the Council of the Khelmer-Belzer Land, which had their meetings most of the time in Lubomil. Deputies from Khelm were active in both the Khelmer-Belzer Land Council and the Council of Four Lands. In 1739, the Deputy from Khelm, R' Hershl, was the Head of the Council of Four Lands. [Reliable information about the Khelm deputies is presented in the following chapter.]

[Page 23]

[14]

In the years of the great reform organization in Poland, and in the time of the great Four-Year Assembly [1788-1792] when open discussions were held about the question of reform in behalf of the Jews and the Jewish community, one of the spokesman was the Khelmer Rabbi R'Hyrsh Br' Yusyf. Generally, few writers participated in this discussion; mostly the active participants were adherents of the “Enlightenment” movement, and fervent supporters of reform, The only Rabbi among them was Hershko Yazefovytsh, and he was the only one who had the energy and courage to represent the national - conservative Jewish position. His pamphlet, which was published in Polish in 1789, was called “Passing Thoughts About the Way to Make Polish Jews Productive Citizens for the Nation.” An answer to Yazefovytsh's pamphlet was published by the Polish deputy Mateaus Butrymovytsh, a great friend of the Jews and passionate adherent of radical reform of Jewish life in the spirit of the Enlightenment and assimilation. Hersh Yazefovytsh pointed out that such reforms limit the function of Jewish autonomy and abolish separate Jewish clothing, create general secular schools for Jewish children; altogether, this can result in the disturbance of Jewish traditions and religion. There is the hypothesis that Hersh Yazefovytsh was a member of the commission that the Four-Year Assembly created in order to prepare a project for a new Jewish Law. The exact details supporting this hypothesis are lacking.

[Page 24]

[15]

The reform laws affecting the Jews did not pass, because Poland was wiped off the map of the independent countries of Europe and divided among her 3 powerful neighbors. Khelm belonged to Austria from 1795-1807, and from 1807-1812 to the Great Duchy of Warsaw. From 1812-1915, it was ruled by Russia, and a portion by the Congress of Poland.

During the division of Poland, the old trade roads were disturbed and abandoned. These old routes had a huge influence on the development of Jewish commerce in Khelm. The new economic situation and the new roads and routes were not as favorable for Khelm, which was located in a relegated corner of southeast Congress-Poland. The political situation in Khelm became very tense. The Russian government began a strong political Russification program, especially after the failure of the Polish Uprising of 1863. In the Khelm region lived many peasants who belonged to the “Uniate Church of Little Russia”, and were Greek Catholics.

The Russians put a great deal of pressure on them to leave their Church and join the Greek-Orthodox Church. In 1875, the Greek Catholic Church was outlawed, which initiated a bitter 30-year struggle on the part of the Greek Catholics [Ruthenians] against the Russian government. There were bloody demonstrations, strikes, arrests, bitter press campaigns, etc. In order to strengthen the Russification program, the Russian government circles began, at the end of 1880, to consider a plan to create a separate Khelmer region and unite this region with Russia. Just short of the start of WW I, the Russian Duma [Parliament] on January l, 1913, made a decision to create a new region from parts of the Lublin and Shedlets region.

[Page 24]

[16]

The Duma's decision aroused a storm of protests in the Polish population world-wide. Understandably, the political tension did not help the economic stability and development of Khelm. To the old anti-Semitic population was added the reactionary Russian officials and clergy. Their attitude toward the Jews had a spokesman who was a highly placed Russian priest. During his visit to Khelm in 1889, his travel book was published in an influential Russian newspaper. The priest, Gorodetsky, writes in the newspaper that the Jews of Khelm made a very negative impression upon him. He refers to the Jews as “parasites in the guise of human beings”, and writes further that in “the major part of town, the small Jewish houses with tiny shops, where the dirty Jewesses and Jews are pushing from every door.” The statistics indicate that the Jewish population in Khelm had sharply decreased from what it was in 1900.

The Jewish households began to grow and by 1920, had increased three-fold; the Jewish population in the past 40 years increased only two-fold. However, trade and commerce were once again in Jewish hands. According to Dr. Shyper's data, in 1921, 88.3% of commerce and trade in Khelm was in Jewish hands, and in 1926, 82% was in Jewish hands.

Year Total Population
of Khelm
Jewish
Population
% of Jews
1827 21,793 1,902 1%
1856 3,662 2,493 68.0%
1893 11,887 6,356 53.5%
1910 17,555 7,814 44.5%
1921 23,221 12,064 51.1%
1931 29,074 13,537 46.5%

[Page 25]

[17]

At the outbreak of World War II there were between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews living in Khelm. This number probably does not take into account the refugees who ran east and south during the “September Panic”; in their flight, they got stuck in Khelm. “The town [Khelm] is beleaguered by “wanderers “ writes one of the “refugees” in his memoirs ....... they wait outside the bakeries and food shops ...... thousands of “wanderers” with starving faces and dry, cracked lips.”

The true Hell started when the Germans entered the town. Robberies, torture and murder according to the familiar Nazi pattern raged in Khelm. At the end of 1939, in November or December, the Nazi S.S. conducted their first “Aktzion “ of dreadful tortures. They forced between 1700-2000 Jews to the marketplace and then drove them brutally toward Sokol and Belzshets and the Russian border [eastern Galicia was occupied at that time by Russia.] During the forced march of the Jews, the Nazi SS used savage and ruthless attacks upon them and shot them to death. The unfortunate Jews on the march died on the way of exhaustion, hunger, and disease.

The barbaric “liquidation-aktzion” happened in Khelm in December, 1942. A Polish woman, connected to the underground movement, made a report immediately after the “liquidation-aktzion”. She lived among Jews and experienced the horror and brutality of the aktzion Briefly, the most important points in her report are:

In Khelm the Nazis did not organize a ghetto. Jews, until the end lived together with Polish neighbors, in the same streets and their own houses. In Khelm, from 1940 until October, 1942, people were anxiously silent.

[Page 26]

Perhaps in the quieter moments of life in Khelm, under the Nazis, when feeling frightened, they sang the peculiar song “Habt Mshmym Vrah.” (Hebrew). This song was published by Sh. Kaczergynsky in his collection, Songs of the Ghettos and Camps [Lagers], (New York, 1948), p. 120-121. This song was carried by a Khelmer Jew, Yual Pontshak. The song is very original and expresses strong feelings. The SS “aktsye” [aktzion] began in the night of the 5th-6th December, 1942. The “aktsye” was to end on the 15th of December, but the date was moved to December 25th. The Jewish population of Khelm, at that time, was about 11,000. The rest, one may conclude, perished from persecution, forced labor in the camps, hunger and illness. The region around Khelm, Vlodave and Hrubyeshov, as well as the rest of the Lublyner region, had many work camps in 1940-1941. In these work camps, Jews were subjected to inhuman conditions and forced to do very hard labor, A partial list of 20 work-camps in the region around Khelm, Vkodave, and Hrubyeshov is shown below:

Name of Camp Number of Workers
Vytkov [more than 350 Jewish workers]
Verashyn 11,060
Oshtshov 1,500
Dolhobitshov number unknown
Myrtsh 750
Varenzsh number unknown
Maryshyn number unknown
Obrovyets 200
Turkovyts 250

[Page 27]

[19]

Name of Camp Number of Jewish Workers
Bushne 100
Aukhrynov ?
Sovyn 140
Luteh 200
Osov 200
Rude Bay Opalyn 650
Krykhov ?
Dorohusk 150
Shelyshtshe-Baym-Vyepsh 146
Kamyen 115
Zshmudzsh 200

Of the more than 5,700 Jewish workers recorded on the list, about 1,700 were from Warsaw, the rest from Khelm and the surrounding shtetlach. Research data collected after the war by the Polish State Commission Researching German Crimes produced the following lists from the forced labor camps.

Tshernyeyov 200 Yiddish Workers
Konyn 150

Additional information for those mentioned previously:

Myrtshe 3,000
Osov {illegible number}
{illegible name} 300
Krykhov 2,500

[20]

The long-lived work camp in Krykhov was liquidated in March 1944.

11,000 Jews survived in Khelm [in spite of constant persecution] until the end in 1942. During the December “aktsyeh” [aktion] 7,000-8,000 Jews were murdered or sent to the Sobibor death camp.

”About 3,000 Jews hid, or ran away and later joined various partisan groups.” From the report of the Polish woman referred to earlier. Her report continues, “The liquidation was carried out by the Nazi SS. The Germans were heavily armed. They had revolvers, hand grenades, and machine guns. In order to liquidate the thousands of Jews they were forced to assemble in front of the church. The Nazi SS used machine guns to kill individual men and women. Those who tried to run away were killed with revolvers and hand grenades. Civilian Germans also participated in these murders of Jews. The German burgermeister, for example, killed a Jewish woman.”

In a historical study by T. Brustyn-Bernshtayn: “Stages in the process of expulsion and banishment in the German politics of destruction and annihilation of the Jewish population: Leaves for History, Warsaw, Volume 3, [1950], Section 1-2, p. 51-78. The following data is given about the Jews of Khelm during the Nazi period.

Date & Year Number of Jews in Khelm
1939 {illegible number, probably 15,000}
1940 10,000
June, 1941 11,500
April, 1942 10,815
June, 1942 7,000

[Page 28]

[21]

The number of Jews in Khelm in 1940-1941 increased because of the refugees from Cracow [June, 1940). Later [May, 1942], about 2,000 Jewish refugees from Slovakia came to Khelm. In the year 1942 there were four big “aktsyes” [aktions] in which the majority of Khelmer Jews were deported to the Sobibor death camp. A small number of Jewish skilled workers were left in Khelm until the Nazis shot and killed them on March 31st, 1943.

As everywhere else, many Jews in Khelm worked for German industries and factories that did not want to lose this skilled slave labor force. The Jews were forced to work “dirt-cheap” until their last drop of blood. The bureaucracy wanted to hold onto the Jewish slave labor for commercial profit. On May 12th, 1942, the head man of the Nazis in Khelm appealed to the SS leader of the Lublyner district to let the Jewish slave labor pool remain in Khelm because they were essential. The German industrial bureaucracy insisted that they needed several thousand replacements for the Jewish workers who were deported from Khelm. In a report from the German Labor Office: “The deportation of Jewish workers seriously affected the number of qualified metal workers for military production and for the railroad workshops in Khelm, which currently employ 158 Jewish specialists. Stop their deportation, unless they can be replaced.” The reply from the SS in accordance with the agreement with Berlin, was that their political goal [annihilation of the Jews] was their primary goal and could not be altered by practical arguments. Thus the fate of the remaining Jews in Khelm, who were skilled specialists, was doomed.

[22]

In the Lublyner area, not far from Khelm, various partisan groups were active. The Jews who were in the National Polish section of the Partisans were later traitorously murdered by their Polish colleagues, who belonged to “Armia Krajowa” and “Narodowe Sily Zbrojne”. The situation for the Jews was more favorable and secure in the “Armia Ludowa” organized and armed by the Left . The best situation for the Jews was in their own partisan group. The number of Khelmer Jews in their own partisan groups is not known.

A woman from Khelm, Ester Bas-Meltzer, who was saved in Warsaw, writes in her memoir: In the Nails of Death, (Montreal, 1950), what she found when she returned to Khelm after the 1945 Liberation. “There were just a few Jews who had returned to Khelm. They were met with open hatred by their Polish neighbors”. The whole shtetl, the empty Jewish streets, were in her eyes like a “virtual cemetery “ [p. 47-48].

Torah and Learning in Chelm [Khelm]

In the 16th century, Khelm was already an important cultural center. The old men talked about the synagogue [shul] and said she was 800 years old. That means that she was built in 1100. The legend exaggerates somewhat; but the “shul” was in truth, exceptional and not an every day type. It was an edifice with birds painted on two walls. The edifice was modeled after the old Crackow shule. The Khelmer “shule” was built in the 17th century. Reference to the Khelmer “shule” appears in an article by Rohel Vyshnytser “ Eastern-Western Buildings in the Shule” Architecture From the 12th to 18th Century.” YIVO, v29, (1947) p.40-41

[Page 29]

[23]

The Jewish community of Khelm was already renowned in the 16th century. From the 16th to the 19th century, Khelm had a long line of prominent rabbis who were celebrated for their torah learning and wisdom. They held the most respected positions and were the leaders of the Yeshiva in Khelm. The reputation of the rabbis and teachers of Khelm was imposing, even though it was not yet complete. In this long chain of Rabbis, which began in the 16th century, a few links are missing. Some of the less renowned rabbis are not noted in the historical sources, in the agreements, or in other works and documents that are the source of our information.

The first reference to the Khelmer Rabbis stemmed from the official Polish documents: R'Yhudh Ahrun (1520-1522], R'Yuda [1550], R'Yekov (1582]. These documents tell us very little. Information about the character and personality of these rabbis does not exist in the Jewish sources. The first identified rabbi, and head of the Yeshiva that was mentioned in the Jewish sources, was R'Shmeun Auyerbakh, [he lived in Khelm from about 1510-1513]. R'Shmeun was descended from a highly esteemed rabbinic family. His brother, R'Dovid Tebele, was the father of R'Shmeun Volf Auyerbakh, who was the Rabbi of Pozen and Prague. After him, was the Khelmer R' Shmeun Zalmen, a wise disciple. He is praised by Ben Dovid from “Mahrsh”I” in his books. In the 2nd half of the 16th century, the renowned R' Alyh Bel-Shem, lived in Khelm. R'Alyhu Br'Yhudh Ahrun was a student of “Mahrsh”1.

[Page 30]

[24]

Together with “Mahrsh”I”, Alyhu Br'Yhudu Ahrun was involved in certain matters concerning verdicts and judgments. He was a brilliant Talmudist and is referred to in the writings of Mahrsh”I [si' m”b] and is also referred to in the “Calculations Emphasized” by R'Yual Syrkes [si' e”z]. Alyhu Br'Yhudu Ahrun, was also highly regarded as a cabalist and mystic and a man who worked miracles. His grandson, R'Yhudu Lyb Hkhahn, tells of a miracle performed by his grandfather Yhudu Ahrun, in his introduction to the book [written by R' Lyb Khhan's father R'Afrym of Vilna]. The famous miracle of R' Alyhu Bel-Shem was his creation of the Golem. The renowned R' Hkham Tsvy Ashkhanazy was a grandchild of R' Alyhu Bel-Shem. Hkham Tsvy's son, the celebrated R' Yekov Emdyn, writes in his biographical work, “Megyleth Sefer” [published by A. Khhna, Warsaw, 1896] about the story of the Golem in the following words: “From R' Alyhu Bel-Shem, our great grandfather [as told to me by my father]. The Bel - Shem made the Golem so that he would serve the Bel-Shem, but the Golem could not speak,” Later the stories about the personality of the famous Bel-Shem were embellished and other legends were added.

The Bel-Shem from Khelm died in 1583 in his home-town. According to a legend told by R'Yusef Levenshtyn from Seratsk, the Bel-Shem forbade the placement of a gravestone on his grave. He requested that only a mound of stones be thrown on his grave. Another legend contradicts this one. It was told by a Hungarian Jewish officer, Dr. {illegible name} Sonto, who was stationed in Khelm during World War I. He claimed that he saw the grave of the Bel-Shem and that it had a gravestone; however, the name was worn away and illegible. Nevertheless, the Bel-Shem left a gravestone forever in the memories of his people.

[25]

A second well-known Rabbi in Khelm was the Mahrish”A, R'Shmual Alyezr Br. Yuda Halevy, or Shmual Aydelsh, who was one of the most renowned Talmudic scholars in Poland. First he was the Head of the Jewish community in Pozen, where his mother-in-law, Mrs. Aydelsh, organized and supported his Yeshiva. After she died, the Yeshiva fell apart and Mahrish”A became the Rabbi in Khelm in the years 1605-1615. He moved to Lublin and Astrog [Austrah] where he died in 1632. He was succeeded by R' Alyezr Perles.

In the beginning of the 17th century, the Rabbi of Khelm was R' Ytshak Br. Shmual Halevy. He was the brother of the famous Lemberger Rabbi R'Dovid Halevy, who was called “T”Z” after his famous book “Tury-Zhb”. R'Ytshak was first the Rabbi in Ludmyr, then in Khelm. From Khelm he went in 1627 to head up the Yeshiva in Pozen. In the thirties and forties of the 17th century, the Rabbi in Khelm was R'Moyshe Ben Mayr Katsenelboygen. First he was the Rabbi in Lubomi, then in Khelm, and later in Mohylev and Belarussia. The rabbinical position was then occupied by his son R'Shaul Katsenelboygen. R'Shaul did not remain long in Khelm. He took a Rabbinical post in Brod, then in Pyntshev, and later in Krakow. For a time, R'Mordkhy Br' Bnymyn Volf Gyntsburg, was the Khelmer Rabbi. Later he went to Brysk in Lithuania.

It appears that in the second half of the 17th century there was frequent turnover in the rabbinical positions and heads of the Yeshiva in Khelm. Perhaps this was due to the difficult times in Poland after the wars of 1648-1656.

[Page 31]

[26]

Toward the end of the 17thcentury, we hear new names occupying the rabbinical positions. First was R'Ykusyal Br' Hushe Hkhhan from Lublin, who later became the Rabbi in Ludmyr. After him, the Khelmer Rabbi was R'HII Br.'Yuneh Halevy. Later he became the Rabbi in Vilna until he died in 1706. He was the grandson of R'Alyezer Ashkhnazy, and the author of the book, “Meleh H”.

In order to be as accurate as possible, we note a hypothesis that is offered, but not substantiated by other sources. This hypothesis holds that the well-known R' Yual Bel Shm who lived in Zomoshtsh around the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, was a Khelmer. About Yual Bel Shm, there are only legends and stories. About his miracles there is very little verified historical material, so one has to approach all the specifics of his biography with great caution

In the beginning of the 18th century, the Rabbi in Khelm was R'Mayr Br' Benymyn Volf from Lublin. Later he left Khelm to become the Rabbi in Opt and Lublin. And the new Khelmer Rabbi was R' Shmual Shmelke BHG”G Mordkhy Marglyus. R'Shmual Shmelke was the leader of a school movement in Krakow before he became the Rabbi of Khelm. He was also the representative of the Province of Khelm to the Council of Four Lands, an autonomous Jewish governing body in Eastern Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. In the Protocols of the meetings of this Council in 1718, his signature confirms that he was a member of the executive. In the period from 1721-1722, there was reference to other Rabbis and men of great erudition in the Torah who lived in Khelm. They were: R'Shlemeh Br'Shmhh, Hakhan Rapoport and R'Yhushue Hershi Br' Mayr. Mentioned at the same time was R'Tsvi Hyrsh Br' Pynhas Zelig. He also represented the Province at the Council.

[Page 32]

[27]

The Life of the Jews in Chelm [Khelm]

Accurate particulars about the participation of the Khelmer Jews in the Council of Four Lands [the autonomous Jewish governing body] can be found in the book by Ishral Haylperyn “Pynkus Ved Arbe Artsus” published in Jerusalem. Haylperyn documents in his book, [see index p. 617] more than 60 different positions where the Jewish community or the Rabbis of Khelm and the elected officials from Khelm to the Council are mentioned

A prominent scholar was chosen for the honored position of Rabbi of Khelm in the last half of the 18th century. His name was R'Shloymeh Ben Moyshe. He is known in the history of Hebrew Literature as R'Shlaymeh Khelma or as the author of the book “Mrkhves H'Myshna”. He was born in Zamoshtsh. R'Shlaymeh was the Rabbi of Khelm for many long years. Then he became the Rabbi of Zamoshtsh and the surrounding region. He was an active member and participant of the Council in Brod. After the death of the Lemberger Rabbi, R'Rappoport, the vacancy was filled by R' Shlaymeh in 1771, who remained for 6 years. Then he decided to go to Israel. On the way he stopped in Salonika where he finished and published the second and third volume of “Mrkhves H'Myshna”, as well as other books. He died in Salonika in 1778. He was a prolific author of disputations about the Myshna. He published major works in 1751, 1777, and 1782. He was also the author of a book “Shery Neymah” about Hebrew grammar and vocal music. Apparently his intellect and knowledge ranged over many areas.

R'Shlaymeh Khelma was one of the first exponents of rationalism and the enlightenment among Polish Jews. From his earliest years he was a student and follower of “Rambam”, which led to his intensive study of logic, astronomy, and mathematics.

[Page 33]

[28]

R'Shlaymeh Khelma's most beloved discipline was mathematics. He fought with passion for general education to enlighten everyone. He maintained that the grammar of the language is essential for understanding all knowledge.

It is therefore no wonder that the leaders of the Enlightenment had high regard and respect for R'Shlaymeh Khelma. He was considered a pioneer of the enlightenment in Jewish life. One of the most famous Galician scholars, Yhudh Leyb Myzes, in his book “Knas Hames” [Vienna, 1828] makes R'Shlaymeh Khelma a major figure. This book was written in the form of a dialogue between the Rambam and his devoted pupil, the expert on the “Myshna”, R' Shlaymeh Khelma.

About 1760, the Rabbi in Khelm was R'Haym Br'Yekov. According to Sh. Mylner, he was the author of a book: “Khukhby-Itshak” We were unable to locate this book in the scientific or bibliographic literature. We could not find any specifics about R'Hayim or his work.

In the 1770's, the Rabbi in Khelm was the scion of a famous rabbinic family of respected scholars of the Torah. His name was Ytshak Br' Mordkhy Hloy(?) from Lemberg. He was the nephew of the Holy R'Yhushue Raytses from Lemberg. As is well known, the brothers Haym and Yhushue Raytses were tortured and died “el kydush hshem” [martyrdom for being a Jew] in Lemberg in 1728. R'Ytshak was first a Rabbi in Leshno; then he came to Khelm. Later he became the Rabbi in Krakow and the surrounding region.

We referred to R' Hyrsh Br' Yusef [Hyrsh Yozepovitsh, in an earlier section.

[29]

One of the last very prominent Rabbis in Khelm in the 18th century was R'Shaul Br' Mayr Marglyus. First he was the rabbi in Komarno, then in Lublyn, and toward the end of the 18th century he came to Khelm.

R' Ytshak Br'Yusef was the Khelmer Rabbi for a short time when he was young. He was from Zamoshtsh, where his father held the position of Rabbi for 35years. His name was R'Yusef Br'Yekov Ytshak and he was greatly respected for his Talmudic scholarship and wisdom. His major work was “Myshness Hakmym” [1792]. Subsequently, R'Yusef published two other books. It was evident from his writing that, like R'Slaymeh Khelma, he was drawn to rationalist thinking and was influenced by the work of the Rambam. After his death, his son R'Ytshak left Khelm to take over his father's rabbinical position in Zamoshtsh.

Shmeun Mylner reminds us that in the 19th century the Rabbis of Khelm were R'Yusef Kezys [later Rabbi in Yanov] and R' Aryh Leyb Nayhoyz.

Khelm was indeed a town that respected and nourished the study of Torah. It was also a significant cultural center in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The list of prominent scholars of the Torah who came to Khelm speaks for itself. The Rabbis of Khelm and the Heads of the Khelm Yeshives came from the most important and largest communities in Poland, or left Khelm to take honored and impressive positions elsewhere. It is evident that the rabbinate and the Yeshiva of Khelm had an honorable name in the Jewish world. In modern education, Khelm led the way. Prominent leadership from Khelm encouraged the growth of the Enlightenment [Haskalah] movement among the Jews of Poland, by the end of the 18th century.

[30]

Unfortunately, we have very little information about the history and culture of the Khelmer Jews in the 19th century. Regrettably, the history of the Khelmer Jewish community in independent Poland was like virgin soil. The cultural life in Khelm, between the two world wars went on different tracks than in the old Polish state. Modern schools and a Polish-Hebrew “gymnasium” were established. Weekly Jewish newspapers were published. A young Khelmer philologist, Moyshe Lerer [lyter], from the YIVO archives in Vilna, began studying the language of Khelmer Yiddish and the folklore of Khelm. He also researched some of the scientific work done in Khelm. He perished in a German concentration camp in Norveh, Estonia.

Khelmer Jews in Jewish Folklore

In Jewish folklore, Khelm acquired a reputation as a “town of fools”. Khelmer stories were a beloved part of Jewish folk humor and there are many versions of Khelmer stories published in numerous books. How did it happen that a town, which had a name and reputation for scholarship and honorable rabbinical studies of Torah, became the target of mockery and folk humor? Thus far it has not been established how this came about. One thing is certain: the Khem stories have no basis in reality or historical fact. The Khelm stories about fools are wonderful “merchandise”; an international treasure of folklore that is transferred from folk to folk and place to place, from ancient times going back to the earliest centuries. All that is changed are the geographic names, the personal names and the institutions. Thus, for example, the famous story about the Khelmer “shule” , and how it was built, can be found much earlier in “fool's town” in England [Gotham Belmont] or in Germany [Shilda] with the only change being the church or state-house, instead of the “shule”

[Page 35]

[31]

”Foolish Towns” were beloved objects of folk humor. We find them in various lands, cultures and historical periods. Let us cite one of the more familiar examples. In old Greece “Abdera” was called a “town of fools”. “Beothie” was named the “land of fools”. It is superfluous to say that there was no factual basis for this judgment. The famous Greek philosopher, Democritus, came from “Abdera”.

In England in the 15th century, Gotham, a village in Nottingham was called “The City of Fools”. In the 16th century, a book was published bearing the title “Gotham Tales”. There were other English towns that were called “fool's towns” such as : Belmont, Kogeshall in Essex, Ustwick in Yorkshire, Suffolk, and Norfolk. In Holland, Compen was called “town of fools”.

Germany had the largest number of towns that were called “towns of fools”. It also had the greatest number of stories about fools. We will mention only the most important ones: Shildo [or Shildburg] by Targau; Teterov in Mecklemburg; Shefenshtedt in Brunshveig; Bukstehude by Hamburg; Pirna in Saxon, and Iglav in Mehren, Austria. etc. The German tales about fools very likely were the source of the Jewish folk tales about fools. Already in 1558, the well-known German “Shoemaker and also Poet”, Hans Zaks, wrote a funny play [”Shvank”] about “lapenhoyzer peasants”. In this play, Zaks tells various stories, which were later told by Jews about the fools of Khelm. In the same era, the German book of folk tales was published. The book was about the “Lalenburger” a fictitious name for the actual town of Shildburg]. The book immediately became very popular in middle and eastern Europe. In 1597, the first translation into Yiddish was published, under the title “Shildburg, a Short History”.

[32]

”The Stories of the Fools” entered into Yiddish folklore under the name of “Shildburger Stories”. When did they become “Khelmer Stories”? Thus far the research on this question has not yielded a single answer. It is known that in the 19th century, other Jewish communities were called “towns of fools”. Thus, for example, the Jewish community in Posen was called a “town of fools”. Over time, the whole matter of the stories about the “towns of fools” was concentrated around Khelm. For the first time, in 1867, several Khelmer stories by an anonymous author came out in Vilna. [The publisher was Avrohm Ytshak Dvorzshetsky]. It was a small book of 32 pages, called “Lightening Jokes and Laughter”. One chapter of the book is called “The Wisdom and Witticism of a Certain Town H.” According to the editor, Noah Prilutsky, all the evidence points to Ayzk Mayr Dyk, as the author of the small anonymous book.

In the 20th century, the literature of “Khelmer Stories” grew immensely. To present an idea of this expansion a bibliography is available. It is on page 37 at the end of this chapter.

[Page 36]

[33]

Footnotes

  1. From the historic work of Shimon Milner “The Jews of Khelm” St. Petersburg, [1902], p.154-160.
  2. Shimon Milner, “The Jews of Khelm”, quotes on p.156 from the Hebrew inscription on the oldest gravestone in the Khelm cemetery.

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Chelm, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Lance Ackerfeld

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 30 Jun 2010 by LA