Table of Contents
[Pages 25-42]

Chapter 1

 

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Łęczyca [Lintchitz] in the old days – The seat of the Kings of Poland – The legend of R'Shlomo Efraim author of the book Kli Yakar – The trial of the blood libel – The life of the Jews in the 16-th century – The MAHARAL of Prague in Łęczyca – The war with the Swedes – The Council of the Four Lands – The years '408' and '409' 1648-1649 [Hebrew dates 5408 and 5409, the years of the “Bogdan Chmielnitzki's massacres.”]

As early as 970-980 CE, when the Kingdom of Poland was founded by King Mieceslaw I, Łęczyca was one of the main cities in the land. Even today, in the nearby village Tom, the 1000-year old church can be seen, where the first Poles joined the Catholic religion. The Polish history books tell us that in 1060-1062 the king Boleslaw, although residing in the capital, nevertheless convened the National Assembly in Łęczyca. The historical importance of Łęczyca is next only to Krakow.

In the town there are the ruins of an old fort, Zamek, which was the palace of the kings long ago, and beneath its foundations a large cave leads to the church in the Tom village. Many legends are told about the fort and the cave and their pictures appear on tourists' postcards: according to legend, the fort was the palace of the famous king Leszczyñski. A beautiful garden surrounds the fort, the old trees provide permanent shade, and among the trees flows the river Bazora. This ancient garden is called “the King's garden” in memory of the king who had planted it and who would find there physical and spiritual relaxation, for it was like a world of legend and poetry. These are beautiful relics of a time when Łęczyca was an important town, during the golden era of the Polish kingdom.

However, what is of interest to us is the history of the Jewish settlement in that city, which is partly shrouded in legend. Thanks to the early Jewish personalities, scholars and community leaders Łęczyca became an important Jewish town, known beyond the Polish borders as well. Many persons were proud of their Łęczyca ancestry, among them the great Torah scholar R'Shlomo Efraim son of R'Aharon, author of the book Olelot Efraim and Kli Yakar, who later became ABD [head of the rabbinical court] of Prague.

R'Efraim b'Aharon was born in Łęczyca around 5305 [1545] and died in 5379 [1619]. In his youth he lived in Yaroslav and there he published his first book, on the subject of morality, Ir Giborim [A town of heroes]. In his introduction to the book Olelot Efraim he writes that all the references from the Torah and the Talmud he wrote from memory, without having consulted the books. In 1581 he lived in Lwow and was one of the great preachers there, as well as in Lublin. In 1584 he was appointed Head of the Yeshiva in Prague at the time the MAHARAL was ABD there. After the MAHARAL's death in 1609 he was appointed ABD. In the introduction to his book Siftei Daat (Prague 1617) he writes: “Now, on the month of Adar 5364 a heavy burden was placed upon me, heavier than ever before, as I was chosen by the members of the great and holy community of Prague to be the servant of God to the people, to carry the burden of bringing before them the Word of God, and to serve them in all community matters. This is indeed a heavy responsibility, especially in such a magnificent community whose fame extends to far places, a great city before God, full of scholars and writers [lit. scribes]. As they have chosen me and sent for me to the holy community of Lwow, a distance of many miles, I decided that it was time to serve God.”

Rabbi Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz, the SHELAH, was a member of his court at the end of his days. His books, mentioned before, made him famous. Other books that he wrote are Siftei Daat, Orach Lachayim and Amudei Shesh. Among his students were R'Yom-Tov Lipman Heller, author of Tosfot Yom-Tov and R'Sheptel Halevi Horowitz, the son of the SHELAH, author of the book Vavei Ha'amudim, ABD and teacher in the Yeshivot in Fiorda, Frankfurt, Posen and Vienna, as well as the son of R'Efraim, R'Zvi Hirsh from Łęczyca (died in Prague on 19 Tamuz 55384). Rabbi Shlomo Efraim served as Head of the Yeshiva and ABD in several communities and for many years he was religious judge [dayan] and preacher [darshan] in Prague. The inscription on his tombstone reads “He was called the head of the Darshanim and he wished only good for his people.” In 5376 he signed approbation to the book Yesh Nohalin by Rabbi Avraham Sheptelish, the father of the SHELAH, together with Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Idlish Halevi [the MAHARSHA], Rabbi Yehoshua Falk-Katz [the SAMA, author of Sefer Me'irat Einaim] and Rabbi Yoel Sirkis [the BACH, author of Bait Hadash].

This is, in short, the story of his adult life, according to the official sources, but the story of his birth and his childhood years is told, blended with legend, in the book Sipurei Kedoshim [stories about saintly men], published in 1837 in Leipzig (see also Sefer Hama'asiot [Book of Tales] by T. Ben Yechezkel).

R' Slomo Efraim was born to his father R'Aharon, who made his livelihood by leasing land from the Duke of Łęczyca. The family was poor but R'Slomo Efraim received a good Jewish education, and excelled in the study of the Torah and Talmud. According to legend, he was a pupil of the MAHARAL of Prague, and when the latter died R'Shlomo Efraim was appointed Rav in his place[1].

Other Tzadikim and great Torah scholars are connected with the town of Łęczyca as well: R'Avraham David Lewitt, author of the book Kav Venaki, R'Yehuda Zvi Hersh Gelberd, author of the book Kol Yehuda, R'Chaim Orbach author of the book Divrei Mishpat, his son R'Itzik Orbach author of the book Divrei Chaim, his son R'Meir Orbach author of the book Imrei Bina, who was ABD in Kalish and in Jerusalem, and finally the Gaon R'Meir Leibush MALBIM, who wrote most of his commentaries on the TANACH [the Bible] while living in Łęczyca, as he states in the introduction to his commentary on the book of Joshua. These great scholars have left their imprint on the town and its Jewish residents.

Historical sources tell us that the Jewish settlement in Łęczyca began at the time of the expulsion from Spain, at the end of the fifteenth century (see Monomento Polonia Historica, Lvov 1888 p.837; Sternberg: The History of the Jews in Poland p.109; Warsaw Archives, Province of Posen section). However, it is difficult to define the year exactly. In the old cemetery parts of headstones from 1503 were found, but some sources mention even an earlier date.

From the item Łęczyca in the Russian-Hebrew Bruckhaus Encyclopedia: “At the time of the Polish Monarchy Łęczyca was a central town. The Jewish community in Łęczyca was one of the oldest in Poland. In 1453, the representatives of the Jewish community received “Privileges” from the Polish king Casimir Jagiellon [of the Jagiellonian dynasty]. The 1564 census shows 17 houses belonging to Jews. For the right of purchasing the houses the Jews paid to the government one pound of pepper for each house. In addition, the Jews bought three houses that belonged to Christians. The famous Magid [preacher] of Linschitz was born in this town. In 1639, the famous 'Linschitz Trial' was held here (see below). After the fire that destroyed the synagogue and the Jewish homes and after the old privileges were revoked, in 1652 the king Ian Cazimir ordered the local authorities to allow the Jews to rebuild the synagogue and to engage in commerce. The old privileges, of which the documents and certificates had been destroyed in the great fire, were recognized again.

Four years later, disaster struck the Jews of Łęczyca. The town was under the occupation of the Brandenburger army and Polish rebels. The king Jan Casimir and his army surrounded the town, but was met with a strong resistance. The Jews sensed that the outcome will be tragic, especially when, on Yom Kipur that year, all the candles in the synagogue went out suddenly. On 4 October 1656, on the second day of the holiday of Sukot, the town was captured by the King's army. The King was merciful and intended to spare the Jews, but the Poles killed the residents, in particular the Jews, in a barbaric and un-Christian way. Over one thousand perished, men and women, young and old (Teatrum Europeum Vol. 7 p. 88). One of the noblemen gathered the Jewish children and baptized them into the Christian faith. Jewish sources relate that about 3,000 Jews were killed and describe the destruction of the town. Six hundred Torah scrolls were burned. Some of the names of the martyrs were preserved in various memorial books. By a description from 1661, rebuilding of the town began, but the number of Jewish families was insignificant (five). During the Swedish war at the beginning of the 18th century, Łęczyca suffered again, but after the war ended Jews began to settle in Łęczyca in greater numbers. In 1724 they received the permit to engage in commerce, slaughter cattle, produce wine and build and keep inns. In 1728 they were permitted to build a synagogue. The records from 1765 are interesting: one non-Jewish tailor lived in Łęczyca, and over 20 Jewish tailors. The number of Jews in Łęczyca and the surrounding villages was 1067 – to the Łęczyca community belonged 625 Jews from Stryków, 243 from Brzeziny, 212 from Ujazd, 114 from Sobota, 88 from Bielawy, 267 from Prentchow, 139 from Pjontky Pokshivna, 79 from Krośniewice, 69 from Kałów. The number of Jews in the county was 2905. According to an account from 1789 the Jews of Łęczyca were engaged in other occupations, besides tailoring. The number of houses was 47. In 1856 the number of Christians in Łęczyca was 2903 and Jews 2496. According to the civil records of 1897 the number of Łęczyca residents was 8863, 3471 of them Jews. In the entire Gubernia of Łęczyca 100,000 residents lived, the percent of Jews among them quite high. In Grabów 1054 residents 640 Jews; in Ozorków 11,533 residents 5838 Jews; in Prentchow 984 residents 254 Jews; in Pi¹tek 2325 residents 1090 Jews; in Poddębice 2724 residents 1266 Jews.” This is the end of the quote from the Encyclopedia, but it is not the only source for the history of the Jews in this town.

In 1924, archeological excavations were carried out near the wall of the synagogue, and it was discovered that in early times Łęczyca was a fortified town, surrounded by a strong wall, 3 meters thick. The synagogue, which was built in the form of a medieval fort, was situated close to the wall, so that the enclosed space along the wall could serve as living quarters for an entire family. The archeological finds were impressive. Some parts of the wall were hollow, and in one of the cavities, the size of a room, human bones were found, as well as Jewish names inscribed on the walls. According to polish scientists, the bones and the inscriptions are from the time of the Swedish invasion of Poland. In spite of the fierce resistance of the Poles, in the spring of 1656 the Swedes reached the heart of the country and all Poland was under their occupation. The historian Shimon Dubnov describes the fate of the Polish Jews during the war and the following battles for the liberation of the Polish cities: the Jews were accused of collaboration with the Swedish army and the angry Poles, under the command of the noblemen, brutally attacked the Jews – murdered young and old, raped women, slaughtered children in the arms of their mothers; their cruelty matched the cruelty of Chmielnicki's soldiers eight years before. According to Jewish sources, some five hundred families were killed in Łęczyca, a total of three thousand people. It is probable that some of the Jews knew about the “bunker” in the wall of the town and hid there.

However, the Łęczyca Jews had to endure hardships before that war, as well. In 1633, two of the attendants of the synagogue, Meir and Elazar, were accused of the murder of a Christian child and were tried before the local court. The witness was a Polish beggar named Thomas, who was forced to say that he kidnapped the boy and sold him to the Jews. The mayor of the town tried to protect the Jews, arguing that only the Supreme Court had the authority to punish the Jews, but the Supreme Court found the two Jews guilty and sentenced them to death. The sentence was executed immediately, and the two martyrs were cut to pieces and hanged at the crossroads of the town.

Some time later, the real reason for this blood-libel was discovered, and the Russian Hebrew Encyclopedia gives the details, at the letter L (Łęczyca):

“In June 1633, the trial of Meir and Elazar, accused of killing a small boy from a nearby village, took place at the Royal Tribunal. The boy disappeared on 20 April, several days before the Passover Holiday. The parents left their home while he was playing in their courtyard, when they came home they found him dead. His body was covered with many wounds. The suspect was the wandering beggar Fuma (a Christian), who confessed that he kidnapped the boy and sold him to the Jews of Łęczyca. After investigating the case, the Jews were allowed to appeal to the regional court, according to the privileges granted to them by the king. This higher court interrogated the beggar again, and accepted the testimony. His story was that he sold the boy to Meir and Elazar for one and a half zloty; the next evening they gave him the dead boy and instructed him to hide the body under a bush in the forest. The beggar stuck to his story even after he was interrogated many times, in the presence of the Jews.

Meir and Elazar were sentenced to death. They denied the charges, although they were tortured, and even before they were executed. The other ten Jews, among them the heads of the community and the rabbi, who were accused of helping the murderers, were declared not guilty, after they swore that they did not have any knowledge about the matter. The local priests were very satisfied with the outcome of the trial, for a simple reason: in 1632 a new church and monastery were erected in Łęczyca, and it was imperative that they attract as many believers as possible to the newly established religious institutions. The murder of the boy was a true Godsend: the monks placed the little bones in a glass case in the church, and next to it a metal plaque on which the entire story of the blood libel is engraved. An oil-painting depicting the Jews sucking the blood of the boy is preserved to this day.

The memory of the two Jewish martyrs is preserved in a manuscript of a prayer book that was found in a synagogue in Pintchow. The few short lines say: “In memory of the torture, in the town of Linschitz [Łęczyca], in the year 5399 [1639], of our teacher R'Meir son of R'Mordechai the Kohen, and the Rav R'Eliezer son of R'Avigdor.” In the same prayer book, in the prayer of Yizkor for those who died for the sanctification of God [Al Kidush Hashem] the two martyrs are mentioned as well.

R'Shlomo Cohen (one of the founders of the neighborhood Mekor Chayim in Jerusalem, a former leader of the Łęczyca community), relates, that in 1915 a bookstore made postcard prints of the blood-libel painting mentioned above. The postcard shows Jews around a table, holding silver cups in their hands; on the table the dead body of the child is placed, blood running from it into the silver cups. A postcard was placed in every book that was sold. This happened shortly before Pesach, and it stirred an atmosphere of pogrom. One day R'Shlomo Cohen saw an official carriage stopping in front of the City Hall and two persons stepped out: one wore the uniform of a general and the other was Prof. Bodenheimer, who was very respected by the authorities. R'Shlomo approached him and told him about the matter. Prof. Bodenheimer asked him to send someone to buy the book in order to have proof; he immediately sent his sister-in-law Mrs. Rivka Rachel Liebsohn and she brought him the book with the postcard inside it. Prof. Bodenheimer informed the general, who immediately ordered to close the bookstore.

Even in our modern times, when we were still residents there, we avoided the street where the Bernardine church stood, at the times the people left after the prayer. About twenty years ago an order was issued by the Pope to remove the case containing the bones, but the painting on the wall is still there today.

These are isolated chapters in the sea of tears and suffering of the Jews of Poland in general and those of Łęczyca in particular. In Łęczyca, not only the fate of the local Jews was decided, but the fate of all the Jews of Poland. Following is a quote from the Pinkas [official register] of the Council of the Four Lands, 5416 [1656]: By an order from 27 February 1656 (2 Adar 5416) the King of Poland Jan Casimir threatens to severely punish the Jewish leaders “if they will not immediately pay off the poll tax for all Jewish residents of Poland; all are responsible for one and one for all.” The tax, 7,000 gulden, was paid as follows: The Lvov Jews paid 10,000 gulden to the “Master” of Łęczyca – for the office of land registry they paid 3,000 gulden, for the Cossack regiment 2,600 gulden, for Jan Zamoyski's infantry regiment 4,000 gulden, for the commander of the military camp 1,600 gulden and various sums for the Polish infantry, the Company of Andrei Potocki etc. (the Zemski Archives, Lvov, Vol. 405, p.142).

In the registers of the Council of the Four Lands we find many court rulings signed by great Jewish scholars, leaders of the Council: R'David Halevi Segal, author of the book Turei Zahav, R'Yakov Yehoshua Falk, author of the book Penei Yehoshua, R'Naftali Katz ABD Amsterdam and Ostrow and others, among them many of the leaders of the Jewish community of Łęczyca. One of the rulings concerns a dispute between the leaders of the community of Hamburg and the community of Altona. The case was tried by the Council, although it was in another country and under a different authority. Both parties were summoned to Lublin, and the ruling was sent to Hamburg, signed by the judges and leaders of the Council, with full details of place and date: “On Tuesday, the market-day, 28 Av 5424” [9 August 1664]. Among the signatories was “R'Naftali, son of my master and father, our teacher R'Shraga Bloch, of Linschitz” [Łęczyca].

In the book about the history of the Jews of Lisa by Dr. Louis Levin we are told that in 1628 the first head of the Jewish community in Lisa was R'Eliezer from Łęczyca, and he was granted the Privileges for the Lisa Jews. A full bibliography on the history of the Łęczyca Jews was published by the famous historian Prof. Meir Balaban and Dr. Schieffer, may God avenge his blood, as well as by Dr Emanuel Ringelblum, may God avenge his blood. A special booklet about the history of the Łęczyca Jews by Dr. Philip Friedman was published by YIVO.

The history of the Łęczyca Jews is rich and contains many legends. But the stories of the dead tell us sometimes more than the stories of the living. The Burial registers of the Chevra Kadisha have more information than the history books. In my youth I studied some of these registers in Łęczyca and I learned from them a great deal about the past of Łęczyca, things that are not known to the historians.

However, before we deal with that chapter I would like to relate one of the Łęczyca legends, which was printed in the newspaper Hatzefira, 1920, No.46, under the title “One tenth of impurity” (a folktale on Linschitz), by Mechel Rabinowitz, about a man named R'Avraham.

After eleven years of marriage R'Avraham had five sons and five daughters. He worked hard to provide for them: all day long he would walk from house to house and buy used clothes, rusted tools and broken furniture. At night he was busy cleaning, mending and attaching price tags, and next day he would sell the merchandise for a small and honest profit. Days and years passed without change, and R'Avraham did not complain.

One day, R'Avraham began to make money. Soon he had a new house, in his elegant store he sold silk and velvet, and the guests in his new “drinking house” were noblemen and estate owners. He went into the forest business as well, and employed hundreds of workers. However, his character did not change. He helped the needy, generously and cheerfully; he donated to all charity organizations in town, built a new school for the Talmud Torah, brought expert teachers and helped the needy pupils with food and clothing. His wife Sara helped as well, many brides, young mothers and widows benefited from her generosity and warm feelings. He was called “Avraham our father” and his wife was called “our mother Sara.”

At that time, the chief Rabbi of Prague was the great R'Yehuda Liwai, the MAHARAL. With his exceptional intellectual powers he sensed great danger: impurity, defilement, filled the air of Łęczyca. In spite of his old age he decided to travel to Łęczyca and personally examine the source of this danger. When he arrived in town, he asked to meet the wealthy people, in particular R'Avraham. The latter listened with awe to the MAHARAL, who asked how he had amassed his riches and explained, not angrily but with compassion, that a great sin in his past spreads impurity on the entire town and presents great danger. The MAHARAL encouraged him to ask forgiveness and repent. R'Avraham confessed that when he was still poor he found among the objects he once bought a small statue with two precious gems set in the place of the eyes. He sold the statue to the local bishop for a very good price. From that day on, his luck changed and he became rich. This was the sin that caused the defilement of the entire town.

That night, the MAHARAL and R'Avraham and his family disappeared from Łęczyca, without a trace. The next day, the students and teachers of the learning establishments that R'Avraham had founded left town and all his possessions were abandoned. However, no one dared touch anything that had belonged to R'Avraham, knowing that it was impure. After several days of anxiety for all residents of the town, a great fire broke out and all the property that had belonged to R'Avraham was reduced to ashes. The rest of the town was not touched by the fire – and the residents knew then that the town was cleansed.

* *
*

Now I shall recount several chapters of the history of the Jews of the town, which I collected from several sources: synagogue registers, Chevra Kadisha [burial society] and from the stories of old people, who remember the events as they really happened.


Translator's note

  1. The entire story of the childhood and adolescence of R'Shlomo is related by the author, quoting the two story books mentioned above. As the author himself points out, it is a mixture of fact and legend. return

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