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[Page 28-42]

Jewish History of Zloczew

By Eisik Faiwlowicz

Translated by Herman Taube

Eisik Faiwlowicz

 

Zloczew was a quiet, tacit town, surrounded by green fields. Evergreens and tall trees stood there, outstretched like guards, watching over the town. In the first years of the 16th century, a rich Gentile from East of Poland arrived in Zloczew with his whole household; family, horses, and cows. Because of the lack of grazing pasture, he was forced to unearth part of the forest trees and plant meadow fields.

To this day, in the archives of Kalisz, you can still find a thick Volume, (Zloczew belonged in the past to the Kalisz district) and on the back of the book are written the following lines: “The House of Zloczew, named after her first citizen – Jan Zloty – First Volume of Settlements.”

According to the “pinkas” (memorial book) of the Kehilah, (Jewish community) Zloczew was an old town with a functioning Jewish council and Beth Midrash (Prayer and Study House) already in the beginning of the 16th century. In the “pinkas” it is mentioned that in 1530, from the local landowner, Jews received a piece of forestland for their possession in order to install a Jewish burial facility – a cemetery.

In the following years of the 16th century and in the beginning of the 17th century, the Jewish population of Zloczew increased and overtook the number of the Polish population. This situation between the two communities drastically changed in the beginning of the 19th century, when a large number of Poles settled in Zloczew, first from the West provinces, who were under German rule, mainly from the Poznan (Posen) area, and later, also from the surrounding villages. The Jewish community of Zloczew did not claim a glorious past, with [only the] chosen privileged individuals bragging about it. The only thing they proudly exulted was that in their cemetery many distinguished Rabbis were buried. It is worth mentioning a characteristic fact that visitors to the cemetery noted when coming there for a funeral, or to visit a parental grave, that on the 'matzevot' (the gravestones) you could read that three Rabbis who served the Zloczew Jewish community were all named: Reb Shlome. Another three rabbis also had the same name, Reb Moshe Aaron (see the article by David Grabiner: “Rabbis, Judges, and Ritual Slaughterers”). An additional reason that strengthened the authority of the Zloczew cemetery was the fact that until the year of 1885, the Jews of the towns of Lutotow and Bendzin buried their dead at this cemetery. It is a hypothesis that the nickname for the town, “Zloczewer dead,” comes from the 'cemetery popularity'…

At the end of the 16th century, when the first Jewish families moved here, the oldest son of the first settler understood that they could develop the town only with the help of Jewish merchants and craftsman, who were already known in the whole area. He did everything to bring them to town. The first settlers were working people – diggers, shoemakers, grain-peddlers from Dzialoszyn, followed by an in wandering of Jews from the other side of Lake Prosna. Among them were people of the 'free professionals,' a medical feldsher, a teacher and a ritual slaughterer, whom also performed other religious functions.

In the first part of the 18th century, Zloczew was an organized community of over two hundred families that became the majority in town. They built a synagogue, a 'Mikve' (Ritual Bath), and a slaughterhouse. In that period, on the place where there was the first ranch in town, they were building a palace for the Duke Drucki-Lubecki. This had a great influence on the development of the town.

The Polish Uprising of 1863 did not change the status of the Zloczew community and they remained under the Czarist administration. For a memorial to the insurrection, every May 3rd, there was a holiday parade in which two members of Zloczew participated because of their involvement in The Polish Uprising: one was Jewish, the grandfather of the one-legged, Shlomo-Zalman the shoemaker, the other was a Christian, Alter Perski, a man who carefully cherished his military uprising uniform - he wore it every May 3rd in the holiday parade.

Besides, this showed that the Zloczew Jews were proud of their old, splendid synagogue, and proud of their town. Storytellers claimed that the charming building of the synagogue was considered the third most beautiful among all the synagogues in Poland. The synagogue was built in the beginning of the 17th century, was destroyed by fire in 1895 (see the article by Yaakow Freund: “The First synagogue in Zloczew”), the new Synagogue was erected on the same place as the burned Shul. It was considered at this time – 1898 – a great event in Jewish life. At that period of time, 450 Jewish families lived in Zloczew. Most of them worked at different occupations and only a few were considered rich people.

Jewish Subsistence

Parts of the Zloczew Jews were always occupied with small commerce. Many of them made a living as tailors, shoemakers, weavers, miners, glaziers and other pursuits. Many were “village-peddlers” traveling the countryside, buying off agricultural produce, like butter, cheese, potatoes, fruit, paying for the product with money of household merchandise and tools the peasantry needed for their daily use. As time passed, a number of these “village-peddlers” enlarged their business inventory and became affluent 'middle-merchants'. Also, the weavers started to export their wares and commodities to Lodz, which became a great market for their merchandise. They were able to secure work places for temporary employees who were needed in their lines of business. However, the shoemakers suffered economic deprivation, because they depended only on Jewish customers. The Christian population gave their shoe-repairs only to the Christian shoemakers, therefore it was hard to 'make a living' in this profession.

But the situation of the merchants was much better because they enjoyed an unlimited market for their merchandise among the immense villages' population. The peasants were also depending on the Jewish storekeepers to sell their produce and other farm products. The mutual economic interdependence developed good economic relations and this influenced the good attitude of the area peasantry toward the Jews. Still, the relationship with the local Christian population was evidently negative, not only because there was not a common ground of economic interests, (as mentioned above with the shoemakers), but the economic prosperity of the Jewish merchants seemed to be “pouring salt on wounds.” The problem aggravated anti-Semitic feeling, which developed originally for religious grounds.

Beside the competition in certain trades, they started to feel an antagonism also in other areas, even in regard to business dealings. But all this was in a small measure, because the Christian participation in the local business was minimal. There were four large, beautiful stores in Zloczew that belonged to Polish owners. Their owners were: Paszkiewicz, Oberfeld, Drozdewski, Kassover, and Sobieranski. Naturally, they possessed better opportunities to develop good relationships with the lordly, large landowners and rich farmers in the area and the close-by towns and villages around Zloczew.

As mentioned above, not only Jews engaged in trades. Besides shoe repairs, there were Polish blacksmiths, bricklayers, butchers, bakers, belt-makers, cooper and honey makers and others. The main anti-Semites were shoemakers; the reason was that there were mostly Jews in their trade. But there was another reason; Shoemakers always loved to 'drink hard,' as it is written: “the wine went in – and the secret came out…” as soon as they were loaded with alcohol, they started cussing and insulting the Jews. When they were excited in their drunkenness, they threatened the Jews: “Wait, you 'Zydy', as soon as we are liberated, we will take care of you…” To tell the truth, the Jews did take the threats seriously, listening to the insults, the hateful and grim sounding slogans thrown at them. Sadly, many years later, during the tragic, Nazi period (these Poles were the most trusted helpers to the Nazi murderers during the killing of millions of Jews) these threats already then carried a dangerous character.

The Christian youth were nourished with their anti-Semitic feelings from childhood on from 'their mothers' milk.' Young hoodlums constantly picked on and annoyed Jews, committed troublesome acts of aggression, conducting regular demonstrations with slogans: “Jews, go to Palestine! We don't want you here!” Yet, comparing the brutal behavior of the young hoodlums to the 'intellectual' stratum, the hoodlums were 'saintly' men in comparison with the vicious anti-Semitism of the elite; the Pasiekewiczs, Blozikowski's and Zalewskis. They were the true inquisitors of Zloczew Jewry. They did not wish the Jews to leave for Palestine, but to be murdered on location; “We have to destroy them wherever we find them.” The town's people were so poisoned with anti-Semitism that even the Christian peasantry called them: “The cursed rank!” They enjoyed, when in good spirit, to say: “In all Zloczew there are only two honest Jews: Aaron-Leib the tailor and Abraham Szlomkowicz, the porter. Why? Because Szlomowicz was a soldier in the Polish Army during the uprising and Aaron-Leib, the tailor, was sewing national uniforms for the army…

When the Russian Czar proclaimed his (alleged) amnesty in 1905, the Polish population celebrated the occasion by setting fires to barrels of tar in the market place, singing national, patriotic songs. The large display drew a large audience, among them, were local Jews. Still, in this festive moment, the anti-Semitic Poles did not forget to chase away the Jews, shouting: “Get lost! This is not your celebration!”

To top their low-minded, niggardly action expressed itself, when the Russian authorities considered the Polish celebration as an act of revolt, the Polish population claimed that the Jews were the happy sponsors of the celebration and they (non-Jews) were only spectators… Regretfully, the Russians believed this calumny accusation and they arrested six Jews and exiled them to Siberia. This case created great heartache and fierce rage among the Jewish population, but no one was able to save the innocent victims. And if this was not enough, they found (undesired) elements among the Jewish fanatics, “who added salt to their wounds” accusing the Jewish youth, that the reason for all these misfortunes is a result of their sin of showing interest in the many world problems that have no relation to Judaism.

This was a period of spontaneous uprisings by illegal Polish organizations against the Czarist rule. In the large cities “OCHRANA” (Political Police) arrested many people. A number of the activists escaped and were hiding in small towns and villages, including Zloczew, because in the small towns they felt more secure. I especially remember one of these families who were running and hiding from the Russian 'ochrana'. This was a father with his three sons, named: Plutchinski. After a while they adjusted and accustomed themselves in the community. Later they entered the real-estate business and with mischievous tricks they ruled the house-building trade without any considerations for other people. Once my father needed to build a kitchen in the back of his office. He hired an expert to prepare the building plan. As soon as he started to build, the old man Plutchinski came and with his own hands destroyed whatever was already standing. He claimed that he did it because the work done was worthless and that he would build a new kitchen – without pay. My father had no option, and was forced to submit to his wild terror. Plutchiniski did build the new kitchen; naturally, we had to pay what he demanded.

Struggle for Physical Survival

The fear of the criminal force and arm-twisting by the Pluchinski family enfolded the whole population, Gentiles and Jews alike. I remember something that happened when I was 12 years old, something buried in my memory: my father decided to enlarge our home. The workmen employed in the building used to get paid once weekly, on Friday evenings. As the trend was, come Sunday they already needed the money, in order to use their day of rest to drink … The underworld elements, like Bolek Pluchinski, knew how to exploit this situation. Bolek and another underworld hoodlum, Janek Albinski, came to my father and demanded money that my father did not owe them. My father explained to them that with force they would not achieve anything. But Janek Albinski lifted a hammer and hit my father on his head and blood was running all over his body. I was standing close to the place. When I heard people screaming, I ran to see what had happened. Coming closer, I saw a scene that I will never forget: I saw my father's face covered with blood and Albinski standing near him in a threatening pose, holding his hammer, ready to hit my father again. I found a brick on the ground. I did not think long; I grabbed the brick and hit Janek on the shoulder, back, and his head. I kept hitting, again and again, until he fell down. When his partner, Pluchinski, saw what was happening, he tried helping Janek, but before he reached my father I was able to hit him several times with the brick I was holding. The end was that I did both of them so much injury that they were hardly able to move (with the help of others). Janek Albinski was taken to the hospital and was hospitalized for four weeks until he recuperated. After leaving the hospital, the two hoodlums entered complaints against me in the Zloczew court.

At that time, the judge of the court was Judge Bilecki, of the village Debalenko. He listened to both parties, first the accusations and then the defense. He threw out the case. But, in the meantime, I became known as a “fighter,” and I got myself a lot of enemies. Leading my newly acquired enemy list was the family Pluchinski. They were 'famous for their reputation as great heroes', and suddenly one of them got beat up harshly by a young punk... They planned to take revenge on me and waited for an opportune moment. It did not take long. Once, while walking on our street, I came face to face with Staszek Pluchinski. I knew that they were searching for me, and soon he started to push me. I followed the Biblical quote: “Who comes to kill you – Kill him first!” I jumped on him and we started to fight. He lost, leaving the street under my heavy blows, holding his ribs…

Knowing them, I realized that now they will really try to take revenge on me. But, this time I was mistaken; the effect of our last encounter convinced them that it is better to stay away from me…even more, the same Staszek tried to become my chum. He even helped me during an occurrence at the market one day. A young peasant entered our store to buy something, and he started to haggle with my father. It started an argument and the peasant hit my father and he started bleeding. When I saw this, I pushed him away and both of us started fighting. I was fast, but the peasant was very strong and when he fell to the ground he was able to get up quickly, and started hitting me. I had no more energy to resist him. At that moment, Staszek Pluchinski entered our store. When he saw what was happening, he humped toward the peasant, holding him back until the police arrived and took him away. This kind of happening, this type of relationship between Jews and Christians were very unusual. You can label them as exceptions. The fact of life was that both people lived so close to each other, but between them was a deep abyss. Each lived in their own world.

The Social Life

Jews did not participate in the component of the social life that developed in the Zloczew community in the last part of the 18th century, for two reasons: the leadership of the municipality consisted of two town leaders; the “VOJT” and the “SOLTYS” (bailiffs). Not all the citizens had election rights, only those who had land or their own houses. The elections were conducted in a peculiar way. On a scheduled day, the peasantry of thirty to forty villages of the area, together with the local population, all gathered on the street across from the 'Magistrat' (municipal building). They all waited a long time for the “Natchalnik” (Area Commandant) to appear. He pulled out a paper and announced the names of the new candidates. Most of the time it was the same names of the former Bailiffs. After the “Natchalnik” announced their names, the people repeated the names, and the new election was over.

Welonska Street
At the end of the street, the New Lyceum Building

 

Individuals were present among the mass of people that knew how real elections were held. They read it in the newspapers, or heard about it from other sources, so they watched the comedy of Zloczew's election and in silence, expressed their unhappiness. They did not dare to protest loudly. Naturally, their unhappy humming did not change anything and life went on as always…

Only after the Russian-Japanese War, where the Russians were defeated, did things start to change in Zloczew social life. Political maturity advanced among the population in the large cities and also influenced the small towns and villages in all areas. In Zloczew, they expressed the change with dressing up in their Polish national traditional costumes every Sunday and on holidays. An odd thing manifested when they appeared dressed in their outfits: they started to show arrogant behavior towards the Jews. Therefore, when Jews came face to face with the 'disguised' Polish people, they tried to omit them, and were often brutally attacked by the dressed up 'patriots'. Many times, the encounters ended with dangerous episodes … I remember as a sixteen-year-old lad walking home at night, three men with long sticks attacked me. They came from Pozen, where they were employed for a long time (they were called the “Prusakies”). Not only did they keep beating me with their long sticks, but also they held me, not letting me escape. After this bloody attack, I walked around for a long time in pain, not only for the physical hurt and discomfort, but also for the distress I felt because I couldn't defend myself in this situation where I was attacked…

The National Council Building
and the Fire Fighters Tower on Koschilah Street

 

Gruesome Behavior by the Firemen

A second episode inscribed in my memory is connected with the last years of the 18th century; the bully behavior of the firemen. The Zloczew Jewish population numbered five thousand, half of them married with no children. Their life-style was strictly Orthodox-traditional. No political-social activities existed. Also among the Gentile population, there were no political clubs or dance halls active. The main attraction was the firemen. Many people came to see their Sunday rehearsals on how to extinguish a would-be fire. They used to gather around a house and splash it with water from a hose. These 'spectacles' drew many people, including Jews. In the midst of their performance, when the firemen noticed a group of Jews in the audience, they turned their water away from the 'burning building' and onto the Jews… This was an insulting, hurtful deed. Naturally, the Jews were soaked with water and the rowdy crowds hysterically laughed about the firemen's 'heroic adventure'. This type of adventure was a common happening in day-to-day life. You can't list them as great occurrences, and still, they are inscribed in our memory.

Charity Institutions

Important changes took place in the social life of the big cities, like Warsaw and Lodz. But the changes did not reach the small communities. The Jewish towns and villages were influenced by the new phase and initiatives for activism, especially in the field of social programs. This was a direct expression of traditional, religious motives, based on the deep source of the Jewish faith. If in the holy books it was written that there are commandments – obligations that have 'no measure and no limit,' the Jews did significantly reinforce this commandment with programs of help, with visits to the ill, (Bikur Cholim) and help to poor brides (Hakhnosas Kallah) and other charitable deeds. They added more social action groups, like: Chevra Kadisha (Volunteer Burial Society), Chevras Chitim (Tailor's Society) and others.

Chasidim and Proprietors

The Jews of Zloczew were divided in two groups: Chasidim and the well-to-do business owners. According to an accepted tradition, the division came from past influences by former local rabbis, saying: “In Zloczew, the Chasidim are not Chasidim and their opponents (the 'Misnagdim') are not opponents.” Generally, Zloczew was a quiet, restful town, until the time when it was necessary to engage a new rabbi or ritual slaughterer. As soon as such a situation arrived, the town began to haggle and the clamor of arguments reached to all segments of the community and divided the town into various multitudes…

As soon as the Chasidim “smelled the scent of gun powder” and the time arrived to take a stand, they were immediately ready for combat, showing off their presence and power. They came to the challenging competition to capture the positions of the new candidates, dressed in their long black kaftans, white socks, and wide fur-edged hats with all the “trimmings.” The Chasidim in Zloczew were followers of several rabbis. The strongest groups were followers of the Ger rabbi; they were the most affluent in town. And because of the way the world is run, “the most affluent have the most influence,” they were strong in making decisions. They were also known as the most fanatical among Chasidim. Having both characteristics, fanaticism and power, they were fighting stubbornly for their candidates until they persevered. After winning, Zloczew again became a quiet community and life was running calmly and cozily…

The Struggle of Enlightenment

In the time when the Enlightenment movement flourished in the big cities close to our area, no one knew about it in Zloczew. The town was far from any cultural, intellectual activities. The Jews lived by their traditional living-manner and no new trends, or factors entered in their way of life. Nevertheless, something happened that awoke the sleepy town from its equilibrium. This case came suddenly, and shook up the public.

If I am not mistaken, this happened in the year of 1896, when on a Saturday afternoon, my father sent me to Chanan Friend, the bookbinder, to deliver, or pick up something. His home was always full of books that people gave him to bind. While I was at his home, he gave me some printed pages to take home. My father, after reading the pages, shared them with some of his acquaintances. The printed pages were a report of the 'Dreifuss trial.' I did not realize and did not dream that these harmless loose printed pages would make such a deep impression and shock the people who read the loose pages.

It did not take long for the news to spread that Chanan was distributing 'forbidden' literature, harmful to Jewish children. An announcement appeared “that it was forbidden to read the 'published pages' and Chanan was expelled in a shameful fashion from the Ger 'Shtibel' (prayer house).” But the fanatics were not satisfied with their measure alone; they created such a poisonous atmosphere against Chanan that he was forced to leave Zloczew. But, this was not the end of this story. This was only the first chapter. As soon as Chanan left town, they started a search for the people who received the 'forbidden pages' from Chanan. After a lengthy spying investigation, they succeeded to 'discover' three young men who were in possession of the 'forbidden literature': they were, Isaac Wolkowicz, Yitzi (Yitzhak) Engel and Moshe Parkal. The forbidden books that they found were: Eit Tzavuah, Ben Avigdors', and a copy of the periodical, “Hatzfirah.” The Chasidim marked these books as “Unclean” and “Treif” and published a rigorous ban against allowing these types of books to enter any Jewish home. Itzhak Engel was expelled from the Chasidic prayer house. They were not able to reach Moshe Perkal, because he lived in Brzezin. And Issac Wolkowicz was a rich Jew, so he did not pay attention to the Chasidic verdict… This was the way, the methods, by which the fanatics with their power tried to restrain the development and the spread of the Enlightenment Movement. This was only a fragment of the general picture.

The First Political Groups

Chaim-David Bruchowicz, son of Chaim-Noah Lichtziyer, a learned man, who after serving four years in the military lived for a long time in Odessa, arrived in Zloczew in the year of 1900. While living in the big city, he used this opportunity to absorb the many perceptions and political opinions of his time, theories that were considered as dangerous… According to his pronouncements and expressed views, he sounded like an ardent revolutionary to beware of; a dangerous person that parents were warning their sons not to have any contact with, because he could, God forbid, bring about great misfortune. To the great satisfaction of all that feared the revolutionary, the young man disappeared from Zloczew and no one knew where he had vanished.

In the year 1902, in all large cities around Zloczew, political movements became active. They founded political parties like “C.B.,” (?), “PPS” (Polish Socialist Party), “BUND” (Jewish Socialist Party) and also Zionist organizations. They all carried on vigorous and multifarious activities. I was already of Bar-Mitzvah age, (almost 13) when I was traveling with my father every Monday, Market Day, to help my father purchase grain. This was hard work, to fill up sacks and drag them for long distances. It was a great physical exertion. My father rewarded my efforts by allowing me to subscribe to the newspaper: “Moment,” published in Warsaw. Because we had this newspaper in our home, the more 'progressive' neighbors tried to borrow the newspaper, enjoying the interesting articles and essays. But other fanatic neighbors considered the paper as 'treif' (impure), worse than the cross… and did not want to read, or even listen to the news stories. In connection with this, it is interesting to share with you the situation that developed in this respect: After the famous writer, Shalom Ash, expressed negative thoughts about circumcision methods, great excited discussions rose among the Jewish masses, and the complaints reached the province towns also. Most of the newspapers expressed opinions against Shalom Ash, and this made them “Kosher” (acceptable) in the eyes of the Chasidim and we were now able to freely read our newspaper…

In 1903, many young men who worked for long periods in the big cities, returned to Zloczew. While living in the big cities they absorbed (were exposed to) different ideals, even joined political movements Among the returnees were, Hershl Knapf and Joseph Freund, who were influenced by literature and political knowledge. They also absorbed organizational know-how and propagandistic training from their party, the PPS. They learned how to conduct long discussions and arguments, which they prepared in advance, disputations with the members of the “Bund.” By their activities, the political area in Zloczew awoke from her lethargic sleep. Simultaneously, we worried that the political activities blew in “malicious winds…”

Meanwhile, an interesting situation developed. Regardless of the successful discussion led by Joseph Freund, he defended the ideologies and programmatic conceptions of the PPS. After a while, they decided that as a Jew, there is no place in their movement. It was not in their 'interests' to enrich their 'leadership potential' with Jews… As a consequence of it, and maybe as a result of idealistic conviction, Joseph Freund started to look closer at the Zionist circles. We became good friends. At this period, the Zionist movement started to spread the activities in the provincial towns and the potential reserves for membership were the young men who attended regularly the “Bet Midrashim” (Small orthodox prayer houses and synagogues).

At that time, Yaakov Shayer arrived in Zloczew from the nearby town of Wielun. He came to organize a fund-raising campaign for the Keren Kayemeth (Jewish National Fund). To the first campaign planning meeting came: Getzl Davidiwicz, Yitzie (Yitzhak) Davidowicz, Frumtsie Davidowicz, Chana-Beila Yedwab, Leib Mayrowicz, and yours truly. In the beginning, we discussed the problem of how to raise funds, but after a while our activities encompassed other Zionist functions. Firstly, we started to organize a library. To this activity, we were able to attract the best youth of our town, and they succeeded in collecting two hundred valuable volumes. As our activities were not recognized by most of the Jewish population, especially the fanatic orthodoxy, they were the majority, so we gathered all our books for the library at the home of Noah Wisznewski. But the Ger Chasidim discovered our secret, and were mad at us. They considered our group as – God Forbid – revolutionaries… They went so far as to renounce us to the ears of the area police authorities in Sieradz.

Suddenly, the police arrived, accompanied by Yitzhak Wolkowicz, who served at this time as the town-controller. He was able to convince the police that all books are 'Kosher,' stamped by the government censor 'as completely legal.' So, this incident passed peacefully and our group was able to 'breathe easier' and continue their activities. After establishing the library we started other organizational activities. Our Zionist movement grew strong and membership multiplied, so far as the obstacles and disturbances by the fanatics did not make any impression on our activities.

First Immigrant to Eretz Yisrael

In the year 1908, the Zloczew Zionist lived to see the culmination success of their intensive, strenuous efforts, sending their first immigrant to Eretz Israel (Palestine). The first Zloczew pioneer was Chaim Zemmel. It was reported that upon arrival he settled in Cheders and was employed at drying up swamps, under difficult, stressful conditions of hot weather, hunger, and malaria. The immigration of Chaim Zemmel was considered a great event in Zloczew's social life and the Zionists were especially very happy, except one man who was saddened and regretted this 'occurrence'. This was Chaim's father, Shmuel Buzininer. He often visited us and complained that we 'deprived' him of his son, and demanded that we bring him back…

In 1909, Welvish Ginsberg married off his daughter to Yechiel Michal Zaidman, a well-educated young man from Bendzin. Welvish Ginnsberg was one of the richest Jews in Zloczew, a devoted follower of the Ger rabbi. The story was repeated that Welvish was an intimate stalwart at the Ger rabbi's court. Still, the fanatic Chasidim detected that something was not in order with him, and started to spread rumors and made fun of him. So it happened one Saturday, when Welvish and his son-in-law came to the 'shtibl' (prayer-house) and young Yechiel-Michal was wearing a white shirt with a 'stiff' collar, the fanatic Chasidim went over to him and smeared his collar with soot…

The young son-in-law of Welvish did not surrender. After several weeks, he again appeared at the 'stibl', again wearing a shirt with a 'stiff' collar. For his impertinence, the fanatics became even more aggressive. It did not take long and a pair of strong arms grabbed him, ripped off his shirt-collar and slapped his face… If this was not enough, they expelled him from the 'stibl'. They ordered him never to step into the 'holy place.' With great grief and heartache, the young man left Zloczew and never returned. I remember this very clearly, because a short time later, I was also expelled from the 'stibl'. I was called to come with my father to a 'trial'. I was judged for my sin of distributing the Jewish National Fund boxes. After a 'verdict', I was expelled from the 'stibl.' Today, this will sound like a curiosity and a joke, but then it was considered a great iniquity…there was no use of finding an excuse to deny my 'evil doings'. There were no witnesses who saw me distributing the 'Blue-and-White' boxes. I sat there silently, listening to the rabbi admonishing my behavior. Possibly, they were ready to deliver a good beating, but the presence of my father saved me. Still, when we came home, I received the real scolding from my father.

Unfortunately, I have to say, that these were not sporadic events, but a ring in the long chain of repressions and pressures wrought by the fanatics against the Enlightenment Movement among our people. But from the other side, we were in a dilemma; we did not know how to react. Shall we use the same methods as the Chasidim did? Or, shall we swallow our pride, by not knowing how to respond. We turned to Dr. Tchlenov, the Chairman of the “Jewish National Fund” in Israel. We sent a letter and presented to him the situation in our town, with all the happenings and incidents… We expressed our opinion, if we will answer on all the violent acts against us, it will be an act of “tooth-for-tooth,” it will have a positive impression and influence on our future activities. Yet, we dare not trust ourselves, we can't decide, we don't have the moral ground for action, therefore we are waiting for your answer. We received a letter from Dr. Tchlenov. He clearly stated: “If your actions will help the 'Jewish National Fund,' you may use 'a tooth for a tooth.” At the same time, the Ger Chassidim appealed to the town rabbi that he should order the closing of the Beth Midrash, the 'Study House,' where the Zionists were meeting and conducting their activities. And after their appeal, the Beth Midrash was closed. But after our intervention and initiative, the 'Study House' was opened again. When the Ger Chasidim saw that we found a way to reopen the 'Study House,' they took drastic action to rid, once and for all, or 'ban' the 'forbidden books' and Zionist 'treif' activities.

A 'Strategic Encounter'

They were in a majority and counted on; if it will come to a physical challenge they will overpower us. Therefore, they decided to solve the problem with physical power. On one sunny day, a mob of Chasidim, in a fighting mood, marched into the Beth Midrash, ready to 'take care' of us. We knew of their planned action and did not leave the situation to 'blind fate.' We developed a strategy based on quality, not quantity. As they approached the 'Study House,' we allowed them to enter inside. As soon as part of the mob came in, we locked the doors. This way, half of them were locked inside and the other mass was standing outside. They started to scuffle and they suffered a rebuff and defeat, because their 'reserves' weren't able to come and help them… The end result of this fight influenced the future relations between the progressive and the strict-orthodox circles. From this time on, the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement conducted their activities without interference; they succeeded more and more and became a dominant power in Jewish life.

First World War

We already felt the results of achievements in our school activities shortly before the start of WWI. We founded a Culture Association with a library, a Folk-choir named: “Hazomir” and further development would continue if the 'earthquake' of the war would not infuriate and bewilder all parts of our lives. We faced a terrible, bloody period and struggled for survival in a new division of our world. The disastrous cataclysm shocked many nations and peoples and among them the destiny of every Jewish community. They suffered great misfortunes and hardships, tied with this dramatic war-period. For the first two years of the war, Zloczew was under Russian occupation. The Jews lived in constant fear; they were especially frightened of the Cossacks.

After a great offensive, the Russians retreated under pressure and the Germans occupied the whole region. Jewish life became a little easier, more normal under the war circumstances. At the end of 1917, Zloczew experienced the results of the war; a typhus epidemic struck the Jewish community. Why the Jews? Because a homeless Jew settled at the local synagogue, under the stove and merciful Jews took care of him and all of them were infected with typhus. The Beth Midrash was transformed into a hospital; boys and girls became volunteers and helped the ill. Medications, because of the war, were scarce. Many people died. The number of widows and orphans multiplied. It took time for the epidemic to subside and pass, but hunger and poverty ruled in town. We alarmed the world and many overseas relief organizations and relatives answered the call for help.

On the Steps to a New Epoch

The German administration was not pleased to see that the Jewish population of Zloczew was larger than the Christians. So they broadened the domain of the town, including in its municipal tract some area villages. This changed numerically the composition of the population. Of 5,000 souls, the town now counted 2,000 Jews and 3,000 Christians. On November 11th, 1918, the Germans left the town and the Polish Militia marched on the main street, under Lipinski, who was hiding all this time. A new epoch started for Zloczew. The new Poland allowed the activities of all Jewish parties, especially the Zionist organization. Under the leadership of Dechwolf and Braude, they opened the first Hebrew school, with a nursery school, to which they enrolled almost all progressive youth of school age. They founded a “Hachalutz” (Pioneer) Club at the Zionist organization and three members left for Palestine. Awhile later they founded a Hebrew “Mizrachi” (Religious-Zionist) School, where they taught religious and secular lessons. Also, the Socialist parties renewed their activities, but the Polish-Russian war encumbered the work of all social institutions. In the year 1922, all the existing parties took on, for the first time, the challenge of municipal elections, also the election of a Jewish community council board.

Among the 21 places on the City Council, 8 were Jewish mandates. Together with the P.P.S. (Polish Socialist Party) they created a progressive majority in the independent town management. In the year 1923, they organized the “Hashomer Hatzair.” Until now, the youth did not have any opportunity in the social setting of our town to conduct any programs or ventures. Suddenly, they discovered a new arena to solve their problems, the pioneer education. Their commune activities lured large groups of boys and girls. Suddenly the town was flooded with singing voices of young people; you could hear the echo in the quiet evenings coming from the far 'Friedmanowka' that served as the first network for the newborn Zionist groups.

The song: “We Are Immigrating”

As in the whole country, the economic situation of Zloczew Jewry under the Grabski government policies became ruinous. Especially disastrous was the situation of the Jewish middle-income group. They are all left without any means of subsistence and all started to seek a way to immigrate to Palestine. Also, in Zloczew they tried to find ways to leave, but with no success. In their sad situation, help arrived from different financial institutions locally and overseas. In Zloczew, two savings and free loan associations were founded and helped with loans, making it possible for families to eke out a living. In that period, a general wide program of mutual help to the needy was developed.

In 1926, they founded the first Tailor's Trade Union and their actions were very successful. Despite the objections of the cheap, bungling tailor shops, the union was successful in creating better conditions and better pay for the workers. The union was under the political influence of the leftist groups and was, therefore persecuted by the police. A year or two later, new Zionist youth organizations were founded: “Hachalutz Hak'lal Zioni,” “Feiheit,” “Hachalutz Ha'Merkazi,” and “Betar.” Despite their political differences and disagreements, they all had the same goal – immigration to Palestine.

In the beginning of 1930, they founded two Sport Clubs, one at the Professional Unions and the other at the “Leftist Poalei Zion.” They developed a successful team, with many sport branches among the youth, despite their limited financial contingencies. In February 1933, the chairman of the “Leftist Poalei Zion” passed away. This was a shocking experience for the whole community. Christians and Jews alike attended the funeral… A member of the Central Committee gave the eulogy with the following remarks: “May the ground of your city accept you, a man who proudly defended the rights and interests of the Jewish population. Today, all your co-patriots are paying you their last respect. We are reaching a period that no one knows to where it is leading us …”

Ten days later, Hitler came to power in Germany. Dark, dreary clouds moved toward us from the West. The Polish-German flirtation brought new anti-Semitic decrees against Poland's Jewry. A wave of pogroms became a daily occurrence in the towns of Poland. The Endecia Party in Zloczew 'imported' from Poznan a butcher, a trained anti-Semite who opened his home as the headquarters for boycotts against the Jews of Zloczew. In 1937, on the initiative of Antek Istel, a secretive committee of Jewish youngsters for the protection of the Jewish population against the anti-Semitic attacks was organized. Their activities were secretive, because for the first time, Zionists and communists worked together and any discovery would be marked as “Zydo-Communa” (Jewish-Communist) and would be harmful to the activities of the Zionist youth organizations.

Their activities lasted for over a year. For this period, the “Endecia Clique” was not able to perform not even one anti-Jewish action, despite the large resources of funds and manpower available to them. August 1939 – the calamity approached with fast steps. Large parts of Jewish youth were mobilized into the army. The panic grew. All social activities came to a halt. Everyone was worried about his family. There was no time for party meeting or welfare work. On August 29th, three days before the start of the war, the first youth organization said goodbye to her past. At 8 p.m. Tuesday, the last get-together of the “Hashomer Hatzair” was held. The members present at this last meeting dug a cellar and buried their library, their archives, and the flag of which, for sixteen years, they sang their hymn-oath… Now, they buried all this in the cellar mass grave. The oath they gave at that moment was: “The first one of us who survives will return here after all wanderings, and will visit this place. When, on this evening, we finished the dreams and hopes of hundreds of young people, dreams we were not privileged to fulfill.”

A memorial service for the holy victims of Zloczew in the United States
Hirsh Yachimek, Yehiel Kahan, Yehiel Cohen, Moshe Besser

 

During the commemoration,
Moshe Besser doing the eulogy
Memorial service in the
United States – 1968

Yehiel Cohen, Moshe Besser

 

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