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[Page III]

Introduction

by I. D. Mittlepunkt

Translated by Moe Milstein

The style of these memoirs, as recorded by their authors, is a warm, folksy one, and this alone is already a holy effort.

An unfamiliar page, exposing the most tragic experiences of the Bilgoraj Jews who carried the burdens of the ghetto with spiritual dignity.

The compiler of these memoirs, A. H. Kronenberg, has through this labor, doubtless helped add a stone to the coming monument that future historians will someday erect by immortalizing through their writing Jewish martyrology in the dark days of Hitlerism.

Tel Aviv, Adar 25, 5716[1]


Translator's footnote:

  1. March 8, 1956 Return


[Page IV]

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

by Abraham Kronenberg

Translated by Moe Milstein

Although difficult, we succeeded through collective effort to create a monument to our martyrs who perished at the hands of the German murderers.

The work was hard, but we did not give up. We collected, created, begged, and made requests of everyone, and the majority of our community did indeed make a significant contribution, and we succeeded in creating a monument in the form of a book of almost 400 pages. But what are 400 pages compared to our precious Jews, killed by the German murderers. There is no end to what can be written about them, and therefore, we had to satisfy ourselves with bringing out the most salient.

We have collected pictures of events where no remembrance exists but the photo itself, and we have presented these so that future generations should not forget that there were once precious Jews, pious and “free,” merchants and tradesmen; they were all dear to us, and beloved, and all perished because they were Jews.

We worked hard and produced a picture of our city and its dear Jews, its parties, institutions, and personalities. May we not forget what we had, and what will never again be.

We beg that we may not be judged too harshly for omitting names from the lists of the dead, because it was not our fault. We turned to our co-citizens many times about this, and received very few responses. But even those missing from the list, will always remain in our memories.

[Page V]

A heartfelt thank-you to the committee for publishing this book, and for their work. And to the shuldiner Abraham Yakov for his assistance in compiling the list of the dead.

It was difficult to obtain these pictures of our city and its parties, as well as the only surviving, damaged, picture of “Chalutz.” But, where there's a will, there's a way.


[Page VI]

Modest Words for Great Deeds

by Book Committee

Translated by Moe Milstein

There was once a shtetl, Bilgoraj, like all cities in Poland, with the same buildings and appearance, establishments and institutions, the same jobs and professions, and above all, the same people, the same dear, warm-hearted Jews. And it was just like all the Jewish shtetlach, similar one to another, and annihilated by the same circumstances and terrors, a fate shared equally by our home town of Bilgoraj.

The shtetele and its Jews is no more! It disappeared in horror and pain, taking with it everything of value, everything created through the work of many generations, and ending in destruction in the last generation.

Only a small handful of Bilgoraj Jews were saved who, because of various circumstances, are now spread and scattered throughout the world.

We, the surviving Bilgorajers in Israel are not concentrated in one area, as is the case with other landsmanschaften. The majority of Bilgorajers are scattered in cities and villages throughout the country. Contact between us is difficult to attain, aside from the one yizkor evening where the majority of us come together in order to remember, and mourn our martyrs.

In this way, about ten years went by where at various gatherings the subject of a monument in the form of a yizkor book was discussed and planned. A book which should be found in every house of our former co-citizens. At the moment when longing would gnaw at the heart of a Bilgoraj son or daughter, he could open this book, and between its pages, find his old home, the shtetele and its streets, buildings and institutions, its people and all its hues, the various figures and personalities, their work and professions, their actions

[Page VII]

and their existence, and the last, the martyrs way, the sad end.

And this very task of creating a monument was undertaken by our friend, Abraham Kronenberg. Beginning at aleph, he connected with the Bilgorajers in Israel and abroad. He mobilized more than forty people who contributed various articles such as memories and tales of the past. He collected photos of people who had died, and had left no traces behind, who had left no survivors to remember their names. He inscribed and immortalized their names and images in this monument, and worried about the organisation of the book, its historical worth and literary style.

It has to be said that he did this work indefatigably, every day after physical exertion until late at night. And thanks to his work we succeeded in immortalizing, in words and in pictures, the past of the shtetl and all its times until the elimination of the last Jew.
We do not thank him for his great deed, because our words would be inadequate. We dedicate to him a few modest words.

Committee for creating the book

Shlomo Weinberg
Shimon Obligenhartz
Mordechai Rapaport
Shmuel Bron
Itzchak Rapaport
Moshe Tayer
Israel Geist


[Page 1]

My Shteteleh

by A. Kronenberg

Translated by Moe Milstein

In Congress Poland, hard by the old border with Austria, not far from Zamosc, Lubliner district, was the city of Bilgoraj.

It was a city of 12,000 residents, 65% of them Jewish. Everywhere you went, you heard Yiddish. Almost all the businesses and crafts were in Jewish hands.

The streets were full of our beautiful Jewish children. Bilgoraj had a thousand charms, because everything reflected the glow of Yiddishkeit. It was a city of Jewish culture and development hundreds of years old.

The antisemitism that raged in Poland was barely felt in Bilgoraj almost up to the outbreak of World War II, because it was so heavily Jewish. Jewish influence was everywhere. The new Christian shops even failed to attract their own coreligionists.

It was a pleasure to see our people sitting on city council, with yarmulkes on their heads, and patriarchal beards, representing all the Jewish parties, from right to left.

The Christians put up a big fight during city elections. To prevent a Jewish majority, they registered the peasants from the surrounding villages. By doing so, they tried to avoid being ruled by a Jewish majority.

Bilgoraj possessed many synagogues, Chasidic shtiblach, a yeshiva, cheders, a Yavneh cheder, a Beit Yakov, several Jewish banks, many goodwill organisations, and many Jewish parties. It was a city that breathed Yiddishkeit, with pure Jewish living. A city that had a rabbinical dynasty of the most respected godl hador[1] in hundreds of years, of whom the last rebbe was the son of the Belzer rebbe, R' Mordechai Rokeach, z”l.

[Page 4][2]

Bilgoraj was a city of Torah and greatness like no other. And then the Nazi murderers came and exterminated everything so that no trace remained–except for the small sha'arit haplitah[3] who survived in various parts of the world.

Sometimes when you remember the tragedy, it seems unreal, like it must have been a dream. But, unfortunately, it was a sorrowful reality. The Nazis transformed a deeply embedded Jewish community hundreds of years old, into a huge mountain of ashes which always swims before our eyes. We, and the coming generations, will never forget the call of our sacred martyrs, “Remember what Amalek did to you!”

Our enemies did not succeed in exterminating the Jewish people. The remaining glowing embers reignited themselves, and the chain weaves itself once more, and in our own land.

May this book serve as a monument to a Jewish community destroyed by the German murderers.

Honor for the memory of our beloved shtetl, Bilgoraj.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. One of the greatest men of his age. Return
  2. Page numbers, although out of sequence in some cases, are presented as printed in the original text. The text itself is sequential. Return
  3. Survivors of the war in Europe. Return


[Page 3]

A Monument to My Shtetele

by I. Ch. Kronenberg

Translated by Moses Milstein

Bilgoraj, my shtetele,
Where I spent my youth
The place where those nearest to me perished
And their children slaughtered before their eyes.

I plant a tree in your memory:
A monument for your mass grave.
Sky-blue silk arching above in the daytime
And with glowing children's eyes be-starring the night.

In the wind blowing through the branches, I hear
The voice of my dear ones,
In the rustle of the leaves–their whispered words,
And in the sad song of the bird among the monument-leaves--,
The weeping of the nursing babes.

In the dawn, as the sun emerges over the dew-covered fields,
The bright children's eyes disappear–the stars,
With those of the leaves of the tree, the dew drops–their tears.


[Page 5]

Rabbis of Bilgoraj

by A. Kronenberg

Translated by Moe Milstein

According to the historical evidence, Bilgoraj is a very old city, which can also be seen in the style of construction of the houses: one on Third of May Street, a second on the shul street, and a third on Pilsudski Street. The little windows and the stout round doors, and the style of the chimneys are evidence that they originated from the time of the Tartar invasions. Due to the number of fires that had occurred in Bilgoraj, only a few houses remained.

But when the Jewish community of Bilgoraj was founded, we can't determine, because the community Pinkas was destroyed along with the community.

Bilgoraj as a city was mentioned as far back as 1648. The book, Yon Metzilah, states: “When the Cossacks attacked Zamosc, they ranged over the whole region and murdered and plundered the cities of Bilgoraj, Tarnogrod, Frampol, and others…” which were not fortified. And actually, because of this, they used to build the shuls in the form of a fortress.

A Jewish community in Bilgoraj in 1731 is noted in the “Pinchas Arbei Artzot.”

It is also known that in the old cemetery, on Third of May Street, there were tombstones more than 200 years old. And there was even an older cemetery, near the shul, where there were two tombstones whose dates could not be made out.

Without the Pinkas, we have no way of knowing exactly who the rabbis were who occupied the Kisei Harabbanut with the emergence of the Bilgoraj community.

[Page 6]

Therefore, we have to make do with what we do know:

The gaon, R' Moishe Tzvi, the son of the Zolkver[1] rebbe, R' Shimshon Meizlish[2], was the rabbi in Bilgoraj. For a long time, he had no son. When a son, who they named Avigdor, was finally born to him, the bris was celebrated with great simcha, and the townspeople expressed the hope to the rabbi and rebbetzin “that their son would take over as rabbi for a hundred years.” The parents answered, “Amen!”

When R' Shimshon Meizlish died, the Zolkver community invited his son, R' Moishe Zvi, the Bilgoraj rabbi, to take over his father's place. After he left Bilgoraj, we have no information on who, if anyone, was the Bilgoraj rabbi. But when Avigdor reached 18 years of age, and was widely known for his Torah knowledge and wisdom, representatives of the Bilgoraj community came to Zolkow and asked him to become their rabbi. He was, however, very close to his parents, and did not want to leave them, and he turned down the request. The representatives then went to the Zolkver rabbi and reminded him of the wish they had blessed him with to which he had answered, amen.

The young R' Avigdor had no choice therefore, and on his father's command, he traveled to Bilgoraj where he served as rabbi until he was very old, and had grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After him, his son-in-law, R' Itzchak Nathan Nuteh Berliner[3], occupied the Kisei-Harabbanut. He was the son of R' Hershele Berliner, the Berlin rabbi. He was rabbi for about 50 years in Bilgoraj. He died on 14th of Iyar, 5624.

[Page 7]

After him came his son-in-law, R' Nachum Palast, who was known as a great tsaddik.

After the death of R' Nachum Palast, there were several rabbinical candidates, and as is usual, there were quarrels among their supporters. They finally ended up electing R' Shmuel Engel as rabbi, the son-in-law of R' Shmuel Mendl Weissman, who stemmed from an important business family in Bilgoraj.

R' Shmuel Engel was a great scholar, and later became renowned as the Radomishler[4] rabbi. But even after his election as Bilgoraj rabbi, the quarrels continued until they came to the attention of the Russian authorities who expelled alien residents, and seeing as R' Shmuel was from Galicia which belonged to Austria at the time, he was arrested and led to the Austrian border. With that, the quarrels around the Kisei Harabbanut in Bilgoraj ended.

After, the great sage, R' Yakov Zilberman[5], who was referred to as the Matziver[6] Ilui, became rabbi. He would sit and study night and day. Many rabbis consulted him with questions and requests that were printed in various books. He was Bilgoraj's rabbi for many years.

During the First World War, 17th of Tammuz, 5675, when the Austrian army was occupying Bilgoraj for the second time, the rabbi went to Lublin where he died in the cholera epidemic which was raging throughout the entire region.

The rabbi's son, R' Yosef, who was dayan while his father was alive, remained in Bilgoraj.

When the Austrian army occupied the Bilgoraj region,

[Page 8]

and battles took place at the river San, the shtetl Kreshev[7], was burned down from the artillery shells. The Kreshev Jews who were homeless now, mostly came to Bilgoraj, among them the Kreshever rabbi, R' Chaim Hoichman.

When the Austrian army entered Bilgoraj, it brought with it the cholera epidemic. From 17th Tammuz until Tisha B'Av, 5675, three weeks, more than 500 people died of cholera in Bilgoraj. Large numbers of people from cholera-infected homes were quarantined in special buildings on the “sands.” Among the victims was the Bilgoraj rebbe's son, R' Yosef. Consequently, the Kreshever rabbi became the Bilgoraj spiritual representative to the occupation authority. Whenever something happened to a Jew, he would rush to intervene on his behalf, notwithstanding his advanced age, and usually with success.

When R' Yosef recovered and became city rabbi, the Kreshever rabbi stayed on in Bilgoraj.

After R' Yosef Zilberman died suddenly one Friday evening, 13th Adar, 1926, the gaon and tzaddik, R' Mordechai Rokeach, zt”l, brother of the Belzer rabbi, shlit”a, was appointed rabbi.

He sat on the Kisei Harabbanut until the outbreak of WWII, in the year 5699, when all the Jewish communities were annihilated including Bilgoraj's.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Zolkiewka Return
  2. Elsewhere spelled as Majzels, or Meizels. Return
  3. Also known as Nathan Perlmutter of Shebreshin Return
  4. Radomysl Return
  5. Grandfather of Isaac Bashevis Singer Return
  6. Maciejow, Ukraine Return
  7. Krzeszow Return


HaRav HaGaon, R' Yakov Mordechai zt”l
(Served as Rabbi of Bilgoraj until the First World War)

by HaRav R' Yitzchak HaCohen Hoberman

Translated by Sara Mages

HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik, R' Yakov Mordechai son of R' Yosef and his wife Fradil, was born in the city of Mezhirichi. At that time, HaGaon HaKadosh, R' Eliezer Charlap, may his virtue stand us in good stead, who was accustomed to receiving payment for his blessings, served in the rabbinate of this city. When R' Yakov Mordechai was three years old, he asked his mother to give him a three Grosze coin and went to the aforementioned tzadik rabbi to receive his blessing. The tzadik blessed him and said that he would be a great Torah scholar and God–fearing.

HaRav HaTzadik, R' Yakov Mordechai zt”l, studied in his youth with a melamed [teacher] who was a Kotzker Hassid. After his marriage, this melamed was in Kotzk and the Holy Kotzker Rebbe zt”l asked him to think which of his students were the best, and he gave him all of them. Among them was R' Yakov Mordechai, and he praised him for being a great genius. In this conversation, the melamed told the Kotzker Rebbe zt”l that R' Yakov Mordechai married [the daughter] of a rich man from the city of Michov. The Rebbe sighed and said: it's a pity that he fell into a place that is not a place of Torah.

Sometime later, he came to visit his parents in Mezhirichi, and by chance, the Kotzker Rebbe was there. The Rebbe sent for him, but since he was then a great opponent of the Kotzker way, he did not want to visit the Rebbe.

And when the rabbi told me about it, he sighed and said that to this day he regrets not going to see the Kotzker Rebbe zt”l.

And he also told me that after his wedding, he began to behave in the ways of Hassidut and Torah with fasting and solitude, according to the customs of tzadikim kadmonim[1]. Since then, he found shelter with His Holiness, the Trisker Maggid[2], and when he was in the Beit HaMidrash with a group of yeshiva students, an old man, who he did not know, came and told him that he needed to talk to him about an important matter, and this old man said to him in these words: “If you have neglected the Torah, you shall have many who bring you to neglect it” [Perkei Avot 4/10], and immediately disappeared from his sight. Since then, his father–in–law, who was a very rich man, became impoverished and was no longer able to support him, and for that reason he had to take on the burden of the rabbinate. At first, he was very upset and cried when a question was brought before him, because after every ruling he was afraid that he had made a mistake in a matter of Halacha[3].

On his greatness in the Torah: HaRav HaGaon, R' Shneur Zalman zt”l, Av Beit Din of Kehilat Lublin, said, that in the entire district he had no one to talk to on Divrei Torah except for the Rabbi of Bilgoraj, and the Rabbi of Szczebrzeszyn HaRav HaGaon R' Shmuel Zak zt”l who was later appointed Rabbi of Biala Podlaska. In his childhood, when he studied with the Rabbi of Poritsk [R' Mordechai Mardush], author of “The Innovations of the MaHaRam Schiff,” he wrote sheelot u–teshuvot [responsa] for the HaRav HaGaon, R' Yosef Shaul Nathansohn, which was printed in “Avnei Nezer” [“Stones of the Crown”] with great honor.

On 17 Tamuz 5675, the rabbi fled to Lublin after the second conquest of Bilgoraj by the Austrians. The rabbi, may his virtue stand us in good stead! died along with thousands of other Jews in the cholera epidemic that broke out throughout the area.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Tzadikim kadmonimtzadikim (righteous) from ancient times. Return
  2. The Trisker MaggidHa'Admor Rabbi Avraham Twerski, zt”l Return
  3. Halacha, is the “way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life, encompassing civil, criminal and religious law. Return


[Page 9]

The Last Bilgoraj Rabbi

by Shmuel Feller

Translated by Moses Milstein

The Bilgoraj rabbi, Harav R' Mordechai Rokeach, ztz”l, son of the Belzer rabbi, Harav R' Issachar Dov Rokeach, ztz”l, and a grandson of the old Belzer rabbi, Harav R'Sholem, ztz”l, and also a brother of today's Belzer rabbi, hamavdil bein chaim l'chaim, R' Aaron Rokeach, shlit”a, who is in Israel today, was appointed Bilgoraj rabbi in 1927. He occupied the kisei harabbanut until the devastation in Poland, where he left Bilgoraj for Belz, and from there together with his brother, today's Belz rabbi, shlit”a, wandered from place to place including the Bochnia ghetto near Cracow,

[Page 10]

and from there, after great efforts by Hungarian Jews, headed by the Satmar rebbe, shlit”a, who is now in America, and also from the Sanzer rebbe's son, R' Yishayele the Tzechoiver rabbi, they succeeded in getting to Budapest, and with his brother the present Belzer rabbi, made it to Israel in the year 5704[1]. Unfortunately, after several years there, he died in the year 5710[2] leaving his second wife a widow with a child 2 years of age.[3]

The Bilgoraj rabbi was the son-in-law of the rabbi of Kobryn. After the outbreak of the war, the rebbetzin [his wife] and her child fled to her parents in Kobryn, and perished there with all the other martyrs of Kobryn.

The Bilgoraj rabbi, R' Mordechai Rokeach, ztz”l, was one of the most respected rabbis Bilgoraj had had in modern times. Being a son of the Belz court, he was respected by the Bilgoraj population which was made up of a lot of Belzer Chasidim. A lot of people from the surrounding area also came to Bilgoraj during the holidays. He was beloved by the Bilgoraj people, and they bought him a house near the besmedresh and the shul. There he carried out his rabbinate with dignity and a firm hand.

The Bilgoraj rabbi, as a gaon of Torah, had in him both chsides and Torah. He had a silver tongue, was a good orator, and gathered around him all levels of Bilgoraj society: Chasidim, scholars, tradesmen, and just plain Jews. Everyone heeded him, and always found in him a counselor and a helper in all things, both in community matters and in personal matters.

In his time, many religious institutions were set up, like the three-story tall cheder building which was known throughout the whole region, and a Beit Yakov school.

[Page 11]

They were very well developed, and of a high standard, and were supported by the Vaad headed by the rabbi.

The Bilgoraj rabbi was a community leader, concerned with all the institutions in the city, a mediator between all the various parties, and remained apolitical as rabbi, so that all parties treated him with respect.

As mentioned, the Bilgoraj rav, ztz”l, was a great scholar, and was able to find new interpretations of complicated issues which he wrote about every day. There are a great many of his manuscripts remaining, chidushim on Talmud and Torah.

The Bilgoraj rebbe kept a diary of everything that happened to him every day, including during the war. He continued writing, even while he was wandering homeless, until his death. The diary is in the possession of his widow.

The surviving Bilgorajers mourn all the martyrs, and especially their unforgettable rebbe, who even in Israel headed the Bilgoraj committee, and was the driving force behind it. He concerned himself with all of the surviving Bilgorajers, and was in contact with all the Bilgoraj committees worldwide, and enjoined them to provide help for needy Bilgoraj Jews.

Even the yohrzeit for the Bilgoraj martyrs, 22 Marcheshvan, was established by his reckoning.

He died suddenly after a difficult illness, 25 Marcheshvan, 5710.[4]


Translator's footnotes:

  1. 1944 Return
  2. 1949 Return
  3. Yissachar Dov Rokeach. Raised by his uncle the fourth Belzer rabbi, he became the fifth Belzer rabbi. Return
  4. November 17, 1949 Return


[Page 12]

Bilgoraj

by I. Ch. Kronenberg

Translated by Moses Milstein

The city of Bilgoraj resembled all the other mid-sized cities in Poland–low wooden, one-story houses, mostly with shingled roofs, surrounded by walls. The market was a large square in the center of town, surrounded on all four sides by Jewish houses and stores, the Jewish merchants in their stores waiting for customers.

Years ago, there was a city garden in the center with two pumps on the sides where the people would draw water. The market had not yet been paved, and when it rained the market became one vast mud pile in which people slopped around up to their waists.

The single pharmacy and the two optical dispensers were also found near the market.

In the middle of the market there were three rows of stores arranged like the letter, chet. Most of them sold salt, naphtha, and iron. There were also grain mills there. In front, in R' Shmuel Eliyahu Shwardsharf's house (the house was a gift from the governor, and later he sold half to the municipality) was city hall. Nearby was the most recently built cinema. In the middle of the “chet,” where the garden once was, stood the firemen's tower and its siren. Every Sunday, they would conduct exercises there, and when a fire occurred in the city, this siren did indeed wail the alarm.

Most recently, a row of stores was erected right by Kosciusko Street, and these were called

[Page 13]

the Polish stores, because they were in fact all Christian stores, with the Polish co-op there as well.

Behind the stores, Jewish women market merchants sat at their stalls selling all kinds of good fruits, and the Goraj lezhelkes the kids loved.

A little farther on, the big, strong Jewish porters sat on their wagons, ropes wound around their chests, waiting for a client. They were constantly on the lookout for wagons arriving at Yechezkel Kandel, Lippe Wakshal, and the Leichters, or trucks with goods the Bilgoraj Jews would bring from Warsaw. It was not unusual for them to sit all day with hardly anything to show for it at the end.

On the other side of the market, were the butcher shops, mostly Jewish, other than the few Christian pork butchers.

Right before WWII, they erected a row of stores opposite the butcher shops, which sold pork and beer.

Up until WWI, Bilgoraj belonged to Russia, and a division of Cossacks was quartered there, from whom Bilgoraj Jews profited handsomely.

The main street, Kosciusko, ran through the center of town. Previously it was called the Tarnogrod road, or as the Jews called it, the promenade street, where the city gardens, called the promenade gardens, were also found. It joined Pilsudski Street, previously the Zamosc road, and so it made a straight line, like a backbone the entire length of the city and stretched to the road to Tarnogrod. It had been called “the sands” for years, which signified the outskirts of the city.

All kinds of stories were told about “the sands,”

[Page 14]

bil014a.jpg
The market (Kaminer side and Harman side)

 

bil014b.jpg
Pilsudski Street (Grossman's house)

[Page 14 (sic)]

as if they were at the ends of the world. People were afraid to walk there alone. Cheder kids who lived there would not go to cheder in the evening, or the melamed would accompany them with a lantern. It was also where the Cossacks were quartered.

Later, beautiful, tall houses were built there, the city electravnyeh with its beautiful plaza, where Jewish youth would enjoy themselves until late into the night. It was also the site of the kolejka[1] which took people to the wide-gauge railroad in Zwierzyniec.

* * *

Bilgoraj had a beautiful, calm river, which snaked lazily along the entire length of the city, with green meadows and trees on both banks of the river whose willow branches were used for Hoshana Rabah. The nearby neighbors would wash their dishes after meals, and do their laundry there. There were three good places on the river to bathe: the so-called “cut-off river,” Lasse-Guri, and the “hut river.” There it was very deep, and only good swimmers bathed there. People would enjoy the warm summer days at the river.

The sole two Jewish millers also used the river to power their mills.

And although Bilgoraj had a river, nevertheless divorces were not permitted in Bilgoraj. This was because Tsar Nicolai had the notion to change the name of the river, which ended up being called the Lada. (According to the laws, a divorce can only go ahead in a place by a river with a definite name). And as a result of this, Bilgoraj couples rarely divorced, because on their way to Goraj to get a divorce, they often made up, and returned in harmony.

Bilgoraj had no water management. There were pumps which provided plenty of water,

[Page 15]

but for tea water, people went to Yishaye Nuteh's pump, even in the depths of winter. Every Friday, it was the scene of a big line up and arguments. Erev Pesach, you could see men in satin kapotes, with basins in their hands, getting matzah water. (Mayim shelanu). People would also get tea water at the well near the river. Women believed the well water was a good treatment foe eye problems. Women also used it to wash their hair.

The sport grounds were also near the river. Competitions between Jewish and Christian clubs took place there, as well as games between only Jewish teams. Near the sport grounds was the tennis area.

* * *

The bridge street (Lubelski) was completely Jewish, and even the few Christians who lived there could speak Yiddish just like Jews. All the houses on the street were low wooden houses, with shingled roofs. It was densely populated; families with many children in one small room. Almost all of the poverty in Bilgoraj was found by the bridge. The women did their work sitting on the stoops of their houses.

The side streets of the bridge, the so-called Zabashta, were where only poor working people lived. It was so densely inhabited that it felt like one vast room. Wagons, horses, chickens, goats with long beards, wandered among the children. At any moment, a child whose small piece of bread was snatched by a goat could be heard to cry, quickly followed by the mother wielding her broom. But the goat could defiantly stand his ground, brandishing his horns ready for combat, and the mother would have no choice but to withdraw.

A lot of the sieve workers lived there.

[Page 16]

All the women workers would sit outside and thread the hairs. The high-pitched screams of the children, and the racket from the mothers went on all day. But when night came it became deadly quiet, dark so deep that you couldn't see anyone. Many houses didn't even have electric lights, only the glow from lanterns through fogged up windows lit the darkness.

And when it rained it became a circus. It was simply impossible to walk there. More than one person left their galoshes in the mud there, and barely made it out alive.

In the winter, when the big frosts came, it got busy there. All day long, the peasants brought wood for the Jewish wood merchants at their places near the kolejka station. At night, the children from all over the city would come there with their sleds, and slide down the hill that was the bridge street. When one sled collided with another, and both capsized, you could hear the shouts and laughter carrying far.

More than one carriage driver would become a victim of this. A gang would steal his sled, and in the morning, it would be found broken in pieces.

Erev Pesach, when the women took to whitewashing the rooms, everything was carried out to the street. Old cupboards, wooden beds stood outside. The women kept on pouring naphtha on everything. The bedding was arrayed on the chairs, and beaten with a wooden paddle to get the dust out.

The women, smeared with whitewash, their heads covered with kerchiefs, would polish the windows, wash the floors, hang up the sheets, all requiring great effort, and

[Page 17]

bil017a.jpg
The Bilgoraj river and beach

 

bil017b.jpg
The starostva building (an additional story was added later)

[Page 17 (sic)]

every house would acquire a yomtovdik appearance. It was truly a wonder how a poor Jewish woman could manage to expel the disorder of winter, and bring a little light into the small rooms.

The bridge street was lively on Rosh Hashanah. The whole city went to the river singing to perform Tashlich, and the residents around the bridge used to stand by their houses, dressed in their holiday best, and greeted the crowds with celebration.

* * *

Bilgoraj's forest was renowned throughout the region. It was rich in blueberries, valakhes, mushrooms, and burdock. The forest reached practically to the city and stretched from Janow to Zamosc.

The road into the forest was Pilsudski Street (Zamosc). It was an avenue with trees on both sides. Young people would gather there until late at night. Couples in love would sit there and dream about their happy future. The singing of the young people could be heard in the whole city.

The forest was a place of great enjoyment for Bilgoraj residents. The pleasant dry air of the pine trees, and the chirping of the birds carried to the whole city. Shabbes, the forest was full. Almost the entire town's Jews were there. You could even encounter pious Jews, kerchiefs around their necks, bringing along a small child to carry a religious book (because the forest was outside the tkhum[2]), lying at ease on the soft earth, looking into a religious book, and partaking of a Shabbes nap.

The younger people would take walks through the forest, often going to Wola where there was a big Jewish sawmill, and then come through the Bagner forest where the small mill was which also belonged to Jews.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Narrow gauge railroad Return
  2. The distance (about 2/3 of a mile) observant Jews must not exceed on Shabbes when walking out of town. Return


[Page 18]

The Synagogue Courtyard

by A. Kronenberg

Translated by Moses Milstein

The spiritual center of Yiddishkeit, the shul courtyard, stood at the beginning of the bridge street.

To the left of the entrance was the besmedresh, the most beloved and cherished place for Bilgoraj Jews.

Come evening, Bilgoraj Jews dropped everything and went to the besmedresh to get in a kedushah v'borchu. Many arrived a little early, looked into a religious text, some studying a chapter of Mishnah, or Ein Yakov. On the other side, men stood around R' Pinchas listening to the news and politics as he read from the daily newspaper.

Seated around the tables, young men facing open Talmuds and Gemaras studied with a ringing, sweet Gemara rhythm that carried through the whole besmedresh, until late at night.

Whenever the magid[1], R' Baruch-Tebl, came to town, the shul would fill up with people from all the besmedreshim come to hear him. The audience loved his sermons and parables about the coming of the messiah, who, he demonstrated via various verses of scripture and gematria, was just about on the outskirts of the city.

Between the two tables, R' Mordechai-Yosef stood at his lectern, his face covered by a red kerchief, reading a holy text, making all kinds of gestures, deep in kabbalah. Suddenly, he would raise his heavy cane and start to bang on the lectern shouting, “Gevalt, it's burning.” Until a large crowd gathered. Then he would shout even louder, “Gevalt, it's burning,” Women are walking around with short sleeves. These alarms over the “fires,” he tended to repeat regularly.

[Page 19]

Near the oven, the paupers sat and counted over the day's earnings. Some would be eating dry bread and herring for supper, telling tales from their wanderings through cities and shtetls, and which housewife gave better meals.

By the door, R' Wolf stood with a basket containing: frozen apples, banikers, nont, hot peas and brikev, surrounded by children all shouting at once, “R' Wolf give me, R' Wolf, give me some.”

In the besmedresh house (in Pulish as it was called) was the tailors shul. In truth, they never davened there. But on Simchat Torah they would do the hakofes over there. (Of course, before the little besmedresh was built, they used to daven there, and it became the custom for them to do the hakofes over there).

Over on the right, stood the newly built, five story, city cheder, Zichron Yakov v'Beit Moishe. (Named after the penultimate Bilgoraj rebbe, R' Yakov Mordechai, ztz”l, and the Bilgoraj benefactor in America, R' Moishe Frost, z”l). The cheder was highly esteemed in the whole region. The children sat in nice, comfortable rooms, under the management of a vaad on which the Bilgoraj rebbe, R' Mordechai Rokeach sat, ztz”l, and under the supervision of the menahel, a big scholar.

In order to avoid having to send the children to a government school, which was compulsory, they arranged an agreement with the government to recognize the cheder. Government teachers would come to the cheder and teach the Polish language.

[Page 21 (sic)]

On the top, on the last floor, was the kehila office where the dozors used to conduct their meetings and attended to all the needs of the city.

A little further, on the same side, was the little besmedresh, in front a carved oren kodesh with a velvet curtain, a balemer[2], ringed by pews below, a gift from the great Bilgoraj philanthropist and community activist, R' Shmuel Eliyahu Shwerdsharf, z”l. He even bequeathed several stores in the market as charitable endowments so that the revenue could support the besmedresh. Almost all the tradesmen in the city davened there including: tailors, shoemakers, sieve workers, blacksmiths, millers, carriage drivers, butchers, and just plain Jews.

Every evening, after a hard workday, the tradesmen would hurry to finish their work a little early in order to get to the besmedresh and get in a few chapters of psalms before Minche-Maariv.

Friday night, after supper, the whole crowd would get together in the little besmedresh to study Chumash with Rashi with R' Hersheleh Melamed who explained things with very nice examples that gave them much pleasure. They would study until late into the night, and more than a few, tired after a week of hard work, would fall asleep. Afterwards, everyone went home happy.

Opposite the little besmedresh, on a little hill, the city shul stood with its beautiful four-cornered tall building. While the shul was being built, R' Shmuel Eliyahu Shwerdsharf, who had received a diamond ring from Kaiser Nicolai, brought over the governor of Lublin to lay the first stone with a silver trowel.

The entrance to the shul was through two, wide,

[Page 22]

doors with colored panes, an inscription in golden letters, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkinotecha, Israel.” Near the door, in a hollow in the wall, was the Kupat Rambam where the Bilgoraj Jews would deposit coins for Eretz Israel. There were large, round, windows with stained glass and a Star of David in the middle on all sides of the shul. On the eastern wall, from floor to ceiling was the beautiful, carved, oren kodesh with various animals and inscriptions, and a Leviathan with its tail in its mouth. Children worried that the tail might slip out of its mouth and devastate the world. Older Jews would lick their lips imagining a piece of it. Above, the tablets were inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and a Torah crown. The ark was covered by a beautiful plush curtain donated by various tradesmen.

The walls were covered with paintings from the Tanach from the old days. On the high round ceiling the 12 signs of the zodiac were painted. In the middle, with stairs leading up to it, was the Torah reading area, and Eliyahu's chair which was sometimes used for a bris.

The ner tamid made of several pieces of stained glass, hung at the entrance of the shul, and the women's shul occupied two sides.

Erev Yom Kippur, the whole city gathered at the rebbe's house near the shul yard, Jews in their socks, wearing taliss and kitl[3], women carrying machzors and tkhines, their heads covered by white, silk shawls, wishing each other ketivah v' chatima tovah, and the sobbing that could be heard throughout the whole city.

When the rebbe, dressed in white, his head covered by his taliss, left the beis din house, which was packed full with people, all those gathered there flocked after him.

[Page 23]

The rabbi entered with quick steps and right at the threshold, he began, “Or zaruah latzadik, uleyishrei lev simcha.”[4]

The shul was full to overflowing with people praying. The dancing flames of the candles reached to the ceiling along with the prayers, and the congregation stood in fear and davened.

Many Christians came to shul for kol nidrei, and listened to the prayers with great respect.

The shul was festive on Simchat Torah. Almost the whole city, men and women, came to shul to see the rebbe perform the hakofes, and dancing went on until late at night.

When there was a wedding in the city, the shul became the scene for celebration. The in-laws would dance with candles in their hands, accompanying the bride and groom to the chupah right in front of the shul doors.

The shul cost a lot of money to build, and was the jewel of the city. It was renowned in the whole region.

Hard by the wall of the shul was the site of the first Bilgoraj cemetery. Understandably, it was then on the outskirts of the city. Two gravestones remained, but they are illegible. The cemetery was overgrown with grass and goats grazed there. On the side, stood a single tree looking exactly as if it had been left there to stand guard. Children used to say that once, when a branch was broken, a voice was heard–don't tear out my beard–a sign that a great tzadik had been buried there.

Further down the shul courtyard were the bathhouse and the mikvah. It was the only bathhouse in the city

[Page 24]

and belonged to the Jewish community. A bath-goy was always employed there. He would turn the wheel when water was needed, and guard the Yom Kippur lights in the besmedreshim, and sell the chametz Erev Pesach.

Erev Yom Kippur, the bathhouse was full. After soaking in the mikvah, people hurried off, stopping at all the tzedakah pushkes arrayed in the shul yard, putting something in each, and then entering with great zeal, the besmedreshim.

Erev Pesach, the bath was thronged. Children came with baskets full of new utensils to dunk in the mikvah, or to kosher older items in the bathhouse oven.

Just before the last world war, a slaughterhouse for poultry was built in the shul yard, concentrating all the religious activities in one place.

* * *

The second cemetery, which was near Eliezer Mitzner, was once surrounded by a wooden fence. When the fence collapsed, the city wanted to expropriate a piece of the cemetery in order to straighten the road. The Jews were not in favor of this, and there began a series of legal trials between city hall and the community. Not having any choice, the entire Jewish community turned out one night, and overnight, rebuilt the wall with red brick. It became an established fact, and remained so. In the cemetery there were wooden and stone gravestones, completely overgrown with moss, over 200 years old.

The latest cemetery was on “the sands,” far away from town, surrounded by a stone wall,

[Page 25]

and full of tall trees with black crows' nests. The crows would open their mouths and shriek and their calls echoed far and wide. There were always people in the cemetery whether for a yorzeit, or, in a time of trouble, praying for a sick person. People used to end up at the oyhel[5] which was full of kvitlach, light a candle, weep bitter tears, sneak out furtively, pick something up from the ground then throw it back, wash their hands and leave with a lighter heart.

The cemetery guard was a Christian who lived by the entrance. Every Friday he would go around the city collecting challahs which he was given with due respect.

* * *

Up until WWI, Bilgoraj was isolated from the rest of the world around it. There was no train. The only communication was via coach (closed carriages) pulled by three or four horses. They drove along unpaved roads until Rejowiec, and from there on by train. A trip like this to Warsaw could take three or more weeks. It was not unusual for a horse to give out in the middle of the journey, and another have to be found, and this at the expense of the travellers. A trip like this was also dangerous, because there were frequent attacks by bandits on travellers. People would return from such trips bentching goyml[6]. For that reason all the besmedreshes had panels hanging with the goyml blessings displayed.

Even the mail was delivered by wagons guarded by soldiers. Arriving in the city, they would sound the trumpet

[Page 26]

informing everyone that the mail had arrived, later to be delivered by letter carriers.

In WWI when Bilgoraj was occupied by the Austrians, a small gauge railway was built to connect to Zwierzyniec and from there to Rejowiec.

As a result, Bilgoraj developed a broader connection with the surrounding world. The whole transport lumber business went by this small train. Up to the outbreak of WWII, Bilgoraj had an extensive network of bus connections to the surrounding cities and shtetls.

Until recently, information was communicated through town criers banging on a drum. Kasibucki went around banging his big drum until a large crowd gathered. Then he put on his glasses, read out the news from a paper, adding his own comments that the crowd very much enjoyed.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Itinerant preacher Return
  2. Reading desk from which the Torah is read Return
  3. long white linen coat worn on holidays Return
  4. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart Return
  5. Monument over the gravestone of important figure Return
  6. Blessing said in the synagogue after escaping great danger Return

 

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