by Sh. Y. Shper
Translated by Moses Milstein
The Bilgoraj region contained enormous areas of forest that went from Krzeszow to Janow. There was Krasnik, which belonged to Count Zamoyski, and many stateowned forests. Many forests also belonged to peasants who had been given them by servitude. (The czar, Alexander II, who was very liberal, abolished the panszczyzna where the peasants were obligated to work for the noblemen. The czar issued a ukas whereby every peasant would receive 24 acres of land, and a portion of forest. This was called servitude.) In 1918, after the establishment of the Polish government, parts of the forestlands were distributed to the peasants. This led to the formation of a significant lumber business in Bilgoraj.
The lumber business had been in existence for many years, and was exclusively in Jewish hands. At the top, there were large Jewish firms such as: Harman, Honigboim, Shper, Arbesfeld, and Hirschenhorn.
One of the first lumber merchants was R' Shmuel Eliyahu Shwerdsharf, zl, who used to sell lumber to Danzig. He also had properties of his own, and many woodlots near Frampol which he sold in his later years to Endleman of Warsaw, and finally, they were sold again to Falik Fabricant.
Back then, there was no train service in Bilgoraj, and all the lumber was transported by water.
In summer, the lumber was hauled by wagons, and in winter by sleighs, to the village of Harasiuki by the river Tanew. (It led to a larger river). The wood was transferred to the river and floated to the river San until Ulanow via Krzeszow. There the lumber was collected, and rafts were made on which people sat and guided them to the Vistula, and with the Vistula to Danzig. The journey took a long time, and was beset with various dangers.
Later, before World War I, in 1901, the German company, Franka, came to Bilgoraj and bought large sections of forest from Count Zamoyski. (According to Russian law, a German company could not be involved. So all the business was carried out in the name of R' Itzi Flamenboim, who was employed by the company). They hired many people, among them Jews like Yechezkel Arbesfeld who was called Yechezkel the German's. He later became a big lumber merchant himself.
In those days, a terrible thing occurred. In 1913, before Pesach, Moishe Edelshtein, an employee of Franka, tried to cross the river which was in flood. The bridge in Osuchy was covered in water, and he fell into the river and drowned. His body could not be found. His parents sought out rabbis who proposed the following remedy: They were to get a loaf of bread, place a lit candle in it, and put it in a skiff, and launch it in the river.
Where the skiff stops, the drowned man will be found. After lengthy searches he was found.
At the outbreak of World War I, the Franka company was liquidated. All the German employees returned to Germany. It was later rumored that the company had been established for espionage purposes.
After World War I, the lumber business came back to life. Rich Jewish merchants bought up large tracts of forest from the state and from Count Zamoyski. They produced various kinds of building materials and railroad ties. The peasants from the surrounding villages were employed, some as carpenters, some as foremen in the transportation of the lumber.
After working with the wood, the merchants sold it to large firms, or to the state for railroad ties. A lot of wood was also exported outside the country.
There were a lot of smallscale merchants who used to buy a few trees from a peasant's servitude, turn them lumber products, and sell them to the bigger merchants in town.
The frosts of winter were a time of great activity in the lumber business. Only sleighs could get to the trees. They prepared the wood, and then brought it out from the forests to the Jewish merchants who had places at the Rapa station.
From there, the wood was loaded onto wagons
and carried to the train at Zwierzyniec. The porters (grustchikes) who loaded the wood on the trains were also Jews.
There were also merchants who had wood sawed at the two Jewish sawmills. One was Sharf's steam mill, and the other, Grinapple, in der kleiner volyeh.
A tragic event took place in Bilgoraj that upset the entire community. A small merchant, Fuchs, had purchased a few trees from some peasants. When the time came for them to bring the wood to him, they failed to appear. So he went off to see them and demand either the wood, or his money back. The peasants, wishing to rid themselves of this problem, lured him into the woods, ostensibly to show him other trees for sale, and killed him there. When he failed to return, the police were summoned, and an investigation was begun. Then the antisemitic city notary butted in, and stated that the Jews were instigating a libel against the peasants, and that he himself had seen Fuchs in Warsaw. The murderer was later captured, and the peasants who confessed were sentenced severely.
by M. Tayer
Translated by Moses Milstein
The exact date when the netting business developed in Bilgoraj is not known, but Bilgoraj is recorded as the city of netting in the oldest historical records of the city.
In this, Bilgoraj distinguished itself from other cities. It was the only city with this reputation, not just in Poland, but also in Europe.
Until the First World War, the industry was based entirely on hairnets, and the only market was in Czarist Russia.
With the outbreak of World War I, and later, with the establishment of the government of Poland, the Russian market was cut off. It was widely believed that this would mean the end of the business.
People who had supported themselves in this industry quickly began to look for other employment. But this situation did not last long. The dynamism of the netting workers did not permit resignation. The expertise of generations could not be allowed to die.
After the end of World War I, the pioneers of this industry applied their whole energy and boldness to innovations in the trade. They acquired new markets, developed new networks, many times larger, broader and more diversified.
The industry grew in two different directions: One division organized and developed the internal Polish market. Taking part were: Michal Tayer, zl, (died in Russia), Abraham Harman (in Israel today), the Shier family, zl, (perished in Bilgoraj), and others.
They didn't restrict themselves to just hairnets. They organized and developed a very diversified wireware business, on a large scale, that overshadowed the earlier netting production. They produced wireware of many different sorts and designs from screens to fences, and to building materials, and to the finest weaves, as well as various filters from copper wire, as well as hairnets.
This production enabled Bilgoraj to become the biggest player in the Polish market. Hundreds of Jews and Christians from the area were employed.
A second, quite separate, part was involved in developing the export market for hairnets. These were: Arish Zilberberg, zl, (died in Bilgoraj), Moishe Weissman, zl, (died in Lemberg), and Zev Tuchman (in Israel today). They developed a big business in exporting hairnets to Europe and elsewhere.
With every year, they acquired new markets in different countries.
Several hundred families, exclusively Jewish, were employed by, and drew their livelihood
from, the production of nets for export.
In 1930, a new branch was developed, a spinoff from the netting line of activity. This was the use of horsehair bristles, so called wlosienka. The organizers of this branch were Avigdor Levinkop, and Moishe Tayer (both in Israel). This branch innovated and grew, finding markets all over Poland. The Bilgoraj wlosienka was renowned in the Polish market for its quality.
Hundreds of people, Jews and Christians, were employed in this activity as it grew every year.
A separate branch consisted of dozens of families involved in collecting the raw material (horsehair). Employed in this were the Schnitzer brothers, zl, the Korn family, zl, the Shper brothers, zl, and others (all perished). They used to travel to the bigger cities to procure the hair, clean it, and prepare it for weaving.
There was also a group that was occupied in making violin bows. (Smitskes). Involved in this were Berish Feder (in America today), and Eliyahu Dorfman (died in Russia). The products were used in Polish markets, or exported.
The mesh/netting concept in Bilgoraj represented a major creative activity, a broad, diversified
important undertaking, which benefited the city and the milieu.
The brutal eruption of the German volcano whose fiery lava brought death and destruction to Europe, along with the total annihilation of European Jewry, also eradicated this beautifully developed tree and its branches, and tore it out by its roots.
by A. Kronenberg
Translated by Moses Milstein
In 1906, the large print shop owned by R' Nuteh Kronenberg in Piotrkow was moved to Bilgoraj.
Before WW I, Bilgoraj was under Russian administration, and the print shop used to print books for rabbis in all of Tsarist Russia. All kinds of books: machzors, chumashes, and religious books, as well as secular books. The print shop employed several scores of workers.
With the outbreak of WW I, and the occupation by Austria, all life came to a standstill, including the big Jewish printing business. But this situation did not last long.
Things began to normalize, and the print shop quickly established contact with the large Jewish publishing houses like: Yosef Schlesinger in Vienna; Simche Freund in Przemysl who had begun to work with religious books such as siddurs, chumashes, selichos, kinos, and others. The print shop began to operate on all cylinders, employed many workers, and grew from year to year.
Because of its printing business, Bilgoraj became known worldwide. If someone said to a stranger that they were from Bilgoraj, they would immediately respond, Ah, the big Jewish printers.
There was virtually no place in Europe or America where the print shop did not have contacts with publishers or with rabbis.
After the establishment of Poland, the print shop came into contact with the big Shtibl publishing house in Berlin that had opened a division in Warsaw. The publisher printed hundreds of translations of the best books, as well as the originalsall in Hebrew. They went so far as to send a proofreader to Bilgoraj in order to avoid any delays with the mail.
The print shop had relationships with all the Jewish booksellers in the country and abroad, such as: Central Kletzkin, Gitlin, Cohen and Freid, Munkatch, and others. A large part of Sh. L. Gordon's Tanach was printed in Bilgoraj.
Rabbis from the whole world had their books printed
in Bilgoraj: HaRav Babad, Tarnopol; HaRav Ferlav, Belchow; HaRav Horowitz, Stanislaw; HaRav Michelson, Warsaw; HaRav Levine, Ruszow; HaRav Eiges, Vilna; HaRav Gutman, Romania (in Israel today); HaRav Met, London; HaRav Kalenberg, Metz; HaRav Resnick, Rochester, N.Y.; HaRav Emile, Antwerp (died in Israel); HaRav Dr. Klein, Nuremberg; (when Hitler came to power, he came to Bilgoraj, today in Israel); HaRav Leiter, Vienna; and others.
In 1923, on a market Thursday, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, paid a special visit to Bilgoraj to print his book Mishnah Berurah. Friday morning, he asked R' Nuteh Kronenberg, zl, to find him a minyan for Shabbes so he could daven early as was his custom. But with one stipulationthat he not reveal that he, the Chafetz Chaim, was here in Bilgoraj.
Being such a humble person, he did not want any special recognition. But the news spread lightening fast through the city. Friday evening, and Shabbes, the whole town turned out for the davening, and the Shabbes feasting.
Saturday night people streamed in with kvitlech, but he refused them all saying he was just an ordinary Jew like any other.
In the middle of the night, he was heard calling R' Hillel (his soninlaw who accompanied him) and discussing learning.
His departure was accompanied by everyone in the whole city, pious or freethinking. They carried him to the kolejka in their arms. Going through the Christian streets he was greeted with respectful looks.
Bilgoraj had the honor of hosting the big gaon of the last generation.
Later the print shop published itself under the name Main, and issued dozens of religious books, including the wellknown siddur, Beit HaOtsar, put together by the owner, R' Nuteh Kronenberg, zl. The company bought the rights to the book, HaElef Lecha Shlomo, from R' Shlomo Kluger, zl, which was printed in the thousands. The company carried on extensive work and commerce with its own books throughout the world.
The print shop and the book business became very developed and grew steadily. It employed agents who travelled all across Poland selling its books. It became a member of the chamber of commerce in Lublin,
for engaging in foreign trade that the Polish government was then strongly supporting. The government gave large incentives for companies that brought in foreign currency.
The first work, under the name of Salamandra, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was a grandson of the old Bilgoraj rebbe, and who lived in Bilgoraj for a lengthy period, was also printed in the large Jewish print shop of R' Nuteh Kronenberg, zl.
At the outbreak of WW II, some of the type and machinery were buried in the print shop yard, and remained there, undisturbed by anybody. What was not buried, including all the typefaces, worth tens of thousands of zlotys, was destroyed by the German murderers.
After the war, and the establishment of a new Polish government, a Jewish official, T. I., who had worked in the print shop, went back to Bilgoraj, dug everything up, brought it to Warsaw, and it became the first kernel of a new Jewish newspaper in Poland, Dos Nayeh Lebn.
And so, R' Nuteh Kronenberg and his great work, the Jewish printing industry, which was renowned world wide, and the Jewish community of Bilgoraj, came to an end.
In more recent times, the brothers, Shlomo and Israel Weinberg opened a print shop that also developed ties with the wider world.
In 1913, the Malkiner rebbe, who was printing his book, Oz B'yad, came to Bilgoraj. As he descended from the carriage which had brought him from Rejowiec, and just as he was coming into the print shop, the headquartermaster, Meyerbrodi, showed up. He was there to arrest the rebbe. (Because there was already an atmosphere of war. They were looking for spies). They quickly ran to get Sholem Yosel's (Hoichman), who was the petition writer for all government affairs. Mayerbrodi searched the rebbe, and found many manuscripts, a printed Western Wall (mizrech), receipts for money collected for Kupat Rambam, and a letter from his brother in America. When Mayerbrodi asked him who the letter was from, the rebbe, not knowing any Russian said, My brother. The quartermaster interrupted, How does he know my name is Mayerbrodi? (To him, mein bruder sounded like Mayerbrodi), and he concluded that he was a spy, and the Western Wall print was a map.
With large protektsieh he was released. They confiscated all his spy documents like the mizrech, receipts for Kupat Rambam, his brother's letter, and his books. They sent everything away to Lublin to the censor. A while later, the rebbe received all his documents back, and the police apologized.
Out of the blue, the print shop received a letter from a Dr. B in Lemberg asking us to undertake several large projects for him. We took the dawn train, went to Lemberg, and arrived at the address given. At the residence, a Jew with a long beard and curly payes answered the door and asked us in.
Soon Dr. B came in and proposed a large quantity of work, on the condition that each work had to be ready at a predetermined time or the print shop would have to pay a given penalty.
The manuscript soon arrived, and when the work was begun it became clear that this was missionary literature. R'Nuteh Kroeneberg took the manuscript to the rebbe, and it was decided not to publish the book.
When the predetermined time period passed without the book having been printed, a letter promptly arrived from a lawyer demanding the penalty money stipulated in the agreement.
R' Nuteh Kronenebrg, as a religious Jew, resisted the temptation and chose to pay the penalty rather than to print the missionary material.
by A. Kronenberg
Translated by Moses Milstein
Thursday. Though still dark out, the farmers from the nearby villages are already arriving at the market, their wagons filled with all sorts of things. Some come to buy, and some to sell.
A farmer dragging a cow or a pig on a rope walks slowly along. Behind him, his wife carries a pack on her back with things to sell in the citychickens, eggs, butter, flax. She wears a bottle on a string to bring back things for the home, naphtha, salt, and other trifles.
The traffic was so great that the streets simply couldn't handle it. The market was so packed with carriages and people that, to the onlooker, everything blended into one black mass.
Jews came from neighboring citiessecondhand clothes tailors, hat makers, shoemakers, haberdashersbecause the market was a significant source of business for the Jews. Everyone set up his stall in the places he had rented from the city. More than once, arguments broke out about someone's stall encroaching on another's spot.
Later, when there was no more room in the market, the farmers would set up in the streets around the market.
Jewish horse merchants would try out the horses on the street near the apothecary.
In negotiating a price they would slap each other's hands. With each slap, one went up and one went down. The slapping went on and on until they reached a deal.
The butchers also walked around among the farmers buying cattle to provide meat for Bilgoraj. (In most recent times, the city council moved the horse and cattle market near the mountain).
The noise in the market was
so great that you couldn't hear yourself speak.
The cries of the geese, chickens, ducks and turkeys were deafening. The women went from one farmer to the other looking for bargains, something for Shabbes, and for the rest of the week. Women farmers stood along the sides of the streets with fresh tubs of butter calling for buyers.
Market days were the hardest for the womencarrying a basket of apples, or pears, a fat goose, several chickens, a sack of potatoes. Not to mention erev yom tov, when they simply collapsed after a whole day of shlepping the stuff around.
The Jewish shops were full of farmers, men and women, who bought all kinds of things: boots, suits, dresses, kerchiefs, hats, and scarves for the children.
Every so often a clang echoed through the air as a farmer tested a strongbox at the Jewish iron monger's, or when a bar of iron was cut to fix a wagon.
In the evening, after they had sold their products, or horses or cows, they visited the Jewish taverns like those of Yankel Sender, Yechiel Gershon, Fishl Kalmenovitch, and got down to drinking. The noise and the smell of the beer which drifted out the open windows was enough to make passersby drunk.
Often, when the farmers got drunk, they got robbed of all their goods, and after they sobered up, they looked around and realized they had neither the cow nor the money.
And every Thursday we would hear the shouts of the drunk farmers going home until late into the night.
The wheat business supported quite a few families in Bilgoraj. The whole business was in Jewish hands. There were big Jewish wheat merchants: Hershele Sheinwald, Shabach Wermut and others who dealt with wagonloads of wheat. They would buy it from the gentry and mill it in the two Jewish mills. They would sell the flour in the stores, or elsewhere in the province.
There were also smallscale merchants who bought wheat from the farmers at the markets in the nearby towns, and sold it to the bigger merchants.
Bilgoraj was surrounded by fields and so a big egg business developed in Bilgoraj. There were big egg merchants like Stoll, Kleinmintz and others who used to export wagonloads of eggs throughout the whole country, and abroad. There were also small merchants who bought eggs at the markets and sold them to bigger dealers.
The merchants, Stoll and Leiter, who dealt in hemp, flax, and linen, would buy the merchandise from the farmers mostly at the markets, and a lot also from Jews who traded in the villages. It was later sorted and packed into bales and exported to the rest of the country and abroad.
The big stores, like Wagschall and Leichter's, served the whole city and the province, and were always full of customers. You had to wait for hours until you got your turn.
Third of May Street was always full of carriages coming to buy from the wholesalers Kandl and Schlafrack: flour, naphtha, herring and salt.
The larger wholesale stores, I. Gerstenblit, (iron), H. Leichter, Hirschman, Groisman and others (manufacture), who used to provide goods for Bilgoraj were always full of customers.
All the stores in Bilgoraj were in Jewish handsmanufacture, iron, sewing goods, grocery, food, radio (Lang, Teneholz), bicycles (Feder), guesthouses, (G. Grosman, Furer).
There were two soda water factories in Bilgoraj. Sholom Rofer (he was also the only seller of hides), and the Boims. They provided a cold drink on hot summer days. It was also the only place where you could get some ice for a sick person.
The only candy factory in Bilgoraj, on a small scalewhere kids used to come to lick the syrup in the jarswas owned by ItzikLeib Olive.
The three mills in Bilgoraj were all Jewish owned. The big water mill that used to belong to Shmuel Worman, was later bought by Hershele Sheinwald. He used to mill wheat for all the merchants and was a big flour merchant himself. Other grains were also milled.
The mill was known in the whole region for the quality of its flour.
The steam mill and its sawmill, which belonged to the Sharfs, used to mill flour for the flour merchants, and also for the farmers in the surrounding area.
The sawmill was always busy sawing wood for the wood merchants and the nearby farmers.
The little mill, which had previously belonged to the Sharfs before they constructed the steam mill, was bought by the widow Silberfein. It was mostly used by the farmers.
The big Jewish sawmill in der kleiner volyeh owned by Grinapple, who was a big lumber merchant himself, used to cut boards for others and for farmers.
The two oil factories in Bilgoraj,
Y. Grinapple, Shulman, produced various oils, and were Jewish owned.
There were a few handoperated kasha mills, also Jewish.
The one brick factory that supplied Bilgoraj with bricks was owned by Yotze Weintraub.
The only lottery ticket sellers, Gergstein, Y. Leichter, and Kalikstein were Jewish. Three Bilgoraj Jews did actually win big.
The fish business was in Jewish hands, The fish merchants would buy fish from the wealthy farmer, Czwikla, who had his own ponds near the brick works. On a hot summer Shabbes, Bilgoraj Jews would come to the ponds to enjoy themselves.
Early Friday morning, the fish sellers were already set up with their fish. Fish sellers from nearby towns also came to the market. The shoutsLadies, wonderful fish for shabbesused to carry over the whole market.
Friday, while still dark, you could hear the voice of AbrahamItshe the butcher, and the clatter of his wheels on the stone bridge echoing through
the empty market, bringing meat for all the butchers.
The butchers, with their broad stately beards, stood by the chopping blocks, and sliced pieces from the hanging meat. The shouts of the butchersLadies, cheap ladies, a zloty a kilo ladies, kapitalseemed to work, and the women came and bought.
While it was still dark outside, the Bilgoraj dorf geyers would head out, a sack on their back, and a stick in their hand to ward off the dogs. Each had his villages, and familiar relationships with the farmers from whom he regularly purchased things. It was not unusual for them to trudge around all day, and have little to show for it coming home in the evening.
When the grey dawn had relieved the darkness that had enveloped the city, the clang of tin cans was heard all over the city. The milkmen were on their way to the villages for the milking. A door would open, a sleepy face would peer out, look around, and empty a basin, and cover half the street with it.
Coming back with the milk they pass men in taliss and tefillin on their way to daven. They greet them with a hearty good morning.
The milkmen bring the milk to the houses. In every house they stop and chat about what the farmers are saying, and to brag that their milk is the most kosher.
The milkmen provided Bilgoraj with kosher milk, never being late for a milking.
Saturday night, after Havdalah, the agents are already at work making lists, orders for what the Bilgoraj merchants might need. Agents like Feivish Weissman, Pintche Farshtendig, Leibl Feifer, Yokl Bekelman, Mendl Shatz, Ch. G. Eilboim, and Berl Bergerfreund. Every minute the door opens, and a storekeeper comes in and says, What luck that I just remembered, or I would have been without ribbons, and here, the choges (Christian holidays) are almost upon us.
Sunday evening the agents ran laden with packs to the bus, which went to the train at Zwierzyniec.
They came back from Warsaw saddled with heaps of packs, aside from what was sent by trucks that travelled to Warsaw.
Later, they would distribute the goods. If things were going well, they made two trips a week.
The last one to leave was always Pintche. He would get on the train when it was already moving, always having forgotten something back at the inn.
by A. Karmi
Translated by Moses Milstein
The Jewish tradesmen in Bilgoraj were exceptional people. They were hardworking Jews, almost all with long, stately beards, and round caps like in Congress Poland.
Despite their hard workdays, they almost never failed to daven shachris, minche, and maariv with a minyan in the small besmedresh. After minchemaariv, they used to stroll in groups along the Zamosc road, or sit in the municipal garden and discuss politics.
Every Friday evening, they would gather in the small besmedresh to study a parsheh chumash with Rashi with Hershele Melamed. They were also regular patrons of the city cinema, and the Jewish theater.
There was no institution in the city which they did not support with all their might.
Bilgoraj was a city that possessed many artisans. They were compassionate people. If someone were in need of help, they would drop their work, and go get the help needed.
They were well organized. Even before there were banks in Bilgoraj, they had their own gemiles chesed bank that gave small loans to their members without interest. In cases of long overdue installments, it was not unusual for a worker's machines to be seized for failure to pay.
In those cases, the artisan society would intervene, usually with success.
The artisan society had a representative at the skarb (state office for taxes) when they met each year to assess the taxes. He fought courageously for them, and did not permit any abuses to befall the Bilgoraj Jews.
The Bilgoraj artisans were not rich.
They earned their living with great difficulty, yet Shabbes, when the besmedresh was full of orchim, no poor man was left hungry. There was always somebody who would take a poor man home, and share his meager meal with him.
The Bilgoraj craftsmen were models for the entire region. There was not a trade that Jews did not dominate.
There were Jewish smiths, locksmiths, bricklayers, shoemakers, tailors, hat makers, carpenters, painters, upholsterers, glaziers, bookbinders, radio technicians, electrical technicians, pig bristle handlers, tinsmiths, watchmakers, photographers, rope makers, sausage makers, roofers, print workers, even a Jewish chimney sweep.
There were several Jewish barbershops, as well as one Christian one run by a feldsher.
The bakery trade in Bilgoraj was exclusively in Jewish hands, except for one Christian one, and latterly, the bakery at the spuldzielna.
The only millinery was owned by a Jewish woman, Lolyeh Hodes.
All the carriage drivers, porters and watercarriers were Jewish.
The first ones to establish bus communication to the train in Zwierzyniec, as well as motor vehicles to carry merchandise to Warsaw, were Jewish.
A special place was held in Bilgoraj for the klezmorim who originated from the Gimpels, and were renowned in the whole area.
There was not one Jewish or Christian celebration that the klezmorim did not play at. Even at the Christian carnivals.
When AbrahamYekl and his band played at a wedding during the badekn di kaleh, and the badchan began to celebrate the bride in song, the moving tones of his violin touched everyone's soul and moved them to tears.
And when he broke out in a frelech to the chupah, the whole crowd, willing or not, had to dance.
In recent times, as the air in all Poland was poisoned by antisemitism, the Bilgoraj klezmorim were affected too. They were boycotted by the Christians who brought in their own musicians from Zamosc, or hired the firemen's band.
The only commercial printing facility that Bilgoraj possessed was Jewish and was owned by Y. Kaminer,
It did work for the whole county and all of its municipalities.
The entire city was surrounded by turnpikes, (they were used by the Jews as an eruv), and the toll collections (the tax for bringing merchandise into the city) were leased out by the city. It was almost always leased by Yosl Wolf Gedalyahu's and Gedalyahu Fech.
Bilgoraj had no reason to feel ashamed of its intellectual trades. There were Jewish lawyers, (Brenner, Kaminer), doctors (Rudorfer, Potoker), dentists, (Kaminer A, Nelkin), engineer, (Dr. Reich), feldsher, (Judashko, and earlier, Sh. Entenberg), obstetricians, (Entenberg). There were also a few midwives, grandmothersZiseleh Bramberg and MiriamRuchlwho used to assist the obstetrician, and even sometimes delivered the baby by themselves.
The clerkswho the Polish government forced to pass an examwere all Jewish: Rubinstein, Akerman, Kantor, and Berman.
Up until World War I, Bilgoraj had its own Jewish landowner, Falik Fabricant, whose palace was near Sheinwald's mill. He would always come into town in his coach pulled by white horses and made various charitable donations. With the outbreak of the war, it was all destroyed.
by Y. Ch. Kronenberg
Translated by Moses Milstein
Life in Bilgoraj, like in all shtetlech, flowed along placidly. Everything was so homey, close, as if the whole city was one big family. If someone celebrated a simcha, the whole city rejoiced, and if, God forbid, a tragedy befell someone, then everyone grieved along with him. The middle class was endowed with a special folksy charm.
How alive everything still seems to me: Here, Thursday, market day, the big marketplace is filled with farmers' wagons, loaded with all kinds of goods. Jews, smallscale merchants, walk among the wagons, inspect the country merchandise, stop and haggle with the farmers, male or female, over the price of a bundle of flax, eggs, butter, mushrooms, etc. Everyone is preoccupied with his business, as if nothing in the world existed but the farmers and their produce.
But then suddenly, a cry is heardthe bride is being taken to the chupah! The small buyer abandons the farmer and his wagons, and runs to celebrate with the machetonim who are leading their children to the chupah.
The carriage drivers who waited at the market and carried the merchandise to Zamosc and back were an unassuming bunch, always cheerful, joking and carefree.
If a driver from a small shtetl fell into their hands, they would give him a hard time about his driving skills.
This was Bilgoraj life in 1914. That year, you could smell the scent of gunpowder in the air. Bilgoraj was not far from the Austrian border. Officers and soldiers appeared and could be seen in the forests, on the roads. They were making measurements and drawings.
A constant flow of news circulated around the oven in the besmedresh. Everything going on in the world was known there. Before the newspaper had even arrived from Warsaw (the third day after publication), they had begun to talk of war. They debated world politics, and argued about whether there would be a war or not. There were those who were calmer and arguedfoolish people, just a year ago there was talk of war. They had even held onto those who had completed their service. Yet you see, nothing happened and the soldiers who had done their term went home. Don't speak nonsense. Don't utter the word, war, people said, and spat, just as if they were talking about an illness whose mention alone could be harmful.
And then the shot in Sarajevo echoed around the world, and war became a fact. Along with all the other misfortunes that the war brought, were the loss of the brotherliness and the gentility of the common person in Bilgoraj.
This happened only a few days after the crown prince and his wife were killed by two Serbian patriots in Sarajevo.
Thursday evening, 7th of Av, 5674, after market day had ended, Starniewski, the town crier, accompanied by several policemen, announced that a general mobilization had been declared and that all men under 40 years of age who had served in the army were required to go to the army mustering area in Zamosc on the following day, Friday, and Saturday.
Heart rending scenes took place during the farewells, as fathers were separated from their wives and children not knowing if they would see them ever again.
Sunday was Tisha B'Av. People gathered in the besmedreshes reciting kines with broken hearts. Suddenly the city rebbe, R' Yakov Mordechai, burst into the Rudniker shtibl and shouted, Yidden, why are you sitting here reciting kines when there are so many families with poor women and children whose breadwinner was taken away. Jewish hearts opened and everyone contributed beyond what he could afford.
And even then, there were those who insisted there would be no war. It was just each country trying to scare the others. But that situation did not last long, and the worldwide slaughter became a reality.
Concerned about drunkenness, the Russian government ordered
the destruction of all the government alcohol monopolies. They dug a hole, threw all the bottles of alcohol in and smashed them. The alcohol filled the hole, and when it flooded over the sides, people filled pitchers with it, and sold it later.
With the outbreak of war, the border guards (Objeszcikes) were replaced by mounted patrols from the regular army that rode along the border, and had frequent encounters with the Austrian patrols. More than once, the Jewish population of Bilgoraj was scared to death by a drunken soldier. Once, when a crowd had gathered in the Rudniker shtibl for MincheMaariv, a drunk did, in fact bust in, and the crowd stampeded out. Sholom Hochman (Sholom Yosel's) stayed behind with the drunk, and calmed him down until he left.
After the mobilization was announced, the police organized civilians to guard the telegraph poles. Later, they set up watchmen for each street who patrolled every night, because they feared not only spies who could set fires in order to spread panic among the population, but also ordinary thieves who, because of the fires could create a panic in order to carry out their robberies.
Once, some crooks, thinking that everything was in chaos, broke into Mordechai Maimon's and demanded money. The Poles were quickly arrested, and the police maintained that they had the right to immediately shoot in such cases.
The Bilgoraj population did not rely only on police powers.
City hall established special night watchmen who wore a special insignia of city hall that identified them.
The situation went on like this for two weeks. No Russian soldiers, other than the patrols, were to be seen. It appeared that that the Russian powers were getting out of the Bilgoraj area.
Friday, Parashat Eikev, an alarm was raised in the city. Soldiers were seen arriving. It was thought that they were Austrians, but they turned out to be Russian Uhlans with lances who guarded the old border.
After more Austrian troops arrived, a battle took place in the Tarnogrod marketplace. Six Austrian soldiers fell. The Russian army retreated to Bilgoraj, and stopped at the market to rest.
After doing a headcount of his men, an officer sent out a party of soldiers to look for the missing, but they returned with no one, and left.
There were no Russian police in the city. Even the officials had gone. Only the Russian burgermeister remained, and the city watch patrolled the streets.
Friday night, the whole city was awake, and wearily waiting for morning, not knowing what it would bring. At dawn, they ran to shul to finish their davening early, to be ready for new events.
In the besmedreshes, they davened one minyan after another. At 9:00 o'clock, when our minyan in the Rudniker shtibl had ended,
rifle shots were heard. People trembledhere now, it's beginning. Is it a warning from the Austrians that they are coming? There was no Russian military here!
Suddenly, a galloping Russian dragoon appeared coming from the bridge (Lubliner) road, and behind him, two soldiers riding one horse. One was killed there, and was buried in the garden near Michalski. Someone asked, what happened? They're chasing us and catching us! came the reply.
Soon, an Austrian officer rode up at the head of a platoon of Uhlans who paired off, left and right, down every street looking for Russians.
An officer with a platoon riding with swords in hand was looking a map and asked the Jews who were cowering there: Where is the road to Dobre Wola? The Jewish man did not understand that he was asking about the village, Wola, which goes through the forest to Zamosc. He thought they were being asked if they surrendered to the Austrians. Dobra Valnidobra valni, dobra valni!he, in his haste, replied, afraid that someone would interrupt him, and that not he, but another would have saved the town.
At noon, the main army, which numbered in the tens of thousands, began to march.
They occupied the whole city. They were deployed in all the streets and courtyards, where they stayed until the morning, and then marched further on.
Saturday night, when the Austrians had already taken Bilgoraj, a balabos from Zamosc Road, R' Eliezer Vollier, as he was called, put on his Russian insignia, and went out to guard the telegraph poles. He was quickly arrested. He sat in jail together with the Russian priest, and the former burgermeister, until the Austrians retreated four weeks later.
The Austrians quickly began their confiscations. From Hersh Sheinwald's mill, they took several thousand sacks of flour. From the sugar merchants, they took sugar. Any products they found they confiscated under military authority. The paid with vouchers which went generally unpaid.
When Hersh Sheinwald appealed to the higher authorities for payment, he was told to go to Frampol where the treasury was located, and he would be promptly paid.
One Sunday, when the Austrians had almost reached Lublin, they were attacked by Russian outposts. A battle ensued by the Goraj mountains. When Hersheleh Sheinwald arrived in Frampol, and heard the artillery fire, and saw the shrapnel flying, he dropped everything in fear and fled, and barely escaped with his life.
And so, all the confiscated merchandise was lost. Even the bakers were forced to bake bread with their flour, and received the same vouchers.
Bilgoraj, which was renowned for its mesh industry that sent its products all over Russia, was ruined with the outbreak of war. And, indeed, a lot of mesh workers supported themselves by selling tea and cigarettes to the Austrian soldiers marching through.
Merchants began developing ties with Austria. But soon after, the big battle at Trawnik began where the Austrians suffered a major defeat, and retreated in great haste.
Saturday, Parashat Tavo, 5674. In exactly four weeks, the Russians returned. Before retreating, the Austrians released the Russian priest, and Eliezer Vollier.
At a time when armies were replacing each other, it was understandable that people avoided the roads. Even the farmers who used to bring fish to the Jewish fish sellers also stayed away.
In order to provide fish for the Jews for Shabbes, Yankel Eliezer Vollier's, went to the farmers he knew in the village to get the merchandise. In the forest, he met a patrol of Russian Cossacks who were on the heels of the retreating Austrian army. They asked him if he had seen any Austrians. Later, he met an Austrian patrol, who asked him if he had seen any Cossacks. As some farmers reported, the Russians saw him talking to the Austrians, and later shot him.
The first Russian patrols appeared coming from the sands, Tarnogrod Road, and the Russian priest went out and greeted them. He also brought up the fact that, while in jail under the Austrians, the Jews had brought him food. This had a big effect on the Russian troops, who then greeted the Jews with friendship. The Jews lost their fear of these first patrols.
People went out into the streets, set up tables, and distributed challahs, bread, cakes, and schnapps. But the next day, Sunday, when masses of military began the march to Galicia, Jews little by little began to get a taste of the Russian whip.
But soon everything stopped. The Russians besieged Przemysl fortress, captured Lemberg, and reached as far as the Carpathians. Jews began to send various kinds of merchandise to Galicia, mostly to Sokolow, and Rzeszow, and from there, brought back things needed in Bilgoraj.
In the meantime, the Przemysl fortress surrendered. The victory was celebrated in Bilgoraj with a big parade in which the Jews and the city rabbi took part.
In spite of that, persecution of the Jews began. They were accused of spying. R' Nathan Maimon,
a man who knew nothing about politics, was sent to Siberia.
This went on for a whole year. Shavuot time, 5675, the Germans broke through the Russian front at Gorlice, and the Russian retreat began to the river San where battles took place for several weeks. They began to seize people to dig trenches at the Tanew, Kneshpol, and in the Harshekes up to Bilgoraj. Meanwhile, the Germans took Lemberg, breaking through to Tomaszow, and from there, to Zamosc. The Russians, to avoid being surrounded, were forced to evacuate the Bilgoraj area.
Before retreating, they blew up many cellars in the city and stole the hidden merchandise.
Tamuz 17, 5675. The Austrians returned for a second time to Bilgoraj.
Several days before the Russian retreat, a man returned home from digging trenches, and suddenly got sick, and died.
After the Austrians entered, it all became clear. They had brought Cholera with them. The first victim was Akiva Shtrickendrier, from Morow Street. He had suddenly become sick, began vomiting, developed stomach pains, and after three days of heavy suffering, he died. The first cases were sick for several days. Then, the disease took on the characteristic of an epidemic. You could be walking down the street, talking, chatting, and suddenly fall down and die. People fell like flies. The dead were taken away.
The living were quarantined. As soon as the authorities heard about a sick person, he was immediately taken to the hospital which had been set up in the military barracks on the sands. The healthy were held in a nearby barn.
If any of the healthy ones made the slightest complaint, they were immediately taken to the hospital from which few came back out. I think that there were only three rare people: R' Yosef the rebbe's, later the rav in Bilgoraj, Yehuda Mercer, and Mendl, HershMendlBeder's a grandson.
The houses of the sick were locked shut. After, sanitary workers came and disinfected the houses, and all the household things, such as clothing, were burned. They used civilians, mostly Jews passing through, who they used to catch for the work. They also used to forcibly enlist people to bury the dead that accumulated in large numbers every day.
Parents whose children had died used to wait for the cart carrying the dead to pass by, and quietly, without a moan, placed the bodies on it, and quickly disappeared so that they wouldn't be dragged along to the isolation barn, or to the hospital where death awaited them.
People became despondent, not seeing an end. The authorities forbade getting together in large groups, so as not to spread the disease.
They assembled in secret to daven with a minyan, and secretly they prepared the bodies of the dead.
The city was quarantined under military guard. Large signs erected on all sides of the town, declared, Halt! Cholera epidemic in Bilgoraj. Nobody was allowed in or out. Commerce was completely paralyzed. Workers didn't work. Grass grew in the market. There was no one to be seen in the street. The only business that existed was in food. They drank whisky, and ate a lot, as much as they could. People regularly snuck out of town by side streets to buy things to eat. They now understood the Talmudic expression: chatof v'echol, chatof v'ishti, ki machar namut. Grab and eat, grab and drink, because tomorrow we die. This lasted for three weeks, from 17th Tamuz until Tisha B'Av 5675.
In those three weeks of national sorrow, about 500 people died in Bilgoraj. They took to resorting to all kinds of remedies. People remembered that, years before, a cholera epidemic had raged through Poland, but Bilgoraj was not touched. A board had been nailed into the southeast corner of the shul. So now, when the tragedy occurred in Bilgoraj, they hammered in another board. (There were actually two small boards nailed into the southeast corner). They tried various other remedies. They hung a sign on the door that said, No one lives here. At that time, they also resorted to a wellknown remedy. They held a wedding in the cemetery.
The married Yechezkel Viotch to Der Shtumer Matl, and the cholera epidemic ended.
There were still fatalities after Tisha B'Av, but only among those who were already sick.
Life slowly took on a normal character. Tradesmen returned to their work, store owners to selling. However, many people were unemployed, particularly the workers in the mesh industry. The road to trade with Austria had not yet opened.
Many people brought wood from the forest, or picked mushrooms in order to support themselves. Many took on manual labor. Road building was beginning then. It was mostly Jews who worked on building the railway line in Zwierzyniec.
Slowly, trade with Austria developed. Merchants found markets. The retail trade developed. Hunger reigned in Austria, so Bilgoraj merchants began to bring foodstuffs to Galicia, and brought back industrial articles.
Since everything was under the supervision of the provisioning office, which confiscated all the food even in the settled areas, a smuggling business went on to Galicia and back. It was necessary not to be dependent on the carriage drivers, because the Austrians often confiscated not only the merchandise, but also the horse and wagon. So the merchants began to buy their own horses so that practically all of the merchants became carriage drivers, owners of horse and wagon.
The occupation powers were always detaining people for different kinds of work. One Sunday, while the Jews were praying in the besmedresh, the gendarmes encircled the building, and seized Jews for work. They even tore the teffilin off their heads. They gathered together a group of Jews and sent them off to Ludmir to work.
Later, when it was becoming difficult to make a living, and the Typhus epidemic was raging, they sent the sick to the hospital they had set up in Tarnogrod.
This epidemic was not as terrible as the cholera epidemic, but it took enough victims.
The food supply became very tenuous. Not only sugar, but every piece of bread was carefully weighed and measured. Some Jews, in order to lessen the difficulty of finding food sources, started to buy cows. It was impressive to see the young Gentile boys, hired cowherds, leading a whole bunch of cows which gradually got smaller as each cow went into practically every open gate. Early in the morning, they went back out to pasture.
It is worth noting an episode from that time. The printer, Nuteh Kronenberg, had, at the time, trade relations with the firm, Yosef Schlesinger, in Vienna. He would often visit the company. Once, while in Vienna, Schlesinger's daughter came to see him with another girl who she introduced to the printer, Kronenberg, from Bilgoraj.
This previously unknown girl asked him to take a package to her cousin who was serving in the occupation authority as a prosecutor. Kronenberg brought the parcel to the prosecutor who begged the printer that should the need arise, he should come to see him. Thereafter, every time he travelled to Vienna, he brought back packages for him.
At that time, Ephraim Chazerhorkemer's brotherinlaw, Hershele Magram from Sieniawa (Galicia) which was under Austria, lived in Bilgoraj, and was an Austrian citizen. He had two grown sons who had to go to the army. Wanting to avoid going to war, they hid in Bilgoraj with acquaintances in Bagner street. But as deserters, they faced harsh punishment. They could not remain where they were, so they went over to their uncle, Ephraim whose house was near the Russian Orthodox church. At that time, Nuteh Kronenberg lived there, and had his print shop there. But it turned out that the wrong people found out about it.
It was Saturday night, the first night of Shavuot. Nuteh Kronenberg came home quickly from davening because of the war situation. No civilians were allowed to be out late at night. Near his house, he noticed some suspicious looking people. When he entered the house, he saw the two deserters, the Magrams. They had come in to ask for some cigarette paper, and seeing a newspaper on the table, they had sat down to read it.
It seems that the spies had seen them through the window. No sooner had they left with the cigarette papers, and as Nuteh Kronenberg was preparing to make Kiddush, than suddenly, the door was torn open and the gendarme, Szecko, burst in with gun in hand. Other gendarmes followed him. They searched all the rooms, found nothing, and left.
They went off to Ephraim Chazerhorkemer where they found both young men, and arrested them. They came back later, and arrested Ephraim, and also Nuteh Kronenberg.
At the inquiry, both the boys argued that they had been taken away by the Russians, and had been wandering a long time, and had just arrived in Bilgoraj. Naturally, they were not believed. After the inquiry, Ephraim was accused of hiding deserters, but Kronenberg stated that this was the first time he had seen them.
The Kronenberg family reminded the prosecutor of his promise, and Ephraim was soon released. The two boys were sent to the army.
After the cholera and Typhus epidemics, a lot of orphans were created with no one to care for them. With the initiative of a Jewish officer in the Austrian army, the orphans were gathered together, and an orphanage was created for them, as well as a lowcost kitchen for the needy.
And thus the years of the First world war flowed by, in which the idyllic way of life was destroyed.
The conduct of people to one another became different. Notwithstanding the emergence of a great civilization, and the development of technology, morale fell. People became cruel, moneyhungry. That may be the reason why so many charitable institutions were established in those days, because as people became worse in this respect, they sought to improve the social life.
During the war years, the Russian government promised to reestablish Polish independence. To that end, the polish legion was founded under the leadership of general Dowbor Musnicki. How Jews suffered from the legionnaires is something to tell.
Then Austria and Germany declared Graf Szeptycki as regent in Poland. The Poles began to recruit members for the Polish legion, who were transferred to the leadership of Josef Pilsudski (later fieldmarshal of Poland).
This lasted until the breakup of the Austrian and German armies. The Polish legionnaires and volunteers took control immediately. These little shkootzimlech threw fear into the occupation powers from whom they requisitioned weapons.
A certain Piotr, the hunchback, a shoemaker by trade, who was always drunk, went up to an Austrian gendarme (Szecko) who used to make the whole city tremble, and took his rifle away in the middle of the street.
Jews also responded to the call for legionnaires. In Bilgoraj, a certain Moishe Shirota, and others. Moishe fell in the war with the Bolsheviks.
After the establishment of the Polish state, Jews from Russia began to return to Bilgoraj: Itamar Fefferman, Warshaviak, Shloime Rubinstein, Antshel Shur, and Eichenblat who had left for Russia with the Russian retreat from Poland.
With the outbreak of the war between Poland and the Bolsheviks, Poland suspected the returnees of being Communists. Two of the most prominent businessmen, Shloime Rubinstein, and Anshel Shur were arrested, and taken in chains to Zamosc. They were later freed.
This is how a Jewish community that is no more survived the First World War.
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