Table of Contents

 

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The Fascinating Synagogue of the Jews of Wielun
Destroyed by the Nazis in September 1, 1939

 

Foreword

by M. Mendlevitch

Translated from Yiddish by Arye (M.L.) Zelkovitch

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The Wielun Memorial Book constitutes the only remembrance of our former home, which was so brutally and ruthlessly eradicated. The town of Wielun still stands, but its Jewish inhabitants can no longer be found there, as they all met with a tragic end. No single breath of Jewish life remains.

Our Memorial Book attempts to reconstruct fleeting moments, occurrences, experiences and recreate the figures and types of the past, so that nothing may ever be forgotten; to depict the everyday life of our ruined home–town: the days of sorrow, the days of joy and the hope for a better tomorrow.

Looking back, we find that our former neighbors, the Poles, actually began to “refine” their crimes against Jewry – which they had already started to perpetrate hundreds of years before – at the turn of this century. One recalls the savage boycott–incitement, the reign of terror and the pogrom–mood in the years 1912–13, after the burning alive of a family of eight in the village of Pontnev, near Wielun, which at that time shocked all of Poland and Russia. Later on, already in independent Poland, there was the market–day pogrom of 1919, in which Jewish shops were plundered against the Wielun Jewish community.

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The actual name of our birthplace is Wielun. The Jews called it Wilojn and spelled it Wilohn (This latter name was used in all official Jewish community documents and records).

Jews from Wielun always took pride in their place of birth and the popular epithet ascribed to it was “Wielun is a Crown”.

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Wielun's distinction was its immaculately formed streets, thoroughfares and buildings; its public squares, parks, market–place and its charming landscaping and panorama within and outside the city limits.

Wielun's Jewish sector, since its inception, had at all times been held up as an example for all neighboring settlements as a pioneer in cultural, political and socio–economic fields. It is worthwhile recollecting that, as early as the year 1863, a group of heroic Jewish men and women, residents of Wielun, participated in the Polish Revolutionary Movement. Furthermore, during the years 1905–6, a substantial number of Jewish revolutionaries headed by Hershel, the son of Noah Zelkovitz, were also active.

Concurrently with this revolutionary movement, there arose the pioneers of “Choveveh Zion”, Shlomo Marcuse and Itzhak Khvat.

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Several years later, the first Zionist Organization was founded and led by the dynamic Jacob Shaia.

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The First World War witnessed the establishment of a sizeable relief auxiliary by the youth of Wielun, the inauguration of a tea–hall by women volunteers and the distribution of provisions. In rapid succession, were founded the first school for homeless and underprivileged Jewish children, the Jewish Youth Club, with its multilateral activities, the first “Hechalutz”, the farm for pioneer agricultural training, the drama circles, the choir, and the Jewish Scouts. The first Jewish gymnastics and sports club was initiated in 1915, followed, in later years, by the sport clubs “Maccabi” and “Gwiazda” (Stern) and the popular Maccabi brass band, the latter a great favorite with the Jewish community.

Noteworthy were the activities of the influential and effective right and left wing political parties; the Zionist Organizations with their variety of political shades and trends: the Agudat Israel with all its sub–groupings, activities and impact upon the life of the town; the influence of the political and cultural activities of the Jewish labor parties; as well as the numerous philanthropic and eleemosynary institutions.

Moreover, there existed great numbers of Chederim and Yeshivot with their respective teachers; the schools “Beth Oulfana”, “Yavneh”, “Yesodeh Hatorah”, “Beth Yacob:”; the Zionist Organization Girls' School; the Cooperative Banks; the community non–interest loan funds; artisans, skilled workers, retailers and merchant guilds. Most of the aforementioned organizations maintained libraries, reading–room facilities and conducted a variety of evening courses. Simultaneously, two Jewish weeklies, “Wieluner Tzeit” and “Wieluner Leben”, were being published. It is appropriate to mention at this point that the well–known novelist, Shimon Horontshik, was born and raised in Wielun. Many of the heroes in his works represent Wielun characters of the beginning of this century.

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We cherish the rich memories left us of the Beth Hamidrash, the many minyounim (quorums), the Chassidic Shtiblekh, the two “Gehrer” (the large and small shtibel) the “Skernevitzer”, the “Alexander” and “Piltzer”.

We still remember the rabbis, attendant rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers; the scribes, the disciples of sages, the great scholars and arbitrators, the learned men, the Chassidic opponents, the reform group, the respective leaders and functionaries.

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In our Memorial Book we hope to record for posterity our folklore, anecdotes, homey adages, as well as everything and anything which can assist our imagination in restoring our vanished birthplace.

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The Jews of Wielun will forever remember their erstwhile synagogue with nostalgia and veneration. It took approximately ten years, from 1830 to 1840, for the then minuscule Jewish community to erect its synagogue. Flanked on its right by the Greek–Orthodox, and on its left, by the Catholic churches, at the entrance to the public park, on the town's most prominent site, proudly stood this imposing edifice with its impressive fa├žade and beautiful interior. Three places of worship, representing three religious denominations, stood fenced in by the same wall, encircled by luxuriant lawns, flowers and trees. Close by, a small pond sparkled, and slightly farther off, bubbled a sweet–water spring.

Interwoven with all this, there pulsated a warm Jewish life, which, in spite of its endless woes and struggles, its suffering and all too little joy – produced a splendid Jewish youth and lovely Jewish children.

It will neither be forgiven nor forgotten.
All this was obliterated by the Nazi murderers.
Let us here express our veneration for the memory of our beloved martyrs.
May this book serve future generations as a “Ner Tamid” –
An eternally burning memorial candle.

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A new grave at the destroyed cemetery in Wielun, at the grave stays Abraham Tondovsky

 

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People escape from Wielun after the bombardment of 1939

 

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Rachel Zamir (Kshepitski) visits her old home with her daughter

 


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The History of the Jews of Wielun

Dr. Jakob Goldberg

Translated from Yiddish by Arye (M.L.) Zelkovitch

Owing to its favorable border location with Silesia and its part in the execution f certain administrative functions, Wielun played an important role in the past. After Ruda had moved ahead in importance in that area for a time, it became overshadowed. In the 17th century Wielun gained significance when its master, the governor of Krakow, Stanislaw Warszycki – well–known for his ruthlessness – built fortifications there. The final history of the Wielun region is linked to the district of Ruda which, in the early Middle–Ages, as previously mentioned, was the administrative center of the area.

The first record dating back to the year 1136 concerning the district of Wielun mentions Ruda when the Pope confirmed the right of the Archbishop of Gniezno to collect the taxes. Soon after town status had been bestowed upon Ruda in the following century, it was again demoted to the status of a village. This administrative area, previously called Ruda country, was later renamed Wielun country.

The first mention of Wielun as an administrative center originated in the year 1281 after Ruda had already lost its importance and its functions had been transferred to the developing Wielun. During the feudal divisions in the 12th and 14th centuries, the Wielun district became a separate territory which was fought over by the Silesian princes, and the town fell under their rule during different periods.

In the second half of the 14th century Wielun was ruled by Prince Wladyslaw Opalezyk and even minted coins of its own. After the unification of the Polish Kingdom by Wladyslaw Lokietek, the warring was renewed with the Silesian princes over Wielun, which finally remained under Polish rule, but the struggles over that area flared up repeatedly.

The population of medieval Wielun consisted of Poles and Germans. The inhabitants practiced various trades. In the 15th and 16th centuries they developed the production of millstones which, because of their superior quality, became famous both in Poland and Silesia. Bookbinding and weaving achieved excellence; during the 16th and 17th centuries there were 42 weavers there. Even though the small Wielun textile output did not particularly distinguish itself, it nevertheless represented a link in the Sieradz textile district. The Wielun weavers carried on a protracted conflict with the Wieruszow weavers. Finally, in the year 1618, the Wielun weavers succeeded in obtaining new privileges which made it possible for them to sell their goods of inferior workmanship, suitable for the consumption of the villagers.

Wielun was part of the Kingdom and was ruled in the name of the King by a district commissioner, one of substance, often even a magnate. This district commissioner had to a certain extent and influence over the inner affairs of the town inasmuch as he enjoyed an autonomous government consisting of a council and a mayor – later called president – as well as a council with a “Wojt” (village governor) which represented the judiciary. The Wielun courts dealt not only with cases concerning the town population, but also with those concerning the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. The courts also tried criminal cases involving the death penalty, and the town employed its own executioner till the end of the 18th century.

Wielun, which developed particularly during the 15th and 16th centuries, purchased for its own two villages: Turow and Kurow, as well as parts

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of Kopydlow, Chochlow and Niedzielsk. As a result of the acute political opposition on the part of the landowners, the town was prohibited from purchasing village land for its own. As a consequence of ordinances issued, Wielun lost its land properties in Kopydlow and Niedzielsk. However, the town managed an exchange with the landowners: Chochlow for land located at the town limits. The first leaseholders in Turow and Kurow were rich citizens of Wielun. Later the villages were leased by the wealthiest landowners, into whose hands they eventually passed.

Until the middle of the 17th century only a small part of the population of Wielun had been engaged in agriculture. The farmers were mostly those living in the periphery around the defense walls built in medieval times and later reinforced, as Wielun had always been threatened by Silesia and other enemies. (Incidentally, in the year 1965 one of the oldest parts of that wall crumbled and, being of historic value, is to be restored.)

In the Middle Ages a few churches sufficient in proportion to the community were erected in Wielun. Later Franciscan, Augustine and Reformist monasteries were built. This brought about religious fanaticism, its purpose being to serve as defense against the religious movement of the reformist, Jan Huss, who had come to Poland from Czechoslovakia via Silesia. In 1406 King Wladyslaw Jagiello issued an edict against the followers of Huss. This flare–up of religious intolerance had an unfavorable effect on the Jewish community.

The very first record concerning the Jews of Wielun dates back to 1537. This does not mean that Jews had not been present there prior to that date; however, information to that effect is lacking in historic sources. At any rate it is known that the tiny Jewish nucleus in Wielun was formed earlier than any such in neighboring towns. The first mention of Jews in Grabow is dated 1564, in Wieruszow, 1585, and in the somewhat more remotely situated Warta, 1544. The oldest Jewish settlement in that area dates back to the 15th century in Sieradz. Wielun counts among those towns where the Jewish community began to grow at the start of the 16th century, i.e. during the period when Jews settled in Poland where, until that time, there had been only few Jews. At that time Jewish settlements existed in only thirteen towns. It is worthwhile emphasizing that the growth of a Jewish community in Wielun occurred at the time of the formation of Jewish congregations in Poland during the renaissance.

The conditions of the economically developing Wielun ensured the material welfare of the Jews who settled there. Different branches of trade as well as commerce exited, not only on a local scale, but also connected with Silesia. The commerce between Poland and Silesia was not always carried on in peaceful cooperation. In that territory, especially in the 16th century, serious conflicts of a temporary nature arose. In that same century there came into being in the business dealings between the Wielun district and Silesia a new branch of commerce which created lucrative possibilities for Jewish merchants. This new commercial branch consisted of foodstuffs, especially cereals and cattle. The development of that respective trade in Wielun and its surroundings was due to the natural growth of the population in Silesia and Breslau. In order to provision the increased population, they were obliged to import cereals from neighboring areas in Poland, mainly from the nearby district of Wielun. The agrarian structure of Poland adapted itself at the time to the requirements of cereal export to the economically developed Western–European countries. The cereal trade depended on the transportation facilities of the Vistula to Danzig where the foreign and the Danzig merchants loaded the ships. Since Wielun and the surrounding areas did not have access to water–way connections to the Vistula but were nevertheless near Breslau, they were able to employ overland transportation. The first

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Jewish citizens of Wielun participated in the Polish–Silesian trade.

The wealthy original settlers of Wielun were also active in that trading. After they had discovered that, because of the economic activities of the local Jews their incomes had decreased, they made efforts to rid themselves of this competition by exploiting the fact of the alien Jewish nationality and religion and the consequences stemming there from. The citizens of Wielun obtained a fiat prohibiting Jews from residing in the town. This interdiction was issued and signed by King Zygmunt August. This was not the only such case; similar rulings had been in force in eighteen Polish towns in the 16th century. As early as 1520 there had been such a law in Warsaw, i.e. earlier even than the one regarding the Jews of Wielun.

The edict “De non tolerandis Judaeis” covering Wielun was issued on June 12, 1566 in Lublin, where Zygmunt August was in residence. The inhabitants of Wielun did not approach the King directly as he was at that time occupied with certain internal affairs. They found a way to his newly espoused wife, Queen Katarzyna, a devout Catholic, descendant of the House of Habsburg. The representatives of Wielun had taken advantage of the fact that until recently the Wielun District Department (Starostwo) had belonged to the estate of Bona, Zygmunt August's mother. No one had envisaged that the bequest of the Wielun District Department to the Italian, i.e. the Princess Bari, would cause the acknowledgment of another Polish queen as custodian of the citizens of Wielun and would furthermore cause her intervention against the local Jews. In his decree, issued in Latin, King Zygmunt August had confirmed that: “In consequence of the petition submitted by the citizens of our town of Wielun to my dearest wife, Katarzyna, we hereby forbid Jews to reside as well as to possess dwellings in Wielun. In order to enable t he Jewish merchants to liquidate their affairs, they are permitted to remain there for an additional three days only”. Despite the fact that that prohibition was never practically enforced, it nevertheless had a decisive effect upon the destiny of the Wielun Jews as well as on the historical course of the town.

Nonetheless, not all of the 16th century inhabitants of Wielun were in agreement with the law forbidding Jews to live there. Some approved of the instructions contained in the royal edict; to those the eviction of the Jews meant getting rid of uncomfortable commercial competition on the part of non–tolerable followers of a religion other than the Catholic one. To the others it meant the loss of income derived from dealing with Jews. The conflicts that arose on these grounds among the inhabitants of Wielun lasted for a number of years after the proclamation of the above–mentioned edict. In 1575 Jews were still living in the house belonging to the mayor. On the other hand, Jews no longer owned any land. Understandably, after the issuance of the prohibition, they had sold out their properties in fear of losing them altogether. It was easier to sustain a loss by the sale of a house than to forfeit one's place of residence without better prospects.

The efforts made by the inhabitants to expel the Jews from Wielun still did not satisfy them with respect to Queen Katarzyna's intervention; they also aimed at the total implementation of all the clauses contained in the decree they had obtained. Trouble brewed in the town council when the mayor and other landlords rented living quarters to Jews who no longer possessed dwellings of their own. Characteristically, the representative of the poor sector, Adrian, proved most active in trying to bring about the expulsion of the Jews. Adrian together with the town–councilman, Stanislaw Barbintator, threatened to submit an accusation to the governor against the mayor and other landlords who had leased houses to Jews. It is difficult to establish the reasons which set

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in motion such acts on the part of the two representatives as well as various sectors of Wielun's inhabitants. It is known, however, that their activities were effective, as the keeping of Jewish tenants was in violation of the royal decree, for which reason the mayor was unable to oppose the majority of the population for long. Thus the mayor in fact, on April 20, 1575, asked the people not to be precipitated in putting their complaint before the governor concerning his implication with the Jews – his tenants – promising to evict them within three days, as they were already trying to arrange for other living quarters. The mayor's declaration influence other inhabitants in such a way that inhabitant Pieszkowa declared that she, too, just as the mayor had done, would evict her Jewish tenants. It was the aim of the people of Wielun to implement the decree of Zygmunt August once and for all. Unheedingly, Jews continued to reside in Wielun.

During the parliamentary session of March 6, 1581 King Stefan Batory confirmed the decree issued by King Zygmunt August, and it was to be anticipated that is clauses would be put into effect. Nevertheless, in violation of the law, Jews still continued to reside in Wielun and maintain economic contacts with wealthy Breslau landowners. The economic relations between Wielun's Jews and Breslau even caused repercussions at Court: in 1593 the Breslau councilman Fogt brought an accusation before King Zygmunt III against Mark, a Jew from Wielun, who owed him a certain amount of money. That it was a considerable amount of money is attested by the fact that Fogt approached the King himself. Zygmunt III ordered the case to be investigated by Koniecpolski, the then governor of Wielun.

During the military campaign of the Grand Prince Maximilian of Habsburg in 1588 Wielun was partially destroyed; yet greater was the destruction wreaked by the Polish army that captured the Grand Prince. However, those happenings did not cause a lasting economic crisis in Wielun, which soon returned to its previous condition.

The protracted efforts of Wielun's inhabitants to remove the Jews from the town were finally successful, and by the beginning of the 17th century there were no longer any Jews among the permanent inhabitants.

Existing testimony of that period regarding accusations on the part of Wielun's townspeople alleged that Jewish merchants staying in the town for more than three days, i.e. that they violated the prescribed time–limit set forth in the royal decree of 1566. The matter was definitely settled in 1629 by the delegated commissioners who regularly inspected the Wielun district. The commission issued a decree bearing a characteristic Latin caption: “The Case of the Citizens of Wielun Versus the Treacherous Jews Who Arrive in Wielun”. The main clause of the decree contains the following: “The inhabitants, as well as the Jews, violating the law shall. Be fined three Grivnes”. One can deduce from that that the royal commissioners imposed similar penalties on Christians and Jews alike, which, considering that time, bore a special meaning. That decree was fully based upon the text of the one issued by Zygmunt August, according to which the Jewish merchants were permitted t remain in the town for the duration of three days and which also provided for monetary fines for the citizens of Wielun who would violate the law.

In that decree mention was also made, in accordance with accepted practice in Poland, that court–proceedings concerning both Jews and Christians would be processed by the Provincial (Wojewodztwo) Court. As the name implies, such a court was headed by the Provincial Governor (Wojewoda) or his deputy. Pursuant to the decree, Jews were not to act against it, and it further stipulated that in case of violation both parties were to be brought before the Wojewoda

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of Sieradz or his deputy in order to be lawfully tried. But the decree of the delegated commissioners deviated slightly from the one issued by Zygmunt August in 1566, thus creating somewhat more favorable conditions for the Jews coming to Wielun. It was determined that “if it should happen that a Jew who, in order to collect debts for merchandise delivered, should find it necessary to prolong his stay in Wielun, it would be possible for him to do so”. From the quotation it can be seen that even though no Jew resided in Wielun any longer, Jews still continued to go there to settle their various affairs. In order to enable Jews to remain in the town for more than three days, great efforts were involved in obtaining permission from the respective commissioners; nevertheless, no renewal of rights was granted to Jews to settle in Wielun. Not long thereafter certain events occurred which stirred up the town.

In the first half of the 17th century Wielun underwent a great catastrophe which resulted in demographic and economic changes in the town. During the time of the attack of the Swedish raiding bands the town was almost completely destroyed. In 1655 Wielun was occupied by the Swedes. On January 7, 1656 Polish partisans arrived who were, however, unable to take the Wielun castle that was defended by the newly arrived Swedish military reinforcements. The enemy took bloody revenge upon the innocent population, a fact recounted by an eye–witness on January 22, 1656 to Queen Maria Ludwika Gonzaga who was at that time in Silesia. His letter reads as follows: “When the Swedes entered Wielun, they slaughtered all the inhabitants they found, leaving nothing but dogs alive. They burned down not only the castle but also the town houses”.

The returning residents of the ruined town were further oppressed by their own army that had already become accustomed to looting. The decrease of the population, the destruction of buildings, the deterioration of farms and estates the lack of market outlets for local production and the reconstruction of workshops caused an economic depression in the town. The general impoverishment altered the appearance of Wielun: hitherto devoted to handicraft and commerce, Wielun reverted to agriculture, which until then had been of secondary importance, as its primary source of time. The majority could no longer find any source of income in another field.

During the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century the population numbered approximately 500 souls. Toward the end of the 17th century there was a slight increase in population which, however, soon fell off. Only toward the end of the 18th century did the population increase to 1000. In the first decade Wielun was repeatedly destroyed. While this was happening, and not because of the previously issued decree, but solely on account of Wielun's ceasing to be an economically significant center, did the town lose its power of attraction and made it no longer worthwhile for the Jews to endeavor to mitigate the decree of 1566.

Being the district center, there took place in Wielun consultations in which participated both the landowners of that entire region and of the district of Ostrzeszow. As a result the town revived to a certain degree. The main center of Jewish life in that area was established in Dzialoszyn, the landowners' private place of residence, whose owners, sanctioning the settlement of Jews thereby increased their own incomes. The Dzialoszyn community also embraced Jews from 104 localities. A small Jewish community existed in the royal town of Boleslawiec. Besides, in the 17th century a considerable number of Jews concentrated in Kempno, which belonged to the district of Ostrzeszow.

The Jewish collectivity in Wielun of the 16th century had ceased to exist at the beginning of the 17th century, i.e. before the town's defeat. In

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the first half of the 18th century Jews once again began to settle there. During that period new economic, social and political reforms were introduced in Poland. The Jewish settlements crystallized under various conditions independent in character and unrelated to that period. Corresponding to the new conditions, the structure of the 18th century was considerably different from the one of the 16th century in accordance with the specific development possibilities of the aforementioned periods.

In the second half of the 18th century the town population increased. There came about a certain revival of Polish–Silesian trade in which the Polish Jews participated. The Jews would come to the markets as well as to the annual fairs in Breslau and also to the then famous cattle exhibitions held on the banks of the Odra.

The decree issued in 1799 by the Emperor of Prussia stipulates that in the town Bytom, situated on the Silesian side near Wielun, the markets and annual fairs are not to take place on the Jewish Sabbaths and holidays, which clarifies the part played by the Jews in the regional trade. And yet this does not present the true picture of Wielun in the 18th century, at the time when Jews began to resettle there. Besides farming and limited manual trade sufficient to supply exclusively local consumption, the primary occupation in Wielun became the production and sale of brandy and beer. In this respect, Wielun was no exception to the Polish small towns of that time. That fact, which had taken hold beginning with the 17th century, stemmed from economic recession and lack of possibilities for economic development in other fields. The reason for the arrested development in other economic areas was also due to the fact that transactions in alcoholic beverages were on a cash basis whereas, owing to the then prevalent trade–system, credit transactions met with great difficulties. Particularly in Wielun were there favorable conditions regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages because, Wielun being a border–town, merchandise–transports passed through it on their way to Silesia as well as to other countries. This increased the income of the village taverns. The so–called “propinatzie” in ancient Polish, i.e. trade in alcoholic beverages, was not only the source f income for the majority of Wielun's inhabitants, but also for the district commissioner. The district authority was the owner of the tavern on the outskirts of Wielun; and by the end of the 18th century, the bear–brewery located in the center of the town had become its property, too.

In the sixties or seventies of the 18th century the Wielun district commissioner conceded to the Jews the brand distillery and the beer brewery. In Wielun's history of 1777 there is a record concerning two local Jewish families: “Those are the peripheral Jews of the brandy distillery of His Excellency, the Commissioner: the concessionaire, a widowed Jew, three children, two servants; the beer brewery, the inheritance possession belonging to His Excellency, the Commissioner; the Jew, his wife and one servant”. Those were the first Jews who, after 170 years, had settled in Wielun. The quotation cites three people as “servants”; their occupation, however, was not that of domestic servants, but of workers in the brewery and the tavern. The then district commissioner of Wielun who had leased the tavern and the brewery to the Jews was Stanislaw Menczynski, owner of Dzialoszyn, who was in constant touch with the local community to which the Jews of Wielun were juridical subjected.

With reference to the prevailing conditions, it can be mentioned that in the Wielun and Sieradz areas there arose a strong current to exclude Jews from “taverns, brandy distilleries and beer breweries”. Thus, as in the beginning, the recent Jewish Wielun inhabitants were being threatened by the same danger as had threatened their forebears in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, there was a difference as to their economic position: the

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Jews of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries had been merchants who had had widespread commercial interests on an international scale, whereas the newly settled Jews of the 18th century were employed, just as were other Jews in Poland, in the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. The 18th century Jews were, generally speaking, worse off than those of the 16th century. Now, as before, the Jews were persecuted by the inhabitants of Wielun. In the 16th century they had wanted to rid themselves of commercial competition; in the 18th century they demanded the elimination of the camouflaged taverns and breweries. The Wielun inhabitants once again took up the struggle to banish he Jews from their midst, and once again brought into play the edict of 1566 issued by King Zygmunt August.

Because the district commissioner, Menczynski, had granted permission of entry to Jews into Wielun, the local selectmen instituted a suit against him, based on the rulings of the then created commission for the supervision of law and order in royal towns, the Wielun and Ostrzeszow districts, aiming to put through slight local reforms covering the respective area. In the year 1873 Menczynski was brought to trial for having authorized the presence of Jews upon the premises of the royal town Wielun, thereby breaking the existing law concerning that matter. Stanislaw Menczynski, however, was an influential man who was in correspondence with King Stanislaw August Poniatowski. The activities of the aforementioned commission were based on foundations too weak to achieve the removal of the two Jewish families from Wielun. According to records of the district of 1789, Wielun's inhabitants had renewed their complaints against the Jews. In reply to the complaints the dignitary Menczynski declared: “His Excellency the District Commissioner has not and does not bring in Jews to Wielun; it is only the district brandy distillery and beer brewery that employ Jews so as to assure the exact estimation of the “kwarta” (one quarter of the income) due the royal treasury, inasmuch as the Christians get into debt and refuse to pay. Furthermore, the edicts of 1566 and 1581 against the Jews do not contain any prohibition against their residing in the suburbs”. This declaration clearly shows the reason that motivated Menczynski to lease the tavern and brewery to Jews who, thanks to the former's support, were enabled to settle in Wielun. According to the aforementioned records, there was only one Jewish family there – that of Joachim Herszlik.

The undertaking of the inhabitants against the district commissioner and the Jews was instigated and supported by the All–Polish City Movement in which there mainly participated the citizens of royal towns, including Wielun. They came out not only against the Jews but also against people of any religion other than their own, whose intentions were to settle in Wielun. The other religious denomination in Wielun consisted of Greek Orthodox wine merchants – a trade specialty which the Wielun citizens had reserved for themselves. For the selfsame reason, they persecuted a Hungarian resident even though he was a Catholic. Here, too, the same economic considerations as with regard to the Jews were at work. Therefore, it was difficult to try for greater tolerance toward the Jews, as it had been denied even Christians. Until 1793, when the Prussians occupied Wielun, the one aforementioned Jewish family was still living there. In 1791 Joachim Herszlik had already passed away, leaving behind his widow, Hannah, fifty years of age, one son, aged twenty–four, a second son, aged twenty, the youngest son, aged ten, the daughters Miriam and Esther, fourteen years old. The distillery employee, Israel, was thirty years old at that time. The aforementioned were the only Jewish inhabitants of Wielun toward the end of the 18th century.

Despite the fact that Jews did not live in Wielun, their contact with the town was never

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severed. As is to be noted from the decree of 1629, Jews would stay there for more than three days. Consequently, Wielun was the scene of various incidents in which there participated Jews from other towns in the surrounding area. These incidents occurred mostly during the weekly and annual fairs when the expression of the Jewish mentality and character traits came to the fore. The conduct of these Jews, who later settled in Wielun, was, at that time, not very exemplary.

In 1765 the tenant farmer, Moshe Tobiaszewicz, came to market in Wielun from the village Wlaszow, eleven kilometers away. He got involved in a dispute with the Wielun citizen, Antoni Sobolewicz.

Many Jews coming to the weekly and annual fairs in Wielun tried, by their actions to free themselves from the influence on the part of the Dzialoszyn community. The tenant farmers from the different villages of the Wielun district often refused to pay the royal taxes collected by the Dzialoszyn community. The tenant farmer Litman, of the village Swiontkowice, twelve kilometers from Wielun, did not pay the tax for his family, consisting of four members. This village was the property of a wealthy, influential and proud landowner, Ignacy Skorzewski who had assured Litman that he would not allow the taxes due since 1765 to be exacted. This caused the incidents which had a repercussion in the Grodzki court of Staroszczynski in 1774.

Jakob Berkowicz, the president of the Dzialoszyn community, came forward in the name of the latter; the merchants Lewka Moszkowicz and Moszke Abramowicz submitted the following depositions in court: the tenant farmer Litman owes taxes for nine years. At one time, when he came with kosher butter to market, the community, having no other recourse to collect the taxes, ordered the butter to be confiscated. Later, in 1774, when the Jewish merchants of Dzialoszyn came to a holiday fair to Wielun, His Excellency Skorzewski ordered the confiscation of the merchandise of the Jew Jaskel, a Dzialoszyn merchant. His goods were restituted to him only after he had re–purchased the 29 quarts of butter and having paid therefore 46 zloty to Skorzewski. This indicates that the aforementioned landowner held a stronger position than the community and proved thereby that he was the feudal protector of the Jewish tenant farmers inhabiting his village. Other matters, too, concerning the taxes of the Dzialoszyn community had a bearing on the markets in Wielun. In the summer of 1788 the Jew Icek, son of Elchanan of Kempno, expressed himself offensively regarding the dignitaries of the Dzialoszyn community, who had imposed excessive taxes on his mother–in–law of Osjakow. This came to the ears of the dignitaries who thereupon prohibited him from trading with Jews of their community. Only after he had apologized, did they authorize the renewal of his trading with the Jews of that community. Afterwards Wielun became not only the meeting place for Jews of the surroundings, but also a place where they could permanently reside.

* *
*

The gradual influx of Jews into Wielun occurred between the years 1793 to 1806, during the time of the Prussian occupation. 1798 saw the arrival of the first group of Jews, probably drawn from the neighboring villages and small townships; their numbers, however, cannot be exactly established. In the beginning they numbered some sixty souls, and in the following years their number had not yet reached one hundred. In 1808 the population of Wielun consisted of 1169 citizens, among which there were only ten Jews, i.e. 0.6% of the over–all population. Wielun was included in the Principality of Warsaw, created by Napoleon after his victory over the Prussians in 1806. During the time of the Warsaw Principality the Wielun population began to increase, so that, by 1810 it had reached 1710 residents and

[Page 17]

had 240 buildings. In the course of those two years, 1808–1810, the number of Wielun inhabitants increased by 540 souls, i.e. 46%; however, the increase in the number of Jews was negligible.

From the year 1815 onward Wielun was part of the Polish Kingdom which was created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after Napoleon's defeat. Even though the autonomy of the Polish Kingdom was limited in the course of time, that part of the country was called “Kongresowka”, being situated in the area of the Kingdom as defined by the Congress. Indeed, during the period of the Polish Kingdom, there was an increase of population and a larger nucleus of Jews was established, which fact emerges from the following statistical charts:

CHART I

The Number of the Jewish Population in Wielun

Year 1791 1808 1820 1841 1847
Number of Jews 7 70 217 502 636

 

CHART II

Population Increase in Wielun

Year Over–all
Population
Jews Relative
Percentage
Christians Relative
Percentage
1791 1107 7 0.06 1100 99.94
1808 1169 70 6.0 1099 94.00
1820 2398 217 9.2 2181 90.08
1827 2999        
1857 3817 636 16.7 3181 83.3
1921 11,032        

 

CHART III

Increase in Dwellings in Wielun

Year 1661 1690 1791 1810 1820 1857 1890 1921
Number of Dwellings 101 101 199 134 240 174 255 577

And yet there were certain factors that held up the influx of Jews into Wielun. Firstly, at the beginning of the 19th century Wielun had neither administrative nor economic significance. Secondly, the spokesmen of the town people opposed the ingathering of Jews, basing themselves on the edict of the 16th century “De non tolerandis Judaeis”.

The Jews residing in Wielun consisted of artisans, tradesmen and merchants; part of them dealt in the production and sale of spirits, to which the admittance of Jews was exceptionally difficult. Almost throughout the whole of the 19th century the Jews continued their struggle for the right to settle in Wielun and to participate in its economic life and trade. The history of those struggles runs like a thread through the past of the Wielun Jews of the 19th century.

The struggle was directed against the sanctions that were employed by the residents during the second half of the 16th century, the beginning of the 17th century and the end of the 18th century. When Jews started arriving once more in Wielun there were, owing to the restrictions prevalent until the forties of the 19th century, only two residences belonging to Jews. One of the owners was named Berek Dawidowicz and the other – Szmuel Kempner, who had settled there in 1791. In 1811 he wrote about himself: “Having lived in Wielun for twenty years, I purchased a house in the town”. On the other hand, Berek Dawidowicz arrived in Wielun much later and purchased his house in 1816. The Wielun town authorities issued an attestation confirming that he had renovated the house and was maintaining it in good condition. The permits granted to Szmuel Kempner and Berek Dawidowicz were exceptions, as Jews were still unauthorized to possess real estate in the town.

The first two Jewish house owners in Wielun engaged in trade and Szmuel Kempner dealt in brandy. For his brandy trade he obtained a special permit which was regularly extended during the time of the Warsaw Principality and Congress–Kingdom. In the government departments he met with various difficulties, which by all kinds of

[Page 18]

means he was able to overcome. Nonetheless, the town–authorities interfered with his liquor trade and in the year 1811 they charged him with the illegal sale of spirits in “drams”. Kempner petitioned the Minister of Interior, Luszczewski,, of the Warsaw Principality regarding the extension of his permit as, owing to the rescission of his concession, he found himself in a very difficult economic situation. He addressed Minister Luszczewski as follows: “I beg not to be reduced to a pauper and beggar. Rather than being deprived of the means of existence and leading such a miserable life with my wife and children, death would be preferable”. Finally, he did obtain the extension of his concession for future years and plied his trade also during the period of the Polish Kingdom until the year 1824. The charge of the Wielun authorities proved to be false, and the chief (in French called prefect) of the Wielun district annulled the charges and ruled an unfavorable decision. It was established that Kempner had conducted liquor sales only with the large military garrison stationed in Wielun because of the proximity of the border between the Warsaw Principality and Prussia. Szmuel Kempner had earlier reached an agreement with the quartermaster to supply liquor for the soldiers and officers, which was permitted.

In 1824 General Zajonczek, the Regent of the Polish Kingdom, authorized Jews to process and sell alcoholic beverages, excluding thereby the towns where anti–Jewish edicts had previously already been in existence, which towns also included Wielun. Despite the further efforts of Szmuel Kempner and his brother Joachim, who adopted the Polish–sounding name of Kempinski (they had probably both come to Wielun from neighboring Kempno) they did not succeed in obtaining the concession. The liquor trade was taken over by five Christians. In all probability they were unable to make a living there from, and by 1827 their number had dropped to three.

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century the economic life of Wielun was somewhat revived as a result of the trend to introduce industry into the country at that time. In Wielun, too, an attempt was made to run a textile factory. The Jews, however, were not the founders of this plant, but German experts newly arrived in Poland. On the other hand, the Jews organized the supply of raw materials and engaged in the sale of its finished products. In 1821 the Russian Czar, Alexander I, granted a patent to the German of Rawicz, Karl Wiegelt, to project a textile factory with forty looms in Wielun. Wiegelt received a royal subsidy of 26,000 zloty, which at that time was a very considerable amount of money, and he undertook the obligation to build a waving mill and dye–plant. He took the money and did that which many other Germans did at that time: he pocketed the money but did not fully fulfill his obligation. His successor was someone called Newil, who still ran the factory for a short while. In that respect Wielun was not an exception because, after the takeover of the factory by Newil, there ensued a crisis in the textile industry throughout the Polish Kingdom. This crisis led to the liquidation of many textile centers where this particular branch had only begun to develop, and Wielun was also among them.

These experiments favored not only the need for qualified weavers, shearers and dyers but also for other craftsmen. Thanks to that fact, there was an increase in the influx into Wielun of Jews, among whom there were to be found not only representatives of the typically Jewish trades, i.e. tailors and hatters, but tinsmiths, too. Tanners also came to Wielun and it was thanks to them that a tannery was put up. Prominent among the tanners was one Rosenthal, who in 1840 came from Praszka to Wielun where he married a Jewish widow. He was an outstanding specialist, which fact is established on the basis of an especially printed diploma awarded him by the Tan–

[Page 19]

ners' Guild of Praszka. The Jewish merchants of Wielun dealt in wool products, linens, leather, iron, herring and salt. The distinguishing trait of Jewish trade in the Polish Kingdom as well as in Wielun was their ability to simultaneously run their businesses in different fields, as at that time no specialized knowledge in any field of commerce was required. It is evident there from that the Jews could not depend for their livelihood on one branch of commerce only.

As a consequence of the increase of Jewish population in Wielun, matters sprang up concerning not only individuals but the population as a whole. If until this point our attention has been focused on simple Jews such as Joachim Herszlik, Szmuel Kempner or Berek Dawidowicz, it is because they were the first and only Jews to settle in Wielun at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Thereafter there came into existence a Jewish community that was independent of other Jewish communities. A synagogue–council was created. Testimony of the increasing role assumed by the Jews in Wielun in the first part of the 19th century is borne out by a letter dated 1823 from the town authorities to the government commission for interior affairs reading as follows: “The Christians of Wielun are now employed only in working the soil where from they have to cover all their household expenses and taxes. The Jews have monopolized the entire trade and profits, so that because of them no Christian can set himself up in anything”.

The opinion thus formulated brought about renewed restrictions and limitations which found expression at a time when the Jews were already planning to build a synagogue which had become a necessity in consequence of the increased Jewish community in Wielun. Until the twenties of the 19th century the Jews had a small prayer house which, together with the houses of Szmuel Kempner and Berek Dawidowicz was the third house which at that time belonged to the Jews. The prayer house and the adjoining “mikveh” (ritual bath) became inadequate for the needs of the continually growing Jewish population; the synagogue–council had already obtained before 1830 the permit to build a new synagogue. This synagogue was to be built adjacent to the old prayer house in order to economize by not having to purchase a new plot. However, this was opposed by the senior priest (proboszcz) of the Farna Church because this plot bordered on parochial land, in spite of the fact that the plot had been acquired by the Jews from the local Piarn Monastery. The Pleban (superior priest), too, maintained that the new synagogue would stand too close to the church and would therefore disturb its services. Actually, the synagogue was to stand only a few paces closer than the aforementioned prayer house, this being the reason for the senior priest's failure to change the location of the synagogue. But owing to his interference the erection of the synagogue was delayed for almost 10 years. The attitude of the senior priest met with negative reaction not only on the part of the Wielun dignitaries but also on the part of the administrative bodies. But the authorities had to capitulate to the demands of the clergy in matters of Catholic faith. As proof thereof can be cited the correspondence of the Wielun district commissioner with the province Commission of Kalisz to which Wielun then belonged. On April 1, 1831 he wrote: “From a religious point of view I can see no significant reason that should prevent the Jews from worshipping their God in the proximity of the Christian church. As, however, in religious matters the opinion of the clergy carries more weight, I am obliged to bow to it in this case.”

The commissioner took advantage of the obstinacy of the clergy and of the project for the beautification of the town in determining a different location for the synagogue. It was his intention to build a hospital on the ground belonging

[Page 20]

To the synagogue–council and to have the new synagogue built in the center of Wielun, which in his opinion, would enhance the aspect of the town. The Jewish spokesmen, however, did not accept this proposition and insisted on the synagogue being built on its original site. Only in 1840, when the old prayer house threatened to collapse, did the town–authorities finally consent to the construction of the synagogue. But in the ten–year old project some small changes had to be made: the roof was to be covered with tin instead of roof tiles, as the roof tiles which were to be used according to the original contract, did not prove to be strong enough. Furthermore, an exchange of a part of the property was effected for the reason that one side of the community–property on which the windowed wall was to be built bordered with the site of the church dependencies (probostwo), and should a building have been put up on that place, it would have obstructed the windows.

As during the past ten years the prices of building materials had gone up, adjustment in the building estimate had to be made. For lack of sufficient financial means, it was not possible to build the “mikveh” simultaneously. This matter became even more complicated because the “mikveh” was to have been built upon a part of the ground occupied by the old steam–bath. It

 

wiee020.jpg
The synagogue of Wielun.
Erected in 1840 and destroyed by the Nazis in 1939

 

was therefore decided upon to build a provisional “mikveh” adjoining one wall of the synagogue. This, however, did not solve the financial difficulties and for this reason the building activities were extended over a long period.

Finally, all pertinent details were agreed upon on February 13, 1840 at a special meeting in Wielun. In that meeting there participated the members of the town–council, headed by the mayor, Brzostowski, the synagogue–council being represented by Berek Trottel, Herszlik Majerowicz and Dawid Sieradzki. The minutes of the meeting read as follows: “Since the investment of the total sum toward the construction of the new synagogue would be difficult for the local community, the synagogue–council, in the name of the community, submits the following proposal: the construction work to be carried out in three yearly stages. The walls and roof to be erected in the first year; in the second year, the exterior to be plastered, doors and windows to be installed; in the third and last year, the floors to be laid, the interior to be painted, furnished and decorated”. The building estimate came to 33,043.13 zloty, i.e. an amount higher than that laid out for the textile factory that had been built by Wiegelt during the twenties. Fifty–three people were appointed to collect the funds for this purpose. Not one Jewish family was passed over in this collection of monies. The synagogue–council acting in accord with the town–authorities of Wielun, determined a special tax in January 1841. The largest contribution–taxes were to be paid by Melech Moszkowicz – 380 zloty; Dawid Markus – 250 zloty. Eleven people contributed less than 100 zloty; some contributed only 4, 5, 6 and 8 zloty each. Even though the synagogue council had been sure that all the Jews would be glad to contribute in favor of the synagogue, there were some who protested against the amount of taxes imposed on them. Jakob Wiener, for instance, brought charges before the town–authorities in which he claimed that the members

[Page 21]

of the synagogue–council had unjustly burdened the Jews of Wielun by those taxes. They had imposed on him the sum of 150 zloty which was beyond his means.

These antagonisms resulted from inner frictions that likewise found expression at that time within the other Jewish collectivities. The above fact, which applied also to Wielun, bears witness to the typical side–effects in the social life of the Polish Jews of that period.

The approval of the construction of the new Jewish synagogue according to the previously accepted projects, the intention to incorporate that building in the designs to embellish the town,

 

wiee021.jpg
The center of Wielun and the “Old Market” in the year of 1900

 

establishes the recognition of the stability of the Jewish community in Wielun. This was of the greatest significance inasmuch as, until 1858, the Polish population had still opposed the ingathering of Jews in Wielun.

In the twenties of the 19th century the district capitals of the Polish Kingdom created ghettos that were designated as Jewish quarters. Nonetheless, the town notables of Wielun did not concur with the arrangement of a Jewish quarter, but demanded the total evacuation of the local Jews, a demand legally based on the decree issued by Zygmunt August as well as the confirmation of that decree by King Stefan Batory.

The Mazowiecie Province Commission issued an order in 1834 commanding all Jews to leave Wielun. The Jews of Wielun, however, did not take this lying down, but submitted a petition to the government commission for interior affairs, requesting the cessation of persecution directed against them. That petition reached the hands of commissioner, General Zajonczek, who revoked the eviction order and decreed that the Jews remain in Wielun and reside in an especially designated area which, however, did not come into being as it was to have been decided upon in connection with the town–planning. To such urbanization all town–centers of the Polish Kingdom were affiliated. The project concerning Wielun was delayed and the existing blueprints were rejected by the higher authorities; in all probability, the local municipality did not show sufficient initiative in that direction. Even prior to the ruling of General Zajonczek, the synagogue had endeavored to ensure an area where Jews would be permitted to reside so as to avoid their expulsion from the town, since the existence of such an area would establish their right of residence. In 1833 the administrative council of the Polish Kingdom halted the proceedings concerning the creation of Jewish quarters in the towns, for which reason he Jews remained in Wielun and no internal limitations as to their residing in the town were introduced.

From 1823 to 1862 limitations were still imposed upon Jews desirous of settling in border–territory. These restrictions equally applied to Wielun, it being a border town, and impeded the increase of its Jewish population. Disregarding these regulations, a number of Jews moved into Wielun, among them three teachers who were absolutely essential to the Jewish community, as well as five other Jewish families: Einnehmer, Kantorowicz, Lichtenstein, Eilend and one more family. Toward the end of the thirties of the 19th century the Wielun inhabitants had given up their attempts to expel the resident Jews, but made efforts to rid themselves of the abovementioned families. These efforts were connected to the inner friction

[Page 22]

among the Wielun Jews. For inexplicable reasons, many of the original Jewish residents of Wielun came out against the settlement of the new Jewish immigrants. One can conjecture that they acted in this manner out of fear to bring about new sanctions against the entire Jewish population, or simply because of commercial competition. It came to the point where the opinion of that part of the Jews who maintained that the newly immigrated Jews abandon the town was discredited in the eyes of even the Christians in Wielun. In the protest of the Christians to the government of the Polish Kingdom in 1838 the following is stated: “Since the Jews themselves have written in their petition concerning the matter and based on the complaint addressed to the province authorities of Kalisz by the Jew Dawid Trottel”, the Christians demanded the expulsion of the Jewish newcomers. The fact that Dawid Trottel was a member of the synagogue–council is noteworthy.

Actually, however, not all Christians protested against the settling of Jews there. During the years 1840–1841 there occurred the affair of Moritz Goldstein who had obtained permission to trade and purchase a house in Wielun. Besides, he was also the proprietor of a tavern in the market. One part of the house–owners endeavored to have Goldstein move while others (Christians) acted exactly in the opposite manner; they petitioned that Goldstein's permit be honored. Goldstein was a person of capability and initiative (the son of a Wielun tailor) who had been apprenticed to a merchant in Kalisz and probably also managed a wine trade of his own. He was an educated Jew, and those Christians who supported him emphasized that: “The Jew Moritz Goldstein is a citizen of the town by birth and his family has been residing here for a very long time. He studied in Polish schools, dresses like a Pole and thus is part of the civilized Jews”. Despite the fact that they did not use the word “civilized” appropriately, there can be no doubt that Goldstein was different from the Wielun Jews of the town. His detractors kept sending to the government many anonymous compromising letters which, however, had no effect.

In 1858 Wielun burned down, the conflagration being almost as disastrous as the one of the year 1791. While the town was being rebuilt, the matter of a “Jewish quarter in Wielun” again became topical. That matter was brought to the fore by the government–delegated commissioner who discovered that a Jewish quarter had not yet been established, albeit he hit upon difficulties while planning to regulate the appearance of the city. But now, after the fire, while preparing a new urbanization plan for the town, it became possible to allot certain streets to Jews. The well– known anti–Jewish edict dating back to the 16th century which, even though it touched on various other matters, was tendentiously exploited by that civil servant. The synagogue–council represented by Leib Cohen (he used the name of Loebel Cohn in German), came out with a sharp protest which he submitted in Warsaw in 1858. It is worthwhile stressing the arguments employed by the leaders of the Wielun Jews, arguments which were different from the ones heretofore employed in complaints and petitions. Cohen sharply criticized all measures directed against the Jews in Wielun. In his writing addressed to the government commission for interior affairs he emphasizes that the delegated civil servant in the gutted town of Wielun: “Instead of having pity on the grievous fate that had overcome the Jewish inhabitants and looking for ways and means to save them, has closeted himself in the archives of the Wielun town hall for the purpose of dusting the wilted documents dating back to Stefan Batory's time, so as to create a reaction against the Wielun Jews with the object of removing them from the town”. That was not an obsequious petition but a definite attack on the leading figures of the royal administration; an attack undertaken by a man convinced of his being in the right and of a vital

[Page 23]

significance of the matter in hand. Leib Cohen drove home in a drastic manner the link between the affairs of the Jews of Wielun with the overall social changes taking place at that time. He wrote: “With the progress of civilization and culture among the nations the administrative perspectives of countries are being perfected, and the laws are adopting new forms corresponding to the new outlook on human dignity in social relations. Disregarding this reality, the aforementioned delegate (commissioner) has recommended the use of power as wielded by the forebears as exemplified in the laws of the 16th century, and would be glad if those laws were to be applied to Wielun today against the Jews, so as to deprive them of the privileges which they have achieved in the town only after such a long period of residence”. This was written by Cohen in Warsaw, and it is possible that he was then in contact with Warsaw intellectuals who influenced him. He realized that the fact of long–term residence of Jews in Wielun carried more weight than the feudal anti–Jewish decrees issued by the Polish kings. Leib Cohen's intervention brought about the annulment of the project to establish a separate Jewish quarter and thwarted once and for all any further attempts to exploit the anti–Jewish laws of the 16th century.

The subsequent history of the Wielun Jews is linked to a new era when all aspects of their life were based upon foundations other than those in existence until then. In Wielun there were represented all social, political and religious institutions as well as Jewish organizations whose active leaders in the town protected the vital interests of the Jews.

 

wiee023.jpg
Views of Wielun
1) The Town Hall. 2) Sieradzka Street. 3) The Town Park.

 

[Page 24]



The Yizkor Book Committee of the Jews of Wielun in the United States
honors the memory of its members who died in the United States
Hershel Stavski
Joseph Orenbakh (Orens)
Yitshak Wolf Shmulevitch
Kasryiel Sokol (Sholkovski)
Honored Be Their Memory!


 

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