by Meilech Bakalczuk-Felin
This historic monograph Chelm is issued as a result of the initiative of a very small colony of Chelemer in far-off South Africa, with the help of Landsleit in the Diaspora and in Israel. Surviving Chelemer Jews, spared by fate and providence from the gas-chambers in Sobibor and Maidanek and other extermination centres, and the wonderful intuition which inspired them to go abroad to distant continents, before and during the Hitler period, took upon themselves the duty of immortalizing their home-town in a memorial work. To be sure this book is by no means complete and does not tell of many periods and generations of the Chelemer Jewish community, which existed for roughly 700 years. This book has not been written under normal circumstances of historiography, and the published material about the destruction is mostly the work of untrained and inexperienced writers. The various memoirs, descriptions and notes, evidence and documents were sent in by persons scattered over many countries. It was therefore difficult to synchronize the dates and names and clearly establish the facts and happenings with any exactitude.
There was also no possibility of making any direct contact with Chelemer Jews, who could have supplied important material. Chelm is annihilated and gone. The houses are empty, without a Jewish soul, and the very streets have become a Jewish cemetery, saturated with the blood of Jewish martyrs, who have bequeathed a silent Will: When we are led to the slaughter, may our souls remain!
On account of all this it was difficult to collect all the necessary materials. Yet, with great effort, it has been possible to bring together a valuable collection of sources and documents, material and descriptions which unfold before us Jewish life in Chelm - its institutions and Societies, its schools and educational systems, organizations and political parties. There have also been published scientific tracts about its literary works and folk-lore. A very important contribution to the book is the material dealing with the destruction of Chelm, which was the main stimulus to issuing this historical monograph.
In the book are published valuable first-hand evidence and documents about the holocaust in Chelm. How the Nazi monster displayed his bestial cruelty in the first few months of the Blitzkrieg on the 1st December, 1939, in the bloody onslaught and death-march of Chelm, Hrubieszow and Sokol. The physiognomy of Hitlerism, red in tooth and claw, came to the fore - the real nature of Hitler, Streicher and Reinhardt Heidrich, Hans Frank and the S.S. General Globoznik, who was the supervisor over the Lublin reservation and established the death camps of Maidanek and Treblinki.
There was no room for self-deception or illusion that the Jews would survive the Nazi regime. The first Chelm slaughter should have served as sufficient warning, not only to the Chelemer Jews, but to Jews throughout the world that one could not take the German torments and murders as merely a sporadic incidental phenomenon of war.
The death-march in Chelm was in fact the beginning - the first part of the great Jewish catastrophe.
Already in the olden days, Chelm was a place of renown and many historic writings speak with praise of the work of the Jewish community of Chelm, which occupied a central position amongst Jewish communities in Poland. Together with the famous Jewish centres such as Krakow, Posen and Lemberg, it was deeply rooted in the proud and creative Jewish settlement in Poland where there was Torah and learning, Chassidism, Messianic romanticism, deeply rooted Jewish tradition and active work in the world of the mind. In the field of Jewish industry, commerce and handicraft, as well as in the world of culture, Chelm played its great part.
There is a legend that when the Jews migrated from the West, an epistle fell from heaven, stating:- Go to Poland! There you will find rest. But in the land of promised rest, Jews have suffered many torments and tribulations, attacks and persecutions.
In various documents we find a catalogue of persecutions and pogroms of Jews in Chelm; including the barbaric holocaust of the Chelemer Cossacks under Chmelnitzki: In the years 1655/1656, was the Jewish population reduced by two-thirds, and in the walls of the ancient synagogue were the graves of a bride and bride-groom who were killed close to the synagogue, during their marriage ceremony.
Danger hovered over Jews in Poland for many generations and I. L. Peretz has commemorated this danger in his Chelemer story: The Shabbas Goy Struck Jankele - a father of a large family - in the teeth, and took away from him the bread which he was carrying for his family. Then a meeting of all the Chelemer people were called by the Rabbi, because they realized that the danger was great.
In the various periods between one danger and another, Jews in Poland, including those of Chelm, found great moral strength to overcome their torture and troubles and struck anew deep roots in the Polish earth. The Chelm community evolved its own individuality, yet reflected in miniature, the most important qualities of the Polish Jewish community.
On the broad highways of Jewish history in Poland, Chelm occupies an important place. Even though little has remained of its pristine glory, we can see from that little the pulsating and creative forces which have during generations given rise to great names, Rabbis and learned men and modern thinkers. Institutions of all sorts grew. Political parties came into being - parties who fought for political and social liberties and kept vigilance to the very last day when the cataclysm raged over the streets of Chelm. Even under the German occupation, -active social work did not stop. Even between one "action" and another it continued. Proof of this can be found in the Minutes of the Conference of Social Self-Help, which took place in 1942. At that Conference representatives of Chelm district participated. The Minutes of the Conference which we publish in this Book are the best witness of the high quality and inexhaustible energy of Chelm. The Conference ranged over a wide held such as the fight against the epidemic of typhoid fever, the feeding of the starving, particularly children etc. Chaie Roze Ochs, delegate at the Conference spoke with great responsibility and deep concern about the fate of Jewish children, fearing that they would not survive the horror conditions of the time.
Definite reports about the Resistance Movement in Chelm have not survived. We only know of heroic revolts on the part of individuals. In
the course of the death-march, the Germans wanted to exempt Dr. Ochs and send him home, but with great dignity he rejected that offer stating: Where the Chelm Jews, my brethren are, there I shall be! He was shot during the death-march. Near the old synagogue, there lived the Lax family. When Mrs. Lax saw in 1940 how the Germans set fire to the Synagogue, she cried out aloud and uttered her protest against their action. As a punishment, the S.S. beat her nearly to death, and while she was still living, threw her into the burning Synagogue.
There has also been published The Martyrology of Zalmele the Beker, who was thrown by the Hitler murderers into boiling tar and was later crucified. He was under suspicion of having hidden some Jews in his bakery.
It is difficult to decipher and properly to interpret the evidence of Joel Ponsczak about the action at Wlodawa on the 26th October, 1942, he writes as follows:- It was twilight. No shooting was heard. Patrols marched up and down the streets. The hiding place was small and there were more than 20 people crowded into it. The heat was overpowering. At last dawn came. The murderers ran amok through the Jewish streets. All the time shots and the explosion of grenades were heard. The action lasted the whole day. Towards evening somebody knocked at our door.
We thought that they were patrols, but it was Mr. Mandel of the Judenrat, who gave us the frightful news of the two days of the action. 800 people were killed and 3,000 were taken away on foot to Wlodawa. About the last "action in Chelm on the 6th November 1942, the same Joel Ponsczak writes: Towards evening my family and 1, including my sister and brother-in-law and children, as well as two Slovak Jews, and a certain Samuel Szwarz and his wife, went to the school-house. We had a room to ourselves. There were also Jews in other rooms. They were all my friends and acquaintances. We visited each other during the night. When day broke, the murderers started their butchery. There was an absolute battle in the streets. The firing of machine-guns and explosion of grenades did not cease until evening, when it became calmer.
The above experience of Joel Ponsczak testifies to the existence of a Resistance Movement amongst the Jews of Chelm. He actually speaks of battles in the streets. There were certain individual cases of heroism, like the resistance of Mietek, son of Hersh Velcher, who fought with a Nazi during the death-march and fled to the forest.
It is a fact that the social activity never stopped in Chelm and the passive resistance was strong amongst the Jews of Chelm as is to be seen also from the Minutes of the Conference.
Hope and optimism were always the characteristic traits of the Jewish community in Chelm. This is evidenced in the treasury of folklore which has made the name of Chelm famous. Even though it is now established that Chelm was in the nature of a fictitious creation of Jewish humour, there is no doubt that Chelm contributed much to Jewish folklore, always a way of consoling the despair and resignation which might have overwhelmed the Jewish mind oppressed by the hardships of Jewish life.
Now Jewish Chelm has been transformed into a mountain of skeletons. As already mentioned the death sentence was passed on the town on the 1st December 1939. The defenseless Jews were driven from their homes at dawn to the market-square surrounded by S.S. formations and local satellites. The community of Chelemer Jews stood overwhelmed in
sorrow and dumb despondency, facing the multitude of murderers and executioners who viewed with hatred and murderous intent the helpless mass. The Jewish old men turned their eyes heavenwards, waiting for a miracle. Perhaps something would happen as is told of former times of woe. But no miracle occurred. The sky was dull and cloudy and they were sealed hermetically in a circle of Nazi and Fascist bayonets and machine-guns. Nor later was there a miracle when the Jews perished from hunger and cold, from epidemic and disease. No salvation appeared and when the deportation came, the children's "action and, at last, the complete annihilation in November 1942, the Germans had done their job thoroughly and had completely liquidated the Jewish population of Chelm.
The published material in this book will demonstrate every stage of the Nazi tactics. The last line had now been written to the chapter of the Jews who had lived in Poland and had been rooted there for hundreds of years.
Over the Jewish ruins, gaunt spectres move in the night; martyred Jews call upon us to remember their tragic end and their glorious past. Until the official historiography is compiled, these Yiskor books with vivid, first-hand information, descriptions and documents will serve the purpose of unfolding the great tragedy of Jewish martyrdom and heroism in the years of the Nazi war against the Jewish people.
With every day and every hour of Jewish life in the clamp of Nazism, they showed the greatest human endurance. After the barbaric holocaust of 1655/1656, the Resolution of the Council of the Four Countries was as follows:- May God take revenge for the innocent blood which was spilled like water, for the bodies which lay in the fields without burial. Everyone, who has but a spark of honesty must mourn for ages to come!
This Resolution of the Council of Four Countries should be recalled at the present time. May the Yiskor Book of Chelm, together with the other Yiskor books which have appeared and will yet appear, remain an imperishable Book of Life and an eternal tomb-stone in memory of the six million Jews who were annihilated in our greatest national holocaust.
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