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Translation of the Zgierz chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of the Zgierz chapter from
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume I, pages 106-111, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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|The Jewish Community until 1918
|Between the Two World Wars
After the Prussian occupation the inhabitants were unable to meet the invaders' request to supply the army with brandy. Instead, on condition that they could do this, the Jews were given permission to distil this product. Despite attempts to wrest it from them this privilege remained in Jewish hands until the 1820s. Then, however, Lejzor Moszkowicz, for example, was forced to sell his distillery to a Christian. His was the first plant in Zgierz to be built by a Jew.
Even prior to 1821 steps were taken to restrict the dwelling rights of Jews in the town. Thus, some of them were forced to sell their houses in the market place and adjacent streets. It was also forbidden to let houses to Jews in the town centre. The municipality, however, granted the Jews certain concessions, such as permission to buy cheap plots in a new street, called Lodzka; and they were also given building timber free of charge.
Zgierz was the first town in the Lodz industrial area to receive German industrial settlers. In 1821 the Government of the Kingdom of Poland signed the Zgierz Agreement with these - and this agreement formed a precedent for similar agreements in other towns during the process of industrialisation. Two of its paragraphs contained restrictions on the Jews. No. 38 laid down that no Jew could live in the new settlement, i.e. that of the German newcomers, or acquire property there. No. 39 specified that in the future no Jew would be allowed to engage in innkeeping, manufacture, or breweries and distilleries, apart from those already so engaged.
In 1824 the central authorities of the Kingdom of Poland ordered the establishment of a separate quarter for the Jews of Zgierz. It was decided that by June 1st, 1826, all the Jews were required to vacate the streets not included in this Jewish quarter. Excepted from this were families able to show in the census details of property and education. In the quarter were included Lodzka Street, and part of the adjacent Sieradzka Street. By 1851 24 houses had been built in the quarter, most of them of one storey. In the course of time the quarter became very crowded, for when it was started there were 30 Jewish families in the town, whereas 25 years later there were some 400. Most of the dwellings consisted of a single room, which often contained several families. There were therefore dreadful sanitary conditions, and these contributed to the spread of cholera in 1848, which claimed many Jewish victims.
The question of extending the ghetto was now raised, plans were drawn up, and efforts made to implement them - but in vain. Attempts to alleviate the overcrowding also failed. This was mainly due to landlords who demanded exorbitant prices for their plots, well knowing also that Jews were forbidden to buy land in other parts of the town. There were also landlords, both Poles and Jews, who opposed enlargement of the ghetto, since they were able to collect exorbitant rents because of the overcrowding. A different point of view was taken by landlords outside the Jewish quarter (Poles, but mainly German settlers) who saw a new source of income in letting flats to Jews. On several occasions they applied to the authorities for permission to allow Jews to live outside the quarter. The community council too asked the restrictions to be lifted. In 1854 the authorities agreed to add more streets to the quarter: Strykowska, Blotna, Konstantynowska, and part of the streets Piaskowa and Sieradzka. Even before official permission was granted Jews began to move into these, and the authorities did not stop them. Chances of a residence permit beyond the quarter also improved at this time. Thus in 1849 only seven families were living outside the quarter, while in 1854 there were 71 such families. In the 1830s and 1840s some Jews tried to settle there without permits, and the struggle to obtain them would go on for years, the successful applicants being only a few rich Jews. In 1862 the special quarter was abolished, in keeping with the abolition of dwelling restrictions for Jews throughout the Kingdom of Poland.
With the growth of the population and the development of industry the occupational structure of the Jews not only changed but diversified.
|Employed in trade
In the period under review the number of Jewish craftsmen increased. Especially rapid was the increase in the number employed in the clothing branch. In 1848 there were 46 tailors (compared to 15 in 1828), and 10 hatters (3 in 1826). In 1848 Zgierz was the site of the first Jewish craftsmen in the textile trade, employed in six branches: drill weaving, dyeing, wool fulling, weaving, carding cotton wool, and weaving trimmings. As early as 1828 a considerable number of Jewish merchants were engaged in the textile trade. A few of them supplied wool to the factories or to weavers who worked their looms. Some traded in wool and cloth, and a few sold other materials. These merchants did not confine themselves to buying and selling finished products - they also engaged in the organisation of the textile industry. The first Jewish industrialists in Zgierz began their activities in this way. There were also Jewish wholesalers and retailers in other branches of commerce. In addition, there were pedlars who wandered around the villages in the area, as well as market stallholders.
In the second half of the 19th century many of the Jews of Zgierz earned a living from transport, among them carters plying the route Lodz-Zgierz. At the beginning of the 20th century almost a 100 persons were engaged in this work. Only with the arrival of trams did they sell their horses and wagons and seek a living in other fields.
Jewish industrialists first appeared in Zgierz, centre of the weaving trade, in the 1830s. The founder of the first spinning mill there was a Jew. Among these pioneers were Henich Librach and his brother, who ran a plant with 20 looms. The next one was Izrael Litauer. The two large factories, of Szymon Waldberg and Markus Rubinsztajn, were established in about 1845. The authorities refused to allow Waldberg to set up a factory in the house of a Pole, outside the Jewish quarter; but after long and tiresome efforts he nevertheless succeeded. In time he bought the house and enlarged his factory. We have no exact information as to how long these early Jewish-owned plants functioned, but they were certainly in operation for some decades. In the 1880s the plant of Leon Margules was one of the biggest in Zgierz.
An autonomous community was established in Zgierz at the beginning of the 19th century. In its first decade the community council encountered various difficulties. There were cases of missionary pressure. In the 1820s and 1830s the Franciscan monastery in nearby Lagiewniki incited to conversion, as did the Anglican and Protestant missionaries who were active among the German settlers. Until the 1860s the council struggled with the difficult problems of housing in the quarter and with the obstacles involved in its enlargement. The council supported any Jews who sought a permit to live outside the quarter. Among the members of the council were the first Jewish industrialists, for in that industrial town they were considered affluent, and often much respected in Jewish society. Such men were Szymon Waldberg, Izrael Litauer and Henich Librach.
In addition to the existing prayer-houses, a wooden synagogue was built in about 1837. About 1860 a large, brick-built synagogue was erected. Before 1880 there was a hostel for the sick and needy, and in the 1880s a brick building for the new Beit Midrash was consecrated. The council encountered many difficulties in buying land to extend the cemetery. Purchase required the authorisation of the town doctor and architectural supervision, and these instances delayed the process. When these difficulties had been overcome the council then had to raise the necessary capital, but the authorities forbad a public collection. Contributions thus had to be made in secret, and the authorities were told that the money had come from a few rich persons in Zgierz.
During the First World War the Jewish community concentrated its efforts on helping the many Jews who suffered hunger and want. Money was collected from outside sources and in addition a special tax was imposed on Jewish merchants. During the German occupation the community also laid a tax on ritual slaughtering. Such a tax had been forbidden by the Russian authorities.
The rabbinate was occupied in 1827 by R. Szalom Zwi Hirsz Hacohen, formerly rabbi of Rakow. In his youth he had belonged to the court of the Admor R. Mendel of Kock. During his term of office in Zgierz, the town acquired a reputation for Torah learning, due to the yeshiva that he founded. This yeshiva produced hundreds of graduates, among them 50 qualified rabbis. The generation that followed him called R. Hacohen Der alter zadik (The Wise Old Man). On his death in 1877, the rabbi was R. Zwi ben Eliezer Hacohen, formerly rabbi of Sochaczew and Pultusk. From 1898 until 1940 the rabbinate was occupied by R. Szlomo ben R. Szalom Zwi Hacohen, author of Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace). He was the last rabbi of Zgierz, and perished in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.
Zgierz, as an industrial town with an impoverished and oppressed proletariat, was a good breeding-ground for revolutionary activity in general, and among the Jews in particular. At the beginning of the 20th century the Polish Social Democratic Party (SDKPL) exercised great influence on the Jewish population. There was at the time no branch of the Bund in the town, but the committee of this organisation in Lodz was active with propaganda. The Bund was only set up in Zgierz after the revolution of 1905.
Apart from the workers, the SDKPL was also active among the students of the Vocational School, where there were a good many Jews. They were active on the eve of the 1905 revolution, and took part in various rebellious incidents. Prominent among them was Josef Birencwajg, who was also a leading figure in the national workers' movement. Birencwajg was first arrested in 1901, when he was 20 years old and a fifth-year student in the school. The police found revolutionary publications in his home, and in 1903 he was sentenced to three years' exile in Siberia. In the meantime, the police found evidence of his activities, not only in Zgierz but also in SDKPL's branch in Lodz. On his return from Siberia, Birencwajg was imprisoned in hut 10, notoriously known as the Citadel, in Warsaw. He was taken there in secret and died there in May 1904. His funeral on May 6th turned into a large political demonstration of pupils and students. There were clashes with the police and many of the demonstrators were arrested.
This insurgency reached its climax in January 1905; a general strike was called, accompanied by demonstrations in which many Jews took part. In May and June 1905 there were again strikes in some factories and home industry workshops. The demonstrations were renewed in October, with participation by students of the Vocational School. The demonstrations were broken up by force, and many demonstrators arrested, including two students: Max Schreiner and Moshe Zajdman.
The first Zionist organisation in Zgierz was that of Tseirei Zion (Young Zion), in 1911. Its main activity in the early years was in the cultural sphere - the teaching of Hebrew and the distribution of literature. Agudat Israel in Zgierz started during the First World War, and it played an influential role within the community council.
At the beginning of the 19th century a number of Jewish children attended the local elementary school, together with Polish children. This was a rare occurrence in the Poland of the time. The first state elementary school for Jewish children (boys and girls) was established in 1885, but was attended by only a few pupils. In 1913 a second class was added. In the same year a school of one class for girls was opened. Until the First World War a few more schools of the above type were opened - there were five of them in 1918.
In 1890 a reformed cheder started, on the initiative of Jews from Lithuania known for their modern approach to education and politics. The founder of this cheder was the author Yakow Binyamin Katznelson, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish. He contributed to Haeshkol (The Cluster) and to Hatsfira (The Refiner). He lived in Zgierz from 1889 to 1898, and here his son, the poet Yitschak Katznelson, was born, and attended the reformed cheder from his sixth to his twelfth year.
In 1912 the society Gdil Torah (Wreath of the Torah) was established. It strove to give Jewish youths free education, especially in religious subjects. The aim of the society was not only to have a school, but also to ensure the pupils' material existence while they were there; this was mainly achieved by opening a boarding school for pupils and teachers.
The year 1890 saw the establishment of Hazamir (The Nightingale), which was primarily a society for music and song, but was also active in other spheres (literary events, performances, lectures). It was supplemented with a sports and gymnastics section in 1913.
The Association of Jewish Craftsmen, founded in 1913, was also active in the cultural sphere and organised, for instance, nature study trips for its members. It also maintained a library and a clubhouse, as well as a public kitchen, which was especially important during the Great War. The association organised vocational courses for young people, and in 1915 a course for weavers. From 1910 on there was also a Yiddish library in Zgierz - and later on one for Hebrew.
|Number of votes in year
|General Zionists Alef
|General Zionists Bet
|League for Labour Israel
|Left Poalei Zion
In addition to the Zionist parties there were in Zgierz branches of the Bund and Agudat Israel, and affiliated to the latter Young Agudat Israel. In the same period there were also Jewish trade unions, Employers' Association, Craftsmen's Association, Jewish Merchants' Association, and the Jewish Tailors' Guild.
At the elections to the town council in Zgierz in 1919 three Jewish lists were presented: the United Jewish List (Zionists, Orthodox and Non-Party), the Socialist Zionists, and the Bund. The United List alone won three seats. In the elections of 1936 the Zionists won two seats and Agudat Israel one. It should be noted that a number of Jewish votes went to the Polish Socialist Party PPS.
At the end of the First World War the Jewish community concentrated its efforts on helping the Jews who had been hard hit by the war. With the help of American Jewry, mainly former residents of Zgierz in New York, the community succeeded in operating a bakery, a public kitchen, and a shop with low prices. The bakery continued to operate until 1923, and the kitchen and shop until 1924.
In the years following the war more than 1,500 persons benefited from community help (Passover alms for the poor). When the economic situation of the Jews improved a little (reopening of factories, etc.) the number of needy fell to 600 in 1922. The community ran and supervised the hospital and the Jewish orphanage. In addition to the community's welfare services with help to the needy, it had other activities: the Jewish People's Bank and the Provident Fund (established in 1927). The Joint contributed 5,364 zloty to the Fund, and the Bank gave 1,000 zloty. A few individual Jews added 1,000 zloty.
In the inter-war period the community maintained several cheders of the Talmud Torah type, that had been started before and during the war. In 1918 a cheder - Yesodei Hatorah - was opened by Agudat Israel and around 1920 the Bet Israel cheder also started. Also operating in Zgierz was a Jewish state elementary school (Szabasowka), at first with six classes, and later with a seventh.
At this time there were two sports organisations in the town: Maccabi and Shomria. Maccabi had most members and a wider variety of sports. Maccabi members also assumed community tasks: guarding Jewish property during anti-Semitic riots, and forming a security force during public events by Jewish organisations.
One of the principal examples of anti-Semitism at the time was the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in 1919-1920 (it had some time earlier been enlarged and improved). Tombstones were destroyed and a fence torn down. The community council suspected that the perpetrators came from nearby, and after the first violations decided to put the matter into the hands of the Jewish National Council in Warsaw, and to publish the incidents in the press. However, some members of the council were opposed to publicising the name of the place for fear of harming the relationship between the Jews and the Poles of Zgierz. So the proposed action was not carried out. Instead, local steps were taken, in that a delegation led by the rabbi asked the pastor to condemn the acts in his sermon. It is not clear whether the priest did so, but the acts of desecration ceased.
On Lag Ba'Omer, May 6th, 1920, anti-Semitic riots incited by the police broke out. The community council obtained permission to carry out the traditional parade through the streets of the town, but when the procession - elementary and secondary school pupils and members of Maccabi - was underway it was attacked by mounted police and dispersed. Two policemen beat and injured a child of seven and a secondary school pupil and uttered derogatory remarks. Four youngsters were arrested, and only released after intervention from the council. After the incident one of the Jewish members of the town council raised the issue at one of its meetings and suggested that the council send a complaint to the district authorities. This was opposed by the faction of anti-Semitic workers, who claimed that the participants in the procession sang Bolshevik songs, and thus caused the police to intervene. After a discussion, the town council declared that the police had indeed acted unlawfully against young people taking part in an authorised procession.
Anti-Semitism affected Jewish industrial workers and unemployed in particular. In 1919 unemployment money to Jews was paid out on Shabbat only, which meant that the religious among them were prevented from receiving it. Representatives of the community endeavoured to have this practice changed, but were told that it would continue.
Even the employment of Jewish workers by Jewish firms was sometimes affected by anti-Semitism. In 1920 the community council called upon Jewish employers to try and engage Jewish workers in their plants. The crux of the struggle, however, was not with the employers but with the Polish workers, who opposed the employment of Jews and thus coupled anti-Semitism with decreased competitiveness. Friction of this sort reached its climax in 1937 with a simultaneous strike in three factories: the Polish workers demanded the dismissal of Jews who had been taken on. The strikes led to a mass anti-Semitic movement that involved not only the strikers and their families but also a considerable part of all the workers in Zgierz.
At Broncher's cloth-printing plant the strike went on for five weeks. This plant employed 78 workers, of whom 13 were Jews. The reason for the strike was the engagement of Jewish worker no. 14. It should be noted that the strikes were called by the leftist union, whose representative declared that in Jewish plants not more than 10% Jews should be employed - as the Jews formed only 10% of the total population of Poland. The leaders of the textile workers section of the union described this as the personal opinion of the above representative alone, and called for an end to the strike. However, only a few of the workers went back to work. The others demonstratively joined another trade union that was under the influence of the (anti-Semitic organisation) Andak, which now organised the strike. However, the numbers of strikers did diminish until only 27 were left, all of them Andaks. The strikers received money from the solidarity funds of the workers. They also received part-time work in the plant of the Jew Reingart, and were thus able to continue their strike at Broncher's. The daily paper Neue Volksblatt delivered a sharp attack on Reingart's behaviour. Broncher asked the local labour inspector to remove the strikers, but he replied that the strike was of economic character and that the law forbad him to interfere. Broncher now announced that the plant would be closed for six months. The strike ended only in April, after repeated efforts by the authorities and the labour inspector.
At Raucher's underwear factory, which employed 60 workers, there were 10 Jews. The strike here broke out when an unemployed worker was to be taken on as the eleventh. The Polish workers prevented him from working and declared strikes on Shabbat that continued for some weeks. All attempts at mediation were in vain.
The strike at Eiger's plant started with the hiring of three new Jewish workers. This strike ended quickly after a meeting with the inspectorate of labour, and the three Jews were not dismissed.
Signs of anti-Semitism were evident in Zgierz and its environs, wherever there were Jews. In front of the railway station in the resort town of Grotniki, between Zgierz and Ozorkow, a large anti-Semitic poster was put up in the summer of 1932. It stayed there for a long time, and the authorities showed no willingness to have it removed. Its message was: Jews are forbidden to get off here!.
Zgierz numbered among its Jewish sons a number of personalities. In 1865 the writer Dawid Frishman (Fryszman) was born there, and though afterwards he lived elsewhere he inspired cultural activity among the Jewish inhabitants. At the end of the 19th century and until the 1930s one of the outstanding Zionist personalities in Jewish cultural life was Issachar Szwarc. His articles appeared in Hatsfira under the pseudonym Yom-Shachor (Day of Darkness). His house was a centre for Jewish intellectuals. He also nurtured talented youngsters and helped them enter the world of art. He was a member of the community council on various occasions, and was the founder of the Jewish People's Bank (see above).
On the day Zgierz was occupied - September 7th, 1939 - the Germans shot a Jew who got in their way as they entered the town; and one of the Jewish notabilities, Dr. Kalkrat, committed suicide by taking poison. That same evening many Jewish men were arrested (the numbers are reported variously - from a few hundred to a few thousand) and imprisoned in a local church. They were held here for two days without food and water and were brutally beaten. Their families were not allowed to see them. From time to time a German official came to tell the captives to prepare for death. However, on the Sabbath (September 9th) they were all released.
From the first days of the occupation the Germans seized Jews, men and women, and employed them in strenuous and dirty work, such as cleaning dustbins and lavatories. While working, the Jews were beaten and abused. The women were ordered to remove their dresses and, clad only in their underwear, to use their dresses to clean the floors of offices and barracks. They were also ordered to clean the toilets with their bare hands.
Plundering of Jewish property began on September 10th with house searches, on the pretext of looking for weapons.The Germans took everything that was easily removable: cash, jewellery, food, underwear, clothes and furniture. Floors were ripped up, ovens destroyed and basements dug up. In the weeks following Jewish factories and shops were confiscated or looted. One Jew, who resisted the stealing of his wares, was murdered in a sadistic manner - he was buried alive. Theft of Jewish assets was also implemented by the imposition of contributions. The first sum - 10,000 or 100,000 zloty -was demanded of the Jews after the Feast of Succot. This amount was paid immediately. Three weeks later the Germans arrested 20 persons, including the rabbi. After some hours in prison senior German officials entered the prison and ordered a list of the detainees' property. Thereafter, the authorities demanded a second imposition - 250,000 zloty - and forced the hostages to sign a guarantee that the sum would be paid by 10 a.m. the next day. The captives were then released. This latter sum was also paid within the specified time. The Jews of Zgierz were also expelled from the better houses, and were not allowed to take their possessions with them.
As in other places, the Germans in Zgierz carried out acts of violence designed to aggrieve Jewish religious and national feelings. Jews doing forced labour had to clean dustbins, lavatories and floors with their prayer-shawls and wigs. During the house searches sifrei torah, sacred books, tefillin and mezuzot were removed, and their owners beaten until the blood flowed. The Germans tore out the pages of the sifrei torah and burned them in the market-place, together with the other religious articles. Jews wearing prayer-shawls were forced to dance in the streets. The beards of the devout were cut off, and in one instance a Jew was forced to swallow his hair. One night the Germans took a group of Jews from their homes, ordered them to place buckets and women's hats on their heads, and then led them through the streets, while forcing them to sing Hatikvah and the popular song Mein Steitele Belz (My little town of Belz). In view of the danger involved in carrying out religious rites, the rabbi forbad clandestine minyanim (prayer quora) on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Eight days after the second fine was paid, in November 1939, the Germans set fire to the synagogue and the Beit Midrash. The synagogue burned down that same night. Only the sifrei torah were saved, as Jews had removed them beforehand and hid them in the rabbinical building in the cemetery. After the fire, the rabbi was ordered to pay 250 zloty to cover the alleged cost of extinguishing the flames. He turned to the chairman of the community, who paid the Germans the sum demanded. The next day the Germans ignited the Beit Midrash, and this time demanded the sum of 100 zloty (according to another version, the Germans demanded money to cover the cost of the petrol used in the two fires). The Nazis also took care to find a guilty person - and the tinsmith Dawid Gottlieb, who lived nearby, was arrested on this charge. Gottlieb spent six weeks in prison.
The Jewish cemetery was also desecrated: gravestones were pulled up, rabbinical buildings destroyed, and the whole area obliterated and turned into a park.
The number of Jews in Zgierz declined considerably in September-December 1939, owing to spontaneous flights from the town after the above incidents and for fear of future ones. Most of the refugees went to various towns in the General Government.
The Jewish community in Zgierz came to an end in December 1939. On the 26th of that month, or the following day, the authorities announced that all the Jews were to assemble at 7 a.m. in the courtyard of the Polish association Sokol, and would be permitted to take with them 25 kilos luggage and up to 50 zloty in cash per person. Upon the appearance of this announcement the wealthier Jews left the town and endeavoured to take their possessions with them. But at the very start, at the exit of the town, they were beaten and their property taken from them. The ordinary Jewish mass assembled as ordered. Their possessions and money were taken from them, and they were brutally beaten. Even babies' prams were snatched from the mothers. The Germans led the more than 2,500 souls to Glowno, in the General Government. En route, any deportee with money or valuables was threatened with death. Those that had hidden such items threw them away.
Only a few Jewish families remained in Zgierz. These belonged to craftsmen useful to the Germans. Apparently, they lived not in the town itself, but in the nearby villages. In September 1941 there were 81 (22 men, 30 women, 22 children and 7 old people). On January 12th, 1942, this remnant was moved to the ghetto of Lodz, having been taken there in wagons with all their possessions, and even food and heating materials.
In the early years after the war some 60 families of Jews who had lived in Zgierz on the outbreak of the war were found in Poland. They settled in Lodz or in Lower Silesia. A few returned to Zgierz, but by 1950 even this handful had disappeared.
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