"Koło" - Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities
in Poland, Volume I

52°11' / 18°37'

Translation of "Koło" chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

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, page 230, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

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(page 230)

(Koło District)

1.9.39 ?4987

Jewish Settlement Up To 1939

Koło (hereafter K) was built over the river Warta in the 13th century, and achieved town status in the year 1362.

The most reliable information regarding the Jewish settlement in K is from 16th century sources. In 1564, the king granted the Jews of K the right to reside in the town, and to pay the same taxes and monies due to the monarchy as were obligatory on all K residents. In 1571, a contract was drawn up between the Jews and the Christian town residents, according to which, the Christians guaranteed that in return for a yearly tax paid to the town hall, they would protect the Jews from attack. In 1593, the town agreed not to imprison Jews sentenced to serve, in their prison, if the Jewish community leaders act as their guarantor. In 1729, a yearly head tax of 150 zloty was imposed on the community; in 1738 this was assessed at 300 zloty. During the Polish nationalist rebellion under the leadership of Kosciuszko in 1794, the Jews were badly affected by the change in government. They were forced to provide all kinds of services for the fighting men, and to pay the salaries of emissaries and spies.

The main sources of income of the Jews of K in the16th century were crafts and commerce. Among the Jewish merchants were wholesalers who exported leather and tallow to Germany. The Christian guilds, ever hostile towards the Jewish craftsmen, were, in 1593, granted the right to forbid non-Catholics to join the Tailors' Guild.

In a 1764/5 census, 65 Jewish households were listed, and more than 58% of them were craftsmen: 16 tailors, 6 furriers, 9 butchers, 4 weavers, a hatter and barber. The rest made their living from commerce and services: 13 merchants, a rabbi, a teacher, klezmer performers, and so on.

In the 19th century, most particularly, towards the end of the century, there was a change in the professional composition of the Jews. This was brought about by, among other things, industrialization. According to an 1897 census, 52% of the Jews of K earned their living from commerce, and 23% from crafts and industry. Most of the merchants (35%) traded in grain crops and other agricultural produce (226 families). The rest traded in woven materials, garments, beverages, and mediation (middlemen). 60% of all those who earned their living from industry and crafts worked in the clothing industry, 12% in food production, and the rest in weaving, knitting, metal and building. The Jews of K were, in fact, pioneers of the industrialization of K. In 1864, Jews owned a large plant producing colored cloth, which employed 33 workers; they also owned two pottery works employing over one hundred workers. The Jews of K set up a brick-incinerator, two printing houses and a number of small works.

In the 18th century, the Jewish community of K was considered medium sized, and was included within the framework of the Four Countries Committee, together with Greater Poland. K was the 9th largest in 1764 among the communities of the Kalisz region. In 1765, a synagogue was inaugurated; the second one was built nearly 100 years later, in 1860. There are no particulars regarding the first rabbis of K - the earliest preserved information refers to a Rabbi Leizer Bar Gedaliah who served as rabbi of the K community at the beginning of the 19th century. In the 1820's, a Rabbi named Ephraim Segal served the community. He was the son of Rabbi Yoseph Haim, the presiding judge of the Jewish religious court of Kalisz. Among the rabbis of K in the 19 th century, the name Rabbi Meir Orbach (1813-1878) stands out. He was inducted to serve as rabbi in1846; in 1859, he went up to Jerusalem to serve as chief rabbi to the Ashkenazi community. In the second half of the 19th century the following rabbis served the community of K: Rabbi David Fligeltov, known as 'Dove's Wings', and Rabbi Avigdor Yehudah Dakvil. Rabbi Dakvil was renowned in his day as a Torah scholar, and one who also studied the hidden writings of the Kabala. He led an ascetic life, and was much in demand as interpreter of Jewish laws.

The burgeoning Haskalah (the movement for Jewish secular education) was in evidence in K in the 1830's though seven Jewish children were already attending a K public school in 1828. Government authorities aimed at disbanding all the cheder schools, and compelling the Jews to send their children to public schools, in 1836, the mayor of K decreed that all the cheder schools be closed down, and the children attend government schools. The Jews tried hard to keep the cheder schools going, but in 1838 ten Jewish educators were forced to sign a declaration stating they would no longer teach in the cheder. Later, when Russian became obligatory in the school curriculum, the absence of this subject in the cheder was another pretext for closing them down.

K was one of the first towns in Poland where branches of modern political parties were set up. The Jews of K established a branch of the Zionist Movement in 1898, and sent emissaries to the Zionist Congress. On the initiative of the Zionists, a Hebrew library was founded in 1902, and in 1911, the first Hebrew school. A branch of Poalei Zion was set up in 1907- 8.

World War 1 brought a wave of refugees to K most of them from Łódź, putting a great strain on the economy. At first, the invading German army forbade any kind of community activity, however, from 1916, cultural and political activities were permitted. A civilian militia was then set up in which Jews were allowed to participate. With the renewal of community activities the Jews elected their Committee, and the Zionists won the election by a large margin. From now on, their secular policies strongly influenced the community: two Jewish secular schools for boys, and two for girls, as well as another Jewish public library, were founded. A drama studio was also established by theatre enthusiasts, its actors receiving instruction from the famous actor, Itzkovitz, from London who, fortunately for them, happened to be stuck in K for the duration of the war.

Between Two World Wars

During this period most of the Jews of K made a living from commerce and crafts, and were sole dealers in fruit, soap, haberdashery and cloth. The Jews owned 42 grocery shops, 20 haberdashery and shoe shops, 12 clothing shops, and 8 leather shops. Apart from these stores, there were tens of peddlers, butchers, middlemen, chicken sellers, as well as a number of restaurant and hotel owners. Most of the Jewish craftsmen of K were tailors and cobblers – some 200 families. Among 1,460 workshops counted in K in 1938, 550 were owned by Jews, including 329 who employed workers; a number of Jews earned their livelihood as wagon and truck owners. Among the small industries were cotton wool, candy, and tobacco, as well as 2 flourmills working on electricity. About 20 families made a living from agriculture. Few Jews worked in the liberal professions: 3 doctors, a dentist, engineer, 30 teachers and 10 clerks.

Extremely important to the economic life of the Jews of K was credit provided by such institutions as the Cooperative Bank, People's Bank, Pension-fund Bank, and funds for mutual assistance of small-scale craftsmen.

In the 30's most of the Jews of K suffered economically from the growing policy of economic dispossession of, and incitement against, Jews. In order to compete against the Jews, the Poles opened cooperative shops and a store selling iron goods. In the name of improving the town appearance, the Town Council ordered the destruction of Jewish homes on Okolana Street, where the poorest Jews lived, and the market was moved to the outskirts of the town, where there were a few Jewish shops. The 1936 pogroms carried out in Przytyk and in Zagorow also had repercussions in K. The fascist Endeks planned to start a riot - on market day so as not to arouse the suspicions of the authorities. The Jews, learning of their intentions organized self-defense, and the community leaders requested police intervention. On the day marked for the pogrom the Endek leaders and other thugs were arrested, and the catastrophe was averted. The Endeks, their anti-Semitic ardor undiminished by a temporary set back, continued to foment anti-Semitism: a few weeks later a large demonstration against the Jews took place.

The most influential parties in the Jewish community of K, at that time, were the Zionist parties, most particularly Poalei Zion, which consisted of a right wing faction, set up in 1916, and, following a split in the party in 1920, a left wing faction. During this period the General Zionists, Hamizrachi, and Agudat Yisrael were also active. Agudat Yisrael's activities were better known within the community institutions; the general public, however, knew of them through their rabbi, who was a member of that organization, and who was the last rabbi to serve in K. A branch of the Bund established in 1905 attracted many of the teenagers, though its influence on the general public was small in comparison with that of the Zionist organizations. Within the youth associations, Dror was most prominent; Hechalutz which was set up in 1919, owed its strength to the support provided by Dror, and from1931, a kibbutz-training farm in K – an extension of Kibbutz Borochov in Łódź, was preparing members for settling the land in a future Jewish state. A branch of the Zionist Youth Histadruth, established in 1928, was considered one of the most active in the movement, and from 1930-34 250 members joined, some 20 of them joining the kibbutz-training farm, and many made aliyah. Hashomer Hazair was also active in K though their activities petered out in the 1920's. In the 30's a branch of Beitar was set up, as well as, in 1934, WIZO, and the Women's Revisionist Organization.

In the 1920 Community Committee elections the religious, anti Zionist groups, did quite well: Agudat Yisrael 3, Hasidim 1, while the Zionists won 7 places. In the Community Council elections of 1931, the Zionist parties increased their representation at the expense of the Haredim (anti Zionists): Poalei Zion right wing – 5, Poalei Zion left wing – 4, Mizrachi – 2, and Agudat Yisrael only 1. The main concern of the community was support for their educational and cultural institutions. However, between the majority Zionist representation and the anti Zionist Agudat Yisrael and their supporters, there was a continuous, bitter struggle over the budget and allocation of funds. The Zionists demanded a larger share of the budget for their educational institutions; the minority parties fought to reduce funds provided for the Zionists, and demanded support for religious institutions only. With the emphasis on religion, the minority, religious parties gained financial help from the K governing powers. This eventually led to interference from the authorities and the dispersal of the Jewish community administration in 1932; in 1933 a temporary commissar was installed to run the community.

The Jewish community supported a large number of traditional welfare organizations: 'Help for the Needy', 'Bed Charity', 'Clothe the Naked', 'Support the Fallen', 'Hospital Visits', 'Aide for Bride and Wedding', 'Hospitality', and so on. Apart from the synagogue and Beth Midrash they also provided for a number of small Hassidic groups (such as Eyn Yaakov)

The last Rabbi in K was Haim David Zilber-Margolit who served the community from 1893. At the outbreak of World War 2, the elderly rabbi fled to relatives in Lublin, where he passed away in 1940, and was buried in the old Lublin cemetery. He supported Agudat Yisrael and was a member of the Council of Torah Elders in Poland; the rabbi also wrote many books, but with the exception of one, Speak Direct, which was published in Lublin before the war, the rest, hand written manuscripts, were lost in the holocaust.

The Jews of K were, at one time, active in the Town Council. In the local elections of 1924, out of the 24 Council members elected, 8 were Jews. In 1929, 10 Jews were elected to the Council: 4 Poalei Zion, left wing, 2 General Zionists, 1 Hamizrachi, 1 Bund, 1 Agudat Yisrael, and 1 non-political.

Zionists were most prominent in the realm of education and cultural activities: on their initiative an elementary school, a high school and kindergartens were established, as well as 2 public libraries, a people's college that offered lectures and evening classes to adults. The Bund set up their own kindergarten, and the 'culture-league', which organized a variety of cultural activities as well as a public library and a sports club.

Attached to the Beth Midrash, was a small Yeshivah where boys from out of town also came to study. In that time Nachum Sokolov was one of the boys who studied there. To supply the needs of the Yeshiva boys, the beadles founded a Boys' Society, for which they raised funds by obliging every Jewish household to buy a book of religious studies. They also arranged sleeping accommodation, and for members of the community to take turns having the boys for meals.

The K authorities, forever harassing the Jewish education facilities, in 1931 closed down the Hebrew high school, on the pretext that the building was unfit for use as a school. At the same time they limited funds normally allowed for Hebrew education.

A troop of amateur actors, most of them members of the Zionist movements, performed in K during the First World War. They also gave performances in the surrounding small towns, with great success.

The Holocaust

With the outbreak of war, several hundred Jews, most of them wealthy, and including public figures, fled across the Russian border, or to other towns. Some of them returned.

The Germans conquered K on 18.9.1939. On the second day of the invasion all the men were assembled in the market place from where, they were taken, as forced laborers, on foot, to repair bridges that were blown up during the fighting. No sooner had they started working, when the Germans began cruelly mistreating them – a number of Jews were drowned in the river by being forced to bring up stones from the water. At the same time the Germans raided Jewish homes on the pretext of looking for arms and murdered two Jews. One Jew was publicly executed because of a few bullets found in his home. These had been, inadvertently, left by his son, a soldier in the Polish army. Terrified by such actions, many young Jews fled the town. On 20.9.1939, the Germans set fire to the synagogue, and then, accusing the Jews of the crime, fined them accordingly. Starting in October 1939, more and more draconian measures were introduced: every Jew over the age of 14 was now forced to work for the Germans: they supplied manual labor for a variety of jobs at German plants, and with the German police. All Jews was now ordered to wear a Jew distinguishing sign: at first this was a yellow ribbon on the left arm, but later a yellow patch in the shape of the Star of David was attached to the chest and back. They were forbidden any contact with Christians, and not allowed to shop in their stores. Any Jew with the sum of over 200 marks in his possession was ordered to hand over the extra money to the authorities. In November 1939, all the intellectuals, both Jews and non-Jews of K were arrested together with people believed to be wealthy; a few hid but were caught and murdered. After a short period of time, those prisoners were released.

The Nazi authorities now imposed on Yoseph Shwartz, the last Jewish community leader, the task of forming a Judenrat – a Jewish council, to be made up of 11 members. This council consisted of people who had not been active in community affairs - anyway most of those had already fled the town. The Judenrat made great efforts to mitigate the nazi edicts by means of bribery, the funds for which they collected from the wealthier members of the community. They also opened a soup kitchen.

The first expulsion from K began on 10.12.1939, when 1,139 Jews were held inside ramshackle huts and buildings for over a week – starved beaten and tortured; eventually sent to Izbica Lubelska in the General Government. The Germans confiscated their property and their homes as well as shops, including the stock, which were handed over to German settlers. Many of those expelled to Izbica died of starvation and disease.

On 2.10.1940 the second expulsion took place. 150 Jewish families were carted off to the villages of Bugaj and Nowiny Brdowskie where a kind of country ghetto was set up. Some of these were, in November, sent to the labor camp in Inowrocław, the rest, to be exterminated in Chelmno.

At the beginning of December1940, a ghetto was set up in K, exit from which was forbidden by full severity of the law. Being cut off from the rest of the town the financial situation of the inmates soon deteriorated, and many of them, in spite of the danger involved, visited villages in the area in order to exchange for food the few goods they'd managed to hide. Overcrowding and starvation brought in their wake diseases, and a typhoid epidemic carried off many of these ghetto dwellers. From 19-21.6.1941, 500 men were sent, in two loads, to a labor camp in the area of Poznan. In August 1941, 100 girls were sent to a labor camp in Breslau.

During the days 7-11.12.1941, the Jews of K were ordered to come to the Judenrat building, which was next to the synagogue. An SS officer read out from a list the names of all the Jews there and ordered them to climb on to trucks, their bundles thrown on a towed wagon. The Polish police also participated in this operation. The Jews were told they were being taken to work on farms in western Poland and on the railroads, however, they were transported to the extermination camp in Chelmno.

After the war, a few tens of Jews, those who had survived the camps and others from Russia, returned to K, where, because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere, remained but a short time before hastily departing for larger towns in Poland.

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