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Translation of "Konin" chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of "Konin" chapter from
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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume I, pages 235-238, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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|1.9.1939||ca. 13,000||ca. 3,000|
|I.||The Jewish Community in Konin until 1918|
|II.||Between the Two World Wars|
In the 15th century there were some 180 Jews, living in 12 wooden houses. At the end of this century a fire ravaged a large part of the town, and the Jewish population was also hard hit. In the 16th century its situation improved, but an outbreak of cholera in 1628 reduced its numbers. In 1633 the Jews were concentrated in one area of the town. There they remained during the whole history of the community, in what was known as the Street of the Jews. After another epidemic in 1662, and in the wake of the destruction wrought by the Swedes in 1707, the number of Jews declined once more.
The first Jews in Konin engaged in giving loans with interest. In 1425 permission was given for two fairs a year to be held in the town, and these became central to Jewish economic activity. Primary in the 16th to 18th centuries was the grain trade, particularly in export. Small merchants acted as agents to the farmers of the area. Local economic activity increased from the beginning of the 19th century to the First World War, and the Jewish population grew.
Jews were active in the grain and seed trade, and they also exported poultry to Germany. Jewish wholesalers had large warehouses that supplied industrial products to the whole region.
The establishment of industry in Konin was mainly due to the Jews. They owned breweries, stocks of building materials, cement products, tiles, pipes, and roofing felt. At the end of the 19th century a number of Jewish-owned flour mills were built. This was followed by an agricultural machinery plant at the beginning of the 20th century, and a soap factory in 1917. Some Jews also engaged in banking, and in 1913 Izrael Szpigelfogel opened a loan and savings bank, which helped establish Jewish workshops and industries in the town. Jews also began to transport goods and convey passengers along local and inter-city routes, and timber was floated down the River Warta. Jewish contractors from Lódz carried out building projects on a large scale in Konin and its district. The 19th century saw an increase in the number of Jewish craftsmen: tailors, hatters, glaziers, tinsmiths, shoemakers, carpenters, painters, barbers, and stonecutters. In 1900 there was only one Jewish doctor in the town, as well as two dentists and a lawyer.
Until the end of the 18th century the Jews of Konin were administered by the community in Kalisz. At first, Konin's Jews were buried in Kalisz; but in the course of time a cemetery was consecrated on Czarki Hill. In 1806, however, burials here stopped for lack of space, and a new graveyard was established.
From 1810 on the institutions of the community were autonomous. The first rabbi of the community was R. Zwi Hersz Amsterdam, who held office for 39 years (1810-1849). He founded a yeshiva in Konin for Jews from the town and its environs. The rabbinate was next occupied by R. Zwi Hersz Orbach (Auerbach) from 1849 until his death in 1883. He was the author of Divrei Torah on Choshen Mishpat (for these and other Hebrew and Yiddish terms, see notes at end of translation) which was published in Warsaw in 1881. In 1884 the community chose as its rabbi R. Zwi Hersz Bierzynski, a hassid of Kock, and an associate of the author of Sfat Emet from Gor. R. Bierzynski led his flock for 21 years until his death in 1905. Finally, R. Jakow Lipszyc held the position from 1906 until the end of the community in the Second World War.
The Great Synagogue was built in 1766, and renovated in 1829, with the assistance of the artist Zajnwel Barasz. In 1870, at some distance from the synagogue, a Beit Midrash was established. At the end of the 19th century there were also various hassidic prayer-houses in Konin.
In the middle of the 19th century a study group for Talmud (Shas) was established. There were also other organisations in Konin, such as prayer, bible, and sabbath preservation societies. At the end of the century and the beginning of the 20th there were active charitable organisations: health services, a hostel, dowry collections, provident funds, etc.
In 1910 Jewish refugees expelled from Kiev arrived in Konin. On the outbreak of the First World War many of the Jews of Kalisz found refuge in Konin after their town had been largely destroyed by the battles. In both the above instances the Jews of Konin helped the refugees, providing them with soup kitchens and shelter.
The relatively early involvement of the Jews of Konin in the country's political life was shown by the participation of some of them in the Polish revolt of 1863. For his part in this uprising a Jew called Szlomo (surname unknown) was hanged and Meir Szlomo was sent to a military penal unit.
In 1913 a Zionist group made its appearance, and a year later could muster some 200 members. In that same year the Poalei Zion party was established, and an arbeiter heim (workers' home) was opened. The Bund had begun its activities in 1905, and its members took part in strikes and demonstrations in that year and the year after. The Russian authorities arrested many of its members and virtually stopped its activities. These were, however, resumed in 1915-1916, after the German authorities permitted political activity. In 1916 a Jewish wine merchant, Bernard Dancyger, was appointed mayor of the town, and he contributed much to its development.
In the sphere of education, in addition to the network of cheders, a state elementary school for Jewish children was opened at the end of the 19th century. 1901 saw the establishment of a library, which also catered to the Jews of the surrounding district. A reading room was opened there in 1911 and three years later a drama group began to give a series of plays in Yiddish. Tvuna evening courses were organized for religious youth in 1916.
At the beginning of the First World War fierce battles raged around Konin, and the town changed hands many times. The Jews suffered both under the Russians and the Germans. In the autumn of 1914 the Germans arrested many of the community's leading figures and held them as hostages. In 1915 a unit of German cavalry confiscated a quantity of winter clothing from the Jews . Owing to overcrowding and malnutrition a typhus epidemic broke out in 1915, claiming many Jewish victims.
Nearly all the Jewish political parties in Poland were also represented in Konin. The activities of Poalei Zion, sparse during the war, were only renewed in 1925. In 1931 the youth movement Freheit was established. The League for Israel Workers ( Haliga Lema'an Eretz Yisrael Ha'ovedet) included the following organisations: Poalei Zion, Freiheit, the Worker, the Pioneer, the Young Pioneer, Hapoel, and Hashomer Hatzair. In 1933 a Hechalutz (Pioneer) training kibbutz named after B. Borochow was established.
There were also in Konin branches of Hamizrachi, the Revisionist Movement, Betar and Brit Hachayal. Zionist women formed WIZO. The development of the Zionist movement in Konin may be gauged by the increase in the number of shekels contributed to the Zionist Congresses: in 1929 shekels were donated by 114 persons, in 1931 by 200, in 1933 by 668, in 1937 by 523, and in 1939 by 560. Agudat Israel, which appeared in Konin in the 1920s, also established a Youth Movement in 1925, while ten years later a branch of Poalei Agudat Israel was formed. Agudat Israel exercised considerable influence in the community council. A branch of the Bund was also active in Konin between the two wars, and at the end of the 1930s had two representatives in the council.
The old cemetery, as mentioned, was closed and the graves transferred to a new site in 1928. The Yavneh School was opened in 1918, as was the dual language (Polish and Hebrew) Jewish Gymnasium, with Aleksander Rusak as its first headmaster. The gymnasium, however, was closed in 1928 due to budgetary problems, but reopened a decade later on the initiative of a number of local citizens. The Yesodei Hatorah cheder opened its doors to pupils in 1923. Konin also possessed an ORT vocational school.
The Jewish library in Konin continued its activities, and in 1936 contained 8,190 books in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and German. Drama groups associated with the League for the Working Labour of Israel and the Bund were also in evidence. Cultural personalities connected with Konin included the painters Szaja Szer, Michail Eliahu Zadek, and his brother Menachem Zadek; the sculptor Marek Lewin, who studied in Darmstadt and worked in Dresden, and who visited Konin from time to time; the writer and journalist Meir Wajnsztajn; and the choreographer Mania Lipinski. Sports clubs were also to be found in Konin - Maccabi (1918), Shimshon, and Hapoel, as well as the sports sections of Betar and the Bund.
The Synagogue in Konin (Photograph from the 1930's).
The Jews were ordered to open their shops, and this led to looting of their wares. On November 30th, 1939, the Germans surrounded a number of streets densely populated by Jews, ordered them to take with them absolute necessities only, and assembled them in a Jewish school. On December 3rd about a thousand were deported to Ostrowiec Kielecki in the General Government. Here the local community gave them food and shelter. The deportees set up a committee, and organised mutual help. There were now some 1,500 Jews left in Konin.
At the end of 1939 and during the first half of 1940 a number of Jews escaped to Warszawa and to the Soviet-occupied zone in eastern Poland. In July 1940 the majority of those remaining in Konin, together with Jews from the whole district, were deported. Some were sent to Grodziec and Rzgów, which thus formed a sort of rural ghetto. Others were directed to the neighbouring town of Zagórów. All were sent to forced labour. In March 1941 most of the Jews in Grodziec were sent via Lódz to Jozefów Bilgorajski, near Lublin. In 1942 they were exterminated in a nearby forest.
In October 1941 the remnant of Jews from the whole Konin district who were assembled in Zagórów, Rzgów and Grodziec were taken to the forests of Kazimierz Biskupi, and murdered there. Most of them were forced into open pits of lime and buried alive. During their retreat in early 1945 the Germans removed their bodies and burned them, in order to conceal evidence of the crime.
After the Jews of Konin had been annihilated, a work camp was established on the site. In March 1942 more than 800 Jews from the area of Gostynin and Gabin (Gombin) were brought there and employed in harsh forced labour. Many of them died from exhaustion and disease. Forty-five Jews from the camp prison were buried in the Christian cemetery in Konin, but on July 17, 1942, their bodies were removed on the orders of the mayor, and interred in a nearby plot among other Jews.
At the beginning of 1943 many of the inhabitants of the camp were transported to their deaths in Chelmno and other concentration camps. This was the signal for some Jews to band together and carry out acts of sabotage and arson in the work camp. In August 1943 this underground group learned that the Germans were about to kill all the internees, and it set on fire a number of huts. Most of these saboteurs met their deaths in the action, but some survived. Following an investigation into the circumstances of the insurrection, the camp was closed and the captives moved to assembly points, and eventually to Auschwitz.
Among the prisoners in Konin and the group of rebels was Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aaronson. While in the camp he wrote a diary entitled Megillat Beit Haavadim. This diary and other testamentary documents he hid in two bottles, which he gave into the keeping of a Polish carpenter. Only some of these papers survived, but they bore witness to the life and fate of the internees in the camp at Konin.
Jews from Konin took part in the struggle against the Nazis in various places: Frania Batos, a member of Freiheit, arrived in Warszawa from Ostrowiec at the end of 1942. She was the liason officer of the Jewish fighters on the Aryan side. During the revolt of April 1943 she maintained contact with the ghetto fighters, and helped to get them out of the ghetto. She took her own life on May 12th, 1943, aged only 17. Riwka Glanc, also an active member of Freiheit, was among the leaders of the Jewish fighters in the ghetto of Czestochowa. She arrived in Warszawa and Zaglebie (Zaglembie) on a mission for the group and smuggled weapons. She fell in the defence of the Czestochowa ghetto on June 26, 1943. She was aged 28. Michail Strykowski, a leading member of Betar, studied in Warszawa, and during the German occupation was one of the central figures in the Jewish Military Union (Haigud Hazvai Hayehudi). He was killed in the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto.
In September 1945 a number of survivors returned to Konin, and established a local Jewish committee. At the end of that year there were in Konin 46 Jews (24 men, 15 women, and 7 children). Their situation was difficult. Their flats had been taken over by Poles. The attitude of the Polish population was hostile. At the beginning of 1946 the number of Jews increased to 60. However, conditions were unfavourable for a renewal of Jewish life and most of them left the town. In 1965 there were only two Jews left.
Choshen Mishpat: Breastplate of Judgment. Either a commentary on part of a book by Yakov Ben Harosh, or of the fourth part of Yosef Caro's Shulhan Aruch.
Sha''ss: An abbreviation for Shisha Sidrei Mishnah, which is 6 tractates of the Talmud.
Bet Midrash: Talmud school.
Sfat Emet: The Language of Truth.
Poalei Zion: Workers of Zion (Socialist Zionist party).
Bund: A political organisation of Jews formed in Vilna in 1897 to promote labour causes, Jewish nationalism, and Yiddish in eastern Europe - but opposed to Zionism.
General Government: a German administrative district (west of Lódz) during the occupation of Poland.
Cheder (pl. chadarim,/ cheders): meaning 'room' - a religious or Hebrew 'Sunday School'.
Tvuna: Wisdom, understanding.
Megillat Bet Haavadim: Scroll of the House of Slaves.
Freiheit (Yiddish/German, Freedom, Hebrew - Dror): a Jewish youth movement.
Poel (pl. poalim, genitive pl. poalei): worker. Hence Hapoel, the worker, in combinations such as Poalei Zion, Hapoel Hamizrachi, etc.
Hashomer Hatzair ( The Young Watchman): Socialist Zionist youth movement.
Betar and Brit Hachayal: Right-wing Zionist youth organisations.
Agudat Israel: Non-Zionist Orthodox Jewish political movement, established in 1912.
ORT: Organisation for Rehabilitation and Training, founded in St. Peterburg in 1880 to develop skilled job training for your Jews, and from 1921 spreading to western Europe, Israel and other lands.
WIZO: Women's International Zionist Organisation
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