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Translation of Bilgoraj chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
Morris Gradel z"l
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This is a translation from:
Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VII, pages 93-97, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(Bilgoraj District, Lublin Province)
Bilgoraj (B) began in 1578 as a private town of the nobility. Its economic development was rapid as a result of the manufacture of sieves and strainers made from horse-hair - and it became known also beyond its environs as the town of sieves. In the 19th century new plants were established to produce metal wire, lattice work for building, and wagon arcs. The same period saw the beginnings of a weaving industry.
Jewish settlement in B at the end of the 16th century was among the first in the Lublin district. The town owner, the nobleman Adam Gorajski, permitted the Jews to engage in trade and crafts, to live in the town, and to build houses anywhere save in the market square.
The Jews of B were among the victims of the edicts of 1648-49. In the books of Nathan Nute Hannover (Yevain Metsula - for explanation of this and other terms, see notes at the end of this translation), and Chaim Yona Gurland ( Tsuk Haitim) the community of B is mentioned as one of those wiped out by the Cossack invasions.
In the 18th century the Jewish community in the town was restored, and its members were engaged as before in trade and crafts. There were as early as 1780 Jewish craftsmen organised in guilds, each with its own prayer-house. In the 19th century the Jews of B expanded the sieve industry and trade, and exported their wares to countries such as Russia, Germany and Hungary. Their success aroused the ire of the other townspeople, who tried in various ways to curtail Jewish economic activity. To quote from an article published in Hatsefira in 1890:
The Jews of Bychawa, absorbed and entwined in the mesh of commerce, live securely amid their Christian neighbours. Many of them are craftsmen in various branches, in particular the production of sieves and beer. A thousand men and women are at work from morning to evening ... One Christian got the idea of opening a bakery for challot and wafers baked in oil. This step was noted by many of his acquaintances in the town who, also hearing that the peasants had established businesses in the villages, were taken with the notion. Not only did they open a shop to sell non-kosher meat, but also started to slaughter and sell kosher meat. However, the rabbi refused to bear witness to the honesty of the Jew chosen to market the meat to his co-religionists. Application was then made to the rabbi of the nearby town of Frampol to approve of a Jew from that town, but he too refused. When these Christians realised that this meat business was doomed without a Jew as middleman they opened new shops in the town centre to sell bakery products. To these they added soft drinks (soda water); and they also extorted large sums in the collection of targowe (taxes) on goods which had long been the preserve of three poor Jews.
At the beginning of the 19th century the Kronenberg family started a Hebrew printing-house in B, which developed rapidly and acquired a good reputation.
A synagogue was built in B at the end of the 18th century, and about the same time a cemetery was consecrated. When the Council of the Four Lands was established, the community at first came under the district of Chelm, and in 1731 that of Zamosc. The leaders of the community were active in the deliberations of the Council and exerted considerable influence on its decisions.
The first rabbi of B known to us was R. Shmul (1740-1807). He was a nephew of the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles) and the author of the book of Responsa Bet Shmul. He was 24 when he took office. In 1795 he was obliged to leave B as a result of a fire that destroyed almost all the Jewish houses. He then moved to the community of Przeworsk and was later Head of the Beth-Din in Tarnopol, and at the end of his life that of Poznan.
After R. Shmul's departure, the rabbinate of B was occupied by R. Eliahu Margules, followed by R. Moshe Tsvi Hirsz Majzels (died in 1801). who later officiated in Lancut and Zolkiewka. His son, R. Avigdor Majzels, was 18 on his appointment to the presidency of the Beth-Din in B, and was its rabbi for almost 50 years. When he died, he was succeeded by his son-in law, R. Yitzhak Natan Nete Berliner (died 1864), who also held office for a similar period. His son-in-law, R. Nachum Polast, took over briefly until his death, when the community chose R. Shmul Engel, son-in-law of R. Mendel Wajsman, a leading citizen of the town. The authorities, however, refused to sanction his appointment, as he was an Austrian national. (Later on, R. Engel became rabbi of Radomysl, and gained a reputation as a leading interpreter of the Law.) Instead, the rabbi chosen was R. Jakob Mordechai Zylberman, who moved to Lublin on the outbreak of the First World War, and died there. The next rabbi of B was his son, R. Josef, who held office and was also a dayan in the immediate post-war years. R. Josef was active in Agudat Israel.
The Jews of B suffered greatly during the war. The town was conquered early on by the Austrians, after the Jews had been plundered by the retreating Russian troops. In the spring of 1915 the Russians broke through the Austrian front and reoccupied the town. The local Jews had learned their lesson, and most of them fled together with the Austrian army. A year later the Austrians were back in B and remained there until the end of the war. There was a shortage of food and basic necessities in the town, and many of the Jews were on the point of starvation. The community opened a kitchen for the needy that provided free meals. During the hostilities there were outbreaks of cholera and typhus in the town.
At the beginning of November 1918 B was occupied by the troops of General Haller, who set the Jews to forced labour, looted their property and treated them brutally.
During the 1920s and 30s the Kronenberg printing-press increased its activity. It produced the works of prominent rabbis (among them R. Aharon Levin from Rzoszow, R. Yechezkiel Michelson of Warsaw, and R. Moshe Amiel of Antwerp). In 1927 a publishing-house was added to the firm.
The Jewish merchants were members of their own organisation, and the craftsmen of their trade associations. Both groups ran provident funds that gave their members interest-free loans. In 1927 a cooperative bank, known as the Shares Bank was established. In the early 30s two more banks were added: The Cooperative Bank and The Commercial Bank. The three banks continued to function until the outbreak of the Second World War.
B. also contained in this period such institutions as the Linat Zedek (established in 1930) and the Bikur Cholim (1934). In 1935 appeared another institution Bet Lechem, that distributed food for the Sabbath to the poorest Jews. A year later Hachnasat Orchim was started to provide for needy travellers.
Most of the Jewish and Zionist parties active in Poland between the two wars established branches in B. In 1922 appeared the youth group Ze'evim that held lectures and courses in Jewish history. A library was opened in conjunction with the Zionist Organisation. Between 1921 and 1927 eight pioneers from B emigrated to Palestine . In 1928 branches of Hechalutz and Beitar were established, and the former also possessed a training farm.
The Non-Zionists in B were also active. In 1925 a branch of Agudat Israel was established and in 1927 it was the turn of the Bund. There was also a Jewish trade union in B with many members. The authorities accused this organisation of communist leanings and banned it, and some of its members were imprisoned. Efforts were made in 1936 to form a similar body under a different name (Jewish Workers' Party) but these came to nothing.
In the elections to the community council in 1936 the Agudat Israel list obtained a majority of seats. The Jews were also represented on the Town Council, consisting of six out of a total number of 18.
The community ran a Talmud Torah; and in 1929 a school for girls (Bet Yaakov) and a school of the Yavneh group were started.
Until 1926 R. Josef Zilberman continued as rabbi, but owing to illness was unable to fulfil all his functions. R. Chaim Hochman from nearby Krzeszow, was appointed to assist him. On the death of R. Zilberman, R. Mordechai Rokach, brother of the Admor of Belz and son of the present Admor, was made Head of the Beth-Din. R. Mordechai was the last rabbi of the community. He survived the Holocaust and settled in Israel.
B was the birthplace of the writers, the brothers Israel Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The Germans entered B on September 17th, 1939. At once many Jews were forcibly evicted from their homes and replaced by German soldiers. The invaders also began to impress Jews for slave labour, such as cleaning the streets after bomb damage and various tasks for the German troops. These early days also witnessed German acts of violence against the Jews and plundering of their property. On the 24th two Jews were killed while attempting to smuggle food into the town.
On the 27th the Germans evacuated the town, and a few days later were replaced by Russian troops. These remained in B for seven days - on October 5th and 6th they withdrew (and some 1,500 Jews left with them) and the Germans returned.
A few days later army regulations were published: the Jews were ordered to report daily for work in the German army camps in the district. A large fine was also imposed on them and some hostages were taken and only released when the money had been paid. At the end of October a Jew was charged with attempting to assassinate a German soldier and was executed outside the town.
At the end of 1939 a Judenrat was set up, under the leadership of Chaim-Mordechai Hirszenhorn. Its first assignment was to keep the Germans supplied with their daily quota of slave labour. The Jewish workers were organised in work battalions and their main task was paving roads and building a German military hospital and other institutions, as well as portering at the railway station. A Jewish police force was also established in conjunction with the Judenrat.
At the beginning of 1940 the Germans issued a decree confiscating Jewish property. The Jews were allowed to stay in their houses upon payment of rent to the Germans. In April 1940 a decree ordered all Jews aged 14 and above to wear a blue Star of David on their sleeves.
In the summer of 1940 groups of Jews were sent to labour camps in the Lublin area. The first group left around Shavuot. Jewish men aged 17 and above were ordered to register in the town square. Some, however, did not turn up at the required time. Of the main group some scores of young men were sent from the nearby railway station at Zwierzyniec to the labour camp at Turkowice. Their main work consisted of digging draining canals from the River Huczwa. Shortly afterwards another group was despatched to the labour camp at Belzec, where they were set to work building anti-tank obstacles and ditches on the German-Soviet border. These deportations and the severe economic situation in B impelled some Jewish families to move to villages and woods in the area. A few better-off families found houses in the nearby town of Frampol, where it was easier to obtain food and means of subsistence and hide from the threat of deportation to the labour camps.
In the summer or autumn of 1940 a ghetto was established in B, consisting of two streets - Lubelska and 3rd of May - into which 3,500 Jews were crammed. This was an open ghetto and exit was allowed at certain hours, mainly for the purpose of obtaining food, In June 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the regulations were changed. The Jews were now forbidden to leave the ghetto at all. In that same summer a Jew was caught in possession of a few potatoes while returning from one of the surrounding villages - and he was shot. The Germans also shot two members of the Judenrat, who were suspected of closing a blind eye to Jews leaving the city bounds without permission. A few other Jews also appeared to have been killed.
In March 1942 221 Jews were transferred from B to Tarnogrod. At about the same time a number of Jewish policemen were transferred to the concentration camp at Majdanek.
The first action in B took place in August 1942. The leaders of the Judenrat were summoned to the district office and ordered to prepare a list of a thousand Jews who, according to the Germans, were to be sent to a labour camp in Ukraine. The deportees were allowed to take a small quantity of personal items and a little money with them. The members of the Judenrat and workers in German service were exempt from being registered. On the allotted day the thousand deportees assembled in the market square in accordance with the list prepared by the Judenrat, together with members of their family. The number present thus exceeded that demanded by the Germans. Polish carters and their wagons came to transport the deportees. Since there was a surplus of the latter present no check was carried out on the basis of the Judenrat's list. On August 9th the convoy left B escorted by a reserve contingent of the German Schupo Police brought to the town for this purpose. The convoy consisted of 25 wagons loaded with equipment and the more than thousand Jews. It arrived at Swir, where it was joined by a group of Jews expelled from Tarnogrod. All were then transported to the railway station at Czernuszewce, where they were put on board goods wagons and taken to the extermination camp at Belzec.
There now remained some 1,500 Jews in B. The second deportation took place in November 1942. A few days before this action the Germans set up a closed small ghetto on the eastern edge of 3rd of May Street. On November 1st Hersz Zylberberg, the second head of the Judenrat, announced that, by order of the Gestapo, all Jewish workers and their families, 70 persons in all, were to move into this ghetto. These Jews were tailors and other craftsmen working for the Germans in the town. On the morning of November 2nd the Germans began to evict from their houses the Jews remaining outside the closed ghetto. This second deportation was implemented with violence, and many Jews were killed while being collected from their homes. When these Jews were assembled in the market square the 70 Jews from the small ghetto were also brought there, and a thorough search made of their houses to make sure that no other Jews were hiding in the closed ghetto. These 70 were then separated from the rest and ordered to stand aside, and after the search had ended they were returned to the small ghetto.
The main body of Jews were now placed in buildings near the Jewish cemetery. On November 3rd they were marched in two columns to the railway station at Czernuszewce, some five kilometres from B. On the way some Jews were shot by the German police escorts. On November 4th Polish peasants counted about 50 Jewish corpses along the route. When the deportees arrived at Czernuszewce they were put aboard goods wagons and taken to the extermination camp at Belzec.
After the deportation the Jews of the small ghetto were put to work collecting the corpses: in the market place and the streets they found about 200 bodies of Jews killed during the deportation.
There now remained 70-80 Jews in the small ghetto, some of them illegally. This ghetto existed until January 1943. On the 7th of that month (or perhaps the 10th, according to another source) the Gestapo arrived at B and ordered the Jewish workers to leave the ghetto. The young men were separated from them and taken to the town jail. The women, children and the aged were murdered on the spot. The group of youngsters, some 15 in number, were sent to the labour camp at Janowice.
Yevain Metsulah - The Miry Pit.
Tsuk Haitim - Hard Times.
Hatsefira - Several possible translations, probably 'The Dawn'.
Challas/Challot - twisted Sabbath bread.
Council of the Four Lands - the Jewish self-governing body in Russia-Poland originating in the 16th century. Named for the four regions of Major Poland, Minor Poland, Red Russia and Lithuania, it was called in Hebrew 'Va'ad Arba Artzot'.
Bet Szmul - House of Samuel.
Dayan - a judge of the Rabbinical Court.
Agudat Israel - the Orthodox Jewish (anti-Zionist) political movement organised in 1912 in Europe, seeking to sustain the values of traditional eastern European Jewry.
Linat Zedek - basically a hospice for the poor and homeless, it also carried out a number of other welfare tasks.
Bikur Cholim -literally 'Visiting the Sick', but also health service, or even hospital.
Bet Lechem - House of Bread, which gave food to the poor on the Sabbath.
Hachnasat Orchim - a hostel for indigent travellers.
Ze'evim - Wolves.
Hechalutz - 'The Pioneer', an organisation to train youth for aliyah (immigration) to
Israel/Palestine, primarily to a kibbutz.
Beitar - right-wing youth movement, formed in 1923, and named after the Jewish fortress that held out against the Romans. Later associated with the Israeli party 'Cherut'.
The Bund - Jewish political organisation formed in Vilna in 1897 to promote labour causes and Jewish nationalism - but opposed to Zionism.
Talmud Torah - religious school for the study of the Torah.
Bet Yaakov - House of Jacob.
Yavneh - school network established by the religious party Mizrachi.
Admor - title given to a learned Chassidic rabbi; Hebrew abbreviation of 'Our Master and teacher'.
Shavuot - the Feast of Weeks, or First Fruits; also commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Schupo - Schutzpolizei (uniformed German police).
The above notes were compiled by the translator/editor. Many of the definitions were taken from The Timetables of Jewish History, by Judah Gribetz with Edward L. Greenstein and Regina S. Stein (Simon and Schuster, 1993).
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