“Zelechow” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VII

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Translation of “Zelechow” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VII, pages 199-203, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

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(Garwolin district, Lublin province)

Translated by Joel A. Linsider

Population Figures


In 1447, Zelechow was granted the privileges of a city and was authorized to conduct two weekly market days and two annual fairs. From then until the middle of the seventeenth century, Zelechow was one of the region's prosperous cities, but the mid-seventeenth-century Swedish invasion severely hurt the populace and ruined the economy. Zelechow, like most of the other towns in the region, entered on a long period of decline, which continued until the early nineteenth century. In 1815, Zelechow was included within the borders of the Congress Kingdom of Poland.

In 1863, after the suppression of the Polish rebellion, the Russians stationed two cavalry companies and an artillery unit in Zelechow and began building barracks for its garrison force. The construction of the barracks and the stationing of large numbers of soldiers in the city breathed new life into the local economy. New sources of income were generated for builders and craftsmen; tailor shops, groceries, taverns, restaurants, and clothing stores were opened, all intended to serve the Russian troops.

In 1880, a large fire broke out and destroyed nearly the entire downtown area, and another fire, in 1910, also caused great damage, consuming many houses. In both instances, however, Zelechow was quickly rebuilt. The wooden houses in the city square were replaced with large, modern stone houses.

During the First World War, Zelechow was far from the front lines and became a place of asylum for hundreds of refugees from the entire region. With the establishment of an independent Poland in 1918, Zelechow was included in the Garwolin district. In 1920, it was briefly conquered by the Bolsheviks.

Jewish Settlement in Zelechow To 1918

        Jewish settlement in Zelechow dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century. One of its natives who gained fame at that time was Cantor Judah Leib, who appeared in congregations in Hamburg and Altona, among the largest and most prominent communities in Germany, and was known, after his place of birth, as Judah Leib Zelechower. Judah Leib composed a collection of songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, Shirei Yehudah (Songs of Judah) (Zolkova, 1697).

Zelechow did not fall victim to the massacres of 1648-1649 and served as a place of asylum for Jewish refugees from nearby towns—a development that contributed to the growth of the community. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the local community was organized, along with its institutions.

The first rabbi apparently was R. Naftali Hertz b. Avigdor, one of the prominent rabbis in the region. His signature appears on a 1754 decision of the Council of the Four Lands defending R. Jonathan Eibeschutz, who was suspected of Sabbateanism. During the 1770s and early 1780s, the renowned Hasidic leader R. Levi Isaac of Berdichev, author of Qedushat Levi, served in Zelechow. During that time, a synagogue was established there, as were several communal associations (The Association to Recite Psalms; The Tailors' Association). In the 1780s, however, a conflict developed between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim (opponents of Hasidism), and R. Levi Isaac was forced to leave. He was succeeded in the Zelechow rabbinate by R. Aaron ha-Kohen, author of Or ha-Ganuz.

Among the rabbis who served in Zelechow during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we know of R. Jacob Simeon Deutsch (also called “Ashkenazi”), a disciple of the “Seer of Lublin”; R. Joshua Asher Rabinowitz, son of R. Jacob Isaac (“the Holy Jew of Pshischa), also an admor for many Hasidim; R. Isaac Elijah, who held office in 1885; and his successor R. Eliezer Leib Treistman, who served in Zelechow until 1906 and thereafter was rabbi in Radom (q.v.) and Lodz. In 1908, R. Isaac David ha-Kohen Ferzischer (1888-1941) assumed the post of rabbi in Zelechow.

Zelechow was the seat of a dynasty of admorim founded by R. Isaac Solomon Goldberg, a scion of the Zolochev and Kozhnits dynasties. R. Isaac Solomon died in 1872 and was succeeded by his son, R. Joshua Asher David. The last admor, R. Abraham Shalom Goldberg, perished in the Holocaust.

Zelechow native R. Simeon Engel-Zelechower headed the Yeshiva of the Lublin Sages; he, too, perished in the Holocaust.

        At a fairly early time, the second half of the nineteenth century, the first Jewish political organizations began to appear in Zelechow. In 1861, a year known for stormy demonstrations by Poles seeking their independence, some Zelechow Jews played an active role in support of the Polish demonstrators. But the rapprochement between Polish residents and the Jews was short-lived and ended with the suppression of the Polish rebellion in 1863. From then on, the estrangement and mutual suspicion between the two population groups dominated. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Poles organized a Christian cooperative, which competed successfully with the Jews in several areas of trade and commerce.

The early twentieth century saw the organization of the first Zionist group in Zelechow, the opening of Hebrew study circles, and the start of fundraising for the Jewish National Fund. The first Zionist party in Zelechow was Po`alei Ziyyon; at the same time, a branch of the Bund also was founded. After the aborted revolution of 1905-1906, the political movements broke up because of governmental persecution. In 1912, the Jews of Zelechow attempted to open a Jewish communal library, but the authorities forbade it. Activism was renewed only after the German conquest in World War I. In 1915, branches of Mizrahi and Agudat Yisra'el were founded in Zelechow.

For generations, Jewish children had been educated in private heders and the community's talmud torah. Only a few years before the First World War was there established in town a public elementary school for Jewish children, comprising two classes attended only by girls. In 1917 a Jewish kindergarten was opened; it lasted several years.

During the First World War and after, the Jews of Zelechow opened various cultural and social activities. These included a club at which evening classes were conducted.

During the nineteenth century, the Zelechow community grew apace, in the wake of the establishment of the barracks for the Russian garrison force and the ensuing rapid economic development. The barracks provided new economic opportunities for the Jews as well, in construction and in crafting and selling products needed by the soldiers, especially boots. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Zelechow became an important center for the manufacture of boots, which were sold throughout the country.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews opened several factories in Zelechow. The largest was the local sugar factory. Jews at the time also owned a few carpentry workshops, a brewery, a whiskey distillery, and a soda-water plant, which served the entire region. A large majority of the craftsmen in town—tailors, locksmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers, and leather-workers—were Jews.

During the First World War, the economic situation of the residents of Zelechow, and especially that of the Jews, deteriorated. The numerous refugees increased the pressure. Some Jews were suspected of spying on behalf of Germany and were imprisoned by the Russian authorities, and many others left the city voluntarily and moved to the interior of Russia. Even after the Germans conquered Zelechow in 1915, the economic situation did not improve, and the city suffered an intense shortage of basic necessities such as food and fuel. The Jewish community was greatly diminished.

The Jews Between the Two World Wars

        After the war as before, the Jews of Zelechow earned their livings primarily as small businessmen and craftsmen, but their economic situation deteriorated during this period. Not only did the economic boost from the Russian garrison come to an end; in addition, the commercial ties between the Jews and the surrounding villages were weakened by competition from Polish merchants, which steadily grew, and by the overarching anti-Semitic atmosphere.

During the early post-war years, the Joint [Distribution Committee] provided assistance to needy Jews, as did their relatives who had immigrated to more prosperous countries. To ease the growing burden, several mutual-help bodies were established. In 1926, a Jewish merchants' organization was founded, and, one year later, a credit union was established, which provided low-interest loans to merchants and craftsmen. At its founding, the credit union had 200 members, and their number grew steadily. The Free Loan Society was reorganized, and it, too, helped merchants and craftsmen with interest-free loans; by the beginning of the thirties, it had about 250 members. The community welfare organizations helped the poorest by providing them food, especially before Passover, and, with the approach of winter, fuel. Help for the ill and their families was provided by the “Biqqur Holim” and “Linnat Zedeq” societies.

The cultural and social life of the Zelechow Jews thrived during the inter-war period, and that development was paralleled by the increasing influence of the Zionist movement. The General Zionists, Mizrahi and Po`alei Ziyyon, which were active even during the height of the War, were joined by new streams, Zionist and non-Zionist, including a branch of the Revisionists (founded in 1927) and a chapter of the Betar youth movement (from 1929). In 1928, a branch of He-Haluz was established and a unit preparing to immigrate to the Land of Israel was opened. A local chapter of Ha-Shomer ha-Za`ir also was formed; with the passage of time, it played a key role in Zionist activism in the city. A year after its founding, it suffered a split in its leadership and the breakaway group established Ha-Shomer ha-Le'umi, which also went on to gain strength and become an important Zionist youth organization in town. In 1930, a branch of Ze`irei Mizrahi was established.

During this period, the Zionist parties were the primary force within the Zelechow Jewish community and formed the majority in communal governance. It was they who initiated most of the mutual aid and cultural projects. But considerable activism existed as well outside the Zionist camp. In 1927, the members of Agudat Yisra'el established a Beit Ya`aqov school, attended by about 150 girls. The Bund at the time also had several tens of members, and by its side was a cultural organization known as Forvarts (Forward). During the late twenties, the “Folkist” movement became active in Zelechow. Jews were also numbered among the Communists, even though the party was illegal, and several of them were imprisoned because of their activities. For the most part, these were Jews who had been convicted in court.

Local Jews also played a part in the municipal council, usually holding one-third of the mandates.

R. Isaac David ha-Kohen Ferzischer, who had became rabbi of Zelechow even before the First World War, remained in his position after the war and was the community's last rabbi; he perished in the Holocaust.

As always, Jewish children studied in private heders and the community Talmud Torah. In 1928, the Zionists and their supporters planned to open a Hebrew school of the Tarbut network, but the plan was never carried out.

During the thirties, anti-Semitic incitement grew. Jewish commerce was boycotted, and pickets were posted outside Jewish shops to intimidate customers. There were repeated incidents of stone throwing at Jewish homes and breaking of synagogue windows, as well as efforts to provoke more violent riots.

Zelechow was the birthplace of the writers Isaac Meir Weisenberg (1881-1938), who achieved literary fame after he had already left the town, and Yehiel Lehrer (1910-1943), who lived in Warsaw from 1928 and was prominent in Jewish cultural life there.

During the Second World War

        During the first week of the war, Jewish refugees from neighboring settlements reached Zelechow. On 8-9 September, hundreds of Jews came from Garwolin (q.v.), which had been heavily bombed and almost completely destroyed by a huge fire that raged there. The Germans entered Zelechow on 12 September 1939. Immediately upon their arrival, they seized Jews on the street, subjected them to harsh abuse, plundered their property, and set several of their houses on fire. The next day, the synagogue was set afire, and the blaze claimed the life of Hayyim Palhendler, who before the war had been a member of the municipal council. At the same time, the Germans seized Jewish and Polish public figures as hostages and imprisoned them for twenty-four hours. After a few days, the Germans gathered a group of Jews and sent them to Ostrow- Mazowiecka; on the way, they shot many of them to death.

Because of the border dispute between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Germans left Zelechow for a few days, but on 4 October 1939, after the boundary line in eastern Poland was finally drawn, they returned to the town. During their brief absence, Zelechow had gone through a great upheaval. Taking advantage of the absence of any governmental authority, local anti-Semitic gangs plundered Jewish property. Their abuses reached a pinnacle with the seizure of R. Ferzischer by a group of Polish soldiers who had been hiding in the woods near Zelechow. Only after receiving a considerable ransom did they agree to release the rabbi.

With the return of the Germans, life in the town settled down a bit and the disorganized acts of abuse came to an end. The deportees to Ostrow-Mazowiecka were permitted to return to their homes. In November 1939, a Judenrat was established. At first, it was headed by Israel-Mordecai Engel, whose place was soon taken by Shalom Finkelstein. His two deputies were Velvel Shpringer and Moses Weislander. The Judenrat comprised communal figures, activists from the Zionist parties and the associations of merchants and craftsmen, Hasidim, and one Communist. As soon as the Judenrat was set up, the Germans imposed upon the Jews of the area a ransom payment (“contribution”) of 100,000 zloty.

In November 1939, hundreds of refugees came to Zelechow from the towns of Uchacze, Sobolov (q.v.), Garwolin, Deblin-Irena (q.v.), Kalisz, and Luslawice and from small villages in the region. That month also saw a serious incident that jeopardized the lives of hundreds of Jews in Zelechow. On a market day in town, a former Polish soldier shot at a German. The Germans immediately gathered hundreds of Jews and prepared to kill them, but through the lobbying of the priest, and after the actual culprit was captured, the Jews were set free.

A November 1939 decree required every Jew to wear an armband with a Jewish star. In December 1939, an office for the conscription of Jewish forced laborers was established in Zelechow, and the Judenrat was ordered to provide the needed numbers of workers. The first groups of laborers, numbering about 150 men, were sent to work in Jarczew (q.v.) and sometimes in Germany itself. In 1941, the need for manpower increased, any many groups of Jews, each numbering 100, were sent to the labor camp that had been established in Wilga, near Garwolin, where they were employed digging drainage ditches in the Vistula River. To raise the money to cover its expenses, the Judenrat sold exemptions from the forced labor obligation.

In summer 1940, the property of the Jews in Zelechow was confiscated, and they were required to pay rent in order to continue living in their homes. Their shops and businesses were likewise confiscated and placed in the custody of a supervisor on behalf of the German government (a “trustee”). In July and August 1940, an additional wave of refugees reached Zelechow—1,200 Jews from Warsaw, Maciejowice (q.v.) and other places. In October, an open ghetto was established. All the local Jews and the many refugees were required to crowd together in the small ghetto, in unbearably cramped conditions. The Judenrat had to lodge some of the refugees in the study-house, for the local residents did not have enough room for them. In spring 1941, a typhus epidemic broke out in the ghetto, and the Judenrat obtained the permission of the Germans to establish a hospital and public bath. With the help of the Jewish Independent Welfare Organization in Krakow, a public kitchen for the needy was opened in the ghetto. Funds from the Joint were sent to Zelechow to purchase clothing for the many refugees. With the establishment of the ghetto, a Jewish police force was established as well, under the supervision of one Sharfhertz.

In June 1941, four young Jews were caught smuggling sugar into the ghetto and were sentenced to death; a fifth Jew was shot by the Germans while trying to exchange a fur coat for food from some farmers. Thereafter, the Germans imposed on the Jews an additional contribution of 10,000 zloty. With the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto except for purposes of work. At that time, a fire brigade was established in the ghetto, and its 50 members were exempted from forced labor. They were also permitted to leave the ghetto, and they played an important role in obtaining food from the Polish farmers.

In December 1941, another murder took place in the ghetto. Three Jews—Masha Sharfhertz (who was active in a youth group involved in the education of youngsters), a member of the Jewish police force, and a Jewish merchant—were arrested by the Germans. The Judenrat tried to free them, but its efforts were to no avail; the three were hung in the town market square as a warning to others.

In October 1941, the ghetto was closed and a rumor spread among the Jews (its source seems to have been with the German authorities) that the Zelechow ghetto would become a place where Jews would be confined but that its residents would not be harmed. At the end of 1941, additional refugees streamed to Zelechow and the number of Jews in the ghetto swelled to about 13,000. Among them were refugees from Warsaw, Lodz, Garwolin, Laskarzew (q.v.) and elsewhere. A camp for Russian prisoners of war was established near Zelechow around that time. Some of the POWs managed to flee from the camp into the woods and organized as a partisan group. Those efforts were paralleled by the organization of a Jewish underground in the ghetto, headed by Isaac Weislander. The underground gathered clothing and food for the fleeing POWs. After some Poles informed on Weislander, he was captured and killed, and the underground group disbanded.

In summer 1942, German terror increased in Zelechow. Yet again the Germans demanded Jewish forced laborers; at the same time, the first reports reached town of the deportation of the Jews of Lublin province to the death camps. The Judenrat sent 500 Jews to labor camps in Wilga and in the Minsk-Mazowiecki region. In the face of deportation reports, the Jews of Zelechow became more willing to be recruited as labor, many of them hoping that labor would protect them from deportation. Shortly before the deportation of the Jews of Zelechow to the camps, the head of the Judenrat—Shalom Finkelstein—was arrested, as were pre-war community activists Solomon Goldstein and his brother David and two Poles suspected of underground activity, one a police officer and the other a town councilor. All were taken out of the city to be killed.

On 30 September 1942, the ghetto was encircled by S.S. patrols and Ukrainian support units. The Jews were ordered to leave their houses and were packed into the market square. During the course of this action, a small group of young people managed to flee from the city into the forest. About 300 Jews who had difficulty reaching the assembly point—children, the elderly, and the ill—as well as those who were caught after attempting to hide were murdered on the spot. The rest of the Jews were led to the railroad station and sent on freight cars to Treblinka. At the end of the action, the Germans hunted down those who had fled or hidden and captured about 800 of them in Zelechow and its environs; all of these Jews were murdered.

The Germans left in the ghetto a group of 50 men from the Jewish police force and fire brigade; they were put to work burying the bodies of the murdered and collecting the Jews' property. After finishing those jobs, most of them were sent to the labor camp at Wilga and, before long, transferred to a labor camp in the area of Sobolew (q.v.), where most of them died. In addition, the Germans left in Zelechow a group of 25 Jewish craftsmen whom they put to work in a workshop set up in the building that formerly was the study-house. The members of that group were all murdered on 28 February 1943 at the Jewish cemetery.

Toward the end of 1942, some partisan units were organized in the forests around Zelechow; they included a Jewish unit commanded by Samuel Olshak. Several young people who fled the ghetto when it was liquidated, or who had managed to jump from the trains during the deportation to Treblinka, found their way to that unit. In 1943, the Jewish partisans in the region became more active, after the Soviets parachuted weaponry for them. Among the actions carried out by Olshak's partisan unit were an operation to free Soviet POWs from a camp near Deblin-Irena, and the mining of German trains and highways in the Deblin-Lubartow region. The Jewish partisans were in contact with the Jewish forced laborers in the labor camps in the region. In 1944, Olshak, the unit commander, was killed in an encounter with some Germans. Some of the fighters joined up with Communist partisan units; others were killed by anti-Semitic Polish partisan units or in encounters with German units.

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