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Translation of Szczebrzeszyn 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 577-580, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(Zamosc District, Lublin Province)
Szczebrzeszyn (S) is first mentioned in the middle of the 14th century as a fortified village of Prince Wladislaw Opolski. King Kazimierz the Great visited it in 1352. In the 15th century it belonged to the noble family Tarnowski. Because of its favourable location on the main east-west road in Poland, it developed and achieved urban status. It quickly became a regional commercial centre, and in 1472 its overlord, Jan Tarnowski, decreed a weekly market day and exempted visiting merchants from taxes and customs duties. In 1586 the town's new ruler, Baron Andrzej of Gorka, obtained confirmation of the privileges previously granted to S. In 1595 S and the adjacent estates were incorporated into the property of Baron Jan Zamoski, and the town became the seat of the district court. In the 17th century S was also a regional craft centre, and guilds of bakers, weavers, tinsmiths, shoemakers, furriers, potters and saddlers were established. In 1673 the Polish King Michael Koriwot Wiszniowiecki ratified the town's urban privileges and gave its inhabitants permission to hold seasonal and annual fairs. In the wake of the first partition of Poland (in 1772) S was incorporated into Austria, in 1809 into the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and in 1815 and up to the First World War it was part of Congress Poland. In 1915 S was occupied by the Germans and Austrians until their withdrawal in 1918.
The first half of the 19th century saw the establishment in S of large textile plants and workshops.
Jews in S are first mentioned in a document from the beginning of the 16th century. Most of them were employed in trade and crafts and a few others were collectors of taxes and excise duties. In 1597 King Sigismund III forbad Jews to collect production taxes or to sell strong drink.
At the end of the 16th century, with the growth of the Jewish population, the Jews were declared an independent community and with the permission of the authorities a cemetery was consecrated and a fine synagogue in Renaissance style was erected. The community also embraced Jews from three adjacent villages. According to the records of the 'Council of the Four Lands' (for this and other terms, see Notes at the end of this translation), R. Yakov Avraham was in 1621 the delegate of the community and a member of the Council's rabbinical court. In 1674 R. Yehuda of S participated in the sessions of the Council and represented nine communities.
During the pogroms of 1648-49 Chmielnicki's troops staged a massacre of the Jews of S - only a handful fled the town and managed to survive. R. Meir Ber Shmuel, who found refuge in Krakow, described the events of the time in his book Tsuk Haitim (Krakow 1650).
Among the early rabbis of S known to us are R. Yeshayahu Menachem Ber Yitzhak, later Head of the Rabbinical Court in Wlodzimierz Wolynski; R. David Ber Yakov, whose 'Tractate on Targum Yonathan and Yerushalmy' was published in Prague in 1619 (perhaps he is identical with R. David Sharbshin, who was in Prague at the time of the Maharal); R. Efraim Zalman Schor, author of Tvuot Schor (Lublin 1615); R. Asher Ber Yitzhak, who moved later to Wlodzimierz and Belzec; R. Chaim Zak (died in S in 1699); R. Yehuda Leib Katz (mentioned in 1701); his son, R. Binyamin Katz; R. Yosef Ben Matatyahu Delakrut, the town's rabbi and head of the local yeshiva at the beginning of the 17th century, and author of 'Chidushei Halachot al Masechat Irubin'. He was also interested in Philosophy. His father, R. Matatyahu Delakrut, was among the first Cabbalists and teachers of the Sephardi Cabbala in Poland. The last rabbi of the century was R. Tsvi Hirsz (died in 1709).
In the 18th century the rabbinate of S was held by R. Aharon Shmul Ber Azriel Lemel Kahana (died in 1756); R. Yeshayahu Halperin, R. Nathan Nute Ber Yeshayahu Shapira; R. Yehoshua Heshel Hakohen Ber Avraham; R. Aryeh Leib Ber Yakov; R. Tsvi Hirsz David Halevi, later rabbi in Krakow; R. Yehuda Leib Margolis, who was also widely educated.
Among the rabbis of the 19th century mention may be made of R. Asher Zelig Perlesh Margolis, son of R. Yehuda Leib, who was afterwards rabbi in Pruzana in Lithuania; R. Areyeh Leibus (died in 1814); R. Baruch Halevi Horowicz, the town's rabbi from 1838 until his death in 1878; R. Szmul Leib Zak (mentioned in 1888); and R. Simcha Goldberg (1900).
The influence of Chassidism was strong in the area. At the beginning of the 19th century the Haskalah Movement also made its appearance. The first of the Maskilim, R. Jakow Rejfman, from the village of Lugow in the Radom district, settled in S in 1836. Among his many well-known writings are the Book of Responsa Takanot Habayit (Zolkiewka 1843); Pesher Davar (essays on the legends of the Sages, Warsaw 1845); and Toldot Rabenu Zarchia Ba'al Hamaor (Prague 1853).
The beginning of the 19th century saw the establishment in S of charitable institutions and mutual aid societies, amongst them Bikur Cholim , which provided the needy with medicine and medical treatment. Early in the 20th century the designated rabbi R. Avraham Bronsztejn started the Loan and Savings Bank, which helped small merchants and craftsmen, Jews and non-Jews, with low-interest business loans.
For the most part the Jews of S lived on good terms with their Polish townsmen. During the Polish uprising in 1863 some Jews joined the rebels. At the beginning of the 20th century the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) began energetic activity in S, and during the revolution of 1905 a branch of the Bund was established. Its members cooperated closely with the PPS in organising demonstrations and strikes in the factories and workshops. The strikers demanded shorter hours of work, which were then 14-16 hours a day. During one action three demonstrators were killed by Cossack troops.
In the period of reaction that followed the revolt of 1905 many young Jews emigrated to western Europe or overseas. Political activity was banned throughout Congress Poland, and the Bund in S was also forced to cease its activities.
It was only during the First World War, under Austrian rule, that political activity was once more allowed. The Bund resumed its operations and its members also established a workers' organisation. In the same period the first Zionist groups were set up, with the help of Jewish soldiers in the Austrian army stationed in S. 1916 saw the establishment of the Hatechiya organisation of the General Zionists, and of Tiferet Bachurim, which later development into a branch of the Mizrachi. A year later a Public Library, named after Mendele Mocher Seforim, was opened in S, and beneath its roof arose drama and literary groups and a choir. The severe economic conditions prevailing during the war led to the setting up of a public soup kitchen for the needy.
The traditional occupational structure of the Jews of S remained unchanged at the end of the war - they were still mainly merchants and craftsmen. A few of them owned sawmills and flourmills. In the 1920s a branch of the Bank Amami was set up to help many Jews to reestablish their businesses. The large union of textile workers that had been established at the beginning of the century continued its activities. In the 30s this union declared a strike, demanding a shortening of working hours to eight hours a day.
There was vigorous Zionist activity in S in the 1920s and 1930s. Branches of the General Zionists, Left Poalei Zion. Hamizrachi, Hechalutz (in 1929) and Beitar were established. The Zionist parties and organisations also engaged in cultural and various social projects, such as study groups and evening classes in Hebrew for working youths.
There was also a branch of Agudat Israel in S at this time and, as mentioned, of the Bund - with its youth section Zukunft (Future). Some of the young Jews were active in the illegal and clandestine Communist Party.
The relative strength of the various Jewish parties may be gauged from the 1931 results of elections to the town council: combined list of Zionists and Craftsmen - 4 seats; Poalei Zion - 1 seat; Bund - 5 seats; and Agudat Israel - 1 seat. Mr. Lawnik of the Zionist list was elected to the Executive of the Council.
In the inter-war period many of the community's children studied in the traditional cheder, and some of them went on to the Small Yeshiva in the town. New Jewish educational establishments were set up : a religious school of the Yavneh network (founded by Mizrachi) and a Yiddish school of Tsisha (founded 1928); while many Jewish children attended the Polish elementary school.
In 1921 the community's rabbi, R. Efraim Fiszel Jakir Goldberg, one of the founders of Agudat Israel, died. His successor, and last rabbi of S, was R. Jechiel Awraham Blankman, who perished in the Holocaust.
In the later 30s anti-Semitic provocations increased in S: the Andaks posted pickets outside Jewish shops, and violent incidents were numerous. The local priest at that time, Grabowski, and his sister, Dr. Trelicka, were active in defence of the Jews.
S was occupied by the Germans on Rosh Hashana (September 13th, 1939). Some of their troops immediately broke into the synagogue and forced the worshippers to take the Torah scrolls into the street and burn them; while others were busy looting Jewish shops.
On September 27th the Germans withdrew in favour of the Red Army. The Russians remained in S until October 5th, and when they withdrew to beyond the River Bug, the frontier laid down in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement, many Jews went with them. On October 9th the Germans returned, and on the 15th the local Polish police was reorganised and began to cooperate with the Germans.
The return of the Germans brought with it further daily acts of violence and assault, including shearing the beards and sidelocks of religious Jews. Every day too Jews were abducted for slave labour. Males aged from 15 to 60 were taken to work in military encampments in Zamosc and to build an airfield near Budaczew. On October 22nd all the Jews were ordered to assemble in the market square, and in the meantime the Germans looted their shops and houses. Eleven Jews were arrested, following a charge that a Jew had attacked a German soldier. They, and the assembled Jews, were released in the evening. On November 15th the Germans set fire to the synagogue in the dead of night. Next morning they accused the Jews of arson, and demanded of them a payment of 10,000 zloty. In December the Jews were ejected from their houses and crammed into one section of the town, which was in effect an open ghetto. On December 19th, 1939, 180 deportees from Wlocawek, mainly women and children, were sent to S. The following day the Jews were ordered to wear a yellow patch on their clothes and on their sleeves a white armband with a yellow Star of David.
At the beginning of 1940 the Germans appointed a Judenrat of six members. Its task was to find slave labourers, to collect payments (contributions) from the Jews and to distribute the meagre food rations. This latter procedure took place in the Bet Midrash, where meals were also given to refugees. Shortly after the establishment of the Judenrat one of its members, Hirsz Gecel Hochbaum, committed suicide.
In July 1940 130 Jewish workers were sent from S to the labour camp at Bialobrzegi and set to work draining swamps. In August 300 Jews were ordered to register for slave labour; most of them failed to respond and fled. In December 1941 the Jews were told to hand over to the Germans all articles of fur in their possession, Two Jews who had hidden furs were arrested and shot to death. That winter was one of increasing cold and hunger, and the crowded housing and poor sanitation left their mark. In January 1942 a typhus epidemic broke out in the ghetto and claimed many victims.
In April 1942 there were in the ghetto more than 3,000 Jews, both local and refugees. That same month a Jewish force of eight policemen was established. When rumours reached S of deportation from the Lublin district to the death camps, many Jews sought refuge in nearby villages or tried to find hiding-places and bunkers in S itself.
Acts of murder and deportation to the camps began in S in May 1942, and continued throughout the summer. On May 8th the Gestapo arrested two men and two women in the middle of the night, took them to nearby Zwierzyniec and there killed them. In the morning Gestapo personnel arrived in S from Zamosc. They rounded up some 2,000 Jews in the town square and opened fire on them. About a hundred Jews were killed and many others wounded. When the firing had ceased the Germans demanded from the Judenrat three kilograms of coffee and 2,000 zloty to cover the cost of the bullets used. At the end of May the Germans sent some 300 Jews from S to the extermination camp at Belzec. On June 23rd the Germans arrested scores of Jews and led them in the direction of Bilgoraj. Their fate remains unknown. Another 20 Jews held in the local jail were murdered the same day in a field outside the town. On August 8th some 400 Jews were taken to the railway station, crammed into goods wagons and sent to Belzec. Another 200 elderly Jews were taken that same day outside the town and there shot to death. A few days later the Germans sent some 700 Jews to the labour camp near Chelm, where they too were killed.
The days October 21st-24th marked the end of the community of S, when the last survivors were sent to extermination at Belzec.
During these arrests and deportations many tried to escape to the woods, but the number who survived was small. Many were caught on the way and shot; others were handed over to the Germans by Polish collaborators, or shot by peasants in whose houses they sought refuge. However, there were a few Poles who saved Jews at the risk of their own lives. The hostile attitude of the local Polish population made the flight to the woods difficult, but despite this, hundreds of Jews succeeded in reaching them and there organised partisan activity. Most of these though were killed and only a small remnant lived to experience liberation.
Notes (in order of appearance in the text):
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'.
Ber - abbreviation of Ben or Bar Rav, i.e. son of a Rabbi.
Targum - an ancient Aramaic 'translation' of part of the Hebrew Bible.
Maharal - abbreviation of 'Morenu Harav Rabi Liva' (Our Teacher Rabbi Rabi Liva) of Prague.
Cabbala / Kabbalah - Jewish mysticism, originating in about the 13th century. Its basic book is the 'Zohar', ascribed to R. Shimon Bar-Yochai.
Chassidism / Has(s)idism - the Jewish revivalist movement originating in eastern Europe in the late 16th century. It maintains many of the characteristics of the time, such as its dress. Diverse sects of Chassidism hail from different towns and follow different leaders or 'rebbes'.
Haskalah - European Jewish 'enlightenment', which introduced Jews to modern ways of expression and thought from about 1750 to about 1880.
Maskil - an adherent of the Haskalah. Also used in modern Hebrew for an educated person.
Bikur Cholim - literally 'Visiting the Sick', but also health service, or even hospital.
The Bund - Jewish political organisation formed in Vilna in 1897 to promote labour causes and Jewish nationalism - but opposed to Zionism. Hatechiya - Revival.
Mizrachi - the Orthodox Zionist movement, founded in Vilna in 1902.
Mendele Mocher Seforim - literally 'Mendele the Bookseller' : pen name of Yiddish and
Hebrew writer, Sholem Jakob Abramowicz (1835-1917).
Bank Amami - Popular or People's Bank.
Poalei Zion - Workers of Zion, a Marxist Jewish party founded in 1906. Its ideological 'father' was Dov Ber Borochov.
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'.
Agudat Israel - the Orthodox Jewish (anti-Zionist) political movement organised in 1912 in Europe, seeking to sustain the values of traditional eastern European Jewry.
Cheder (pl. cheders, chadarim) - religious Jewish elementary school (also 'Sunday School', e.g. in western Europe and USA).
Yeshiva - a school for training younger students in traditional Jewish sources and an academy for older students to prepare them as rabbis.
Yavneh - school system of the Mizrachi movement.
Andaks - a Polish anti-Semitic organisation.
Bet Midrash - a traditional 'house of study', ussually attached to a synagogue and giving religious instruction mainly to adults.
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) and various other sources.
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