by Chanan Trau and Dov Nitzani (Knopf)
Translated by Jerrold Landau
On the threshold of the new era in Jewish life in Galicia, with the strengthening of their legal status, and with the rise of the Jewish national movement in that land, the Jewish population in Przemysl was fortunate to have a spiritual leader and guide in all areas of religion and morality Rabbi Gedalia Schmelkes.
Rabbi Gedalia stemmed from a famous line of rabbis. He was born in the year 5617 (1857) to his father Rabbi Mordechai, the son of Rabbi Chaim Shmuel Schmelka and the brother of the author of the Beit Yitzchak, Rabbi Icchak Schmelkes, who occupied the rabbinic seat of Przemysl for 24 years, and later was a rabbi in Lvov. Rabbi Gedalia received an expert traditional education, as was the custom, and joined the students of his uncle Rabbi Icchak. He excelled in his quick grasp and memory, in the spirit of a pitched pit that does not lose a drop. He inherited the wonderful combination of Torah study and worldly pursuits in his father's home, for his father earned a livelihood in a secular fashion. Reb Mordechai, whose appearance was that of an Orthodox Jew, was also modern, and he did not hesitate to be among the first to join the Zionist supporters in Przemysl. The son Gedalia was of course influenced by this home and communal environment. Signs of genius already became apparent in his personality from his youth. His friends from his youth included, among others, Reb Leibish Mendel Landau, who later became the communal activist, Zionist preacher, and Rabbi of Botosani in Romania, Reb Samuel Knoller, Aharon Landau, and Mordechai Shpitz.
His uncle, Rabbi Icchak Schmelkes, knew how to appropriately appreciate the expertise and diligence of Gedalia. After he concluded his order of studies, he ordained him as a rabbi. However, the youth did not want to make the Torah his source of livelihood, and he thought he would choose business as his source of livelihood, as did his father in his time. When he was 18 years old, he married Estera Silber, the daughter of Reb Berisz Silber of Tarnow, and he moved to that town, where he was supported at the table of his father-in-law for several years as was customary in those days. During that time, he studies in the Kloiz of the Hassidm of Sanz (Nowy Sacz) in Tarnow.
At the end of the period of support (known as kest in Yiddish), Rabbi Gedalia returned to Przemysl. He entered the circle of business life and suffered a serious failure. Therefore, he was forced to return to his primary calling. However, according to the new law in Galicia
the rabbi of big cities had to pass government matriculation exams. Rabbi Gedalia did not hesitate for long. He prepared appropriately, overcame the difficulties of secular studies, and passed the exams with flying colors. His path to a rabbinic seat in one of the big cities of the country was open before him.
During those days, in the year 5653 (1893), his uncle Rabbi Icchak was chosen as the rabbi of Lvov, so the rabbinate of Przemysl became available. Rabbi Gedalia submitted his candidacy, but Rabbi Nathan Lewin, the son-in-law and student of Rabbi Icchak Schmelkes was competing with him. However, the large group of Hassidim and other Orthodox people in the city for the most part opposed both candidates on account of their secular knowledge, which was a stumbling block for them.
Rabbi Gedalia was indeed appointed to the rabbinate, but not as head of the rabbinical court, which troubled him. After a few years (5658 1898) he succeeded in being selected as the head of the rabbinical court in Kolomyja. This gave him great satisfaction. He moved to Kolomyja, but the anger of the various factions and disputes that prevailed among the Jewish population of that town at that time caught up with him. Some of the Hassidim of the city accused the rabbi of showing favoritism toward various groups of Hassidim; the Zionists were surprised that the rabbi, when he participated in the celebration of the unveiling of the statue of the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz in Lvov, allowed a national Polish band to be affixed to his collar during the celebration; and the Jewish Socialists castigated him for standing, so to speak, to the right hand of their political enemies among the Jews of the city, even though there was no legitimacy at all to these accusations. Of course, all of this did not contribute to the personal satisfaction of Rabbi Gedalia as the rabbi of Kolomyja. Therefore, the rabbi dreamed of returning to his city, and his friends in Przemysl pushed him in this direction.
In the meantime, a completely unfavorable situation had been created in Przemysl. The story was as follows: After Rabbi Gedaliah left Przemysl for Kolomyja, groups of Hassidim and other Orthodox people attempted to take advantage of the situation by bringing Rabbi Moshe Meisels from Mosciska, and declaring him as the rabbi without receiving the agreement of the community council for this. He was the son of Rabbi Josef Chanania Lipa Meisels, who had previously been the rabbi of Przemysl. Rabbi Moshe Meisels did not request and did not receive a salary from the communal coffers. His supporters took their cases only to him, and not before the rabbinical court of the community whose members included the judges Rabbi Nathan Hebenstreit known as the Rabbi of Zamosc, Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Feldstein and Rabbi Leib Meisels, the brother of Rabbi Moshe.
It was clear to everyone that this situation could not continue. Within a short time, the faithful friends of Rabbi Gedalia with the help of city notables from among both the Orthodox and enlightened circles turned to him with the invitation to accept the rabbinical seat in the community of Przemysl. He was selected as the rabbi and the head of the rabbinical court in the year 5664 (1904), and was received with great honor and splendor that befitted him when he returned from Kolomyja.
After a short period, Rabbi Moshe Meisels overcame his internal opposition and, following an official visit with his supporters to the newly selected rabbi, joined the rabbinical court of the community.
The tenure of Rabbi Gedalia's service opened up a new chapter in the annals of the community, for he served as its spiritual and moral leader during the difficult days that were to come.
The moral level of the rabbi was very high. In complete opposition to what was customary among the rabbinical circles, the rabbi refused to benefit from gifts from the participants of various family events. He saw this as degrading to the honor of his stature as a rabbi.
The stance of the rabbi in the founding convention of Agudas Yisroel in Katowice in 1912 was characteristic. He was among the supporters of the proposal to abandon the rachash (acronym for rabbi, chazzan / cantor, shamash / beadle) to such a degree that the rabbi would be paid directly
by the celebrant of the festive occasion. In his opinion, the entire fee should come from the communal coffers and not from individual members of the community.
His scholarly genius was famous among Jewry. Those in the know knew that Rabbi Gedalia had attained the level of a great scholar, even though he had devoted several years of his life to business.
In consonance with his communal and political outlook, from the outset and without reservation, the rabbi avoided strengthening the position of the communal strongmen who served the interests of Polish politics in all their deeds and at all times, including during elections. In contrast to other rabbis, he distanced himself from this type of activity and knew how to maintain his independent opinion, without being swayed by communal affairs and questions of the state and the nation.
Despite his official position, the Rabbi Schmelkes did not hesitate to join the national Zionist camp already during the first days of the movement and the Zionist organization of Galicia. With the founding of Mizrachi, he took part in the activities of the organization and in setting the spiritual goals of this new stream of Zionism. His faithfulness to the entire Zionist organization prevented the danger of the secession of the Mizrachi from it, a danger that hovered over the national camp in the last years before the First World War. The rabbi participated in the 9th Zionist Congress in Hamburg in 1909 and the 10th in Basel in 1911. In his speech which he delivered at the latter conference in fluent Hebrew and German, he stressed in particular the role of religious faith in Zionist thought and practice.
Despite all his dedication to the Zionist idea, Rabbi Gedalia stood above all internal disputes and knew how to preserve the unity within the Zionist ranks.
His rare personal qualities, dedication and uprightness of his heart earned him authority within his community. The enlightened people attempted to bring the rabbi close to their Temple, and therefore agreed to his demands and built the traditional almemar podium. To accomplish this, they had to expand and renovate the building, which cost a great deal of money.
The first years of Rabbi Schmelkes' tenure in Przemysl fell during the time of vibrant national awakening, political and social, unique in its kinds throughout the entire expanse of the Austrian Empire. This spirit seemingly influenced the way affairs were conducted in Galicia as well, in which the political interests of the Austrian government clashed with the national desire of the nations of the empire the Poles and Ukrainians who fomented trouble among themselves.
In this political whirlwind, Rabbi Gedalia demonstrated the greatness of his spirit and strength of heart. When the Zionists of Galicia first registered their own candidate for the elections to the Austrian parliament in 1906 the well-known Adolf Stand as a representative for the region of Brody-Zloczow, the rabbi did not hesitate to become involved personally and actively in this national-political struggle. Of course there is reason to assume that the rabbi well understood the dangers of becoming himself involved in public activity against the assimilationist who was supported by the national government. However, a man such as Rabbi Gedalia Schmelkes did not pay attention to this.
This was not enough, and the continuation of events was even more serious. When general elections to the Austrian parliament took place in 1907 in accordance with the general right of suffrage, Rabbi Schmelkes was offered the Zionist candidacy in the region of Buczacz-Tlumacz. However he forewent his right in favor of Dr. Natan Birnbaum, who held out hope for himself for a position in parliament. In return for this, the rabbi agreed to be a candidate in the Mielec-Tarnobrzeg region, even though there was no chance of his being elected there, since his opponent was the official candidate Professor Dr. Michal Bobrzynski, who a short time later was appointed as the representative of the Kaiser in Galicia (stadthalter) and on whose behalf the government was prepared to pay any price to have him elected. With the agreement of his family members, the rabbi did not pass up this candidacy, even though there were clear hints that this was liable to endanger his position as rabbi.
In Przemysl, a committee for supporting the election campaign of the rabbi in that region was formed. The members of the committee, including students from the Herzl Organization, organized the activities from afar. The appearance of the rabbi in Mielec and in other towns of the electoral region gave rise to strong and unforgettable enthusiasm. Obviously, not he, but the official Polish candidate was elected due to the terrorism and fraud that were common in those days during elections in Galicia. However the willingness of the rabbi to place himself in a political contest against a Polish official of such a level, a contest that was seen as important from the national Jewish viewpoint in the country, was seen as an act of national bravery and a personal sacrifice of great value.
Przemysl suffered greatly during the time of the First World War, since it was placed under siege as an important fortified city. With the approach of the Russian army to the gates of the city, most of the population, including Jews, left. Once again, the dedication of Rabbi Gedalia to his flock became apparent. He refused to leave the members of his community, and remained with them in the besieged city despite the great personal and communal suffering that was associated with this decision, and was expressed in its fullness primarily after the Russians took over the city. Often, the new authorities held the rabbi directly responsible for the behavior of the Jews. He was sometimes forced to appear before the Russian command in the middle of the night in order to defend the members of his community. To his great sorrow and despite his valiant efforts, he did not succeed in preventing the expulsion of the Jews of Przemysl. He supervised their orderly exit, remained among his people, and left the city on the Sabbath along with the last of them.
The rabbi's two sons were deported to Siberia. His younger son Moshe died of typhus there. The suffering of the rabbi during this period weakened the state of his health for the rest of his life. When the cities of Lvov and Przemysl were liberated, the rabbi and his family returned to his city that was bereft of its inhabitants. From there he went to Vienna for recuperation. Many of the Jewish residents of Galicia had fled to there. The residents of the capital suffered from a food shortage, and the refugees, including the rabbi and his family, probably also suffered from this. The rabbi often participated in meetings of the Zionist committee in Vienna. The rabbi returned to Przemysl in 1917.
At the end of the war, Rabbi Gedalia was appointed as a member of the popular Jewish council (folksrat), which consisted of 19 members and was founded by a committee of nationalist Jewish captains. This council replaced the communal council that was disbanded by that new committee, and acted as a decision making body in all former communal affairs, over and above and above the new tasks that were required in light of the struggle between the Poles and Ukrainians.
In those days, the Jewish shopkeepers and merchants in Przemysl were accused of raising the prices of food and other necessities, which caused accusations against the Jews in general. Therefore, it was advised that those raising the prices should be excommunicated. At first, the rabbi opposed this harsh advice for pure religious reasons; however he was forced to agree to it in light of the unstable political situation.
It was a dramatic and tragic moment when the rabbi, accompanied by Reb Samuel Knoller, ascended the pulpit of the synagogue that was filled to the brim, and in an unforgettable ceremony, proclaimed the ban of excommunication, accompanied by the blowing of shofars. For him, this was a great personal effort.
Rabbi Gedalia wished to fulfill the desire of his soul and make aliya to the land a few years before his death, despite his old age, his weak health, and his lack of resources, so that he could fulfill a purpose there, not necessarily rabbinic. However, his efforts to this effect resulted in naught. The rabbi remained on his guard of Przemysl and suffered greatly from the Jew hatred that spread throughout the country.
His interest in Zionist activity and Zionist leaders before the war is known. For example, in 1910, he went to the large lecture hall in the city in order to listen to the words of Adolf Stand. He sat in the upper gallery, opposite the speaker. This was an unusual step for a traditional rabbi, and also demonstrated
his strength of spirit. When David Wolfson, the president of the Zionist organization after Herzl's death, passed through Przemysl, Rabbi Gedalia Schmelkes was among those who greeted him at the train station.
The rabbi passed away on the 28th of Tevet 5688 (January 21, 1929) and was brought to rest in the cemetery of Przemysl. The head of the community, the well-known Dr. Leib Landau, eulogized him with a major eulogy.
The legacy of the rabbi was expressed through the establishment of many important students, and especially through his compositions on Torah literature. These included glosses on the Mishnaic orders of Zeraim and Taharot, notes on the traditions of the Talmud, response, statements on morality, research into the Twelve Minor Prophets, and works of didactics.
Despite his wide branched scholarly and rabbinical work, the rabbi found free time to concern himself with social assistance for the members of his community, as well as to arrange examinations in Jewish history for the students who wished to be accepted into Agudat Herzl.
It is worthwhile to note that the generous traits of the rabbi were expressed especially in his purity of character. We know that he placed himself, without being asked, at the disposal of people in their time of need, including people who were known as his adversaries. He was always prepared to make sacrifices when he saw the need to fulfill a moral obligation.
by D. N.
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Additional details about members of the rabbinical court:
by D. N.
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The Hassidim of Belz regarded him as the representative of their Rebbe. His five sons were great scholars, just like their father. Rabbi Pinchas died a martyr's death outside of Przemysl (apparently in Sambor) during the Holocaust.
Rabbi. His modesty and discreteness were well known. A wealthy Polish Christian, Emil Piskorz, saw it as his duty to provide a dwelling for him in on of his houses without rent. He was a faithful Catholic, and his generosity should be remembered positively. This took place before the First World War.
Originally from Belz: Rabbi Baruch Rokach, whose Beis Midrash was on Basztowa Street; Rabbi Moshe Rokach who was known as Der Wladyczer Rebbe; Reb Chanoch Landman, whose Beis Midrash was in Zasanie.
Originally from Sieniawa: Rabbi Shmuel Simcha Lazar and Rabbi Shmuel Gewirzman.
Originally from Komarno: Rabbi Zeida Safrin, who was known in the city as the Rebbe from Komarno.
Descended from Rabbi Uri (Rabbi Urle) of Sambor: Rabbi Eliahu Jolles, the grandson of Rabbi Urle of Sambor and son-in-law of Rabbi Shalom Jolles of Stryj.
During the 1930s, there was almost a minyan of Admorim in the city. We should note that even then, the Blazowa group was the largest in the city. They sent two delegates to the communal council. According to the law of Polish communities, the right of voting was given to all Jews over 25 years of age, and was no longer connected to the payment of communal taxes.
The Admor of Blazowa was greatly revered and appreciated by his Hassidim. One of his Hassidim, Reb Dov Berish Schwarz, did a wonderful deed in donating a splendid chair to his Rebbe, covered in silver, plated in gold, and decorated with three crowns. In its time, this deed left a great echo in the Orthodox community of the city and outside.
When I got to know him during my childhood I did not understand why they called him Malach. (I believe his surname was Friedmann ) An angel without wings, in flesh and blood, walking on earth like each of us this was beyond the comprehension of a child such as I. Only after growing up did I understand that he was crowned with this name because he was holy and pure in his character just like heavenly angels. His soul was noble and refined. He was tall and thin, with a pale face, his dreamy and thoughtful eyes showed that he was immersed in a pure and sublime world, and his only connection to our reality was that he earned his living as kashruth inspector at the slaughterhouse. This was a profession that was on the border between holy and worldly. The man was quiet, and spoke very little about secular matters. His seat at the kloiz was not at the eastern wall among the wealthy and respected people of the town, but next to the northern wall, under the wall clock. But somehow flow of time and changes did not affect him since he seemed to exist outside the bounds of time and place... The clock above his head did not symbolize his life at all.
The main burden of supporting the family rested upon his wife like on most Jewish women. She sold fabrics to peasants from one of the stalls on the street, among the rows of tables selling such merchandise. (She did not have a store.)
Rabbi Hershele was poor but always satisfied with his lot a lustiger dales. He was similar to Hershele Osterpoler and Efraim Greidiger of Galicia. Like them, he was known for his joyful optimism and sharp-witted sayings replete with great intelligence and sense of humor.
One of these remains in my memory till this day:
Rabbi Hershele Esther Jente's used to say: I do not envy the rich, since what is it that they have and I do not? Say silver and gold vessels and what benefit do they get out of such vessels? They can only look at them, and if I want I also can go to their homes and also look. But what, they have a right to mortgage these and I do not have this right, correct! But if they come to such a situation where they are forced to mortgage them then I have no reason to envy them!
Thus did Reb Hershele used to mock at wealth and property of the wealthy.
Rabbi Hershele was friendly and good-hearted. He subsists from one Sabbath to the next on just one measure of carobs, and obtained his livelihood from discrete donations of generous people and support from his only son.
I knew Reb Wolf the scribe well as his son Anshel went to cheder with me and was my friend. I often visited his parents' house. Reb Wolf was the most popular of the scribes in our city at that time, since he performed his job not only with faith and for the sake of his livelihood, but as a holy task. I often helped him with the proofreading of the tefillin and mezuzah scripts. We would meet at Belz shtibel whose
entrance was in the corridor leading to the Large Kloiz. There he spelled texts letter by letter and I checked the copy to make sure that, G-d forbid, no letter was omitted or added.
Rabbi Wolf and his family lived far from the noise and the tumult of Jewish street. His apartment was in the Rynek, in a building with non-Jewish tenants. He lived in a dark room in the attic and had no neighbors. It was quiet, silent street. Apparently he needed the quiet and seclusion to concentrate on his work. This quiet was not disturbed by soldiers in the barracks that faced his window and not by bells from the nearby church. They said about him if my memory serves me well that before writing the Holy Name he immersed himself in a mikveh. I recall that Rev Wolf refrained from drinking water that had not been boiled for fear of swallowing living creatures living in the drops of water, for he considered this to be like eating a limb from a living animal.
There many typical characters in our kloiz, reminding one of Hamatmid [The Regular] by Bialik, but few of them were real geniuses. During the period we are describing here Avrahamche Schor was such a genius to whom turned for all matters. Avrahamche's father had died and his mother supported the family. He was tall, his pale face framed by his peyos and small beard. He was like a beacon of light for all those sailing in the sea of the Talmud and it commentators. Everyone who had difficulty understanding a complicated or unclear matter turned to him, and he would answer questions, solve problems, and shine light upon any matter requiring clarification.
Usually there was a difference between Hasidism and scholarship. Those who delved deeply in Hasidism preferred to read the books on fear of Heaven of Admorim, sublime holy ones. Some among them turned the study of Gemara into a kind of prayer and Divine service. On the other hand, the scholars who knew how to navigate the sea of the Talmud and dealt less with Hasidism and it was them that Avrahamche Schor belonged to.
in Hebrew: The Hassidim of the kloiz at a celebration at the cemetery.
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