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[Page 151]

History of the Town

[Pages 17-20 Hebrew] [Pages 153-157 Yiddish]

Zychlin - 600 years of history

Translated by Leon Zamosc

This chapter is based on various historical sources, including the book Miasta polskie w tysia?cleciu [Polish cities of the millennium], by Mateusz Siuchniński, published by the National Ossolinski Institute, Wroclaw, 1965, 2 volumes.

Zychlin (which in some old documents is spelled “Szichlin” or “Sychlin”) is part of Kutno county in Central Poland. The settlement lies on a plain along the banks of the Sludwia river which, after merging with the Przysowa, flows into the Bzura river near Lowicz. Paved roads link the town with Pniewo's train station on the Warsaw-Bydgoszcz line (3 km to the south), Kutno (21 km to the west), and Lowicz (24 km to the southeast).

Archaeological excavations in the area corroborate the long existence of the settlement. By 1331 there was already a village with a church belonging to Chwala, a knight from Leczyca. That same year, Zychlin was occupied by the Crusaders and, for a long time to come, it would continue to be a prize in the private property disputes of the nobility. It can be assumed that the town was granted municipal rights before 1397, since it was a Catholic parish seat, it had a castle, and was strategically located on the crossroads between Greater Poland and Mazovia. The castle, a tiny structure in the center of town, was first mentioned in the official document Fula de Zychlino Judex of 1332.

In 1394, at a general convention in Leczyca, an agreement was signed between Pietrasz from Widawa and the standard-bearer of Leczyca, Klemens, by which the castle of Zychlin with its dependencies (Szichlin castrum cum aliis attinencis) became the permanent property of Klemens, who committed to pay Pietrasz 50 gold coins by Christmas of that year as a down payment towards the total sum of 150 coins. On June 20 1397, the same Klemens transferred on his behalf and on behalf of his heirs all the villages belonging to Zychlin (appido Sychlin) to Wojciech of Slonsk and to his brother. As mentioned above, this would seem to indicate that Zychlin had already received municipal rights well before 1450, which some sources consider the year of its founding by Albertus of Zychlin, Chancellor of the King. On the basis of documents from 1466 and 1469, Niesiecki writes that Albertus “founded and established the town of Zychlin” and that King Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk apparently granted the town new rights as a reward for Albertus' good services to the crown. In 1418, Albertus built a community church in whose basement he was laid to rest in 1471.

Very little is known about Zychlin in the following two centuries. Wojciech, vice-chancellor of King Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk, seems to have come from the town. According to a document of 1552, Zychlin included the following land divisions: Sziul, Pasieka, Rakowo, Daszki, Dobrzelin, Buszkow Zilona, Buszkow Major, Kamieniec, Rakowiec, Skaszewo Mala, Gomina (known as Raszkewizna), Gomina Sedky, Gomin, Gomin Rafalizna, Marszewo, Chocholow, Bobrowo, Zabikow, Budzyn, and Pzikoti. In these villages, a tiny nobility of 131 subjects had settled on small plots.

Wardam, who visited the area in the years 1670-72, reported that “Zychlin is a small town, the like of which you will find many in Mazovia and all over Poland. These towns differ from the villages in that their inhabitants enjoy more freedom and are considered nobles, or peasants who submit to the king and not to the tyranny of the nobility. Yes, even in a place like Zychlin, there is an aristocracy. I met one of them, with a sword hanging from his belt, as he was driving a garbage cart to the field.”

Later newcomers like the Grezinskis, the Rakowitskis and the Pruszkows, did not contribute to raising the level of the town. The only new landmark was the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul, a late Baroque brick building erected in 1782 on the site of the previous wooden church. For 30 years, beginning in 1838, the church was led by Glech Kondratski, and over time it was significantly expanded: a wing was added for the worshipers, and a new altar.

Severina Pruszkova-Dichinska, a writer, gave the church an image of Saint Stanislaus Kostka as a present. Two pictures remain of the ancient church, bearing inscriptions of Josef Sollohova (son of the Principality of Lithuania's Minister of Finance) and his wife Antonina, the Duchess Oginska.

A wall surrounds the church cemetery, where three iron tombstones stand out, corresponding to Felix Tikla (died 1847), Carol (died 1848), and Theodor Grabski. The small tombstone of Justina Orstata depicts a woman kneeling with her hands clasped in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the last work of the talented sculptor Paweł Maliński, who died in 1853.

Rather than developing, during the 17th century Zychlin had actually regressed. In 1715 it had 69 houses, a large inn and a beer and vodka tavern. The owner of the place, Tomasz Fruszak, requested and obtained the privilege to renew the license from King Stanislaw August Poniatowski. But this did not help the revival of the town, which in 1790 had 68 houses and 250 inhabitants.

As early as 1764-65 there were Jews in Zychlin, but their number was small and they were not formally organized as a Jewish community. They were registered as members of the Jewish communities of Kutno and Gostynin, where they paid taxes. At that time, there were about 930 Jews in these three towns. The Jewish synagogue of Zychlin was built of wood in 1780, on the basis of a special license from Antoni Kazimierz Ostrowski, archbishop of Gniezno. In 1880 a new brick synagogue was built on the site.

Under the Prussians, following the 1793 second partition of Poland, the number of houses slightly increased to 77 and the population reached 743. There were 57 artisans, including 6 ironsmiths, 3 goldsmiths and 3 barbers. During the years of the Duchy of Warsaw, there was further improvement. By 1812, the town had 817 inhabitants.

In 1820, there were 104 houses in Zychlin (four of them brick buildings), inhabited by 1,391 people, including a large majority of 846 Jews. The residents engaged in handicrafts and trade and among them were shopkeepers and salaried workers. Weekly market days were held on Sundays and every year there were eight regional market fairs. In 1858, there were 94 houses in Zychlin with 1,611 residents, including 1,002 Jews.

During the January 1863 uprising, 500 peasants and townspeople occupied Zychlin, expelled the Czarist soldiers and temporarily gained control of the town. Following the uprising, Zychlin lost its municipal privileges in 1870.

Around 1890, however, Zychlin entered a new phase of development. On that year, the permanent residents numbered 4,997 including 21 Orthodox Christians, 236 Protestants, 2,201 Jews, and the rest Catholics. Spurred by the construction of the Sochaczew-Kutno road and the Warsaw-Kutno-Poznan railway, an agriculture-based industry began to thrive in the town and its surrounding rural areas, especially in the agricultural estates of Budzyn, Pasieka, and Sokolowek. At the time, the Zychlin district covered an area of 14,881 morga (1 morga = 0.6 hectare), of which 13,098 were owned by landowners, 1,397 by peasants, and 386 by townspeople. Among the industries that developed in the region, of particular note were the two sugar factories located in Dobrzelin and Budzyn (Valentinov). The other local industrial establishments included two flour mills powered by steam, a foundry, a tannery, and a factory that produced soap and candles.

By the turn of the 20th century, there were 7,830 residents in the Zychlin district (3,799 men, 4,031 women), including 6,396 permanent residents (4,018 Christians, 2,378 Jews) and 1,434 non-permanent residents (971 Christians, 363 Jews). There were five primary schools, including two in Zychlin, two near the sugar factories, and one in Pniewo.

In the town itself, there were 205 houses (105 of them brick buildings) with fire insurance in the amount of 256,200 Russian rubles. In addition to the two schools, Zychlin had a courthouse, a post office, two doctors, a pharmacy, 184 stores (7 owned by Christians) and 16 bakeries (4 owned by Christians). The livelihood of many of the town dwellers depended on work in the agriculture-based industries, but that industrial development also brought an expansion of the local crafts and trade. Among the craftsmen, the largest group was the shoemakers (about 50), who were unionized in an artisans' association. Zychlin had two marketplaces (old and new) and two squares where cattle and horses were traded. The town's main commercial streets were Warszawska, Podwal, Poznanska, Lowiczka, Zhabia and Tylna.

In 1924 Zychlin recovered the municipal status that it had lost in 1870. By then, there were 426 houses and, despite the impact of the First World War, the population had continued to grow. In 1939, before the outbreak of the Second World War, Zychlin had 8,276 inhabitants and was the second largest town in the district of Kutno.

The extermination of the Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War caused a drastic reduction in population numbers and in the level of economic activity.

In 1946, there were about 6,000 residents in Zychlin. In recent years, the town has been rebuilding with the help of the industrial plants, including the development of an electronics industry. By December 1961, Zychlin had 7,880 inhabitants, three elementary schools, four vocational schools and a high school. The town has water supply and sewage.

 

Remembrance plaque for the Zychlin martyrs in Martef HaShoah, Jerusalem

 

[Pages 21-31 Hebrew] [Pages 158-173 Yiddish]

Zychlin - A Mother Town of the People of Israel

by Yaakov Ben-Binah

Translated by Janie Respitz

Edited by Leon Zamosc

With shivers and dread I will attempt to record my memories of Zychlin where I was born, took my mother's milk, received my first education in a heder like all the town's Jewish children, and got a more general education from the local parish priest. I experienced the development of the social, cultural and political life in town until my emigration to Eretz Israel in 1926.

In the following lines I want to convey my memories of the town, the social and cultural organizations, political parties and in general, the exuberant Jewish life. Yes, there was once a small Jewish town that no longer exists.

* * *

It is difficult to find Zychlin in an encyclopedia or a geography textbook. The town is situated three kilometres from the train tracks which run from Warsaw to Torun, between Lowicz and Kutno on one side, and Gombin on the other. The distance between Zychlin and these other towns is 20-25 kilometres. The name of the train station was Pniewo, after a nearby small village. During the years 1919-1920, when Zychlin was transformed from a small village to a town, the train station was renamed Zychlin.

From the train station one would arrive in town by foot or horse cart. On the outskirts of town, in Budzyn, there was a sugar factory that later became a factory of electrical engines and transformers, a branch of a Swiss company. This undertaking was run by the president of Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz who was later murdered by nationalists from the right-wing, antisemitic party, the Endeks. (National Democrats).

In Budzyn there was a beautiful tree-lined path where young people would take walks and meet friends. Between Budzyn and Zychlin one had to cross a wooden bridge over a small river which flowed towards the Bzura. After crossing the bridge you were in Zychlin's main street, Budzyner, which was renamed after Narutowicz after his death. There were Jewish shops on both sides of the street. Among them, two or three Christian shops, one of which was the pharmacy. That was the only street with a paved sidewalk. No wonder people would gather and walk there. At the end of the street was the market square, dominated by the church with its high tower from which the bell rang a few times a day.

On the right, the Jewish cemetery stretched down Buszkower street, which was inhabited by the poor. To the left of the marketplace was Pasieka street, with municipal offices, schools and the large mill which belonged to Moshe Wojdeslawski. Behind the church was Podwal street and two squares.

The Jewish religious centre was around Pasieka street: the large synagogue, the beit hamidrash, the mikveh, the Rabbi's house, the chicken slaughterhouse and a well from which practically the entire town drew its water.

The Rabbi prayed in the large synagogue with the most distinguished men in town, who had their own paid-for assigned seats. The women's section was on the second floor. The synagogue had an anteroom where the artisans prayed. People only prayed in the synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays, but the beit hamidrash was open all week for the prayers of the common folk prayed and the rabbi's assistant. Jews sat there day and night studying a page of Talmud and commentaries. Visitors would often sleep in the beit hamidrash.

There were also Hasidic prayer houses. The important Rebbes had their own stiebels and competed with each other to gain control of the Jewish street. The followers of one Rebbe would not dare enter the prayer house of another, not even to pray.

Many towns in Poland and Lithuania were known for the well known yeshivas or Rabbinic courts, but Zychlin did not have a yeshiva that would attract boys from other towns. Those who studied in the beit hamidrash did it on their own or with the help of older men who were learned in Talmud and commentaries. There was a rabbinic court that was not known outside of our town. The Hasidim that followed that particular Rebbe did not wear the typical fur hats or satin coats. They were simple folk types.

* * *

In 1918-1919 a yeshiva was founded in Zychlin by the Agudah Emunei Israel as well as a school for religious girls, Banot Yakov.

The education of Jewish children began in early childhood. They went to the elementary heder and gradually began to study bible and Rashi until they could learn a page of Talmud. Not all the children had the opportunity to continue studying. Sometimes they even stopped going to heder because their parents could not pay even the lowest tuition. Other towns had community-subsidized, free Talmud Torah schools for poor children. But that was not the case in Zychlin. While local community leaders tried to sponsor the attendance of poor children to heder, few of them were able to study even bible and Rashi because at a young age they had to face the burden of earning a living in one of the typical Jewish trades, which was taught to them by their own parents or some other artisan. These young people were hired by craft masters and apprenticed for a year or two without any salaries or defined working hours.

* * *

A small group of influential religious Jews used to run the Jewish communal affairs. Their activities were purely reduced to the maintenance of religious services. There was no elected community committee. There were only the town's Jewish notables and the plain Jews, community members who used the sanctuary, each one looking out for himself.

The religious functionaries in the community were the Rabbi, his assistant dayan (rabbinic judge), the cantor, the beadle of the synagogue, the beadle of the beit hamidrash, the caretaker of the mikveh, the cemetery guard, two ritual slaughterers, and the shulklapper who went around knocking on people's doors to call them for prayers.

The Rabbi and his dayan were subsisted on a special tax imposed on ritual slaughtering. On Purim and other holidays it was customary to send them dishes or other gifts. The ritual slaughterers earned their living from the slaughter of cows and chickens. The cantor and the beadles would go from house to house collecting contributions every Friday and on the eve of holidays. Weddings and circumcisions were other sources of income for the religious functionaries.

There was no Jewish public school in Zychlin. Parents did not want to send their children to the municipal Polish school because they would have been required to study on Sabbath and recite a Christian prayer every morning. Therefore, Jewish children would just study in heder all day.

Those who ran the Jewish communal affairs did not care about general secular education. There was only a private school run by a teacher who had come from Gombin. Parents who wanted their children to learn to read and write and some arithmetic, sent them to study with that teacher. There were those who studied on their own, secretly reading books and newspapers. They were the enlightened Jews of the town. Jewish parents who wanted to give their children a broader education would send them to the town's parish priest, or to Polish students who came home to Zychlin during the vacations. At that time in Zychlin there was only one Jewish student, Avraham Toroncyk, the son of Yitzhak Toroncyk.

It was easier for the girls because they did not have to go to Heder and could study with Christian teachers, male and female, or at the Polish school.

A few newspapers reached the town. The more educated boys would get and swap books among them. In 1912 there was an attempt to open a library, and it really opened, but then was closed by the Russian authorities. A few enlightened young people took the initiative and invited the author Hillel Zeitlin to Zychlin to give a lecture. In those days this was considered a daring step.

* * *

How did the Jews make a living in Zychlin?

Most were tiny merchants, some were shopkeepers in all kinds of trades, and some roamed the neighboring villages buying produce or selling various articles to the peasants. Others waited for the market days in the town or travelled to fairs in nearby and far away places. There were also dairy men who bought milk in the villages and turned it into various products. There was no shortage of dealers who purchased poultry, eggs, cattle and grain which they sold in larger cities. A few Jews had business relations with the nobility in the region, leasing forests, buying the harvest and loaning money with interest. These Jews were wealthier and rubbed shoulders with the powerful people in the town.

Besides these there were the artisans: tailors, shoemakers, stitchers, butchers, bakers, hat makers. There were also cart owners, porters, water carriers, teachers, and barbers who in addition to giving haircuts and shaves also took care of medical problems – pulling teeth and doing other traditional therapies like cupping and leeching. They earned a good living.

Most of the craftsmen worked alone, helped only by their children. There were some who hired workers. Working hours were limitless, from dawn until late at night. These craftsmen barely earned a living, except for those who worked for the nobility and the bureaucrats.

 

The tailors' guild in Zychlin

 

Although there were sugar factories and foundries in the region, they did not hire Jews. Only once a year, before Passover, the supervisor of kosher food would go to the sugar factory. At Wojdeslawski's flour mill only one miller and one machinist, besides the family, were Jewish. The rest of the workers were Christian.

There were also partnerships to make socks using artisanal knitting machines. This was run by sons of traditional Jews who had left the beit hamidrash and became independent workers. They received the raw materials and delivered the finished product. They were meticulous, intelligent workers.

* * *

In 1905, the effects of the revolutionary wave that engulfed Russia and its Polish territories were also felt in Zychlin. The revolt in the town was led by the workers who knitted socks by machine and a few boys from the beit hamidrash who secretly supported the revolution. I remember that some of those who were active were the Skrobek brothers, the Chlawny brothers and others who went down the “wrong path”. They sincerely believed that a new age was coming of freedom for all, for our people as well. They were called “the good guys”.

The workers were not class conscious enough due to their backwardness. The more educated began to organize activities to spread socialist ideals and improve working conditions. This was all done secretly as they feared being sent to Siberia.

There were no forests near Zychlin where they would be able to meet secretly or find a hiding place. Only on the road to Gombin were there some old poplar trees. On Saturdays, the “revolutionaries” would gather there to organize and instruct. In order to disguise the political nature of the meetings they brought their children, as if they were on an excursion or having a picnic. The activists read to the group from newspapers about what was going on in Russia and the large cities of Poland and they also tried to organize underground action cells.

More than once I played the role of liaison, notifying people about the meetings and gatherings. In other places the rebellion against the Czarist oppression led to attempted assassinations on governors and police. In Zychlin, however, there were no big rulers, just two pitiful policemen. Since we had to do something against the Czar, it was decided to try to assassinate his representative in our town, the policeman.

One Saturday night, when one of the two policemen was leaving the tavern that was located in the same building where my family lived, he was shot on the spot. The policeman died, but the Czar remained on his throne and the authority decided not to tolerate this offense. A punishment battalion of armed soldiers was sent to Zychlin to repress the masses, and took revenge on the Jews. The soldiers stood on the street in the middle of the day with whips in their hands and every Jew that walked by received a lash. The Poles were delighted by this “spectacle”.

There were rumours about anti-Jewish pogroms in other cities which were perpetrated by the so-called “Black Century” right-wing extremist groups that operated under the auspices and with the full assistance of the police (see Hayim Nahman Bialik's Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter” about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom).

In Zychlin, the revolutionaries and some other Jews organized a self-defense group to defend the community and prevent the pogromchiks from going wild. But in the end there were no confrontations and everything passed peacefully.

The end of this period is well-known: all those who naively believed that a new era was coming and were prepared to fight for a new, better world were bitterly disappointed. They were in a state of despair and did not want to remain in Zychlin. They scattered to all the winds of heaven: some left to the big cities and others sailed overseas, in search of a purpose in life.

The anti-Semites in Poland raised their heads and with the support of the government waged open war on Jewish merchants. They proclaimed a boycott on Jewish businesses with the slogan “Our own for our own”. Polish businesses were opened throughout Poland, and this happened in Zychlin as well. The anti-Semites also organized cartels to buy milk and grain directly from the peasants, which took away the meagre livelihoods of many Jews in Zychlin. The sugar factories were organized in a separate cartel. The sugar factory in Budzyn and another factory in the area were closed. This greatly affected the economic situation in the town.

By then, the rapid development of the textile industry in Lodz, Kalisz and other cities opened new opportunities to the Jews. Many families with lots of children left Zychlin, searching for a livelihood. Zychlin was emptied out of its exuberant youth and all public activities died down – in fact, they were forbidden by law after the failed revolution. A slumber fell on the town.

* * *

Things were stirred up by the Hasidic wars. Ger Hasidim against followers of the Rebbes of Skierniewice, Sochaczew, Aleksandrow Lodzki, etc. It was a fight for control of the Jewish street. Should the town's rabbi be elected or continue to be appointed in the old way? Who should be in charge of the affairs of the community? The Ger Hasidim had always won these battles.

In 1911-12 all the Hasidim who opposed the followers of the Ger dynasty banded together to put an end to their authority. Instead of individual prayer houses they opened a large one called Linat Tzedek, where not only Hasidim came to pray, but common folk as well. The initiators were Shmelke Biderman, Mendl Kraut, Avraham Berman and others. David Steinberger took the practical work upon himself. I believe that it was his first involvement in community work. Later, the Linat Tzedek prayer house would became the main activity center for the religious Zionists of the Mizrachi party and the activists of all the other Zionist groups.

It all started with the elections for members of the Jewish community council. For the first time the opponents of the Ger Hasidim dared to put forth a candidate of their own, Reb Yehoshua Fayvel Kelmer, against a candidate of the Ger Hasidim, Reb Moshe Chelmski.

My father was active in the anti-Ger coalition, and I was given the job of preparing some banners with slogans to encourage people to vote for Reb Yehoshua Fayvel Kelmer.

Our activists, headed by Shmeryl Berman hung the banners at night. The campaign was successful and for the first time a member of the Jewish council was chosen from among the common folk, Reb Yehoshua Fayvel Kelmer. The authority of the Ger Hasidim was broken. However Reb Yehoshua Fayvel disappointed his voters. After he was elected he joined the Ger Hasidim.

* * *

The main cultural activities at that time were the visits of preachers who would occasionally come to town and give a speech at the beit hamidrash between afternoon and evening prayers. Otherwise, the town lived its usual life, except for Simchat Torah and Purim, when Jews were permitted to drink a few glasses to forget the hardships we endured all year. We celebrated and danced. On Purim, the Purim shpilers (actors) would perform. They were boys from the beit hamidrash who enacted plays on biblical themes. They performed in the homes where they knew they would be compensated. Family members and neighbours would gather to enjoy the show.

From time to time troupes would come from Lodz or Warsaw and perform in the firemen's hall. The performances would begin close to midnight because most of the audience were craftsmen and laborers who worked until late at night.

Every wedding in town brought about a sense of joy for all, not just for the families directly involved. The wedding canopy was set up in the synagogue's courtyard. The bride and groom were brought separately, led by the band followed by the guests and all the children from town.

* * *

That was how we lived until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Zychlin did not suffer directly from the war. The town was far from strategic places. There was no river nearby or any other foothold for the armies to conquer. Thanks to this fact, our town was spared destruction.

As soon as the war broke out the two policemen who were supposed to keep order left Zychlin, leaving the town in lawless disarray (the older of the two policemen came back after the war and became the leader of the Polish Socialist Party's local branch). The firefighters took upon themselves the task of maintaining order and the Jews participated in the effort: dressed in firefighter uniforms they maintained order day and night. However, it was not completely smooth. One day Russian soldiers arrived in Zychlin on their way to the front and demonstrated their “heroism” by tearing apart Jewish businesses and robbing everything they could with help of the Poles. The firefighters, led by Poles, did not even try to stop the wild soldiers, despite the fact that it was their job and they were in a position to do something.

In 1915 Zychlin was occupied by the German army. The Jews welcomed the Germans with open arms, seeing them as redeemers and not as the enemy army. The Russian authorities had not shown any interest in developing the town, so that nobody was bothered by their defeat. In Zychlin, we did not have electricity. The streets were illuminated by just three kerosene lamps in the main intersections until 11 o'clock at night. After that there was darkness, pitch black. Anyone who had to walk in the streets late at night had to carry a lantern.

The first accomplishment of the Germans was the installation of electric lights in the streets and in the houses, although only until midnight. This was great progress. The Germans also brought order and cleanliness to our streets. The military hospital in Budzyn was open for all patients without requiring previous appointments. At the time, there was a typhus epidemic in town. The sick were taken to the firemen's hall and aid from the Red Cross was quickly organized for the hospital. A municipal garden was also planted on the side of the pond. Later, a school was opened for Jewish children. Certified teachers came from Plock as well as two female teachers from Zychlin, Hella Landshnaider and Flora. Some of those who had left the town were now returning because of the lack of work in the big cities. They felt at home in Zychlin among their own people. Among those who returned were: the Steinberger (Shamir) family, Yehoshua Zyger, Avraham Zaiderman, Getzel, Yosef Rosengarten and others. Some people who were not originally from Zychlin came to live in the town as well, including Gombinski, Maizel and his sister, the student from Lodz Toroncyk, Kozisovitz and Bol from Warsaw, and others. Their arrival brought a new breath of life to our sleepy town. A general library was founded as well as a sports club headed by an experienced instructor from Lodz. Branches of political parties and movements were also established in the town, including Bnai Zion, Poalei Zion, the Bund, Tzeirei Zion, and a scout organization.

* * *

Our bored youngsters were now awakened. The dams were breached and they passionately devoted themselves to self-education, with the help of the “guests” who had recently arrived. Courses were offered in Hebrew as well as private lessons in general secular education. Everyone had a strong desire to learn. It was a drastic transition, as if from darkness to light. With great thirst, the young people pounced on the books, like desert wanderers who discovered living water. Day and night, by the light of a kerosene lamp or a candle, they read everything they could get their hands on: classic literature, Jewish and general themes, science, sociology and history. This is how self-education began.

The first board of the library was not aligned with any political party. There were people from different parties. I had the privilege to be the first secretary of the library until the split, when the board was taken over by the activists of Poalei Zion. That is when the General Zionists founded their own library.

The athletics club Turen Farein was created by Gombinski. He was the lively spirit behind this organization. There were very active members who trained with a specialist from Lodz. They bought special equipment for gymnastics. The club also had more passive members who donated money. From time to time they would hold a tournament festival which brought a holiday spirit to town. Jewish sports organizations were invited from other surrounding towns. The members on the organizing committee were from different political parties.

A. Maizel and his sister organized lectures in Hebrew and Polish. They also tried to open a modern Heder, but the project foundered because most parents did not understand the concept. Among other things, they directed the Hebrew play “Yehudzn” by Schweiger which was performed by the students of the evening courses with great success.

David Steinberger was very active in the town's social and cultural life and in the General Zionists' organization Bnai Zion. He organized evening courses in Hebrew and every Friday evening lectured on the history of the Jewish people to a crowded audience. He also organized performances and even directed a children's choir. The first production was Y. L. Peretz' play “Hamekubalim” with the participation of David Steinberger and Zaiderman. Then he directed Sholem Aleichem's play “Menschen”. He also lectured on political and literary topics. Later on, he founded a Hebrew school with certified teachers brought from other cities.

 

Program for Sholem Aleichem's play “Menschen”

 

Yehoshua Zyger, Zaiderman, Majdat and others established the local branch of the Poalei Zion party, which gained prominence in Zychlin and became a large party.

The student Toroncyk from Lodz founded branches of the Scouts Organization in Zychlin and Kutno. At the time, the organization had a strictly scouting character. In Zychlin, where I led the group, we carried out a broad range of activities organizing outings on the outskirts of town and visits to Gombin and Kutno. We were a group of idealistic young people, non-partisan, but devoted to the Zionist values which at the time seemed a distant reality. Everyday we carried out the good deed of distributing aid to the needy as well as communal tasks like serving as honour guards at various assemblies.

The main leaders of the scouts were David Steinberger, Rozenfeld, and Meir Helmer. With time, that scouts' organization turned into the Zychlin branch of Hashomer Hatzair, led by Bunim Steinberger. At that point I left the organization and, together with A. Getzel, we founded the group Tzeirei Zion, which included Avraham Wrontzberg, Yehoshua Wojdeslawski and others among its first members. Later, other activists who were not satisfied with the existing Zionist parties joined the group and Tzeirei Zion became the basis for the formation of the party Poalei Zion Right in Zychlin.

This was a rich time for activism and awakening. The atmosphere was romantic. Everything seemed hopeful. Excitement and loftiness filled the air. We all had a goal that we strove to achieve, despite the differences in our philosophies.

The branches of the Jewish political parties in Zychlin were respected by the central committees in Warsaw. The most prestigious speakers from all the parties came to Zychlin, including well-known writers who lectured on literary themes.

Every Saturday there were cultural gatherings and recitals. There were choirs, a mandolin orchestra, and theatrical performances, and all of that was done with local talents.

* * *

In 1917 we received the wonderful news about the Balfour Declaration. People were overjoyed and kissing in the streets, almost believing the Messiah had actually arrived. The General Zionists brought Rabbi Milkovsky to give a talk. His visit was an unforgettable event for those who heard him speak in the synagogue. Most Jewish shops and businesses were closed. The synagogue was filled, men and women sitting together like on Simchat Torah. The scouts served as the honour guard for our guest. He electrified the audience with his speech, which rang out like an announcement of redemption. The Zionist activists of all stripes felt celebratory and began to prepare for future events.

By the end of 1918 the First World War ended. The revolution broke out in Russia. The Czar abdicated. Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany was brought down from his throne. A new world was born with hope for a better future, without race discrimination and freedom for all nations. The Germans left and Poland became independent after a long period of enslavement. The Jewish youth believed that this new era of freedom would benefit our people as well.

The Zionist parties felt that Zionism was no longer a dream but a reality. The exception were the activists of Poalei Zion Left, which felt redemption would come from Russia. Unfortunately, the expectation that the Jewish masses in Poland would benefit from independence and receive equal rights were bitterly disappointed.

Poland celebrated its independence with pogroms, just like the Czar had done in Pinsk, Lviv and other places. The new government did not condemn the pogroms and did not try to stop the wild slaughter. To the contrary, they found excuses to justify these vile events. A dark cloud descended on Zychlin.

David Steinberger invited me to a discussion on the situation at the Poalei Zion club. They also invited Ettinger and Gombinski as non- partisan communal workers. After a long exchange of ideas it was decided to form a self-defence group with the participation of all the parties and movements. All the differences and divisions were set aside. A fund was created on the spot to purchase means of defense. We believed that we would be able to buy weapons from the Germans who were still stationed not far from Zychlin. I was chosen to lead the self-defence. That same evening I organized a group and placed them in various spots in town. There were guards all night. At dawn, through a middleman, I tried to establish contact with the Germans but when we arrived at the bridge we were met by a Polish guard.

We guarded the city for a few days and nights and there were no incidents. This experience affected everyone. Deep in our hearts we understood that freedom for other nations did not mean freedom for us. We had to be the grease for the freedom wheels of others. This feeling was one of the most important factors for the many Zychlin Jews who decided to fulfill their dream and go to the Eretz Israel. The Zionist and pioneer movements were blossoming and many youngsters from their ranks eventually emigrated to Palestine.

In Eretz Israel, the Jews from Zychlin worked in a variety of fields. Each according to his talents and inclinations. There were Zychliners in the Haganah, the Histadrut, the political parties, the kibbutzim, the press and even in the most important institution of the country - the Knesset. A Jew from Zychlin, Moshe Kelmer, became a member of parliament. The seeds which had been sown in Zychlin gave fruit in the Land of Israel.

* * *

The Second World War broke out in 1939. Poland was occupied by Hitler's army. All contact with Zychlin was interrupted. In Palestine we received sporadic, unclear news about the extermination of the Jews of Europe. We could not imagine the terrible dimensions of this tragedy - that our parents, sisters and brothers and all those close to us were being murdered. In those years an association of townsfolk from Zychlin was set up in Eretz Israel to help the survivors as much as we could. But the disaster turned out to be much worse than anything we had imagined. After the Holocaust, very few remained. They went to various countries, very few came to Israel, and Zychlin was left without any Jews at all.


[Pages 31-35 Hebrew] [Pages 173-178 Yiddish]

The Hasidic dynasty of Zychlin

by Esther Zychlinski-Zyger

Translated by Janie Respitz

Edited by Leon Zamosc

Adding my modest contribution to this book on the life and customs of the Jews of Zychlin, I will outline the history of Zychlin rabbinic dynasty, of which I am a survivor and actually the only one who remained alive. The first Zychlin Rebbe was Reb Shmuel Abba of blessed memory. As a child, his father took him to visit Reb Fishel Strikover, who had studied with Reb Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezeritch and the Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk.

The Rebbe Shmuel Abba Zychlinski was born in 1810. He was known as a great Talmudic scholar. He was a great patriot and during the Polish uprising of 1831 he called the Hasidim to help the Poles, because he recognized that the Czar and the Russians were great enemies of the Jews. Unfortunately, his opponents the Kotzk Hasidism and the Peshischa Hasidim denounced him to the Russians. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Leczyca jail in 1845. After intervention by the Warsaw Hasidim he was released on the same year.

Nahum Sokolow wrote in his book Emeshim (chapter on Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, page 13) that the first person he ever heard speaking Hebrew was the Zychlin Rebbe:

Truth be told, the first spoken Hebrew word I heard in my childhood and left a lasting impression were the Hebrew words of the great Talmudic scholar Rebbe Shmuel Abba of blessed memory from Zychlin who on the Sabbath would only speak the Holy Tongue. He was a student of my grandfather of blessed memory, and he received me as a grandchild. I was seven years old when he examined me with questions on the Talmud. They were not too difficult and I was able to answer. His speaking the Holy Tongue with a Talmudic accent simply enchanted me. Since that day I never lost the enthusiasm to speak Hebrew, not only on the Sabbath, but during the week as well. I established societies to pursue this goal more than 50 years ago” (Jerusalem, 20th of Tevet, 1933).

The Rebbe Shmuel Abba passed away in 1879 and his son Reb Moshe Natanel Zychlinski became the Rebbe in Zychlin. When the Rebbe Moshe Natanel passed away in 1912, he was succeeded by my grandfather Reb Menachem Yedidah Zychlinski.

The Rebbe Menachem Yedidah was the son in law of the Rebbe Yeshai Shapira, who descended from the Hasidic dynasty of Rebbe Yisroel Hopsztajn, the Maggid of Kozhnitz. His wife, my grandmother, was called Rayzele, she was known for her wisdom and piety.

The Rebbe Menachem Yedidah had many Hasidim followers from all over Poland who came to hear his teachings and interpretations. They were amazed by his wisdom in responding to their questions. They came by the hundreds from Warsaw, Lodz and other cities and towns. Large crowds arrived during the High Holidays. The Rebbe's court was filled all year round with people who saw him as a source of comfort, hope and spiritual awakening.

Many Hasidim would find lodging in the Rebbe's house. These were the lucky ones. Others had to stay in various hostels like the Stoskovski, Kuba, Eygele and others. Many found a place to stay in private homes and with friends.

The Rebbe's wife, my grandmother Rayzele, was a woman of valor. Following a custom, every Hasid who came for Yom Kippur brought his own fowl for the sacrificial ceremony. It was cooked in the Rebbe's house, supervised by his wife. She also prepared fish and baked challah and pastries. At the end of Yom Kippur people sat at the table until late at night. The Hasidim were anxious to take home some baked goodies for their families. The Rebbe's wife had a smile for everyone and made sure that they went home happy. She was loved by all the Hasidim.

 

The family of the Zychlin Rebbe Menachem Yedidah

 

My grandfather Rebbe Menachem Yedidah's court consisted of a spacious comfortable house and a large and a small beit hamidrash. They prayed in the small beit hamidrash throughout the year. The large beit hamidrash was reserved for the High Holidays, the Days of Awe, when hundreds of people arrived. The Rebbe was known as a great Torah reader. Sydney Berman, a Zychliner living in New York, told me that the Hasidim in America had offered the Rebbe a large amount of money to visit them for one holiday of prayers. He turned them down, saying that his place was in Zychlin together with the local Jews.

The Rebbe would lead the prayers on Yom Kippur - Kol Nidre, Musaf and Neillah. He would also blow the shofar and give a sermon. His praying was filled with devotion. He was covered with sweat and tears. The morning and afternoon prayers were led by my dear father, Reb Shmuel Avraham Abba. The already mentioned Sydney Berman told me that, when my father prayed, it sounded like a female voice from heaven. There was such a large crowd that they had to study Torah in five or six rooms. It is worth mentioning that on the eve of Yom Kippur the Jews form our town, Hasidim and non- Hasidim, would come to the Rebbe with a kwitel (request for a blessing). The Rebbe had a kind word for everyone and wished all of them a good year.

Many Hasidim would come on the second day of Kislev for the anniversary of the passing of Rebbe Moshe Natanel and the 25th of Elul for the anniversary of the death of Rebbe Shmuel Abba. The Hasidim would go to their graves and pray there, crying and asking God to protect all the Jewish people.

The Rebbe Menachem Yedidah sat day and night and studied. He did not even know the differences between coins, which showed how far removed he was from daily life.

The Rebbe's family consisted of two sons, my father Reb Shmuel Avraham Abba, my uncle Reb Yitzhak Yaakov Tuvyia and my aunt Chaja Rachel Dwora, may they all rest in peace.

The Rebbe was also loved by the Christian population. He enjoyed walking through the fields, especially during the harvest, and the gentiles showed him great respect. This is how things were until the big tragedy, when the Germans, may their names be blotted out, entered our town and confined all the Jews of Zychlin to the ghetto. In one swoop all the holiness and traditions were destroyed. The Rebbe continued his rabbinic duties for the local Jews from his hiding place, comforting them with better times and predicting salvation. He tied his beard with a handkerchief and would not allow it to be cut. One day an SS came into my grandfather's house and found him sitting and studying… with a beard. He flew into a rage and ordered me to bring scissors to cut my grandfather's beard. The Rebbe lifted his hands as if to protect himself and the scissors fell from the SS man's hands. Apparently he got spooked and left without causing any harm.

Rebbe Menachem Yedidah's grief was great when he had to witness the Jewish suffering and tragedy. This shortened his life and he passed away during the interim days of Passover. The Hasidim managed to bury him in the family burial plot. Right after the burial, while still in the cemetery, the Hasidim crowned my father Reb Shmuel Avraham Abba as their Rebbe. He took over the leadership and continued this work in the ghetto.

Meanwhile the nightmares, persecutions and tortures were increasing. The Nazi murderers ordered all the Jews to cut off their beards but, like Rebbe Menachem Yedidah, my father risked his life refusing to carry out this humiliating order.

The situation of the people in the ghetto became intolerable. A few days before Purim in 1941 they learned that the Germans were preparing to liquidate the ghetto and all the Jews would be sent to Krosniewice. On top of that, each Jew had to pay a large sum of money for the transport.

 

The Rebbe Menachem Yedidah,
who died in Zychlin ghetto

 

I was told that my father, the last Zychlin Rebbe, told his Hasidim that his father Menachem Yedidah came to him in a dream and told him that terrible days were approaching for the Jewish people and all the Gates of Mercy in heaven were locked. He told them to repent, fast, and pray, begging the Master of the Universe to undo the punishment he was inflicting. They also told me that on the Fast of Esther the Nazi murderers took my father and all the other Jews and sent them to Krosniewice, where they were locked up in the church. Later they were sent to be gassed and burned at Chelmno.

My father, the holy Rebbe Shmuel Avraham Abba of blessed memory was the last heir of the Zychlin dynasty. He was fifty years old when he was murdered by the Nazi beasts. My father was the son in law of Reb Eliezer Weisblum from Staszow, who descended from the great Rebbe Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk. The tragic fate of all the Jews from Zychlin also included my dear mother, the Rebbe's wife Dwoyrele, my two brothers Avigdor and Bezalel Asher, my grandmother, the old Rayzele and my father's brother Reb Yitzhak Yaakov Tuvyia. At that time I was together with my eldest brother Reb Mordechai Afrin of blessed memory and his family in Lask. On the 26th of August 1942 he and his family were deported and died in Chelmno and I was sent to the Lodz ghetto.

Such was the tragic end of what was a bright page in the history of our unforgettable town Zychlin and, more generally, in the history of the Hasidim and all the Polish Jews.

 

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