by Josif Milner, Paris
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Chelm was always an important Jewish cultural and population center and was world famous not only for the stories with which she so enriched our Yiddish folklore. Chelm is one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland.
Jews were already living in Chelm almost 500 years ago. In the course of the seventeenth century, they even excelled materially. In 1529 a Jew, Reb Eidl, lived there. He would be referred to in Polish as Doctor Yudka and the Polish emperor appointed him rabbi for three areas: Chelm, Lublin and Belzyce. His power was great and his moral influence was even greater.
There was an old shul [synagogue] in Chelm where the shutters were on the roof there would be laughter and it would be said: Chelm fools!... However, the truth is that this dated from 1582, when an enemy of Israel, Tomosz, wanted to kill the Jews and they barricaded themselves in the attic of the shul. And they had to save themselves that way for many generations. In the sorrowful well known period of the Chmielnicki massacres, 1648 to 1669, more than four hundred Chelm Jews perished to sanctify the name of God.
The list of the famous Chelm rabbis is very large. We will note only a few of them: Rabbi Elihu bel-Shem [miracle worker], the grandfather of Hokhem Tzvi (the latter was the father of Mr. Yakov Emdin). He was born in Chelm in 1550. The Hokhem Tzvi wrote that Reb Elihu bel-Shem created a golem [a clay figure of a human, often with superhuman powers]. In Chelm, many legends were woven around him. For example: he did not permit a headstone to be erected after his death. There was a hill in the Chelm cemetery and it was always pointed out that this is the grave of the Reb Elihu bel-Shem!...
The MaHarSha was rabbi in Chelm for ten years. This was, in fact, his first rabbinate. From Chelm, this well-known expert on Hebrew grammar, the author of Markvat haMishnah, became the rabbi in Salonika.
In 1789, in the year of the French revolution, a Chelm Jew, Hershke Yosefowicz, wrote a booklet in Polish: Thoughts on How to Make a Jew into a True Polish Citizen.
As mentioned, the list of remarkable Jews from Chelm and its surroundings is large and it is too long to be able to dwell upon each one separately. Therefore I will be satisfied with the following persons:
Reb Elihu bel-Shem
The Chelm khevra kiddishe [burial society] was proud of two things: they would show everyone the headstone from the year khes and the little hill under which was the grave of Reb Elihu bel-Shem [miracle worker]. I knew both things well. I myself saw the headstone with the khes, that is, for the year of the massacres of Bogdan Chmielnicki. My brother, Dr. Shimon Milner, in his History of the Jews of Chelm, even transcribed and published the contents of the headstone. However, we all, in my father's house, had great discussions about this. We were sure about that letter khes but in time it disappeared.
However, the little hill, where Reb Elihu bel-Shem was buried, is a fact. There lived in Chelm a legend about Reb Elihu bel-Shem. It was told that on the day of his funeral all of the impurities sank down And before his death, Reb Elihu bel-Shem had asked the heads of the community that there be no headstone placed on his grave. And thus was created the little hill.
And who was Reb Elihu bel-Shem?...
He was born in 1550 that is 400 years ago in Chelm proper. He studied Torah in Lublin, with Reb Shlomoh Luria, and was later the rabbi in Chelm. He wrote a famous sefer [religious book], Poski-Dinim and he created a legal code for agunes [deserted wives].
Reb Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi, the famous Khokhem Tzvi, was his grandson. We must remember the great influence of Reb Tzvi Ashkenazi on the Jewry of his century. His grandson was Reb Yakov Emdin himself, one of the greatest rabbis of his generation and the great opponent of Shabbatai Tzvi.
So, as we Chelemers perhaps can say, and with justice, Reb Yakov Emdin also had origins in Chelm. The little hill in our old cemetery is a witness.
The MaHarSha was the rabbi in Chelm, which actually was his first rabbinate. He arrived in Chelm in 1610. There are biographies of the MaHarSha that say he was rabbi in Chelm for ten years; others that he remained in the position only until 1614, and from there he went to Lublin, where he was placed at the head of his large and famous yeshiva, to which were drawn young Jews from all corners of the world, even from France and from Italy. The MaharSha was the most popular among all the rabbis of that time.
He was born in 1555 and, it is said, in Chelm. He died in 1631 in the shtetl Ostrog, and his name was Reb Shlomoh Eliezer son of Yehuda Eidels. His epoch was the Tor Hazahav [golden age] of the rabbinical liter-
ature. The MaHarSha refreshed it and added a beautiful style of scholarship that was started in Chelm.
The bel Markvat haMishnah
His name would be written in our old seforim [prayer books]: Reb Shlomoh of Chelm. The entire Jewish world would refer to him as bel [author of]Markvat haMishnah because his famous book of commentaries on Rambam carried the name: Markvat haMishnah. This book was published in 1751 in Frankfurt-on-Oder.
Everywhere he is called Reb Shlomoh Chelemer but he was born in Zamosc. He was only the rabbi in Chelm and there he wrote his famous seforim. In addition to Markvat haMishnah, Reb Shlomoh of Chelm wrote a Shulkhan Orekh [guide to observance of religious laws used in daily life] and a sefer [religious book]: Shaarei Neima, Hug Haaretz.
Reb Shlomoh of Chelm was a famous grammarian and geographer (his Eretz-Yisroel biography is entitled Hug Haaretz and he wrote many responsa [published religious opinions]. Reb Shneur Zalman considered Reb Shlomoh of Chelm a great authority on Halakah [legal portions of the Talmud] and of religious laws.
And do you know where Reb Shlomoh of Chelm died? In Saloniki!... He died as rabbi of Saloniki. At that time, we see the road from Chelm to Saloniki was not very long. Rabbis were even traded.
And today?... The two old kehiles [Jewish communities] of Saloniki and Chelm no longer exist. The same Nazis made a ruin of them. Is this not the same path and fate?
Reb Abraham ben Yosef of Chelm
Thus he is referred to, and under this name, he is found in many encyclopedias. A famous writer of liturgical poems. The French Jews chiefly from southern France always exulted that the poems were created on French soil because the blue sky of France influenced the spirits and stirred the poetry As you see we cannot be ashamed of our Chelm sky.
Reb Abraham ben [son of] Yosef of Chelm was not in Chelm by accident. He is a Chelemer by birth. He was born in Chelm and we know the date of his death (1650). That means he was born and lived in Chelm more than three hundred years ago and he was the rabbi in Chelm.
A book of poems by our Reb Abraham ben Yosef was published in two volumes in Krakow in 1607. The famous Zuntz dedicated an honored place to him praising his great talent. The historian Shteinschneider holds that he was one of the greatest religious poets of his time. His book, which was published in Krakow, is no longer here in the world. In the passage of so many centuries it was lost.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005There is only one example in the British Museum. This is the only example in the world and Zender registered this book in his famous catalogue from the British Museum. The name of Reb Abraham ben Yosef of Chelm is also remembered as a great poet in Or haChaim [commentary on the Torah by Reb Chaim ben Attar].
Reb Yitzhak ben Yosef Hochgelernter
Was one of the most famous Talmudists in Poland, a scholar whose father was a scholar. His father was already well known in the Jewish world as the rabbi in Zamosc and Reb Yitzhak ben Yosef was the rabbi in Chelm (after the death of his father he left Chelm and took up the rabbinate in Zamosc, where he died in 1825). Others gave him the family name, the nickname, Hochgelernter [highly educated] because of his great skill and great knowledge. He himself was a modest man, a modest and shy person and would always sign his name simply as Reb Yitzhak ben Yosef. At that time he already spoke several languages, French, Dutch and Polish. Jews exulted over him. Later, his children scattered widely in many other lands and in general the family Hochgelernter was well known everywhere. However, its cradle was with us in Chelm.
His well known book, Zikhron Yitzhak in two parts appeared in 1800 in Lemberg The first part consisted of various analyses of answers to question on Halakah, showing a mastery of all of Halakes [legal parts of the Talmud] and they were sympathetically adapted for a wider public. In the second part were his explanations of the Khumish [Torah or Five Book of Moses] and of the five megiles [scrolls]. In the explanations of the last he showed a great talent as a popularizer because he understood that the megiles can become the basis for popular access for the Jewish masses and open for them the gates of our great treasures. He wrote a Hut ha-Meshullash Devri Torah [Words from the Torah] and also a supplement to his father's book Mishnais ha Khokmim.
The Tosafot Yom-Tov in Ludmar and in Luboml
Reb Yom-Tov Lipman Heller, known to the entire Jewish world as Tosafot Yom-Tov, was born in 1579 in Waldenstein, a small Bavarian village. He was not only a famous rabbi, but the greatest scholar of his generation with the greatest authority (his judgments were considered law by Jews). Reb Yom-Tov Lipman was also a great community worker who described both the economic condition of Jewry of his era as well as the moral condition in the ghettos of that era. He fought for improvements and this evoked strong opposition to him. There were zealots who denounced him as a revolutionary!
Reb Yom-Tov Lipman Heller was the chief rabbi of all of the Czechs and he even had a rabbinical chair in Vienna itself. And the denunciation consisted of this, that one should read between the lines of his books. It was shown that in his Melekh-Ma'adaneim [Delicacies for the King] he criticized Christen-
dom. At that time there was no greater offense that could be found for a Jewish rabbi, and on the 26th of June 1629 he was thrown into prison.
His trial aroused all of the Jewish communities. Reb Yom-Tov Lipman defended himself with pride. He answered all of the attacks, even those that were misleading, such as that he had criticized Jesus He told the judge that as a rabbi and as a Jew he would always defend his faith, even when he was threatened with death.
And the verdict of the judge was the following: although he deserved the death penalty, the Austrian Kaiser (Yorem-Hoy'd, in Austria, Jews would in fact call him Kire [nickname of the Kaiser]), pardoned him and converted his punishment to a fine (twelve thousand dollars).
Jewish communities collected the sum that was later lowered to ten thousand dollars. Tosafat Yom-Tov had a narrow escape. However he left the country for Wolin. He became the rabbi in Ludmar (Vladimir-Volynsk), and also for a longer time, the rabbi in Luboml. And the Tosafat Yom-Tov also was involved with community work in Wolin. There he organized a vaad [council], a committee of Woliner Jews who reformed the structure of the Jewish kehile and its institutions. At that time, for instance, in Wolin, rabbinical sites were mostly left to themselves. He uprooted these customs. He even arranged that rabbis did not have to receive any salary, in order to have freedom in their community functions.
His temperament also brought out opposition to him here, mainly, among the rich men and the community big wigs. He left Wolin and became the rabbi in Krakow. This was the highest reward at that time, standing on the threshold of the Chmielnicki massacres, 1648 to 1669....
Reb Abraham Sztern of Hrubieszow, the Famous Mathematician and Inventor
Reb Abraham Yakov Sztern was born in our neighboring town, Hrubieszow, in 1762. Imagine the shtetl that was founded before 1400, two hundred years ago.... It is known that in 1765 there were 1,023 Jews in Hrubieszow!... And that as interesting a personality as Reb Abraham Sztern grew up there. As we talk about him, we can never forget to add the Mister. He was a very frumer [pious] Jew, with a long beard, always with a yarmulke [skullcap] on his head, and in a long kapote [black coat worn by pious Jewish men]. That is how he appears in the remaining photograph of him which is printed in every Jewish and even non-Jewish encyclopedia. He would appear in this costume before emperors and before the most important people of his time.
He began his career in Hrubieszow as a watchmaker. And then he perfected
the mechanism of the watches. This interested the famous Staszic who was the proprietor of all of Hrubieszow. The Pole, Stanislaw Staszic, was a strange person. He believed that all of the Polish Jews needed to be placed in a new ghetto, in order to reeducate them there and to make them worthy citizens. Staszic became acquainted with Reb Abraham Sztern and was amazed by the Jew How did such great experimentation come to a Hrubieszow Jew?... He gave him the opportunity to settle in Warsaw and to study, particularly mathematics. He made great progress, learned several foreign languages. And in 1812 he succeeded in creating a calculating machine and this excited the entire world. He was chosen as a member of the Polish Academy (it was called the Imperial Society for Friends of the Sciences). He sat at the table with the greatest aristocrats of his time in his kapote and in his yarmulke. He was voted a yearly salary of 200 dollars. He was twice presented to the Russian Tsar Aleksander the First and he would be Radziwill's frequent and familiar guest. It is characteristic that Reb Abraham Sztern was so frum that when he was proposed to rise to the head of the Warsaw rabbinical seminary, he refused because it was against his religious beliefs The Hrubieszow mathematician and inventor was a conservative!...
A great literature in Polish, Russian and Hebrew was created around Reb Abraham Sztern. The mathematician was also a poet. He wrote a book of poems, and he had a great influence on the Bialystoker Haim Zelig Slonimski, the Astronom who was so beloved through Aleksander Humboldin, and who founded Hatzfire [Hebrew periodical published in Warsaw from about 1862 to 1931]. Reb Abraham Sztern died in Warsaw in 1842.
The Tomaszower Reb Shimkhah Pinsker and His Son Dr. Leon Pinsker, the Author of Auto-Emancipation
There is an error committed in many of our almanacs. It is written that Reb Shimkhah Pinsker was born in Tarnopol and Dr. Leon Pinsker in Tomaszow. The truth is that the father and the son were born in Tomaszow, which is in the vicinity of Chelm. Reb Shimkhah Pinsker was born in 1801 and Dr. Leon Pinsker in 1821 (they died in Odessa in 1864 and 1891).
Reb Shimkhah Pinsker was a famous archeologist and, in general, well educated. His father was a great maskhil [follower of the Enlightenment] and was in constant contact with the well known Galicianer scholars. Reb Shimkhah Pinsker became world famous because of his explorations of the Karaites [sect which rejects the Talmud]. The tsarist government awarded him two gold medals. The Odessa Jewish kehile voted a yearly salary for him,
so that he could work quietly in his field. His Likkute Kadmoniyyat [Collection of Antiquities] is considered one of the greatest works to throw a light on many historical facts. In general, he wrote dozens of great historical-archeological works in the course of his life, even in reference to the development of the Hebrew language. His death brought out a great sorrow among Jews at that time.
Do we have to write specifically about his son, Dr. Leon Pinker?
As is known, he was the author of Auto-Emancipation, which was the preamble for Herzl's Jewish State, and one of the founders of the Hibbat-Zion [Lovers of Zion] movement (with the other Zamoscer, Aleksander Zederboim) and he also organized the famous Katowice Assembly that was the antechamber for the Zionist Congress.
There were many old Jews in Tomaszow (around 1905) who remember the father and the son. I myself was shown a little house in Tomaszow where Reb Shimkhah lived and where Dr. Leon was born. In 1916, I wrote about this in the Moscow Yevreyskaya Zhizn [Jewish Life](that was published instead because of a censor-closure in Petersburg in Razsvet) and I had the honor that A. Droyanov, in his work, cited this effort of mine.
Y.L. Peretz and His Birthplace, Zamosc
Zamosc was always considered an intelligent city in the Lublin area, and Zamosc would be talked about with great respect:
With us, in a secluded corner if only you would see Zamosc!... What a city, what people!...Zamosc was the city of Dr. Ettinger, the pioneer of the haskhalah [Enlightenment], the popular author of Serkele, the witty Krilov of Yiddish literature. And also of Yakov Eichenboim of Zamosc in 1840 he published (in addition to many other things) his famous Hebrew haKerav [The War] in which a chess game is described in beautiful songs; his father was named Moshe Gelber. Aleksander Zederboim, one of the most famous journalists and community workers of his era, was born in Zamosc (in 1816). He founded Hamelitz [Hebrew periodical] and his correspondent in Zamosc was Reb Dovid Szifman, who once sent a report about the Zamosc mikhvah [ritual bath] And Zederboim published a special article: It is a scandal that in my birthplace, the mikhvah is dirty
And Yitzhak Leib Peretz was born in Zamosc.
Peretz's father was a wood merchant and a contractor to the military. He would come to the beis-midrash every Shabbos dressed in a top-hat. This was the beis-midrash of the Germans. An entire group of our own people in Zamosc were referred to in this manner for generations because they would be dressed in short jackets, with a hat on their head
and even shaved. Among the apikorsim [heretics] was our Peretz's father, Dr. Geliber and the Margulius brothers. They founded a Talmud group and they studied a page of gemara with their rabbi, Reb Shabtai The beis-midrash was, lehavdl [a word to separate the sacred from the profane], a sort of club. There only the aristocrats of the city were welcomed and they were referred to as such.
Peretz?... This is then an aristocrat!Moshke Peretz, an uncle of Yitzhak Leib, had a great influence in the beis-midrash; and his brother-in-law was Reb Shmuel Leibush Lewi, one of the most original and one of the nicest Zamoscer Jews. He was a great philanthropist. He would send Zamosc Jews to the Belczer Rebbe before Purim at his expense. They would remain there until after Passover. During that time, Reb Shmuel Leibush Lewi would support their wives and children. His adjutant (today one would say secretary) was Reb Dovid Montag, a popular figure in Jewish Zamosc. He was a famous mohel [ritual circumciser].
Reb Dovid?... He was the mohel for all of our middle class children.Peretz's father, his brother Moshe and Reb Shmuel Leibush Lewi were the greatest donors in Zamosc. The best donations were received from them and Dovid Montag would be the specialist in giving bribes. If it was necessary to save an impoverished man and not shame him, Dovid Montag would be sent. He had great tact and a dear heart. He would shove in the few rubles so that no one was insulted. And he had great influence on Yehoshua and Yitzhak Leib, on both Peretz brothers. Yitzhak Leib would talk about him with the greatest love. Dovid Montag would often give praise: Yitzhak Leibush?... He is, as you know, mine!....
Yehoshua Peretz would handle freight. As is known, there was no train to Zamosc and all goods were shipped to Rawicz (the Germans built a railway during the First World War). From Rawicz they were brought on wagons. And goods would get lost in Rawicz. Yehoshua Peretz would buy the freight and collected the monies (and it was a very good business).
Yitzhak Leib Peretz loved his Zamosc. He would laugh heartily when he would explain that the Zamoscers were called the kugel-fresers [pudding eaters]. The people of Zamosc were fond of food. And in the surrounding pious shtetlekh, they were held as debauched. In Szczebrzeszyn, for example, one did not want to become connected to Zamoscers by marriage Yitzhak Leib Peretz would remember with great pleasure the time when he was a lawyer in Zamosc. His petitions were renowned. Once, in a narrow circle of his acquaintances, he explained that as a lawyer he needed to travel quickly to Szczebrzeszyn. The only contact was the wagon driver, a blond Jew, with two dripping eyes and with two dead horses. He would arrive in Zamosc every day with ten women and fifty children.
Peretz called him near and said:
Shlomoh, you get three rubles, do not wait for other people and leave at once!...As soon as he moved, a woman sprang out of a shop: Shlomoh, you are leaving already!... Shlomoh stopped and the woman carried out a small package and sat inside. Upon leaving Zamosc, the driver had a minyon [ten men needed for prayer] of men and women. He understood that this did not please Peretz and he said to him:
Pan [Mister] Peretz, if I would arrive in Szczebrzeszyn with only one passenger, it would be said that Shlomoh has become crazy!...
Reb Yakov Reifman of Szczebrzeszyn
Szczebrzeszyn, a small holy community. Mud, so that one could drown in it in the summer; in all, a thousand Jewish families at the beginning of our century [20th]. It is true that Bogdan Chmielnicki was there in 1648 and exterminated all of the Jews. And, as is known, in this Szczebrzeszyn there lived such a personality as Reb Yakov Reifman, who studied and wrote his literally transforming work for the entire Jewish world. I knew people who would walk from Zamosc to Szczebrzeszyn in order to see and to speak with Reb Yakov Reifman and, among them my father, who was in constant correspondence with him.
He was actually born (in 1818) in a small village near Opatow. However, at age seventeen he married in Szczebrzeszyn and spent his entire life there, until 1895, when he died. He actually belonged to the great constellation of famous Jewish scholars, the creators of Jewish Studies, such as Sh. Y. Rapaport, the Tarnopol rabbi, Abraham Geiger, the historian Yost, the Italian Shmuel Dovid Lutzato, Senor Zaks, the Lithuanian Jew from Paris, the Christian, Franz Delitzsch, etc. He would correspond with all of them. As a matter of fact, they would write to him, asking him for explanations of texts that they had badly understood and his opinion was for them a true scholarly judgment. The great poet, Yehuda Leib Gordon, dedicated songs to him and raised him to heaven. From London, Reb Moshe Montefiori sent to him in Szczebrzeszyn as a gift a gold cup engraved with Hebrew words.
Reb Yakov Reifman wrote monographs (such as, for example, Toledot Rabbenu Zerahaya [biography of Zerahiah ha-Lewi of Prague] and his Hut ha-Meshullash caused an upheaval. In it he closely examined the knowledge of Hebrew possessed by the creators of the Talmud. There were cases in which he skeptically referred to their knowledge of Hebrew grammar. He wrote dozens of books and hundreds of articles. He immersed himself in Jewish philosophy.
A great literature was created about Reb Yakov Reifman and not only in Sokolow's haAsif [a literary collection] or in Shafer's Knesset Yisroel [The Jewish People] and in other Hebrew publications. He was written about in all languages, in German, in English, in Russian and French The
question really arises: from which treasury did Reb Yakov Reifman draw his great erudition in the small and secluded Szczebrzeszyn?...
Reb Shlomoh Yehuda Lederer Student of Chelm
He died in Chelm in 1894. I remember his death and his funeral. This means 56 years ago. He was then already an old man of approximately seventy-nine. So we calculate that he was born in Chelm in 1816; Franz-Josef himself was not yet in the world, a Galicianer would say. Reb Shlomoh Yehuda Lederer, who was born in Chelm 135 years ago, knew Polish like a Pole. His Polish style was first class and his articles in the Polish-Jewish Israelita were famous. They were even cited in the Polish literature. It is true that Reb Shlomoh Yehuda Lederer was not the first Jew in Chelm who knew the Polish language so well. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, a Jew, Hirsh ber [son of] Josef (Herszko Jòsefowicz), lived in Chelm; he was then under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau and published a Polish book: Thoughts On How to Make the Polish Jew a Good Citizen of the Land. (Mysli stosowne do sposobu uformowania Zydòw polskich w pozytecznych Krajowi obywatelów ).
However, Reb Shlomoh Yehuda Lederer was also a Hebrew poet. When he died, Hamelitz published an obituary notice, signed by my brother Shimeon Milner (who was then 13 years old), and N.S. (the pseudonym of Nahum Sokolow) dedicated a large article in a black frame to him in Hatzfire. Nahum Sokolow loved him a great deal and in his Memorial Book even published his biography, because under the pseudonym the Student of Chelm, Reb Shlomoh Yehuda Lederer published a poem in almost every Shabbos edition of Hatzfire. There were also literary collections under the name haNitzanim [The Buds]; the editor was also a Hatzfire-man H.N. Neimanowitz (the famous haNatz, who would write a feature article every Friday about everything that happened in the world, and he was, according to my understanding, the literary father of Yusznow). In haNitzanim, one could read poems by our Chelm student.
He had two sons. I will only dwell upon one son, Mordekhai Lederer, an extraordinary type. He was very popular among the Jewish workers in Warsaw in the first years of the Zionist movement. He would organize Jewish workers' associations. Once he led a demonstration of Jewish workers to the Czarist general governor, Prince Imeretinsky. The latter called out the Cossacks who chased and hit the Jewish demonstrators with murderous blows. Later, he left for Eretz-Yisroel. Around 1909, I met him in Jaffa (because Tel-Aviv did not yet exist). He would inspire everyone with his dynamic enthusiasm.
Chelm is world famous. Y. L. Peretz, himself, wrote about the Chelemer malamed [religious teacher] and he was not the only one. In German, English and French there are books dedicated to Chelm and they are popular under the name, Chelm Stories. A French author wrote that the Chelm Stories have no author. Since very ancient times, they have been a portion of Jewish folklore and have been told among Jews.
Sixty years ago, in New York (and perhaps even more) a book about Chelm was published in Yiddish. Its author was Shalom Lederer, the brother of Reb Shlomoh Yehuda Lederer. I have not seen the book, but I heard much about it during my childhood. This book was very much talked about in Chelm. It was a sort of a novel, where all kinds of Chelm stories were brought together and facts were added about the real Chelm. Shalom Lederer presented all kinds of types of living Chelm Jews who were instantly recognizable and he made them heroes of the Chelm stories. Chelemers in New York would need to look for this book by Shalom Lederer in a central library, which would bring a great deal to the studies about our city.
Reb Josef Mincer
He was already an old man when he arrived in Chelm around 1890, and he remained there until nearly 1903. A beautiful white beard, a yarmulke [skull cap] on his head, a face from a Reb Haim Zelig Slonimski the Astronomer of Bialystok, the founder of Hatzfire.
Reb Josef Mincer was born in Zamosc and he was of a type of Zamoscer Jewish intellectual. Pious and at the same time infected with Nakhman Krokhmal's ideas, he boasted that he was a friend of Aleksander Zederboim's since childhood. He, himself, wrote poems in Gotlober's The Morning Light, paying careful attention to the rhyme, and in addition to this journal (that was no less famous among Jews than Smolenski's The Dawn and one was in an ideological struggle with the other) he published epigrams in all kinds of other publications. There was a style of epigrams that was more charades than jokes.
From where did Reb Josef Mincer come to Chelm?There was a gymnazie in Chelm and according to Czarist law only 10 percent of Jews were accepted. Since Chelm Jews did not go to the gymnazie at that time where one became a goy [non-Jew] there were empty spots. This was sensed by Jews from Kowel to Oracze and even further near the Dnieper, and children were brought and they were delivered for studying at the Chelm gymnazie. There was then a question from the parents about a Jewish boarding house (dormitory) for their children who would remain in the unfamiliar place. And Mincer came from Zamosc with his entire family and he opened such a children's house, according to the current style.
His son was the teacher of the boarding house and would do the lessons with the gymnazie students. It was truly well organized. The son was for those times a sportsman in Chelm and this consisted of him walking dozens of times from the mountain to the barracks every day at a set hour.
Once I accompanied him and we made our way together. And just at that point we noticed a watchman beating a poor Jew with murderous blows. The young Mincer went over to the watchman and gave him such a blow to his face that he let go of the Jew who quickly ran away. However, Mincer, I and the watchman remained. A crowd gathered. A report was made against us for preventing an official from fulfilling his functions (that is, beating a Jew!...). The examining magistrate quickly made me a witness because I was in all twelve years old. Mincer was placed before the district court, the lawyer, Warman, was specially brought from Lublin. It was transformed into a political trial. There was turmoil. I gave my testimony and this was, perhaps my first political speech. My testimony was used by the lawyer. Mincer was freed.
However, the director of the gymnazie decreed that the boarding house be closed and the Mincer family left Chelm for Lodz.
In the past it was enough to print only one article in Hamelitz or in Hatzfire, so that all readers, all the enlightened, could read the author in even the most secluded corners. So it was with our Chelemer, Abish Lewensztein, Fishel Lewensztein's son, who wrote a great tract in Hamelitz (I do not remember the content) in about 1898. He did not forget to add his birthplace to his name (Chelm, district Lublin) and when you would come to Biala or to Brisk or to another city, you would always find a young man who would ask:
Are you from Chelm?... Perhaps you know Abish Lewensztein?...Abish Lewensztein was one of the first Zionists in Chelm and he had a very beautiful Hebrew library. He died very young of cancer.
Fishel Lewensztein, his father, was a sage. However, he had a brother in whom he could literally exult. This was Reb Josef Lewensztein, the Serotzker Rebbe. Serock was a shtetl near Pultusk in the Warsaw area and there were barely three thousand Jews living there. However, their rebbe, Josef Lewensztein, was famous in the world as one of the greatest historians of Polish Jewry. This was a biographer who should not have had a place in Serock, but
a chair in a famous university. He wrote a lexicon and many historical works. It was enough to inquire of him about an historical date or event in Polish-Jewish history and, in no time, receive a response from him, written with a goose feather, and it had all of the particulars. Thus when my brother, Shimeon Milner, working on his Likkute HaYhudim baKhelm [Collection of the Jews of Chelm] turned to Reb Josef Lewensztein and asked him for particulars about Chelm rabbis, he immediately received several large sheets of paper with a list of the Chelm rabbis, from the first to the last rabbi. From where did he have all of this?... A file? Or all registered in his memory?... And because of the list, a great debate took place. My brother embraced the idea of Reb Josef Lewensztein that the first rabbi in Chelm was Reb Shimeon Auerbak and the Russian-Jewish historian Wishnicer did not agree with this and, according to his understanding, the first Chelm rabbi was Reb Yehuda Ahron and the Polish king made him (in 1522) the chief rabbi of Lublin, Chelm and Belc.
Abish Lewenstztein's brother-in-law was Betzaleil Frid, also one of the first Chelm Zionists. His son is Feiwel Frid, my student. Feiwel Frid was the editor of the weekly newspaper, Der Chelemer Shtime [The Chelm Voice], and my joy was great when I received the news that he survived the great catastrophe of Chelm and the entire Polish Jewry and that he lives in Lublin and works in its kehile.
Reb Moshe Palewski
In my birthplace, Chelm, there lived a Jew for whom the entire city had great respect. He was named Reb Moshe Palewski. No one dared to call him by his name, without added the title Rabbi. He was not actually a Chelemer, but a Kobryner. And Kobryn already smelled of Lithuania, not far from Brisk And then no one in Kelme presumed to call him the Litvak, disregarding the fact that he did not speak Polish Yiddish, and a kometz [vowel sound representing the letter 'o' here indicating Yiddish dialect spoken which emphasizes the 'o' sound] was kometz.
Reb Moshe Palewski was a misnagid [opponent of Hasidism] and no Hasidic shtibl could draw him to it. He would pray in the old Chelm shul that, as it was said, was about eight hundred years old (in Chelm, there was a headstone in the cemetery from 1248; just this year it would be seven hundred years old, has the Germans not made sidewalks from the headstones). He would, however, wear a kapote [long black coat] with a gartl [rope belt worn by religious men], a Jewish hat, a long patriarchal beard and peyos [side locks]. As a small child, my heart would strongly beat when I would be taken to Reb Moshe Palewski, to be questioned
In Chelm, everything was known. There were no secrets for the Chelemers. And Jews would discuss until late afternoon in the same shul that Reb Moshe Palewski had a brother who was a heretic, who became depraved, going away to
Paris and there became completely French! This was talked about very quietly in order not, God forbid, to cause heartache for such a fine and good Jew. This was sixty years ago.
You know, however, that the right hand and closest co-worker of General de Gaulle is named Gaston Palewski?
Gaston Palewski was one of the closest co-workers of Marshall Liotei in Morocco. He was Cabinet-Chief for Paul Renault in the catastrophic days of June 1940 and we would hear his voice on Radio London as the director of de Gaulle's cabinet. He remains in that post today. He was never spoken of as a Jew. Perhaps he is not in the sense we understand the concept.
But anti-Semites forget nothing. Recently, anti-Semites in Paris spread a tract about him in which the act of naturalization of his father, Abraham Palewski, born in Kobryn, was published. This act is from 1891. Is Gaston Palewski our Chelemer Reb Moshe Palewski's brother's son?
Do you know that such a Jewish family existed?...
Yes, there was a distinguished, an aristocratic Jewish family with the name Chelemer a rich family of rebbes and rabbis. And the members of the family were grandchildren of Reb Lev Yitzhak of Berdychiv and they lived in Lyubar, Volyn gubernia and Kremenets poviat, and there were about five thousand Jews in the shtetl before the First World War.
The Chelemer family was related to the family of the righteous ones of Chernobyl and to the well known family from Tverecius. They had a great influence between Lyubar and Proskurov [Khmelnytskyy] and were famous as merchants, great forest merchants, and as intellectuals.
Did they once emigrate from Chelm to Volyn and then took their name from their city of origin?
It is possible. I met them very often because the Chelemer family was related to my family and we are relatives by marriage (that is how fate wanted it that we should have a connection to everything that is bound with Chelm). In 1915, Shoshona Chelemer from Lyubar married a well known Warsaw journalist, Moshe Leizerowicz, who was my cousin. They both perished in 1944 in Trawniki, near Chelm. The S.S. annihilated all of the Jews in the camp a few hours before the arrival of the Russian army.
Shoshana Chelemer had a brother, Josef Chelemer, who was famous in the era of the first Zionist Congresses. He was a delegate to the congresses and was devoted, heart and soul, to Dr. Herzl, who also had great fondness for him. He lived abroad and one would always meet him in the literary cafes where the Jewish
life of writers, correspondents and community leaders sparkled before 1914. The main headquarters was the Café Metropol in Berlin, about which we even wrote in our literature. Josef Chelemer was highly thought of. He knew everyone and everyone knew him (his son lives now in Israel and he changed his name Chelemer to Helkhemi [the Hebrew version]).
I let myself end with a fact that sounds like an anecdote: Josef Chelemer arrived in Warsaw once and he telephoned his friend Nahum Sokolow, who did not know that he had arrived and he answered the telephone:
Chelemer!Nahum Sokolow got angry and answered:
Are you a khokhom [sage, wise man]!And he hung up the telephone receiver.
Reb Yehuda Leib Milner
Permit me in a book dedicated to our city Chelm to write about my own father. And why not? Does not a son need to say kadish [prayer for the dead] on the grave of his father?
His name was well known in Chelm and throughout the entire area. He was always surrounded by the young of the city, who simply followed his every word and loved him very much. He was a guide.
Actually he was not even a Chelemer, but a Litvak, born in a small shtetele, Nemoksht [Nemaksciai], Kovner gubernia. As a small child, he studied in a kheder and his teacher was a Jew, Reb Tzvi Hirsh. Later, this teacher was the mathematics professor at Heidelberg University, Herman Shapiro, the founder of Keren Kayemet L'Yisroel [Jewish National Fund]. Then, he taught in the Lithuanian yeshiva in Toyrogen [Tawrik] on the Prussian border. However, there winds blew from Lik; (Der haMagid) at the time of haMe'assef of Yitzhak Eichel, and with the entire Pleiad [group of seven learned or prominent figures, named after the constellation of seven stars].
Thus my father stopped thinking of a rabbinical position and began to study languages.
The Lithuanian shtetlekh Zagare and Keidan [Kedainiai], where Benyamin Mandelstam (Der Chazon Lemoed [The Timely Vision]) and Schneier Zaks, Yehuda Leib Gordon and, Moshe Leib Lilenblum lived, had
an influence on him. And he became a maskil [member of the Enlightenment] and remained as such for his entire life.
He left Lithuania and arrived in Brisk. He married in Siedlec and as a son-in-law oif kest [supported by his in-laws], he studied for several years with the Siedlecer rabbi, Reb Borukh Mordekhai Libszic, the father-in-law of Reb Elihu Klatzkin, the Lubliner Rabbi, the grandfather of our great philosopher, Dr. Jakov Klatzkin. He remained a close friend of the entire family. And when Reb Borukh Mordekhai died, my father published a long obituary notice in Sokolow's ha-Asif [The Harvest Hebrew yearbook] (of 5648/1887). He left Siedlec and came on business to Chelm, where he settled.
His appearance in Chelm was a sensation. He was basically followed in the streets. He was the first Jew in Chelm who wore a hat [rather than a traditional cap]!
And that is how it remained for many years. Chelm was a city of darkness. At that time an event happened in the city of which only select individuals knew. It is a story from more than 65 years ago. Do the remaining Chelemers remember an old, God fearing person who was called Reb Borukh Lukower? He had a son, Alter, who was caught in the act of reading a secular book. He read them surreptitiously in the attic. Reb Borukh, his father, detected it. He caught him in the attic and became very angry and furious. He grabbed a stick of wood that lay in the attic and hit his son over the head, and Alter fell dead. At that time in Chelm, funerals were held quickly and the police did not know of the entire occurrence In such an environment, my father published. He was immediately proclaimed an apikoyres [heretic]. Indeed, one had to possess deep moral worth in order to reach such a level that an entire city would give him the greatest respect, make allowances for his opinions and want to see him at the head of all the institutions of the kehile [organized Jewish community].
Little by little, other Germans arrived in Chelm and settled there. Other hats appeared and the Deitchishe shul [German synagogue] (thus had the Jews called it), famous in that era, was founded, where my father was the gabay. It was not a simple shul. It fought its way into existence through great effort; it became a club. The zealots were outraged, and, in addition, there was the fact that my father had a library. This was a wonderful Hebrew library, where one would find unique copies. The youths from the Hasidic shtiblekh [prayer houses] were raised on the books from the library. My father would explain each book, its contents and tell about the author. More than one auto-da-fe occurred in the shtiblekh and the captured books of Reb Leibl Milner were burned. The youths had to work out a strategy in order to come to our house and take a book to read, because they would be spied on They would come at night, in the dark, and
they would hide. Are these not episodes from Smolenskin's bereaved in his The Joy of the Godless ?
The rise of Zionism was a real revolution. It shocked Jewish society. This was the beginning of a communal transformation of our shtetlekh. My father would write reports from Chelm for haMelitz and would chastise the Chelemers who were so sunk in darkness. The German shul became the center. My father would give fiery sermons there every Shabbos. Shekels began to be sold, later, by the Colonial Bank itself. Brochures were distributed. Old Jasinowski, who was named Herzl's namyestnik [viceroy] in Poland in around 1895, came to Chelm especially to see my father in order to organize the work. Speakers would come and little by little they entered the shuls and beis-hamedrish. The leader of the fanatics was Reb Efrayim Yehoshua and he, himself, would be an example and threw stones at the windows of the beis-hamedrish on the day of shabbos, when my father or a Zionist speaker was standing and giving a talk
Here I present a story: It was a few weeks before Pesakh [Passover] It was cold with snow on the streets. Travel was still by sleigh. And one evening such a sleigh came to our house; a couple of young people came into our house (among them Abraham Goldberg, the future editor of Heint) and said to my father: Come immediately, the leaders of the city are assembled in the beis-hamedrish in order to excommunicate you! My father immediately got into the sleigh and I, a small boy, was taken along. As we entered the beis-hamedrish, which was packed with people, it became quiet. The buzz of a fly could have been heard My father took off his heavy fur and turned to the Krilower Rabbi who was sitting in the front:
You have, probably assembled here because Pesakh is coming, in order to think about how to have matzoh for the poor Jews?
Several words passed like a flash of lightning. The Jews were struck with fear. And the shoemaker, Hersh Nisel's son who did not have hands but paws cried: Reb Leibl is right! And the Reb Leibl is right went from mouth to mouth and it echoed like a storm. A vote of revolt was created. A window was opened and the Krilower rabbi, along with Reb Mordekhai Lung and several respected business owners lifted the skirts of their kapotes [long black coats] and jumped out in fear
There is another interesting story from the later years 1911 to record. The elections took place for the fourth Duma. Vyborczkes [electors] would come together in Lublin and elect the deputy for the gubernia. Chelm was a large provincial center. The bishop was Jewlog, himself. And the bishop forgot that there were more than 13 thousand Jews in Chelm. Who reckons with Jews? And not asking anyone for
advice, he presented his candidate. However, the Jews, going to vote, voted in the thousands for my father and Jewlogi received only 800 votes. My father was elected as a vyborczik [elector]. It was a scandal. Jewlog's newspaper, Rus Kholmsaya, called for a boycott of the Jews, according to Roman Dmowski's version
I could make this chapter longer. It is a page of our community life over the course of 50 years. I will end by explaining that in 1913 Chelm sent only my father as a delegate to the Zionist Congress in Vienna. Before his departure, a banquet was held for him and all of the young people and the intelligencia of the city took part. It was no longer the same Chelm as when my father arrived there from Siedlec. Jewish Chelm produced children who were doctors, lawyers, writers and community workers. The city was transformed thanks to the courage and hard work of several personalities such as my late father. The mountain moved from its spot; it was pushed back from its place in order that the darkness would disappear
This is a Hebrew article by Reb Yehuda Leib Milner that was published 67 years ago in haAsif [The Harvest].
Reb Chaim Nuta Mandelboim was the headstone engraver in Chelm. Headstone engraving was once considered a good trade among Jews. In Vilna, for example, there was the well know Hilel Noach Maged (he recorded the history of Yerushalayim dLita [Jerusalem of Lithuania Vilna]), who was employed in the same trade. He changed his named to maged [preacher] and became a shteinshneider [stonecutter]. It had the scent of sculpture, art
Reb Chaim Nuta Mandelboim had seven sons. The first born was Beshka (Benyamin), the second Yair and the third Yakov. It was the era of the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Beshka and Yair were arrested in Lublin and spent almost a year there in prison. When they were freed, Yair left for Paris. He learned a trade, began to work, and little by little 'filled out papers for his brothers remaining in Poland. The first to arrive was Beshka. He was a young
man with fine taste and with talent, but a very modest person. He quickly learned French and acquired an interesting French library. But not ordinary books. Each book was a splendid edition and there were many rarities. He was known in French student circles in that era and his opinion was valued. He became the Paris correspondent for the Warsaw Heint [Today] and his Paris Letter was a great success. He would introduce the Jewish reading public before the First World War in 1914 to political life in France, as well as the great literary phenomena in French literature.
Right after the First World War, Yair Mandelboim came to Chelm. His father was already in the oylem-hoemoes [World of the Truth i.e. dead]; his aged mother was still alive with five sons, among them Yakov who was at that time an efficient community worker in Chelm. He took them all to Paris. They settled in the French capital. All learned and spoke perfect French. All got married, had children and lived middle class lives. However, in 1942, they were taken for the second time, but this was the Gestapo. They were taken to Auschwitz, where all seven of the brothers perished with their wives and children. I believe 21 people. And of them no memory remains and no stonecutter or headstone engraver
could engrave the names of the entire Jewish family that perished in the ovens
[Simon/Szymon] Mondszain, the Artist A Chelemer
Right after the First World War, the artist [Simon/Szymon] Mondszain gained great name recognition in Paris. All of the French newspapers dedicated large articles of praise to him. It was immediately after the restoration of Poland as a nation and no one forgot to underscore that Mondszain was a Pole. It was also after Germany's first defeat and it was added that Mondszain came out of the trenches as a volunteer and also as a gentleman from the Legion of Honor.
A splendid monograph was recently published in Paris about Mondszain, with a large and substantial description of his life and his artistic creations. It is a picture of Montparnasse before the First War. It is a description of the great artistic world, how he finds himself in the cathedral' and in the rotunda with Modigliani, Dikran, Pascin, Max Jacob, Vlaminck, Lahner and many others. Mondszain is there, too. Derain, Picasso, Matisse, Othon Friesz, Diego Rivera, the Mexican, the sculptors: Kokoine, Lipschitz, Zadkine, and writers like Gustav Kahn and Blaise Cendrars go by as in a kaleidoscope. The Chelemer Jewish young man, Mondszain, takes a very pleasing spot among them.
Yes, Mondszain is a Chelemer. I, myself, still remember his parents. I still remember Mondszain as a small child. Charles Kinstler also is an example of the Chelemer era of artists. He was born in 1890. He describes how his artistic talent was revealed to him. I presume to say that he had that defining moment of influence in my father's house. He came there for essential books to read and became acquainted with the outside world. He was helped in leaving Chelm for Warsaw and later for Krakow. His talent enchanted the professors. Mondszain became known, and occupied the position of a great artist. Charles Kinstler tells us about the phases of Mondszain's development. The magnificiant reproductions confirm that we are in the presence of a first class master.
The monograph can be a jewel in every library and for we Jews a source of pride, as it shows us the ways in which a Jewish child passed through Chelm to reach the artistic world in Paris.
The Artist Sh. Shreier
Shmaryahu Shreier was born in 1899 in old Jewish Chelm. When the headstone was unearthed on the 20th of June and the historic headstone of the kehile that perished with its twenty thousand Jews [massacred by Bogdon Chmielnicki] was discovered, on this same day, his coffin was borne. In this way he was the first Chelemer Jew buried on the symbolic territory in a Parisian caisson.
Shmaryahu Shreier remained true to his birthplace in his art works. His types were Chelemer Jews, and as you look at the sky in his paintings you recognize at once the landscape of his city and of our Jewish shtetlekh. His last picture was the Chelm market: there is a fair in the city! Everything happens under the Chelm mountain that is famous in our Jewish culture and historical folklore, about which it is told that the Chelemers wanted to push it from its place. There is a fair in the city! Male and female peasants from the surrounding villages are at the
market; police move around and pay attention to order. The Jews on the thresholds of their poor shops wait for customers! Their faces are terribly sad. Did they then already feel that on the cold day of the 30th of December 1939, at this same market, covered with snow, the Germans would come and undress them naked and lead them to the slaughter?
In addition to his birthplace, the city of the world, Paris, had a great influence on Shreier, just as it had an influence on other artists. He was charmed by Paris. He got drunk with its atmosphere of freedom He left his long studies in Germany and his soul was penetrated by the spirit of Paris. He immersed himself in the artistic circle as well as in its cultural ideals. He depicts Paris, the surrounding landscape, the fragments of its exquisitely beautiful gardens. Thus a Chelemer Jewish young man, a great Jewish talent, found the synthesis and created a bridge from his city to the River Seine.
by R. Henes
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Shmuel Mordekhai Zigelboim was born on the 21st of February 1895 in Poland in the village of Borowice, Chelm poviat, Lublin gubernia. He spent only the first four years of his life in his birthplace. In 1899, his family moved to a neighboring town, Krasnystaw, where Shmuel Mordekhai spent a further eight difficult years of hunger. His father, Josef, or Joska the teacher, as he was called in the shtetl, was a tall Jew, thin and sickly. A cough never left him alone. He would teach the children in the shtetl how to write and read. Although Joska the teacher was a pious Jew, he was thought of as enlightened, a bit of a maskil. He would read newspapers and books. The burden of making a living fell entirely on Shmuel Mordekhai's mother, Hena, an energetic wide shouldered woman, the daughter of Reb Jankl the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], a respected Jew, who in addition to being a shoykhet, was the moyel [circumciser] in the shtetl and the khazen [cantor] in the shul. The ailing Joska the teacher could not, with his
small earnings, support his large family that consisted of 10 children. The mother, Hena, raised in a learned family, was a shneiderin [woman tailor] and was always surrounded by tiny children. She sewed small clothing and small pants on a Singer machine and therefore she received the name, Hena der shneiderin, in the shtetl.
There was not enough to live on from both incomes teaching and sewing. Therefore, Shmuel Mordekhai's childhood years in Krasnystaw were accompanied by hunger. Eating to satiation was a dream, but not the only dream of the small Shmuel Mordekhai. The family lived on the River Wiepsz in the area of the Trisker Hasidic shtibl [small prayer house]. The small Shmuel Mordekhai would wonder for long, long hours at the beauty and secrecy of the Trisker Hasidim. Perhaps here, at the edge of the Wiepsz River, was the original source of Zigelboim's later spirit and of his strong love of the Jewish people. Perhaps here, in Krasnystaw, his strong sentiments for the Polish people were born.
The owner of the apartment was a Christian and with their meager earnings, there was barely enough to eat and no rent money. However, the Christian owner did not throw them out of the apartment and let them live rent free.
At the age of 10, Shmuel Mordekhai had to give up his childhood, the dreams at the river of going to kheder and he went to work in the first large factory in the shtetl, which made apothecary boxes. Young Zigelboim had his first harsh experiences in the factory as the angel of death waved over him. Cutting the strips for the cartons, he once cut his own flesh and bone, two finger tips from his hand. (Zigelboim later described his experiences in the factory in a story entitled Der Fabrik [The Factory]). At 12, in 1907, Shmuel Mordekhai left home for the large city of Warsaw, without the warmth of his parents, at a turbulent time and in a raging sea of people. He worked at various trades in the large city: at a handkerchief factory, with women's purses, not sleeping, not eating, sleeping in strange beds and even in a garden on a bench. In his free time, the maturing Shmuel Mordekhai began to write songs. And on shabbos when he would meet Krasnystaw young men of his acquaintance, he would read them his songs, listen to their criticism, their praise. However, he never brought them to editors. With the outbreak of the First World War, he came back home to Krasnystaw and, with his family, he left the shtetl and moved to Chelm. At that time, he began his communal activities in Chelm into which he threw himself with all of his senses and, in the end, to which he sacrificed himself.
Zigelboim, already a young man of 20, threw himself with fervor into the practical day-to-day work of the Jewish workers' movement that strongly flourished. In December 1917, the first convention of the Bundist movement in Poland took place in Lublin. The Chelemer organization sent Zigelboim as its delegate. From the beginning, the young worker met the most important leaders of the movement at the convention and this brought with it a radical change in his life. He made a very good impression on the leaders of the movement with the report he gave. In 1920, the Central Committee in Warsaw remembered the young, capable provincial worker and called Zigelboim to Warsaw and gave him two responsible positions. He became the secretary of the Professional Union of Jewish Metal Workers and a member of the Warsaw Committee of the Bund and from that moment began his great communal rise. In the large Jewish workers' center, he had the opportunity to learn how to use his great energy and to develop his organizational and writing abilities. He was very beloved by the Warsaw Jewish workers and his pen name Comrade Arthur became very well known. In 1924, Zigelboim was elected to the highest division of the Central Committee of the Bund and remained a member until the end of his life. Arthur tested his strength in several fields. He was a political worker and professional worker; he was also a good speaker and writer, traits that are not often combined in one person. Zigelboim crossed the valley of need and loneliness during his childhood; in his youth, he always dreamed of raising himself. He set serious goals for himself and strove to reach them. And although
he achieved a great deal during a short time and grew to the level of a central workers' leader, he did not have any self-satisfaction. The opposite, a certain dissatisfaction accompanied him; not a morbidity found with embittered people, but the feeling that comes from striving higher. During the difficult day-to-day communal work, he always had the feeling that he had not yet reached the height, the pinnacle, that he, the leader, still needed to show his readiness, his self-sacrifice. Arthur was a strange synthesis of a sober political worker, a realist and a romantic, a dreamer. And how strangely natural and organic it was for Arthur, who I still recall with the words he said when I once came into his room and was very frightened to find him sick in bed. He answered me with his wise smile on his lips: Don't be afraid, I will not die a natural death. In 1939, Arthur was sent to Lodz, the second largest city in Poland, by the Central Committee in Warsaw to become the leader of the Jewish workers' movement.
He remained in his responsible posts until the outbreak of the storms of war in 1939. Arthur came from Lodz to Warsaw by foot five days after the outbreak of the war, in order to be of service during the difficult fateful days. He was a member of the Warsaw defense committee at the time of the siege and defense of the capital. He edited the Folks Zeitung [People's Newspaper], found himself in all the demanding positions in the capital surrounded by the German army. After the fall of the capital, immediately at the entry of the Germans, the enemy demanded 12 representatives of the population as hostages, who would bear the responsibility for order in the city. The City President, Stefan Starzynski, proposed that the Jewish worker population provide one and this should be Ester Ivinska. Arthur categorically opposed a woman being a hostage and suggested himself as a candidate. And thus Zigelboim became the German hostage for the Jewish population. At the same time, another function was imposed on him; he represented the Bund in the new Judenrat that was created by order of the German occupation regime.
One of his performances at a meeting of the kehile-council will remain unforgettable; what this was in general was
|Sitting from the left: Chana'tsha (in Poland), Yisroel, Pinya (perished in the Vilna Ghetto), Feiwel (in South Africa), Shmuel Mordekhai (Arthur), of blessed memory, Chava (died in Russia)
Sitting, second row: Fanya, may she rest in peace, (Yisroel's wife), the mother Hena, of blessed memory (perished in Chelm), Golda (Arthur's wife, perished in Warsaw Ghetto)
Third row, bottom: Ruwin (in South Africa), Josef, Arthur's son (in America), Abraham (in America)
the first bold opposition to a German decree on the part of a Jewish representative. The kehile-council dealt with the question of carrying out the German order to create a Jewish ghetto. They demanded that the Jews carry this out voluntarily themselves. When the question was discussed, Shmuel Mordekhai Zigelboim decisively fought against it. The majority decided to carry out the decree out of fear that not carrying out the order from the Gestapo would bring new trouble for the Jewish population. When the decision was taken, Zigelboim made the following declaration:
An historic decision has taken place here. I was, it seems, too weak to communicate that we must not do this. I feel, however, that I do not have enough moral strength to be able to take part in this. I feel that I would not have the right to continue living, if the ghetto is carried through and my conscience should remain clear. I declare, therefore, that I resign my appointment. I know that it will be the duty of the chairman to report my resignation to the Gestapo at once and I consider the consequences that this will have for me personally. I can, however, not act differently.Zigelboim spoke again later before an audience of over 10 thousand assembled Jews who came to the building of the Warsaw kehile, having learned of the decree. He called for the Jews not to go voluntarily to the ghetto, not to lose courage and to remain in their homes until they were violently thrown out. The declaration at the meeting of the kehile-council, as well as the talk in the street did
not remain a secret from the Germans. Zigelboim received a notice to come to the Gestapo to discuss important matters. What the invitation meant was clear. He did not go to the Gestapo and began to hide himself. The underground committee of the Bund decided that Zigelboim must escape from Poland. In particular, a special mission was part of this to bring before the world the news about the atrocities that the Nazis were carrying out in relation to the Jewish population. The road was extraordinarily difficult and hazardous. He reached Holland and Belgium through Germany with a Dutch passport. Before an international forum in Brussels, Zigelboim described what the Nazis were doing in Poland. His report made a tremendous impression. For the first time, the free world heard authentic news of the torture and murder camp into which the Nazis had transformed an isolated Poland. Later, Zigelboim came to America, traveled around the country and made the American public aware of the scandalous deeds done by the Nazis in Poland. He created a megilah [scroll] of pain and insults for thousands of listeners.
In Spring 1942, Zigelboim was sent to London as the representative of Polish Jewry in the Polish Parliament in Exile (national council). He held this difficult and responsible post for a year. His entire being was aflame for the fate of his people who were being annihilated and he, their messenger, could do nothing to help. Well informed by the Jewish underground movement about what was happening in Poland, he
tirelessly did not stop demanding and challenging the Polish government, the leaders of the great powers, Churchill and Roosevelt, to do everything to stop the systematic annihilation of an entire people, the Jewish people. Nothing helped.
A messenger who came to London from the Polish underground gave Zigelboim a demand from the Jewish representatives to the Jewish leaders in the free world: They should go to the English and American offices; they should not leave until they received a guarantee that a decision had been made to save the Jews. The Jewish representatives in the free world should not eat or drink, they should slowly pass away face to face with the indifference of the world. They should die. Perhaps this would shock the conscience of the world.
Zigelboim received the challenges, the demands from his murdered Jews.
For a year in London, he tried everything to save the millions of victims and could not save even one lone Jew. The messenger of the murdered Jews took the new way, the demand of the murdered: Die yourself, perhaps that would help.
Shmuel Mordekhai Zigelboim was the one and only one, who carried out the order of the Jewish leaders in the Ghetto to the Jewish leaders in the free world to make the highest sacrifice. On the night of the 11th and the 12th of May he ended his life by suicide.
He gave the most dear: his life, for that which was most dear in his life for the Jewish people.
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