Occupations of the Chrzanow Jews
THE ECONOMIC description of Chrzanow Jewry may be divided into two periods. The
first part lasts until World War I At that time Chrzanow still belonged to
Austria, and therefore had economic connections with the west. The second
period begins with the establishment of the Polish state. At that time the
economy turned its face toward the east.
The first period is more interesting to us, because it had a more exclusively
Jewish character. The Austrian government placed no impediments in the way of
Jewish involvement in trade and industry, so that Jews were able to develop
their economic capacities and achieve a certain degree of well-being. Thanks to
the results achieved by the Jews of Chrzanow before World War I, they were able
to maintain their positions in independent Poland, despite heavy pressure from
the Polish government and civil society.
As in many Jewish cities and towns, so too in Chrzanow, the sources of income
for Jews were quite limited. We neither intend nor are we able to give, within
the framework of this book, a full report about each branch of Jewish industry.
We will, instead, suggest the particular character of our town in the following
The fact that Chrzanow was better off and more advanced materially than other
towns in Galicia was largely thanks to the Prussian merchants.
To a very great extent before 1914, and to a lesser extent later, in
independent Poland, a large number of the Jews of Chrzanow moved to Upper
Silesia, which was part of the Prussian region at that time, in search of a
living. These Jews had neither their own businesses in town nor any particular
artisan training, and therefore had no other way to support their families.
They would leave Chrzanow on Sunday and return on Friday. Most of them were
fruit dealers. In time they got so proficient in the fruit business that they
became the most important factor in this branch of the economy throughout Upper
Silesia, and even as far as Breslau. Others took up peddling, selling assorted
textiles and also finished clothes to workers and employees on the installment
These Jews got along quite well with the German population. Their honesty and
hard work earned them the trust of both the German and the Polish populations.
A law from Bismarck's time was still in effect in Prussia, forbidding Galician
citizensmeaning, for this purpose, Jews-to sleep in Prussian territory without
permission from the authorities; nevertheless, they got by with a good word at the right
place, or by bribing the police. The authorities took cognizance of the fact
that the Jews were both well-liked by the population and economically useful,
and did not openly harass them. An elderly Jew from Chrzanow, Reb Lipe
Hirshberg, relates the following:
In my time, that is, in the years before 1914, Jews from Chrzanow went to
Prussia to do business. As a rule they were called Prusians. They left on
Sunday evening, and returned Friday before candle-lighting time. Officially
they were forbidden to spend the night in Prussia, but they did so on the sly.
If a violator was caught, he was supposed to pay a fine of two marks. The most
prominent of these merchants were the families Shmeker, Proloch, Soltis and
others. They generally returned home Friday evening. They chartered a special
train from the railroad company, which was called the Sabbath train; it ran
from Katowice to Chrzanow. The Jews chartered this train summer and winter. The
train always arrived one hour before candle lighting. I remember that when the
train arrived in Chrzanow, the whole town was filled with joy. The cry,
"The Prusakes train has arrived, rang throughout the entire city, and
everyone was happy.
When one observed the everyday routine of these Jews in the Upper Silesia
cities of Katowice, Myslowice, Boytn and Hindenburg, it made one's heart bleed.
They had such a bitter and tiring life, struggling to make a living. They lived
in dark cellar rooms and in narrow attics. The Jew who looked like a poor Gypsy
in the streets of Prussia, looked like an aristocratic rabbi, dressed in dean
clothes in Chrzanow during the Sabbaths and holy days. Since they earned a good
living, the Prussian merchants in Chrzanow behaved like rich men: they gave to
charity generously, supported Jewish institutions, helped out poor scholars,
and so forth.
In general, Chrzanow was a prosperous city thanks to the bounty of the trade
with Prussia, and this also explains the attraction of Chrzanow for Jews from
elsewhere. Throughout the entire province, Chrzanow was known at that time as
The clothing industry in Chrzanow began at the very beginning of the twentieth
century. We aren't thinking here of the Jewish tailors like Reb Mordkhe
Doydele, or Reb Yitschok Aron, the kind who worked by the light of a tallow
candle, and who recited entire Psalms while they worked, or sang the melodies
used during the High Holy Days. Jewish scholars like these were to be found in
great numbers in other Galician and Polish towns-wherever Jews had settled. We
mean here rather the clothing industry under modern conditions of production.
It was in Chrzanow that the so-called Vichres originally appeared. Nearly all
of them lived on one street, which was called Vicharska Street. These people
traveled to the larger cities, such as Vienna and Prague, bought up various
articles of used clothing, brought them home, dyed and remodeled them. In time,
seeing that there was money to be made, they began to make finished articles of
clothing from pieces of new fabric. In addition to the local market, outerwear
and underwear gradually began to be shipped and sold in the industrial regions
of Merisch-Ostrow and Karvin.
Workshops were established which, lacking capital, were limited to
subcontracting to entrepreneurs, who sold the finished goods in the industrial
The tailors-both masters and apprentices- were poorly organized. This led to
their exploitation by the merchants and exporters. Because of their bad
economic situation, many of the tailors emigrated in search of better living
The first place the emigrating tailors went to was Berlin. The first pioneers
who arrived in Berlin quickly worked their way up to a better situation on the
strength of their diligence, competence, and willingness to work twelve-hour
days. They opened the way for more tailors from Chrzanow to go to the same
In Berlin, the tailors from Chrzanow created the basis for the German clothing
industry. Thanks to them, the Germans began exporting clothing to England,
India, and South America. It is worth mentioning that the Berlin police force
understood that any especially competent tailor must surely be from Chrzanow.
The Chrzanow tailors in Berlin did not forget their home town. They created a
Chrzanow Society in Berlin in 1918, which did a great deal to help the Jews of
Chrzanow as they arrived in Berlin, and which also raised money to benefit the
existing philanthropic institutions in Chrzanow.
Tailors from Chrzanow also emigrated throughout the world, to places like
Paris, New York, Montevideo, and others.
Thus it is clear that the needle trades in Chrzanow were well established,
flourishing, and ambitious. Before World War I Chrzanow aimed to catch up with
the Czech town of Prosnitz, which was famous in pre-World War I Austria for its
highly developed men's and women's clothing industry. These Czech-Germans
actually were affected by the competition of the Chrzanow tailors.
After the Polish state came into existence, the tailors of Chrzanow had their
first real opportunity to show their competence and their ability to produce on
a much larger scale. With their endurance and industry they brought Chrzanow to
the point where it was independent of such larger clothing industry centers as
Brzezin and Tarnow And until the outbreak of Hitler's war, Chrzanow was one of
the most important customers for the textile manufacturers of Lodz, Bialystok,
Tomashow, and other large mills..
A special economic niche was occupied by the money changers of Chrzanow. Since
the city lay near the German border, and previously had been near the Russian
border as well, certain Jews of Chrzanow would accompany the Prussian merchants
at the beginning of the week to the border regions around Myslowice, Katowice,
and Sczakowa. Each carried a leather pack on his back, which contained currency
from almost every country in the world. Each of these men was a kind of walking
exchange bureau. Although the large banking houses maintained exchange bureaus
at the train stations, most of the business of exchanging currency was in the
hands of Jews. This demonstrates that Jews enjoyed a good deal of trust in
matters relating to currency exchange.
Naturally, the busiest season was the summer, when international traffic going
to the Austrian and German spas was heavy. At that time the money changers
would ride in the trains with the passengers, and exchange money according to
the daily exchange rates. The stations themselves were extremely busy at the
beginning and end of the summer. The traffic consisted mostly of Polish
agricultural workers who were brought from the impoverished Polish countryside
to do seasonal work in Germany. At those times the money changers had their
Just as with the merchants, there were categories of money changers. Most of
them looked for customers among whatever passengers happened to be traveling
through, and who might need to exchange money. Jews made enough to live on in
this fashion. But there were also those who had an established clientele. The
latter included wealthy landowners, officials, and international playboys, who
spent money casually. And the money changers who had the "better
customers" grew wealthy from this trade.
Various anecdotes were told about a well-known money changer from the previous
generation, Reb Manes Shneider. Among his clients was the popular King Nikita
of Montenegro, the father-in-law of the Italian King Victor Emanuel, and of the
famous anti-Semite, the Russian Grand Prince Nikolai Nikolaievitsh, who played
a significant role as a European politician and engaged in intrigues among the
various royal courts. This king, who often traveled between Rome, Vienna, and
St. Petersburg, insisted on having his money changed only by Reb Manes. When he
arrived at the border, the king would summon Reb Manes to his private car, take
care of their financial business, and then seek his advice concerning world
politics. This Reb Manes Shneider was later robbed and murdered by unknown
bandits in a border town.
With the fall of Austria, exchange as a form of commerce also virtually
disappeared, and many of the former money changers took up the rather dirty
business of lending money out at interest. They were called
(loan sharks), which was virtually a curse word in Chrzanow at the time.
It may seem curious, but nevertheless it is a fact that because of its
geographical situation as a border city between Tsarist Russia and free
Austria, Chrzanow had a large number of traditional Jewish teachers.
During the Russian anti-Jewish actions in the 1880s, as well as during the
years 1905-1906, masses of Jews escaped the pogroms and arrived at Chrzanow.
Those who could afford the trip or who had relatives in America, continued
further. But the mass of poor and hopeless Jews, who possessed no material
goods, remained in Chrzanow. Since many of them were scholars, they settled
there and became teachers. These Jews initiated a certain revival, and
influenced several generations of students.
Forty or fifty years ago (around 1900) it was impossible to imagine a boy who
had reached the age of Talmud study who hadn't spent several semesters with Reb
Yosl Lipe, Reb Shloyme Kotsker, Reb Hersh Melamed, Reb Nute Dayan, or one of
the other "Polish" teachers. While not all of the teachers were from
the other side of the border, the majority of them, in fact, were not from
Chrzanow. This diversity had a certain cosmopolitan influence on the Jewish
youth of Chrzanow.
We cannot deal with the subject of teachers without describing Reb Volf Shor,
who was well-loved by everyone and who was a pedagogue in the fullest sense of
the word. He wasn't someone who turned to teaching because he had nothing else
to do; rather, he was a teacher with character and a strong sense of
responsibility. Born and raised in Chrzanow, he had a profound knowledge of the
German classical literature, and was at the same time a traditional Jewish
scholar. In contrast to other teachers, he placed the greatest emphasis in his
teaching on the Bible, the Prophets, and the Writings, accomplishing wonders.
Most of his students were the children of simple Jews and artisans, because the
Chasidim harassed him, spreading the rumor that he taught Moses Mendelssohn's
Biur "P22" as a commentary to the Bible. But it was an uncontested
fact that when the Sabbath arrived, all of his students, even the ones with
"rocks in their heads," knew the weekly Torah reading along with the
Haftorah like the backs of their hands. His students who are still alive today
can testify to that.
It is beyond our scope here to describe all of the occupations of the Jews of
Chrzanow. We only want to demonstrate that they were hardly idlers. Characters
on the model of Sholem-Aleychem's Menachem Mendl were hardly to be found in
Chrzanow. There wasn't a single area of the economy in which Jews were not
heavily represented. Jews in Chrzanow made their mark in trade, industry and as
artisans. With their hard work they made Chrzanow a major center of trade and
production that was known throughout the business world.
Furthermore, aside from their competence and success, they always remained true
to Judaism and the Torah, their tradition, and their ways of dressing.
In contrast to other Polish Jewish towns, Chrzanow was unusual in that its
scholars in Rabbinic learning, its pious and God-fearing Jews were not
necessarily the most fiery Chasidim, but also simple merchants and
storekeepers, tailors and shoemakers, artisans and horse traders, and so forth.
There were several examples. Reb Moyshe Hochbaum, the well-known scholar and
town preacher of Chrzanow, was the son of a shoemaker and himself a
confectioner. Another shoemaker's son became the rabbi of the nearby town of
Kalwarie, Reb Avrom Neuhof. Reb Elye Shuster, also popular, repaired old shoes
by day, while in the morning and at night he taught a Talmud class to older men
in town. Reb Itshele Weitzenblum, who was a tailor, a scholar to be reckoned
with, and a man with a record of good works, was the preacher at the Psalm
Society, and simultaneously the First Officer of the burial society. Reb Zismel
Shames, the secretary of the town study house, knew the entire Mishna by heart.
Dr. Itzchak-Schwartzbart, who became the pride of Polish Jewry, was an
innkeeper's son. Reb Yukl Bochner, a horse trader, a Jew with aristocratic
manners, and a philanthropist, was the chairman of the Jewish community for
many years. An optician, Reb Avrom Hirsh Reifer, was a Belzer Chasid and a
scholar. These examples illuminate the essence of Chrzanow Jewry.
After the death of Reb Shloymele
the first rabbi in Chrzanow, the rabbinical post remained vacant for many
years, until a decision was made to fill it with Reb David Halbershtam
the son of the author of the revered
For the first Sabbath in his new position, Reb David was accompanied to
Chrzanow by his father, the Rabbi of Sanz, Reb Chaim
There was still no railroad station in Chrzanow at that time, so the community
ordered a carriage, driven by two Chrzanow coachmen, to bring the rabbis from
the nearest railroad station at Trzebinia. During the trip, the two coachmen
sitting next to each other in front argued over a particular passage in the
commentary of Tosafot on the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin. Overhearing this
dispute, Reb Chaim said to his son, "You hear, Dovidl? You'd better work
hard. If the coachmen are such scholars, can you imagine how brilliant the
bourgeoisie must be?"
When Dr. Natan Birnbaum
(Matisyohu Akhar) was in Chrzanow in the year 1913, he related an anecdote that
illustrated his personal impression of Jewish Chrzanow.
As is well known, Dr. Birnbaum was quite distant from Judaism and from Jewish
life in general in his younger years. Living in Vienna, he had only the
slightest connection with the Eastern Jews. Even more: as he expressed it at
the time, he felt a certain contempt toward the "unproductive
Once, however, as he was traveling through Chrzanow on the Sabbath, he looked
through the window of the railroad car and saw something that radically changed
his attitude toward Eastern Jews. He saw a coachman-from Chrzanow, dressed in
his Sabbath clothes-a silk overcoat, with a broad silk belt wrapped around his
waist and a
on his headleading his horse to the town stream to drink. This image, Matisyohu
Akhar declared, motivated him to become more interested in the Jewish question
in Eastern Europe.
The observance of the Sabbath by the Jews of Chrzanow is extremely interesting.
Despite the fact that Jews were in almost complete control of the economy, not
once did a Jew keep his store or workshop open in public on the Sabbath. If
other cities kept the Sabbath, Chrzanow kept the "Sabbath of
Sabbaths." Even the Gentiles had to rest on the Jewish Sabbath. The
synagogues and study houses were packed with congregants. A sublime atmosphere
reigned outside and at home, and Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky put it well during his
visit to Chrzanow before World War I: "Jews, you should be proud of your
city. It is the Jerusalem of Galicia."
Rabbis in Chrzanow
THE FIRST RABBI OF CHRZANOW, REB SHLOYMELE BOCHNER
JUST WITHOUT A DOUBT the high point in the rabbinical history of Chrzanow is
occupied by its first and most significant rabbi, Reb Shloymele b/m. In fact it
can fairly be said that Chrzanow's history as a Jewish city began only when it
hired its first rabbi. The fact that Torah and work went hand in hand in
Chrzanow is largely the result of the efforts of its beloved and unforgettable
Reb Shloymele was born in Olkusz. His father was Reb Moyshe Charif, one of the
last members of the Council of the Four Lands. His name itself
("charif" means someone with a sharp mind) bears witness to his
greatness in Torah. As a member of the Council of the Four Lands, which met at
the major fairs at set times, he played a considerable role in regulating the
religious and social life of the Jews in Poland, Lithuania, and other areas.
Little is known about Reb Moyshe Charif's activities or his influence, because
he was an extremely humble man all his life. He sought no publicity while he
was alive, nor did he leave behind any writings that might have cast more light
on his life and works. His most characteristic traits were modesty and
simplicity. He didn't want to turn the Torah into a source of income. His son
inherited these qualities from him.
While still a boy of eight or nine years, Reb Shloymele was noted for his
diligence and his straightforward approach to study. An enemy of artificial
disputation, he always sought the clearest and simplest interpretations, rather
than the twisted, uncertain strategies of interpretation that did so much harm
to the minds of the yeshiva students and those who sat in the study houses at
It is said that one time his father, Reb Moyshe Charif, attended a very long
session of the Council of the Four Lands at a fair in a large city in Poland.
The session dragged on because the leading scholars present got involved in a
dispute concerning a certain point in the Talmud. They couldn't determine the
plain sense of the text, and eventually Reb Moyshe Charif called out to them:
"You know what, gentlemen? I have a nine-year-old son at home in Olkusz.
With his brilliant mind, he'll get us out of this confusion." They
immediately decided to hire the swiftest pair of horses, so that Reb Moyshe
could ride home to Olkusz to ask the boy what the proper meaning of the text
was, and all the scholars stayed at the fair to wait for the answer.
Arriving home at Olkusz in the middle of the night, Reb Moyshe immediately woke
up his Shloymele, who was sound asleep near the warm oven. After the boy had
washed his hands and rubbed his sleepy eyes, his father opened up the Talmud to
the correct page, and asked the boy to explain the passage which had so
confused the members of the Council. The boy scanned the entire page of the
Talmud, and opened his eyes wide, as if to ask his father, "What's so hard
to understand here?"
At that, his father rewarded him with a resounding slap and angrily said to his
son: "Several luminaries of the Torah are sitting at the fair struggling
to understand such a complicated topic, and for you there's no difficulty
The nine-year-old boy replied: "You see, Father, it would indeed be a
difficult question, unless you remember what the Talmud said four pages
earlier. If you compare the two, you will see that the meaning is clear and
simple, and there's no need to apply fancy interpretations to it."
His father, abashed, kissed his child on the forehead and said, "May his
kind multiply in Israel."
Of Reb Shloymele's earlier years, all we know is that he studied with the early
Chasidic Rebe, Reb Shmelke in Nikolsburg, and that the "Seer" of
Lublin was his closest friend. He was a unique personality, remarkable for his
unusual modesty. A century and a half ago, already a well-known star scholar in
Poland, he did not seek to assume a rabbinical pulpit, but instead decided to
learn a trade, so that he could support himself without depending on the
organized community and those who collected its revenues. In fact, he worked as
a goldsmith in his earlier years, and he supported his wife and children from
his income at this trade.
Having such a great scholar among them, the prominent men in town approached
him to ask that he become their rabbi. However, Reb Shloymele categorically
refused, explaining that he didn't want the Torah to become a source of
Realizing that they wouldn't get anywhere with Reb Shloymele, the committee
turned to his wife, the future rebetsin Hese, trying to convince her to
influence her husband to accept the rabbinical position. Like every wife who
wants to have a rabbi as a husband, she criticized him sharply for his
stubbornness, even threatening to disrupt the tranquility of their home. One
time Reb Shloymele responded to her with the famous pun, "You should love
your work, even if it leads you to oppose the rebetsin.
It wasn't until the committee approached Reb Shmelke, who ordered his student
to take the rabbinical post in Chrzanow and backed up the order with his own
rabbinical authority, that Reb Shloymele agreed to become the rabbi of the city.
Reb Shloymele's greatness was centered in his simplicity. He had no pretensions
to establish a rebe's court, nor did he consider the rabbinate to be a position
with a status above that of ordinary people. In contrast to his comrades, such
as the abovementioned Seer of Lublin, Reb Kalman of Cracow, the author of the
and Reb Berish Ospitziner, he led a poor and modest life, following the
authentic way of the founder of Chasidism, Reb Yisroel Baal Shem Toy. Like the
Baal Shem Tov he was involved with the simple people, the masses. It is well
known that he even helped establish a congregation of completely unlettered men
in Chrzanow, so that they wouldn't have to feel inferior to the Talmud scholars
in the study house.
Reb Shloymele and his family lived in an area that later became the back room
of the study house. He sat studying the Torah day and night, carrying on
extensive correspondence with the Torah luminaries of his generation,
especially with the abovementioned
of Cracow. The following legend has been handed down, and it can serve as a
measure of his influence on the Jews of Chrzanow and their indestructible faith
One Friday before dawn, Reb Shloymele stood at the entrance to the study house,
holding a letter addressed to the
in Cracow (about 40 kilometers from Chrzanow). A young boy arrived just then
with his tefilin under his arm, planning to pray with the first minyan. (The
boy was the grandfather of Moritz Feltsher.) Reb Shloymele said to him,
"Be so good, child, as to go to Reb Kalman in Cracow and hand this letter
to him. Wait for Reb Kalman to write his reply on the other side of the paper.
Meanwhile, I'll hold onto your tefilin until you return." The boy didn't
ask any questions. He went to Cracow. Returning with the reply, the messenger
found Reb Shloymele still standing at the same place, and the boy still managed
to pray with a minyan...
Despite his diligence as a scholar, Reb Shloymele devoted a great deal of time
and energy to community affairs, especially charity. He often made the rounds
of the homeowners to collect money, so that he could distribute it among those
who were ashamed to ask for money themselves.
Honored and esteemed by the Talmud scholars of the time, and beloved by the
masses, Reb Shloymele also had a great deal of influence on the noblemen and
peasants in the countryside surrounding Chrzanow. According to various legends,
the Gentiles of the area had a great deal of respect for the holy rabbi, and
his word was law even to them.
His modesty and honesty were legendary. His creed was that the Torah should not
be exploited for material benefit. For Reb Shloymele, "the Torah for its
own sake" was the highest value in life. He did not publish his letters
and Torah insights, preferring instead to distribute them among his children.
The extent to which Reb Shloymele refused to view the rabbinate as a source of
income may be seen from his will, which he left to his children and his
children's children: he forbade them to become rabbis. Although some of his
sons and grandsons became major scholars, they were true to the will of their
great father and grandfather, until they died during the days of Hitler.
Reb Shloymele died in Chrzanow on Lag Be'Omer in the year 1819. Thousands of
Jews from Chrzanow and from other areas near and far would gather together from
time to time to pour out their bitter hearts at his grave, weep their troubles
away, and gather hope that they would be helped by Divine providence thanks to
the merit of Reb Shloymele,
REB DAVID (DOVIDL) HALBERSHTAM OF BLESSED MEMORY
After the death of the great Reb Shloymele, Chrzanow did not have an easy time
finding a new rabbi. Since, in accordance with the terms of Reb Shloymele's
will, none of his sons would take over the rabbinate, Chrzanow was without a
rabbi for roughly two decades. The legal functions of a rabbi were carried out
by the chief judge, Reb Nechemye Pozner
During this time Sanz also cast its influence over Chrzanow. Clearly, personal
factors were no longer decisive in this process, but rather the
"court" of Sanz. Thus, the vacant rabbinical post in Chrzanow went to
the first rabbi of the Halbershtam dynasty, Reb David
In contrast to Reb Shloymele's rabbinical tenure, Reb David's may be described
as an unhappy experience, despite the fact that Reb David was a great authority
in the rabbinic world. As the son of the
the famous rabbi of Sanz, Reb Chaim Halbershtam, he lacked the pride and faith
in himself which his great father had possessed. He wanted to copy Sanz, and
what came out was indeed no more than a mere copy-in a poor edition, at that.
While Reb David occupied the rabbinical position in Chrzanow, a major conflict
raged between Sanz Chasidirn on one hand, and Radomsker Chasidirn on the
other-or more accurately, between Radomsker Chasidirn and Reb David. Apparently
this dispute was based on a local conflict, because as everyone knew, the
Sanzer Rabbi had written an introduction to the book called
written by the founder of Radomsk Chasidism; in addition to which, the son of
the first Radomsker Rebe, the author of the
was a devoted follower of the Sanzer Rebe, and often went to Sanz for the
Sabbath. The dispute reached its climax during an affair involving Reb Heshe
Gross. One of the most respected citizens of Chrzanow, this scholarly Jew owned
the tobacco monopoly at the time, and was a respected Radomsker Chasid. The
well-known writer Gershom Bader describes the Reb Heshe Gross affair in his
memoirs, published in the New York
in 1938. 1 cite from memory:
"I was born in Oswiecim. At the age of five, my father said to me: 'My
child, I want to take you to Chrzanow. I'm planning to travel there, and there
you'll see something that's a once in a lifetime occurrence. And since I don't
know whether you'll ever have the chance to witness such a scene in your
lifetime, I want you to see it as a child.'
"In Chrzanow there was a Jew by the name of H. Gross. During the bitter
battle between Sanz and Sadigura, this Jew had expressed sympathy for the
Sadigurer, using an impolite epithet against Sanz. This led to the man's being
excommunicated by the rabbi, Reb David. This Jew suffered greatly from the ban,
because according to the law, Jews were not allowed to have anything to do with
him. Even his own wife and children were forced to keep their distance from
him. In order to annul a ban of excommunication, it is necessary that the
excommunicated person undergo certain public forms of humiliation, by means of
which he is freed of his sin, or whatever caused the ban. The day my father
took me along to Chrzanow was the day H. Gross was to undergo these
humiliations. The streets were packed with people. Everyone wanted to be in
front, to get a better view of the excommunicated man. My father held me up in
his arms so that I could see better. It was a terrible picture. A Chasidic Jew
came out of a house; he was pale and terrified, and his face was full of
sorrow. He wore no hat, and had nothing on his head but a yarmulke. He had no
shoes, only socks, like on Tisha B'Av. In this fashion the Jew walked from his
house to the large synagogue. All the way boys threw stones at him, while the
adults shrank away from him, in order to avoid proximity. I clearly saw him
being struck by a stone in the face, and his face covered with blood. As if the
stone had struck someone else entirely, the Jew continued to the synagogue. I
don't know what happened in the synagogue, because my father couldn't get
inside with me."
This event ignited a burning enmity toward Reb David on the part of the Radomsk
Chasidim, which was inherited by his son, who took over his rabbinical post.
The affair of Reb Heshe Gross drew out like a red thread through further
disputes, as we will see later.
later suffered considerable troubles and anguish on account of various libels
that were brought against him to the authorities, stemming from the
excommunication episode. He had to hide for a certain time, because plans to
put him in prison were discovered. It was said that a special cell had already
been prepared, cleaned and whitewashed for the rabbi, but influential Jews and
a huge sum of money saved Reb David from this disgrace.
Several years before he died, Reb David was fated to suffer another kind of
anguish. When the rabbinical post in the nearby town of Jaworzno became free,
Reb David allowed his son (Reb Moyshe the Rabbi's son, who, incidentally, was a
brother-in-law of Zionist leader Ahad Ha'Am), to convince him to place his
grandson (Reb Moyshe's son) in the position, despite the fact that a highly
respected Talmud scholar, Reb Vove Rosenblum
was also a candidate for the post. Reb David wanted to force the acceptance of
his grandson Reb Yosef Elimelech as the new rabbi, and he rode to Jaworzno to
influence the outcome of the affair. But once there, Reb David realized that he
had not considered public opinion in the community. Jaworzno wouldn't let
itself be bullied into a decision, and Reb Vove was elected by a large majority.
On the Sabbath when Reb David was in Jaworzno, his supporters stole the Torah
scrolls from the local study house, so that his opponents would not be able to
read the weekly Torah portion. And, even more shameful, the Torah scrolls were
later found hidden in someone's bed.
TWO RABBIS AT THE SAME TIME:
REB NAFTOLI AND REB YOSEF ELIMELECH OF BLESSED MEMORY
died in the year 1894. The only one of his sons who was considered as a
possible successor to the rabbinate in Chrzanow was Reb Naftoli
the most worthy of the several brothers. During his lifetime, Reb David had
also expressed his preference for Reb Naftoli. But then an incident took place
that caused much bad feeling in town. A dispute broke out that did not reflect
well on the Jewish city of Chrzanow.
The previously mentioned Reb Yosef Elimelech had been his grandfather's
favorite while his grandfather was still alive. Unusually gifted, he was a fine
speaker, an extraordinary leader of communal prayer, and on top of everything,
quite wealthy. Concisely-Torah and greatness in one. Reb Yosef Elimelech, whom
Reb David had sought to proclaim rabbi of Jaworzno, allowed himself to be
called "Our Teacher and Master, " and strove to obtain the Chrzanow
rabbinate after his grandfather's death. Thanks to his personal qualities Reb
Yosef Elimelech quickly gained a party of supporters in town, among whom were
the Radomsk Chasidim, who were still motivated by their enmity to Reb David and
consequently to his son Reb Naftoli as well.
The dispute over the rabbinical position in Chrzanow between Reb Naftoli on the
one hand; and Reb Yosef Elimelech on the other, took on a very dramatic
character, especially because of the intervention of the Shinewer Rabbi, the
author of the
a brother of Reb David who was very famous at that time.
The Shinewer Rabbi was on Reb Naftoli's side. Of course, the Shinewer Rabbi's
word carried a great deal of authority, and in the beginning it seemed that Reb
Naftoli would be victorious. But Reb Yosef Elimelech's supporters didn't remain
idle, either. They used freely their most formidable weapon-money, of which Reb
Yosef Elimelech had plenty.
According to Austrian law in force at that time, a rabbi could not be elected
unless he had at least an elementary school diploma. In other cities the
authorities overlooked this detail during rabbinical elections. In Chrzanow,
however, the deciding factor turned out to be not the Jewish scholarship of the
various candidates, but rather the question of the elementary school diploma.
This, in turn, was the result of the explanations that one of the sides
provided to the authorities.
According to the election results, and by bribing the necessary parties, Reb
Yosef Elimelech emerged the apparent victor. But although the election was
considered valid, the dispute did not end there; on the contrary, it became
even sharper. The following description by our fellow townsman, Lipa Hirshberg,
illustrates the forms the dispute took:
"During the dispute over the rabbinate, or as it was called, 'the great
dispute,' I was barely nine years old. I sat at the third Sabbath meal in the
great synagogue with my father, may he rest in peace, who was on Reb Yosef
Elimelech's side. We were together with a crowd of Jews, singing religious
melodies in the darkness. Suddenly stones began flying through the window, and
a crowd of supporters of the other side broke into the study house shouting. A
fight broke out, just as if -(pardon the comparison) -we had been in a tavern.
Many heads were bashed, beards torn, shtreimelech stepped on, and silk
overcoats ripped. There was such a commotion that to this very day, I can't
understand how this could happen among Jews... "
Since neither side was willing to surrender, the community decided to keep the
peace by paying salaries to both rabbis. By law Reb Yosef Elimelech was the
official rabbi of Chrzanow, but the townspeople themselves considered both Reb
Naftoli and Reb Elimelech to be rabbis with equal status.
In time the two rabbis divided the spoils between themselves-that is, both of
them had their respective spheres of influence among their loyal supporters.
This "dual rabbinate" continued for about a decade, until the
untimely death of Reb Yosef Elimelech
Reb Yosef Elimelech, whom nature had blessed with physical beauty and other
personal advantages, and who in addition was very wealthy, immediately won the
hearts of the people of Chrzanow. Not only his supporters but even his
opponents became fond of him and had great respect for him. When Reb Yosef
died in 1907, still a young man and under tragic circumstances, all the Jews of
Chrzanow, without exception, mourned for him honestly and properly.
In praise of the Jews of Chrzanow, it must be said that they learned a great
deal from this dispute over the rabbinate. They drew the proper conclusions
from their experience, for after the death of Reb Yosef Elimelech, the family
proposed that his youngest son Leybele be elected in his stead. However, the
city remembered its old wound, and didn't support this suggestion.
thus became the only rabbi of Chrzanow, although he was not recognized by law
as the rabbi of the town.
Reb Naftoli died in the year 1924. His son was named to replace him while the
father was still alive.
REB MENDL OF BLESSED MEMORY:
THE LAST RABBI OF CHRZANOW
Rabbi Mendl, with the disputes of his father and grandfather behind him,
consolidated the rabbinate of Chrzanow. He was intelligent and energetic, and
he knew how to carry out his responsibilities while displaying sympathy for all
sides. During his tenure, the old enmity between the Radomsker and Sanzer
Chasidim cooled down considerably.
The last and most tragic rabbi of Chrzanow was fated to join his entire
congregation when they went as martyrs to Auschwitz during the time of Hitler,
in 1942. May the Lord avenge their blood!
Prominent Folks of the City
REB YOSL LIBIANZER
REB YOSL LIBIANZER played a significant role-indeed, perhaps the most
significant-in the history of Chrzanow Jews, both in the economic and spiritual
realms. Although he himself was not a scholar, he supported other scholars. Reb
Yosl donated a great deal of money to various philanthropic institutions in the
city while he himself still lived in Libianz, about six kilometers from
Chrzanow. He was a sort of Jewish leader there; his house was a headquarters
for the council of elders. An interesting story relates how Reb Yosl became
acquainted with the first rabbi of Chrzanow, Reb Shloymele.
Reb Shloymele was often visited by his comrade and student Reb Berish
Unwilling to part from his friend, Reb Shloymele accompanied him a certain
distance on the return trip on foot. They continued discussing affairs of the
Torah, until the two men arrived at Auschwitz. And when Reb Shloymele set out
to return to Chrzanow, Reb Berish refused to let him go alone. Engrossed in
weighty matters of the Torah, the two men came back to Chrzanow. This walking
back and forth continued, the two rabbis becoming more and more exhausted,
until Reb Yosl noticed what was happening. He waited on the road for them at
Libianz, got them into his coach and took both of them to their homes.
From that time a close friendship had arisen between the Rabbi of Chrzanow and
Reb Yosl Libianzer. Later on the rabbi betrothed his daughter to Reb Yosl's son
Reb Yukele. This marriage was the origin of the Kamienica family, which played
a significant role in the development of the lumber industry in Chrzanow, and
also played a role in spiritual life elsewhere.
REB YUKELE SHENBERG
THE KAMIENICA FAMILY
Reb Yukele Shenberg
the son of Reb Yosl and son-in-law of the first rabbi of Chrzanow, was a
brilliant scholar, and also a merchant with a broad perspective on practical
matters. He founded the dynasty, so to speak, of the Kamienicas. Reb Yukele
built the first two-story brick house in Chrzanow for his family. It faced onto
the marketplace. Because this was the first brick building of any significance
in the entire city, it was called the "Kamienica" (brick house), and
still bears that name today.
Reb Yukele's family, or "the people of Kamienica," as they were
generally called, were almost all wealthy, learned Chasidim, and community
activists. Their major business was in forests and lumber. The Kamienica family
became the noblemen of the city. In the early years, they had a great deal of
influence at communal assemblies, rabbinical elections, and in virtually all
aspects of municipal affairs. Their opinions carried weight, and their behavior
in both social and charitable affairs was an example to everyone.
The Kamienica family was also the fortress of Sanzer Chasidism. For them, Torah
was the essence of life and, thanks to the traditions they inherited from their
grandfathers, Rabbi Shloymele and Reb Yosl, they brought a great deal of honor
to Jewish Chrzanow.
REB SHLOYME LEYBISH OF BLESSED MEMORY
It is well known that the brilliant scholar and rabbi of Sanz, Reb Chaim
never pronounced the names of cities, fearing that a city might be named after
a Christian saint, and in pronouncing the name he would bear forbidden words on
his tongue. When he wanted to refer to Chrzanow, he would say, "The city
where Reb Shloyme Leybish Shenberg lives. " That was enough to identify
Reb Shloyme Leybish was well known. A grandson of the previously mentioned Reb
Yukele Shenberg, he had inherited the leadership of the Kamienica family from
his grandfather. The fact that the Kamienicas kept within the framework set for
them by their founder was largely thanks to its most respected and important
representative, Reb Shloyme Leybish.
This man was a magnificent example of the old Jewish patriarchal type, a
scholar in the broad sense of the word, with the finest and most elevated
qualities which the term "scholar" suggests. He dealt in lumber on a
large scale; his capabilities were well-known, and thousands of guldens rode on
his expertise. He studied the Talmud all his life. Simultaneously blessed with
prestige, Torah, and wealth, he remained a modest man. It was hard for anyone
to beat him to the punch with a "Good morning" or "Good
Shabes." He always hurried to greet his fellow man; anyone could approach
him; he wasn't full of himself. These qualities earned him the respect of every
Jew in Chrzanow, without exception.
While still a young man, Reb Shloyme Leybish had enjoyed a prominent place
among the intimate circle of the Sanzer Rabbi, and he embodied the true spirit
of Sanzer Chasidism, the fine qualities of Reb Chaim
Scholars valued his scholarship, simple Jews valued his morals and his
simplicity, and the masses valued his modesty.
And thus for seven decades, the name of Reb Shloyme Leybish was synonymous with
"the finest Jew" in the city, and honest, pious women wished each
other children who would take after Reb Shloyme Leybish.
REB BERISH LEVY OF BLESSED MEMORY
This man has truly earned himself a place on the honor roll of the leading men
He was quite wealthy, and was respected by the government officials of the
area. Although Reb Berish Levy was uneducated (he literally could not read or
write any language other than Yiddish), he was the mayor of Chrzanow for a long
time. Since he had no children, he spent his entire fortune on charity. His
major responsibility was to see to the marriage of poor girls and orphans, many
of whom he took into his own home and then married off in opulent style. It was
estimated, based on the number of fur hats he bought for young bridegrooms,
that he had provided for the marriage of fifty such orphan girls in his
There were also occasions on which Jews who had promised a certain dowry before
the wedding were unable to come up with the specified sum. The only thing to do
in such a case was to go to Reb Berish Levy. He was often awakened in the
middle of the night, at which time he would provide the needed funds.
He was quite profligate in regard to charity. It has been told that one Purim
only a few poor people were asking for money. He got up in the synagogue and
announced that the people should come without fail to pick up the money which
he had designated for the holiday. He actually begged them not to ruin his
In addition to the mitzvahs of charity and arranging for the weddings of poor
girls, he was also very much involved in visiting the sick. Reb Berish stayed
up entire nights with the sick people in town, bringing the finest and most
costly of goods for the poor people among them.
Even though he wasn't a Talmud scholar, Reb Berish Levy was deeply beloved by
the Jews of Chrzanow while he was still alive, and he assured himself of a good
name in town after he passed away.
When as a boy I read the various wonderful legends about the pious women of the
generations, and especially about the glorious figure of Sara bas Tuvim, I was
left with the impression that the latter must have looked exactly like Gitl
In Chrzanow Gitl Nachman's embodied the qualities traditionally expected of a
Jewish woman: fear of God, love of her fellows, and charity.
She was the daughter of a simple, honest Jew, Reb Nachman Vishnitser b/m. He
was neither a scholar nor a Chasid; on the other hand, he was a charitable man
with a warm Jewish heart. His daughter Gitl placed herself in the service of
the poor and oppressed, the elderly and the sick, widows and orphans.
There wasn't a single charitable society or philanthropic institution in which
Gitl Nachman's did not participate. This noble and sympathetic woman also
possessed an iron determination to carry out her own plans, thanks to which she
became a legend in her own lifetime.
She rightfully considered herself the mother of the town, and she carried out
the task fully. She displayed extraordinary energy and courage during efforts
to rescue Jewish souls from the hands of proselytizing Gentiles. In Bobrek,
about ten kilometers from Chrzanow, there lived a countess who considered it
her duty to maintain a dormitory for deserted children in a nearby convent.
Every time Gitl Nachman's found out from the employees of the convent that a
Jewish child had made its way there, she would run to the countess and apply
every possible means of persuasion to convince her to surrender the Jewish
child. This required energy and selfsacrifice, because the anti-Semitic
countess would set her dogs on Gitl and make the servants tease her, knowing
that if Gitl managed to get in, she would have to accede to her every request.
The old age home in Chrzanow was built thanks to her initiative and even more,
thanks to her money. She put a huge amount of work into that institution, which
unfortunately became neglected and declined after her departure.
Even mental defectives in town benefited from her attentive eye and noble
heart. The well-known town madman Menachem Moyshe, who always neglected his
appearance and hygiene, was occasionally seized by men whom Gitl paid to force
him to the bathhouse, where he was washed and given clean clothes. Many stories
were told about her influence on open and secret sinners whom she brought back
to decent, Jewish society. One of these stories relates that the mayor of
Chrzanow at the time, the committed assimilationist and Jewish anti-Semite Dr.
Kepler, who literally could not look a fellow Jew in the eye, was so moved by
Gitl's personality and nobility that he promised for her sake to wear fringes
and to put on tefilin every day.
Gitl Nachman's longed all her life to travel to the land of our ancestors.
Still middle-aged and childless when her husband died, she moved to the
longed-for land, and continued her work on behalf of Jewish Chrzanow through
her prayers and supplications at the Western Wall and Rachel's grave.
YOYSEF IGRA OF BLESSED MEMORY
- (The Zheliner Rebe)
The Zheliner Rebe lived and played a significant role in Chrzanow for many
years. This Jew was remarkable neither for his scholarship nor for his sharp
mind, nor even for his "court." If he is reckoned here among the
prominent folk of the city, it is primarily because his piety was famed not
only in the city itself, but also beyond its borders.
A small, thin Jew, he did not stand out in a crowd. On the other hand, he was
absolute and strict. He had an immense influence on his Chasidim, who were
recruited for the most part from among the Jewish masses, and in particular,
from among the German Jews who lived on the other side of the border.
His conduct was different from that of the other rebes of his time. He was an
ascetic in the full sense of the word, spending entire days in prayer and
fasting, totally removed from the vain things of this world. Bitter hearts
streamed to him from far and wide seeking relief, and they went away feeling
more cheerful, having received a blessing or a promise from this genuine holy
The spiritual influence of the Zheliner Rebe on the Jews of Chrzanow was not
especially great, however, because Jews in Chrzanow tended to be attracted to
Chasidic courts that were also centers of Torah, such as Sanz, Shinew, Radomsk,
and later Bobow. Nevertheless, his moral influence was noticeable among the
Jewish population because of his extraordinary love of charity. The Zheliner
Rebe set an example of how charity is to be distributed, immediately
distributing to the poor all the money he received from his numerous wealthy
followers. He didn't even keep enough for his own needs-it was said that the
Rebe's wife often had to approach his secretary for a loan. Especially
impressive was his concern that poor but respectable families be provided with
the necessities for Passover. The Rebe had matzohs baked at his own expense,
bought potatoes, and had good wines for the four cups brought from Hungary and
from the Land of Israel. He had these distributed by people he trusted to the
homes of the needy, sparing the latter unnecessary embarrassment.
When the Koshenitser Rebe returned from a visit to the doctors in Vienna in
1910, broken and sick, he stopped to visit the Zheliner Rebe in Chrzanow. He
died at the latter's home. Before he died he wrote to his family: "I'm
staying at the home of a Jew, who can intercede with Heaven on behalf of a
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