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2

History

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The beginning

It is generally acknowledged that the name of the town is derived from that of the Polish nobleman Jozef Ozarowski who received a royal grant of the territory in 1568. We can get a glimmer of the birth of the Jewish community of Ozarow, thanks to an ancient chronicle which was kept by a Hungarian student, Martin Ksambor. The archives of the church also allow us to have a glimpse of the relations between Catholics and Jews. These documents shed some light on the life of the Jewish community of Ozarow from the 17th century until the liquidation of the ghetto in 1942, when the cemetery was transformed into an execution site.

 

The chronicle of Martin Ksambor

This young traveller, part student, part vagabond, indicates that the Jewish community of Ozarow appeared at the beginning of the 17th century. It is of course impossible to determine the exact date when the first Jews arrived in the village.

In 1616 Martin Ksambor noted that the majority of the inhabitants were Jewish: “One Saturday, we made a stop in Ozarow, where all of the villagers were at rest in observance of their religion.”

 

Ozarow in the 17th and 18th centuries

It is only in the second half of the 17th century that the presence of an organized Jewish community in Ozarow can be confirmed. That period saw a massive influx of Jews, who benefiting from the relative tolerance of the local Calvinist lords, were able to practice their religion freely. By the beginning of the 17th century, the Jews were unquestionably the most important group in the vicinity. In one of the oldest documents of the Ozarow church, dated 1728, one can read that the “Jewish non-believers possess 90 houses, apart from the synagogue, and they have the upper hand in commerce.” Certain documents indicate that at the beginning of the 18th century, the village contained a synagogue, a cemetery and a ritual bath. When he visited in 1748, the Cardinal of Zalusk remarked that “the whole population is Jewish.” From the “head tax” which the Jews had to pay, we learn that in 1787 there were 68 Jewish households, comprising 193 persons: 104 men and 89 women. Among the men there were one rabbi, one cap-

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maker, one butcher, one hairdresser, three jewellers, one tailor, two beadles, several teachers and one beggar.

From then on, the organized Jewish community of Ozarow took in the Jews from 36 different neighbouring populations. Mention is made of a “mixed” marriage between a Catholic and a Jew. Another noteworthy fact: On October 21, 1797 the priest Franciszek Dutomski expressly asked Ozarow landholders to no longer sell land adjacent to the church to Jews in order to keep them from building their homes there.

 

Ozarow in the 19th century

Following the Napoleonic wars, in the years 1817-18, the Jews comprised almost half the population of Ozarow. In that period one could count 20 stone houses and 126 of wood. The mayor noted that the Jews were above all merchants or tavern keepers. In 1827 they numbered 761 out of a total population of 967 inhabitants.

An analysis of the tithes paid the synagogue (assessed in proportion to each member's income) permits us to conclude that they were poor. In Ozarow — as in the entire district of Radom — around ten percent of the Jewish population was entirely dependent on the organized community.

The few well-off Jews contributed around half of the latter's entire budget. They often lived in the surrounding countryside. So when the authorities gave the order to build a new administrative building beside the cemetery, they could not gather the necessary funds.

Similarly, no one was eager to keep up the support of the Ozarow rabbi. Taking the community's word for it: “We cannot find a candidate for the post of rabbi. There is no one competent either in our town or in neighbouring towns. We approached the superior Talmudic school of Warsaw, but because of the meagre salary we are offering, our request drew no response. We have also been forced to appeal to the rabbis of the region.” In 1860, Ozarow had a synagogue with 40 benches and two prayer houses, each with 36 benches. The Jewish cemetery had its appointed caretaker, Joseph Freiberger — a former pupil of the Jewish school — who ran his own business for a long time before accepting this volunteer post at the age of 54.

In 1863, the community subscribed to a newspaper, Yutrzenko Morgenstern, printed in Polish and in Yiddish, edited by the Jewish patriot Daniel Neufeld and sold at the price of four rubles and two kopeks.

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During that period the Jewish population of Ozarow comprised 1,162 inhabitants (598 men and 564 women) and represented 67% of the total population. Most of them were merchants (cloth, wood, wheat, leather) and craftsmen. One fact remains indisputable: in the years 1850-65 the Jewish population remained in the majority in Ozarow.

 

Ozarow in the 20th century

During the First World War Ozarow was under Russian occupation.

In 1915, a Russian colonel demanded that its Jews give him 3,000 rubles.

If not, he threatened to burn down the town. The size of the sum was so great that the Jews declared they were unable to pay it. The Russians then deported all the Jews of Ozarow 15 kilometres beyond the Vistula toward Annopol (formerly Rahow). The journey took place on foot or in carts, each person carrying a small bundle.

When the men, women, the aged and the children came back eight days later, they found the village in ashes. Almost all of the buildings, including the synagogue, had been looted, then razed. Was this the enforcement of blackmail or the implementation of a scorched earth strategy before the advancing Austrian army? Between the two wars, the Jewish population increased significantly.

In 1921, Ozarow had 3,456 inhabitants, of whom 2,258 declared themselves Jewish (about 65%).

Ten years later, in 1931, the community had its cemetery, its synagogue, its five prayer houses and its rabbi and his assistant.

In 1939, Ozarow had 4,284 Jewish inhabitants. This population doubled during the years of the ghetto.

In October 1942, more than 8,000 Jews were deported.

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The Jewish Cemetery

The present cemetery in Ozarow has been preserved. It already existed in the 17th century and it was maintained until 1942.

In his study of Jewish cemeteries, the Polish historian Adam Penkalla devotes a chapter to the Ozarow cemetery. He emphasizes that the use of Hebrew letters on the gravestones shows the high cultural level of the Jewish community and its weak degree of “Polonization”.

The Jewish cemetery is located in the southern part of town, opposite the Catholic cemetery and near the road out to Opatow, Zawiechost and Lublin. Its southern wall is intact, but only traces remain of the western and northern walls. Long ago, there was an eastern wall that separated the cemetery from the fields. Sadly neglected, the cemetery is now threatened with ruin. There remain only about a hundred tombstones, on some of which only the names of the deceased can be made out.

At the southern edge, there are remains of foundations. These belonged to the administration building and to the crypt where the rabbis were buried (Ohel). Near this spot, we find the gravestone of Raizel, the daughter of El'yezer Shalom, the rabbi of Piotrkow and Siedlec. Many trees shade the cemetery. Some were planted before the war, others in 1964 when the town decided to transform the place into a municipal park.

The oldest tombstones in existence today go back to the 1880s, and the most recent to the end of the 1930s. They are made of stone from the quarries of Coney, five kilometres from Ozarow. It was Chil Birenbaum who artfully engraved the stones between the two wars, as occasionally did also Ephraim and his sons, who came from Ostrowiec for the purpose.

All of the stones are aligned and face northward. In compliance with the traditional proscription, there is no representation of the human face.

You can, however, find tree branches, animals and ritual objects. The dates of death refer only to the Hebraic calendar, and only fathers' first names, never family names, are mentioned.

At the end of the 19th century, the question of inscriptions in languages other than Hebrew arose among the Jewish communities of central Poland. In Ozarow, as in Lodz, the Orthodox way prevailed — Hebrew was used to the exclusion of any other language.

The inscriptions recall the qualities of the deceased and reproduce biblical verses. In the years 1891-95 you can find chiselled vases adorned

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with garlands. Later the style tended to be more austere. For men, the most common engravings were a lion, a tree or arrays of books; for women, a chandelier, candlesticks or an outstretched hand holding coins, a symbol of generosity.

 

oza010.jpg
Gravestone in the Ozarow cemetery

 

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