“Zelwa” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VIII
(Zelva, Belarus)

53°09' 24°49'

Translation of
“Zelwa” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem




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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 346-350, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

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[Page 346]


District of Wołkowysk, Region of Białystok

Translated by Jerrold Landau


Year Population Jews
1793 846
(payers of
head tax)


The town of Zelwa is situated on the Zelwa and Zelwianka Rivers, approximately 25 kilometers east of Białystok, in the pine forests. It is first mentioned in the 15th century as an estate with a church. It developed as the years went on and received the rights of a city in the 16th century. An annual 4-week-long fair took place in Zelwa from 1720. With time, the Zelwa fair was second only to that of Leipzig, and large-scale merchants from Prussia and Russia would come. Large-scale textile manufacturers from Białystok (see entry) would come to the fair during the 19th century. Zelwa was annexed to Russia at the time of the second partition of Poland in 1793. The local fair also suffered from periods of decline – during the retreat of Napoleon from Russia in 1812, the Polish revolt of 1830, and when a large fire broke out during the fair in 1862. Zelwa was connected to the Moscow-Warsaw railway line in 1847, and a railway station was built. From then, the economy strengthened, and the population doubled.

During the First World War, Zelwa was conquered by the Germans who ruled it from the autumn of 1915 until the end of 1918. Two years of revolutions and wars followed their retreat. It was conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1919, returned to the Poles in the summer of 1920, and included in the independent State of Poland in 1921. Zelwa was an administrative center of hundreds of villages between the wars. Two churches were built – a Pravoslavic and Catholic.

Zelwa was at first under Soviet rule during the Second World War (from September 17, 1939 until the end of June 1941). It was bombarded by the Germans at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. About a third of its houses went up in flames, approximately 80 residents were murdered, and the number of wounded was greater than 200. The Soviet army liberated the district in the summer of 1944, after three years of Nazi occupation.

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The Jews Until the End of the First World War

Jewish merchants from the area would attend the market in Zelwa from the 16th century, and several Jewish merchants settled there during the 17th century. The number of Jews in Zelwa grew after the annual fair started. They became the majority of the population and developed commerce there. In 1766, 522 Jews lived in Zelwa and the nearby villages. The Jews of Zelwa became firmly based during the 19th century, and their number reached a pinnacle of 1,844 individuals (about 2/3 of the residents of Zelwa). The most firmly established of them conducted business in wheat, lumber, and cattle, or leased and managed large estates. The rest of the Jews maintained shops and stalls in the market or the fair, or earned their livelihood as peddlers in the nearby villages, wagon drivers, or tradesmen – butchers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers, etc. With the development of lines of communication and connection, and the building of the railway station in Zelwa, the economic and demographic growth restarted. Jews set up two large sawmills in Zelwa which employed Jews and farmers, as well as the only flourmill in the area, which also employed Jews. Some of the Jews became involved in the growing building industry. Jewish merchants built warehouses for merchandise next to the railway station, and the Zelwa fair flourished. Jews opened inns, restaurants, cafes, five bakeries, and other businesses for the benefit of the visitors to the fair.

The Jewish houses and businesses were situated in and around the market. The Jewish families had many children, and the houses passed on as inheritances from generation to generation. The Jews grew vegetables and fruit trees in the yards of their houses, and many also kept small barns or stables next to their homes. The community maintained a meadow on the riverbank, and a hired cowherd tended to the animals of all the Jews.

In the great fire of 1895, approximately a third of the houses of the town went up in flames, most in the poor quarter in which the Jews lived. However, new houses were built within a few months through the help of nearby communities and Zelwa natives in the United States. The volunteer firefighters of Zelwa and their band players were all Jews, with only the commander being gentile.

Proper neighborly relations generally pervaded between the Jews and gentiles in Zelwa and the area. However, the peace was disturbed several times. In June 1885, drunk railway workers broke into Jewish shops, pillaged merchandise, and beat the shopkeepers and passersby with sticks and iron rods. The Jews, who at first attempted to behave with restraint, were finally forced to react. They chased the hooligans away by force. One of the workers was injured, and claimed that the Jews tried to kill him. About 50 of his friends, armed with sticks and iron rods, returned and continued with the disturbances. The incited workers caused disturbances on the streets, broke window panes, furniture and property in the houses and the Beis Midrash, broke the Holy Ark, and ripped the Torah scrolls to pieces. Several Jews were injured, including children. They concluded by breaking into the wine cellars, where they got drunk. The local policeman did not know what to do, but the Jews organized themselves again and chased the hooligans out of town. Due to a complaint lodged by the rabbi and communal administrators, the authorities sent officials to Zelwa to evaluate the damage. The head of the hooligans were brought to court, but at the end, they were not punished.

At first, the Jews of Zelwa were dependent on the community of Grodno (see entry). During the 18th century, they were organized into an independent community, they built a synagogue and Beis Midrash, dedicated a cemetery, and established a Chevra Kadisha [burial society]. After the breakup of the Council of the State of Lithuania in 174, the Zelwa fair served as a gathering place for delegates of the primary communities, where they deliberated over communal matters that were formerly deliberated upon by the Council of the State. The writ of excommunication on Hassidism written in 1781 in Vilna (see entry) was even read before the rabbis and the communal heads when they gathered at the Zelwa fair. The declaration of the excommunication was accompanied by the sounding of the shofar and the breaking of jugs. The influence of this excommunication was especially difficult in the district of Pulsia. In its wake, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was forced to escape from Pinsk, and Rabbi Shlomo was forced to escape from Karlin. In 1796, rabbis and heads of communities from the camp of Misnagdim [Hassidic opponents] gathered again at the fair, and renewed and certified the excommunication. In the approbations of the book “Praises of the Baal Shem Tov”, 5575 (1815) edition, there is an approbation from “the rabbi, great in Torah, the wise man Rabbi Meir Magid Meisharim in the holy community of Zelwa.” During the time of the persecution of Hassidim, Rabbi Meir was forced to move to Ostrowa (Ostrog), which was a Hassidic town in Volhynia.

At the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Meir Szpitz sat on the rabbinic seat of Zelwa. Rabbi Yehonatan Dawidowski served after him in the community. Rabbi Yosef Aharonson, the author of “Pardes Hachachmah,” Pardes Habina,” and “Matei Moshe,” served as the rabbinic preacher in Zelwa until he immigrated to the United States.

The synagogue in Zelwa was a splendid, brick building, with a Holy Ark with wooden doors and artistic decorations, supported by the lefts of a lion. There were forms of winged creatures [angels] atop the door. Public events and family celebrations such as circumcisions, Bar Mitzvas, and weddings took place in the synagogue courtyard. The Beis Midrash of the town was always bustling with people, especially in the evening hours after a day of work. The tradition of mutual assistance was developed in the community. The Linat Cholim society provided assistance to childless sick people. A Maot Chittin [money for purchase of Passover provisions] collection was conducted by the community before Passover to distribute matzo and food to the needy. Donation plates were placed in the synagogue and Beis Midrash before Yom Kippur. There were also collections for the settlement in the Land of Israel.

In the latter quarter of the 19th century, under the influence of the Haskalah movement, a chapter of Chovevei Zion was established in Zelwa, and several

[Page 348]

townsfolk made aliya to the Land of Israel and even purchased land there. Progressive Maskilim read newspapers such as Hatzefira and Hamelitz. After the First Zionist Congress in 1897, a Zionist organization arose in Zelwa, and collections took place for the Jewish National Fund. At around that time, a Bund cell was set up in Zelwa. Young Jews also joined the Polish Socialist Party (SR). Jews from all parties and streams participated in the 1905 revolution. After it was put down, arrests took place, and many people fled the country. During the 1906 pogrom in Białystok, anti-Semitic incitement also took place in Zelwa, encouraged by the government. A decline in the economic state of the Jews took place at that time. The persecutions, political decrees, anti-Semitic waves, and increasing economic oppression did their part to increase the Jewish immigration overseas.

Jewish education was also influenced by the changing times. Throughout hundreds of years, children studied in the cheders of the melamdim [teachers of young children], and some of them continued their education in Yeshivas outside Zelwa. During the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, many children already studied in the Russian public school of Zelwa, and tens of the youth continued their studies in the Jewish gymnasjas of Białystok or Grodno.

During the First World War, Jewish youths were also drafted to the Czarist army. The Germans advanced eastward quickly in 1915. Many residents of the border districts, Jews and gentiles alike, fled eastward in the wake of the retreating Russian Army. Zelwa was filled with Jewish refugees, and the locals assisted them to the best of their ability. The retreat of the Russians from Zelwa was accompanied by disturbances and incidents of pillage. The Germans, however, who occupied the town at the end of 1915, returned and imposed law and order. Along with this, the occupying authorities confiscated agricultural products and other foodstuffs. The little food that remained for the needs of the population was rationed at starvation levels. Some of the Jews became involved in food smuggling and the black market, even though they were liable to severe punishment. Men from the ages of 15-60 as well as women were drafted to forced labor. The Jewish children were forced to study in the German school, where several hours a week were allotted to them for religious studies. With the repeal of most of the restrictions on communal and political activity that were in place during the previous regime, the Jews were again able to develop cultural life, conduct elections for the communal council, and renew party activity.


The Jews Between the Two World Wars

The war ended at the end of 1918, but the fate of the area had not yet been settled, and armies and states fought over dominion. Between one conqueror and the next, gangs and riffraff perpetrated disturbances in Zelwa, pillaged Jewish property, and murdered some of them. At the end of 1918, Polish legionnaires entered Zelwa; the Bolsheviks ruled it at the end of 1919; and the Poles returned in the summer of 1920. Law and order gradually returned to Zelwa only in the spring of 1921, with the founding of the State of Poland. The Jews had difficulty renovating their homes and sources of livelihood, and were in need of help from the community and Jewish aid organizations. The American JOINT helped primarily with money and shipments of food and clothing. It also donated to the establishment and maintenance of an orphanage. The former charitable organizations restarted activity, and a branch of the cooperative Popular Bank, which had been founded with funds from the JOINT, helped business owners with loans for the rehabilitation of their businesses.

At first, it seemed that the Jews returned to their businesses as days of old, but it quickly became clear that their economic situation worsened as compared to the previous era. The large-scale wheat merchants were displaced from the branch of business after the Polish soldiers who were settled in Zelwa by the government set up a wheat cooperative and gained preferred conditions. Small business owners were crushed under the heavy tax burden collected by the government of Poland. Tradesmen were obligated to take government certification tests, which required fluency in Polish. Workers in the food branch were obligated to make business renovations in accordance with the new hygiene laws, requiring a large financial investment. Small and medium sized businesses closed because of losses, and many of their owners reached the point where they lacked a loaf of bread. Only a few, primarily the cattle merchants, saw success in their business as previously. The economic strain moved many to immigrate to lands in which the Jews of Zelwa had relatives, or where there were no restrictions on immigration – primarily Argentina, Canada, Australia, and Chile. There was also aliya to the Land of Israel. The economic depression in Poland grew more severe during the late 1930s, bringing anti-Semitism and increasing emigration in its wake. The number of those receiving support from the communal budget grew constantly.

The 1920s and 1930s were typified by vibrant and variegated political and Zionist activity. The first and largest Zionist party in Zelwa was Poalei Zion (later Poalei Zion Tz. S.), and second to it was the General Zionists. Apparently, there was also a Mizrachi chapter in Zelwa. During the 1930s, a chapter of the revisionist Brit Hatzh'ar was formed. The first youth movement in Zelwa, Hechalutz, was founded in 1920. Hashomer Hatzair and Freiheit (Dror) were founded in 1924. The three movements trained [the youth] for aliya and manual labor. Hashomer Hatzair set up clubs and lectures to broaden the education of its members, and the Freiheit drama club performed both in and outside of Zelwa. A chapter of Beitar was founded in Zelwa in 1930. Most of the graduates of the youth movements went out to hachsharah kibbutzim, and some made aliya to the Land of Israel. There were 208 electors who had paid the Zionist shekel [token of membership in the Zionist movement] on the eve of the 17th Zionist Congress in 1931.

[Page 349]

The Bund operated in Zelwa outside the Zionist camp, and several Jews were active in the Communist underground.

The Zionists and non-Zionists engaged in vibrant cultural activity, and supported the Zionist educational network. At the end of the war, a public elementary school was opened in the town. In contrast, a Hebrew school was opened in 1921, which joined the Tarbut network in 1921. A Hebrew religious school called Tachkemoni also opened. A Yiddish school of the TSYSHO networked opened at the beginning of the 1930s under the oversight of the Bund, in which children of poor families primarily studied. Many youths studied in Jewish gymnaszjas in Białystok, Slonim (see entry), Vilna, and the teachers' seminary in Grodno.

Cultural life was rich. Several drama groups functioned (their performances took place in the fire hall), and several libraries were opened. The library of the Tarbut School had about 1,000 books, most Hebrew and some in Yiddish. The other Jewish schools had their own libraries.

Rabbi Pesach Racka served as the rabbi of the community in 1929, and Rabbi Kosowski took his place during the 1930. He fled the town with the entry of the Soviets in September 1939.


During the Second World War

With the entry of the Red Army to Zelwa on September 17, 1939, it was annexed to the Byelorussian Republic of the Soviet Union, and Soviet rule was established. Private businesses were nationalized or closed. Merchandise was confiscated, and a government cooperative shop was set up. Tradespeople were organized into cooperatives by profession (Artels). Five firmly-based Jewish families were deported to Siberia, and their property was confiscated. Jewish and other schools were closed or turned into government schools that operated in Soviet style. Jewish refugees from the areas of western Poland under Nazi rule streamed into Zelwa in the autumn of 1939. Most were sent to labor in the interior of the Soviet Union, and only a few of them remained in Zelwa.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union at the end of June 1942, the Germans bombarded Zelwa. Many houses were destroyed or burnt down, and several people were killed and injured. Many Jews attempted to escape to the Soviet Union, but only a few succeeded in crossing the front. The Wehrmacht forces conquered Zelwa in July 1941, and approximately 20 Gestapo men entered the town in their wake. With the entry of the Germans, Jewish men were gathered to a roll call, lined up in rows, and forced to watch as a young Jewess lying on a bench was beaten with 24 lashes. Afterwards, the Gestapo captain spoke about the new order, and emphasized their obligation to follow the orders of the Judenrat head that they had selected, Abba Pupka. When he finished his speech, and before the men were freed to go home, the captain separated from them about 40-50 teachers, accountants, lawyers, and other members of the intelligentsia – according to his words to send them to work fitting for their skills. Later it became known that they were hauled in trucks to the nearby forest, shot to death, and tossed into a large pit that had been prepared from the outset. Their family members and the Judenrat offered the S.S. men bribes to find out about their fate. They were told that their dear ones were held in a secret, secure place. After some time, the truth became known from a farmer in a nearby village who was an eyewitness to their murder.

As in all areas of occupation, the Jews of Zelwa were forced to wear yellow patches in the shape of a Magen David, they were forbidden to come into contact with gentiles or to purchase food from them. Many were drafted to backbreaking forced labor. The workers suffered from attacks and mockery from the Ukrainian guards and the S.S. men, and several were murdered. The Jews suffered from want and hunger. Seven Jewish butchers who disobeyed the ban on selling meet were hanged in public in the market square, so people would see and fear. After the hangings, the Judenrat head Abba Pupka committed suicide, as the Germans did not heed his pleas to annul the verdict.

After several weeks, a ghetto was set up in Zelwa, and all the Jews were concentrated into several small, poor houses. The terrible crowding, the dismal hygienic conditions ,and the hunger led to outbreaks of epidemics amongst the Jews, and a rise in the death rate. Youths as well as some families attempted to escape to the forest, but most of them were caught or turned in to the Germans and only a few reached their destination.

In the morning of November 2, 1942, S.S. men from Wołkowysk (see entry) entered the Zelwa ghetto. Their commander demanded from the Judenrat a list of residents of the ghetto sorted by age. In the meantime, the S.S. men, and German and Ukrainian policemen, surrounded the ghetto. The Judenrat members were ordered to gather all the Jews in the market square. The local policemen conducted a thorough search for people in hiding. The Jews were marched from the market square to the railway station, and sent in sealed cars to a transit camp near Wołkowysk. The Jews were held in the camp for more than three weeks under the most difficult of conditions, with no food. On November 26, the residents of the camp, including the Jews of Zelwa, were sent to the Treblinka death camp.

In the summer of 1942, in the wake of increasing rumors of the liquidation of ghettos in the region, an underground of youths and several youth families arose in the Zelwa Ghetto. They constructed an escape plan, gathered some weapons, and began to escape to the forests. Many of the escapees were turned in to the Germans by collaborators in the area. According to one version, 110 Jews escaped to the forest, but according to another witness, only 13 escaped. (It seems that the first number included all the escapees or those who escaped before the aktion, whereas the number 13 relates to those who escaped during it.) Two youths who escaped joined

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the Poveida partisan unit. A young family with two girls was taken into the family camp of the Bulak partisan unit. A youth who jumped off the train on the way to Treblinka found refuge with a Polish woman and was saved. Aside from him, five families who were exiled to Siberia at the end of 1939, and 10 Jews who escaped to the Soviet Union on the eve of the German conquest survived.



Yad Vashem Archives JM/2714; M1/E/1786; 016/435; 03/203
Gotlieb, p. 74
Zelwa Memorial Bok, edited by Y. Morstein, Tel Aviv, 1984.
Volkovisk, the Story of a Zionist Jewish Community, edited by Ch. Laszowicz, Tel Aviv, 1988, pp. 92, 93.
Pinkas Białystok, edited by A. Sh. Hershberg, volume II , New York, 1950, pp. 9-12.
Datner, “Eksterminacja Judnósci żydowskiej w okręgu białostockim”, BŻIH 60 (1966), p. 10.
Leszczyński, Żydzi ziemi bielskiej od polowy XVII w. do 1795 r. … pp. 47, 147.
Hameilitz 1.7.1885, 10.6, 1885
Hatefira 18.6.1891, 19.6.1891, 14.4. 1891



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