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[Page 92]

Houses of Worship

The Great Synagogue

The exact year when the first Jewish “shul” in Piotrkow-Trybunalski was built is not known. Perhaps it was before the expulsion of the Jews in 1657. There was already a “Bet Hakneset,” which the Poles destroyed when they expelled the Jews from the city proper and the surrounding areas. The first official document allowing Jews to erect a “Bet Knesset” was issued by King Jan Sobieski III on September 16, 1679 in Jaroslow; it gave the Jews the right to live in Piotrkow, to trade, to cook meat and to build a synagogue.

In 1689, the first “Bet Hakneset” in the area was built and referred to as “Podzamcze” (near the castle); it was not far from the Franciscan church. The shul was a wooden edifice taller by far than all the other buildings in the city. In 1740, the shul was set on fire by Jesuit students who were never caught. Today's shut was built during the years 1791-1793.

Thanks to Dr. Rabbi Chaim David Bernhard ztz”l, the Piotrkow Jews possessed a shul that brought praise, admiration and honor to the synagogue movement in Poland.

The restored synagogue, now a district library
The restored synagogue, now a district library

Piotrkow Jews “davened” mostly in the shul and later also in the nearby “Bet Hamidrash,” “Chevrot” and Chassidic shtiblech. But the shul was always the holiest place for all religious Jews. At times the shul was packed as on “Shabat Tshuva,” “Shabat Hagadol,” when the rabbi would give his sermon, on “Simchat Torah” for “Hakafot,” “Erev Yom-Kippur” at “Kol Nidrey,” when even non-Jews would be present, including high officials of government agencies who were in the city at the time.

In 1813, the French general, who was withdrawing with his army from Russia, visited the shul (old Jews tell that Napoleon himself did so, too). In 1821, Alex I, during his trip to the peace conference in Erfurt, also visited the shul.

The shul was open every day from before sunrise until 10 a.m. One “minyan” after another would “daven.” In the afternoon, shortly before sunset, the shul was again opened for “Mincha” and “Maariv” services. There were times, during severely cold spells, when the shul was unbearably cold, but the usual “davenners” would not be deterred and would still arrive on time.

On certain occasions and at times of distress, the shul would be opened at midday, when all the Jews were called on to say psalms for the problem to be solved or for the person to be helped. The celebration of the completion of a new “Sefer Torah” for a shtibel would end with bringing it into the shul. Sentences meted out by the government court also took place in the shul, which was then illuminated by black candles. A board covered by a black cloth, similar to a coffin, was placed not far from the “amud.” A “Sefer Torah” was removed from the “aron kodesh,” in the presence of which the proper person gave his oath. This kind of act evoked fear among those present and seldom came to pass, because the entire city became involved and every effort was made for the two sides to come to terms. The Czarist authorities at the time ordered that, during government holidays, memorials and forgiveness ceremonies be held in the shul and, therefore, the children of the government schools, led by their teachers, came to the shul. One of the board members of the shul would explain, in Russian, the meaning of the day; this was followed by the cantor and several of his choir members' singing “Hanatan Tshuah” with a special melody. They would close with the Russian hymn to the Czar. At this ceremony, representatives of the authorities came, who saluted during the singing of the hymn. Later on, the authorities sent only a policeman to represent them. This tradition continued into the time when Poland was independent. Only the contents of the prayers and the hymn were changed, so that the ode was to Poland.

When a city Rav, a judge or a great scholar or saintly person died, the body was brought into the shul, circling the “bima” several times, and a eulogy was made. The shul was very crowded then because all business stopped so everyone could attend the funeral and pay their final respects.

One must certainly describe the “Hakafot” during “Simchat Torah,” which was a great celebration. Hundreds of children, sitting on the shoulders and arms of their parents, carried their finely drawn flags, topped by a colored candle which was set into a beautiful apple. Essentially, however, the eye was drawn to the beautifully “dressed” Torah scrolls wearing silver crowns, silver shields on which were engraved various symbols and the Ten Commandments, artistic trees of life adorned with beautifully designed silver “Teytl finger” (pointers).

The people danced while carrying the “Sifrey Torot,” with the rabbi in the lead, the cantor singing, and a chorus of all present in the shul expressing their joy.

A Lag B'Omer festival in front of the Great Synagogue in 1930
A Lag B'Omer festival in front of the Great Synagogue in 1930

On “Shavu'ot,” the shul was decorated with green branches and blossoming trees, which were brought from neighboring gardens and forests.

As joyful as holidays were in the shul, so the days of mourning were sad and depressing. On “Tisha B'av,” from early morning till late afternoon the Great Temple's destruction was lamented, together with the destruction of our people and their martyrdom in all areas of the world. The melodies of the cantor and choir provoked sadness and tears. They filled the “Bet Hakneset” and summoned a need and longing for the old freedom that once was ours in our own Holy Land.

For generations, the “Bet Hakneset” played the most important role in the life of the Jewish “Kehila,” and its fate was tragically connected to the fate of the shul.

As mentioned earlier, the first shul was destroyed in 1657, when the Jews were driven from the city. The “Bet Hakneset” was rebuilt in 1689. In 1790, a pogrom totally destroyed the shul. Then the fire was set by Jesuit students. The construction of the last shul began in 1791.

In 1854 the Czarist “Katsapn,” dressed in civilian clothing, attacked the Jewish inhabitants, beat them and robbed them of whatever they could. They didn't ignore the “Bet Hakneset” either, and they destroyed valuable possessions.

In 1861, the Czarist powers decided to close the shul because a memorial was held there to honor the memory of the five murdered freedom fighters. Only because of attempts made by the Jewish “Kehila” and influential Jewish personalities in the city was the decree recalled.

In August, 1914, following the start of World War I, the Czarist police attacked the shul; destroying, breaking and demolishing everything – while looking for a secret telephone apparatus allegedly connected with the German military powers.

Only twice since the establishment of the shul until the beginning of World War II were there no Friday night services. Once was in 1861, after the memorial for the five Polish revolutionaries; the second time was on August 28, 1914, when there was the threat of a pogrom on the Jewish inhabitants by the Czarist military forces and their helpers.

In 1929, steps were taken to renovate the “Bet Hakneset”; this took several years. It was completely repainted inside and out. The eastern wall and the ceiling were only freshened, but the side and western walls were repainted. Now, a new type of artistry was used, whereby Yiddish letters in various styles and shapes were painted on the walls with modern adornments, introducing brighter colors onto this mosaic of hues. Professor Peretz Wilenberg of Czestochowa, who survived the German occupation in Lodz during World War II, was responsible for this work.

Those who experienced the great tragedy of the Holocaust and miraculously survived tell about the “Bet Hakneset,” which during the end was completely destroyed by the Germans, together with the entire Jewish “Kehila.”

The “Bet Hamidrash”

The “Bet Hamidrash” was built adjacent to the “Groyse” city shul in 1765. It was built in the same style as the shul. When the shul was extended several meters towards the street, it appeared that the Bet Hamidrash was recessed deeper from the street between the shul, on the north side, and Yoshke Yekl's houses on the south. The eastern wall was adjacent to the old cemetery, which was visible through its windows. Right in the center of the eastern wall was the “aron kodesh.” A little to the right stood the “amud,” which was used by the cantor or “Bal Tfila.” Around it and lighting it were the “yortzayt” candles. The “amud” was always full of “kvitlech” containing the names of the sick, asking for prayers for their recovery.

There were no special chairs for the honored “Baaley Batim,” but usually they occupied the place of honor.

In the center of the “Bet Hamidrash” was a “bima” where the Torah was read.

For many years the “Bet Hamidrash” was open day and night. It was filled with young men, boys and sons-in-law who “ate kest,” as well as Jews who devoted themselves to the study of the Torah and left the concern of earning a living to their wives.

The groups of “learners” varied, as did the subjects they studied. The greatest number studied “Shas.” At 3 o'clock in the morning, others, too, arrived to study the Bible and other books with Hebrew explanations. From time to time there were students of a yeshiva and their director, who recited a page of “Gemarah” and “Pilpul” for the more advanced young men and the young married men. Young men came from nearby and distant cities and towns to Piotrkow to study, because it was known for its great Rabbis and scholars. Occasionally a preacher came to warn the hearts of the simple audience and lighten the great burden of earning a living or the troubles of the diaspora. The Enlightened Ones sometimes stepped into the Bet Hamidrash, but mostly they turned to education of a secular variety. Such people were labelled nonbelievers and were avoided. They would say of them that they had died of a “bad education.”

With the advent of Zionism and the Socialist revolutionary movement in the latter part of 1800, many young men were taken with worldly ideals. The number of those who would come to “learn” in the Bet Hamidrash diminished, as a result, the parents of the “learners” also would send their children to the Chassidic shtiblech, where the supervision was less stringent.

When the revolutionary wave receded, and with the rise of Zionism and religion, the subject of Torah was rejuvenated in the Bet Hamidrash. The “learners,” too, came closer to the people and every Sabbath they “learned” with the “Baaley Batim” subjects which were suitable to their knowledge and understanding. One must make mention of the devotion of Reb Yakov Leventhal (Yenkl Skernievitser), who was a gardener and a “Talmid Chacham” and a very intelligent man. Every Sabbath he would “learn” with the common folk. (He was for Eretz Israel body and soul and his children and grandchildren lived there.)

Itzchak Schwieger, the preacher, drew masses of people every Sabbath with his fiery sermons.

In 1933, the Yeshiva Bet Yosef was newly established and on Sunday, October 6, 1934, the first graduation of students was celebrated in the Bet Hamidrash. It was a great occasion and members of the Rabbinate and leaders of the “Kehila” participated. Among the Yeshiva boys were some who had great talents. One gave an hour-long “Pilpul” and another recited some pages of the “Gemarah.” Once more, there was happiness in the Bet Hamidrash. All the Yeshiva boys sang hearty melodies. Some came from as far away as Bialystok.

Two beautiful figures appear before the eyes of this author. He would like to conclude with them. One is Reb Azal, who sat in the Bet Hamidrash all day long. His goal was to examine the “tfillin” of the men who were praying to see if, God forbid, one letter of the “Parshiot” had been erased. He also searched out every piece of paper containing Hebrew letters, which had to have a proper burial.

The other is Avigdor Treger. He worked all week as a porter, carrying packages until he was exhausted, and on Sabbath he walked around the Bet Hamidrash with a clean can of water to treat the “learners” to a cold drink during the summer heat. His face shone every time he answered “Amen” after each “shehakol.” There is a story about this porter: Once, in his youth, the Rabbi of Radom came to Piotrkow to visit the “Bal Tsuva” Dr. Chaim David Bernhard. Avigdor Treger took the bundle from the Rabbi of Radom and escorted him to the saintly doctor. At that precise time, the rain gutter near the house of the “tsadik” broke. The Rabbi could not get across the opening in the ground, so the porter lifted him onto his shoulders and carried him across. The Rabbi asked Avigdor what kind of compensation he would like, and Avigdor simply answered, “A 'zekser.'” Later, once Avigdor realized who the guest was, he regretted, all his life, that he didn't ask for forgiveness for all his sins instead and have the “Yeytser Hara” far removed from him so he wouldn't be tempted to sin.

The Bet Hamidrash was a fortress of Judaism and Piotrkower Jews were very proud of it.

During the Holocaust, for all our city suffered during the destruction, the first fury was aimed at the Bet Hamidrash.

Izkor Book

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