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[Page 279]

Jews in Bedzin {Cont.}

The Committee then proclaimed a drive amongst the Jews of Poland to raise the necessary funds to cover the financial outlay. The Jewish kehila of Bedzin was one of the first to respond to the drive and presented its contribution. It assumed that this was the end of the story. It later discovered that its assumption was totally erroneous; the debt was not redeemed. Furthermore, the Jewish community became aware of a document that was signed by the representative of the Committee of the Four Lands. The document stated “if within a period of time the outstanding debt is not redeemed, then Kowalkowski has the right to rob, seize, arrest and torture any Jew in the Kingdom of Poland until the debt is repaid three times over the outstanding amount. If the money is still not forthcoming, the royal secretary has the power to confiscate Jewish estates in Poland, close synagogues, expel Jews from their homes, and settle Christians in their places”.

When the news of the document reached the Jewish community, it publicized the content of the writ and mobilized the membership for action. The Jews surrounded the home of the delegate to the Committee of the Four Lands and accused him of betrayal. The delegate who was at home on the Slawkówer Street (presently Kollataja Street) felt threatened and called for help to the municipal guard. However they arrived to find his place demolished and the delegate seriously injured. There was fear of further disturbances and the mayor stepped in and called on the soldiers of the castle to restore order and suppress the “so-called revolution”. The story ended with the dismissal of the representative, Samuel Salomonowicz, from his post. He and his family were chased out of the city.

A similar “revolution” occurred in Bedzin sometime earlier in 1539 regarding religious books. King Zygmunt I issued to a family the privilege of selling Jewish religious books in the province of Krakow. This family had the sole right to sell prayer books, chumashim, slichot, Haggadot, etc. The Jews of Bedzin apparently considered this privilege to be directed against them for they attacked the sellers of the family when the latter reached the city, and burned their merchandise in public. The act caused a great deal of commotion in Bedzin and the garrison was called to restore order.

3. Jewish life in Bedzin from the 15th to the end of the 19th century

The first group of Jews that reached Bedzin was settled behind the city walls and defense posts that are located presently in the area of Zaulek Street and the Modrzejowska Street. Later, the Jews were moved to the present Zawale Street, and then to the Rybna and Berka Joselowicza Streets (formerly Kazanska Street), where they live to the present. In the 15th century, a wooden synagogue was erected on the Joselowicza Street and a Jewish cemetery was established behind the walls. The cemetery still partially exists and can be seen at Zawale Street. The cemetery was used until 1831. Here were buried not only Jews from Bedzin, but also from the nearby townships of Myslowice, Bytom, Tychy, Chorzów and Sielce.

The Jewish cemetery was located on city property, and therefore had to pay taxes to the church. Already in 1588, the tax known as the cemetery tax that the Jewish community had to pay for each burial was finalized.

The church was provided with a list of burials. Still, a controversy erupted between the head of the local church and the Jewish kehila regarding the cemetery tax.

The Jews of Bytom secretly buried their dead in the Bedzin Jewish cemetery in order to avoid paying taxes. The Jewish community of Bedzin could not force the Jews of Bytom to pay their taxes, and thus delayed paying the appropriate tax to the church of Bedzin. The latter, or its chief, Jan Kotolecki, took the Bedzin kehila to court for violating existing agreements. The priest presented the court with a sworn affidavit from a Jewish woman, dated May 5th 1687 to the effect that Jews who do not live in Bedzin bury their dead in the Jewish cemetery of the town.

Sos279.jpg [20 KB] - The Zaulek Street
The Zaulek Street
(the narrow alley)

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The trial dragged on for eight years and reached the office of the bishop of Krakow. The priest presented evidence to the fact that the Jews of Bytom were in cohort with the community of Bedzin; furthermore, the Jews of Myslowice had no synagogue or cemetery.

The case was so complex that in 1692 the Bishop of Krakow appointed an arbitrator to help solve the case. The arbitrator was the priest from Myslowice, Stanislaw Zigmontowicz. In 1694, the latter appointed a priest from Grojce, Mikolai Jerzyorkowicz, to examine some witnesses and even ordered some Jewish witnesses from Myslowice to swear in the synagogue that their testimony was true. The Jewish witnesses from Bytom did not appear. Following the examination of the entire case, a decision was rendered to the effect that the Bedzin Jewish community had to pay the outstanding claims as well as the burial tax. We do not know whether this decision ended the case.

The synagogue on Berka Joselowicza Street was the center of Jewish communal life in Bedzin and the vicinity.

A rabbi and four dayanim (religious judges) headed the community. It was their responsibility to safeguard the various Jewish institutions in Bedzin. In the 16th century, the community had basically seven institutions, namely: the “Hevra Kaddisha” [burial society], “Talmud Torah” [school], “Bikur Cholim” [help for the sick association], “Maoz Ledal” [association that provided meals for the needy], “Hachnasat Kala” [association to help wed poor girls], “Malbish Arumim” [help to provide clothing for the needy], and “Halva'ot Chen” [mutual fund without interest]. At the head of each organization was a trustee from the Jewish community.

The various institutions worked rather well, for they provided help to the many refugees that flocked to the city. Bedzin was a border city and many Jews found refuge here from various persecutions in their hometowns. Here they rested and recuperated a bit before continuing their journey. The large influx of refugees frequently forced the Jewish community to borrow money in order to help the persecuted brethren. Besides, the various institutions listed above, and the many heders [1], Bedzin also had a large Yeshiva. The head of this institution was the very popular Rabbi Nathan Majteles. He collected money from the Jews of Bedzin and presented 50 ducats to the mayor of Bedzin to strengthen the walls of the city against the expected attack from the forces of Maximillian the Austrian. The rabbi died at the age of 105, and was buried in the old cemetery in Zawale Street.

We have to point out that the cemetery also contains the graves of the of many representatives of the Jewish community of Bedzin, notably Szlomo Markowicz and Yehonathan Samuelewicz, who worked so diligently to protect the rights and privileges of the Jewish community in the city. It was their job to receive the royal signatures on the existing privileges, namely from the King Jan Sobieski III.

Up to 1538, the Jews of Bedzin wore clothing similar to the ones worn by all citizens throughout Poland. It was the “Pietrikower Statute” that introduced different headgear for Jews. Jews had to wear a beret, or a hat, or any headgear in a yellow color, or face a steep monetary penalty.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of Jews in 16th century Bedzin, or for that matter in Poland. The heavy tax of 3 guilders per person forced many officials and communities to diminish the number of registered people in their community. There were also religious and political reasons for posting smaller numbers than existed. The Jews of Poland tried very hard to eliminate the head tax and instead pushed for the “Ritshalt” or global tax for the entire Jewish community of Poland. The drive was successful, and in 1590 the Polish Parliament abolished the head tax and instituted a global tax in the amount of 20,000 guilders for the entire Jewish community of Poland.

Sos280.jpg [17 KB] - The Jewish Cemetery on Zawale Street
The Jewish Cemetery on Zawale Street

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In the second half of the 18th century, Jews already formed a majority of the citizens of Bedzin. They owned the butcher shops, inns, and drinking places. They leased the brewery for 1,379 guilders, the mayor's mill for 576 guilders, and the palace gardens for 56 guilders. They also started to build a new synagogue on Synagogue Street, where it is presently located. In the cellars of the synagogue was the prison.

In its early form, it consisted of wood that was dismantled in 1881. A new synagogue that consisted of bricks and stones was built in its place.

In 1921, the synagogue was restored and the entrance barrier along the western wall was removed. During 1925-1926, it was hand painted and decorated by the artists Mosze Apfelbaum, Szmul Cygler, and the metal plastic artist Chaim Hanft.

The artwork in the synagogue was of a high standard, according to the art critics that visited the synagogue. Reproductions of the artistic works in the synagogue can be found in the Batzalel Museum in Jerusalem, the Museum in Tel Aviv and at the Yivo Institute in Wilna

The influential Jews in Bedzin in the 18th century were: Herszel and Dawid Aronowicz, Jakub Lewkowicz, Majer Szapiro, Herszel Rubin, Jakub Erlich, Itzhak Gitler, Szymon Londner, Lajb Zendlowicz, Wolf and Dawid Brauner.

Sos281a.jpg [23 KB] - Inside the cemetery
Inside the cemetery
(The defense wall in the background)

Reading the book “Node Beyehuda”, which deals with halachic questions and answers, we discover that in 1775 there was a rabbi in Bedzin by the name of Rabbi Majer. From still other sources, we infer that his last name was Auerbach. In the register of the “Burial Society”, there is an entry to the effect that the society chose a super trustee named Rabbi Mosze. The same source indicates that in 1783, the society chose Rabbi Tuvia, who was followed by his son Dawid. Rabbi Mosze Hamburger, brother in law of the Rabbi Elimelech of Lizansk, occupied this position for 30 years following the death of Dawid.

In the registers of the “Tehilim Association” [psalm group], “Hevrah Chayatim” [Tailors' Society], and “Hevrah Kaddisha” [burial society], we find frequently between 1807-1835 the signature of the scholar Menachem Nachum Rozanis; he became later Rabbi of Bedzin.

In those days, the cemetery under the castle mountain was established. This information is provided in the records of the burial society of 1831. The records state that the land was bought for 300 guilders and each year there would be a tax of 20 guilders. In this cemetery there are few tombs with the Polish eagle. According to some, the Polish population insisted that the participants in the uprising of the 1831 and 1863 be immortalized with the symbol of the country.

Sos281b.jpg [15 KB] - The cemetery under the castle mountain
The cemetery under the castle mountain

  1. Heder (lit. “room”), school for teaching children Jewish religious observance. return

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