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From the Beginning to 1918

 

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An Outline of the History of the Jews of Szydlowiec

by E. Lifshutz

Jewish and non–Jewish historians have for a long time been in a disagreement as to when Jews first settled in Poland. The Polish historian Maciejowski maintains that “There were Jews in Poland, if not as early as the eighth century, then definitely in the ninth.” However, others, such as Dr. Bernard D. Weinryb, doubt that there were Jews in Poland before the twelfth century. Even if one accepts that most conservative estimate of the date Jews settled in Poland, it is clear that they lived there for about eight hundred years.

In the sixteenth century, Poland began to be an important Jewish community – the greatest Torah center in Europe – and was already beginning to provide Rabbis for various European and non–European Jewish communities. Young men came from afar to study in Polish Yeshivas. The prestige of the Council of Four Lands (a conference of Rabbis and community leaders) only underlined the importance of the Polish–Jewish community.

Throughout the centuries, the Jews of Poland suffered persecutions by the Church and were the victims of large–scale planned attacks and false accusations, such as the one alleging that they had stolen the Host. Many Jews were martyred because of blood–accusations, and many were the victims of such colossal catastrophes as those of 1648 and 1649. Jews also suffered with the general population from various invasions, such as the one by the Tartars in 1241 and the Swedish attack of 1655–1656.

Polish kings generally regarded the Jew as necessary to the economy of the country, and they therefore gave them opportunities for increased freedom of trade. Jewish life in

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Poland was less limited, and Jews were less persecuted than in most Western European countries, but the description by some Polish historians of Poland as a “Paradise for Jews” is, of course, a grotesque exaggeration.

But when writing the history of a Jewish community, it is nevertheless very surprising to find that even before the Holocaust so few Jewish historical documents were preserved. This is true even of old, established communities such as Szydlowiec. In West European communities such as those in Germanic lands, there are a great many more documents, community registers, and private materials. The communities of the German provinces were smaller, more isolated, and often subject to expulsions, from which the Jews of Poland hardly suffered at all. What is the explanation for this scarcity of Polish–Jewish documents – Fires alone are not the answer, for it was not only in Polish cities and shtetlech that blazes were often daily occurrences.

The Western European Jews found among their educated neighbors people who took an interest in Jewish life and customs, and who wrote works which remained after them. In Poland this was rarer, and in recent years Polish scholars have often displayed a talent for writing about towns in which Jews were an extremely visible portion of the population, without even mentioning the Jews. A Polish encyclopedia could recently write about Szydlowiec, which until the Holocaust had a population that was approximately eighty percent Jewish and not even mention that Jews had lived in this town for several hundred years.

In the nineteenth century, German–Jewish men of learning, mostly Rabbis, began to preserve Jewish historical documents; some of them wrote histories of their communities. Polish Rabbis, however, did not concern themselves with Jewish historical documents. In addition, the Holocaust destroyed the last documentary traces of many larger and

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certainly of smaller Jewish communities, among which Szydlowiec is no exception.

Szydlowiec is approximately thirty kilometers southwest of Radom. The village of Szydlowiec already existed as early as the thirteenth century. In the early fifteenth century, the village, along with large tracts of land surrounding it, was given to the two brothers Jakob and Slawko Odrowaz. The second of these, Slawko or Stanislaw, along with the title to the region, also took the name of the village Szydlowiec. In 1427 the former village acquired the rights of a town. In 1432, Slawko Szydlowiecki completed building the Church of Saint Zigmund, and when he died in 1493 at the age of 88, he as buried in this church. In 1470, Kazimierz Jagielonczyk permitted Szydlowiecki to expand the town, and this prompted trade there. Stanislaw Szydlowiecki was the “marshalek” in the court of Kazimierz Jagielonczyk and was a member of the royal circle.

After Stanislaw's death, the title to the town and the entire area was taken over by his son Krzysztof Szydlowiecki (1467–1532), who was the Cracow “Kashtelan” and Royal Chancellor. He was brought up in the court of Kazimierz Jagielonczyk. Krzysztof Szydlowiecki made the town a commercial center for the surrounding area when in 1505 he persuaded Zigmund the First to conduct two fairs annually. Krzysztof Szydlowiecki did not leave any male heirs; his three sons had died while he was still alive. Immediately after his death, his wife gave birth to a daughter. The daughter, Elzbieta, was married at the age of fourteen(1548__) to Mikolai Radziwil, who, along with the much younger Elzbieta, his second wife, also acquired the title of Szydlowiec.

After his brother Krzystof's death, Mikolai Szydlowiecki became the landholder of the town until Radziwil took over the rule. In 1550 he repealed the special fees that were paid during the fairs and eased other restrictions in order to attract the

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town's residents to trade. This helped broaden the scope of the fairs and improve the economy of the shtetl.

In 1589 Zigmund III permitted the town to conduct five fairs annually, and this strengthened trade even further. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Szydlowiec already had a significant number of shoemakers, tanneries, distilleries, as well as quarries which produced millstones, whetstones and other stone products. The fairs also increased the number of smithies in the shtetl. In 1510–1526, Mikolai Szydlowiecki, Krzysztof's brother, built the Castle, which added to the city's impressiveness. The Castle was later improved by the Radziwils.

* * *

Jews probably settled in Szydlowiec in the middle of the sixteenth century. Although we have no precise information about this, the increased number of fairs and also the fact that a Radziwil was landholder are strong indications of the presence of Jews. The Radziwils were traditionally strong supporters of the development of commerce, and were inclined to allow Jews to settle on their lands and in towns because they believed that Jews brought great benefits wherever they settled and helped economically strengthen the towns where they were permitted to live. It is very likely that Jews had already begun to settle in Szydlowiec even before the time of the Radziwils, perhaps after the town acquired the right to conduct fairs. However, we have no proof of this.

The earliest information that we have about Szydlowiec as an organized community dates from much later – from the last decade of the seventeenth century. This information concerns a Rabbi of a great renown in the Jewish world – Rabbi MaHaRam Ash. (Ash is the abbreviation of Eisenstadt, the town where Rabbi Meir served as Rabbi for 27 years, from 1717 until his death in 1722.) He is

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the author of several works, the most famous of which is the two volume Ponim Me'iros.

The young genius became Rabbi of Szydlowiec, probably in 1693–1700. Later, the MaHaRam Ash was Rabbi in Prosnitz, Moravia and in Eisenstadt, Hungary, where he died in his early seventies.

Rabbi Meir left Szydlowiec not because he was looking for a larger community, but because the small Jewish community in Szydlowiec could not yet afford to maintain a Yeshiva. It is evident that the young Rabbi's association with the community was a close and a warm one, because about a quarter of a century later, after he had already served as Rabbi in important communities and his fame had grown in the rabbinical world, he returned to Poland to become Rabbi of Szydlowiec for the second time. This time the Jewish community of Szydlowiec could afford to comply with its Rabbi's request and opened a Yeshiva under his supervision.

There are indications that at approximately this time, Szydlowiec was already a community which the Council of Four Lands could find worthy of consideration. It is stated in a 1719 (––) statute of the Council of the Four Lands that the village of Przysucho is part of the environs of Szydlowiec. This indicates that Szydlowiec was even then a kind of center for the surrounding smaller villages.

A non–Jewish source dating from the end of the third quarter of the 18th century provides some information about the general situation of the Jews of Szydlowiec. Johann Philip DeCarosi, a natural scientist, geologist and mineralogist, came to Poland at the invitation of King Stanis.aw August Poniatowski, to study salt mining and mining in general. In the years 1778–1780, DeCarosi travelled throughout Poland in the course of his researches. During that time, he wrote lengthy letters to his friend, the famous Polish statesman and economist, count August Masinski, and in these letters he

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wrote the following about Szydlowiec:

“The Jewish quarter is entirely built of wood; however, it takes up a great deal more space than does the Christian section. The houses, which are more crowded together here, are mostly in good condition. However, the streets are without organization, and, aside, from the sturdy stone bathhouse, they are dirty and foul–smelling.

At the same time, we can see here how right Moses was when he gave his brethren the Commandment of cleanliness, and how little this advice availed. Judging by the area which the Jewish section occupies, and by the Jewish habit of living crowded together, the number of Jews here must be ten times the number of Christians. In compliance with their principles, they are not engaged in noble and clean occupations, and the commerce of the area lies entirely in their hands. They deal not only in commodities that come to us from abroad, but also in items that are produced in our area, such a pig iron, cast iron, wood for furniture and construction, and millstones and whetstones that are produced in the village of Pogorzaly, which belongs to the local nobleman. In addition to this, they deal in mortar, grain, liquor, hides, and so forth.”

Why DeCarosi felt that dealing in millstones, whetstones, iron, furniture, grain, mortar, hides and even liquor was not “Noble and clean,” remains his secret.

In 1765 ––– about the time that DeCarosi visited Szydlowiec ––– there were, according to a Polish census, 902 Jews in the shtetl and the surrounding area. We know that the Polish censuses were inaccurate. They were usually taken for fiscal purposes, such as head taxes, and so forth. Jews would find out beforehand when a government agent was supposed to visit, and many people, especially poor people who could not pay the taxes, would hide when the agent came. This meant that the number stated in the census of the year 1765 was much smaller than the actual number of Jews in Szydlowiec at that time.

The town suffered badly during the Swedish invasion. In 1666 there was a total of 478 inhabitants in Szydlowiec. In the eighteenth century, Szydlowiec began to recuperate. By the

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time DeCarosi visited the town – about 1765 – there were already 203 houses in Szydlowiec. We know that in 1828 there were 3160 residents living in 263 houses, which means that there were 12 residents to a house. Therefore in DeCarosi's time, the general number of inhabitants was 2400 in 203 houses. Since in 1828 the number of Jews was already 2049 out of a general total of 3160, we can also assume that the proportion some sixty years earlier was not very different and that in 1765 the number of Jews was at least fifty percent higher than the Polish census indicated.

In the nineteenth century, the Jewish population of Poland increased greatly. In 1816 there were 212,944 Jews in Poland, out a general population of 2,732,234. At that time Jews comprised 7.8 percent of the population. In 1909 there were already 1,747,655 Jews in Poland, out of a general population of 11,935,318, with Jews comprising 14.6 percent of the population. In the years 1831–1855, the Jewish natural increase was proportionately higher than among non–Jewish.

In Szydlowiec, this rapid growth was evident. This can be seen in the following figures:

Year General
Population
of Szydlowiec
Jews Percentage
of Jews in
Population
1827 3,160 2,049 64.8
1840 3,602 2,321 64.4
1865 3,798 2,780 73.2
1893 6,423 4,599 71.6
1909 7,958 5,971 75.0
1910 8,597 6,433 74.8

In 1909, there were only ten towns in all of Poland whose populations wee three–quarters Jewish, and one of these was Szydlowiec.

In 1788, Duke Radziwil, the landholder of Szydlowiec,

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granted Jews an area of land so that they could build a synagogue, fence off a cemetery, build homes, and so expand the Jewish quarter. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Szydlowiec passed from the hands of the Radziwils to the Sapiehas. The Sapiehas, however, did not hold title to the town for long; the town was freed from the rule by nobles, and fell under direct Czarish power. In the years 1825–1862, Jews were not permitted to live outside the limits of the Jewish quarter. In 1862, the Polish administrator of the land, Count Alexander Wielopolski, abolished all legal restrictions for the Jews of Poland and, consequently, for the Jews of Szydlowiec as well.

In 1828, of the 263 houses in Szydlowiec, 45 were already of brick. Weekly market days were conducted, and twelve fairs were held each year, strengthening commerce in the town. Even fifty years later, the brick houses belonged to wealthy non–Jewish townsmen and to a few wealthy Jews. In July 1876, a fire broke out in the town, and as the Radom correspondent Israel Frankel writes in HaZefira, the blaze consumed all Jewish homes, “and only the synagogue and the Beis Midrosh [prayer and study house] were left standing as if by a miracle.” The “miracle” was due to the fact that both the synagogue and the Beis Midrosh were brick buildings.

At the end of the eighties, some ten years after the blaze, there were 330 houses in Szydlowiec, and 171 of these were already of brick.

In the revolution f 1905, Jews took part in the underground activities. Every older resident of Szydlowiec knew someone who in those stormy days was a member of the Jewish revolutionary parties.

The recently opened Okrana (Russian Secret Police) Archive in Poland informs us that “in Szydlowiec, Konsk District, the Post Office and City Council were invaded and the

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building superintendents were disarmed” by revolutionaries. This was such a daring act that the Radom governor, E.P. Shtshirovski, informed the Warsaw Governor General, G.A. Skalon, of it on January 3, 1905.

On the night of December 15, 1905, a group of revolutionaries invaded the office of the manager of the forest near Szydlowiec, tore up the portraits of the Emperor and took away the weapons they found here. “The following day,” the report states, “probably the same group attacked the forest guards and took their weapons, insignia and all official documents.” The attacks on Czarist officials and Czarist offices in and around a town whose population was three–quarters Jewish could not have been carried out without Jews.

In a work about Polish towns which was published several years ago, it is clearly stated that in the years 1905–1906 in Szydlowiec, “the revolutionary movement was especially strongly developed among the Jewish poor.”

The First World War freed Szydlowiec from Czarist control. The mild Austrian military regime hardly made itself noticeable. The town, like all of Poland, suffered from hunger, but spiritually Szydlowiec was liberated. Various political and professional associations were established, and young people were caught up in national and social currents.

In the Minorities Treaty of 1919 Poland “undertakes to assure full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants without distinction of birth, nationality, race or religion.” In almost the same words, this promise was repeated in the Constitution of 1921. However, Jews soon realized that the promise had absolutely no substance. Not only were they not considered equal citizens and not permitted to hold government positions, but the government often supported those who waged an economic battle against Jewish businessmen and workers. The harassment and the constant excess constituted an open war to drive Jews from the land

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where they had lived for nearly a thousand years.

Poland was a state composed of various nationalities. The minorities – Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Belorussians and Russians – amounted to over thirty percent of the population. The Polish government was conducted by its leaders as if it were a homogeneous country of Poles only. All minorities were oppressed and persecuted; against Jews, who comprised over ten percent of the population, there was exerted a policy of economic extermination.

This policy, of course, also affected the Jews of Szydlowiec, but not with the force that it affected Jews in the larger cities. In Szydlowiec, over three–quarter of the population was Jewish. Here there could be talk of boycotts, with rowdy pickets and constant fights. The non–Jewish element was too small here for such large–scale anti–Semitic activities. However, the Jewish industrialist in Szydlowiec had to sell his goods on the general market, and there he met the strong opposition that Poland brought to bear against everything that had to do with Jews.

The first census in the new Poland of 1921 showed that Szydlowiec had a general population of 7,200 and a Jewish population of 5,501 (77.1 percent). In the 1920's and 1930's the town was “proletarian sized.” A new industry was added, which lay entirely in Jewish hands. This was the mechanized shoe industry, which employed hundreds of Szydlowiec Jews. The stitchers, the cobblers and the master craftsmen were all Jews. The shoes manufactured in Szydlowiec were sold in the farthest reaches of Poland. In addition to this, Szydlowiec possessed older industries, such as its fourteen tanneries, some of which were so well equipped and so highly mechanized that they were comparable to the most modern tanneries in Poland. Some tanneries imported not only the newest machines from Germany, but even German master craftsmen and specialists. The owners of all the tanneries were Jewish.

The quarries – all ten – also belonged to Jews. The stone

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industry was not new to Szydlowiec. As can be seen in DeCarosi's description, in the eighteenth century Szydlowiec Jews had already dealt in millstones and whetstones which came from the town's cliffs. The cliffs in Szydlowiec also caused the development of a local industry – tombstone carving. However, the Szydlowiec tombstones were of a distinctive nature.

In 1958, the two Christian art historians, Jacek Antroni Zelinski and Lucina Krakowska, discovered in the Szydlowiec cemetery a large number of tombstones which had survived the Nazi ravages. They were astounded to find that beside the traditional motifs some of the tombstones contained exception idyllic scenes.

Before the Holocaust, Szydlowiec also had metal workshops and a factory of agricultural tools, which belonged to Jews. In addition, it should be noted that there were a larger number of home industries: tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses.

The active economy of Jewish Szydlowiec would have been impossible without the fraternal help which this shtetl, like almost all Polish–Jewish shtetlech and larger communities, received from the American “Joint”. The “Joint” established funds for free–loan societies, supported Jewish institutions and helped support poor Jews, who often constituted a large portion of the Jewish community, The support provided by children and relatives in America was also of great help.

How large was the population of Szydlowiec before the Nazi invasion – A. Rutkowski, who researched the destruction of the Jews of Szydlowiec, states that “in 1939 there are 7,200 Jews living in Szydlowiec – nearly 90 percent of all the inhabitants,” and the anonymous author of the introduction to the exhibit, Matsevot Beyt ha–Kevurot HaYehudi BeShidlovtse, believes that in 1938, Szydlowiec already had a population of 10,300, 78 percent of whom were Jews.

In the years 1940–1941, Jews from nearly as well as from more remote localities poured into Szydlowiec, until the number reached approximately twelve thousand. This occurred because at that6 time the Szydlowiec ghetto was somewhat more peaceful than other ghettos in the area. In the first two years, the Nazi butchers in Szydlowiec accepted bribes while creating an illusion of security. In this way they caused more Jews to fall into their snares.

In mid–1942 – before the September 1942 deportation to Treblinka and before the great slaughter – over fifteen thousand Jews were herded together and driven into Szydlowiec. Szydlowiec was the last stage before their annihilation. Their deaths marked the extinction of a venerable Jewish community which had been in existence for no less than 400 years.


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Rabbis and Rebbeim of Szydlowiec

By Berl Kagan

(What follows is not a chronological history of the rabbis and rebbeim in and of Szydlowiec. These are mainly sketches of their characteristics and certain episodes associated with Szydlowiec's rabbinical personalities.)

 

R'Meir ben Yitzhok Eisenstadt (1670–1744)

One of the greatest scholars of his time, he was rabbi in Szydlowiec about 250 years ago. He is better known by the title of his principal book, Panim Me'irot, published in Amsterdam. He was a grandson of Shabbatai Ben Meir HaKohen's sister and son–in–law of Rabbi Moses Sochachewer, Parnes of the province of Posen.

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Rabbi Meir was at first a dayan in Sochachew for several years, then became rabbi in Szydlowiec for a short time. From there he went to Worms, then became head of the Bet Din in Prossnitz, Moravia (Czechoslovakia), where he was rabbi for ten years. Here a strange thing happened. For reasons not clear to us, Rabbi Eisenstadt left Prossnitz and went to Szydlowiec for the second time, where he occupied the rabbinical post for five years. In 1717 or 1718 he became head of the Bet Din in Eisenstadt, where he was rabbi for thirty years, until his death in 1744.

 

R'Elazar Eisenstadt

After Rabbi Meir, his son Elazar became rabbi in Szydlowiec. This was about the middle of the 18th. century. No other facts about his life are known to us.

 

R'Leybush Szydlowiecer

Szydlowiec was a Hassidic town, with many shtiblech, and followers of various Hassidic rebbeim in Poland. Szydlowiec Hassidim itself, in and around the shtetl, was connected with the Rabinowicz dynasty, whose root is the Yehudi HaKodesh of Pshyshke. But first we must mention one Hassidic rebbe in Szydlowiec who did not belong to the Rabinowicz dynasty.

He was called Rebbe Leyb or Rebbe Leybush Szydlowiecer and was the leader of the Hassidim there from 1814. Whether he was a rebbe somewhere else before that time we do not know. In general, not much is known about him except that he was a student of the Seer of Lublin and of Yehudi HaKodesh, and was an excellent scholar himself. That he was more than an ordinary Hassidic rebbe ad that his name was known far beyond the borders of Szydlowiec is evident from the following:

The great Menahem Mendel of Kotsk was a student of the Yehudi HaKodesh. After the latter's death, Menahem Mendel

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went looking for a new rebbe for himself, and while doing so he came to Rebbe Leybush in Szydlowiec to study. The Kotsker Rebbe later began his account of that experience this way: “I sat on a bench in Szydlowiec and I ‘learned. ’” Every day someone would come and bring me a bagel and water – that was my whole meal.

 

R'Yeshaya Mushkat

One of the great rabbis of his generation. He was one of the best students of the Kozenitzer Magid and considered to be a holy man who prayed for the Jewish people and never refused anyone. One of his early rabbinical posts was in Szydlowiec, but apparently it was not of long duration. He died in 1868.

 

R'Nathan David Szydlowiecr the First

The chain of the Szydlowiec Hassidic dynasty begins with Rebbe Nathan David, whose family name was Rabinowicz. He was born in Pshyskhe in 1814. In 1838 he became leader of the Hassidim in Szydlowiec and held that post until his death in 1865.

Rebbe Nathan David was well known in the Polish Hassidic world, though he added nothing new to Hassidic thought. Thousands of Hassidim would come to visit him, including the Hassidic leaders of his generation. There is hardly a book in the literature of Hassidic tales in which his name is not mentioned.

Someone once asked Rebbe Nathan David: “In the Shemona Esra it says – ‘And the slanderers shall have no hope.’ How come? Isn't there a verse in Psalms that says, ‘May the sins disappear from the earth, and then there would no longer be any sinners.’” To this Rebbe Nathan David replied: “You can pray that all other kinds of sinners should repent, but not slanderers, because right before they repent they might slander Jews again.”

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Rebbe Nathan David once met Rebbe Yehezkel of Kuzmir, who greeted him with words of Torah. Nathan David responded: The Scriptures say, “Moses listened and it sounded good to him.” From this we learn that it is better to listen to others than to have others listen to you.”

There is a good deal in the Hassidic literature about Rebbe Nathan David's father, Rebbe Yerakhmiel, who owned his own carriage and three horses. When his wife asked him what he needed it for, he replied: “Better the animals should be in the stable than in the house. . .”

 

R'Joseph Gelbloom

Rebbe Nathan David died in 1866. And although his son Rebbe Tzemekh apparently took over his father's post in Szydlowiec, we know for certain that twelve years later Rebbe Joseph Ben Avigdor Gelbloom officially became religious head of the community. Rebbe Joseph was born in 1840 and must have been Hassidic leader in Szydlowiec for many years, because in 1912 he was still rebbe there.

 

Rebbe Shraga Yair Rabinowicz

Son of Rebbe Nathan David the First. Born in 1839 in Szydlowiec. One of the most popular and esteemed Polish Hassidic leaders around the turn of the century. He is primarily known as the Rebbe of Bialobzeg, where he was religious leader. After the big fire there he moved to Radom, where he was Rebbe from 1907 until his death in 1912. He was buried in Szydlowiec. Thousands of Hassidim carried his coffin all the way from Radom to his burial place.

 

The Last Rabbis and Rebbeim of Szydlowiec

Rebbe Shrage Yair had an only son, Nathan David. After the death of his father in 1912, Nathan David became head of the Bet Din in Szydlowiec, as well as Rebbe for his father's

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Hassidim. In order not to confuse him with his grandfather, we refer to him as Rebbe Nathan David the Second. In his middle age he became blind, but was still able to study Talmud by heart. Like his father, he was an ardent lover of Jewish music. He himself composed melodies and made an effort to bring more and more new melodies into his synagogue. Rebbe Nathan David the Second died in Szydlowiec in 1919.

After his death, the post of rabbi in Szydlowiec was taken over by his son, Chaim Yisroel Sholom Yekutiel Rabinowicz, who was only twenty years old R' Chaim Yisroel spent a good deal of his time on communal affairs. After World War I, funds from American Jews were set to him for the needy Jews of Szydlowiec. He was the last rabbi in Szydlowiec. On the 12th of Tishri, 1943 he and his family were murdered by the Nazis.


Szydlowiec in Peaceful Times

By Motl Eisenberg

Szydlowiec was a typical Jewish shtetl, like hundreds of others in Poland. The Jews there felt they had roots in the town going back many many generations. At the outskirts of Szydlowiec lived the Poles – about 20% of the population – who earned their livelihood from the Jews.

Szydlowiec had three large marketplaces, which the people called Upper Market, Lower Market and Upper Highway. The Upper Market was the “fashionable” part of town, containing the City Hall and an ancient historical building with a high tower. Living in the Lower Market were mainly the Jewish poor, the handicraftsmen and the small shopkeepers. In the very center of this market was a large circular building, also historical, which the Jews called “Di Bodns”. This contained only stores.

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The Lower Market was the main center of the town. On Fridays a fishmarket, which supplied Jews with fish for Shabbos, was located here. Here also were the guest–houses where strangers and poor visitors found food and shelter. Here friends met, here people made business deals, talked politics. The place was always busy and noisy. On one side of the Lower Market was a small street that led to the “Big Bes–Medresh” and the “Little Bes–Medresh,” and to the large, beautiful synagogue behind which were the old and new cemeteries.

The Upper Highway was settled mostly by Jewish wagon–drivers, blacksmiths, carpenters, petty traders and some Polish families. Close to the road was Lazer Redlich's button factory, which employed a large number of Jewish girls most of whom also took work home – sewing button on cards. The Upper Highway was the “port” from which, every morning, wagons buses and buggies carried freight and passengers to Radom and Warsaw.

Gravestones in Szydlowiec testified to a Jewish presence there going back at least 400 years. Life in the town flowed smoothly, with no upheavals, and it never occurred to anyone that this would ever change.

Religious life was dominant, forcing its ironclad rules and customs on everyone, regulating the personal and social life of every Jew in the town. Woe to him or her who deviated from the established order. The synagogue, the bes–medresh, the shtibl – these were a second home to every Jew. Some men came in the morning, davened at top speed, and ran off to their occupations. Others, who came very early, would sit down at the open gemoras and “learn” with great zeal until late in the day.

Shabbos and holidays all the houses of worship were packed. Young and old, in their best clothes, would hurry to services. Everything stopped – all the stores were closed, all the workshops idle, the marketplaces empty. A reverent

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holiday atmosphere rested over all the Jewish houses.

The living–standard of the Jews in Szydlowiec was very low. Most people were poor. From early morning to late at night they worked hard to support their families. Very important to Jewish livelihoods were the weekly fairs that took place very Wednesday. All three markets filled up with wagons loaded with products brought by the peasants from surrounding villages.

Jewish blacksmiths, their toolboxes hanging from their shoulders, circulated among the horses, and the peasants would hire them put new shoes on their animals. The peasants – men and women – besieged the food stores, buying or trading, kerosene, salt, sugar, herring, dry goods. Tailoring and hatmaker shops were crowded with peasants measuring sizes or choosing colors.

The six thousand Jews in Szydlowiec were about 80% of the total population. Mostly they were self–employed handicraftsmen and shopkeepers, with a small class of manufacturers and entrepreneurs and a small number of proletarians employed mostly in the Jewish shoe–and–leather factories. There were twelve mechanized leather factories in the town, a good number of smaller shoe factories, several stone–quarries, a larger mechanized mill, two Jewish cooperative banks, two button factories, a brewery, an iron foundry, and a sawmill. Considering the size of the population, Szydlowiec's economic life was very dynamic.

The leather industry in our town was the nerve–center of the economy, providing a livelihood for about 200 workers, as well as dealers who traveled throughout Poland and brought back freight cars of the rawhide; dealers in coal, kindling, chemicals, lime, shipping clerks at the railroad station; porters who unloaded the wagons, drivers for transporting the goods; brokers who dealt without–of–town buyers for the leather; brokers who loaned money at interest.

Szydlowiec was well known in the Hassidic world. It was the home of the famous Rebbe Nathan David, who started a dynasty of great rebbeim. On every holiday, Hassidim came to Szydlowiec to see him and later his successor.

Our town was distinguished for its “sheyne yidn” – scholars, communal leaders, philanthropists, shrewd Hassidim, neatly dressed and with well–kept beards. All of them enjoyed the great respect of the Jewish population. The religious leaders were carefully chosen men, renowned scholars. The rabbi and the dayanim arbitrated all religious and communal disagreements among Jews. Whenever two parties could not settle their differences between them, they arranged a din–torah; the decision of the beth–din was binding.

That was Jewish life in Szydlowiec. It was slow, calm, without upheavals. Generations came and went. Neither wars nor historic events changed the old way of life. Everyone conducted his modest life at his workbench or counter, lived out his years in the circle of his family and friends. Everyone knew everyone else. People wished each other a good morning. Whenever things were going bad for someone, of if someone was ill, the news spread quickly and then hundreds of Jews, men and women, were concerned, interested, and wherever necessary they helped in a material way. Everyone's private life was an open book, a family affair.

It was around 1910–1911 that I joined the circle of young readers of Yiddish books. And since I lived in my own small “apartment” in a quiet corner of our factory building, with a separate entrance, I became the keeper of our new books. Members of the circle used to come and borrow books, and in this way I made many friends. In time the circle expanded. Young fellows and girls from well–to–do homes used to sneak very cautiously into my apartment to borrow books.

At one of our meetings we voted to set up a secret library in my apartment. Each member pledged to donate his own

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books. The books were sorted, catalogued and numbered. It was the first library ever created in Szydlowiec.

One day we received a new book that had just been published in Vilna. It was called Yiddisher Biblioteker and contained a call to establish libraries in every town. It also had a form for a petition in Russian, addressed to the Governor of the respective region; it was to be signed by two house–holders in whose name the permit would be issued. We found two such people – Yehiel Dimont, who hated the Hassidim, and Aaron Fisher, the town feldsher, and the only Jew in Szydlowiec who wore a short jacket and a short beard. Fisher considered himself a modern progressive man.

Sometime later – much to our surprise – the permit for the library arrived. In those days, under Tsarist rule, this was a great victory. We made every effort to find a place and finally succeeded in getting two large rooms in the home of a Pole. Some of our members who were carpenters built a bookcase, tables and chairs. The news about the opening of this place where young people could gather to read books spread like wildfire. It created both a sensation and a storm of protest. Meetings were called. The decision of the bet–din was that on Friday evening after services this matter would be discussed publicly in the synagogue and the bes–medresh and that the Jews of Szydlowiec would be warned against this threat to Yiddishkeit, and that everyone would be instructed to keep their sons and daughters out of this forbidden place. Furthermore, the leaders of this movement would be placed in herem – excommunicated.

Many of our circle were intimidated by this storm and withdrew, leaving only a few determined, fearless individuals who held fast to their position. A delegation of three – Beynish Tenenbaum, Yerakhmiel Greenberg and myself – reported to Rabbi Eleazar, head of the beth–din, that we were not going to take this provocation lying down, that we would protest that

[Page 41]

herem, that we had founded our library with the Governor's permission and that no one had the right to obstruct us. Rabbi Eleazar did not take our warning lightly.

But our work suffered. The young people had been frightened away from us. Then, in the summer of 1914, when the war broke out, Russian soldiers were billeted in Szydlowiec and all available space was requisitioned for the military, including our library. Our activity was thus effectively halted for a long time.

The outbreak of the war brought troubled times for the Jewish population. Russian armies marching through the countryside terrorized the civilian population, especially the Jews. Jewish livelihoods were disrupted. The whole economy was paralyzed. A typical war–time business developed.

After several turns of military fortune our town was occupied by the Austrian army. The Jews breathed more easily, happy to rid of the Russian satraps under whose rule they were not certain of their lives. Friendly relationships developed with the Austrian occupation authorities. A new era of political and cultural freedom opened for the Jews. The young people started meeting again, openly. Interest in cultural matters rose. The reading circle grew. At its first general meeting we decided to set ourselves up as independent organization named KULTURA, for the dissemination of education and culture. An executive committee was elected consisting of Reuben and Israel Zucker, Berish and Joseph Tenenbaum, and myself.

A feverish cultural activity began. We recruited young people from well–to–do homes, from poor homes, from religiously observant homes. The drive for knowledge and education was irresistible. Our library was always busy. Hundreds of readers borrowed books. The reading room – it contained Yiddish newspapers and magazines – was full every evening. We arranged lectures on political, literary and social

[Page 42]

topics, by our own and outside speakers. At these discussions everyone was free to express his or her own opinion.

In order to raise funds for our ever–increasing activities we organized dramatic groups that presented works by famous Yiddish playwrights. This activity too brought us both funds and new members.

Years passed. The big world outside was a stir with great events. Problems ripened whose solution would bring about great changes in the world. Mighty empires were threatened with collapse. Small peoples demanded independence. Old regimes fell. Revolution in Russia. The Balfour Declaration aroused great hopes among Jews, a new interest in world political events.

At a general meeting of KULTURA we adopted a proposal to change our society in to a general Zionist organization. Our circle lost its previous independent character and became a political institution. A number of prominent members left our ranks because of their opposition to Zionism.

All our youthful ardor was now turned to Zionist activity. And there was plenty of work to do; maintaining the normal activity of our library, readings and discussions every Saturday, organizing young people to be halutzim, meetings to raise funds for Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod. The political work for the Zionist organization in Poland demanded great effort from us: participation in the kehillos that were then being organized on a democratic basis, getting into the city council, leading the election campaign to the Polish parliament (Sejm).

At that time a Mizrachi group was also organized under the leadership of Yerakhmiel Haim Blizinszki. It attracted many of the older generation – middle class people, artisans, small merchants and just plain people who sympathized with the Zionist vision and were hostile to the authoritative Hassidic

[Page 43]

leaders who had dominated Jewish life up to that point.

There was also an active group of young people around Betar, who were followers of Jabotinsky's political ideas.

A strong Bundist movement attracted workers and handicraftsmen. It opened a library, organized trade unions, led strikes, arranged lectures and in general conducted an active program that had its effect in the town.

The Orthodox circles, organized in Agudas Israel, were also a strong force in Szydlowiec. The communal leaders – Hassidim, scholars, people who had always influenced religious matters and enjoyed the respect of the masses of Jews – belonged to Aguda.

All these activities, political and cultural, gradually changed the appearance of the town and gave it a new coloration. In Shlomo Eisenberg's house a “kino” was opened which showed better films and occasional stage plays.

In the elections to Szydlowiec's city council, out of 14 Jewish councilmen, three Zionists were elected: Yerakhmiel Greenberg, Pinkert and myself. Out of 24 councilmen, the Jews had a majority. At their first meeting, the newly elected councilmen chose an executive consisting of the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and two aldermen. The Jews voted for a list which nominated Pinkert for Deputy Mayor and one Jewish alderman, so that out of four members of the city administration, two were Jews. The Polish councilmen were incensed by this and protested vehemently to the Jewish councilmen: it was simply unthinkable that a Jew should be elected Deputy Mayor in a Polish city. All the Polish councilmen formed a united front around this issue, including the National Democrats, the Socialists and two Communists.

The anti–Semitic mood in Poland was growing more acute, enveloping broader and broader circles of the people. The political parties competed against each other in propagating Jew–hatred. A mass psychosis developed. The government

[Page 44]

began following a policy which ruined the economic life of Polish Jewry. The impoverishment of the Jews deepened. Competition was fierce; merchants sold their wares at a loss. Bankruptcies mounted. Jewish workers and handicraftsmen worked for starvation wages. A movement started to open a cooperative bank to help the Jewish small businessmen with loans and credits. The Bank Ludowi (Peoples Bank) proved so useful and popular that another cooperative bank was established, Bank Kupietski (Commercial Bank). Both of these Jewish banks were always busy. The need for credit was urgent. A large selection of the population was living from trade and manufacturing.

With Hitler's rise to power in Germany, economic woes took second place. Now the primary concern was for sheer survival. In mid–1939 this concern reached a high point – the air smelled more and more of gunpowder. Very soon – in mid–August 1939 – the gunpowder exploded: Hitler attacked Poland.

The panic among the Jews was awful. But not one of us even imagined at that time how cruel a fate the Nazi murderers were preparing for the Jews.


Of Times Gone By

By Moshe Yehiel Schwartzfuter

A long, long time ago Szydlowiec was considered the metropolis of the entire region. The Jews of the small towns and villages in the area depended on Szydlowiec when the time came for a wedding, a bris or a burial. People said there were gravestones in the old cemetery in Szydlowiec that were 500 years old.

[Page 45]

Szydlowiec grew in importance because of the Warsaw–Cracow railroad that was constructed not far from the town. Older people in Szydlowiec used to talk about the time when the only illumination in the town was by candlelight or oil. I remember the first electric lights (1907 or 1908) that were hung in three places: the city hall, the baths, and on the Radom highway. When they were turned on every evening, all the children came running to behold the miracle.

The Jews in Szydlowiec (they were the majority of the population) didn't allow the peasants to bully them. If it ever happened that a peasant bothered a Jewish peddler in a village, the Jews always evened accounts with him when he came to town.

I remember one incident when a rumor spread that a mob was gathering “to make a pogrom” in Szydlowic during a fairm. They were supposed to come from the direction of Skarzisk. The Jews – with the help of some friendly non–Jewish neighbors – went to the outskirts of town that day and taught their uninvited “guests” a lesson. Then they came back to the marketplace in town and did the same for some peasants who had been waiting for their “friends” from Skarzisk. The Jews further warned the peasants by burning their grain, by poisoning their horses, and so on. The peasants were afraid of the Jews. Jozek Patkowinskio, a wealthy Pole, who owned a tavern across the city hall, called Yehiel Zucker and me in and swore that he had nothing to do with those who had planned the pogrom.

Shabbes and holidays the cares of the world were forgotten. The favorite holiday was Purim; certainly it was the most important one for the poorer Jews in Szydlowiec. The entire shalachmones custom was so arranged that the poor people would benefit most out of it. It was the custom on Purim to leave the doors of the houses open all evening, so that all those who were making the rounds to collect shalachmones

[Page 46]

could get to as many places as possible. Aside from the poor, there were also masked collectors from various groups who turned their “receipts” over to the needy. I recall one such group called Krakowska Vesele. They dressed up in peasant clothing and carried a tree decorated with little bells. They would sing and dance and put on little Purim plays. Yankel the water–carrier would make the rounds with his whole family. He carried a straw figure wearing a red dress. Some of them beat on drums, others carried a lulav and esrog and shouted, “Bless the esrog and give money!”

In addition to the hadorim there was a general school that we called “Shkole,” to which Jewish parents sent their girls Not all the girls were admitted; only those whose parents owned their own homes or a business and paid taxes. There were well–to–do Jews, however, who “signed for” poor girls so they could attend the general school. There were also private tutors who went to the homes of children and “gave lessons.” In the larger hadorim the teachers, in addition to the Hebrew studies, also taught arithmetic and Russian for an hour a day. One of these teachers was Moshe Lehrer, whose son Avreml Homentowski now lives in Brazil. Other private tutors were: Velvl Lehrer, Yehiel Zucker and David Ostrowiecki. There were also a few women tutors.

After Tisha B'Av, during which the entire shtetl mourned the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the atmosphere grew more solemn. The happy summer was ending, presaging the arrival of the difficult winter. People had to start preparing boots and wam clothing for themselves and their children; they had to put in supplies of kindling woods, potatoes, beets, cabbage and other things.

The real “days of awe,” however, came with the month of Elul. Even the women started going to shul in the morning. Before the High Holy Days, Jews from the smaller towns

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around Szydlowiec came into town, so they would have a place to worship. In the larger communities they would engage a cantor to lead the services.

Yom Kippur eve in Szydlowiec is beyond my powers of description. Everyone went to the cemetery to visit the graves of parents and family. People wept and screamed and begged the dead to help them pray for a good year. On both sides of the entrance to the cemetery stood beggars pleading for alms, as well as various charitable societies collecting for the needy.

Returning from the cemetery, people used to eat special meals. (It was a custom to eat kreplech). After the meal, people ran to the mikveh. Then, carrying big candles, they went to the synagogue for mincha services. I still remember seeing men lie down on the floor of the synagogue while one man went around whipping them with a cat–o–nine–tails, in order to help them atone for their sins. (This was called “malkes” – lashes.)

When the cantor chanted the Kol Nidre, the very heavens opened. He had to stop every once in a while because of the weeping and wailing of the women. Sometimes people fainted during the day of Yom Kippur and Avrom the Royfe had to be summoned, or even the doctor himself.

The synagogue had marvelous acoustics. The famous cantor Sirota, who once lead the services there, told us that he had never sung in place where his voice resounded as it did in our synagogue.

Szydlowiec itself produced a few excellent cantors. The last assistant–cantor in the Thlomatska Synagogue in Warsaw, Abraham Sherman, came from Szydlowiec. His father, Moshe Ziglarz, had owned brickworks on the Radom Highway.


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A Bit of Shtetl History

By Shmuel Chustetski

Szydlowiec was always a typical provincial town, with no chance of developing into something bigger. Even in its past history Szydlowiec never played a significant economic or cultural role. A town like all other Polish towns, with short and narrow streets and many hunchbacked little houses, with a “synagogue street” and a unique Jewish cemetery. The streets, paved with big cobblestones and narrow sidewalks, are full of busy Jews of all ages in Hassidic clothing – with their “yubitses and chalatn,” with little Polish–Jewish hats on their closely shorn heads. The Jewish women, in their wigs and bonnets, careful not even to glance at the men, carry baskets filled with meat from the butcher–shops, or other kinds of products from the marketplace. The houses were crowded with large families. There were never enough days in the week. Nevertheless, people went on with the business of living, despite all the obstacles and inconveniences.

Not to be outdone, Szydlowiec also had its own “stock exchange” – in miniature – where Jewish merchants, brokers, or just plain idlers, hung around all day long. The restless eyes of the brokers kept looking for a gullible “Galitzianer.” The merchants competed with each other mercilessly; whoever was shrewder avoided bankruptcy. The weaker ones left the stage, bade farewell to their entrepreneurial careers and applied for relief.

The Szydlowiec population, with its Jewish majority – mainly handicraftsmen – did not always have enough work to provide everyone with a livelihood. This situation affected the working people in particular. Adverse conditions, with no prospects for improvement, spurred the young folks to try their luck in foreign countries, particularly in the New World. The Jewish youth of Szydlowiec invested their dreams and their

[Page 49]

illusions in emigration, especially their need and desire to get out among other people.

The eternal religious antagonism between the Jews and Poles placed its stamp on their mutual relationships. Jews lived in a separate camp, with their old customs and traditions. But new ideas and freedom–winds did not bypass Szydlowiec either. They awakened the local young Jews from their lethargy. Witness the stormy and tumultuous year of 1905, when the Szydlowiec proletariat, Jews and Poles alike, took to the streets to fight against Tzarist oppression and for more human living conditions.

At that time the only Jewish workers party with a socialist outlook was the Bund, which had the sympathies and support of the poor people and the progressive section of the middle class.

Times change. Blind submission of the masses to the rich and powerful gradually disappeared. People protested against insulting the dignity of the poor. And the newly arising workers parties gave that protest their support.


The Jewish Cemetery in Szydlowiec

By Mordecai V. Bernstein

The Szydlowiec Jewish cemetery had unusual luck – the new one, that is, because there were two cemeteries in the shtetl. Most of the gravestones on the new cemetery – which was a hundred years old – not only remained unharmed, but they even retained their inscriptions and their colors.

Not far from Szydlowiec were some famous quarries, from which the gravestones were dug. Furthermore, the local stonecutters wee real artists, such as Shimele Chustetski and

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his son, Mordecai Binsktok and his son Yankl, and Shimele Kaminosh.

Thousands of gravestones remained intact, especially the polychrome stones, that is, those are painted in various colors. The decorations on these gravestones are in red, silver, orange, black and ultramarine. Particularly rich and artistic are the ornaments and symbolic figures – fingers of Kohanim, pitchers of Levites, bookcases on the gravestones of scholars, as well as fallen trees. Also, figures of deer on the graves of men named Tsvi, and lions on those named Aryeh–Leb.

Two young Polish artists, Lucino Krakowski and Jazek Antoni Zielinski, made casts of the Szydlowiec gravestones without harming or defacing the originals in any way. These reproductions became famous and popular, and in 1959 the artists exhibited 25 examples of Jewish gravestones from a community that had been wiped off the face of the earth.

Later, 50 of these “gravestones” were shipped to Israel, where a special exhibit was

arranged in the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in Tel Aviv. The museum published a catalog describing how the reproductions were made. It also contained a statement by the two artists, in Polish, about their technique and about some of the gravestones that were deliberately destroyed, especially the graves of rabbis. They conclude their account with these words:

“Our task was to demonstrate not only the beauty of the ornaments on the gravestones,

But also their tragic defacement, a silent symbol of guilt–feeling…”

There was a time when Jews used to visit the graves of their parents and relatives during the month of Elul. Now this no longer happens. The communities themselves were destroyed. Remaining are only symbolic “visits”, when the graves come to us …

There is one exception – the Szydlowiec cemetery, which

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sent its fifty “fallen trees, priestly hands and Levite pitchers,” echoes of an obliterated thousand–year old Jewish life – to Israel.

 

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