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[Hebrew page 11 & Yiddish page 163]

The History of the Jews in Bolekhov at the end
of the 18th Century

(based on the book “The Memoirs of Reb Ber Bolekhover” and other sources)

by Dr. M. Hendel

Translated from Yiddish by Eszter Andor

1. Foreword

In times past, there were few towns inhabited by Jews that contemporaries found worth describing. Thus, we have few descriptions which can help us form a notion of the spirit of the town and its Jewish community, of the personalities and public figures of the community and the atmosphere surrounding it. The farther we go back in time, to earlier epochs, the fewer descriptions we find. A Jew would take a pen in his hand only to write about the Torah and the fear of God, and whatever was not related to the Torah and the fear of God was like "mud" in his eyes. So, the person, the author writing about himself, never comes to the fore; and even as we learn from his book important details about his life and business, his family and circle of acquaintances, his interests and aspirations, this is not because he wanted to arouse the interest of his readers in these details – but simply as the author describes Godís greatness and kindness, who redeemed him when he was in distress or relates how God led him on the path to good fortune, we learn other details as well. This is why the memoirs of Reb Ber Bolekhover are doubly important for us – thanks to them, we can gain an insight into the life of a Jewish community in Galicia, South Poland, in the 18th century.

2. The founding of the town and the privileges granted to the inhabitants

Bolekhov is not an old town. It was founded some 350 years ago by the landowner Nikolay Gedzinsky. He transformed one of his villages into a town, hoping that it will increase his revenue. His aim was to reinforce the colonization of the Jews and to increase his holdings through their economic activity. He promised various privileges to the inhabitants of the town. These privileges, which were submitted to the king and approved in 1603, were very important. Most importantly, the Jews were granted equal rights with the Gentile inhabitants. Gedzinsky also delivered all the inhabitants from the various obligations with which they, especially the village population, were burdened.

[Yiddish page 164]

These included the obligation to furnish means of transportation, provide men for the building of roads and highways and the repairing of bridges on the estate, pay the tithe of shearing the sheep and the tithe of beehives and so on. The only duty that Gedzinsky did impose was the guarding of the sluice to make sure that the water does not inundate, God forbid!, the surrounding fields. And as all merchants were interested in running their shops in the middle of the town, he granted them right to build houses and shops on the main square. Moreover, he granted a piece of land, for very little money, to each householder in which they could form a garden. Furthermore, he granted the Jews a favor and gave them a place to build a shul and a cemetery. He also promised explicitly that if the Jews built a house for the hazzan and the shames beside the shul, it would be free of tax forever.

Beside economic concessions, the Jews were given two very important political privileges. On the one hand, they were entitled, just like the Christians, to elect a mayor and a "rada mieyska" (town council). And on the other, if a Gentile sued a Jew, he was tried directly by the landowner or his substitute, and a representative – a respected Jewish man – was to participate in the trial and the verdict. As opposed to this, there was no such thing in a trial that involved Jews only because in such a case the trial obviously took place in the community and the mentioned respected man (a community elder) represented the Jewish community to the outside. In conflicts between Gentiles there was also no such thing because such trials evidently took place in the town or government court. However, in a subsequent law of 1660, we find a paragraph, which stated that only in the presence of a respected Jewish man could the town court issue a verdict in a trial between a Jew and a Gentile. Various documents indicate that the representative of the community always participated in trials taking place in the town court.

There is evidence that the privileges did not remain a dead letter but were enforced in everyday life. When taking the oath after the local elections in 1660, the mayor said the following: "I swear to live in peace with all the citizens, be they Roman, Greek Catholic or Jewish, poor or rich. I will respect and protect the privileges of all nations."

Gedzinksyís intentions were indeed good but the circumstances were not favorable. The Tartars often ambushed the town and in 1678 the community was compelled to get a loan from the landowner, who served as the bishop of Lemberg. It is worth noting that relations between the Jews and the Gentiles were friendly and decent and the Gentiles approached the Jews with respect and esteem.

[Yiddish page 165]

In Zhidotshuv, for example, when the archives burnt down and the document, which granted the privileges and ensured the reciprocal relations between the Jews and the Gentiles perished, the inhabitants of the town chose two Jews to file the documents with the government.

3. The town and its “owners” in the 18th century

The shtetl lies at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. The Jewish population, which formed the majority of the townspeople in the 18th century, was rather small. The community, made up of the Jewish inhabitants of Bolekhov and those of the thirteen neighboring villages, numbered only 1,000 souls. Apparently, it was a very small community – but one should not forget that in those times even big towns were sparsely populated. The town of Brody, which was an "ir ve-am be-israel", had at that time a population of 7,000 souls, and even Lemberg, the capital city of Galicia, where close to 80,000 Jews were concentrated after World War I, had no more than 7,000 Jews at the end of the 18th century.

As we have already mentioned, Bolekhov was, just like many other Polish towns, a "private" town, that is, the property of a landowner, which passed on as inheritance after his death. The "town owner" could sell the town, just like his other properties, to another landlord, exchange it or lease it to an arendator (tenant) who pleased him and ensured him a nice revenue from the taxes of the townspeople, their businesses, the cultivation of the surrounding land, etc. Most of the arendators were Jewish. Sometimes the arendator made a fortune from such leases, at other times, for example, if the town owner demanded too high a price or determined the lease contract as he saw it fit, he was impoverished. In some cases the town owner decided to manage his business alone through his own administrators and the Jewish arendator came "clean" out of the whole business. In the memoirs of Reb Ber we shall hear a great deal about arenda leases. There is the story of a very wealthy man from a neighboring shtetl who leased properties from the town owners. "He was very skilful in working in the fields and in cattle farming", but when the town owner changed, "he did not want to lease his properties but supervised them himself". His properties were managed by his administrators and the Jewish arendator was left without an income.

In the time of Reb Ber the town was ruled by a Catholic priest who had business ties with the Jews. Reb Ber used these connections for the benefit of the community. Once when the town owner changed, the Jews of Bolekhov faced a great danger. The story goes like this: the earlier town owner lost a lot of money in playing cards and in his tight financial situation he sold the town to his brother-in-law who paid a very high price for it.

[Yiddish page 166]

To get rid of such an expensive acquisition, he sold the town to another man. The new buyer sought various ways to increase his revenue and decided to move part of the inhabitants of Bolekhov to one of his villages in order to turn it into a town. "When the townspeople learnt about his plans, nobody wanted to leave the town where they were born and raised." The administrators of the town owner promised the would-be-colonizers "great luck" but when they saw that nobody listened to them, they resorted to force and compelled a part of the inhabitants to build houses in the new town. The rebellious were imprisoned and Reb Berís house was designated to be the prison, where they were to be locked up in the rooms which were used as the synagogue and the community suffered "yagunot, daagot and tsaar" [grief, worry and regret]. Reb Berís brother intervened and the harsh decree was annulled and the community could sigh with relief. However, when the landowner saw that he could not succeed in founding the new settlement, he wanted to get even with his Jewish subjects and forced them to lease the town revenues, especially the taverns and the mills, which meant losing money. The lot fell on Reb Ber. He did not like this idea. "But who can resist an influential person, if even the rabbi of the community advises him to take the arenda, reasoning that if the Jews of Bolekhov have good relations with the town owner, he will protect them vis-a-vis the lords who borrowed money from them and could not repay their debts by the set deadline. After much hesitation, Reb Ber accepted to take the arenda with some associates. The business did not succeed and after a certain time, he was compelled to ask for a concession from the lease money, justifying his request with the argument that he took over the business not to make money "but to take care of the lordís revenue".

The town owner was obliged to protect the Jewish community. But he could not always fulfil this duty even under normal circumstances, let alone in turbulent times, in times of war with outside enemies, in times of internal wars or when gangs of robbers were rampant in the country. On the other hand, the town owner was interested in protecting his Jews for his own sake because Jews made business and also increased the revenues of the landowner, so if he did not protect them, his revenues declined.

Beside the special taxes that the town owner imposed on the community, the community also had to secure the annual payment of the "rabbinateís salary". This was paid from the shekhita [ritual slaughter] income and the belt tax, which was in the hands of the petty merchants.

[Yiddish page 167]

It happened several times that the community was in a strained financial situation and it could not pay the taxes. To protect the community in such times, Reb Ber wrote requests asking for concessions and the alleviation of the taxes.

So much about the relations between the Jewish population and the town owner. The community also maintained relations with the king, the sovereign of the country; these relations consisted chiefly of paying taxes. The main taxes for the benefit of the country were as follows: tax on alcoholic beverages and poll tax. The first was paid directly to the Royal Treasury, while the second, and this was the main tax, the per capita amount of which was determined by the Jewish self-government, the Council of Four Lands, was collected by the central treasury from each community separately. Supervising the taxation was one of the main tasks of the Council of Four Lands as an organized administrative body in relation to the Jewish population and between the Jews and the central state authorities.

4. The Kahal and the Council of Four Lands

The internal Jewish authorities consisted of the kahal of each town and the Council of Four Lands of Poland. [1] The Polish Jews were subordinated to three authorities: the city hall and the lord of the town (if the town was a private property), the central state authorities and their own self-government, which they respected very much as it was their own [2]. When recalling a Jew who had a position in the self-government, Reb Ber always calls him by his due title: "intercessor of the Four Lands", "head of state", "major generals heads of state", "chiefs and leaders" – these expressions are repeated over and over in his book.

The kahal as the local Jewish authority dealt with the spiritual and material well-being of the Jewish populace and acted as the representative body of the local Jewry in its dealings with outside agents, such as the king, the clergy, the landowners and so on. In order to manage the affairs of the local Jewish population, the kahal was compelled to impose internal direct taxes – which were collected directly from each Jewish inhabitant – and taxes on commodities of first use. These included taxes such as midwife tax and fees for the services that the community set up for the benefit of the residents, such as ritual slaughter or public weights and measures. Reb Ber relates how he bought new weights for the community and how much money the community made from giving out permissions to use them for weighing honey. One of the most important tasks of the kahal was the collection of the poll tax. This tax, which put a heavy burden on the Jewish population of Poland, was ten thousand zloty in the middle of the 16th century.

[Yiddish page 168]

In the course of time, the amount of the tax increased and it reached 220,000 zloty at the beginning of the 18th century. The Council of Four Lands was responsible for dividing the tax among the communities and the kahals carried on negotiations about the distribution of the tax with the Council, since it often happened that certain communities were unable to pay the tax imposed on them. That happened to the Bolekhov community as well in the middle of the 18th century when the town was burnt down and looted and many inhabitants left it. This caused a loss of 300,000 zloty to the community. The kahal turned at once to the Council with a detailed memorandum and asked for a concession from the poll tax, and it also presented a memorandum to the town owner to ask him to defend them before the minister of finance. However, high society did not pay much attention to their efforts. The leaders of the Council gave a response which was not binding on them and the finance minister put the blame on the Council: "What can I do? Since the assessors have already determined the amount of the tax and the assignments [3] have already been distributed by the leaders of the Council in all the counties, the burnt-out Bolekhov community should ask the neighboring communities to help it so that it can pay the poll tax." [4] "The community was confused and frightened because of the repression it suffered from the cavalry troop which came to collect the poll tax." But Reb Ber consoles himself saying "God is our father and he will not abandon his Jewish children". Together with some other inhabitants of the town they intervened with the prince who ordered the payment. They described to him the great calamity that befell the town: "people lie around on the streets because they do not have a dwelling place and we have great pity for them; so how could we ask them to pay?" [5] This intercession, which cost money of course, yielded fruits: the payment was provisionally postponed until the next convention of the Council of Four Lands. The convention tool place in Brody. The delegation sent from the Bolekhov community included Reb Berís brother. They reached a compromise with the Council according to which the poll tax would not be paid all at once but in several installments in the course of three years (adding, of course, the interest). It seems that the Bolekhov community benefited from the postponement of the payment of the poll tax. Although Reb Ber promises to tell the reader about it, there is no more information about the matter in his memoirs.

Eventually the Polish government became convinced that collecting the poll tax through the Council, the official body of Polish Jewry was inconvenient. The economic hardships weighed heavily on the Jewish population in the 18th century when the foundations of livelihood and security crumbled and huge sums had to be invested to protect life and livelihood. The Council of Four Lands sank into massive debts and was not able to pay them back to the Royal Treasury.

[Yiddish page 169]

The government asked itself whether it would not be more sensible to impose the tax on each Jew individually without the mediation of the Council, in which case the Council would not be needed any more. There were also internal factors that undermined the competence of the Council: quarrels and intrigues, the putting of personal interests into the forefront at the expense of the community, the reign of a small number of rich members over the masses, the exploitation of the poor, etc. In consequence of this situation, the Poles disbanded the central Jewish authorities in 1764 and imposed, from that time on, a direct tax of 2 zloty a year on each Jew. The tax, however, continued to be collected by the kahals. The introduction of the new tax called for a census. So the government nominated a committee in each town, which consisted of community representatives and was chaired by a Polish landowner, and these committees were responsible for carrying out the census. From the materials preserved in the archives we can learn a great deal about the number of Jews, their family arrangements and, to a certain extent, their livelihoods. The census was carried out among the Jews of Bolekhov as well and 883 souls were counted in the town. However, because of the harsh decree concerning the payment of the tax many of the poor did not participate in the census; in fact there were another 400 Jews among the poor.

The debts of the Council reached the sum of two and a half million zloty and in order to repay it, the Council imposed a tax on each community that was to be paid in three installments. In connection with the arrangements for paying the tax, Reb Berís brother achieved great distinction and he was nominated "head of state", that is, most probably chairman of the county council of Belorussia (Galicia), which, like other county councils, was still in existence for some time. The payment of the tax in three installments was imposed on the Bolekhov community as well. However, with various combinations, Reb Ber succeeded in saving the community from these expenses. Later when he went to Lemberg on behalf of the community, he managed to return the full amount of the money to the community. The government simply saw a source of revenue in the Jewish subjects and the Jews of Bolekhov, like the Jews of other towns, found a good excuse to undo the government decrees.

Reb Ber praises the moral value of the Council: "it was something of a deliverance that God, may he be blessed, was merciful and did not leave us, as it says in the Mosaic law: íBut despite all this while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them [a]í" and as he relates the dissolution of the Council, he forestalls others: "and I will now tell you about the great changes that took place in Poland, about the ignoble situation of our Jewish children and about the humiliations they have experienced ever since they settled.

[Yiddish page 170]

" Reb Ber also describes the relations of the Polish Sejm and the Jews, its intentions to limit the movement of the Jews and the heavenly intervention that always arrived in times of emergency: "and the Jewish children believed that when the Sejm harassed the Jews, the prophet Elijahu would appear in the guise of a member of the delegation and say, ĎI do not agree with this decree and it will be annulled.í" [6]

5. The town and its livelihoods

The majority of the inhabitants of Bolekhov were merchants. There is no mention of craftsmen in Reb Berís memoirs but there must have been various artisans in Bolekhov, just as in any other community, who produced commodities for the local Jewish population and for the peasants of the surrounding villages. Reb Ber who was a retailer was not interested in craftsmen, this is why he does not mention them in his memoirs. In Bolekhov, like in other towns, various branches of trade could be found: trading with food, beverages, garments for the Jews and for the peasants, trading with the landowner and his officials satisfying his needs on the one hand and selling his agricultural products (cereals, pelt, wool, flax, etc.) on the other. There was also a special trade which grew out of the local conditions: [7]in Bolekhov and its environs there were many salt mines [8] and this was one of the sources of trading activity. The other source was trading with Hungarian wines, since the shtetl was not far from the Hungarian border. The salt business brought profits to the townís rich people, who used to lease the salt mines, as well as to the petty traders, who used to buy salt and sell it for cash (or exchange it for cereals) to the local consumers and at fairs in other towns, for example in Brody or Lemberg. The peasants from the surrounding countryside often bought salt on credit and paid their debts after the harvest. We have no information on Jewish workers in the salt mines.

Wine trade had a very important place in Bolekhov. Polish landowners liked alcohol. Since Southern Galicia was very close to Hungary which was abundant in vineyards an extensive wine trade developed. The import of Hungarian wines was in the hands of the Jews of the border area, including the Jews of Bolekhov. Through the wine import, the merchants came into contact with a wide circle of customers and salesmen not only in Poland but beyond its frontiers as well because trading extended beyond the framework of local business into international commerce. It is not hard to imagine that this resulted in the widening of horizons, life styles and education of those who were involved in trade.

[Yiddish page 171]

Through their trade relations with the surrounding countryside, the Jews of Bolekhov came into closer contact with their Gentile neighbors, and as Reb Berís memoirs show, the Christians turned to their Jewish neighbors with trust. One especially hard year, the Jews and the Christians agreed to present a request to the landowner to appeal to him "to take pity on the poor, Jews and, Ďlehavdilí, Christians [b] who were forced to borrow wheat and corn from the mills in order to appease their hunger and who, because of the hard times, cannot pay their debts before the new grain harvest". It was Reb Ber who wrote down the request because he was fluent in Polish.

The foreign currency businesses constitute a special chapter. The monetary system was very complicated in eighteenth-century Poland, where various types of coins from various countries circulated. Due to the economic decline and the wars, the value of the coins changed constantly, especially because a lot of false coins circulated on the money market. On the other hand, a new branch of commerce developed through money exchange, in which the Jews of Bolekhov also played an important role. Money business was also widespread in another form. The Jews used to lend money to the Christian inhabitants of the town and they themselves used to borrow bigger sums from the landowners and the clergy. The fact that they were not the money-lenders but they took loans themselves is a clear sign of the economic decline of the Jewry in the 18th century.

The tradesmen conducted their businesses alone or in partnership with their relatives or friends and there were also joint businesses with Christians. Many conflicts and quarrels arose because of the joint businesses and the women often intervened to straighten things out and find a compromise.

The merchants of Bolekhov had their own association, the ĎKhevra Kadusha of the Merchantsí [a merchants union], which used to gather once a year in the period between the first and last days of Succoth in order to elect the gabbaim [the trustees of the association] and other dignitaries. At Simkhat Torah, the association used to organize a banquet for its members, where they celebrated the end of the old year and the new activities of the coming year.

6. Events of the time

The 18th century was a turbulent period for Poland and her Jews. The repercussions of the events surrounding the changing of the kings and the internal and external wars which accompanied this had adverse effects on the lives of the Jews in every town and shtetl. Murder and looting were usual phenomena.

[Yiddish page 172]

During one war, Russian troops arrived in Bolekhov and the local rabbi, who was considered a wealthy man, had to flee (on horseback!) on the eve of Yom Kippur. The most important event in the lives of Galician Jews was the first partition of Poland (1772), when Galicia came under Austrian rule. Reb Ber does not describe how the local authorities were transferred from Polish into Austrian hands but he makes a remark which tells us that many Jews saw the partition of Poland as a divine punishment for having dissolved their self-government, the Council of Four Lands, eight years earlier. "What they did to the Jews, will be done to them (the Poles), they were deprived of their glorious country." Reb Ber seems to be content with the Austrian ruler, Joseph II. When he mentions him after his death, he adds "zikhroyne-livrokhe" [may his memory be blessed], which is a sign that he considered Joseph a true and noteworthy ruler.

During the reign of Joseph II, an important event took place in the history of the Jews of Bolekhov. In his striving to improve the economic and constitutional situation of the Jews, especially for the benefit of the Austrian Empire, the emperor decided to settle the Jews on the land. He did not understand the Jewish psyche and the needs of the Jewish public. His reforms contained a lot of edicts of prohibition but the idea of agricultural colonization was taken up enthusiastically by various Jewish circles. However, the endeavor was not successful because the government did not proceed whole-heartedly to create the conditions necessary for success. At the same time, the government also settled Germans on the land and if it had been willing to ensure the same conditions for Jewish settlers as for the Germans, the colonization would have been a blessing to the country and to the Jews. A Jewish agricultural settlement was set up near Bolekhov as well but the local officials displayed a very negative attitude to the whole undertaking.

Let us describe the conditions under which the new colony, Neu-Babylon, was founded. The name refers to the Babylonian exile of the people of Israel. The land of the colony was bad and, according to the explicit opinion of the colonyís supporters in Lemberg, "it was established that the reason why it was not given to German settlers was because it was of such bad quality." It was decided that ten families would be settled there and each received 12 acres of land for which they had to pay a yearly lease money. The government gave the settlers building materials and agricultural hands. These expenses of the government and the yearly lease money of 14 and a half florin per person was added onto their account and they had to pay these back in four years.

[Yiddish page 173]

The settlers were obliged to start repaying the debt already in the second year after they settled, when their economic situation was still quite bad.

As opposed to this, the German settlers received cattle, tools and seeds for sowing immediately upon arriving. The Jewish settlers received this from the government only after the first harvest. This shows that the government budget for the settling of a German family amounted to 600-1,000 gulden. At the same time in the case of a Jewish family settling in the environs of Bolekhov the government gave no more than 100 gulden and the settlers usually had to repay the debt in four years. The same situation prevailed in all the Jewish colonies that Emperor Joseph II founded. The colony in Bolekhov was set up around 1788. The Jews started to cultivate land at around that time. Unfortunately we have no precise information neither on the origins of the settlers in general nor on those who settled around Bolekhov in particular. Because of the hard conditions, which affected especially the townspeople who had to become farmers in a short time, the colony soon sank into great debts. The government was thus compelled to reduce the taxes to 8 florins (instead of the 14 and a half florins paid earlier). But even this did not help because the settlers owed the government 2,660 florin in 1797. They appealed to the government to remit part of the debt, reckoning that they would pay the rest in a few years under more relaxed payment conditions. With this request, however, the settlers only precipitated their end because the officials that were asked to express their opinion on the appeal ruled that the Jews were lazy and did not work on their land themselves but leased half or a third of it to Christians. Therefore, they said, the debts should be called in from them and they should be expelled not only from Bolekhov but from all Galicia. The government approved of this opinion. However, the emperor granted a favor to the unfortunate settlers: they had to leave the colony but could remain in Galicia.

In the second part of the 18th century, two movements put their stamp on Jewish life in Poland: one led to conversion, while the other brought along a Jewish renewal. The first was a continuation of Sabbetai Zviís movement [c], still widespread even after the demise of the original, especially in Southern Galicia. This continuation found its clearest expression in the person of Jacob Frank, who started his activities as a kabbalist and ended up converting – both he and his sect – and spreading false accusations that the Talmud allowed the use of Christian blood.

[Yiddish page 174]

It is certain that people were interested in these matters in Bolekhov especially since one of its inhabitants, Reb Ber personally knew a leader of the sect and played an important role in the open debates (1759) that the Catholic priests organized between the Jews and Frankís sect. From the Carpathian region arose another movement which was destined to be the builder of the Jewish spirit and culture. This was the Hasidic movement of Reb Israel Baal Shem Tov. [d]

In his book on the history of the Hasidic movement, Dubnow writes the following: "In the last ten years of the Beshtís [an acronym for Baal Shem tov] life (he died in 5520, that is, in 1760, one year before the above-mentioned debate), there were Hasidim in the towns from Podolia, Volhynia and Galicia. Someone from his generation concluded that in the year of his death the number of Hasidim reached 40,000." We have no sources on the basis of which we can establish precisely how many Jews from Bolekhov followed Baal Shem Tovís teaching. There is no doubt, however, that there were debates on the Hasidim and on Hasidism in the shuls. And there were both adherents and opponents in Bolekhov, just like in many other communities. Reb Ber himself, who was predisposed to Kabbala in his youth, seems to have disapproved of the new movement because he feared that it involved nullifying Torah study and he may have seen in it the dangerous signs of a new Frankism.

In the course of time, the Hasidic movement developed in Bolekhov, as in other towns of Galicia, and established its own rabbi as well.

7. Everyday life

So far we have described the situation of the Jews in Bolekhov on the basis of life in Galicia in general. Let us now depict the everyday life of the town itself. The inviting of a new rabbi when the earlier rabbi died or was offered a position in another community constituted a very important event in the life of the community. In his memoirs, Reb Ber describes it in the following way: "The local rabbi was elevated to the crown of rabbinate in the holy community (kehile kadushe) of Brody." [9]  And when time came for his departure, the whole shtetl, young and old, came to accompany him. The kheders [religious elementary school] were closed and the boys with their melamdim [teachers] were all out on the streets. The rabbi took leave of the community with the words of the Torah and when the kheder boys went back to the kheder, the melamed made them memorize the rabbiís words. "And since then the words were engraved in the memory of the students." This was Reb Jacob Yoykel HaLevi Horowitz (1679-1754) who became the rabbi of Bolekhov in 1711, when his father Reb Meir, the earlier rabbi of the town, was offered the position of the rabbi in Zlatshev. Later when Reb Jacob Yoykel left Bolekhov to become the rabbi of the well-known community of Brody, his son Reb Mordke took over his post in Bolekhov.

[Yiddish page 175]

When Reb Jonathan Eybeshitz was suspected of Sabbetai Zvi-ist views and summoned to apologize before three rabbis,[10] one of them was Reb Jacob Yoykel. This shows that he was a very important and distinguished rabbi. Bolekhov had the honor of having well-known and great rabbis [11]. Reb Ber tells us that "rich Jews used to invite learned men to their homes and offer them jam and liquor as a sign of respect".

The events that brought a little liveliness into the life of the shtetl were the community elections and the feasts that the various societies organized, such as inaugurations or mitsve [good deed] feasts – a bris mile (circumcision) ceremony or a wedding. On the completion of a house, a tin flag was hung on the roof with the date engraved in Hebrew letters on it. When there was a wedding, people inquired carefully about the yikhes [distinguished descent], knowledge of Torah and financial situation of the parties. The age of the bride and groom was not taken into consideration. Reb Ber writes that he was married at the age of 16 and his sonís wife was 11 at the time if their wedding. The young couple usually lived with the parents for a few years. Reb Ber writes that after the wedding he studied in the bes medresh [synagogue] under the guidance of the rabbi. When the young couple got married, they received presents from friends and acquaintances (wedding presents) and it was a great honor for Reb Ber when his son-in-law received the title of "Morenu" [our teacher] from the rabbi of Lemberg, which was a sign that he was a learned man.

The most important wedding gifts were dishes and jewelry because in those times it was important for people, especially among the rich, that their house looked nice. Reb Ber praises highly the silver and copper dishes in his father-in-lawís house. He also gives a detailed description of the clothes and jewelry that his brother bought for his wife in Brody: they were "made of fine silk, embroidered with real gold; there is nothing like this in our country". The most valuable treasure of the family was, of course, the wife who helped her husband not only in the household but also in his business activities. She gave him good advice and dealt with landowners if her husband did not speak Polish and she did. There were also cases, however, when the jealousy of the wives caused problems in the business. This is how, for example, the partnership of Reb Ber and his brother ended because of his sister-in-law who was envious of Reb Berís great success. It is also worth noting that there were also learned women in Bolekhov. The rabbiís sister, for instance, knew "by heart a ĎBlat Gemoreí with Rashi" [a page of the Gemarah with the commentaries of Rashi].

The community experienced hardships as well. The houses were built of wood and they were frequently devastated by fire. The town often fell victim to plundering committed by soldiers passing through it or by robber bands. Reb Ber writes extensively about murders committed on the road. He also describes, however, the heroism the neighboring community displayed when it was attacked by bandits.

[Yiddish page 176]

"And there were armed watchmen and the rest of the inhabitants also kept watch the whole night", and this is how the town was saved. Bolekhov was not so fortunate and when the same bandits attacked it, it was pillaged. The Bolekhov community also made attempts to protect the inhabitants but to no avail. The story went like this: "When the day was breaking and the men who had been on guard during the night went home to sleep, a horde of Ďgoyimí [non-Jews] arrived and they found a camp-fire that the guards had lit for the night. The community servant was asleep by the fire with his drum by his head. When the servant woke up, the bandits took the drum from him and threw it into the fire. Then they told him to call out loud his name so that the townís rich man would open the door for him." They thus penetrated his house with cunning. But when they first confronted the inhabitants, one of the robbers was immediately shot and after two further shots, two more were injured, among them the leader of the gang. This defeat enrage the bandits and they set fire to the rich manís house and to other houses in the town. They looted shops and broke into houses stealing money and jewelry. Apparently, the local Christians pointed out the rich houses to them.

Reb Ber was away on business in Lemberg when the looting took place in Bolekhov. His wife survived only because she gave all her jewels to the bandits. Reb Berís house was set on fire and it was only thanks to their loyal Christian maid that a few household articles and, most importantly, the sforim [religious books] were saved. Some of the inhabitants ran to ring the church bell to arouse the population but people saw that they could not defend themselves. Desperate, they abandoned their houses and fled the town. The bandits reigned in the town undisturbed for half a day. They devastated Bolekhov, killed nine Jews and left the town in whoops of triumph. Reb Ber got back from Lemberg when the bandits had already left and he proceeded at once, together with the leaders of the community of whom he was also one, to draw up a list of the damages. The landowners of the neighboring estates, the town officials and the Christian town representatives helped him in this work. The case that Reb Ber describes in detail reveals the appalling conditions of security in which shtetl Jews lived, as well as their heroism, not uncommon even in those times.

8. Reb Berís life and activities

The man from whose memoirs we draw most of our information deserves special attention. He was raised in Bolekhov and spent most of his life there. He was influenced by the spirit of the town just as he influenced it himself.

[Yiddish page 177]

As a man active on general Jewish territory, he doubtless brought honor to his home town. Through his person, which is of course unique to a certain degree, we learn a great deal about the norm, the same way as the history of the Bolekhov community teaches us much about the history of hundreds of other Jewish communities.

Reb Berís grandfather was born in Mezrits, near Brisk and he fled to Bolekhov with his family at the age of eight because of Chmelnitskyís evil decrees. Reb Berís father was a wealthy wine merchant, well-versed in Talmud. He also had an inn in Bolekhov. From Reb Berís memoirs we learn that his father was no idle man. He spoke Hungarian and knew well the ways of the land, and he was also fluent in Polish. Thanks to these skills, he could protect the interests of the local Jews. Reb Ber was born in 1723. His father did all in his power to ensure a good education for his son. Reb Ber studied Talmud extensively and what he learnt in his youth was of great help to him later in his life, in his activities and in writing his sforim [religious books]. Reb Ber pursued not only Jewish religious studies but his father made sure that he received a general education as well, so he engaged a teacher to teach his son Polish. Reb Ber also learnt Latin with this teacher. As he writes, "I also understood Latin with its grammar". The Jews in Bolekhov frowned on secular studies and people did not stop talking about it. "They said that I was studying, God forbid!, not for the sake of Heaven." Perforce, he discontinued his Polish and Latin lessons. "And I devoted myself whole-heartedly to the study of our holy Torah." He later continued with his Torah studies but took up secular subjects as well. He perfected his knowledge of Polish. He learnt Hungarian during his business trips and when he established a partnership with a German merchant, he learnt German with his help. When he had the occasion, he apparently learnt French, too. From his memoirs, we can see that Reb Ber was a book-lover all his life and he took great care of his library. He writes with joy that most of his religious books were rescued from the great fire and "also the majority of the ancient authors". He praises his father-in-lawís library: "He had a house full of rare splendid books." From Reb Berís description of his library we learn that it contained not only Hebrew books but many foreign ones as well. He was especially interested in history books in which he found his belief concerning the special character of the Jewish nation and the special place of the Hasidim in the eyes of God confirmed. He took particular interest in the book of an English scholar, which he read in German and a part of which he translated into Hebrew, hoping that his translation "will enlighten the learned men of Israel".

We will learn more about Reb Berís attitude to foreign literature and about why he read foreign books from the following passages of his memoirs that we will cite in full.

[Yiddish page 178]

"And I will make sure that one of my children would make an effort and read the book of the English author, either the original German version or my translation of it into the Sacred Tongue (i.e. Hebrew). He will discover many things, not only the kind of knowledge that we find in the holy books but he will also learn much about world events that are not well known among the sons of Israel, although we, Jewish children have to know everything so that the Biblical verse "for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations [e]" can be fulfilled through us. And although our sages offer a commentary to the verse in accordance with the sacred Torah, they say: it is good to study the Torah, but also to know the ways of the world (es iz gut toyre mit derekh erets) and it is very important for a learned man who understands a matter to know what is going on among the Gentile nations because it can come one day – as it happened to me when I had a discussion with the leaders and the priests of the Gentile nations – that he has to reply properly to their questions concerning the Jewish faith." We have before us the figure of a Jewish maskil [an adherent of the Haskalah] at a time when the Haskalah [f] movement was gaining strength and becoming an influential factor in Jewish life in Eastern Europe [g] in general and in Galicia in particular. Reb Berís attitude to Hebrew is also typical. He sees Hebrew not as a language to be used to express holy things but as one in which a literature in the widest sense of the word can be created. He himself writes in a fluent Hebrew and from his youth he preserves in his memory the atmosphere of the shtetl Tismenits where he had spent some time. "And there are fine authors who write in the Holy Tongue there and there is one young man in particular who writes a splendid Hebrew. I greatly envied him and I have gained much to remember from his writings." Reb Berís wife was born in the shtetl Tismenits. Her father was also a book-lover and we can well imagine the spirit of the Torah and wisdom that must have reigned in Reb Berís house and the atmosphere in which his children were raised. It is worth noting that the shtetl Tismenits was well known for its merchants. A delegation from the shtetl took part in the district council of Belorussia, a right that not all shtetls were honored with. Bolekhov and Tismenits were small centers in the middle of the 18th century, when the Haskalah movement began. There is an important fact regarding the Jews of Tismenits. Reb Barukh Shklaver, one of the precursors of the Haskalah in Lithuania published, in 1771, an astronomy book from the Middle Ages… (bsííh?) fourteen people subscribed to the book in Poland, among them one from Tismenits [12]. Reb Berís general education did not affect his character, he remained a traditional religious Jew. When he spent some time in his youth in Tismenits, he started studying the Kabbala and became absorbed in the Zohar [the holiest mystical book of the Kabbala].

[Yiddish page 179]

He used to fast and torment his body but he quickly sobered up and left the Kabbala-Torah. He took up a position of intellectual balance by combining Torah with secular knowledge, the Jewish Law with secular scholarship. However, honoring the Torah and observing her mitsves [commandments] were more important for him than anything else and he could not tolerate the German maskilim who followed the ways of the goyim in their clothing and life style, and reviled the commandments of the Torah. In the quarrels between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] on the one hand, and the pious conservative Jews and the maskilim on the other, Reb Ber adopted a neutral position. "He is not a Mitnaged, nor is he a Hasid or a maskil. He was a special type." (A. I. Braver)

By profession he was a wine merchant who often traveled on business to Hungary. In his youth he tried other businesses as well: he was considering to work in money lending, although his parents had never done that kind of work. His family held him back from this plan and he opened a shop instead. For some years he traded with alcohol, herring and "various spices and was engaged in other businesses as well" and he used to ride his horse through towns and villages and sell his wares; he took leather and flax to Hungary. Once he invested his money in leasing and horse trade. In the end he worked only in the wine trade. He brought wine from Hungary and sold it in his depot in Lemberg. This commerce brought him in contact with various Polish landowners, as well as with various Jewish and Christian merchants: Hungarian, Greek, Armenian, German and French tradesmen. This is what Reb Ber tells us about these relationships: "We arrived safely with the wine in Lemberg and we sold it to the Jewish merchants from Danzig to Leipzig." He had a German guest staying with him "who is coming from Turkey and is going to Russia". "I commanded a well-known French personality to supply the types of wine that would be used in the kireís [kaiser of Austria] [13] court. He sold wine "to a merchant who travels to Petersburg in Russia". These businesses left their mark on Reb Berís personality and it is not surprising that he was not at all narrow-minded but had a broad-minded and comprehensive conception of the world.

The debates with the Frankists that took place in Lemberg in 1759 played an important role in his social activity. In this debate, which the Frankists imposed on the Jews, they had to clear the Jews of the harsh accusations of using Christian blood. Reb Ber was one of the intimates of the famous rabbi of Lemberg, Reb Chaim HaKohen Rapaport, and served him also with his fluency in Polish. Reb Ber had to compose an answer to the false accusations of the Frankists because the rabbi, who did not really master the vernacular, laid the preparatory work on him.

[Yiddish page 180]

Reb Ber turned to Christian book traders "and I have taken books for this work and I called a Christian who was fluent in Polish and Latin and we wrote the whole night". In the morning, he showed his piece to the rabbi Reb Chaim. The memorandum demonstrates Reb Berís great proficiency in the Torah, in Talmud and the Zohar, as well as in Christian literature from the Church Fathers to the polemical literature of his time. He provided smashing evidence against the blood libel and showed the libelers that they were ignorant and all their claims were repulsive lies. Reb Chaim Rapaport invited Reb Ber to participate in the debate. Reb Ber describes it in the following words: "When they (the Frankists) brought evidence from the Gemarah or the Shulkhan Arukh, the Rambam or other holy books, we told them that their translation was wrong and it was not written that way in the holy books." In the course of the debate Reb Ber was the "speaker" of the Jewish side vis-a-vis the Christian public. Let us quote what Reb Ber said: "German Christians and the town representatives of Lemberg were waiting for me and they asked me what these heretics wanted and what was their goal. They wanted to obtain a report which they could send to faraway countries." The debate ended. "The blood libel, which dates back to ancient times, was not substantiated but its falsehood was not duly demonstrated either", sums up Professor Baraban in his book entitled A Contribution to the History of the Frankist Movement. At all events, Polish Jews could sigh with relief even though they were still worried about the times to come. Reb Ber ends his description of the debate with the following words: "and I recognized the great miracle that God in his mercy did with the remainder of Israel and I praised and thanked God for it." Reb Ber transferred his business, he lived in Lemberg for some time, married out his sons – his daughter was married to a well-known physician – and occupied himself in literary activity in his old age. He died at the advanced age of 82 and was buried in Bolekhov.

We generally know Reb Ber as a maskil, a public person and a merchant. There were many positive traits in his personality: he loved his people, suffered their pain and rejoiced at their success; he was a very pedantic man and conducted all his affairs with great care. But he also had some negative characteristics: he was full of reproach viv-a-vis the people around him, he saw them as hard-hearted, jealous and so on. This may suggest a feeling of worthlessness compared to his brother, who seems to have surpassed Reb Ber in his communal activities and whom the community trusted and cherished. His brother was also active in the community of the capital, Warsaw.

[Yiddish page 181]

It is also displeasing to the eye that Reb Ber describes tricks and sly deeds without noticing what a shameful habit this is. However, we must not forget that the cruel life, the need to protect oneself against the evil decrees and the hard living conditions tempted many of our brothers in those times.

9. Reb Berís literary activities

In the first place we must mention his memoirs, which he wrote in his advanced years. They are not complete, certain periods of his life are completely missing. From Reb Ber the manuscript made its way to England, but we do not know how, and it was discovered in 1912 among the manuscripts in the library of the Rabbinical Seminary of London. The memoirs as we know them are not arranged according to the date and there are incomplete chapters with the beginning and end missing. The manuscript was published by the historian, Vishnitzer, in the 1920s in the Hebrew original, as well as in Yiddish and English translation.

The book was not published, it remained a religious book of "words of wisdom," that contains chapters on the history of false messiahs, especially on the Sabbetai Zvi movement, as well as some autobiographical details, among them the debate with the Frankists in Lemberg. By writing this book, Reb Ber wanted to strengthen the faith of his folk and find satisfaction for himself, as well as compensation for his contempt of Torah study because of his business activities, and he pleads with God: "Remember me, God, for the good deeds that I have done when I sanctified your name in front of many priests, the Polish aristocracy and the common people among Jews and Christians alike." He intended to publish the book but influential people dissuaded him because they feared that it could bring harm to the Jews because of the numerous passages in which the Christian religion was mentioned with contempt. In the Shocken Library in Jerusalem there is a letter to Reb Ber from Reb Chaim Kurmash, who was the shtadlan [intercessor] of the Lemberg community in the debates with the Frankists. We learn from this letter that Reb Ber asked him to read the manuscript and comment on it. Reb Chaimís letter is written in a flowery language: "wise man and writer of science and wisdom, the famous rich man in the gate of bat rabim ". He confirms the correctness of Reb Berís depiction of the debate with the Frankists. There is an important detail about Reb Berís family in the letter. Sending his regards to Reb Berís son, Reb Chaim addresses him as our wonderful master, wise man and writer". What he meant by "writer" we do not know [14].The book was not printed and the manuscript was discovered by the historian and geographer Dr. A. J. Braver in the library of the well-know maskil from Tarnopol, Joseph Perl.

[Yiddish page 182]

A part of the book was published by Dr. Braver in "Ha-Shiloach" [a periodical] (volume 35, page 38). Reb Ber also intended to translate historical works, polemical literature and pamphlets concerning Jews. Apparently he did not succeed in finishing this work. But he did translate some chapters from a historical book written by an Italian scholar in the 17th century and from the book of the above-mentioned English scholar, On the Old and the New Testament.

We must especially draw attention to Reb Berís beautiful Hebrew style: it is not a flowery language with unnecessary flourishes. There are many grammatical and stylistic mistakes in his writing but we should not be too critical of the writer because Hebrew was not a living language in his time and Reb Berís language was in a certain sense an individual creation.

10. Conclusion

Let us have a look: a small Jewish community with nothing special or important about it. Still its members conduct far-reaching business, know how to defend themselves in times of trouble. There are scholars learned in the holy books as well as experts of secular sciences. There is one that has contacts with Frenchmen and Germans, reads books written by French and English authors and protects courageously the Jewish honor.

As you can see, our forefathers in those times were no "idle, impractical people", who knew nothing beyond their own small spheres. On the contrary: they were practical, had many contacts with the surrounding world and lived their self-perpetuating lives to the fullest extent possible under the conditions of those times.

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Translator's Notes:
[a]   Leviticus 26:44 Return
[b]   The expression 'lehavdil' is used in Yiddish to make a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Its use to indicate an essential difference between the Jews and the Gentiles shows the enormous gap separating these two groups in the perception of the Jews as well. Return
[c]   He claimed to be the Messiah and said that he had the right to abrogate the accepted norms. After his conversion to Islam, the movement collapsed. Return
[d]   Hasidism was a Jewish religious movement, founded by Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century in Eastern Europe. It emphasized pious devotion and ecstasy more than learning and this is why it was very popular among the poor and uneducated Jews of this region. In the course of time, a number of rebbes formed their own courts in which they received their followers from near and far. Return
[e]   Deuteronomy 4:6 Return
[f]   Haskalah: Jewish Enlightenment movement which started in Germany in the 18th century and from there spread into other European countries. It aimed at breaking the isolation of the Jews by modernizing Jewish life and religion. Return
[g]   The text says Western Europe but it must be a mistake, otherwise the sentence with in general and in particular does not make sense. Return
Footnotes from Book Chapter:
[1] The Jewish self-government in Poland consisted of three parts: the highest authority – the Council of Four Lands, the mid-level authorities – the county councils and the local authority – the kahal. In the coming pages, we will not distinguish between the central council and the county councils but will talk about councils in general. Return
[2] The Bolekhov community, like other communities in Poland, also had financial obligations with regard to the Catholic Church. In his memoirs Reb Ber describes that once the cardinal of Lemberg ordered the closing of the shul because the community did not pay its dues to the church. The shul was closed from Pesakh to Shavuot and only after paying the due sum could the Jews pray in the shul again. Return
[3] Assignment – a receipt for payment. Return
[4] This is what the tax was called. Return
[5] This was not a just claim because in the meantime new houses were being built. Return
[6] According to Polish law, the Sejm could not pass a law if a delegate stood up and said, ĎI do not agree (veto)í. Return
[7] In the 19th century the salt mines in the vicinity of the town were closed down and only those within the town continued to be used. Return
[8] On the agricultural colonization in Galicia see Dr. A. I. Braverís article, ĎYosef der tsveyter un di yidn in Galitsieí [Joseph the second and the Jews in Galicia], Ha-saloakh, vol. 23,…?, pp. 336-343. Return
[9] Brody was one of the most important Jewish centers at that time. Return
[10] Dr. N. Gelber: Di geshikhte fun di yidn in Brod [The history of the Jews in Brody], pp. 54, 55, 57. Return
[11] From Reb Berís time, we know of two Talmud scholars from Bolekhov. One is Reb Zvi Hirsh, according to the well-known…? Reb Chaim Joseph Azulay (…?), who negotiated with him when on a visit in Amsterdam in 1878 about organizing support for the yishuv in Palestine (Erets Isroel). "He is a disciple of the rabbi Jonathan (Yehonatan?) (he seems to sympathize with the Sabbetai Zvi movement). He served as a rabbi in Bolekhov but another rabbi came and took the rabbinate from him with the power of the lord." The second is Reb Shniur Feybush…? Menakhen, and he is renowned among the Palestinian messengers. He went to Palestine (Erets Isroel) in 1749 and on the way published his book…? in Constantinople. He lived in Jerusalem for some years and won the trust of the Ashkenazi community there and they sent him on a mission to the Diaspora (1754). He accomplished his task wonderfully: "He was successful not only in the Ashkenazi communities of Amsterdam and London but he also succeeded in inspiring sympathy in some communities in Northern Italy, and they handed him over all the "Palestine money" for the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem." (A. Yaari, Shalokhi Erets Israel?) The following appeal is addressed to the prospective donors: …?. And the designation of the holy community… (Maats?) as the center of the support for the yishuv in Jerusalem shows that he was an efficient man, worthy of the trust of those who sent him. Residing in Livorno (on his way to the North), he wrote a book entitled…?, which deals with the mystery of the leap year in the manner of the Kabbala. He published part of the book in Livorno and part in Amsterdam. Return
[12] Dr. R. Mahler: Yiddishe geshikhte, di letste doyres [Jewish history, the last generations], vol. 1, book 4, p. 35. Return
[13] The Kaiser, may his glory be enhanced. Return
[14] Dr. N. Gelber: Dray dokumentn vegn der geshikhte fun der frankistisher bavegung in Poyln [Three documents on the history of the Frankist movement in Poland], Zion, Bet (?), …?, pp. 326-331. Return

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