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[Page 99]

My Home City

by Hersh Sziszler

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

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Hersh Sziszler

 

Although may years ago I left my home city with which I was bound and connected, I will not forget it – and even now it stands before my eyes with its characteristic Jewish way of life and with its beautiful landscape.

Chelm was an old Jewish city, a Jewish community of major importance, widely known across the entire Jewish world for her rabbis and sages, for her personalities and for the folklore – the fantastic stories, wise jokes and witticisms.

The Jewish population was approximately 60 percent of the general population. There were many Jewish artisans, merchants and shopkeepers. There were sawmills, alcohol trade, mills and various industrial undertakings that belonged to Jews.

The Chelemer Jews were a great predominant power in the municipal and surrounding trade, in the industry of the city. Jewish banks, such as the Merchants and Artisans Bank, charitable societies and institutions, a Talmud-Torah [religious school for poor boys], a school system [with instruction] in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish.

There was an intensive communal Jewish life: various unions, clubs, dramatic circles, libraries and Jewish newspapers would be published.

The city had a Jewish face with its streets and neighborhoods in which lived naïve, pious Jews, honest artisans, merchants and shopkeepers, Jewish paupers and rich men, beaten down Jews – in the style of Sholem Aleichem's Menakhem-Mendl – and loafers – so-called shtekl-dreyer [stick-turners – Jews living with sporadic income], Jewish scholars who sat in the houses of study and the Hasidic shtiblekh [one-room synagogues] studying the Laws of Moses.

So the large house of study that was overcrowded with Jews in long kapotes [caftans] and with Jews in modern garments, Jews with beards and peyos [side curls] and Jews without beards and peyos is so clearly remembered as well as the neighboring large synagogue that told stories from hundreds of years ago.

Who does not remember the Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and the holidays when touching melodies and Shabbos songs resounded from Jewish windows; the Shabbos nights with Havdalus [ceremonies marking the end of Shabbos and the beginning of the week] and the evening meals ending Shabbos that had so much appeal, sanctity, sincerity, vision and tradition?

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And can we forget the khederim [religious elementary schools], Talmud-Torahs where young boys filled the narrow Chelemer, Jewish alleys with the sound of their voices; the pale Moshelekh and Shlomolekh [Moshes and Shlomos] from outside who studied in Chelm, esn teg in Jewish homes; the students in the Jewish public school, in the Hebrew schools and in the Jewish-Polish gymnazie [secondary school]; the prayer leaders and singers with their sweet praying and the choir boys with the sweet singing; the melamdim [teachers in religious schools] who could not draw an income from their teaching profession and had to search for a source of income from the various weapons they produced for their students: rifles for Lag B'Omer, swords for Tisha b'Av, flags for Simkhas Torah, dreydlekh [tops] for Chanukah and rattles and noisemakers for Purim?[1]

Lag B'Omer takes place on the 18th of Iyar, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer – counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuos – the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – and it was customary for children to celebrate with bows and arrows. It may have been the custom in Chelm to use rifles.

Tisha b'Av – the ninth of Av – commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The swords may be an illusion to a line in the prayer of consolation [Nakhem – comfort]: “They have put Israel to the sword…”

Simkhas Torah is the holiday that celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of the new one. Children are given flags as part of the celebration.

On Purim – the commemoration of Esther and Mordechai saving the Jews from Haman – it is customary to make noise to drown out every mention of Haman's name.]

And who does not remember the pious women with their sheytlekh [wigs] in their long crinoline dresses going to the synagogue with the woman's sidurim [prayer books] and makhzorim [prayer books used on holidays], the Chelemer young people and the Chelemer “common people” – the wagon drivers, the porters, the coachmen who waited impatiently for their difficult income?

And who does not remember the Tuesday days when the fairs took place in Chelm and large crowds of peasants would travel to Chelm?

Or can we forget the First of May demonstrations by the Jewish unions and parties, by the Bund, Paolei-Zion [Workers of Zion – Marxist-Zionist movement], the communists and groupings from other ideologies that marched in the ranks with belief, earnestness and devotion, carrying their flags high and proud with hope for the future?

And can we forget the Jewish masses in Chelm who filled the halls of the clubs and unions, theaters and cinemas?

It is very difficult to make peace with the idea that the Jewish city Chelm was so savagely exterminated.

 

The Historical Chelm Synagogue

The Chelm synagogue was one of the oldest synagogues in Poland. It was said that it was built in the year 1100. According to the municipal archives at the Chelm city hall, the Chelm synagogue – under the name chóralny [choral] synagogue – was built in the year 1124.

There were engraved letters – the year 5657 [1897] – on one of the synagogue walls that led to Szkolna Street. It was said that this was the date when the synagogue was renovated.[a]

The building was rare and unique and it was a remarkable synagogue artistically and architecturally. It

[Page 101]

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The eastern wall of the magnificent Chelm synagogue

 

was famous among all of the synagogues in Poland for its paintings and artistic works, for its fine Torah reading desk and Torah ark, and hanging from the vaulted ceiling its giant copper lamps on massive chains that sparkled with beauty on the Shabbosim and holidays.

There are many old legends and folk stories from hundreds of years ago about this Chelm synagogue that people would tell each other in the twilight in the corners of the synagogue

 

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We see in the picture from right to left: Feywl Fryd, Dovid Goldrajch, Yakov Beker and lawyer Gedalyah Bakalczuk on the empty spot where the famous Chelm synagogue stood, which the Hitler vandals destroyed

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with a sigh and confidence in God.

The synagogue was sanctified over the course of generations. The most valuable objects of Jewish religious significance were found there, such as artistically adorned curtains over the Torah ark, Torah scrolls, etc.

A fine Elijah's chair[2] stood on the pulpit, with a copper menorah. Wine would be carried to the children on Shabbos and holidays in a silver pitcher and a silver cup.

There was a gallery above where the ordinary Jews sat. Legends arose about this gallery and about the women's synagogue.

The synagogue had giant, thick walls that created the appearance of a fortress. There truly were times when Jews found protection in the synagogue from the foes of Israel when edicts, repressions and pogroms threatened the Jewish population.[b]

The Hitlerist vandals used dynamite to blow up this historic house of prayer that stood on the street corner, standing in such historical majesty through the centuries and completely demolished the historical Chelm synagogue, leaving an empty spot that is a silent witness to the destruction of Chelm.

 

The Kehile

The kehile [organized Jewish community] in Chelm was organized at the end of the 18th century and is one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland. During the earlier years the dozores [members of the community council] of the Chelm Jewish kehile were nominated. In 1905, after the first Russian revolution, the dozores were elected.

The tasks of the Jewish kehile were mainly to satisfy the religious needs and to provide assistance to the poorest Jews in the city.

In 1910 a loan office was opened by the kehile whose director was Yehuda Leib Milner, of blessed memory. Avraham Ornsztajn was an active worker at this loan office. The funds for the loan office were given by IKO (Jewish Colonization Organization) [in the amount] of 10 million funt [Tsarist currency], which the most generous donor, Baron Hirsch, had given on behalf of the needs of the world Jewish population.[c]Loan offices were organized in many Jewish cities and shtetlekh [towns], including Chelm, thanks to this considerable sum

The Chelm loan office existed until August 1914. Then, it was liquidated when the First World War began.

The need among the Jewish population in Chelm, as in other Polish shtetlekh, was great, mainly during

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the First World War. The German-Austrian occupation regime introduced [ration] cards for bread, potatoes and for other foodstuff and the kehile was given the sensitive work of dividing the products. The head of the kehile then was Anshel Biderman.

Democratic elections for the kehile took place in 1919. Every man age 25 and older had kehile voting rights. Women did not have any voting rights. The first head of the kehile was Motl Goldsztajn and the above-mentioned Anshel Biderman was elected for a term in office. All societies, unions, institutions and Hasidic circles were represented in the kehile.

In addition to the kehile issuing marriage documents, birth documents, death notes, dividing help among the Chelm Jewish poor and giving subsidies to Jewish institutions and also to the educational and school institutions, it also organized matzo for the poor and gave medical help to poor patients as well as providing them with places in hospitals.

With the activity of Anshel Biderman, the kehile also helped build the large house of prayer, remodeling the large synagogue, and the bathhouse, slaughterhouse, the rabbinical court and the cemetery were under its leadership and supervision. The rabbis, shoyketim [ritual slaughterers] and all kinds of religious personnel were employed by the kehile.

The kehile placed taxes (etat [Jewish community tax]) on the population and covered its budget from this and other income.

* * *

The Chelm Jewish kehile represented a large Jewish population. Jews in Chelm numbered 12,064 (twelve thousand sixty-four), approximately 25 percent of the general population in the city according to the census of 1921. At that time the number of Jews in Poland was 2,845,364.

During the later years, according to the census in Poland in 1931, the Chelm Jewish population grew to 18,000. The Christian population also grew because the Radom train station was moved to Chelm. New neighborhoods with an exclusively Aryan population were built because of this.

The work of the Chelm Jewish kehile expanded greatly because of the increase of the Jewish population.

 

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Anshel Biderman, long-time chairman of the kehile in Chelm

 

During the last years until 1939 the parnosim [community or synagogue trustees] and the dozores of the

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kehile were the following people: Avraham Baumgold, E. Kratka, Moshe Jermus, Haim Hauzman, Berl Akslrad, Ahron Dovid Hipszman, Moshe Beker, Yisroel Bursztyn, F. Dreksler, M. Barg, N. Goldberg, Yisroel Borukh Kornblum, Yakov Kornblum, Ezriel Buchbleter, Avraham Frydman, Berish Finlsztajn, Berish Landa, Berish Drimler, Shlomo-Yitzhak Dinitc, Pinkhas Mandl, Avraham Baum, Yitzhak Szwarcman, Ben-Zion Lang, Hershl Fructgartn and so on.

The chairman of the kehile council was B. Finklsztajn. The chief secretary of the kehile for many years was Y. Zilbersztajn (son-in-law of A. Lipszic – the owner of the lamp business).

On the first day of its brutal rule the Nazi-Hitlerist regime in Chelm made the kehile community leaders responsible for the behavior of the Jews in the city and they were forced to collect the levy placed on the Jewish population.

When the Germans created the Judenrat [Jewish council], the kehile members were nominated as members of the Judenrat.

The Judenrat was liquidated after the persecutions, monetary extortions and deportations already had taken place. All of the members of the Judenrat were then thrown alive into pits outside the city and shot. Only Meir Frankl, one of the [members] of the Judenrat, Reb Dovid Lederman's son-in-law, survived the Hitler years. But he was murdered – by Polish Nazis – in his own mill on Lwowska Street (Parkrower) after the liberation.

For many years the premises of the kehile was in Fishl Lewnstajn's [house], at Pijarska 1, across from the Polish church and the administrative offices.

 

The Chelm House of Prayer

On the eve of the Second World War Chelm Jewry celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Chelm house of prayer that was built on the eve of the First World War. The building was completed Shavous [holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah] 1914 and was a close neighbor to the large Chelm synagogue.

 

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A corner of the Chelm house of prayer.
Mr. Anshel Biderman is near the Torah ark

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Various strata of the population, merchants, shopkeepers, artisans prayed in the house of prayer and it was a central point where Jews met and learned various news.

The house of prayer was built thanks to the initiative of the well-known communal worker, Anshel Biderman, who would give sermons from the pulpit for the congregation on the issues of the day.

Before the reading of the Torah during the 25th anniversary celebration Reb Anshel Biderman told interesting episodes connected with the house of prayer.

The anniversary celebration of the house of prayer was very impressive and no one could then imagine that the large congregation of the house of prayer's worshippers would perish so savagely.

 

Talmud Torah

A Talmud Torah existed in Chelm that was known by the name Talmud Torah and Yeshiva [religious secondary school] of the Chelm Kehile in which many hundreds of orphans and poor children were educated and raised in the religious spirit.

In 1938 the religious institution mentioned passed through a difficult crisis, was about to close when a group of middle class Jews numbering 114 under the name Talmud Torah and Yeshiva of the Chelm Kehile Society began to strongly undertake the support of this holy institution.

We read a call by the council of the Talmud Torah and Yeshiva of the Chelm Kehile in the Chelemer Shtime [Chelm Voice], no. 39 (764) of Friday the 30th of September 1938 in which there was an appeal for support, saying among other things:

 

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Left: Hershl Helfman, chairman of the Khevre Kadisha [burial society]
Right: Reb Zalman Helfman, gabai [sexton] of the Hakhnoses Orkhim [Sabbath shelter for poor wanderers]

[Page 106]

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Mealtime for Jewish soldiers in house of prayer during the days of Passover

 

“We expressed many important precepts. A Golden Book was announced in which everyone could be listed. The person who was listed would receive a page in the Golden Book in his name as an eternal souvenir for his help for our Talmud Torah and Yeshiva of the Chelm Kehile. The income should be the guarantee of its existence.”
Lubavitcher Yeshiva Achei HaTmimim

In Chelm there existed Achei HaTmimim [Brothers of the Pure Ones], the Lubavitcher yeshiva that was founded thanks to the initiative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may he live a long life. This yeshiva taught in the house of prayer school on the eve of the First World War.

Reb Efraim Unger, son-on-law of the Rzeszow Rebbe, Reb Yehuda Zindl Rokeach, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, was the spiritual leader of the yeshiva.

During a large celebration at the Lubavitcher yeshiva Rabbi Unger, may he live a long life, appealed for the strengthening and guarantee of the existence of the yeshiva in Chelm that was the only Hasidic [provider of] ethical education in the entire area and it must especially be sanctified because it was founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

 

Charitable Societies and Institutions

It has been established on the basis of historical sources that certain charitable societies and institutions existed in Chelm in the 18th century and even earlier. The khevre kadishe [burial society], beis yesiymin [orphanage], Ahiezer [help for my brother – a society for providing medical help], etc., were founded many, many years ago.

On the whole their number increased after the First World War. Jewish community life intensified and expanded with the rise of the Polish state and the number of different institutions that played a significant role also grew.

[Page 107]

The following societies and institutions carried on vigorous activity during the last years [before the Holocaust]:

 

Old Age Home

The moyshev-skeynim [old age home] was in a better financial condition than the above-mentioned societies and institutions.

A large building with all of the modern facilities was built.

The managing committee took care of the need for the hygiene and cleanliness of the old age home and for the health of the old men and women.

The Jewish community warmly supported this institution. The kehile subsidized it and Chelm landsleit [people from the same town] overseas sent financial help from time to time.

The last managing committee of the old age home consisted of the following people: Nukhem Goldberg, A. Hochgraf, A. Lew, M. Jermus, Kh. Feldman, Y. Huz, D. Korengeld. F. Nejdl, M. Micfliker, Y. Bergman, Y. Herszhorn and Sh. Lauwaser.

 

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The old age home, the only Jewish institution in Chelm that was not destroyed by the Hitler murderers

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A celebration during the brick laying at the raising of story of the old age home in Chelm in 1918

 

During the last years, on the eve of the destruction in 1939, its chairman was Benyamin Blumensztraud. He was a dedicated communal worker, a Jew of stately appearance and a man of good character. He died on the eve of the Hitler tyranny.

The old age home building remained undamaged. This was the only Jewish communal building not destroyed by the Nazi vandals.

 

Beis Lekhem

The Beis Lekhem [house of bread – organization providing aid to the poor] assured that the poor Jews did not starve. The main task was that Jews would be able to celebrate the Shabbosim and holidays in a good frame of mind.

The Beis Lekhem collected challahs [breads for celebrating Shabbos] and other foods throughout the city, bringing it into gloomy, poor Jewish homes.

 

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Old men and women from the Chelm old age home

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Gmiles Khesed

This was an important institution that was recognized by every strata of the Jewish population as a very useful one, thanks to its constructive help.

The gmiles-khesed kase [interest free loan fund] was supported by the Joint [Distribution Committee] in Warsaw. It would distribute interest-free loans among the shopkeepers and artisans. When shopkeepers needed to renew their licenses on the eve of the new year, they came to the gmiles-khesed for a loan and when a wagon driver or coach driver had a horse fall, he was helped by the loan institution.

Many Jews came to the gmiles-khesed kase. Thanks to the loans they received, Jews organized their matzo bakeries (lodn) before Passover and, during the summer, orchard keepers borrowed money to rent orchards. Many loans also were divided among impoverished men.

The managing committee worked hard to support this institution. The majority of borrowers did not exactly repay their loans simply because of the great poverty in the city and because of the heavy taxes imposed on the Jews by the Polish regime.

The income from the gmiles-khesed shrank and only with help from abroad and from the Joint did the gmiles-khesed exist until the Second World War.

The office of the gmiles-khesed was in the large house of prayer. Dr. Y. Aks was the chairman of this important institution and the secretary,

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N. Derman, was an important activist and a very gifted man showing great expertise in the work. Everyone who was employed worked at their position for many years.

 

Hakhnoses Orkhim

Hakhnoses Orkhim [institution to help visitors, particularly for Sabbaths and holidays] occupied a respected place among the philanthropic institutions. This institution built its own premises.

Poor Jews from neighboring cities and from more distant locations were received in the Hakhnoses Orkhim house with great friendliness and were given a free meal and clean bed.

The community workers in this institution covered their budget through members' dues and from various undertakings.

 

Biker Khoylim

A Biker Khoylim [Society to Help the Sick Poor] that carried on aid work also existed in Chelm. In Undzer Shtime [Our Voice], no. (45) 5 of Friday the 29th of January 1929, there is an announcement that the Biker Khoylim Society asked all worshippers to consider the difficult situation in which the society finds itself and donate when they are called up to the Torah on Shabbos Parshes [weekly reading] Beshalakh [When he let go] and Mishpatim [Laws] on behalf of the Biker Khoylim as was the custom all through the years.

 

Lines HaTsedek

Lines HaTsedek [society to provide beds or overnight accommodations for the sick] was the most popular and most beloved institution in the city. It arose in the years of the

 

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Lines HaTsedek management committee workers, doctors, nurses
At the bottom, M. Lewin

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First World War when various illnesses reigned in Chelm, such as typhus, cholera and the like. There was great need and poverty under the German occupation.

Lines HaTsedek carried out an enormously useful work. It distributed medical help, engaged doctors to help the poor patients and organized tours of duty to visit the sick at night. Its premises were located in the center of the city on Lubliner Street in Reb Fishl Rojtman's building. Existing at Lines HaTsedek was the

 

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Managing committee of Lines HaTsedek in 1917

 

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Fascimile of a traditional greeting that Lines HaTsedek Society would send to weddings and other celebrations

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Musical band at the Lines HaTsedek in Chelm

 

Biker Khoylim in which the Chelm intelligentsia was active.

An active managing committee carried on the work of the Lines HaTsedek.

The first chairman of the Lines HaTsedek was the old-time physician, Matish Lewin. After his death, Yehoshaya Binsztok stood at the head.

In 1939, on the eve of the Hitler attack on Poland, the Lines HaTsedek Society found itself in a bad position because of its large deficits. It was forced to suspend its activities temporarily. This evoked great concern in the poor circles. A large aid campaign was undertaken then to be able to revive the activities of Lines HaTsedek. Money collections, social events and various events were organized for this purpose.

In 1939 the managing committee of Lines HaTsedek had the following composition: chairman – B. Felhendler; vice-chairmen – M. Lederman and G. Nelkenbaum; secretary – Y. Rozenblat; vice-secretary – Sh. Goldbaum; treasurer – A. Mincer; owner – Y. Huz.

Among the most commendable Lines HaTsedek volunteers also were: Avraham Winik, Yehoshua Beker, Yosef Grinman, Artshe Karp and others.

 

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Malbish Arumim [Clothing for the Needy] Society in Chelm

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Malbish Arumim [Clothing for the Needy] Society in Chelm

 

Malbish Arumim

This charitable society was concerned with clothing the poor Jewish children and orphans and was located in the Talmud Torah building on Seminarski Street.

The income for this society came from flower [selling] days, from collecting levies and various opportunities were used to cover the budget.

Goods and leather were purchased and given that the largest number of community workers wee artisans – shoemakers and tailors – they sewed the clothing and shoes for the needy children at no cost.

The clothing and shoes were distributed to the children twice a year – erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover] and erev Sukkos [on the eve of the Feast of the Tabernacles] in the small butcher's synagogue and in a room of the Talmud Torah. Approximately 200-300 children were clothed and given shoes by the Malbish Arumim.

 

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Malbush Aromin [clothing the poor] workers during the clothing distribution

 

The Orphans' Home

The orphans' home was founded before the First World War.

Jewish orphans from Chelm and its surroundings were taken care of in the orphans' home.

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The Jewish population warmly supported the home for Jewish orphans.

 

Hakhnoses Kale

The task of the Hakhnoses Kale Society [society to help poor young brides] was to help poor Jewish girls get married, giving them a trousseau and money for marriage expenses.

This charitable body was very warmly supported by the Jews in Chelm.

 

The Bank System

Three Jewish banks functioned in Chelm. One of them did not have any longevity. The other two banks were luckier.

The Merchants Bank in which the merchants and shopkeepers had confidence had an eminent position.

 

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Ahron Shtal, director of the Merchants Bank

 

The managing committee consisted of the following people: Y. M. Lederman (today in England), Leibl Rozen, Sh. Helfbajn, Y. Szildkraut, Sh. Dawidzon, K. Mendelbaum, Berl Akslrod, Meir Kalmanowicz, G. Warman (all perished in the time of Hitler) and Yosif Ralnik (now in Israel). The director of the bank was Ahron Shtal (perished).

The third was the Cooperative Bank. Its director was S. Rabinzon. In the city the bank was called “Rabinzon's Bank.” There was great order in the bank. This actually was a bank for artisans, for the Jewish Handworker's Union whose delegates appropriately were on the council and the managing committee – representatives.

The following handworker-activists were the representatives on the managing committee of the Cooperative Bank: Wewtshe Handlsman, E. Kratka and Chaim Hausman. Represented on the council were: Sh. Bornsztajn and Moshe Yermus.

 

The Retailers Cooperative

The Retailers Cooperative was founded in Chelm in 1929. It numbered 41 members during its founding.

The few banks in the city were communal and had the purpose of alleviating the economic conditions of the Jewish retailers and artisans.

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The ORT [Obschestvo Remeslenovo i. Zemieledecheskovo Trouda – The Society for Handicrafts and Agricultural Labor] Society, whose task it was to spread crafts among the Jewish young, occupied a respected place among the various Jewish institutions in Chelm. The premises of the society were located at Pocztowa Street, no. 54.

Several sections for locksmith work, mechanics, tailors and others functioned at ORT.

 

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Managing committee of the ORT Society in 1918

From right to left, sitting: Dr. Y. Feldman, Dr. Mrs. Zajsn, Dr. A. Zajsn, teacher at ORT Avraham Berland
Top row, standing: Y. Tenenbaum, Meir Kalmanowicz, A. Szajn, Dr. A. Szebtl, Gershon Lustiger, Z, Kratka

 

Dozens of young Chelm Jews received theoretical knowledge and practical training in various crafts. Important personalities were active on the managing committee of ORT, active workers who devoted a great deal of time and effort on behalf of the ORT Society.

 

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ORT Society in Chelm

 

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Summer colony organized by the TOZ Society in 1933

 

The TOZ

The TOZ [Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej] (Society to Protect the Health of the Jews) was founded in 1929. Among the first initiators of this society was D. Wilenka.

The society played a significant role, mainly with its care for the young generation. It organized summer colonies for the children and young people, healed the sick through quartz lamps and diathermy. It fed the poor children who lived in the poor neighborhoods – Pocztowa, Katowski and others.

The TOZ also held hygiene contests in the school and homes.

Many Jewish doctors were active in the work of TOZ. The following doctors helped in the activities of TOZ: Dr. Laya Frid, Dr. Dovid Walberger, Dr. Avraham Lipszic, Dr. Cygelman, M. Sakuler, Mrs. Tanya Evry, Dr. M. Lipkowcz, Dr. M. Lewin.

These and other doctors gave medical help both at TOZ and at the Lines HaTzedek. They also gave lectures about hygiene, medicine, about sexual questions, venereal and various other illnesses.

The managing committee of TOZ consisted of the following people: Dr. D. Walberger, Motya Lewin, S. Szajn, Nakhum Goldberg, N. Derman, Dr. Wilenka. The technical chief was Motl Goldman.

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The Chess Club in Chelm

The Chess Club, or as it was called, Chess-mate Club, was a well-known society in Chelm. This was a great center for the Chelm Jewish intelligentsia as well as the assimilated strata and snobs.

The Chess Club was located in the house of Mr. Fishl Lewensztajn, a well-known Chelm landlord. It is interesting that despite the fact that the Chess Club included the strata of assimilated Jews, they devoted themselves to Jewish cultural work.

Incidentally, Yiddish plays were staged in one of the club's rooms, a spacious room, and the income was used for charitable purposes, for Jewish societies such as Lines HaTsedek, the Old Age Home, Hakhnoses Kale and others. Motke Ganev [Motke the Thief] by Sholem Asch was once performed at the Chess Club, which was a great success. Lectures on purely Yiddish literary themes were also held there.

In addition to the various cultural performances, dance evenings and the masquerade evenings famous in Chelm took place at the Chess Club. Particularly interesting

 

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The School Choir in 1927, photographed with Cantor Yakov Brajtman (the first on the left) during a visit from America to Chelm, his home city

 

and impressive were the Chanukah and Purim balls there. These once were successful attractions that drew great numbers of the Jewish intelligentsia.

As already said, all of those who were involved with the Chess Club were the “cream,” many of them from a rich milieu.

The baking of free matzos for the poor was the initiative of the Chess Club.

The Chess Club in Chelm arose before the First World War and was then located in the Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community] building that also belonged to Mr. Lewensztajn. In about 1918, the club moved to Mr. Lewenstzatjn's large building at Lubliner 6 where it remained until the last days of its demise.

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The Yiddish Press in Chelm

The title, “Yiddish Press,” can be misleading because in truth one can think that there were many Yiddish newspapers and journals in Chelm.

I know that there were only three Yiddish weekly newspapers: the Chelemer Shtime [Chelm Voice], Chelemer Folksblat [Chelemer People's Newspaper] and Chelemer Wokhnblat [Chelemer Weekly Newspaper]. Each of the three Yiddish newspapers had its followers and coworkers.

I, the writer of these lines, was connected with the Chelemer Shtime from its birth, being an active coworker until the eve of the Second World War. It began to publish in 1924 under the name Undzer Shtime [Our Voice] with the subheading “Independent-Democratic Weekly Newspaper for Literature, Communal and Economic Questions.” Its first editor was Nakhum Goldberg and its publisher and [executive] editor was Yehoshua Wajnsztajn. A year later the newspaper changed its name to Chelemer Shtime.

For a time, until 1928, Feywl Frid edited the Chelemer Shtime and, later, the hardworking Fishl Lazar edited the newspaper. Gershon Lustiger was drawn to the editorial work in 1934 and was its editor until its last day.

The Chelemer Shtime was very popular in Chelm and in the area. It introduced a section, “Chelm and its Surroundings,” where various episodes, notices, feature articles, announcements and writings about Jewish life in the Chelm province were published. Later, separate sections were introduced for the cities of Wladowa, Zamoszcz, Hrubieszow and others where their specific circumstances were highlighted.

Despite the fact that large Yiddish daily newspapers from Warsaw – the Heynt [Today], Moment, Undzer Ekspres [Our Express], Folks Zeitung [People's Newspaper] – and Warsaw afternoon newspapers and evening newspapers arrived in Chelm,

 

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Facsimiles of the mastheads of the newspapers Chelemer Shtime and Chelemer Woknblat

[Page 119]

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Reproduction of the editorial member card for the Chelemer Woknblat issued in 1931 under the name Hersh Sziszler

 

the Chelemer Shtime that was read in every Jewish home was awaited with particular anticipation.

The Chelemer Shtime was an independent newspaper and was interested in all matters and dealt with various problems of Jewish life. It was a tribune for all strata and shades [of opinion], for Zionists, for leftist ideologies and for various movements. It widely illustrated each cultural undertaking in Chelm and its surrounding area and this stimulated the activity of the Jewish intelligentsia in the city. Precise reports about the meetings of the city council, the municipality, of the party gatherings and of the activities of the various charitable societies and institutions were published in the columns of the Chelemer Shtime.

Special editions of the Chelemer Shtime were published with the latest telegrams and news when important events occurred in the country, such as when Pilsudski seized power in 1920.

Two Polish newspapers were published in Chelm. The newspaper Zwierciadło [Reflection] was published by the anti-Semite Jan Czarnecki. The Chelemer Shtime would react sharply to its articles.

This anti-Semite Jan Czarnecki once carried to excess his contempt for the Jewish population and he was punished by the administrative regime with a sentence of seven days in the so-called Chelemer bourgeois jail. Jewish merchants and members of the middle class often were sentenced there for administrative offenses.

After leaving the prison he wrote in his anti-Semitic newspaper about the jailhouse in which Jewish merchants were being placed with serious criminals… His [statement] on behalf of the Jews surprised everyone and it was thought that he had become a repentant sinner.

The Chelemer Shtime reprinted this statement with the appropriate commentary.

[Page 120]

The coworkers and editors of the Chelemer Shtime were: Feywl Frid, Yosef Goldhaber, Dovid Goldrajkh, Fishl Lazar, Gershon Lustiger, Hersh Sziszler, Ben-Zion Bruker, A. Kornblit and others. No royalties were paid. The editors themselves received a minimal wage.

Various writers, cultural workers and artists took part in this newspaper. From time to time, a Chelemer landsman [person from the same town] in America, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Eretz-Yisroel sent articles.

The Chelemer Shtime provided a place for local young writers many of whom are known and well-recognized writers today.

The Chelemer Shtime was the tribune for Chelemer Jews during the most difficult times of anti-Semitic turmoil and harassment, allowing their words and protests to be heard against every edict and assault by the Polish regime, by the city council and tax office against the Jews, citizens with equal rights under the Polish Republic.

The Chelemer Shtime continued to exist with great stubbornness and power of endurance and with great financial difficulties until the 8th of September 1939 when Poland was already in ruins and half occupied by the brown-shirted Nazi murderers.

* * *

che120a.jpg
Ahron Wolfson, typesetter for the Chelemer Shtime, who set the newspaper from its first issue until its demise. He perished at the hands of the Hitler murderers

 

The second weekly newspaper, Dos Chelemer Folksblat, was the publication of the Poalei-Zion [Marxist Zionists] (left). It was published from 1928 until 1930 under the editorship of Feywl Frid and it was printed in Branfeld's printing shop.

 

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Facsimile of an identification card for the Chelemer Shtime (then called the Undzer Shtime) issued in the name of Ben-Zion Bruker

[Page 121]

Dos Chelemer Folksblat began to publish in 1930. Hersh Goldman, the owner of a printing business, was its editor and publisher. (He is now in Brazil.)

This newspaper was impartial and was published regularly every Friday from 1930 to 1933 in a smaller format than the Chelemer Shtime. It was well distributed and had a section on the life of artisans edited by Gershon Lustiger, secretary of the Artisans Union in Chelm.

There also was a sports section put together by Sh. Icykowicz and a humorous section put together by H. Sziszler.

 

Jewish Streets

Chelm had many streets and alleys. Each of them was made up of a world of its own. The main street was Lubliner Street, which was well known in the city as well as in the neighboring cities and shtetlekh.

 

Lubliner Street

Lubliner Street was the largest and most liked street in the city. It extended from one end to the other end of the city and possessed beautiful brick buildings and businesses. The majority of the

[Page 122]

residents and business owners were Jewish.

Lubliner Street was known as a commercial street. Most of the businesses in the city were located here: the bank, the stock exchange and in past years even the market days took place here. It was the center for meeting people. Here were the cafes, cinemas, theaters and so on. The street was the street for strolling. Strolling began at the Gurke (cathedral) and extended all the way across the train line that cut through Lubliner Street, an area of several miles.

The post office, the Saxon gardens were located on Lubliner Street where the Jewish young were often attacked by Polish hooligans when they wanted to prevent Jews from getting a bit of fresh air there.

The Polonia, the theater building that the Germans had built during the time of their occupation during the First World War, was located on Lubliner Street, opposite the municipal garden. The Polonia was located on the property of M. Neihaus, the state-approved rabbi.

Rabbi Neihaus's shtibl [one room synagogue] was located at the same location neighboring the Polonia.

The famous ring of businesses that belonged to the municipal administration and was inhabited by Jews throughout who ran their businesses there for many years also was located on Lubliner Street.

 

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Fragment of Lubliner Street in Chelm

[Page 123]

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A group of Jews with canes at the trading market on Lubliner Street talking politics

 

The Polish regime brought to bear its “established policy,” and then began to tear down the ring of businesses as a result of which hundreds of Jewish families remained without bread.

The kehile offices, the Yiddish newspaper businesses, the Jewish printers and Jewish editors were located on Lubliner Street. The entire Jewish political and communal life throbbed. The Bund, the Jewish Cultural House, Poalei-Zion, the Jewish Handworkers Union and many others had their premises on Lubliner Street.

But many other streets in Chelm also were saturated with Jewish life, among them the Naye Tzal, Siedlecka Street, Wesola Street, Szkolna, Reformacka and many other streets, and Jews also settled a part of Hrubieszowska Street.

 

Krzywa Street

It was called Ulica [street in Polish] Adrianowska before the First World War. However when Poland received its independence the name was changed to Krzywa [curved] Street. The street really was crooked, going zig-zag, in other places wider and others narrow. It began nearby from behind the gurka [small hill] – the Russian cathedral that the Poles made Polish and sanctified as Catholic and when the Jewish young people wanted to stroll around its meadows, Polish hooligans attacked them bloodily. It cut through the spots and alleys where Jewish commerce was located. Its neighbors were the shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] alley, the butchers' alley, the trade in meat and fish, of fruits and vegetables, of hot beans and kvas [a fermented yeast-based drink], of homemade cigarettes and other Jewish sources of income.

It was a typical Jewish street in Chelm. It extended parallel in a zig-zag from Lubliner Street. The religious life of Chelm was also found on this street, the old, historical synagogue, the fine house of prayer, the historical shtiblekh [small, one room houses of prayer] and the Jewish booksellers.

[Page 124]

The interest-free loan fund was located at Krzywa Street, in the house of prayer building. The committee that gave out food cards to Jews also was here at the same time as the interest-free loan fund. The small Jewish factories that would make raisin wine were located here. Gershon Lazar's oil factory whose smell of oil and the clanging of the electrical motor echoed around was also found here.

The Kuzmir shtibl of the Rabbi, Reb Moshe Leibele Twerski was located a little further along from the tumult of Gershon Lazar's oil factory. At that time this street and the surrounding streets were filled with Jews, young and old for the celebration of tashlikh by the Kuzmirer Rebbe and his hakofes.[3]

Hakofes is the circular procession with the Torah scrolls performed on Simkhas Torah, the holiday celebrating the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the start of the new cycle.]

Striding across a little further on Piarski Street where the Jewish kehile was located, on the right side of the shtibl, lived the city Rabbi, Reb Gamliel Hochman, who was widely known for his intelligent advice and instructions. The butcher's small synagogue was also located on this street. The butcher's small synagogue was a world unto itself. Here kehile matters were debated; here were heard the protests against every injustice that occurred in the city; here, on Passover and Sukkous, clothing was distributed to poor children and orphans.

Leibish Rajfer's soda-water shop was located here. After the cholent on Shabbos, the Jews came here to drink soda-water with syrup. This business was open on Shabbos and Leibish Rajfer gave everyone his sweet and cold drinks. He did not take any money from anyone. He knew everyone and had a good memory. He asked for the [payment] of the debts later in the week.

 

The Naye Tzal

The Naye Tzal was a purely Jewish street where no Christian residents were seen; no gentile neighbors existed here. The only gentiles who were noticed here were peasants who would drive into the Jewish courtyards on market days, [tie up] their horses and wagons and then they would go to the Jewish artisans to order a garment.

 

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The “slippery steps” that led to the Naye Tzal, Pocztawa Street. The picture was taken after the liberation of Chelm by the Russian Army

[Page 125]

Chelm possessed about 100 streets and alleys and, since its emergence until its ruin, the Naye Tzal was the Jewish street in the city. The major part of the Chelm Jewish population was concentrated here, middle-class Jews, artisans, shopkeepers, toiling workers and also the poor people.

The Naye Tzal began at the corner of Lwowska Street and extended to Siedlecka and a series of adjacent alleys were enclosed in it such as Naye Welt [New World], Siedlecka, Iszczilutcka and other streets that were also well settled by Jews. However, the Naye Tzal still remained as the Jewish street of Jewish Chelm.

Hundreds and thousands of Jews were tightly packed in the above-mentioned street. Every courtyard, every house and room was packed, overcrowded with the young and old who struggled for their livelihood and their income and existence. Yet each one was full of faith, believing in the dream and hope of good times, of a more beautiful world.

There were Jewish shops, food and cheap sweets shops in almost every second or third house on the Naye Tzal. The majority of them were shrunken, meager with empty shelves and had a pitiful appearance. Their owners appeared preoccupied. They were constantly worried about where they would get the money to buy a little bit of fresh goods, a little bit of food, flour and sugar, to fill the empty shelves of their small shops.

The Naye Tzal was always moving, Jewish. It breathed and lived with all of the Jewish joys and sufferings. The journeymen here drowned out the street [noise] from the open windows with their singing. The echo of shoemakers hammering here could be heard – from the early morning to late into the evening. Carpenters, builders, locksmiths, painters, porters, wagon drivers and others also had their homes on the street; their children were born here; they had weddings for them [here].

Every Jewish holiday had its colossal and important reverberation on the Naye Tzal. The arrival of the holidays was taken note of here weeks before

 

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Pocztawa Street after the destruction. The ghetto where the Chelm Jews were imprisoned and tortured was located here.

[Page 126]

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A group of Chelm Jewish coach drivers

 

by the Jewish artisans, the shops, the khederim [religious primary schools] and the kheder boys from the entire area.

Of all of the Jewish holidays, the holiday of Passover was the most strikingly noted. Erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover] many of the Jewish bakeries that were located here were converted into matzo bakeries (ladns) that were a particular attraction for many of the young people in Chelm. Several members of the Chelm Jewish intelligentsia often helped the poor girls with the matzo as well as [helping] the men with the oven peels, rollers, kneaders who stood on their feet at the matzo bakery from six in the morning until late in the evening and [their presence] allowed them to catch their breath.

Baking the matzo was a great undertaking; it demanded a lot of money. However, the majority of the owners of such enterprises were poor Jews who waited for the matzo-baking season for the entire year. Others maintained rented orchards during the summer months and lost money very often when there was a bad harvest. These Jews came together before Purim to discuss and to set up their matzo bakeries. They often ran around looking for interest-free loans. The existing interest-free loan fund in the city often helped them out with loans, too.

Passover arrived and dressed up Jews could be seen leaving the Naye Tzal someone in a new jacket and new suit of clothes, someone with a remodeled garment. The young from the Naye Tzal were dressed up and left with pride to stroll on Lubliner Street or in the municipal garden. They met friends and acquaintances there.

Shabbos on the Naye Tzal could easily be observed: the closing of the shops on Friday night, the call to the synagogue by Reb Chaim Haftacz [embroiderer]– “Shabbos, Shabbos Yidn.” – he sealed the week and Shabbos emerged, as if from under one's feet… Jewish artisans, washed, hurried to the synagogue or the house of prayer; their Shabbos clothing gleamed. Shabbos morning, after the prayers, the pious women and children carried the ordered cholent [Sabbath stew cooked overnight] for the Shabbos meals.

[Page 127]

During the day on Shabbos Jewish speakers from various parties dropped in on the Naye Tzal and gave their speeches from the balconies. This occurred on the eves of voting for the parliament, city council or the Jewish kehile.

Particularly impressive were the Jewish weddings celebrated here. In the previous good years, the wedding events were carried out with all of the details and they were furnished with klezmer musicians, a badkhn [wedding entertainer who improvised rhymes about the bride and groom] who placed the bride on a symbolic velveteen throne before the wedding ceremony. Neighbors were invited and those who were not invited felt insulted. Others looked into the windows, pushed each other to catch a glimpse of the bride, to see the bride's charm, to see the groom and what kind of person he was and to see the in-laws. The badkhn got excited; Reb Motele the klezmer played a mournful, sorrowful melody. The women sobbed and there were tears in everyone's eyes.

And when pogromists, hooligans decided to have fun [at the expense of] the Jews, they went to the Naye Tzal. They chose here [the Naye Tzal] out of all of the other Jewish streets and began to break Jewish windowpanes and beat up Jews. It also happened that Jews from the Naye Tzal were not frightened and Jewish wagon drivers occasionally let the unruly hooligans have it with the stanchions from the wagons.

[Page 128]

These are short highlights about the Jewish street in Chelm – the Naye Tzal – that played a central role in Jewish life, mainly among the Jewish working masses and artisans.

The Jewish gymnazie [secondary school], the Widzolowski School, the Klara Morgenstern School and the Zionist organization were located at Budowski and Podwolna Streets. The Socialist Jewish group also had a location here for a time.

There were many more streets in Chelm that were purely Jewish and there were dozens of other streets in Chelm whose residents were mixed, Jews and Christians – and also there were streets in Chelm where Jews rarely lived.

Today all of the streets in Chelm stand empty and vacant. The pulsing Jewish life was ruthlessly exterminated. Sadly a dark wind blows through the streets of the Naye Tzal, Krzywa, Szkolna, Iszczilutcka and many others that were densely inhabited by Jews, by good Chelm Jews who were well-known in the large Jewish world.

The Jewish Chelm artisans and good students, the wagon drivers and the rabbis, the butchers and the teachers, the porters and the intelligentsia, the Hitler animals terrifyingly annihilated all of them; all of their bodies were burned in the gas ovens of Majdanek and Sobibor. Now a dark wind blows that carries the sacred dust of these martyrs through the empty and vacant Jewish streets of Chelm.


Notes:

  1. Feywl Fryd wrote an historical assessment of the Chelm synagogue in the Chelemer Shtime [Chelm Voice] concluding that it was around 800 years old and that a Dominican church had stood on its location and the Jews had bought it to build a synagogue. Return
  2. Dr. Meir Balaban remembers the Chelm synagogue in his work Festung-Shuln fun der Poylisher Melukhe [Fortress Synagogues of the Polish State], and in YIVO Bleter [YIVO Pages] of 1942 there is an interesting work about the synagogues in Poland by Ruchl Misznicer, which describes the architectural art of the Chelm synagogue. Return
  3. It is said that the Tsarist regime took a one million [funt] bribe for giving IKO permission to provide support to the Jewish population in Russia. Return


Translator's footnotes

  1. esn teg was the custom by which religious students would be provided with meals in Jewish homes. They might eat with one family one day and another the next. Return
  2. A chair is set aside at circumcisions for Elijah the prophet who is said to witness all circumcisions. Return
  3. tashlikh – casting off – is a symbolic act of casting away one's sins by throwing small pieces of bread into a running natural body of water. Tashlikh takes place on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Return

 

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