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[Pages 179-202]

Jewish Life and Work in Chelm

by Akiva Winik

Translated by Howard Bergman

Chelm, my hometown, at the outbreak of World War II had a Jewish population of around 18 thousand. Only a remnant of a few hundred Chelmer Jews remain, escaping the Nazi sword in the last days before Hitler's occupation of the town. Very few Jews saved themselves from the Chelmer Ghetto.

For 700 years a Jewish community existed in Chelm, which experienced a variety of difficult times in its history.

The historian, Dr. Raphael Mahler, in his book The Jews in Old-Time Poland, writes about the blood accusations the Chelmer Community and the surrounding area have endured. He stresses the fact that in 1761 several Jews in the small town of Wojslawice (Chelmer area) were executed at the hands of the hangmen, among the victims two rabbis and two elected heads of the community, because of blood accusations. And in the 17th century, the bishops of the Eastern Dioceses - Chelm, Luck and Kiev - made life very bitter for the Jews through harsh edicts and persecutions.

In his book The Jews In The Ukraine From The Oldest Times, I. S. Hertz writes that, “During the Christian Easter Procession in 1580, a part of the mob broke into the Chelm Synagogue and created a devastation just when the Jews were praying. A number of worshippers were wounded.” Hertz cites the fact that “while marching on Zamosc-Wolin, the Cossack-Tatar mobs destroyed a row of settlements and killed people in the region of Chelm and Hrubieszow. Jews were killed in Dubienka and Korytnica, and Hrubieszow was destroyed. Several hundred Jews were murdered and a large number of Unitarian (?) Ukrainians.”

In the same book, I. S. Hertz writes:

”Chelm was a town that developed and grew very well. In November 1648, the Cossacks burned the town. The Chelm population, including the Jews, put up a resistance but could not resist the pressure from the enemy. The town and the castle fell victims to the flames. Around 400 Jews perished in Chelm. In Uchanic, near Chelm, a successful resistance was made and the enemy could not take the fortifications. However, many people died of starvation and pestilence. In Wlodawa, at the River Bug, a huge massacre was then perpetrated. The number of Jews killed was estimated at around ten thousand.”
There is a document from the 17th century by the Vaad Arba Arotses[1] concerning great internal feuds in Chelm and in Galil (Galicia? Galilee?). In September 1671, steps were taken against those feuds, at a session of the V.A. A. in Jaroslaw. That document was found by Professor Szymon Dubnow, in the town of Dubno:

(A copy of the document is printed in this space, in Old Yiddish with some Hebrew and in Old Russian. Not translated here. – Translator).

Besides the internal feuding among the Jewish Community Officials and rabbinical and Jews in general, fractions existed among the diverse national groups and sections of the population which consisted of Ruthenians, Unitarian peasants, Greek Catholics, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Jews.


Akiva Winik


Between the years 1795 and 1807, Chelm belonged to Austria. Since then colonists of Austrian-German origin lived in Chelm and surrounding villages until the recent time, and during the latest German occupation they helped the Hitler hordes to exterminate the Jews.

From 1807 till 1812 Chelm belonged to the Warsaw Grand Duchy; from 1812 till 1915 Chelm was under Russian authority. To all these political circumstances the Jewish population in Chelm had to make adjustments and had to endure many persecutions.

The town lived through a very difficult time when World War I broke out. Chelm was shelled by the Germans and the Russian Army.

Life under the first German occupation was hard and bitter. Bread was made from a mixture of pulp and flour and distributed on ration cards. The population was starving and the mortality was growing from day to day. Epidemics broke out. The Jewish community decided to conduct a wedding at the cemetery, believing that this deed would stop the epidemic. This was actually carried out: An old maid and a widower were found and the wedding took place on the grounds of the cemetery. After that, the plague did indeed diminish and the Jews interpreted the change as having been helped by the superstitious ritual.

The Germans introduced forced labor. Working conditions were terrible and punishment for every trivial thing was very severe.

In 1916 the Austrians took over the town and in many respects the situation became easier. In the Austrian garrison there were Jewish officers who showed a great interest in the Jewish population. In particular, much was done for the Chelmer Jews by: Major Kalrnis (he was city mayor), Dr. Fensterblau (vice mayor), and Dr. Kanfer. In the years 1916-1918 help arrived from the Jews in America. It should be noted, however, that during the difficult occupation years, active social help and activities were conducted, especially under the Austrian authorities. Workers Cooperatives, important institutions, cultural establishments, and children's homes were opened.

The Jewish working masses in Chelm were then the most dominant and active social force in Jewish life.

With the emergence of the independent Polish Republic, the economic and the cultural-social life changed a great deal.

The city of Chelm, within a short time, spread out and a new district was created on the northeast and new streets emerged, such as: Wesola, Pijarska, Podwalna, Kopemika, Budowska, and others. Near the marketplace, new streets developed. Jews divided lots on the “New World” and Kotawska Street. The streets Czarna, Pieracki, Oblonska, Narutowicza were created. To the left of Lubelska Street stretched a new street, Palestynska. Many Jewish dwellings were built below the hill, on the south side. The “New Cal” became densely populated.

Commercial activity developed on a large scale. On the Lubliner (Lubelska) Street a marketplace was built containing 80 shops, all of which were in Jewish hands. Opposite the Polish Church, large buildings went up with fine shops and hotels. A new and handsome movie house was built, as was the Theater “Polonia”, where performances, meetings, and lectures were often held. The Polonia Theater was owned by the rabbinical family Najhojz.

The grain business developed very strongly and new mills were built. Before World War 11 the following motor- and rolling-mills existed: Michalenko Mill (the owners were: the Christian Grzegorz Nfichalenko, Yakov Sztul, I. M. Lederman, Eliezer Lederman, and Yosif Rolnik); Boguszewski Mill (the property of the Christian Boguszewski; but administered by Jews); Lemberger Mill (owners: Zalman Lemberger, Berisz Handelsman, Mates Klajner, and Yakov
Yitzhak Goldrelch); Grozinski Mill (owned by Christian Grozinski) Pola???ywka Mill (owners: Avrom Dovid Lederman, I. M. Lederman, M. Frenkel, and A. Bojmgold) S. Rubins Mill; Wierzbicki Mill. There were also about a dozen Jewish bakeries. Most administrators and managers of the mills, merchants and shopkeepers were exclusively Jews. The workers were also Jews.

In the area of heavy industry where the Jews were pioneers during the last years before the War, the ownership was almost exclusively in the hands of Christians of German origin.

The Jews acquired new sources of income, as well as new trades. The Jews even created a metal workers union.

Until the Polish boycott movement started under the slogan “Swoj do swego” (”To each his own”) the Jews did not live too badly, economically. But when the anti-Semitism in Poland became stronger and the Owszem Policy[2] penetrated to all levels of the Polish population, the economic situation of the Jews became continually worse throughout the country and it also affected the Jews in Chelm.


Religious Life

The religious way of life was dominant in Poland, even up to the last years. Also Chelm was a religious Jewish town with famous rabbis, such as Rabbi Shloyme ben Moyshe Chelmo who was a brilliant man and expert in the Middle Ages philosophy; The {unintelligible word} who was the Rabbi in Chelm at the beginning of the 17th century, and who authored a profound commentary on the Talmud. Also, up to the last years, there were many houses of prayer including Hasidic houses, such as the Kotzker House, the Kuzmer House, the Radziner House, the Belzer House, and the several hundred-year-old Synagogue which had a square shaped courtyard. Many tales and legends surround the name of the Great Synagogue. It was a massive and handsome structure, the walls covered with oil paint, with an almemar (reading desk - Editor) under a baldachin (canopy - Editor). The windows were tall; almost up to the ceiling, from which heavy brass fixtures were hanging. The Synagogue also had a balcony on which a separate minyan used to be arranged during holidays. The entrance to the balcony was by a staircase on the right side of the anteroom.

One had the feeling of great holiness upon entering the Synagogue. Jews who used to pass through town would make a special stop to visit the lovely, majestic Synagogue.

In the courtyard opposite the door of the Chelmer Synagogue there was an entrance on the left side to the Beit Hamidrash (House of Study). On the right side was a small “house” of the society to assist “poor brides” with a dowry, and other “houses” for other charitable societies.

In the 1920's the Beit Hamidrash was rebuilt. The walls were repainted with oil paint and adorned with artistic paintings of Eretz Israel.

Chelm was a significant center of Hasidism. In Chelm resided the Trisker Magid (Preacher), a student of the saintly Magid, Reb Ber Mezeritscher.

In the 1920's settled in Chelm the Kuzmir Rabbi, Reb Motele, who had a great voice. At every prayer service his coloratura voice rang out with great sweetness. Therefore, the prayer services on Saturdays would not end until about two o'clock in the afternoon.

The Kuzmir Rabbi had very many adherents. Hundreds of Hasidim used to arrive from all comers of Poland to the Rabbi who would set the table for a large crowd and celebrate until it became totally dark.

During the High Holidays large groups of Hasidim would come together among whom there were prayer leaders. Their melodies penetrated the whole body. Hundreds of Chelmer Jews would come to the House of Prayer to listen to the melodies, occupying all windows, to catch every gesture, every tune and song. Later, the Hasidic artisans would repeat the melodies at work in their workshops.

Simcha Torah Holiday was a joyful celebration at the Kuzmir Rabbi's house. The Rabbi, who was lame, would dance during the “hakofes” (the circular procession with the Torah) with his own small Torah, which had golden trees of life. The Hasidim would make a circle around him and the Rabbi, covering his head with the talit, danced holding his little Torah above his head.

The Kuzmir Court brought unusual rapture and joy to Jewish life in Chelm.

Before World War I the “kheder” (religious school) was practically the only institution of learning for Jewish children in Chelm. The studying went on till late in the evening and, because of the fear of demons, one would hold the tsitsit or the Gemara in one's hands while walking home from kheder. That served as a protector against all wild devils and demons.

On the right side of Seminarska Street there was a house of Torah Study where children from the large Jewish poverty stratum studied. The children received meals several times a day.

Higher up to the left on the same Seminarska Street was a yeshiva (a school of higher Talmudic learning) where one would find students also from the surrounding area.

Many legends were spread among the students in the kheders and the yeshiva.

Very popular were the legends and the stories about the Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem who, it was said, created the golem (an artificial man) in Chelm.

I heard the story in the following version:

”No one was allowed to enter the attic of the Old Synagogue. No one even knew where the key to the attic could be found. One person whispered to another the secret that in the attic there lies the golem of the famous Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem.

It was said that Elijah Ba'al Shem created from clay a golem who would stand on market days with an ax in his hand, and as soon as he saw that a peasant was going to beat up a Jew, the golem killed the peasant.

An entire week the golem served the Rabbi, the Rabbi's wife, and he performed the manual labor in the Beit Harnidrash.

When the local landowner found out about the golem's might, the Ba'al Shem led the golem to the attic, withdrew from him the ineffable name of God, and converted the golem into a heap of clay. The Ba'al Shem locked the door, took with him the key, and since then the attic remained bolted.”

There were many miracle stories about Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem. It is told that before his death he left a will that after his demise when his coffin would be led past the Russian Church (apparently there was no other road to the cemetery), and Christian hooligans started throwing stones - as is their habit for many years - no one should run away but they should stop with the coffin and not move.

As a continuation, it is told that when Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem expired, his will was honored. When his funeral procession approached the Church, gentile hooligans ran out of the Church and began to throw stones at the coffin and at the Jews who accompanied the saintly man. Nobody ran away. Rabbi Elijah sat up and looked into the Torah scroll that was in the coffin, and a few minutes later the Church sank together with the hooligans. Right after that the Ba'al Shem Tov stretched out in the coffin like a corpse. The frightened Jews looked at one another in astonishment and the funeral procession continued.

It was said that since that miracle the hooligans no longer threw stones during Jewish funerals.

About the church that sank, boys who studied in the kheder of the teacher Leib Paks would say that when one goes down to the cellar and starts jumping on the wooden floor, one can hear a kind of echo of a bell sound which is the reverberation of the sunken church.


Tishe Bov at the Chelm Cemetery


This version went around among the children. It was also said that the Leib Paks house was built on the same place of the sunken church.

At the Chelm cemetery on a certain spot there were bricks thrown in the shape of the Hebrew letter “B”. On some of the bricks letters were carved. It was said that on the anniversary of Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem's death an angel would appear and carve a letter on a brick. Therefore, everyone was afraid to touch the bricks.

That was the grave of Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem. There was no tombstone on the grave.

In the “Oytser Israel”, page 137, part three, in New York, the following information is to be found:

(Ba'al Shem -Text in Hebrew, not translated in these pages.)


School Matters

The Jewish Public School was the first modern educational institution in Chelm. The school was established in 1918, thanks to the initiative of the Labor Zionist Party with the help of the “Bund” and a number of impartial persons. The instruction language was Yiddish. The Hebrew language and the study of Eretz Israel was obligatory. The students in the school came from the poorest strata of the Jewish population in Chelm. Many of the parents could not even pay the minimum tuition. The school budget was mostly covered from various enterprises and flower days, and from occasional supports by relief committees and Chelmer people overseas. In the first several years, subsidies for the school were sent by the Medem-Dinezon-Reichman Committee and later by the TSISHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) in Poland. The teaching personnel belonged mostly to the Labor Zionist Party. Dr. M. Kanfer was the School Administrator. Later, the administrator was his wife, Gazela Kanfer, who also taught Polish in the School. The teaching staff included: ??irkin, Faivel Fried, Moyshe Lerer, Blume Bojm, and Alter Bakaliar (Hebrew teacher).

The School developed very nicely and the number of students grew. In 1920 there were 200 students in the Jewish Public School.

Thanks to the strong demand by the Labor Zionist faction in the Jewish Community, especially by the Councilman, Aaron David Hipshman, the Community Administration, in 1923, decided to give a small subsidy to the (Jewish) Public School.

In 1923-1924 Yakov Alster of Cracow was engaged as School Administrator. He created a circle of youth who helped with the school work, including teaching. To that student circle belonged: Zalman and Avrom Kratki, Mendelson, Sister and Brother Bash, Neryam Koyfman, (later the wife of Yakov Alster), Nfirke Atlas, Royze Shwartsman-Gutman, Glintsman, Yenkl Bornshtein, Komblit, and others.


Teachers Council of Public School in Chelm


After the School Secretary, Michal Ribayzn, left for Warsaw, I, the writer of these pages, took over as Secretary. During my tenure a group of graduates from the Jewish Middle School in Chelm was organized. This group traveled to Warsaw to participate in pedagogical courses set up by the TSISHO. These graduates later became teachers and worked in the TSISHO schools. Several of them taught at the Chelm Public School.

Afler Alster resigned, Akiva Bakszt of Zhetl became the administrator. In 1924, when I left for Warsaw to attend the teacher seminar run by TSISHO, the School Secretary became Sholem Goldbojm, and the administration was led by Chaim Bibel (now in Israel).

There were frequent changes in the teaching personnel of the School. In 1926-1927, after completing my seminar, I worked as a teacher at the Chelm Public School. The teachers at that time were: Genye Levy, Chantshe Helfenbein, Avrom Kratki, Michal Balyar, Pesl Goldfeld, Sheva Kruk, Yosele Rozenblat, and the writer of these pages.

For the school year 1928-1929 the School Administrator became Chaim Gutman who also was a good musician. He introduced a lot of joy into the school. He initiated into the school program the studies of music and singing. Also, there were created a student club, a drama group, a school choir, and a sports section. Their successes - both morally and financially - were the organized student-evenings, which became renowned in Chelm.

The School at that time was partially subsidized by the city administration, thanks to the victory of the Labor Zionist faction in the election to the City Council. A subsidy was also provided by the Jewish Community, but at the beginning of school year 1929-1930 the situation became very difficult. The new political atmosphere in the country had a strong influence on the Chelm City Administration, and even on the Jewish Community Council, which further reduced the subsidy to the Jewish Public School. The School found itself in a critical situation.

At the beginning of 1930 the TSISHO assigned a representative, Yakov Peterzayl, to Chelm who became in charge of the rescue action for the School. A series of meetings took place, a conference of the trade unions with the participation of the Labor Zionists and the “Bund”, and money collections were carried out from house to house. This school action was concluded with an imposing school celebration.

The teacher personnel at that point included: Chaim Gutman, Sheva Kruk, Motele Shener, Royze Shwartsman, and Serke Wajsman.

For the school year 1930-1931 the administrator of the Public School was Berl Akselrad, and his wife Neche had a position in the Children's Home.

In 1932 the owner of the building of the Public School, the well known assimilated Jew, Dr. Lipkowicz, obtained a warrant to evict the School. During the most severe winter time, in the month of February, the eviction took place. The appeals and efforts of various people, the heartrending cries of the small children to wait with the eviction at least two months until spring, had no effect. The city hall official was touched and willing to wait, but the heartlessness of the owners won out. The news about the eviction very quickly spread throughout the whole town. The school officials made desperate efforts to rent new quarters for the School but did not succeed; first, because there were no suitable locations for a school in general and, second, the thought had matured that it was time to build our own school building.

Unsuccessful efforts were made to obtain from city hall a free lot for the School. There was no other choice but to buy a lot with our own money. In 1932 a building site was purchased on Katowski Street (opposite Siedlecki Street) in the very center of the hardworking Jewish population. The purchase of the building site was registered under the names of Aaron Dovid Hipshman, Moyshe Beker, and Julek Weissman. (The first two perished under the Germans, the third one now lives with his wife and son in Sao Paulo, Brazil).

The selected building committee immediately started the work on the school building, and that created great enthusiasm among comrades and friends, as well as among many people in general, who volunteered to work without pay, thus saving the building committee a good deal of money.

The celebration of laying down the cornerstone of the school building took place on July 3, 1934.

Over a thousand people assembled. In the name of the building committee, the celebration was opened by Councilman Moyshe Beker. Speeches and greetings were delivered by: Yenkl Beker, in the name of the Poalei Zion Party Committee; City President, Stanislaw Gut, on behalf of City Hall; Vice Chairman, City Council, I. M. Lederman; Chaim Bibel, in the name of the Trade Unions; Feige Nitslach, on behalf of the “Youth” Organization; Berl Akselrad, on behalf of the cultural institutions and the teachers who were waiting for the School; N. Buksboim of the TSISHO Office in Warsaw.

Jewish School Organization - Division Chelm


We have the honor to invite you to participate in

The celebration takes place on Sunday, July 3, at 11:30 A.M. with the participation of the Delegate from TSISHO, Comrade N. Buksboim, at our own site in the open air at Katowska 40 (end of Siedlecka)


1) Greetings
2) Speeches
                   3) Laying of Cornerstone


The Administration




The ceremony of laying the cornerstone took place. The first stone was laid by Nathan Buksboim, then the City President. Later, other representatives of the city and invited guests spoke. In the evening a conference was held by the administrations of the Trade Unions and cultural institutions, at which the Building Committee presented its plans for collecting the money for the school structure. The collection actions were carried out quite energetically, but they still did not succeed in procuring a large enough amount of money required to erect the building.

In June, 1935, premises were rented on Lubliner (Lubelska) St. 78 for a children's home named for Mordche Evri. It was in the middle of summer, during a great heat, at a time when children abandoned their school benches. Still, there were more than 20 children attending. In order to obtain the financial means to operate the children's home, the entire party activity became involved in conducting enterprises, renting cinema halls for special showings, and the members themselves walked around selling tickets. During the first month an income of over 200 Zloty was realized, from three movie showings (Azef, Tsheluskin Expedition, Memories from Dead House). Some time elapsed and the financial difficulties became so great that the children's home had to be closed.

In January, 1938, Dr. Leah Fried approached the Labor Zionist Committee stating that she was prepared to help open the children's home under the name of Mordche Evri, and that she herself would conduct the fund raising in town

In only a number of days, the above mentioned, with the help of Dr. (Mrs.) Witenka, collected over 400 zloty.


The laying of the cornerstone of our own school building in Chelm, 1934.
The speaker is N. Buksboim, delegate of TSISHO in Poland.


An extensive committee was created for the children's home which included: Dr. Leah Fried, Faivel Fried, Dora Dubkowska, Bashke Tsimennan, Za??l Zaltstreger, Blume Gomulka, Chana Szargel, Shmuel Szargel, Yankl Beker, Dovid Goldreich, and Berl Akselrad. A 3-room apartment was rented on Lubliner Street 80, all necessary installations were made, including a kitchen to provide two warm meals daily for the little children. Neche Akselrad was appointed administrator. After more than 40 children were accepted, assistants were hired; first Esther Solman, and later Ruzhke Gertner.


Children's Home at the Jewish Public School in Chelm.
To the left is the teacher, Neche Akselrad-Bakalczuk.


To the festive opening of the Children's Home over 60 persons came, such as representatives of various organizations and institutions. Festive speeches were delivered.

Once the Children's Home was secured, planning was started to create afternoon- and evening schools, and we began to realize the renewal of building our own school. That school was to serve as a house of culture encompassing the Children's Home, the Library, the Peoples University, and other cultural institutions. At that point S. Szargel was sent to Warsaw where he conferred with the representatives of TSISHO. Without delay the TSISHO paid out a certain subsidy for the Children's Home, and promised a larger amount for renting temporary quarters for the School, until the building was completed.

The erecting of the school structure started. Building materials were purchased. Carpenters and construction workers began to work on the lumber. Unexpectedly, everything went well. The structure was already provisionally erected (on the site of the Goldreichs, at Seminarska 19). It was waiting to be to be taken to its school site, to be attached to the previously prepared foundation, where it was destined to be converted into the dreamed of House of Culture for the Jewish working families in the hard working Jewish Chelm. But September 1, 1939, approached quickly, and all goals and dreams were shattered with the coming of the gruesome times


A classroom of the Jewish Gymnasium.
In center: Director, Dr. A. Shifman, A. Bakalar


Jewish-Polish Schools

We all are familiar with the striving among Jews to send their children to gymnasiums. Parents looked forward to practical purposes and careers for their children. Our beloved Jewish classical writer, Sholem Aleichem, in a humorous and brilliant story, “The Gymnasium”, describes this chase to the gymnasiums.


A group of the Jewish Gymnasium students.
From right to left: Itzik Fisher, Hirsh Hertz, B. Meyer,
A. Shreibman, Yechiel Wasserman.
(Part of the group now lives in America and Israel)


Also in this respect, Chelm did not lag behind. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, a Russian gymnasium opened in the center of town, next to the Polish Church. Jews already then tried to register their children in that gymnasium. But there was a quota percentage and, in addition, there was a condition that a Jewish student had to pay tuition for two students. Such luxury only the well-to-do parents could afford.

In 1918 the Jewish Gymnasium was opened with Polish as the language of instruction. The School was well established and the graduates from that Gymnasium were a pride for the Jewish population in Chelm.


The Wadzilawski School

For several years there existed a private school established by Mr. Wadzilawski named the “Hebrew-Polish School”. That meant that the main subjects were taught in the Polish language and in some instances in Hebrew. The school had few students because the tuition was too high for students with modest means.

There existed a school run by the teacher, A. Sobol. It was a secular/religious school. Later was founded:


The Klara Morgenshtern School

There was in Chelm an intelligent family, the Morgenshterns, who distinguished themselves with their pedagogical abilities. The oldest daughter, Klara, established a school with Polish as the language of instruction, in accordance with the program of all Polish Government schools but with the difference that no classes were held on the Sabbath. Most of the students were Jewish children. The School was located on Budowska Street and it was maintained by the Polish Government.

At the beginning, some Jewish religion was taught. The school was indeed called “Klara Morgenshtern School”. Only later, in 1928, did the school authorities change the name of the School to “Kazimierz Wielki” (Kazimierz the Great).


The “Klara Morgenshtern School, maintained by the Polish Government


”Klara Morgenshtern School - in center, the teacher, Klara Morgenshtern


The Religious Hebrew School “Tarbut”

Of all the various types of schools that existed in Chelm, the “Tarbut” School was the youngest, it opened in 1922.

In the paper Chelmer Shtinie of Friday, July 8, 1927 (?), we read an article by the “Tarbut” School Director, N. Bloch, entitled “With Joint Efforts Toward A Common Goal”, stating the following:

“Six years ago the “Tarbut” School in Chelm was a dream, a fantasy of a few individuals today the School is a reality. Six years ago it was barely a beginning - today it is a center which includes almost 200 students … Six years ago it was necessary to look for students intensively, talk to every father separately, influence him in a variety of ways to enroll his child. Today, regretfully, we cannot comply with the requests from parents who want us to accept their children. Together with the enormous development, the thought matured to build or to buy our own building for the School. The more the realities of life worsen, the more we need spirituality which gives us strength and courage to endure everything. We believe in the good will and the willingness to make sacrifices on the part of the Jewish masses in Chelm. That belief gives us the courage and assurance to begin with carrying out this daring action of establishing a home for the “Tarbut”. With joint efforts toward the common goal.”

The Hitler hordes already started to knock on the gates of Poland when our teachers and school activists made plans to erect our own buildings for the Jewish children.


A Purim Show, performed by the children of “Gan Yaldim” in Chelm in 1925.
The teacher (in center) and two children are now in Israel. All others perished.


Purim Show, performed by the children of the “Tarbut” School in 1939


Social and Cultural Life

With the establishment of the Polish Republic a great revival began among the Jews in Poland. Organizations and societies were created and also in Chelm important social activity took place. Very active work was conducted by the Left Labor Zionists and the “Bund”. Visible were the activities of the Revisionists “toward the common goal”.

I will only describe, albeit briefly, the following organizations which are not mentioned in this book by other writers:


The Zionist Organizations

The General Zionist Organization was mostly occupied with collecting money for Zionist Funds by selling Shekels. The Organization distributed certificates for immigration to Eretz lsrael to devote oneself to the Hebrew revival movement. Only during elections to the Sejm (Polish Parliament), to City Council, or to the Jewish Community Council, did the Organization become politically active. In the same situation was the Organization “Mizrachi” which was affiliated with the Zionist Organization. The leader of the “Mizrachi” was Mr. Berish Finkelshtein. Later he became chairman of the Community Council.

The spiritual leader of the Zionist Organization was Shloyme Samet.


Hechalutz (Pioneers)

In 1930 the “Hechalutz” was founded in Chelm. The Organization developed very well; it already counted several hundred comrades who were young people. Many of the members went through the “hachsharah” (the training for agricultural emigrants) and prepared to travel to Israel. Funds were available for members without means.

The leaders were: Hipsh, Bojm, Yankl Edelshtein, Tshesner, and others


A Chalutz group on excursion in 1933


Hechalutz Organization in Chelm
Part of the group lives in Israel, others in America.
In center - Moyshe Lang


Photo has no caption but on the photo itself is indicated that it is a group of Chalutzim. The date is 1934.


Hashomer Hatzair

The seat of the Hashomer Hatzair was on Siedlecki Street, in the house of the teacher Sobol. The members were also young people. They lived a kibbutz life and performed physical work, such as chopping wood, guarding halls. The girls were governesses, seamstresses. Some members gave Hebrew lessons.

The Hashomer Hatzair was praised and respected and it had many admirers and sympathizers. It also had a drama section, which often gave performances, such as: “Bar Kochba”, “Al Naharut Babel”, “Isha Ra'a”, and others. The amateur ensemble included: Y. Borenshtein, V. Glintsman, M. Torn, Blume Orgun, Tsipe Boyarski, Y. Wasserman, A. Lipshitz, H. Hertz, B. Tseichn, Dovid Kornblum, Z. Shwartzber, S. Sobol, S. Meches, and others. The plays were performed under the direction of F. Dreksler, M. Tom, and others.


Social workers at the Zionist Organization in Chelm.
In center, Shloyme Samet.


The Left (Communist) Party

The Communist Organization, created in 1920, at the beginning had a great influence on the Jewish working masses, having had the support of a large number of trade unions, which also conducted certain cultural activities. They had their own library, a reading room, and often they arranged lectures with the help of lecturers from the Center.


Jewish Progressive Workers demonstrate May 1, 1936, against war and Fascism.
Many of them were arrested by Polish authorities and sent to prison.


The Communist Party conducted intensive political activities and organized party cells among the military and in the villages. The Party's center was in Lemberg (Lwow). But the Polish reactionary government would not long tolerate the Communist activities and repressions against the Communists began nationwide, as well as in Chelm.

However, the Communist activity was not interrupted; it was carried out in a conspiratorial manner. One of the Communist activists in Chelm was Shimel who used to walk around town in a black cape.

Some Chelmer students of the Vilna University - Mendelson, Zalman Kratko - were active members in the Vilna Communist Party. They were arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. Zalman Kratko, I was informed, now lives in Poland and holds a responsible position in the Government. The Communist activist Chantshe Helfenbein is also in Poland now. She was sentenced to 8 years in prison before World War II.

The leadership of the Left Trade Unions in Chelm included Yosif Grinberg, Ruven Furer, Hersh Shechterzon, and others.


A group of Labor Zionists in Rejwitz (Rejowiec?), vicinity of Chelm.
In the center is the then Communist Leader, H. Dua, who was killed by
Polish hooligans, after the liberation from the Hitler hordes.


The above and other organizations in Chelm created institutions., established evening classes for adults, people's universities, drama circles, and libraries. Very often, requests were made to Warsaw to send artists, writers, poets, lecturers, and party leaders, who infused exhilaration among the Jewish masses; among people who yearned for a new word, new thoughts, a new book and literary creations.

Polish Security used to trail every newly arrived lecturer. I remember that during the lecture by Meyer Her, secret police interrupted his lecture, and took him to the police station. The reason given was that his passport was not a legitimate one. Between 7 and 8 months he sat in prison until his trial, then was sentenced to another 6 months and deportation to Russia An impartial commission of several persons was organized who supplied him with clean laundry and, twice a week, with food, and that maintained his health.

In the 1930's I found out that the same Meyer Her became the editor of the Moscow Emes, replacing Moyshe Litvakov.

Meyer Her was a lecturer of great depth, and he was very knowledgeable in Yiddish and Hebrew literature.

Countless lectures and symposia were given in Chelm, both by our own local people and with the help of writers and lecturers from Warsaw.


The Drama Circle

The Drama Circle in Chelm was created in 1916 when the city was occupied by the Austrians during World War I. The founders of the first Drama Circle were: Itshe Achtman, Berl Naturman, Berl Luksenburg (in Durban, S. Africa), Itshe Luksenburg, Yekl Rozenblat, Shloyme Greber, Noyech Goldhaber, Israel Zygielboim (in Johannesburg). The directors were Fishl Ilewitski and Meyer Boim. The women in the Drama Circle were Tobe Hertz, Sure Helfer (now Mrs. Lerman in Israel), Tsharne Bukler, Rivke Hertz (in Israel), the sisters Chantshe and Neshe Boyarski (in America). The meetings took place in a house on Budowska Street. The plays were performed in the hall of the “Syrena” (on Lwowska Street). Later, when the “Syrena” burned down, performances were given in the hall of the “Polonia”, almost every month.

The plays were by Peretz Hirshbein, Yakov Gordin, Sholem Aleichem, and other fine playwrights. The Chelm Drama Circle performed the play “Yoel” even before it was performed by the “Vilner Trupe”. It is interesting to note that the amateurs took their work of acting quite seriously and responsibly. Once, when the play “Di Puste Kretshme” by P. Hirshbein was being performed in Lublin, B. Luksenburg was delegated to go and see the performance. Later, the play was performed in Chelm.

When the Drama Circle performed the play “Chasye Di Yisoyme” in the “Syrena” hall in 1916-7 with the participation of Fishl Ilewitski, Meyer Boim, A. Achtman, Tobe Hertz, Surke Helfer, and others, that very day the Mother of the Yiddish Theater, Ester Rochl Kaminska, was in Chelm and she came to see the performance. She was so pleased and enthused with the acting that she walked up to Tobe Hertz and Surke Helfer and kissed them for the fine performance.

After a few performances, the Drama Circle was joined by the so called, town's “aristocracy” and “intelligentsia”. Several rich Jewish girls and some ladies - wives of doctors who were indeed striving to perform in the Yiddish Theater and also to help the poorer classes of Jews. The new members were Dr. Tsicrelman's wife, Manie Shneider, the sisters Sarah and Shure Lewin (daughters of Feldsher - old time “surgeon” - Matye Lewin), Ruzhe Morgenshtern, Miss Blumenschtrauch, Dentist Minkus, Dentist Lishchen (who wrote plays himself), the Evris and brothers Rozenblat, Avrom Zayde-Zigel, Regina Lewitska, and others.

In accordance with a decision by all members, a portion of the profit from the performances was given to “Linat Hatsedek” but the main part was spent on a “store”, a matzo bakery, created by the Drama Circle. For a period of four weeks (between Purim and Pesach) all members of the Drama Circle worked 14 hours a day (of course, without pay) in the matzo bakery. They themselves purchased the flour, carried the water from the pump (quite a distance, uphill); kneaded the dough, baked the matzos, then distributed them to hundreds of poor Jewish families for Pesach. Those free matzos were a great help for many families. The “bakers” in the “store” were B. Luksenburg, Itshe Luksenburg (Z”L),and Yekl Rozenblat (Z”L).

This free “store” existed for several years and all the expenses were taken from the various theater performances.

Also arranged were “flower days” in the streets, in which the members of the Drama Circle actively participated and obtained funds for the free “store”. In general, all participants in the theater performances, and in the other financial enterprises, felt that it was not just a question of distributing charity, but a moral duty of reciprocal help.


The Musical Section

Almost at the same time as the Drama Circle was created, a Musical Section was founded by the following persons: three brothers Luksenburg (Itshe E”H, Berl - now in Durban, and Chaim - now in Johannesburg), Bentshe Feldman, Bentshe Meyer, and Dovid Wolberger.

Later, many new participants joined, people who could play a variety of instruments. In time, the Section increased to 25 members and included: The Brothers Morgenshtern, the Brothers Rozenblat, Nochum Goldberg, Brothers Orenshtein, Yosif Dreksler. Shlivke, Yoske Goldhaber, Shloyme Greber (he married Miss B. Orgun; they are in America) Avrom Helfer, Sholem Meyer Getsl, Shmul Shimel-Kitei E”H, Gedalye Hertz, and the women: Zlate Blumenshtrauch, Chantshe Boyarski, the Sisters Dubkowski, Tobe Hertz, H. Bukler, and others.

The Musical Section arranged frequent concerts, sometimes with the help of the Drama Circle. The income was for the same goal as that of the free “store”: to distribute free matzos to all poor families in town.

Every evening, walking by the house on Budowska Street one could hear various rehearsals from the windows: music from one, theatrical dialogues from another, etc. It was very lively and interesting for the Jewish youth in Chelm; they could live in their own environment and also take advantage of their talents and certain abilities.

Theater “POLONIA”


Monday, June 14 of this year, exactly at 9 in the evening
The Famous Artist and Poetry Reader


Will appear only once with an unusually rich program
List of ten subjects
Shakespeare: from “HAMLET”
Popular Stories

Y.L. Peretz Dybuk, 3rd Act
S. Anski Der Dukos, Second Act
A. Katsizne


Poster about an artistic evening
(Partial translation)


Years later, almost every organization tried to create its own drama section among its own members, in order to derive some income from the theatrical performances

The director of the Drama Circle of the Workers Home, which often performed for the benefit of the Yiddish Folkshul, was Faivele Dreksler. The main performers were Reyzl Kelberman, Moyshele Klerer, Sister and Brother Bernfeld, and others.

The repertory was quite varied: melodramas with song and dance, operettas, and similar.

For the most part, the performances were financially successful. In such cases the director received payment for his work of directing and acting, if his acting became necessary.

From time to time, artists would come from Warsaw and other cities to play theater in Chelm. There used to come individual artists looking for good local amateur talent to help them put on a play, or, sometimes, entire ensembles would arrive with plays ready to perform.

One can remember many fine performances by the cast under the leadership of Zygmund Turkow and Ida Kaminska; the troupe of the artist Lipman, and also Dovid Sherman's group, etc.

Also the great Director, Avrom Morewski favored Chelm with an artistic evening.



With the revival of the political parties in 1918-1919 Jewish libraries were also established at the organizations, such as the “Groser Library” at the “Bund”; a Library at the Trade Unions of the Jewish Communists, the “Peretz Library” at the Zionist Organization, and the “Borochow Library” at the Left Labor Zionists.

The “Peretz Library” had an energetic librarian, Chishele Roznfeld, who literally devoted her entire life to the “Library”. The “Peretz Library” developed normally, the readership reached around 500 and the number of books - Yiddish, Polish, and also Hebrew - about 5,000. The librarian shared her fate with all Chelmer Jews and they perished together in the annihilation of the readers and the books by the “brown (shirted) Fascist bearers of the new Hitler culture”.


Chelm in the Jewish Literature

The Jewish Community of Chelm is eternalized in the Jewish Literature, in the classical national prose as well as in the poetry.

Although Dr. P. Friedman in his article On the History of the Jews in Chelm included a bibliography of books on Chelm; it is, however, worthwhile to add the following list of authors about Chelm: L. Olickij, Y. Batashansky, Naftali Gros, F. Halperin, Shniur Wasserman, Shloyme Wasserman, S. Worzoger, Chaim Worzoger, Y. Trunk, Dr. Shimon Milner, Yosif Neiner, Moyshe Lerer, Dr. R. Mahler, L. Nitslach (reports), Y.L. Peretz (Der Chelenier Melamed, Der Shabes Goy), Dovid Frishman, Friedman, Faivel Fried, Aaron Zeitlin (comedy, Chelemer Chachomim), Y. Kipnis (Chelenier Stories), Michele Ribayzn, Ber Shnaper, Yakov Tsvi Szargel, Hilel Szargel, Hersh Shishier, and others.

It is to be hoped that now, with the publication of the Yizkor Book Chelm the interest will be called forth among our writers, as well as among the Jewish historians, to continue the literary and research work around the famous Jewish Community in Chelm.

Translator's footnotes

  1. The Council of Four Lands - an autonomous Jewish governing body in Eastern Europe in the 16th to I 8th centuries Return
  2. The official government sanctioning of boycotting Jewish businesses. Owszem is a polite way of saying “yes, certainly”. In other words, no bodily harm but to boycott the Jews was “owszem” Return


[Page 203]

Chelmer Jewish Gymnasie

Chava Biderman-Biale

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund


Chava Biderman-Bialya


The Chelm Jewish gymnasie (European middle school or high school) that was called “the Humanistic Gymnasie of the Jewish Community” was founded in September 1918. Poland had received its independence and the situation was uncertain and uneasy. The Jews in the cities and shtetlekh felt uncertain and nervous, not knowing whether the Jews would be treated with a liberal or anti-Semitic spirit by the Polish government.

Ignoring this uncertainty, the Jewish parents worried about the future of their children, about giving them an education and learning and a good upbringing. It was not yet known how the Polish government would solve the question of education for the young Jews who during all of the years of the Czarist regime were denied their rights, as it imposed restrictions and a quota.

Prominent parents from the city came together and conferred about how to better the position of education and thus provide better training and a better future for the young.

After great deliberation, a parents' committee was created that together with the Jewish kehile (community organization) decided to found a national middle school that would take in male and female students not only from Chelm, but also from the surrounding areas.

There was much discussion until the decision was realized. At the beginning the gymnasie opened with 3 classes and 2 preparation classes. The number of students exceeded 400. There was great enthusiasm in the city when the gymnasie opened. Each of the builders and founders of the gymnasie lived to see an historic moment.

All of the necessary accommodations were arranged in the gymnasie. A physics laboratory was provided, with all of the necessary instruments for physics and chemistry, a reading room with many books in Polish and Hebrew. The language of instruction was Polish, but Hebrew, Jewish history, Khumish (Five Books of Moses) and Tanakh (Bible) were taught.

The first head teachers of the gymnasie were: Dr. W. Lipman (Director) and Dr. Mirlas. They established the classes on a very healthy pedagogical basis.

Dr. Mirlas was a magnificent mathematician, an extraordinary pedagogue and lover of children. He also had a wonderful way of illuminating all mathematical

[Page 204]

problems, and the students, who generally did not make an effort with mathematics, waited for his lectures with curiosity and interest. It was the same with his lectures in chemistry and physics. For hours he would illustrate the matter in the laboratory with experiments and exercises. The children would make thermometers and other instruments. The lectures of Dr. Mirlas reached a very high level of achievement.

Regrettably, he was not destined to take pleasure in his students for long. After a few years of work, he became ill and died. The grief among the students was great and, to this day, we remember him with great reverence.

Bakaliar, the Hebrew teacher, who taught us Khumish and Tanak, is etched deep in my memory, as is his son, Asherke Bakaliar, who soon became the teacher of the class and who studied Hebrew and Hebrew literature with us.

He put much love into his work. He planted in us this love. We achieved a great deal of learning in Hebrew, which for us was like a foreign language. We achieved so much that we were able to write compositions about the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and about leaders and classics of Hebrew literature and also of Jewish history. Reports and performances by the students in Hebrew were often arranged.

Later there were other Hebrew teachers, Dr. Lauer and Dr. Liber, who were magnificent Hebraists at that time.

There were no limits to our achievements in Hebrew. We ourselves didn't believe how great were our accomplishments in Hebrew, both in speaking and in writing.

The Polish language was the language of communication among us children in the gymnasie. This curriculum was very well established. The administrators in Lublin determined during their visitations that the best Polishists in Congress Poland graduated from our gymnasie. We knew the literature and the language thoroughly. We knew well the works of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Kraszinski, Zheromski, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Reymont and of Boleslaw Prus.

To this day, after long living in Africa, Polish literature is for me an open book in my memory, living and fresh, as if I had just left the school bench in the Chelm Jewish gymnasie.

Our gymnasie graduated very good teachers of Polish, such as Roze Szwarcman, Miss Huberman, Miss Elboim and many others, who after finishing gym-

[Page 205]

nasie were distinguished teachers in the Polish public schools in various towns and, also, in the vicinity of Vilna.

Bernsztein became director of the gymnasie after A. Lipman's departure from Chelm. And the last director was Yakubowski, who was also a teacher of Latin. He was a person of much culture and education and was a great expert on classical world literature. He fought the contention that Latin is an archaic language that cannot be of use in life. He taught the language and made it interesting and alive, teaching it in a classical-modern manner.

Director Yakubowski rendered great service to the gymnasie. He himself would give interesting lectures at the student gatherings a few times a week. The lectures were held all year long. This was a sort of people's university for the gymnasie students (male and female). He developed in us a feeling for learning and for art, a thirst for learning and for understanding problems and creativity in many areas of learning.

To this day, students (male and female) of the Jewish gymnasie all over the world hold dear the memory of the director Yakubowski and have an eternal gratitude to him. We considered him a superman, who with heart and soul instilled the idea and the aspiration to live ethically and compassionately and value highly the worth of culture and art and their significance for the future.

The teacher, Dr. Anisfeld, the mathematics teacher in the higher classes, also put instruction on a higher level. Although he was somewhat conservative, he was very devoted to his work and he became very beloved as a guardian and teacher by we in the class. Even when he later left for Lublin, he was interested in the course of studies and progress of the gymnasie, returning often to visit us.

The teacher of general history for all classes was Mr. Heler. Although history was always in-


A group of students and several teachers from the Jewish gymnasie

From the right (sitting): - ?; Dr. Lauer, Anisfeld; Dir. Yakubowski; ?; ?: Mrs. Heller and Dr. Heler

[Page 206]

teresting for students, his lectures doubled the interest. He made the more difficult chapters of history and the problems of the past era so clear, universal and accessible.

His wife, Heler the teacher, was a distinguished natural science teacher. So, too, Mrs. Cuker, Mrs. Meirson, Miss Blumenfeld and Miss Bund were great professional pedagogical strengths in the field of Polish studies and in the subjects of geography and natural science.

The Jewish gymnasie had great success from the first day of its existence. There was a friendly cooperation among the parents, students and teaching personnel. Every administrative body carried out its mission in a magnificent manner.

The after-school work was established on a higher level. There existed a student organization named “Self Help.” All of the gymnasie students belonged to this organization. Funds were gathered to support the poor students with tuition and to buy textbooks. Many events were held for this purpose, such as a Chanukah ball, a Purim play and also concerts and entertainments in the city gardens.

Our school society worked very intensively; when one event ended, a second event was organized. There was initiative and creative energy, both in the scope of our gymnasie activity and also in the general areas of society. Our society took an active part during the elections to the Seim, to the city government and to the kehile (Jewish communal organization).

The “Self Help” society also organized excursions to other cities, such as Lemberg, to Kazimierisz and to other historical places in Poland.

A literary circle also existed at the gymnasie that was comprised of students of other institutions of learning and others in the city who were supportive.

The literary circle dealt with works of modern literature, economic and social problems, and periods of general and Jewish history.

* * *

I recall many memories and pictures of the school years in the Jewish gymnasie. I am happy that I have expressed some of my memories in my short article. These were the best years of creative work by the Chelm young people.

Horrible cruel fate brutally annihilated many of my fellow gymnasie student comrades, as well as the teachers who taught us with devotion and love to aspire to a more beautiful world in an ethical humane society.

The heart is torn with grief and pain by these remembrances.

However, may these lines in the Yizkor Book be the holy, holiest memorial to all those who perished - my comrades, my teachers, our beloved and dear home CHELM!

[Page 207]

The Fate of the Chelm “Tarbut” School

Yehushua Floimenboim (Israel)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The “Tarbut[1] School in Chelm was founded in 1931 by a group of social activists with Josif Rolnik at the head. It was incorporated into the network of “Tarbut” schools in Poland whose center was in Warsaw. Like all new “Tarbut” schools, the Chelm school also received government approval.

There was great interest in the “Tarbut” School. The number of school children increased significantly. Financial resources were beginning to be found to spread Hebrew education in Chelm.

Accomplishing all of the school plans was not an easy task. The greatest difficulty was finding premises that would meet the requirements of the school authorities.

After a series of money collections, the school moved to Josif Janowski's two-story building on Narutowiczer Street, no. 14.

The names of the school's community workers were as follows: Josif Rolnik (chairman), Eng. Yakov Tenenboim, Shmuel Friszman, Shmuel Plus, Shimkhah Payas, Yekheil Gutfraynd, Benimin Blumensztrof, Dr. A. Zeifin, Mrs. Dr. Wilenka and Gershon Lustiker.

The teacherscouncil consisted of: N. Bialablacki, Naftali Blok, Moishe Halpern, Mrs. Blok, Nakhama Kuliner, Miriam Arnsztejn and others.

The language of instruction was Hebrew. The Tanak and the Mishnah were studied in the higher grades. There were frequent visits by school authorities and from the “Tarbut” officials in Warsaw. The level of achievement was at a very high grade.

On the eve of the war the construction of the school's own building was planned and, for this purpose, a collection of money was organized which met with great success. The decision was made to buy Yashia Barenholc's unfinished two-story building located on Szedlecka Street.
However, the arrival of the German occupying government disrupted the school plans.

* * *

It was a cloudy rainy autumn day when the German troops occupied Chelm. The weather was dreary and ugly as was the mood of the Jews.

From early in the morning, horrible rumors were spread that the Germans were torturing the Jewish population.

The panic lasted several days. The bolder people crept out of their houses. There also were Jews who thought that the devil was not as frightening as he was painted to be.

Finally it began. A host of military men let themselves loose in the city and caught for work only Jews, who would return battered.

[Page 208]

Leibele's son, Reb Moishe the Kuzimer Rebbe's [Hasidic rabbi] grandson, was severely beaten during this forced labor.

Once, Jews were caught in the center of the city on Lubliner Street and, like sheep and cattle, put into trucks accompanied by abuse and blows.

The Jews who were caught were taken away to dig the “Prokhownia Berg [Gunpowder Mountain].”

Afterward, a series of taxes began that caused desperation and a great disquiet among the Jews.

On that “tax-day” posters appeared in the city announcing that the German government had given permission for the opening of the elementary schools. The “Tarbut” school received a decree that it should open, too.

The school manager then turned to the school secretary to help organize the school; the technical facilities and equipment had been demolished.

The school opened in the course of several days and was occupied by a much larger number of children than before the war. The eagerness of the students was so great that even the average children showed surprising achievements. All the children behaved calmly and they went home without noise and without uproar.

A good faculty was assembled. The director of the Pulower “Tarbut” School, H. Rabinowicz and his wife who were refugees, also came to work. The spirit in the school was elevated both for the teachers and for the students. This was the only satisfaction in the day-to-day anxiety. Although there was special permission that made the school legal, shadows and dangers hovered.

On the 20th of November, 1939, the teachers and children were already in class. The mood of both the teachers and the students was more oppressive than usual, as if they felt that this was the last day of school.

Around 10 o'clock in the morning the doors of the class were thrown open. Two members of the Gestapo came in who dispersed the children with screaming and curses.

The Gestapo gathered the faculty in the school office. First there were coarse youthful expressions and brutal questions and, later, all of the teachers were brought to the Gestapo. There the school manager, who was blamed for wanting to organize Jewry, was murderously beaten. Afterward, he was hurled into a detention cell.

The teachers were released late in the evening on condition that they leave the city within 24 hours, or else they would be murdered.

That is how the “Tarbut” School was “liquidated.”

Translator's footnote

  1. The Tarbut schools were secular Zionist Hebrew language schools that prepared their students for life in Palestine. Return


[Page 209]

Concerning the “Zeirei-Zion” Party

Sh. Beker, Israel

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The Zionist movement in Chelm is strongly bound to my memory of Aryeih Milner's house at the edge of the city, where the first seeds of Zionist-Hebrew activity were sown.

In 1907-1908, when the elections to the Russian Duma [Parliament) were to occur, Chelm had to choose a delegation to Lublin. A quarrelsome dispute arose around these delegate elections between the Russians and the Poles, with each side wanting to underscore its domineering influence.

There was also a division among the various orientations of the Jewish community. There was a group of the young, among them Avraham Arnsztayn and Aryeih Milner, who stood out in the forefront of revolutionary-national thought, declaring that we should designate an independent Jewish delegation to Lublin and not rely again on the Russians nor on the Poles.

The election took place on a Tuesday in January. It was damp and raining outside. Coming into the school, we, the bearers of Zionist thought, turned to every Jew in whom there beat a heart, urging them to send an independent Jewish delegation.

Our satisfaction and joy was great when the voting reflected the national consciousness [Zionism] of the Chelm Jews, who did not surprise us. The delegation that was elected consisted of three Jews.

We labeled the victory a national action and an acknowledgment of us, although it cost us a great deal and the writer of these lines was arrested, accused of leading a revolutionary agitation. Yet the event stimulated the spread of national-Zionist thought in the city.


District Conference of “Zeirei-Zion” in Chelm in 1919

[Page 210]

A year later when Josif Milner, the student in Toulouse, returned to Chelm from France, we turned to him for help in creating a branch of the Zionist movement in Chelm. Two decisions were made at the first meeting, which took place in a house on Brisker Street: a) to start a collection of money on behalf of Keren-Kayemet (Jewish National Fund); b) to found a library. The founding of a library was especially difficult because the Zionist movement was illegal and, for this reason, it was difficult to find a location for the library. Only one Jew, Eli Haim Klajner (now in Israel), was not afraid of the consequences and gave us a room for the library.

Thanks to the library and the availability of Hebrew books, we became popular among the varied layers of the Jewish population. However, the religious fanatical Jews, knowing of our heretical library, denounced us to the government. Fearing a search, we were forced to close the library and our activity was restricted to collecting money on behalf of Keren-Kayemet.

We succeeded in achieving an important accomplishment when the income from a masked ball was designated to help the Hebrew library in Eretz-Yisroel named after Dr. Kuznowicz. We attracted to this undertaking all of the assimilated circles in the city, who through this, incidentally, were drawn nearer to the illegal Zionist movement.

At that time, we also began to spread Zionist ideas among the school youth, who would come from the neighboring villages to study in Chelm. In this way Zionist thought infiltrated into the shtetlekh surrounding Chelm.

During the First World War we were forced to interrupt our activities because of the strict decrees of the occupying government and because of various other dangers connected to the continuation of our Zionist work. During that period, our activity was not suspended and was mainly concentrated in the area of helping the Polish war refugees who flooded the city. The young men were then mobilized for the army, or they left the city due to various circumstances. Because of this, no memories remain of the widespread Zionist activity that, until the war, we carried on with great success.

After Chelm's liberation from the German occupation, many young people returned from Russia and other places and they spread the “Zeirei-Zion” ideals.

[Page 211]

The first area conference in Poland was organized with the participation of the leader of Zeirei-Zion. The conference lasted 10 days and nights at which a plan of activity was worked out. Abraham Grabaski (now in America), Kalman Lubartowski, of blessed memory, Zeev Eizenberg (Barzeli) who perished in the waters of Yarkun near Tel Aviv and others were delegates to the Zeirei-Zion conference.

The first Zeirei-Zion organization in Poland was then created in Chelm. It is worth mentioning that the best known worker in Zeirei-Zion was the Chelemer Tomaszower Rebbe's daughter, Tziporah Najchaus, of blessed memory, who distinguished herself with ebullient initiative and theoretical knowledge.

After the Zeirei-Zion conference, we devoted all our energy to doing tangible work for Eretz Yisroel and to bettering the condition of Jews

[Page 212]

wherever they lived. We founded a Hebrew school system, which graduated hundreds of students, folk-shuln, kindergarten, cooperatives and other institutions. The Zeirei-Zion party planted roots in all the layers of Chelm society.

With the start of the third aleiyah [immigration to Palestine], professional construction workers who were much needed in [Eretz Yisroel] immigrated from Chelm. The Chelm immigrants the first construction workers in the country and dedicated their greatest strength and abilities in this area. The writer of these lines immigrated to Israel from Chelm with the first Chelemer halutzim [pioneers] group.

The Zeirei-Zion movement in Chelm devoted its greatest strength to the building up of the land and made a contribution on behalf of the national awakening of the people.


Managing Committee of the Zionist organization in Chelm – this photograph was taken on the occasion of the celebration of the Balfour Declaration

First row, sitting from right to left: Y. Wadzalowski (Hebrew teacher), Josef Beker Aryeih Milner, A. Arnsztajn and Yeshaya Arnsztajn
Second row, standing:M. Lang, M. Evri, Itshe Meir Lederman, Feiwel Alias, A. Halperin, A. Szener and A. Wajnsztajn


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