by Issachar Wicznik, Tel Aviv
Translated Leonard Levin
My hometown, Szydłów, was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland. Its hoariness is attested by the story, passed down from time immemorial, associating the building of the synagogue with the year mazelthat is to say, the year 5077 by the Jewish calendar (1317 by the Christian calendar).
This story is associated with anothernamely, that Casimir the Great (1310-1370) married a Jewish woman named Esther, who influenced the king (who admired the Jews) to build three synagogues, all of similar construction, in Kraków, in Szydłów, and in Kazimierz.
This synagogue exhibits the characteristic synagogue architecture. It has twelve hexagonal skylights cut out of the ceiling with pictures of the astrological symbols of the Tribes of Israel. Its doorway has an iron grillwork that served in lieu of an entrance door. Its internal accessories include ancient holiday prayer books written on parchment. Many ancient customs are associated with it. This unique synagogue, with the sacred halo and mysteries enveloping it, became a landmark and inseparable part of the Jewish religious community of Szydłów.
The lack of sources concerning the events of this ancient community (at least, such sources are unknown to this author) is an obstacle to reconstructing a picture of the Jewish congregation that lived its material and spiritual life for centuries on this plot of ground called Szydłów.
For lack of an alternative, I will content myself with citing a few slices of lifeand even that, brieflyillustrating the transformations that occurred in this community in its last decades. By way of exception, I cite one historical event pertaining to Rabbi Moses Isserles (known by the acronym ReMA).
Rabbi Moses Isserles was the author of the glosses to the Shulchan Arukh. He spent a certain period, starting in 5316 (1556) in the town of Szydłów and composed his book Mechir Yayin [The Price of Winea parodic commentary on the book of Esther) there. The introduction to the book contains a description of the life of a small, poor, and oppressed community. But let us transmit his words in his own language:
I, Moshe, the son of my honored father, the communal leader Israel (may he live many good years), who am called Isserles, from Kraków, was in the company of those who were exiled from our city in the year 5316 because of the fouling of the air (may it not come upon you!). We were strangers in a land not ours, in the city of Szydłów, a place without fig tree or vine and almost without water to drink except by contrivance, a city where one eats bread in scarcity and there is no tree to lean on. We could not celebrate Purim there with drinking and festivity to banish woe and anguish. I decided to arouse myself and gladden myself through my efforts. My wisdom stood me in good stead, for the injunctions of the Lord are upright and gladden the heart. I took honey and milk under my tongue, and I set myself to expound on the meanings of the Megillah [scroll of Esther].
This is how it was. This town, in spite of its hard economic conditions and the lack of vital necessities, apparently served hundreds of years ago as a storehouse of Torah, so that the pride of the generation, a man as great as Moshe Isserles, found it possible to settle there, if only for a short while.
As was the case with all small towns in the Polish Diaspora, so too with us the public life of the community revolved around the beit midrash. Indeed, there existed organizations such as Mizrachi and Agudas Israel Youth, and their meeting places served as a forum for public activity. But these were different. The fact that the beit midrash was a public space open to all members of the Jewish community, whether they belonged to voluntary organizations or not, had the natural effect of making it the central channel of public life. The perpetual personal contact among advocates of varying outlooks and tendencies gave rise to spirited debates and incessant arguments. The beit midrash, where Jews congregated twice daily for prayer and to learn daf yomi [the daily page from the Talmud]and many of the Jews of Szydłów, especially the youth who flocked to the banner of Agudas Israel Youth, had set daily times for studying Torah and were scrupulous about learning at least one page of Talmud, following the initiative of Rabbi Meir Shapiraprovided the ideal arena for an intellectual wrestling match. And occasions for such wrestling were not lacking, whether it was the blue coincollection boxes for the Jewish National Fund or the propaganda and fundraising of Keren Hayesod, the Mizrachi organization, or others, or whether it was the eternal problem of the existence of the Jewish people in exile as a sheep among seventy wolves and the many current issues that derived from it.
An additional provocation in the life of the Jewish community, a factor that caused consternation among the defenders of tradition and raised serious concerns about the fate, unity, and character of the Jewish people, was the organization of a cell of chalutzim in the town. Their outlook and fresh demeanor and especially their appearing on the Sabbaths dressed in special shirts with staffs in their hands, served as a challenge and a threat to the traditional lifestyle that was fixed from time immemorial.
Indeed, in the face of this danger, the danger of burrowing from within and undermining the pillars of tradition that had preserved Judaism for all the years of its long exile, a period of hard and prolonged struggle commenced, a struggle that involved parents, the leading members of the community, and even the local rabbi. The latter were uncompromisingly opposed to fighting, with the objective of deterring the youth from their chosen path and bringing them back to the right path. But they did not have much success. The youth, who received encouragement from their ideological comrades in the area and especially from the youth organizations of Staszów, stood their ground in the controversy and persisted, until sobriety won the day and the older generation started to slowly forsake its inflexible, uncompromising position and to make peace with the changing patterns of life by force of the new reality in the Polish Diaspora.
Let Us Deal Wisely with Them
The new reality made itself feltnamely, the wave of antiSemitism that encompassed broader segments of the Polish people and even found encouragement from the governments, whose whole purpose was to restrict the progress of Jews in all possible areas and especially in the economic sphere. Jews of various views and classes began gradually to understand that the new path of the youth, leading to Zion, was the only adequate solution for the new reality, and it was neither logical nor purposeful to fight against the windmills.
And despite the fact that the economic situation of the Jews of Szydłów was more or less solid and their sustenancemainly from all branches of commerce and especially from market days on Wednesdays and from crafts such as tailoring, shoemaking, clothing manufacture, and the likewas still available, the question What will the next day bring? gave rise to serious concerns. Then suddenly the atmosphere turned, and many began to think in terms of practical solutions. And the practical solution was to engage in pioneering training in order to make aliyah to Eretz Israel, to start a new life, a life of hard work on the land as free people not dependent on the good graces of others from whom one could expect disappointment, hard crises, and even existential danger.
The agents of this sharp transition, a transition from an atmosphere of abstract idealism to practical planning, were not restricted to a single group. They encompassed the entire community. All of them, starting with Hashomer Hatzair and all the way to Agudas Israel, started establishing training stations for the youth to prepare them for aliyah. Let it be noted here that although I was a student of a mesivta yeshiva in Warsaw, a religious educational institution in which every thought except for studying Torah for its own sake was considered an abomination and heresy, I had the strength to organize a group of yeshiva students and to travel to Żarki near Częstochowa on behalf of Agudas Israel. There, incidentally, I served as the head of a kibbutz, and thanks to this I was able to receive a certificate and realize my ambition for aliyah. The fact of my making aliyah through Agudas Israel earned a considerable echo among the youth of the town and encouraged many of them to follow my example. Some of them even succeeded in receiving certificates and thus to escape the claws of fate that was in store for them in the near future.
How great was the pain that these people who clung to life sosome to eternal life, others to the life of this world, both groups out of deep anxiety for the fate and survival of the Jewish peoplewere wiped off of the face of the earth by the force of the malice and cruelty of the nations in whose midst they dwelt, a malice and cruelty cloaked in law that sealed the doom of the entire nation to thousands of unnatural deaths through no fault of their own.
How great the pain! Except for the last rabbi in the town, Rabbi Elimelech Rabinowicz (the soninlaw of the Rabbi of Iwaniska, who was famous in the whole area by the name of the Rabbi of Szydłów), who according to reports hid with his entire family with a peasant in the area and the latter, after stealing all their money, murdered them without pity, I have no detailed information to impart about their last days. Nothing to impart to later generations about the details of the suffering, humiliation, and final breaths of the members of the Jewish community of Szydłów, from the day they were conquered by the unclean Nazis until the day of their liquidation to Sandomierz on 23 Tishri 5703 (4 October 1942).
May God avenge their blood!
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