The Jewish Community of Zelechow, Poland
The author is a retired journalist and a volunteer tour guide at Beit Hatfutsot
Zelechow is a town located in the Masovian Province (Voivodship) of Poland equally distanced from both Warsaw and Lublin. It seems that the village of Zelechow was founded in the 14th century. Due to the fertile land in the area the village developed and became an important centre controlled by the church and wealthy aristocrats. The town also developed a name for the production of high quality leather footwear produced by skilled artisans. In 1447 it was granted the privileges of a city and was given permission to hold markets twice each week and to organize two larger fairs each year. By the 15th century Zelechow was an important regional trading centre where regular markets were held and to which farmers from the surrounding areas brought their produce for sale.
The Jews began to settle in Zelechow in the 17th century with the permission of the feudal landlords. It seems that their presence was welcome on account of their trading skills and business activities. The Jews of Zelechow did not suffer from the pogroms of 1648-1649 so the place became something of a refuge for Jews from other towns in the area. Jews owned several inns in the town which facilitated the development of commerce, and an understanding was reached according to which the local farmers entrusted the Jews with the marketing of their entire produce.
In the 17th century cantor Yehuda Leib, known as Yehuda Lev Zelechower, was born in the town. He served in Hamburg and Altona and in many other important German communities. The first rabbi to be appointed to the town was Rabbi Naftali Hertz Abigdor. He was obviously a rabbi of some importance since his signature was attached to a 1754 decision of the Council of the Four Lands. He was succeeded by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (known by many Hasidim as the “Berdichever”, after the name of town in which he served after leaving Zelechow), the author of Kedushat Levi, who held the position for over twelve years. During the 18th century it appears that the first permanent synagogue was built in the town. Some 1,500 Jews lived in Zelechow which was probably a majority of the total population of the town. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was at first very critical of the level of religious observance of the members of the community and of their morals, but it seems that he had a very positive influence on the simple local people who followed his example. There is evidence of the existence in the town at that time of an association to read the psalms (tehilim-zogen, in Yiddish) and a Jewish tailors’ association.
The arguments for and against Hasidism did not pass the town by. Rabbi Levi was devoted to Hasidism, but many of the community took the opposite view and the rabbi was forced to leave the town and go to live in Pinsk. He finally settled in Berdichev in 1785. However, Zelechow remained an important centre of Hasidism until the 19th century.
The 19th Century
During the 19th century rabbis appointed to the town included Rabbi Yaacov Shimon Deutsch and Rabbi Yehoshua Asher Rabinowitz, both well-known and respected figures. Rabbi Yehoshua Asher was the son the famous Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przychsucha, known as the “Holy Jew”. In 1885, Rabbi Yitzhak Eliyahu was appointed rabbi of the community. He was followed by Rabbi Eliezer Leib Treistman, who served until 1906 when he was appointed to serve in Radom and then Lodz. From 1908 until 1941 the community was served by Rabbi Yitzhak David HaCohen Ferzischer.
In the 1800’s Rabbi Yitzhak Shlomo Goldberg founded the yeshiva of Zelechow, as well as a dynasty of admorim. When Rabbi Shlomo died in 1872 he was succeeded by his son Rabbi Moshe Elyakum Briah, who died in 1901, and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Yehoshua David Asher. The last admor of the yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Shalom Goldberg, perished in the Shoah.
By the end of the 19th century the Jewish population of the town numbered almost 5,000 persons while about 2,200 non-Jews lived there. Clearly at that time the Jews dominated the economy. The Jews of Zelechow reported that, after the suppression of the Polish nationalistic uprising in 1863, which had been supported by some sections of the Jewish community, and the subsequent complete incorporation of Poland into the Russian Empire, they lived for some time in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors and they experienced little or no Anti-Semitism. Jewish political organizations began to be established.
The Russian occupation actually stimulated the local economy as a large number of soldiers were stationed in the area creating demand for the many goods and services which the population offered. Builders and craftsmen, tailors shops, grocers, inns and clothing stores were all opened up to serve the Russian troops. Construction companies were established to build the new army barracks and installations. Zelechow became known as the place where Russian soldiers could buy the best leather boots – made by Jewish craftsmen. However, towards the end of the 19th century mutual suspicion between Jews and non-Jews in the town grew; the Poles established cooperatives in order to compete more effectively with the Jewish traders.
In 1880 a serious fire broke out and destroyed much of the centre of town. Another large fire, in 1910, caused more damage but on both occasions the town was quickly rebuilt and many old wooden buildings were replaced by more solid stone houses. Jews opened several factories in the town including one for processing sugar and another to produce soda-water; both also served the surrounding areas. In addition Jews owned and operated carpentry and metal workshops, a number of small clothing factories, a distillery and a brewery.
The First Half of the 20th Century
The beginning of the 20th century saw the beginning oft Zionist activity in Zelechow. Money was raised to support the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist causes. A branch of Poale Zion was founded as was a branch of the non-Zionist socialist Bund. Hebrew evening educational classes began to be held in the town and an (unsuccessful) attempt was made to open a Jewish community library. Boys continued to study in private heders and Talmud Torahs, while as many as one hundred fifty girls were educated in the local Beth Yaacov School. A public elementary school for Jewish children was opened shortly before the beginning of World War I. In 1905 the Jewish political movements closed down as a result of government pressure; however in 1915 branches of the Mizrachi and Agudat Yisrael movements were established.
Prosperity in the town came to an end during the World War I. At the start of the hostilities, Zelechow was far from the front line, but there was an influx of refugees from other parts of Poland. Some Jews were suspected of spying for the Germans and were imprisoned by the Russian authorities. A number of Jews left the town and moved to Russia proper. German troops conquered Zelechow in 1915. In 1920, during the Polish-Russian war, the town was briefly occupied by the Bolsheviks.
When Poland regained its independence and Russian troops left, the economic situation of the town in general and that of the Jews in particular worsened. The condition of the Jews continued to deteriorate. Jews reverted to their previous occupations, however competition between Jewish and non-Jewish traders became more acute and anti-Semitic incidents became more frequent. A number who had previously made reasonable living were now reduced to poverty. In consequence not only did the number of Jews living in Zelechow stop growing, but Jews actually started to leave the place; some went to France, Costa Rica others to the USA and many to Eretz Israel.
Needy Jews in Zelechow were assisted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint) and by the families of those who had already emigrated to other countries. A number of self-help organizations were established to assist those whose condition was especially serious. A credit union was founded to give low interest loans to small business people. Then in 1931 a Free Loan society was established to give interest free loans to those in the greatest difficulty. Bikkur Holim and Linnat Tzedek societies were set up to distribute food and other necessities to the impoverished, especially at Passover.
Jewish cultural life, however, continued unabated with groups of religious, secular, Zionist and socialist orientations competing for the interest of community members. A clear majority of the members of the community were, however, evidently in favor of the Zionist endeavor in Palestine. General Zionists, Mizrachi and Poalei Zion continued to be active as before. Then in 1927 a branch of the Revisionist movement was founded. In quick succession local branches of Betar, Hechalutz, Hashomer Hatzair, and Hashomer haLeumi Zionist youth movements were set up. In 1930 religious Zionist youth formed Zeirei Mizrachi. Amongst non-Zionists the Bund continued to have a stable following and there was a socialist cultural organization known as Forvarts. Some Jews of Zelechow were communists, although the Communist party itself was illegal in Poland. Jews were also active in municipal affairs and on average some 30% of the seats on the municipal council were held by members of the Jewish community.
By the 1930s anti-Semitic outbursts became more frequent, non-Jewish traders organized boycotts of Jewish businesses; there were many incidents of stone throwing against Jewish owned property including communal buildings.
The Holocaust Period
Zelechow was home to some 5,800 Jews and 2,700 non-Jews on the outbreak of World War II (1939 – 1945).
The Germans entered the Zelechow on 12th September 1939 and many Jews were subject to serious abuse and humiliation by both Poles and Germans. Some Jews were seized and arrested; others saw their property plundered and burned. A synagogue with Jews inside was burned down by the Germans. Rabbi Ferzischer was kidnapped by a group of Polish soldiers who had been hiding in the area. A Judenrat was established by the Nazis in November 1939 and immediately thereafter the Germans demanded from the Jewish population a huge “ransom” of 100,000 zlotys. In the following months as many as 10,000 Jews, mostly from the surrounding villages, were directed to resettle in Zelechow. All Jews were forced to wear the Jewish badge on their outer clothing; an office was established for the recruitment of forced labor. Many were required to dig drainage ditches in a nearby valley.
1940 the property of all the Jews of Zelechow was confiscated and they were even obliged to pay rent for the privilege of being permitted to continue to live in their own homes. The area became an open ghetto in which more and more Jewish refugees from Uchascz, Sobolew, Kalisz, Luslawice and as far away as Warsaw were forced to live. The Joint provided the means for purchasing clothing and much of the food which was nevertheless barely sufficient to enable the population to survive. On account of the terrible conditions in the ghetto, an epidemic of typhus broke out in 1941.
Many Jews continued to cling to the belief that the conditions may be bad in the ghetto but ultimately Germans would not send them to the concentration camps. However, on 30th September 1942, during the festival of Succot, the ghetto was liquidated. First some 300 Jews were shot on the spot while the remainder of the inhabitants were sent to Treblinka death camp where they were murdered. A few succeeded in escaping and joining up with the Jewish and mixed Polis/Jewish units who harassed the Nazis until the end of the war. On 28th February 1943 a few dozen Jews, who had managed to survive the ghetto and the subsequent deportations, were caught, rounded up and shot in the town. The area was liberated in July 1944 by the Red Army but only about 50 Jews remained alive. On July 10, 1944, a few days before the liberation, Wladislaw Sokol, a Polish gentile, one of the “Righteous among the Nations”, from the village of Wilczyska, was executed by the Germans for hiding three Jewish women, who were killed together with him. Previously Sokol had concealed the Jewish families Boruchowicz, Wajnberg, and Szyfman. The Jewish community was never reestablished. The few former residents who survived the Holocaust live today in Israel, the USA, Brazil and Argentina.
Today there remain very few signs of the once vibrant Jewish life in Zelechow. Initially the Jews of Zelechow buried their dead in the square opposite the old wooden synagogue. This arrangement continued until the beginning of the 19th century. The authorities then, on sanitary grounds, insisted on the establishment of a new cemetery on a hillside outside the town centre. Today there remain just some 100-150 tombstones in the “new cemetery”. It is probable that the Germans or post-war vandals removed many of the stones for use as building materials. After the liberation the remains of Jews who had been killed in the area were buried in the cemetery.
The Jews of Zelechow, and some other places in Poland, believed that the townspeople would escape the plague if weddings were occasionally held in the cemetery. According to the custom, scraps of old Jewish holy books should be buried in the cemetery at the same time. Such a wedding and burial ceremony was last held in the cemetery of Zelechow in early 1942 in the hope of stopping the terrible typhus epidemic in the ghetto. Members of the community led the couple to the cemetery; afterwards refreshments were served and music played at the office of the Judenrat.
Zelechow was the birthplace of authors Yitzhak Meir Weissenberg (1881-1938) and Yehiel Lehrer (1910-1943), both of whom described life in Zelechow in their works.
This article was sponsored by Former Jewish Inhabitants of Zelechow in Israel
- Zelechow – Pinkas Hakehilot – Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Vol. VII, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1999:199-203 (in Hebrew)
- Zelechow – Pinkas Hakehilot – Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Vol. VII, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1999:199-203 – English translation by Joel A. Linsider on JewishGen.org
- Memorial Book of the Community of Zelechow – English translation of Yisker-bukh fun der Zhelekhover yidisher kehile, Memorial book of the community of Zelechow, ed W. Yassni. Chicago, Former Residents of Zelechow in Chicago, 1953 – digitization of the original edition online at New York Public Library – Dorot Jewish Division
- Zelechow – Pinkas Hakehilot – Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Vol. VII, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1999:199-203 – with additional material and images (in Hebrew)
- Zelechow – Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (in Polish)
- Jewish Cemetery of Zelechow – Virtual Shtetl – Museum of the History of Polish Jews