The first Jews settled in Bilgoraj most probably as early as the second half of the 14th century. The earliest written record of Jews appearing there dates back to 1597.
On September 20, 1616, Zbigniew Gorajski, the son of the founder of the town, granted the Jews a privilege to settle down freely in the town of Bilgoraj. In 1674 the population of the town was only 237 persons, including 40 Jews (16%). On February 15, 1694, Stanislaw Antoni Szczuka granted the Jews of Bilgoraj a privilege which was intended to prevent excessive taxes levied by the elders of the Chelm district. That privilege repealed the jurisdiction of the Szczebrzeszyn kehilla over the Jews of Bilgoraj. At that time an independent Jewish community of Bilgoraj was established.
In 1726 Stanisław Antoni Szczuka banned the Jews from importing and trading goods from other towns in Bilgoraj. When, in 1741, the Jewish community of Frampol was subordinated to the Bilgoraj community by the owner of Frampol – Jozef Butler, the Bilgoraj kehilla was given the right to collect taxes from the Jews of Frampol, judge them and solemnize marriages.
The Jews of Bilgoraj were lessees tenants of the estates owned by the nobility and in the 18th century they also dominated commerce. They were also skilled at crafts. At that time the Jewish craftsmen included one glazier, one tailor, two capmakers, two bakers, two butchers and shoemakers as well as three goldsmiths. In the 18th century there was a Jewish guild in Bilgoraj, which had to make an annual payment of 8 zloties for wax for the local parish. Jews used to live at the area adjacent to the Market Place. In 1778 out of 68 buildings situated there as many as 56 belonged to them. Several buildings were owned by Jews in Tarnogrodzka St., Cerkiewna St. and Nadstawna St., where the old mikvah, school and synagogue were located.
Due to the fact that in the 18th century the town had to contract a loan in order to pay taxes, the townsmen were obliged to carry out some statutory work to upkeep the roads, bridges and also the town defensive system. The Jewish population was reluctant to take part in such projects, which resulted in clashes between the Jews and the townspeople. In order to settle the dispute Jan Potocki created a fund which consisted of the townsmen’s contributions. The Jewish community was obliged to collect 1/3 of the total amount, however, no less than 100 zloties, whereas the Christian population had to collect 2/3 of the total amount.
In October of 1742, the town owner at that time, punished Eliasz Nosynowicz, Berek Dawidowicz and Tedrys Bieniaszkiewicz for selling imported shoes. The shoes were confiscated and the above mentioned Jews had to pay fines in the amount of 15 grzywnas (the currency used at that time) each “for the castle”. In 1752 the town authorities banned the Jews from importing and trading wool.
The town population in 1778 was 2,176, including 418 Jews, which constituted 19% of the Bilgoraj population at that time.
In the 19th century the Jewish financial tycoons in Bilgoraj included: Szmul Ela Szwerdszarf (timber merchant, who floated timber to Gdansk); Dawid Lubliner (construction entrepreneur, owner of the largest brick building in Bilgoraj, which he leased to the hospital); Josef Goldman (merchant and financier); Abus Pelec (merchant); Herszel Szajnwald (corn dealer, owner of the Roznowka mill).
In 1864 r. Josef Goldman was granted a privilege to produce and sell liquor. When eight Jews of Bilgoraj accused Goldman of forcing them to buy liquors of poor quality at a high price, the dispute was settled by the governor of Lublin who, on one hand, ordered to ensure the promised high quality of the vodka, but, on the other hand, he did not ban Goldman from selling alcohol in locations other than the manor[.
The Bilgoraj population in 1860 numbered 5,434 people, including 2,070 (38%) Jews. In 1899 the number of the inhabitants of Bilgoraj increased to 8,953 people, including 3,810 Jews (42%). In the second half of the 19th century the Jewish community of Bilgoraj owned a brick synagogue, two study houses, a mikvah, two cemeteries, four prayer houses, a Talmudic and Torah school and a poorhouse.
The first rabbi of Bilgoraj was Szmul, who held his office until 1795. When he took it he was 24 years old. He was succeeded by Eliahu Margules. Next, the office was taken by his son – Awigdor Majzels and after his death, by his son – Izaak Natan Berliner.
In the years 1860-1875 Nuchin Palast was a rabbi. His successor was Szmul Engel of Galicia. Afterwards the office was held by Jankiel Mordko Zylberman (the grandfather of Isaac Bashevis Singer) He held the office until 1913 and was succeeded by his son Icek Zylberman.
In 1875 Szoel Gebet of Izbica and Radzyn Hasidic (Leiner) Dynasty arrived in Bigoraj from Szczebrzeszyn, to which the Jewish community authorities objected by filing a complaint to the government authorities. Gebet was accused of proclaiming the “Law of God” and performing slaughter without the permission of the local rabbi. In response to that the mayor of the town seized from Gebet the tools for performing ritual slaughter.
At that time the prevailing majority of sieve making workshops were owned by Jews. In 1901 out of 376 workshops of this type only one was owned by Christians. The largest sieve making workshops of that time were owned by: Urysz Zylberberg, Mojzesz Wajsman, Icek Majer Warszawiak, M. Berger, J. Korensztajn, L. & W. Sznicer and Tuchaman.
According to the data from before WWI, the Bilgoraj population was 11,173 , including 5,595 Jews (50%).
The owners of the biggest stores and wholesale warehouses in the town of that time were : Szmul Lajchert (colonial goods); Lipa Wakszul (grocery store and grocery and colonial wholesale warehouse); Chaskiel Kandel, Szloma Sztul, Berek Klajnminc and Szlafrok (Jewish stores); R. Majman (textile store) as well as Eljasz Enstein (pharmacy warehouse). The majority of saloons, beer saloons and diners were Jewish owned. The owners included, among others: Gerszon and Fiszel Kielmanowicz, Jankiel Senders and J. Szarfman.
On August 2, 1919 the province of Lublin consisting of 19 districts was established, including Bilgoraj district with the principal town being Bilgoraj. It accelerated the town development significantly. Those changes affected the Jewish community. The leader of the Jewish Religious Community was Gerson Gutwein, whereas religious service to the community members was rendered by rabbi Motel Rokoch, who was considered a miracle maker, and Moszek Zylberman, a junior rabbi. Wholesale trade and large stores specialized in various trades were Jewish owned. Also Poles opened a few stores and workshops. However, small trade was also in the hands of Jewish owners, who possessed c. 300 small stores in the town.
In 1921 the population of Bilgoraj was 5603 persons, out of whom 3715 were Jews (66%). On March 28, 1924, during the elections to the Town Council, the councilors elected were only Polish people. The Jewish inhabitants could not take part in the elections, because the Elections Committee annulled all Jewish lists and supported the above decision with an argument that the command of the Polish language demonstrated by candidates for the council board was not satisfactory.
As a result of the complaint filed by the Jews of Bilgoraj, the Administrative Tribunal in Warsaw annulled the elections. Before the new elections, which took place on September 4, 1927, an election alliance was formed by political parties: Polish Socialist Party – Left- Winged (PPS-Lewica) and left-winged trade unions appeared under the name of Workers’ Unity Block; National Populist Union (ZLN), Christian Democratic Party, Union for the Improvement of the Republic of Poland and organizations associated with them was called the Polish Christian Civic Committee; Aguda and the unions and organizations related to it were called the United Jewish Block; the Histadrut ha Cyjonit and Mizrachi were Zionist parties. The only party which entered the elections individually was the Polish Socialist Party.
As a result of the elections for the Town Council in Bilgoraj, the councilors seats were filled by the following parties: Polish Socialist Party – 2, National Populist Union – 3, Union for the Improvement of the Polish Republic – 1, Non-Partisan Poles – 6, Aguda – 5, Histadrut ha Cyjonit – 1, Mizrachi – 2, and Non-Partisan Jews – 4.
As a method to improve working conditions strikes began to be organized. Consequently from May 27 to May 29, 1927, strike was launched by Jewish textile workers, shoemakers and typesetters in Bilgoraj, i.e. 145 people in total (organized in the Central Jewish Craftsmen’s Union. Shoemakers resumed work as late as June 13. However, the only improvement they achieved was the enforcement of an 8 hour work day.
Before WWII the number of inhabitants increased to 8,270 in August 1939, including 5,010 Jews (60%). 90% of the dwellers of Rynek, Lubelska St. and Frampolska St. were Jews.
The richest Jewish families included: the Erbesfeld, Tajer, Kandel, Wakszul, Harman, Izorf, Grynapl and Izajnwald families. The majority of them had bank accounts in Swiss and Austrian banks. Some more well-off Jewish residents were: Aron Kaminer, a dentist, Berek Kaminer – the owner of a printing house, Dawid Kaminer – a pianist and Hudesa – a violinist. The majority of the Jewish population, however, were the poor people and included craftsmen, rope-makers, porters, water-carriers, shoemakers, tailors and owners of small stores.
After the outbreak of WWII, as a consequence of the Nazi terror policy, Jews were allowed to live only in the area encompassing 3 Maja St., Nadstawna St. and Ogrodowa St. On the left arm they had to wear a white armband with a Star of David and they were banned from entering Glowna St., where the Germans lived.
In December 1939, a Jewish Council – Judenrat- was appointed by the German occupying authorities. It consisted of five people. The first person in charge was Szymon Bin. It was the German administration authorities which decided upon the food rations for Jews.
According to the letter by Jewish Mutual Aid Social Care Committee in Bilgoraj of January 18, 1942: for a considerable length of time the Jewish residents have received 7.25 dkgs of bread a day i.e. 1.25 kg a month and 20 dkgs of sugar a month as well as irregular rations of soap (6 dkgs), one bar of toilet soap, one packet of washing powder and 1 liter of kerosene per family.
The Nazis banned the Jews from dealing with craft and trade, as a result of which Jews had to do it illegally. In February of 1941, the Jewish Council was granted permission to open one grocery store for Jews. In October of 1938, the Nazis liquidated the Jewish banks and Stefczyk’s Savings and Loan Bank. In October 1939 the post office in Bilgoraj started its operation. However, the Jewish population could not use its services.
In October of 1939, a work order for Jews was issued. It included the men aged 14 – 60. Bilgoraj Jews had to cut down trees in the nearby forests, build roads in the district and at the railway station in the village of Rapy, the had to work in the Gliniska quarry as well as to carry out work during the construction of the canal on the Lada River. They started at six a.m. and finished at 5 p.m. Before work, they were forced to partake in gymnastic exercises, which were accompanied by beatings. Jews had to stand in close columns and sing a song starting with the following words: Our Smigly Rydz [Marshal of Poland] did not teach us anything, whereas our Hitler, the man of gold, taught us how to work. Bilgoraj Jews were also sent to forced labor camps in Bukowa or Dyle, where, together with Poles, they had to do land drainage works.
During the years 1941- 1944 the town was struck with an outbreak of an epidemic of typhus as well as of enteric typhus and dysentery.There was only one pharmacy in the town, however, the Jews were banned from using it. From December of 1940, the Jewish Mutual Aid Social Care Committee-Judische Soziale Selbsthilte- dealt with Jewish problems. In the middle of 1942 it was transformed into Judische Unterstutzungsstelle.
In 1941 the town faced a threat of tuberculosis, typhus and infectious skin diseases. In Bilgoraj there were neither Jewish physicians nor auxiliary personnel. That is why Polish doctors provided medical care to Jews gratuitously. In some cases the Jews could use the District Hospital. In the autumn of 1941, the German authorities established a Jewish hospital in Lubelska St. for fear of spreading the epidemic of typhus. The Jewish Mutual Aid Social Care Committee requested that doctor Jakub Meisel and doctor R. Polatschek (displaced persons from Vienna) be sent to Bilgoraj.
The Jewish Mutual Aid Social Care Committee organized care for orphans and displaced persons. This type of activity was necessary particularly during the period 1941- 1942. It was at that time that displacement actions and pogroms of Jews took on a mass character. At that time a number of Jews, who did not have any resources, came from Austria. The District Care Council and Jewish Mutual Aid Social Care Committee in Bilgoraj were subordinated to the department of care and social issues, where only German nationals and Volksdeutsche worked. The name of the department manager was Mock, who hated both Poles and Jews.
In August of 1940, the Nazis shot all Judenrat members in Bilgoraj. The reason was the refusal of the chair person, Szymon Bin and the deputy chair person, Hillel Janower, to identify a group of Jews to be sent to the extermination camp in Belzec and to establish the Jewish Police. The deportation of Jews from the town Bilgoraj and Bilgoraj district to the extermination camp in Belzec took place three times. For this reason round-ups were organized in various places of the district and as a result, 202 Jews were caught, out of whom 80 people were from Bilgoraj.
On April 6, 1941, the first displacement of the Jewish inhabitants of Bilgoraj took place. The Nazis brought c. 800 persons to Goraj. They were allowed to take only the most necessary things with them – all displaced persons are banned from returning to Bilgoraj. Any actions to the contrary shall be punished. All vacated flats shall be taken over by the District Administration Office and they cannot be rented. The next displacement of the Jewish inhabitants from Bilgoraj took place on April 22, 1942. It involved mostly the poorest families in the town. Moreover, 220 people were displaced from Tarnogrod. One more action was carried out on August 8 – 9, 1942. In the transport of 1,500 people, about 800 Jews were from Biłgoraj. They were primarily women, children and the elderly.
On November 2, 1942, “Operation Reinhard” in Bilgoraj began. The person in charge was Odilo Globocnik – police and SS chief for the Lublin district. The town was surrounded by special Scupo units, which were composed chiefly of Nazis as well as Latvian, Croatian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian fascists. All the Jews were gathered in the vicinity of the Market Place and from there they were taken to “Dwutsche Haus”, where the gathered persons were searched by the Nazis. Some Jews, while walking in columns, were shot by the escort police. The bodies of the murdered persons were lying along the whole length of 3 Maja St. During the next stage of the operation the Jews were gathered in the barracks in 3 Maja St. In the evening the Jews of Tarnogrod and Krzeszow were brought to Bilgoraj. On the next day all the Jews were removed from the barracks and were ordered to stand in a column, 8 filed in each row. Acts of cruelty took place there - some people were shot, some were bayoneted; babies were killed with rifle cleaning brushes. A lot of people died during the march from Bilgoraj to Zwierzyniec, from where they were transported by train to the extermination camp in Belzec.
On November 4, 1942, the Nazis killed the Jews who were patients in the District Hospital in Bilgoraj. After the Gestapo arrived at the hospital, they ordered to carry out of the building several seriously ill people. They were put on the carts and then taken outside the hospital premises. All of them were murdered and their bodies were buried at the site of their execution. By the end of 1942, the Nazis did their best to round-up all the Jews, who were in hiding. At that time about 300 people were caught and shot. The execution took place on the premises of the Jewish cemetery in M. Konopnicka Street.
On January 15, 1943, the Nazis dissolved the ghetto, which was established in June of 1940. During the occupation period the Nazis murdered about 4, 000 of Bilgoraj Jews.
Many Poles risked their lives and the lives of their families in order to hide the Jews or give them some help. To give an example: Pawel and Wiktoria Trzcinski hid Chaskiel Kandel and Dawid Szlafrok as well as their families. They paid for their efforts with their lives. On February 17, 1943, the Nazis took the Kandel and Szlafrok families out of their hiding and shot them. The Trzcinskis were arrested. After the gehenna of tortures at the Gestapo station, Pawel and Wiktoria Trzcinski were executed on March 2, 1943, leaving behind their young daughter, Gabriela.
Jan Mikulski, a forest officer, had more luck. He managed to conceal the hiding of five Jews till the end of the war.
On March 1, 1943, according to German records, the Bilgoraj population reached a total of 4,547 inhabitants, out of whom 4,258 were Polish, 212 Ukrainian, 66 German and 11 of other nationalities. Not a single Jew was mentioned by the Nazi authorities.
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