Jews are likely to have begun to settle in Bełżyce at the end of the 15th century[1.1] .At first it was a small group of merchants who made use of the town’s location, situated on the royal route leading from Cracow through Sandomierz and Lublin to Vilnius.

Greater numbers of Jews began to settle in Bełżyce in the 16th century. Similarly to other towns, they mainly pursued trade and crafts, but also provided board and lodging for merchants who followed the royal route and for rich Arian and Calvin noblemen arriving in the town. In the second half of the 16th century the number of Jews residing in Bełżyce was so significant that the kehilla received a privilege to build a grand synagogue, higher than other buildings in the town, located in the square south of the market[1.2] .

A document from 1574 contains the names of three Jews living in Bełżyce at the time: Abram, Jakub and Josko – who owned municipal squares and houses. Other documents dating back to the second half of the 16th century mention the Jewish school in Bełżyce (beit ha-midrash) where Jakub Nachman worked as a teacher (Yiddish: Jaków Jahman), who was also called Jakub from Bełżyce. He was a famous scholar, preacher and defender of Talmudic laws, and ranked among the greatest medical experts of the 16th century. In his work published in 1581, entitled Odpis Jakóba z Bełżyc na Dialogi Marcina Czechowica [A reply by Jakub of Bełżyce to the dialogues of Marcin Czechowic] he engaged in polemics regarding the teachings propagated by a well-known Arian preacher. Among other things, Jakub referred to the accusations concerning the use of Christian blood for liturgical purposes by Jews. This work, was the first known book written by a Polish Jew in Polish and became an inherent part of the accomplishments of the Polish-Lithuanian Talmudist School. This School developed in the 16th century and faced up to polemics on a larger scale, arguing theories that were prevalent in the communities of Polish Catholics, Arians and Calvinists. Jakub from Bełżyce and Marcin Czechowic were also involved in the public theological disputes that took place during the Arian synods, in 1569 in Bełżyce and in 1572 in Lublin[1.3] .

The important role of the town for the Jewish community can be confirmed by the fact that Waad Arba Aracot was convened here in 1643, 1689 and 1691. This was the parliament of the Four Lands, a central organ of Jewish autonomy in the Republic of Poland at that time[1.4] .

This period of the town’s prosperity was interrupted by an attack by the Cossack army led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648. The town was destroyed to a large extent – the Cossacs destroyed the synagogue and the school, and most likely killed all the Jews from Bełżyce[1.5] .

After Khmelnytsky’s pogroms the Jewish community was reborn relatively quickly. In 1676 Jews constituted 23% of the town population. The so-called Jewish district included Żydowska Street (now 1000-lecia Street), Zatylna Street (now Jakub Nachman Street) and Południowa Street (now Bednarska Street) .

Although the fire of 1780 destroyed the entire Bełżyce market, it was in the second half of the 18th century that the town enjoyed its period of prosperity. In 1788 a squadron of National Cavalry stationed here and the town became the centre of parties and sumptuous balls organized by the owners of Bełżyce of that time. The town organized six fairs per year, which were attended by Jewish merchants from all areas of the Lublin Guberniya (Governorate). As the town prospered, the financial standing of its Jewish and non-Jewish residents improved and many Jews from neighbouring villages began moving to the town. Huge profits were brought by trade and propination laws (i.e. the production and sale of vodka and beer), which were granted by the town’s owners. During this period Jews owned 19 stalls in the Market, as well as taverns with stables, rebuilt after the great fire of 1780[1.6] .

In 1820 Jewish residents of Bełżyce constituted around 50% of the whole town population. Most of them lived off trade and crafts – mainly were tailors. They also ran numerous drinking bars where they sold vodka and beer produced in the distillery and the court brewery[1.7] . During the next fire, which broke out in 1822, one third of the town’s buildings were ruined. The fire caused substantial damage to the synagogue, completely consumed the town hall, the majority of the market tenement houses, many houses in adjacent streets, as well as Jewish inns and taverns built after 1780. They were never rebuilt again, only a few simple wooden houses were erected by Jewish owners at the sit of the original buildings.

In 1842 representatives of the Jewish community in Bełżyce appeared before the Government Commission of Internal Affairs in Warsaw protesting against the misappropriation of funds committed by the town owner at that time, Witold Brzeziński, who was supported by the government of the Lublin Guberniya. In 1844 the situation led to some riots involving the Jews of Bełżyce, who refused to pay the land tax “sierpowy” and committed battery on a policeman who attempted to enforce the payment of the amount due. The dispute between the Jews and the squire ended in favor of the Orthodox Jews in 1859[1.8] .

In 1859, out of the 1693 residents in Bełżyce, 757 were Jewish (almost 45% of total population) among whom there were: 49 tradesmen of various goods, 17 tailors, 57 shoemakers, 3 bakers, 2 furriers, 2 tanners, 1 distiller and 5 landlords[1.9] . In the subsequent years the kehilla began to develop significantly in terms of population. At the end of the 19th century it numbered 1705 people, which constituted 53% of the town’s population. During that time a famous rabbi, Gedaliah Samuel Jakobson, worked in Bełżyce.

As was the case with other areas in the region, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century marked a period of emancipation for the Jews in Bełżyce, whose community was filled with new intellectual trends and political ideas. The Charity Association Achi Ezer (Brotherly Help) was founded in Bełżyce at that time, and in the nearby town of Bychawa a Jew from Bełżyce, Szloma Klajman, opened the first pharmacy warehouse. The official rabbi of Bełżyce Synagogue District was Jaków (Jakub) Sznejderman, and was succeeded by (counsellor of the rabbi’s office) – Szulim Rotenstein. The kehilla had 4 shochetim [ritual butchers] (Abandel Kałma, Chaskiel Szapiro, Abandel Troppe and Perec Goldberg). Statistics from the period indicate that religious ceremonies in the synagogue were regularly attended by approximately 230 adult men (above 12 years of age).

When Poland regained its independence in 1918, in addition to the great synagogue and beit ha-midrash, there were 6 private prayer houses, 8 cheders, a mikvah, a ritual slaughter house and two cemeteries – the old one (excluded from use) and the new one operating from 1825, in Bełżyce[1.10] .

During the interwar period Bełżyce was a typical shtetl, with a Christian community who mainly pursued agriculture and petty handicraft production, and a Jewish community who lived off small trade (textile fabrics, paraffin oil, ironware), crafts and providing credit services to the residents of the town and the kehilla. At the beginning of the 1930s the kehilla controlled the synagogue, the bath-house and the two cemeteries. Thirty-five shops and market stalls were owned by Jewish residents. Jewish tailors, shoemakers and glaziers were highly respected by non-Jewish townsmen and peasants. There was also a Jewish photographer, Mostek Goldsztajn, and a barber and dentist, Jakub Kirszt, worked in the town.

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War the town had over two thousand Jewish residents[1.11]] .

In September 1939 Bełżyce was captured by the Germans. On June 16,1940 in the first mass execution in the town, the German military policemen from the village of Niedrzwica Duża shot to death 13 people, including 10 Jews.

In December 1940, following the Lublin County Nazi administration officer regulation, a Jewish ghetto was established in Bełżyce. The Jews from Bełżyce and nearby towns (including Bychawa and Piotrowice) were resettled into a dozen or so houses on Południowa Street (now Tysiąclecia Street). Subsequently, the ghetto was filled with Jews from transports from Szczecin (Stettin) (300 people, February 25, 1940), Cracow (500 people, February and March 1941) and Lublin (500 people) who were brought to the railway station in Motycz.

In May of 1942 a few thousand Jews were brought into the ghetto; these were German citizens from Saxony and Thuringia[1.12] . In the autumn of 1942 the ghetto in Bełżyce became a centre of the concentration of all Jews from the southern part of Lublin County. As a result of successive transports the number of people in the ghetto reached its peak in March 1942, when it held 4854 people –2754 people more than in September of 1939. The ghetto was surrounded by a wall in January of 1942. Previously, it had not been closed but had been guarded by Jewish policemen. The Jews kept in the crowded area of the ghetto were decimated by typhus and the terrible sanitary conditions.

In 1942 the Nazis began a gradual dissolution of the ghetto in Bełżyce. At the beginning of October 1942 circa 3000 Jews were transported to the extermination camp in Sobibór.On October 2, 1942, during the preparation for transport in the square in front of the synagogue, the Nazis executed 150 elderly and disabled men. Many of the other people selected for the transport were shot during the 10 kilometer march from Bełżyce to the railway station in the village of Niedrzwica. Those who remained were gathered into the houses around the ruined synagogue where the Nazis organized a forced labour camp. They made mainly women work for the Wehrmacht, mostly in the tailoring and shoemakers workshops.

On May 8, 1943 the ghetto was ultimately dissolved. Some of those who were in it were killed on the spot. A Ukrainian unit of guards from the camp in the village of Trawniki supervised Jews digging of a long and broad ditch behind the synagogue on Południowa Street. Next, supervised by the Nazis, the Ukrainian units carrried out a massacre of men, women and children who were killed using pistols or axes. As a result, 750 women, 150 children and about 100 men were murdered. The ditch was filled with the bodies of the dead Jews and those still alive and then the ground was leveled out. About 250 women and 350 men escaped the execution as they had been selected by the Germans to work. Some of them were transported to the forced labour camp in Kraśnik-Budzyń, while others were sent to the ghetto in Piaski Lubelskie.

In 1940 the Germans destroyed the old synagogue, and in 1941 they destroyed the other one, which was situated near the synagogue erected in 1740, where the oldest of Bełżyce’s Torahs, from 1730, was kept. The war did not destroy the building of the mikvah and the house of the famous tzaddik Gedali Szmul Jakubson, a grandson of the equally famous rabbi from Bełżyce – Kelman Icak Jakubson, where the Jewish school was located before the war[1.13].

In July 1944 no Jews were left in Bełżyce. However, shortly after the liberation of the town, the town’s pre-war residents who survived the Holocaust, began to return. They soon left, however, when a group from the “Ryś” WiN [Freedom and Independence] unit killed 2 Jews on March 14, 1946. During the Second World War the Jewish population of Bełżyce was almost totally annihilated by the Nazis. One of the few Jews to survive the occupation was Nimrod Ariav, whose mother ran a textile shop in Bełżyce before the war.
 

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Footnotes

  • [1.1] Kiryk Feliks, Rozwój urbanizacji Małopolski XIII–XVI w., [a typescript of a PhD thesis in the Central Library of the Pedagogical University of Cracow ], p.7, http://www.horajec.republika.pl/fakt15.html [updated 08.08.2008].
  • [1.2] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 79 – 80
  • [1.3] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 79.
  • [1.4] I. Schiper, Dzieje handlu żydowskiego na ziemiach polskich, Warszawa 1937, p. 191; A. Leszczyński, Sejm Żydów Korony 1623–1764, Warszawa 1994, p. 103.
  • [1.5] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 80.
  • [1.6] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 80 – 81.
  • [1.7] E. Przesmycka, Przeobrażenia zabudowy…, p. 206.
  • [1.8] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 81.
  • [1.9] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…,
  • [1.10] Wykaz stanu majątkowego GWŻ [The list of assets of the Jewish religious community], National Archives in Lublin, Lublin County Administration Office 1918-1939 –, classification number 632, p. 28; Wykaz cmentarzy [The list of cemeteries], National Archives in Lublin, Lublin County Starosty, classification number 672, p. 3.
  • [1.11] A. Cyruk, Bełżyce, http://www.kirkuty.xip.pl/belzyce.html [updated 08.08.2008
  • [1.12] See http://polin.org.pl/cities/ [updated 08.08.2008]; also see: S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 82.
  • [1.13] S. Jadczak, Bełżyce. Monografia…, p. 83.