The Jewish people appeared in Biecz relatively late, because the town was the king’s property and it was granted the De non tolerandis Judaies privilege from Zygmunt August, which banned the Jews from settling in Biecz and in its vicinity, as well as trading in the town on market days[1.1]. The starost of Biecz, Mikołaj Ligęza, was made responsible for supervising obedience to the edited regulation. Jews were trying to change this situation and filed complaints to the royal court, but their efforts didn’t produce the expected results. The situation changed only during the Saxon times, from which comes the first historical record of an anonymous Jewish dweller of Biecz brought into town by the starost of Biecz, Franciszek Szembek, to run an inn. For lack of sources, it can only be inferred that the politics of Biecz’s inhabitants towards Jews didn’t change until the second half of the 18th century. In spite of the regulation in force, in the year 1765 there were already 31 followers of Judaism living in the town, and in 1780, their number grew to 48. It is assumed that Baruch Frankel Teumim (1760–1828) – father in law of the tzadik Chaim Halberstam from Sącz – was the first to receive official permission from the authorities to settle in the town. Owing to his proficiency in Latin, the municipality employed him to write official letters to the state government. His grandson, Elimelech Goldberg, was the first to hold the office of a rabbi in Biecz, performing his duty without any remuneration. It was his initiative to build a wooden synagogue in the town.
Since the annexation of Biecz to the Habsburg Empire, the number of Jews living in Biecz grew systematically[1.2] . They lived mainly on small business and craft. They rented a mill, a tannery and a weaving plant, and they traded cattle, leather, timber, tobacco, metal products, and grain. With the discovery of oil in the Gorlice region, in the second half of the 19th century, there also appeared Jewish investors and owners of refineries, as well as ordinary workers, who also settled in Biecz. In 1890, Jews already constituted 14.5% of the whole population. They also took on such jobs as that of a glazier, mason, baker, bookbinder, tinsmith, tailor or shoemaker. There were also folwark (big farm – transl. note) tenants and farm owners. In 1899, Jada Kruh[1.3] held the office of the gendarmerie commander.
The growing number of Jews in Biecz – the effect of their plentiful influx from neighbouring villages and very fast population growth – aroused dissatisfaction among the Catholics. This was a period when acute competition between relatively affluent inhabitants of Biecz and the newcomers could be observed. There were even a few pogroms which led to the destruction and robbing of Jewish property. The most tragic events took place in 1898. Bloodshed was prevented thanks to the intervention of Jewish policemen[1.4] . At the beginning of the 20th century, anti-Semitic mood of the public became more radical, especially under the influence of the Church, which called for boycotting Jewish traders and artisans. There was also an attempt at expelling Jewish representatives from the town council at that time.
Jews had their own self-government and officers of the community, which was officially subject to the kahal in Gorlice[1.5] . The community consisted of Jews from 15 localities. At the turn of the 20th century, Mojżesz Leib Szapira from an honoured family of tzadiks took on the office of the rabbi. In 1902, Aaron Horowitz took over his office. At that time, religious schools thrived but there also appeared secular organisations insisting on the vital need for reforms in the Jewish education system. Also the seed of the Zionist movement was planted. Jakub Goldberg, rabbi Elimelech’s grandson, held the office of the municipality’s chairman and of the vice mayor of Biecz.
A huge fire, which consumed 50 houses in the town, deprived the Jews of 20 buildings, a synagogue and a library. With the generous financial support from the Diaspora in the United States and from the neighbouring communities, the synagogue was rebuilt a few years later. As a result of the deteriorating economic situation and due to the outbreak of the First World War, many Jew migrated. Biecz suffered serious losses from the war. The Jewish community was also affected, as trade exchange almost ceased to exist, and nutrition and basic necessities were lacking. Jews cooperated with Catholics in a civil committee which was called into being to alleviate the effects of extreme poverty and famine in the town.
Unfortunately, soon after the end of the war, attacks on members of the Jewish community took place. The anti-Semitic attitudes became more radical, especially with the arrival of General Józef Haller’s soldiers, who committed acts of violence on the Jewish people – they cut off their sidelocks and destroyed their shops and workshops. Later, members of the National Democratic Party, especially students, committed numerous acts of vandalism and published offensive articles in newspapers.
The Jewish community wasn’t among the most affluent in the inter-war period. In the twenties, the process of pauperisation of traders and craftsmen, who had to constantly compete with Catholics for the market, continued. Nonetheless, they dominated in these fields of economy. They occupied almost all of the houses in the market square. The situation worsened even more after 1933, when a fire consumed many Jewish houses, a candle plant, an apothecary, and numerous shops. Joint came to the aid, supporting financially the neediest members of the community by the agency of „Gemilut Chased”.
In spite of their financial difficulties, Jews from Biecz took an active part in the public life of the town. In 1920, a Hebrew school was established, which 75 boys and 69 girls attended in 1923. In 1924, a Talmud Tora was opened, and later, a cheder near it. A secular public library functioned from 1922. After the First World War, numerous political parties were reactivated. Almost all fractions of Zionists were active in Biecz. General Zionists, the Mizrachi, the Hitachdut, all kinds of revisionists and, from 1933, a women’s Zionist organisation. The youth organised themselves in Akiva and Ha-Szomer ha-Cair. Also religious Jews created a strong political movement. The most influential among them was Agudas Isroel. Jewish representatives also played an important role in the local government. They typically constituted the third part of the town council, occasionally even holding the office of the vice mayor. Yet, throughout the mid-war period, the community preserved its autonomy manifesting itself, among other things, in language and clothes.
The persecution of Jewish people started almost directly after the annexation of Biecz by German forces on the 7th of September 1939. Some of the inhabitants tried to leave the town beforehand, but they were forced to return by the approaching Nazis. Already in September they got down to confiscating Jewish possessions and recruiting workers for forced labour. Two beth midrashes were seized and turned into a warehouse and a cinema. In the winter of 1939/1940, 500 Jews from Łódź were brought to the town, enhancing the population to 1,300 people.
At the beginning of 1940, the Germans established a Judenrat led by a tradesman, Mordechaj Peler, subject to the Judenrat in Jasło. Salomon Getz was appointed his deputy.
In October 1940, a ghetto was created in Biecz, which was finally closed between March and April 1942. Only three members of the Judenrat were allowed to go out. In July 1942, 1,700 people found themselves in the ghetto. During all that time, executions of accidental people went on. The action of the ghetto’s annihilation started on the 22nd of July 1942. All the men between 18 and 35 years old were gathered in the market square. 170 people were directed to work camps in Karków-Płaszów. The second stage of extermination was conducted on the 14th of August 1942. The town was surrounded by German and Ukrainian policemen and the Jews were again gathered in the square. About 150 elderly and ailing people were shot on the spot and their bodies were buried on the Jewish cemetery. The rest, about 1,000, were kept in sheds for four days without food or drink, near the town hall. During that time, Local Polish police were helping to comb through the area in search of hiding Jews. On the 17th of August, everybody was sent to the extermination camp in Bełżec. There were another 40 slave workers of a bakery called “Ulreich” remaining in the town. In October 1942, they were sent off to the work camp in Przemyśl, and later exterminated. A few people hiding in the neighbouring villages managed to survive.
It should be mentioned here that in 1947 the court of Gorlice sentenced a Polish policemen, Jantorowski – made famous for his exceptional eagerness in helping the Germans to eliminate Jewish inhabitants of Biecz – to death penalty.
As soon January 1945, a small number of surviving Jews returned to Biecz and made attempts at reactivating the community. Unfortunately, the attempts were unsuccessful as a result of anti-Semitic moods among the local community and problems with recovering the two synagogues. Shortly after Biecz’s liberation, three Jewish citizens were murdered and the rest emigrated near the end of the 1940s, mainly to the United States and Israel[1.6] .
- Szopa K., Dzieje parafii Bożego Ciała w Bieczu w latach 1805–1925, Biecz 2008
- Potocki A., Żydzi rymanowscy, Krosno 2000
- Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities. Poland, t. 3: Western Galicia, Silesia, red. A. Wein, A. Weiss, Jerusalem 1984
- Bergman E., Jagielski J., Zachowane synagogi i domy modlitwy w Polsce. Katalog, Warszawa 1996
- [1.1] Ks. K. Szopa, Dzieje parafii Bożego Ciała w Bieczu w latach 1805 – 1925, Biecz 2008, p. 75.
- [1.2] A. Potocki, Żydzi rymanowscy, Krosno 2000, p. 34.
- [1.3] Ks. K. Szopa, Dzieje…, p. 76.
- [1.4] Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities. Poland, vol. III, Western Galicia, Silesia, ed. A. Wein, A. Weiss, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 88– 90.
- [1.5] Ks. K. Szopa, Dzieje…, p. 77.
- [1.6] Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities. Poland, vol. III, Western Galicia, Silesia, ed. Abraham Wein, Aharon Weiss, Jerusalem 1984, p. 90.