The first Jews arrived in Chełm around 1205, when the town was part of the Polish state. First historical references to Jews in Chełm (in the Polish territory) date back to the beginning of the 15th century. Soon after that, an independent Jewish community was established there.

In 1543, there were 71 craftsmen in Chełm, 25 of whom were Jewish. A yeshiva operated in the town in mid-16th century, with Symeon Auerbach and Salomon Zalman among the teachers. One of the most prominent figures in Chełm at that time was Rabbi Judah Aron (rabbi of Lublin, Chełm and Bełżec), referred to as the “doctor of the Jewish law.” He was designated by King Zygmunt Stary to be the tax collector of the entire Chełm Land. He had a son – Elijah Ba’al Shem – a famous cabalist and the progenitor of the Aszkenazy family of rabbis, famous all around Europe[1.1].

In 1550, 371 Jews lived in the town[1.2]. Three years later a Jew called Joszko was the lease-holder of the duties in Chełm and Hrubieszów. In 1556, King Zygmunt August issued a privilege which protected the Jewish population[1.3].

In the first half of the 16th century the community of Chełm became one of the biggest and most significant in the region. The decree issued by King Zygmunt Stary prohibiting the Jews of Kraków, Poznań, Lublin, Lwów and Chełm from engaging in the affairs of smaller kehillot points to the community's strong position and its striving for dominance over smaller centres[1.4].

In the years 1606–1615, Samuel Eliezer ben Juda Edels was the rabbi in Chełm[1.1.2]. In 1629, the town had 2,600 inhabitants, including ca. 800 Jews (30.7%). Some of the Jews living in Chełm worked in agriculture, while rich Jewish merchants played an important role in the international leather, wool and flour trade[1.5]. Many of the preserved archival materials point to strong economic ties between the Jewish and Catholic inhabitants of Chełm, although some serious conflicts also took place in the town, for example those of 1580 and 1582, when Jews and the synagogue were attacked[1.6]. The prosperous period in the community's development was interrupted by the Cossack invasion commanded by Khmelnytsky; in 1648, the Cossacks murdered ca. 400 Jews, that is ca. 75% of the kehilla's total population[1.7].

The Jewish community in Chełm was quickly restored, and in 1660 the local kehilla with its representatives in Va'ad Arba Aratzot (Council of Four Lands) was reactivated. One of the important sources of income for Jews in Chełm was the production and sale of alcohol, which was the main subject of disputes between the kehilla and the town's Christian residents. In 1765, 1,500 Jews lived in Chełm, which probably constituted half of the town’s population. Chełm's merchants played an important role in the international leather trade and controlled horse trade. In 1783, the municipal authorities of Chełm and the Jewish community signed the so-called pacts, which stipulated that the Jewish population would have to pay 20 Polish zlotys every year in exchange for being allowed to sell alcoholic beverages. However, the Jews questioned the legality of the charges and stopped paying them. The town’s treasury was declared to be right, and the Jews had to pay the accrued interests. Since they were not able to do that, the synagogue supervision board asked the Government Committee of Interior Affairs to arrange instalments for the payment and the Committee agreed.

In 1789, Rabbi Hirsz ben Josef published (in Polish) a response to the draft of the reform concerning the Jewish situation in the Polish Commonwealth presented by Butrymowicz – a member of Polish Parliament – during the session of the Great Sejm, called Sposób uformowania Żydów polskich w pożytecznych krajowi obywatelów (“The way of transforming Polish Jews into useful citizens of the State”)[1.8]. The rabbi's response was called Myśli stosowane do sposobu normowania Żydów polskich w pożytecznych krajowi obywateli (The appropriate thoughts about transforming Polish Jews into useful citizens of the State) and efended Jewish traditions and customs[1.9].

At the end of the 18th century, 47 out of 49 houses at the marketplace belonged to Jews[1.10]. The Jewish district was developing in the quarter on the north side of the marketplace. The Jews of Chełm were mainly engaged in crafts and trade. A few big businesses were also active in the town. These included, for example, the oil works, which belonged to Kielman Frydman, the tannery owned by Szlomo Szajer and two workshops manufacturing brass articles owned by Chil Uhr and Pinkas Lew.

Over the 18th century, the living conditions of Jews in Chełm were gradually improving. Some of Jewish businessmen were engaged in horse trade, but in the 1790s the conditions once again worsened, due to such factors as, for example, the restrictions on access to the market after the Third Partition of Poland.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Hasidism started to evolve in Chełm. Nusan Note was one of the first Hasidic rabbis in the town. Magid from Turzysk – a student of the famous Dov Ber of Mezeritch, Volhynia – was staying in Chełm at that time. One of the first rabbis from the Najhauz dynasty settled in the town as well[1.11].

In 1860, the town of Chełm had 3,637 inhabitants, including 2,616 Jews (71%). Six fairs a year and weekly markets were held there. At that time Chełm had no town hall. The detention centre, bank and municipality office were situated in the house of a Jew called Landau. Until 1886 the Kingdom of Poland had been collecting rents for leasing shops and houses from the Chełm's citizens. Jews had to pay the charges for using the bathhouse, synagogue and spices sold in shops.

At the end of the 19th century, Tzadik Heshel Leiner from the Hasidic dynasty Izbica-Radzyń founded his mansion in Lubelska Street in Chełm[1.12].

Yosef Kagan was the rabbi of Chełm in the years 1910–1918. He was the owner of a bookshop and a pharmacy. He was removed from his post after he illicitly went to Lviv and Moscow, from where he brought liquor.

In 1913, 12,713 Jews lived in Chełm. They constituted 54.5% of the town's total population[1.13]. Before the outbreak of World War I, Jews almost completely dominated the trade in the town. Dentists Dwojra Lorbier, Chana Birenbaum and Chaim Liszczyn had their own practice at that time[1.14]. There were three pharmacies in Chełm. They belonged to Jakub Horowitz, Szloma Birenbaum and Berek Gutharc (Lubelska Street).

Before the outbreak of WWI, several Jewish printing houses were active in the town. Those were the businesses of Wajnsztajn, Bronfeld and Erlich. Josef Bronsfeld established a printing house, bookshop, stationery warehouse and the “Kultura” rubber stamps factory, which was in operation until 1939.

In 1916, 16,280 people resided in Chełm, 11,705 pf whom were Jews (71.9%). In 1921, 12,704 Jews resided in Chełm, constituting 52% of the town's all inhabitants.

Before the outbreak of WWI, the community owned one synagogue, a house of prayer, six religious schools, two mikvot and a cemetery. The kehilla financially supported the orphanage at 80 Lubelska Street and an old people's home. Between 1910 and 1914 an amateur Jewish theatre was active in the town.

During the interwar period Chełm was – after Lublin – the second largest centre of the Jewish population in the Lublin Province. In 1939, Chełm had 33,622 inhabitants, including 14,995 Jews (44.6% of the total population)[1.15]. Most of the inhabitants earned their living by working in trade, with all of the 21 warehouses in the town belonging to Jews. Jews were the owners of 17 grain and flour storehouses, 10 out of 16 bakeries, 8 butcher's stalls, 6 out of 7 food warehouses, 2 out of 3 iron storehouses[1.1.15].

During the interwar period the Jewish community in Chełm had jurisdiction over the nearby villages of Okszów, Sielec (14 Jews), Żółtańce, Kasiłan (7), Kumów (21), Serebryszcze (25), and Weremowice (18)[1.16]. The Chełm kehilla owned a synagogue (at the corner of Szkolna and Krzywa Streets), a house of prayer (Wesoła Street), a bathhouse and a cemetery. In 1922, Majer Najhaus was the main rabbi in the town. He hailed from a family of tzadikim from Tomaszów Lubelski. Moszek Adamaszek, Binem Dychtrart and Gawiel Hochman were his assistants[1.17]. The Chełm kehilla also owned eight shops, which it leased to different merchants.

An almshouse and a fund designed to help the unemployed were also run by the community. There were about 21 private houses of prayer in Chełm, most of them located in Adrianowska, Lubelska, Szkolna or Wesoła Streets.

There were numerous social organisations in the town, for instance the Society for the Protection of Jewish Health (Polish: Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej, TOZ), the Women's International Zionist Organisation, the House of Bread Association, Jewish trade unions (the Jewish Merchants’ Association, the Jewish Craftsmen’s Association)[1.18], the Shop Assistants’ Association, the “Achizer” Association of Food Producers, the Association to Help Jewish Students, sports clubs and sport associations ("Gwiazda-Stern”, "Jordan”, "Betar”, the “Maccabi” Jewish Gymnastics and Sports Association, and a chess club) and the J. Trumpeldorf Jewish Scouts’ Association.

The community also financially supported such associations as the Bikur Cholim Association, the Linat Hatsedek outpatient's clinic, the Hachones Kale Association for Supporting Poor Jewish Girls, the Jewish Old People's Home, the Moes-Chitim Association. The kehilla also supported the Jews who wanted to go to the Palestine[1.19]. A fund to help the unemployed Jews was also active in the community.

The election to the Community Council took place in 1924. Four Jewish political organisations participated in the election, namely: the Agudath, the Zionist Organisation, the Jewish People's Party, Poale Zion. The Agudath won 6 seats, the Jewish People's Party – 4, the Zionist Organisation – 3, and Poale Zion – 1.

The election to the Town Council took place in Chełm in 1927. Out of 14 election committees, 9 committees represented the Jewish population. The Jewish committees were successful enough to secure 10 seats in the Town Council. Among the committees were the Jewish National Bloc, Poale Zion-Right, Poale Zion-Left, Non-Partisan Craftsmen and the Bund[1.20].

In 1934, the following Jewish committees took part in the election to the Town Council: the Jewish Worker's Electoral Committee Poale Zion-Left, the Jewish National Economic Bloc, the Jewish Socialists Labour Party Poale Zion. The newly elected Town Council was composed of 20 Poles and 12 Jews.

In the 1936 election to the Jewish Community Board the majority of seats was won by leftist groups. Nonetheless, the influence of the Agudath and the Zionist Organisation was still significant. In 1936, in the Board of the Jewish Community of Chełm there were five Orthodox representatives: Judko Mendelson, Abram Frydman (labourer), Anszel Biderman (real estate owner), Jankiel Korenblit (merchant) and Szymon Sajkiewicz (merchant). Poale Zion-Left introduced three of its representatives to the Board: Mordko Ela Goldman, Chaim Jankiel Bekier (upholsterer) and Berysz Akselrod (teacher). Local Zionists were represented by Abram Aron Szajn, while the Revisionist Zionists – by Szyja Tenenbaum (dental technician)[1.21].

During the interwar period five Jewish newspapers were published in Chełm, for instance the Unsere Shtime weekly (from 1927 on as Chelmer Shtime), the Chelmer Folksblat weekly, the Chelmer Vokhenblat weekly, and the Unser Tsukunft daily[1.22].

The Jewish district was located north of the marketplace. The Jewish community in Chełm owned two synagogues, a house of prayer, 45 cheders, 2 bathouses, 2 mikvot, an orphanage (80 Lubelska street), an old people's home and a cemetery. In the 1930s, Gemaliel Hochman was an assistant rabbi of Chełm.

Jewish education was developing in Chełm. In the interwar period, apart from several dozens cheders[1.23], the local Talmud-Torah school, established in 1922, and the Beis Yaakov female religious school, run under the auspices of the orthodox party Agudath, there were also secular schools in the town. A public school for Jewish children was set up in 1915. Run by Klara Morgenstern, it was transformed into the Kazimierz Wielki Public Elementary School in 1920. Between 1918 and 1933, the co-educational Humanistic Junior High School was in operation in Chełm, as well as some Jewish libraries: the Icchak Leibush Perec Library (from 1919 on)[1.24], the Bronisław Grosser Library, and the Ber Brochow Library, run under the auspices of the worker’s movement[1.25].

In 1935, following the death of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the Jewish Civic Committee was established by the Jewish community to commemorate him. Anszel Biderman became its president. He publicly expressed his condolences to the district governor. At the end of the 1930s, the Jewish community donated 150 to the Air Defence League and 192 to the National Credit.

In the 1939 election to the Town Council, the Polish Electoral Club won the biggest number of seats (13). Poale Zion was the second with 9 seats. The Polish Jewish Labour Union Bund gained one seat. The Jewish right wing (Jewish National Bloc) suffered a total defeat.

The gradually worsening economic situation, along with the growing anti-Semitic attitudes, resulted in the emigration of the Jewish population. Between 1937 and 1938, 230 Jews emigrated from Chełm to the USA[1.26]. The Jewish community financially supported the people who wanted to migrate to Palestine.

During WWII, in December 1939, Germans displaced ca. 2,000 Jews from Chełm to Sokal (today’s Ukraine). At first, they were gathered at Plac dr. Łuczkowskiego (today's Plac Konstytucji). About 300 Jews died in the so-called march of death to Hrubieszów and Sokal. Most of the march's victims were buried in a mass grave in Mojsławice.

At the end of 1941, Germans created a ghetto in Chełm. It encompassed Lwowska, Uściługska, Wojsławicka, Partyzantów and Pocztowa Streets. About 11,000 Jews were imprisoned there. The Judenrat in Chełm, headed by Michel Frenkiel, took care of the affairs of Jews from the districts of Chełm and Włodawa. From the beginning of the occupation, the Nazis carried out mass executions in the town. One of the execution sites was the nearby Borek forest, where a makeshift crematory was built at the end of 1943. Between 21 and 23 May 1942, Germans deported about 4,000 Jews to the extermination camp in Sobibór. Several hundred people were shot before the transport took place. They were replaced in the Chełm ghetto by about 2,000 Jews form Slovakia. The rest of the Jews were displaced to Sobibór between July and November 1942. In July 1942, 300 Jews arrived in Sobibór. On 6 November 1942, about 3,300 Jews of Chełm were gathered in front of the Dispersion of the Apostles Church and then rushed to the so-called Rampa Brzeska, from where they were displaced to the extermination camp in Sobibór. Germans left about 1,000 Jewish craftsmen in town, placing them in a forced labour camp. They were relocated to Sobibór in January and March 1943. Rabbi Gemaliel Hochamn and his family, some of the last living Jews in Chełm, were killed on 31 March 1943[1.27].

Between the autumn of 1939 and July 1944, a detention centre of the Security Police operated in the building at 106 Krakowska Street; some of the detainees were Jewish. Some of them were shot near Chełm, others perished in camps in Oświęcim, Majdanek and in the prison in the Lublin Castle. Ca. 200 Jews from Chełm survived the Holocaust. Most of them left Poland after the war. Leon Pałaszewski from Chełm was awarded the title of the Righteous Among the Nations.

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