The Jews in Włodawa were first documented in 1531 for their participation in Lublin fairs[1.1]. However, it can be assumed that the first Jewish settlers arrived much earlier. At that time the Jews pursued mainly forest production, trade and floating the goods on the Bug River. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Jews in Włodawa were mainly merchants and craftsmen. There were 4 butchers, 3 tailors, 2 goldsmiths, 2 bakers, 2 furriers and 2 barber surgeons.
In 1623, the Council of Lithuania issued a regulation that the Jewish community in Włodawa was subordinate to the kahal in Brześć Litewski. With time, the municipality in Włodawa gained its independence, and the Jews could establish their own kahal. The Jewish district began developing in the southwest part of the town and the town hall, situated in the market square, was surrounded by wooden stalls belonging to Jewish merchants.
In 1684, during the Chmielnicki Uprising, a few hundreds of both local Jews and those coming from the neigbouring areas were killed while were trying to hide from Cossack and the Tatar troops. After the pogrom the Jewish community was reborn thanks to numerous privileges. In 1684, Rafał Leszczyński, owner of Włodawa, gave Jews the privilege to rebuild the Jewish district in the town (a synagogue, school and butcher stalls). At the end of the 17th century Włodawa numbered about 1,200 inhabitants. Out of 197 houses situated in the town, 89 belonged to Jews.
In the period between 1764 and 1774 a new brick synagogue was erected in the place of the old one. It was probably partly funded by the Czartoryski family, the owners of the town at that time. The architect of the synagogue may have been Paweł Antoni Fontana, a builder of the Pauline Fathers’ church in Włodawa [1.2]. Supposedly, it was the time, when the independent kahal was established.
In the second half of the 18th century, the Jews of Włodawa owned 12 drive-in tenement buildings, 2 non-drive-in tenement buildings, and over 50 houses. The Jewish trade was concentrated chiefly in the town centre where 40 out of 45 shops situated around the market square belonged to the Jews. The inventory of facilities that belonged to the kahal, dates back to 1786 and confirms existence of the brick synagogue with a wooden study hall (beth-midrash), brick study hall, Jewish cemetery, hospital, bath house, rabbi’s house and brewery. In the subsequent years, however, as a result of the partitions and mapping out a border on the Bug River between Austria and Russia, the development of the town slowed and its inhabitants, including Jews, were increasingly impoverished.
At the end of the 18th century, Chasidism reached Włodawa. One of the Chasidic tzadiks acting in the vicinity of the town was charismatic Ohrele Karliński. The content and style of his sermons as well as his lifestyle gained him the respect of his followers. He treated craftsmen and traders with particular affection, making his teachings increasingly popular among the poorest Jews in Włodawa. The actions of the tzadik aroused anxiety in the board of the local kahal. They soon began to take action against the Chasidim, e.g. in 1800 they were banned from praying in the local synagogue. A growing number of supporters of the Chasidic movement in Włodawa pressured the kahal into withdrawing the ban and granting permission to everyone to pray as they wished [1.3].
During this period, two Chasidic groups were formed and headed by separate tzadiks residing in Włodawa. The supporters of tzaddik Mendele of Kock were the first and constructed their own synagogue in Włodawa. Soon thereafter other Chasidic synagogues were established in Ostrowiec, Radzyń, Kazimierz Dolny, Turzysk and Lewartów. In Włodawa there were also groups of Chasidim of Husiatyn Bojanów, Chortkov and Sadhora who did not have their own synagogues. At the beginning of the 20th century a dozen of Chasidic groups, which varied in numbers and ideology, operated in Włodawa and its environs; the most prominent were the Chasidim of Sokołów, Kock, Łuków, Parczew and Międzyrzecze. The Włodawa Chasidim, gradually gained adherents and soon became a majority and overtime began to play a leading role in the kahal of Włodawa[1.4]. Supporters of the Haskalah movement came to the town around 1835.
In 1815–1816, two judicial processes against the Jews took place in Włodawa for ritual murder. Both cases resulted in acquittal of the defendant.
In the 1820s, Jews began to dominate the demographic structure of the town. In 1820, 59.5 percent of 3298 town inhabitants were of Jewish origin. When Włodawa came under the rule of Russia (1832-1862), tsarist authorities banned Jews from other localities from settling in Włodawa due to the borderline character of the town. Nevertheless, in 1857 there were 4,304 Jews residing in the town out of 9293 town inhabitants[1.5]. At the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Włodawa constituted about 66 percent of all the Włodawa residents. The total number of the inhabitants of the kahal remained stable in the interwar period: according to the 1921 census there were 4,196 Jews living in Włodawa, constituting 67 percent of all the town inhabitants. However, in the following years the percentage of the Jews in the demographic structure of the town decreased and before the outbreak of World War II Włodawa was inhabited by 5,650 Jews -- 60.7 percent of the whole town population.
A local branch of the Zionist political party “Mizrachi” was established in Włodawa in 1902 by Berl Rotenberg. In 1904 first Jewish bank in Włodawa was also established – Matis Holcman’s Banking House. In 1905 a worker’s strike led by the Bund and others was organized in town. In 1908, another Jewish bank, Wzajemny Kredyt (Pol.: Mutual Credit) was established in Włodawa. In 1914 the municipal council of Włodawa made an agreement with Eliezer Barnholc to introduce electric lights to the town.
In 1915–1916 a Jew, Lejb Lichtenberg, was the mayor of the town. Under his leadership, the shulhoyf, which had been damaged during the war, was repaired. In 1917, a local branch of the Orthodox Jewish party, Agudat, was established in Włodawa. The same year, a Jewish drama club was created.
During the interwar period, the kahal in Włodawa had about 7,000 members including Jews from the town and its environs. It was chaired by an eight-person board and rabbi. The last rabbi of Włodawa before the outbreak of World War II was Mendele Morgensztern. At the time, the kahal owned two brick synagogues, various houses of prayer, a kahal house, a mikvah and three cemeteries (two of them had already been closed down), none of which survived the war[1.6]. There were also many cheders in Włodawa and a Talmud-Torah school subsidized by the kahal. The school was attended by boys from the poorest families. Thanks to Rabbi Juda Arie Perłow, a religious school (yeshiva) was established in the town in 1924. The Jews of Włodawa mainly inhabited the centre of the town, i.e. the market square and its vicinity as well as the streets situated in the western part of the town: Wyrykowska (present day 1000-lecia Street), Solna (present day Czerwonego Krzyża Street), Okunińska, Furmańska, Kotlarska, Kozia (present day Hołoda Street), Błotnia (no longer in existence), and as far as Chełmska Street. They were mainly involved in crafts and trade.
In 1922, a union that gathered Jewish workers of many sectors and a branch of the Jewish youth movement “Hoshomer Hadati was established in the town. In 1923 that sports club Maccabi was organized. In 1924 a branch of a lefty party “Poale Zion” was founded as well. Eventually, Yehoshua Erlich established a branch of the Society for the Protection of Jewish Health in 1927. By 1939, 5,650 Jews lived in Włodawa.
Germans entered the town on 16 September 1939. Within a few days, they imprisoned some Jewish inhabitants of the town in the synagogue. The Jews were detained for 48 hours without any food or water. They were also shot through the windows. On 25 September 1939, the German army left Włodawa. After that, Independent Operational Group “Polesie” from the Polish army, under general Franciszek Kleeberg, entered Włodawa and spent a few days there. Subsequently, Soviet troops, which were occupying eastern Poland, entered the town and left on 14 October 1939. A number of Jews left the town with Soviet army. Soon thereafter, Włodawa was again occupied by the German army.
In November 1939, the Jews of Lubelski District (including Włodawa) were the first Jews in the General Governorate required to wear yellow stars on their clothes. Soon thereafter, the yellow star was replaced by the Star of David band. During the winter 1939-40, the German soldiers shot many Polish Jews. The execution took place in a forest between the Bug Włodawski and Sobibór railway stations. In January 1940, a ghetto was established in town between Wyrykowska, Okunińska and Furmańska Streets. Over 5,500 Jews of Włodawa and its environs were imprisoned there. Before the ghetto was sealed, many Jews had escaped from Włodawa to the partisan units fighting in the nearby forests. Later on, about 800 Jews from Kielce and Mielec were deported to the Włodawa ghetto. There was also a transport of 1,000 Jews from Vienna. Jews were employed by the Germans to drain the “cow marshland” and the Włodawa pond and to regulate the Tarasienka and Włodawka Rivers. Many inhabitants of the ghetto died of diseases, starvation and malnutrition[1.1.2].
In early spring 1942, Germans forced a group of Jews from the ghetto in Włodawa to work on construction of the Sobibór extermination camp. On 1 and 2 May 1942, during Shavuot, German troops selected ca. 2,000 Jews and deported them to the extermination camp in Sobibór. This was the beginning of the mass extermination of the Jews in Włodawa. On the first Saturday in July 1942, another selection was carried out—ca. 1,500 Jews were transported to the Sobibór extermination camp. Many Jewish children and the last rabbi of Włodawa, Mendel Morgensztern, were among them. In October 1942, the biggest selection, otherwise known as “the great action,” resulted in most Jews of Włodawa being deported to Sobibór. Nevertheless, Włodawa was included among eight towns in the Lublin district, in which Jews were allowed to live according to the decree issued on 28 October 1942 by the minister of security of the General Government. On 6 November 1942, the fourth roundup took place, the result of which was a deportation of almost all prisoners from the ghetto in Włodawa to the Sobibór extermination camp. The ghetto was eventually liquidated during 1 to 3 May 1943, after the last transport (consisting of the Jewish fugitives caught in the vicinity of the town and those, who revealed themselves voluntarily hoping to have their lives spared) was sent to the death camp. As a result, Włodawa became Judenrein (“clean of Jews”).
The Adampol labour camp (7 km west from Włodawa), where ca. 690 Jews were detained, was liquidated in July and August 1943 by a German firing squad. On 14 October 1943, a prisoners’ uprising broke out in the Sobibór extermination camp. Consequently, hundreds of Jews managed to escape. In response to this revolt, Germans liquidated this camp too.
The end of the war led to the rebirth of the Jewish community in the town for a short time. In December 1944, 34 Jews were members of the Polish Workers' Party (abbreviated in Polish PPR) in Włodawa (which constituted 5 percent of all members); others were Poles – 221 members (27 percent) – and Ukrainians – 518 (68 percent). In 1945, 143 Jews lived in Włodawa. In May 1945, 38 Jews (3 percent of all members), 502 Poles (44 percent), and 604 Ukrainians (53 percent) were members of the local branch of PPR. In 1946, only 40 Jews remained in the town, but in July the Jewish Religious Organization and the Jewish Committee were established in Włodawa[1.7].
- Chasydzi włodawscy – przedwojenni mieszkańcy Włodawy, stationary exhibitions of Leczna-Wlodawa Lake District Museum [online] http://www.muzeum.wlodawa.metronet.pl/m_stale_8.html [Accessed: 28.12.2014].
- Trzciński A., Śladami zabytków kultury żydowskiej na Lubelszczyźnie, Lublin 1990.
- Wlodawa, [in:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, vol. 3, ed. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, p. 1453.
- Wojczuk I., Bóżnica Włodawska, „Zeszyty Muzealne” 1999, vol. 5.
- Yisker-bukh tsu Vlodave, ed. Sh. Kanc, Tel Aviv 1974.
- [1.1] Wojczuk, I., Bóżnica Włodawska, „Zeszyty Muzealne”, vol. 5, Włodawa 1999, p. 9.
- [1.2] Trzciński A., Śladami zabytków kultury żydowskiej na Lubelszczyźnie, Lublin 1990, p. 20.
- [1.3] Chasydzi włodawscy – przedwojenni mieszkańcy Włodawy, stationary exhibition of Leczna-Wlodawa Lake District Museum [online] http://www.muzeum.wlodawa.metronet.pl/m_stale_8.html [Accessed: 28.12.2014].
- [1.4] Chasydzi włodawscy – przedwojenni mieszkańcy Włodawy, stationary exhibition of Leczna-Wlodawa Lake District Museum [online] http://www.muzeum.wlodawa.metronet.pl/m_stale_8.html [Accessed: 08.08.2008].
- [1.5] Trzciński A., Śladami zabytków kultury żydowskiej na Lubelszczyźnie, Lublin 1990, p. 21.
- [1.6] Trzciński A., Śladami zabytków kultury żydowskiej na Lubelszczyźnie, Lublin 1990, p. 20.
- [1.1.2] Trzciński A., Śladami zabytków kultury żydowskiej na Lubelszczyźnie, Lublin 1990, p. 20.
- [1.7] According to calendar by Krzysztof Skwirowski and Piotr Borysiuk from Leczna-Wlodawa Lake District Museum.