Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


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Belz - guidebook

Ukr. Белз, Yid. בעלז

Belz - guidebook

The Prince's town

Belz is a small town situated by two tributaries of the Bug River – Solokija and Rzeczyca. According to the most common theory, the name of the town comes from the Slavic word "bełz" or "bewz", meaning a muddy, wet area. The same word in the Boykos dialect means a muddy place, difficult to pass. Another hypothesis links the name of the town with the old-Russian word "бълизь" (a white place, a clearing in the dark forest).

Belz, the general view of the town
Belz, the general view of the town

Belz is one of the oldest towns not only in Ukraine, but also in the Eastern Europe. The first mention of the village comes from the Old Russian chronicle Primary Chronicle, in which we read that in 1031, the Duke of Kiev Yaroslav the Wise defended the town against the Poles. Belz was then a typical fortified town on the western reaches of Ruthenia. In 1170, the city was the capital of the independent Duchy of Belz, which was a feudal subject to the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia. In the middle of the 14th century, after the expiry of the Rurik dynasty, Belz, together with the entire Galicia-Volhynia region, became the bone of contention between the Polish, Hungarian and Lithuanian rulers. In the years 1377–1387, the city was under the Hungarian rule. In 1377, Duke Vladislaus II of Opole, the governor in Ruthenia on behalf of the Polish and Hungarian King Louis I of Hungary, granted the town a location privilege based on the Magdeburg Law. In 1387, Jadwiga of Poland removed Hungarian governors from Ruthenia and incorporated it to the Polish state. A year later, her husband King Władysław Jagiełło gave the land to Siemowit IV, Duke of Masovia. In 1462, the city became the capital of the Belz Voivodeship created after the incorporation of the Belz land to the Polish Crown.

The Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa
Belz had a part in the history of the Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the Ikon of Our Lady of Belz. According to the legend, the icon was created by St. Luke the Evangelist in Jerusalem on the table of the Holy family. It is not known when and how it came to Belz, but the first mention of it dates back to the 12th century. The icon is one of the most famous in Poland and in the Central and Eastern Europe, venerated by both Roman and Orthodox Catholics. Due to the dark skin of Mary's face, the icon is also called "the Black Madonna". The icon was taken from Belz by Vladislaus II of Opole when he ended his governship in Ruthenia. It was placed in the Pauline Monastery on Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, founded by the Duke in 1382.

The Jews of Belz

The Jewish community lived here most likely even in the times of the Duchy of Belz, but the oldest preserved documentary mention of the Jews of Belz dates from 1469 and refers to a court case on debt recovery. Initially, the Jewish community lived in the lubelskie outskirts, but after the enlargement of Belz in 1509, the Jewish quarter was within the city walls in the north-west part of the city. In 1570, there were approx. 20-25 Jewish families in Belz. In 1587, the Jews bought land for the construction of the synagogue from the Dominican friars. The synagogue was built of wood, like most buildings in the city. Later, a second synagogue was built next to it. At the beginning of the 17th century, the rabbi of Belz was Joel Sirkis, a known researcher of the Talmud and of the religious law (1561–1640), also known as "the Bach", from the title of his most prominent work Bayit Chadash (Heb. The New House): a book of brilliant Talmudic commentaries. Born in Lublin, Joel Sirkis occupied the rabbinates in Pruzhany, Lublin, Lukow, Luboml, Medzhybizh, Belz, Shydlovo, Brest and Krakow.

In 1648, during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, Belz was besieged by the Cossacks, who imposed ransom on the community. Wars in the middle of the 17th century caused almost complete destruction of Belz, according to the 1667 town inspection. To speed up the reconstruction of the city, the Belz magistrate gave the Jews the same rights as to other inhabitants. In 1704, during the Northern War, Belz was destroyed by the Swedish army. After the First Partition of Poland (1772), Belz was incorporated into the Habsburg monarchy. The city lost its political and administrative importance and became a small centre of craft and trade. On 7 May 1789, the Emperor Joseph II issued a Patent of Toleration, liquidating most of the legal differences between Christians and Jews, and abolishing the existing restrictions on the construction of synagogues and the establishment of Jewish cemeteries. The Jews of Belz gradually settled in the whole downtown, including the market square. After the great fire of 1806, which destroyed a big part of the wooden Belz along with synagogues, a new synagogue was built at the expense of rabbis from the Adler family.

The "Chasidut Belz"

In 1816, Belz became one of the centres of Hasidism in Galicia and the seat of a famous Hassidic dynasty of Rokeach (Yid. the Belzer Hasidim). Its founder Sholom Rokeach (1779–1855) was born in Brody. He was a pupil of Jacob Isaac Horowitz (the Seer of Lublin), and after the death of his master in 1815, he was regarded as a Tzadik. The Rebbe was called Sar Sholom (Heb. Angel of Peace). He was a rabbi in Belz in the years 1817–1855. In 1843, on the initiative of Sholom Rokeach, a Great Synagogue and Beth Midrash were built in Belz. In 1874, to the south and east of the great synagogue, a Talmud-Torah and a new building of the Rokeach rabbis was founded by the Rokeach family.

Sholom Rokeach preached the ideas of Hasidism in the Northern Galicia, Volhynia, and Hungary. Legend has it that he possessed the gift of healing people. His fame as a healer who helps both Jews and Christians, reached far beyond the borders of Galicia, Volhynia and Bukovina. Hundreds of Jews came to Belz to get a blessing from the tzadik. Sholom Rokeach died in 1855. He was buried at the Belz Jewish cemetery and his tomb is an important pilgrimage destination of the Hasidim until this day.

Sholom Rokeach was succeeded by his fifth and youngest son, Rebbe Yehoshua Rokeach (1825–1894). Unlike his father, he was active in politics. In 1878, he was the leader of famous tzadics from the Eastern Galicia, who set up an organization "Machzikei Hadas" (Heb. Supporters of the Law), which was to counteract the Halkalah ideas in Galicia and defended the Hasidic orthodoxy. Members of the organization issued a magazine and participated in the elections to the Austrian Parliament.

Legend has it that when rebbe fell ill with a mysterious illnesses, the Hasidim decided to take him to Vienna. There, in one of the best hospitals in Europe, he was examined by specialists. Doctors said that he needed immediate surgery, but no one could predict the outcome. The operation was carried out without complications, but rebbe died on the way back to Belz.

In 1894, Yissachar Dov (I) Rokeach (1854–1926) became the third Admor of the Hasidim in Belz. Yissachar continued to promote the Jewish tradition, cared about education and was a great authority to the Jewish leaders in Galicia and Hungary. He was also considered a miracle worker. Thousands of pilgrims from different countries came to Belz to receive his blessing.

Three leaders of the famous dynasty of Belzer tzadiks were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Belz: Sholom, Yehoshua, and Yissachar Dov (І).

The synagogue

In the years 1839–1845, a brick synagogue was constructed and Beth Midrash was built nearby in 1849. The construction was probably initiated by Rabbi Sholom Rokeach. There is a legend about the new synagogue. Rabbi Sholom, together with two of his friends, promised that they would not sleep for a thousand nights and devote this time to study the Torah. After a few hundred nights, his friends surrendered, but Rabbi Sholom Rokeach kept his promise. On the last night, the prophet Elijah appeared to him and together they studied the Torah until dawn. Elijah gave Sholom all the details of the Jewish synagogue and Rabbi promised to build it exactly as the prophet ordered. Rabbi was personally involved in the construction works for 15 years. It was a tall stone structure with thick (more than 1 m) walls, similar in style to the fortified synagogue in Zhovkva. Built on a rectangular plan, it housed a square prayer hall, a vestibule and a women's gallery. The high structure was crowned with an attic decorated with golden, copper spheres. The synagogue had wonderful acoustics and was able to accommodate up to 5 thousand people.

The synagogue in Belz
The synagogue in Belz

The beginning of the 20th century

In 1880, 2,135 Jews lived in the town (51.7% of the total population). At the beginning of the 20th century, another synagogue was founded by Fajwel Taube near Lwowskie Przedmieście. In 1909, his son (also Fajwel) founded a charity society "Ishre Lev", bringing help to the sick and the poor. In 1910, to the south from the market square, the society built its own synagogue.

 In 1914, 3.6 thousand Jews, 1.6 thousand Ukrainians and 900 Poles lived in Belz. An active life of the community was interrupted by World War I. In 1914–1915, the city was occupied by the Russian army and became a part of the Galician-Bukovinian Governorate-General. Belz was greatly affected by the war. Already in the first days of the occupation, the Russian troops burned almost all Jewish homes at the market square and on the adjacent streets. Only the burnt walls remained of "Ishre Lev's" house of prayer; one-third of the walls of Beth Midrash and Talmud-Torah were demolished and in the years 1916–1918, the Great Synagogue housed an Austrian military hospital. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Belz was briefly a county town in the West Ukrainian People's Republic and in 1919, it was incorporated into Poland.

During World War I, Yissachar Rokeach had to leave Belz and move to Mukacheve. It was not until after the war, that he returned home. He died in 1926. All Jewish buildings destroyed in the war were rebuilt in the 1930s at the expence of the Rokeach family. In 1926, Aharon Rokeach (1880–1957) became the leader of the Hasidim in Belz. He spent his childhood and youth in the family house, showed great interest in science and study of the Torah. Since early years, he led an ascetic lifestyle, which affected his health. Rebbe Aharon was surrounded by the aura of mysticism. Many of his students spoke of a miraculous power of his blessing and compared him to Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Hasidism.

At the beginning of the 1930s, a Zionist organization Torah Va-Avodah (Heb. Torah and Labour) was established in Sokal and then in Belz by Isaac Mautner, Shmul Spindel and Isaac Teller. Later, another organization "Bnei Akiva" (Heb. Children of Akiva) was created. It consisted of two groups, with 20 members altogether. The leading activists of "Bnei Akiva" were Moshe Hadari and Mirel Ziefert. Members of this movement organized cultural events and Hebrew lessons. They also collaborated with the "Hitachdut" party (Heb. Unity) and other Jewish political parties.


The little town of Belz

Belz is known due to a popular song Mayn Shtetele Belz (Yid. My little Town of Belz). The music was written by a composer Alexander Olshanetsky, and the text by a poet Jacob Jacobs. The song was written in 1932 in New York, for a play The Song of the Ghetto, a few years before the Holocaust in Europe. The song quickly became known as a folk song, was translated into many languages and turned out to be prophetic.

For more than half a century, there has been a debate as to which city the song really refers to: the former Polish Belz or the city of Bălți in Moldova. In Poland, the first version is favoured. One of the first translations of the song was created for the Warsaw singer Adam Aston, however, Isa Kremer, for whom the song was written, came from the Moldovan city of Bălți (Yid. Belts). In any case, the fate of the two towns was equally tragic, and the lyrics can be applied to hundreds of others – not just those two with similar-sounding names...

World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, the town was first occupied by the Red Army; after 10 October the German troops entered the city and it became a part of the General Government (1939–1944). Following the retreating Soviet forces, many Jews went east to the Soviet Union. The German authorities gathered Jews from nearby villages and set up a labour camp in Belz. In May 1942, there were about 1.5 thousand Jews in the city. On 2 July 1942, approx. 1 thousand of them were forced to walk 60 km by foot to Hrubieszów, and from there they were transported to the extermination camp in Sobibor. In September 1942, around 500 Jews remaining in Belz shared their fate.

The last rabbi 

In autumn of 1939, the last rabbi of Belz, Aharon Rokeach, ran away from the Nazis to Przemyśl. In July, 1941, the Nazis surrounded the Jewish quarter, gathered all the Jews in the synagogue and then set it on fire. They were saved by a Greek-Catholic priest Omelyan Kovch (the famous "priest of Majdanek", beatified as a martyr in 2001). He persuaded the SS soldiers to let him into the burning synagogue. Using a moment of confusion among the tormentors, Kovch opened the door to the synagogue. The priest noticed a small body by the entrance, which he took in his arms and took out of the burning building. The rescued man was Rabbi Aharon Rokeach. Unfortunately, not everybody managed to get out of the synagogue. Among the dead was the rabbi's only son – Moshe. His death marked the end of the direct line of the Belzer dynasty of Rokeach rabbis (the current Admor of the Hasidic dynasty in Belz is a son of a cousin of Rabbi Aaron).

In 1943, the Rabbi and his half-brother Rabbi Mordechai of Bilgoraj managed to get to Hungary with the help of a Hungarian counterintelligence officer. The Rebbe and his brother shaved beards and side locks and impersonated two imprisoned Soviet generals captured by the Hungarians and escorted to Budapest for a hearing. The escapees later recalled that they experienced "miracles" at every stage of the escape. All the way (200 km) through Galicia and Slovakia to the Hungarian border, the car was surrounded by fog so thick that the car was almost invisible. When they finally reached the Hungarian border, they were detained at the border crossing. In the crucial moment, three high-ranking officials from Budapest appeared and ordered to let the car pass. The Belzer Hasidim honestly believe that they were three tzadiks sent from heaven to help Rabbi Aharon in a successful completion of his escape...

After the war, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach recreated the Hasidic centre in Israel, where he lived until 1957. Other Hasidim whose tzadiks had died in Europe joined the court of the Belzer tzadik; this way, the Hasidim from Belz became again one of the largest communities.

The post-war Belz

In 1944, the city was again within the Polish borders. During the population exchange between the Polish Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and as part of Operation Vistula, all Ukrainians were displaced from Belz and the surrounding area. Under the agreement to change the boundaries of 15 February 1951, Belz was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, while the Ustrzycki region was moved to Poland. Poles were deported from Belz, and the city was resettled by the Ukrainians from the Ustrzycki region and displaced persons from other regions of Ukraine and the USSR. Since 1991, Belz has been a part of the independent Ukraine.

In 1945, 220 Jews returned to Belz. Some went to Poland, Israel and other countries, but a small Jewish community existed here also after the war. Only in the late 1950s, almost all Jews living in Belz emigrated.

The most valuable sites of the Jewish cultural heritage, including the Great Synagogue, Beth Midrash and Talmud-Torah, were blown up in 1942. The ruins of these buildings were taken down in 1951, already in the Soviet times. The building of the former mikveh is the only surviving part of the old synagogue Also the building of the charitable society "Ishre Lev" and the remains of the Jewish cemetery with partially preserved matzevahs have survived.

The pilgrimage destination

Belz remains an important pilgrimage destination of the Hasidim from all over the world, who want to visit the graves of famous tzadiks. For the purpose of these visits, a new synagogue, a mikveh and a pilgrim's house were built in front of the cemetery. In 2007, a wall was built around the cemetery. The keys to the cemetery gates can be obtained by calling: +38 032 575 24 17.

Belz, Prayer House of Ishre Lev organization
Belz, Prayer House of Ishre Lev organization

Belz, Jewish cemetery
Belz, Jewish cemetery

Worth seeing

  • Jewish cemetery (16th century), Mickievicha 106

  • Former prayer house of the "Ishre Lev" society (1910), Torhova

  • State Historical and Cultural Reserve in Belz, Savenka 1

  • Arians Tower (1606), the oldest monument in the city, Gogola

  • Ruins of the Dominican monastery (first half of the 16th century)

  • Church and monastery of the Dominican Sisters (second half of the 17th century, now a Church of St. Nicholas – a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church)

  • Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1906–1911) and a Chapel of St. Valentine

  • Wooden Church of St. Paraskevi (15th–17th centuries)

  • City Hall

  • Castle

In the vicinity

Chervonohrad (18 km): Potocki Palace (1762), now a subsidiary of the Lviv Museum of Religious History; Balisian Monastery of St. George (1673); former Bernardine church (1692–1704), now the Church of St. Vladimir

Velyki Mosty (20 km): ruins of the synagogue (early 20th century), inside: matzevahs from the local Jewish cemetery; church (1837), Orthodox Church (1893)

Uhniv (21 km): building of the former synagogue (early 20th century); church (1695); Orthodox Church (19th century)

Sokal (28 km): Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (16th century); former Bernardine monastery (17th century), now a penal colony; ruins of the synagogue (1762); destroyed Jewish cemetery with remains of matzevahs

Radzekhiv (52 km): former synagogue (19th century); wooden Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (early 20th century)


Author: Bozhena Zakaliuzna, Anatoliy Kerzhner