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

 

NN Theatre

Izbica - guidebook

Ukr. Іжбиця, Yid.איזשביצא

My first home was in Izbica; this is where I was born. This was my inheritance – yerushe, as you say in Yiddish – my great-grandfather had built the house and passed it on to the following generations.
Thomas Blatt – a fragment of Oral History from the collection of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre, Lublin 2004
Izbica - guidebook
Houses in Lubelska Street in Izbica, 1940. Photo by Max Kirnberger, collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

The Jewish capital

The earliest mentions of Izbica date back to 1419. It was a village in the parish of Krasnystaw and was spelt Istbicza in documents. In 1539, the village became the property of Hetman Jan Tarnowski. In 1548, the Tanowskis established Tarnogóra, a new urban centre across the Wieprz River. Izbica remained a village until the 18th century. In 1662, its population numbered 23 farmers, all of them Catholics.

A new town charter was granted to Izbica in the mid-18th century, when Antoni Granowski, the head of the Tarnogóra town council, received a privilege from King Augustus III to establish a town in Izbica and to settle Jews in it. This decision was probably dictated by a local conflict between Christians and Jews that in 1744 led to the expulsion of Jews from Tarnogóra, where the de non tolerandis Judaeis privilege came into force. From the beginning of its existence, thus, the town of Izbica was inhabited exclusively by Jews; Christian peasants lived in a separate village, also called Izbica. The entirely Jewish character of the town was a unique case in Poland.

This Jewish town was one of the smallest towns in Poland-Lithuania, and it grew up on the route from Lublin to Lviv. Due to its small size, it did not develop a distinct network of streets until the 19th century. On the eve of the Polish partitions (1772–1795), Izbica numbered 29 dwelling houses located around the market square, inhabited by 150 people; it had three breweries, and starting in 1754, several modest market fairs were permitted to be organised.

Also in 1754, a Jewish cemetery was established. In 1765, the kahal of Tarnogóra, to which Izbica’s Jews still belonged, had 204 members. The kahal was moved to Izbica 10 years later. The town did not have a separate civic municipal administration. Although 19th-century town plans do show a town hall construction site, the building was never actually erected. The kahal’s elders probably settled municipal matters together with the owner of the estate.

 

A town by the road

In the 1830s, a new road was built leading from Warsaw through Lublin and Zamość to Lwów. It ran through Izbica, and thanks to this road the town gained importance as a centre of local craft and commerce. Though Izbica never developed into a larger urban centre, the population grew constantly; moreover, until World War I, it was inhabited almost exclusively by Jews. In 1810, only 173 people lived in Izbica, but by 1827, the town already had 407 residents, and 30 years later their number reached 1,600. In 1860, the town had 117 houses, of which 80 were considered stone houses (for their construction, limestone was used). These buildings were laid out around the market square and along the road leading to Tarnogóra, with inns situated at their rear. There was a mill, a sawmill, a bentwood furniture factory, tanneries, and a comb factory. Twenty years later, Izbica’s population reached 2,077.

 

Hasidim

Though we don’t practice the traditions of the Hasidic Jews, on the Sabbath we often host visiting Hasidic rabbis because my father is considered one of the leaders of the community. Our family’s dinner guest this evening is a rabbi from the town of Radzyń. I can easily identify his affiliation with a quick glance at the unusually colored tzitzis that he wears: whereas nearly all Jewish men wear white tzitzis, he dons the hallmark blue tzitzis of the Hasidic Jews from Radzyń and Izbica.

Philip Bialowitz, A Promise at Sobibór, Madison 2010

In the 1840s–1850s, tsaddik Mordekhai Yosef Leiner (1801–1854), a disciple of tsaddik Menakhem Mendel Morgenstern of Kock (Kotzk), ran his own Hasidic court in Izbica, and it is Mordekhai Yosef Leiner from whom the still-existing Hasidic dynasty of Izbica and Radzyń descends. Tsadik Judah Leib Eiger of Lublin was Leiner’s disciple, and Mordekhai Yosef’s son, Gershon Hanokh Leiner, founded a Hasidic court in Radzyń Podlaski. In the interwar period, a local court functioned in Izbica, run by Hasidic rabbi Tzvi Rabinowicz from the dynasty of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (Przysucha).

On one occasion, so-called more enlightened Jews arrived from the nearby town of Zamość. More enlightened meant a little more assimilated, a bit like the intelligentsia or students. They came on bicycles on Saturday, which was a sin! And they weren’t wearing hats, either! This was not acceptable in Izbica. I only remember that some of the Orthodox Jews – “Yeshivabuchers” [Talmudic academy students –eds.] – chased these cyclists until they disappeared across the town's boundary.

Thomas Blatt – a fragment of Oral History from the collection of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre, Lublin 2004.

 

The synagogue

The earliest mentions of a bet midrash, reportedly located behind the houses in the north side of Izbica’s market square, date back to 1781. It was probably there, in its place, that the first wooden synagogue was built in 1819. In 1855, a stone synagogue was established at the same location. It burned down in 1879, but was rebuilt soon afterwards. The building was pulled down completely in 1943–1944, already after the town Jews had been murdered.

 

Członkowie izbickiego Judenratu, w tle budynek synagogi, 1940, fot. Max Kirnberger, zbiory Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin
Members of Izbica’s Judenrat, with the synagogue building in the background, 1940. Photo by Max Kirnberger, collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlinrlin

The tent of meeting

In 1925, Rabbi Pinkhas Elijah Herbst of Izbica began to publish a periodical devoted to rabbinical and Talmudic issues. Published in Hebrew, this monthly was entitled Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). The publisher’s main objective was to spread knowledge based on Talmudic learning among young rabbinical scholars.

(...) each significant Jewish town in Poland typically has at least a few families who have been the trusted bakers of the Passover matzo for generations. In Izbica one of these families is the Klyds, from which my mother and her four siblings were descended (...). The large scale of the [matzo-baking] operation also means that for the four weeks before the annual holiday, our home is overrun by about twenty of Izbica’s prettiest young girls, handpicked by my mother to assist in the meticulous baking process.

Philip Bialowitz, A Promise at Sobibór, Madison 2010.

 

Religious, social, and political life

During the revolution of 1905, a strong centre of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) was established in the nearby Tarnogóra, and its influence spilled over into Izbica. Polish PPS activists were able to mobilize the Jewish residents of Izbica to take part in a strike and a demonstration, but the high level of danger posed by the Russian garrison in Krasnystaw prevented any major revolutionary outbreaks.

On the eve of World War I, the population of Izbica amounted to 4,451 inhabitants, almost all of them Jews. After the war, Poles also settled in the town. According to the 1921 census, there were 2,865 Jews, 219 Poles, and one Ukrainian in Izbica. Most of local Jews were Orthodox, and the pace of Jewish life was regulated by tradition: the rabbinic law overrided the Polish law. Many Jewish families used no language but Yiddish, and although there was a Polish primary school in Izbica, not all Jewish children attended it. Some of the boys from Hasidic families finished their education at the elementary school (cheder) level. On the way from the town centre towards the cemetery, one can still see a house that preserves a traditional sukkah (Heb. booth), a kind of balcony with an opened roof, used during the feast of Sukkot. At the entrance to the path leading to the cemetery, the one-time funeral home serves now a residential building.

 

Dom z zachowaną kuczką, Izbica, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" - www.teatrnn.pl
A house with a preserved sukkah, Izbica, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre (www.teatrnn.pl)

On a Saturday evening, when the Sabbath was over, I remember there was a tradition of everyone going out to the main street for a stroll, from one end to the other. Whole families. People would dress up in their best clothes and celebrate the end of the Sabbath. I would never go, but my mother always would, with my younger brother – she took him by the hand and they strolled back and forth. That was traditional.

Thomas Blatt – a fragment of Oral History from the collection of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre, Lublin 2004

 

Poor, but at home

Izbica was a poor town, without a sewage system until the outbreak of World War II. Water was supplied by a few artesian pumps and three wells. Not all of the houses had electric lighting. Izbica was a town of craft and trade in which small tanneries, oil mills, and sawmills played an important role. In the 1930s, Izbica’s only industrial plant of considerable size was established – a state-owned clinker brick factory, where Jews were not employed. By 1939, the population of the town reached about 4,500 inhabitants, of whom 92 percent were still Jews.

 

Zawiadomienie piwiarni Cwekin w Izbicy, 1932, zbiory Biblioteki Narodowej - www.polona.pl
A leaflet advertising the Cwekin beerhouse in Izbica, 1932, collection of the National Library of Poland (www.polona.pl)

 

World War II and the Holocaust

At the outbreak of World War II, Izbica was initially seized by German troops. Towards the end of September 1939, the Red Army entered the town, but only for a brief period. Fearing German repression, a group of Jews from the town left Izbica with the withdrawing Red Army. From 1940, Jews began to be resettled to Izbica from the western regions of Poland, which had been incorporated into the Reich: from Koło, Łódź, Kalisz, and Konin. In 1941, about 1,000 Jews from Lublin were resettled here. The living conditions rapidly deteriorated. A local station of the German Security Police for the County of Krasnystaw was established in Izbica, with Kurt Engels as the head and Volksdeutscher Ludwig Klemm as his deputy. It was they who first organised the arrest of representatives of the Polish and Jewish intelligentsia from Izbica and Tarnogóra and subsequently launched the mass persecution of Jews. On Engels’s order, the Jewish cemetery was razed and the matzevot were used to build a jail and pave the streets.

 

The transit ghetto

In March 1942, after the beginning of Operation Reinhard, the Germans turned Izbica into the largest transit ghetto in the Lublin District. By the end of May, more than 10,000 Jews from Bohemia, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany were deported here. The local Jews were deported mainly to the Bełżec extermination camp, while Izbica became the place where Jews from the County of Krasnystaw and from Zamość were concentrated. By November 1942, about 24,000 Polish and other Jews passed through Izbica to be deported to the extermination camps in Bełżec and Sobibór and to the Majdanek concentration camp. During the brutal deportations, hundreds of people were murdered in the streets and on the railway platform. Many – mainly foreign Jews, who did not know the local language and had no personal contacts in the vicinity – died in Izbica of hunger and epidemic diseases.

On November 2, 1942, the transit ghetto was liquidated. About 2,000 Jews remaining in Izbica were taken to the Jewish cemetery and shot dead. A month later a ghetto was established again, this time for about 300 Jews caught in hiding places and in nearby forests. On April 28, 1943, they were transported to the Sobibór extermination camp.This put an end to Jewish Izbica.

 

 

Memorials

The site of the mass execution of November 1942 was commemorated in the 1960s and 1970s with the symbolic outlines of three mass graves (which do not coincide with their actual area). Next to them, there is an obelisk with a representation of the Ten Commandments. Nearby, there are individual memorials: a plaque commemorating Gertrude Mitterbach (a Jewish woman converted to Christianity) and a monument in honour of the families of all murdered Jews, erected in 1967 by Fr. Grzegorz Pawłowski (Jakub Hersz Griner) and his brother Haim Griner. Haim survived the war in the Soviet Union, and Jakub managed to escape from Izbica in November 1942 before the final execution, in which his parents and sisters were killed. He survived thanks to his command of the Polish language. Later on, he converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest in 1958. He serves the Catholic community of Israel from 1970.

In 1995, at the initiative of the Leiner family, the ohel of tsaddik Mordekhai Yosef Leiner and his family members was rebuilt at the cemetery. Since 2004, the Jewish cemetery in Izbica has been cared for by young people from the local middle school and the Kassel-based German organisation Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz. In 2006, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ) and the German television station ARD had the former jail pulled down. Fragments of the matzevot that the Germans had used to build it were transported to the cemetery. Some of them, with the original colours preserved, were set into the walls of tsaddik Leiner’s ohel. The oldest matzevah fragment is dated to 1785. In 2006, the Foundation and the German Embassy funded a monument at the cemetery to commemorate the extermination of Jews in Izbica. The monument has the form of a stele with inscriptions in Polish, German, and English.

 

Ohel cadyka Mordechaja Josefa Leinera (1801-1854) i jego rodziny na cmentarzu żydowskim w Izbicy, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" - www.teatrnn.pl
The ohel of tsaddik Mordekhai Yosef Leiner (1801–1854) and his family in the Jewish cemetery in Izbica, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre (www.teatrnn.pl)

On a little green square across the road from the cemetery stands a small obelisk erected in 2007 by a German and Jewish organisation from Würzburg that commemorates the Jews from Würzburg and from all of Franconia deported to Izbica in the spring of 1942.

Authors: Robert Kuwałek, Emil Majuk

Worth seeing

  • Jewish cemetery (18th c.), Fabryczna St.
  • Town houses (19th/20th c.) in the market square and in Lubelska St.
  • Clinker works (1929), Fabryczna St.

Surrounding area


Orłów Murowany (7 km): Count Kicki’s palace (19th c.) surrounded by a park; ruins of fortifications (16th c.); and Church of St. Cajetan (1920s).

Krasnystaw (13 km): a synagogue (Czysta St.); foundations of a mikveh; the former Perelmuter’s mill; the Zygelszyper, Baumfeld, Binder, and Fleszer family town houses; a Jewish cemetery (1st half of the 19th c.), Rejowiecka St.; the former Jesuit monastery complex: the Church of St.Francis Xavier (17th/18th c.), the Jesuit college (1720) currently the Regional Museum, the episcopal palace (17th c.); the former new Augustinian complex; the Church of the Most Holy Trinity (1837–1839).

Gorzków (18 km): the former synagogue, currently a school (1930s); the area of the former Jewish cemetery (mid-19th c.), on the left side of the road to Chołupnik; church of St. Stanislaus (1623); a gate bell tower (1801); the parish cemetery.

Krupe (19 km): ruins of a castle (16th/17th c.); a manor house built by Jan Michał Rej (18th c.); the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa, erected as an Othodox church (circa 1905); “Arianka” – a pyramid-shaped brick tomb, mausoleum of Paweł Orzechowski (1st half of the 17th c.).

Skierbieszów (20 km): “Zamczysko” (“Castle”) Hill (14th c.); the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1610); St. Kilian’s Fair (held annually in July since the 16th c.).

Żółkiewka (25 km) – Church of St. Lawrence (1776) with a belfry gate; the wooden Greek Catholic Church of St. Michael the Archangel, (currently the Polish Catholic Church of St. James). In the nearby villages of Dębie, Olchowiec, Zaburze, Średnia Wieś, Wola Żółkiewska, and Chłaniów, remnants of old manor houses of the nobility have survived.

Rejowiec (26 km): the Ossoliński palace and park complex (19th c.); the so-called Mikołaj Rej house (1720); a Jewish cemetery (18th/19th c.); Church of St. Josaphat (1906–1907); the Uniate Church of St. Michael the Archangel, currently a Roman Catholic church (circa 18th c.); pumps in the market square (19th c.).

Fajsławice (32 km): the Church of St. John of Nepomuk (18th c.); a churchyard; the manor and park complex of the Florkowski family (2nd half of the 18th c.); the old parish cemetery on the Arian Mount (Ariańska Góra) with the Florkowski family chapel and Hakenszmit chapel; three World War I cemeteries (in Dziecinin, Boniewo, and Suchodoły).

Stołpie (39 km): ruins of a tower (circa 12th c.), the oldest Polish monument east of the Vistula.

Siedliszcze (44 km): the wooden manor house of the Węgliński family (1760); an Orthodox church, currently the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Jasna Góra (1904); an electric mill (1928); an open-air museum at the Community Cultural Centre.

Bychawa (55 km): a synagogue (1810); an old Jewish cemetery (16th/17th c.), 7 Kościuszki St.; ruins of a palace in Podzamcze (1st half of the 16th c.), Pileckiego St.; the Church of St. John the Baptist and St. Francis of Assisi; town houses along the main streets.

Skierbieszów Landscape Park protects a subregion of the Grabowiec Watersheds (Działy Grabowieckie) and features a diverse landscape perfect for horse riding and biking excursions. The upland areas are criss-crossed by river valleys, surrounded by deep gorges, cliffs, and slopes. Forests constitute 21 percent of the Park’s area. There are 14 natural monuments and several nature reserves in the Park.

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