Międzyrzec Podlaski - guidebook
Bel. МендзырэчПадляскі, Ukr. Межиріччя, Yid. מעזעריטש
On the wall of our youth club it was written: ‘Ignore your father’s preaching, remember your mother's teaching’.
Where in today’s Poland can you find a town of fewer than 18,000 people that boasts 6 libraries, 3 cinemas, several choirs, an orchestra, a theatre, 42 schools, more than 200 industrial plants, and 12 different periodicals? Yet that was Międzyrzec Podlaski before the war. Located at the confluence of the Krzna and the Piszczka Rivers, Mezeritch, as it was called in Yiddish, was one of the region most rapidly developing towns. Its prosperity rested on pig bristle, from which brooms and brushes were manufactured and sold all over Europe and Russia. Just before World War II, the exports from Międzyrzec were estimated at six to nine million US dollars.
Sorting bristle was not easy. It was a seasonal job that got more intensive in winter, during the pre-Christmas slaughter of animals. Jewish bristle workers laboured in small low-ceilinged houses. On the tables along the walls there were iron combs used for combing raw pig bristle. People worked standing by the light of oil lamps that hung above their heads. First, they sorted the bristle and then they cleaned it with iron combs. Clouds of dust were floating in the air [...]. The stench of pig hair mixed with the smell of kerosene.
The Land of Abraham
The town origins date back to the 1390s, when Władysław Jagiełło granted the Międzyrzec estate to Abraham Chamiec, a knight from Małopolska (Lesser Poland). Afterwards, Międzyrzec belonged to the wealthiest aristocratic families, including the Tęczyńskis, the Sieniawskis, the Czartoryskis, and the Potockis. In the mid-15th century, it had a marketplace with a town hall, an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, several butcher-stores, the town administrator’s house, and a parish school, as well as a mill and a brewery. Jews may have arrived in Międzyrzec already in the 15th century, though the earliest surviving reference to them was made in 1533 in the Lithuanian Metrica, which mentioned one Awram Ajzykowicz, accused of taking in pledge some items stolen from a royal courtier. The Jews lived in a district called Szmulowizna, located southeast of the market, where today’s Mydlarska, Jatkowa and Nassuta Streets cross. They worked in trade and crafts and also ran taverns that served beer and spirits. Międzyrzec was conveniently situated on the Brest – Łuków trade route to Małopolska and had its own customs house. The 1583 carriage book recorded the names of three Jews who traded in salted fish (Moszko Abramowicz, Cadek Jehudycz, and Chechło Szachnowicz). From 1598, a salt shop operated in town. It was the only establishment of that kind located in the borderland of Lithuania and the Crown. Międzyrzec was also known for its beer, served on the tables of Lublin and Brest. In the mid-16th century, the local Jewish community boasted its own synagogue, beth midrash, bath-house and hospital, but the community still reported to the Tykocin kahal. In 1624, Jan Tęczyński (the then town owner) granted the Jews the exclusive privilege to sell alcohol. They also engaged in tanning, leasing, and collecting various tolls and fees for the town owners, such as dyke taxes, bridge tolls, and tolls on cattle slaughter or tar trade.
The wars of the late 17th century hindered the development of the Podlasie region, and the population of the towns of Podlasie decreased by half. In 1674, the Jewish community in Międzyrzec stood at 207 people, or about 21 percent of its overall population. In the 18th century, a new kahal was set up, independent of the one in Tykocin, and the new town owner, Helena Sieniawska née Lubomirska, confirmed the existing privileges that allowed the Jews to run marketplace stores and taverns. In 1718, she also granted them permission to build a stone synagogue, a hospital, a weights-and-measures house, a school, and the rabbi’s house, and to establish their own communal cemetery. The old wooden buildings in the Jewish quarter were partly destroyed during a fire in the town. In 1761, the municipality received consent from Wołłowicz, the Bishop of Łuck, to erect a brick synagogue after the wooden one burnt. As a result, the Great Synagogue accommodating 3,000 people was built. It was completely destroyed during World War II.
Międzyrzec was the hometown of Shalom ben Yaakov ha-Kohen (1771–1845) – an enlightened Hebraist, editor, and poet. His first book, Mishleh Agur (Eng.: Parables of Agur), was a collection of moralistic fables and tales aimed at teaching Hebrew to Jewish children. At the age of 17, he left the town to study in Berlin and then went to London, where he attempted to establish a Jewish school, with no success. In London, he published Shorshei Emunah (Eng.: Foundations of Faith), a Hebrew catechism. Afterwards, he lived and worked in Vienna and Hamburg. At that time, Shalom ha-Kohen was one of the most famous poets writing in Hebrew; he was the author of the allegorical drama Amal ve-Tirzah, several collections of poems, hymns, and odes, as well as commentaries on religion and the history of Jews in the time of the Maccabees.
In 1778, there were 717 Jews living in Międzyrzec, which constituted 40 percent of the town’s population. It had a brick synagogue, a beth midrash, a bathhouse, a hospital, several cheders, and the rabbi’s house. In 1782, the town’s new owner, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, confirmed trade privileges for the Jews and promised to construct 12 new brick stalls for Jewish merchants. The town was known for the fur trade and bristle production. Numerous tanneries, brush workshops, and bristle sorting plants operated there. After the Third Partition of Poland (1795), Międzyrzec fell under Austrian rule. The new administration took over the revenues from inspecting kosher meat production, instituted the so-called “candle tax,” abolished the rabbinical court, and prohibited Jewish doctors from practicing. The Jews were given German names and submitted to conscription duties.
After the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the Międzyrzec area became part of the Kingdom of Poland. The town growth was spurred by the building of a rough road and a railway connecting Warsaw and Brest. From 1829, a watermill owned by David and Aron Wajnberg was in operation. Many families earned their living from making different kinds of brushes. Jewish factories that produced matches, pen-holders and agricultural equipment also were opened. And there were tanneries, wire and light bulb plants, two new copper foundries owned by Salomon Cirles, a smithshop owned by Lejbk Mintz, breweries, several vinegar and tile stove factories, three soap stores, and two wadding shops and carding mills. In 1827, Jews constituted 65 percent of local population, and in the 1864 census, 80 percent.
The town had a synagogue, 10 prayer houses, 45 cheders, a hospital and various Jewish voluntary philanthropic and professional associations (guilds). Jews were involved in public life and supplied weapons to insurgents during the January Uprising (e.g. Szymon Goldberg and Jelko Winderbaum). The first proto-Zionist organisation was established in Międzyrzec already in 1882, while the late 19th century saw the rise of the Jewish labour movement. In 1904, the Jewish Fire Society, later renamed the Volunteer Fire Brigade, was organised. In 1915, a power plant was opened at Finkelstein brothers’ mill. The town was an important economic hub in Congress Poland, with profits from the export of brushes and bristles earning it the nickname “Little America.”
The beginning of the 20th century brought an upsurge of cultural and social activity. Charitable organisations (e.g. Beth Lehem – the House of Bread), banks (Merchants’ Bank and People’s Bank), libraries, choirs, an amateur Jewish theatre, and Mendel Szpilman’s “Klezmer” brass band – at the volunteer fire brigade – were all established at that time. Local people eagerly attended theatre performances and meetings with writers. Międzyrzec hosted Sholem Asch and Y.L. Peretz, among others. In 1913, Jankiel Rajsze Zilberberg opened the first local cinema, called “Iluzjon.” Educational and cultural associations committed to adult education, such as the Freiheit or the Zionist Tarbut, and the Kultur-Liga operating under the auspices of the Jewish Labour Bund, were very active. In about 1915, a Hasidic court was founded by the Hasidic master (tsaddik) Meir Shlomo Yehuda Rabinowicz (1868–1942), son of the tsaddik of Biała Podlaska, Yitzhak Yaakov. Alongside numerous cheders and the Talmud Torah elementary school run by the community, there was also a religious school for girls, Bet Yaakov, and several private secular Jewish primary schools. The private coeducational primary school was opened in 1916, followed by the Secondary School Society for the Youth of the Jewish Faith, established a year later. In 1923, the Society received permission to run a coeducational high school. Międzyrzec was also home to youth organisations working under the auspices of political parties, such as Hashomer Hatzair and Gordonia. A branch of the JutrzniaWorkers’ Association for Physical Education, founded in 1926, had about 100 members, active in sports and boasting its own brass band. Before World War II, there were 12 full-time communal employees: a rabbi, two lower rabbis, two kosher butchers, two cantors, a secretary, a bookkeeper, a cashier, and two janitors.
An important manifestation of the town’s cultural activity was its vibrant publishing world. In the 20th century, 16 different Jewish periodicals and other titles were published in Yiddish. Some of them, e.g. Blihung (Bloom), were only one-time publications. Brought out in 1913 and intended as a literary periodical, it comprised 46 pages and contained a collection of poems and short stories written by young Międzyrzec residents. Interestingly, two future newspaper editors made their début there. Blihung was edited by Abraham Gelman, a local teacher and translator. One of the longest-running periodicals were four weeklies and two fortnightlies; they were published for just over a year. Additionally, some publications came out on an off-and-on basis. According to Adam Kopciowski, the individual editions and publications printed in Międzyrzec (1,043 in all) constituted 9 percent of all publications in the Lublin region. Mezeritcher Vokhnblat (Międzyrzec Weekly), published in 1926–1929 (290 issues), was devoted to the interests of Jewish associations, as well as to the local political, cultural, and economic life. Afterwards, it was transformed into Unser MezeritcherVokhnblat, which continued until the end of 1930. Both papers were edited by Menashe Himlszejn and printed by the Rogożyk printing house. Another title, Podlasyer Tsaytung (Podlasie Newspaper) started as a daily edited by a different person every week. But after three years, Moszko Feldman became its permanent editor. Podlasyer Tsaytung was printed by the “Radio” printing house between 1932 and 1937. A more politically involved newspaper, associated with the Zionist movement, was the Mezeritcher Trybune (Międzyrzec Tribune), which came out between 1928 and 1932 (194 issues, printed by the “Radio” printing house). Another periodical, Mezeritcher Lebn (Międzyrzec Life) (1933–1937) was influenced by the Folkists. The prices of these periodicals ranged between 10 and 20 Polish grosze. Apart from these, there were also specialised publications; for example, the Mezeritcher Klaynhendler (Small Shopkeeper of Międzyrzec), which contained articles and reports on trade only, or the Mezeritcher Arbeter Informator (Międzyrzec Workers’ Factbook). Information about the life of the town could also be found in regional papers; for example, in the Podlasher Panorame or Lubliner Togblat.
A walk around Międzyrzec
The town has kept its 15th-century urban layout to this day. In the mid-19th century, the wooden buildings were replaced by brick ones. Today, the main square is surrounded by houses with wrought-iron balconies. To the left of St. Joseph’s Church, which is located in the marketplace, there is also the former municipal building dating back to the second half of the 19th century, while the former Sobelman hotel is opposite the church.
The narrow streets and passages spanned by arches characteristic of the former Jewish quarter have been preserved around the southeastern part of the market square. Particularly beautiful are the wooden houses located in Graniczna St. From Jana Pawła II (John Paul II) Square, it is worth taking a left turn into Warszawska St., where at numbers 2–4 there is a former Jewish hospital, still in use. Built in 1846–1850, and modern for that time, it was equipped with 60 beds available for any of the town’s residents, regardless of their religion. In Warszawska St. it is also worth seeing the buildings of the former inn and mounted postal service station (1823), where Tsar Alexander II and Romuald Traugutt (commander of the January Uprising), among others, stopped for the night. At the corner of Kościelna and Łukowska Streets, the former fire station has survived, erected in 1925 as the headquarters of the Jewish Volunteer Fire Brigade. The brigade’s equipment was stored on the ground floor, while the first floor featured a 300-seat auditorium used by the Olimpia cinema-theatre. Not only film showings were held here but also theatre performances, dances, and public readings. A one-storey building at Staromiejska St., which now houses a police station, was home to another cinema, “The Casino”, founded by Symcha Mandelbaum. The silent films shown there were accompanied by music performed by local musicians.
The main synagogue, built in 1761–1779 to replace the former wooden one, is situated in what today is Nassuta St. Its construction was financially supported by the Czartoryski family, who owned the town at that time. The building was the focal point of the Jewish quarter. It featured three storeys and two women’s sections – northern and southern. The men’s section had a lower part added to it later, covered by a hip roof. Opposite the synagogue, to the west, there was the communal beth midrash, founded as early as the 1560s. The original wooden building burnt down in 1718 and had to be rebuilt in 1761. In the mid-19th century, it was destroyed by fire again, and then rebuilt with the help of the Czartoryski family. In 1942, the synagogue was devastated, and in June 1943, it was blown up by the Germans. According to witnesses, the remaining rubble was used to build a forest road to the villages of Żerocin and Sitno. In the 1960s, blocks of flats were built on its site.
At the beginning of the 20thcentury, Międzyrzec was one of the largest and fastest-growing towns in Podlasie. The Jewish community had its synagogue, beth midrash, nursing home, children’s home, ritual poultry slaughterhouse, ritual bathhouse, library, kahal board office, rabbi’s and cantor’s houses, as well as ten prayer houses that belonged to various Jewish professional guilds. Tailors, for example, met at 18 Szkolna St., carters – at 67 Warszawska St., and shoemakers – at 70 Brzeska St. The town had about a dozen Hasidic prayer rooms, including those serving the followers of the tsaddikim from Góra Kalwaria, Radzyń, Sokołów, Łomża, Biała Podlaska, and Łomazy.
Minz (1807), Preter (1835), Rosen (1843), and Rapaport (1846) are just a few of the names found on the 19th-century gravestones at the new cemetery in Międzyrzec. The cemetery was established in 1810 at 90 Brzeska St., opposite the Catholic one, replacing the earlier 16th-century cemetery, which was no longer used at that time. During the war, both cemeteries were devastated by the Nazi Germans, who also carried out executions of Jews at the new cemetery. A monument funded in 1946 by Abram and Sarah Finkelstein from the U.S. commemorates the victims of those executions. Among the sandstone and granite gravestones, there are also two unique iron steles made by the local ironworks of the Szejmel brothers, probably the only ones of this kind in the Lublin region. About 300 matzevot from the old cemetery, the earliest one dating back to 1706, have been preserved here, and approximately 200 surviving gravestone fragments have been embedded in the new cemetery’s wall, making up a kind of commemorative “wailing wall.” Post-war gravestones can also be found – the most recent one, from 1973, belonging to Moshe Kaufman. Next to the cemetery, there is a building that used to serve as a funeral home. The entrance to the cemetery is through a gate located in the yard of this house.
World War II and the Holocaust
In 1939, about 12,000 Jews lived in the town, constituting 75 percent of population. At the beginning of the war, the town was bombed by the German air force. The Soviet army entered Międzyrzec at the end of September 1939, only to give way to the German army a few days later. About 2,000 Jews, mostly young men, fled with the retreating Red Army. The Germans began to persecute the Jews soon after seizing the town, forcing them to work and confiscating their property. Meanwhile, Jews from Radzyń County and other Polish cities and towns, as well as from Vienna and Slovakia, were resettled in Międzyrzec. This boosted the town’s Jewish population to 17,000 and subsequently to 24,000. On May 25, 1942, about 800 Jews were transfered from Międzyrzec to the Treblinka death camp. On August 1942, hundreds of sick and infirm Jews were executed in the marketplace, and nearly 11,000 were transfered to Treblinka. Those who remained in the town were confined to a ghetto established on August 28, 1942 between Brzeska, Warszawska, Szkolna and Żelazna Streets. The majority of ghetto inmates worked in forced labour camps in the area, others were made to work on the irrigation system of the Krzna and the Rogoźnica Rivers, as well as to build roads and an airport in Krzewica. The Germans also took over the brush factories, which employed about 1,000 people. In September and October 1942, the Jews from Wohyń, Parczew, and Radzyń were resettled in Międzyrzec. The majority of them were later transfered to Treblinka (on October 6–9, October 27, and November 7–8). In November 1942, the Nazis established the so-called residual ghetto, in which the surviving Jews from the Radzyń County and a group of bristle workers from the Warsaw Ghetto were confined. Further transports, which took place on April 30 and May 2–3 and 26 were sent to Majdanek. Some 200 Jews who tried to avoid transfer to the camp were shot at the Jewish cemetery. The last execution was carried out on July 18–19, 1943, when the remaining 179 Jews were killed in retaliation for the death of two Germans in the Piaski suburb. The ghetto was liquidated and the entire Jewish quarter destroyed.
The atticFor 13 months, a group of 10 Jews – men and women of various ages – remained in hiding in the attic of a house in the marketplace that served as the Gestapo headquarters during the occupation. The attic was just 70 cm high at its highest point. Although they suffered from hunger and disease, they still celebrated Pesach and Purim, and even fought ideological disputes, as an Orthodox Jew and communists were confined in the same room. This story was heard and documented by Ephraim Sidor, an Israeli writer, playwright, and satirist, whose parents came from Międzyrzec. It served as the basis for a play titled Mezeritsh (Międzyrzec), written by Sidor and Itzik Weingarten and staged by the Cawta Theatre in Tel Aviv in 2004. At the request of the Former Residents of Międzyrzec Podlaski Association, Sidor filmed a documentary called A Kleyne Amerike (A Little America), telling the story of this thriving town in Podlasie and its destruction.
The post-war period
At the beginning of 1945, 129 Jews lived in Międzyrzec, 71 of whom had been born there. Later that year, many survivors returned from the Soviet Union, but few decided to stay in Międzyrzec. On May 19, 1946, Yisroel Zylbersztejn (a former guerrilla fighter) and Genia Adlerstein from Biała Podlaska (a former Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner) were murdered not far from the Sokule train station (near Międzyrzec, on the way to Biała Podlaska). Faced with a growing threat of violence, most Jews left. In August 1946, the Jewish population amounted to only 47 people; most of them, too, left Międzyrzec in the following years. The last Jewish Holocaust survivor in Międzyrzec died in 1997.
The “Prayer” Memorial
On May 17, 2009, almost 200 Jews from around the world attended the ceremony unveiling a memorial to the Jewish community of the former Mezeritsh. The ceremony was held in the local main square. Erected on the initiative of the Israeli Association of Former Residents of Międzyrzec Podlaski, in cooperation with young local people from the Volunteer Fire Brigade, the memorial represents a female figure wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit). It was made by the world-renowned Israeli sculptor Yael Artzi, who was inspired by the image of her own mother praying. A poignant moment during the ceremony was a song performed by Sława Przybylska, a famous Polish singer born in Międzyrzec Podlaski.
Author: Monika Tarajko
- Jewish cemetery, 90 Brzeska St.
- Old Town Marketplace (15th c.) with the “Prayer” sculpture commemorating the Jews of
- Potocki Palace (17th c.), 63 Lubelska St.
- Church of St. Nicholas (1477) with a presbytery (1818), 6 Łukowska St.
- Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (1772–1774), 61 Lubelska St.
- Church of St. Joseph (1564), 11 Staromiejska St.
- Hospital (1846–1850), 2–4 Warszawska St.
- Catholic cemetery, Brzeska St.
Biała Podlaska (29 km): the palace and park complex (17th c.); Church of St. Anne (1572); the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (mid-18th c.); the Bialska Academy building (1628); the Museum of Southern Podlasie; a former synagogue at Łazienna St.; a former Jewish hospital, now the Registry Office; a Jewish cemetery (18th c.).
Komarówka Podlaska (24 km): a Jewish cemetery at Krótka St.
Wohyń (26 km): a Jewish cemetery (19th c.); former Uniate Chapel of St. Dmitri, now Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel (wooden, 1st half of the 18th c.); Church of St. Anne (1840).
Łuków (32 km): the Regional Museum; the Piarist monastery (18th, 19th c.), the Transfiguration of Jesus Collegiate Church (1733–1762); the Bernardine monastery (2nd half of 18th c.), Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church (1665–1770); a wooden cemetery; Church of St. Roch (1829); an old beth midrash, now the seat of the Municipal Social Welfare Centre (MOPS); the new Jewish cemetery on Warszawska St. (19th c.); a monument at the execution site in the Malcanów Forest.
Łomazy (39 km): a Jewish cemetery on Brzeska St. with a monument and two graves holding the ashes of Jews killed in the nearby “Hały” Forest during the ghetto liquidation; the wooden house of a rabbi in Małobrzeska St.; the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (1907); the wooden Eastern Catholic (Uniate) Chapel of St. John at the cemetery (first half of the 19thc.); Studzianka, Małaszewicze, Ortel, and Lebiedziew – Muslim culture centres; Tatar cemeteries in Studzianka and Lebiedziew.
Rossosz (42 km): Church of St.Stanislaus (wooden, 1908); a Uniate cemetery (1840–1913); an Orthodox cemetery (19thc.); a Jewish cemetery; a memorial to the local Jews.
Siedlce (42 km): the Ogiński Palace (1st half of the 18th c.); Church of St. Stanislaus (1740–1749); a Jewish cemetery on Szkolna St. (19th c.); the Talmud Torah school building at 4 Browarna St.; a former private prayer house at the corner of Bpa I. Świrskiego St. (formerly Długa St.) and Pusta St.; the Regional Museum.
Konstantynów (44 km): a Jewish cemetery (19th c.); the palace and park complex (18th c.); the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1905–1909); a Uniate cemetery (19th c.); a manor house and farm (19th c.); the former Orthodox Church of Our Lady of Protection, converted into a school (1833).
Janów Podlaski (44 km): Janów Podlaski stud farm; Holy Trinity Church (1714–1735); Church of St. John the Baptist (1790–1801); Lutsk Bishops’ Palace (1770); the Wygoda park site (1st half of the 19th c.).
Terespol (61 km): the road and rail border crossing to Belarus; Holy Trinity Church (1863); Orthodox Church of St. Apostle John the Theologian (18th c.); the cemetery; Orthodox Chapel of the Resurrection (1892); a memorial to the victims of rail transports to concentration camps during World War II; remnants of a Jewish cemetery.
Brest (Belarus, 72 km): a city at the border between Poland and Belarus; the ruins of the Great Synagogue (1851–1861, rebuilt in 1959); the “Ekdish” synagogue on the site of the former “Groyse shul” synagogue onSovetskih Pogranichnikov St., run by the Jewish community of Brest; the “Fajwel” prayer house at 14 Dzerzhinskogo St.; a synagogue, a Sunday school and a kosher canteen at 72 Kuibysheva St.; Isaac Hendler’s printing house building; the building of the “Takhkemoni” school, attended by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, among others; the Brest Fortress (1833–1842); the ruins of the White Palace (18th c.); the Museum of Railway Technology; St. Simeon’s Orthodox Church (2nd half of the 19th c.); the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church (1856); the Tryszyński Cemetery (before 1900).
The Bug River: one of the last major unregulated rivers in Europe, the border river between the European Union and non-EU countries over a stretch of 363 km. In its middle section it has picturesque bends, steep banks, gorges, and small sandy coves perfect for canoeing.