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

Szczebrzeszyn - guide book

Yid. שעברעשין, Rus. Щебрешин

Szczebrzeszyn - guide book
The view of Szczebrzeszyn, 1st half of the 20th c., the collection of the Szczebrzeszyn of Cultures Foundation

Szczebrzeszyn is one of the oldest towns on the Shtetl Routes. In the Middle Ages, it was one of the most important defensive settlements in the Principality of Galicia–Volhynia. When Red Ruthenia was added to the Polish Crown in the middle of the 14th c., Szczebrzeszyn was described as a “Russian town”. At the end of the 14th c., new owner Dymitr of Goraj granted the town the Magdeburg law. In the 15th c., Jews began to settle down in Szczebrzeszyn, creating one of the oldest Jewish communities in the present day Lubelskie region. In 1507, the Szczebrzeszyn gahal already paid coronation tax. In 1560, the then owner of the town, Andrzej Górka, confirmed the rights and duties of Jews: the amount of tax and issues concerning subordination in court cases. Further documents introducing the same treatment of Jews and Christians were issued by Stephen Bathory (1583), then by Stanisław Górka, and finally by Jan Czarnowski (1593), who exempted a rabbi from the house tax and payments for a mikvah. These rights were confirmed in 1597 by a new town owner, Jan Zamoyski, who additionally exempted Jews from rents for a shul and graveyard.

At the 16th c., Szczebrzeszyn became famous for learned men, writers, and rabbis. Gumpech of Szczebrzeszyn became famous after publishing in 1555 in Italy a book for women on Jewish holidays: Purim and Pesach. He also wrote poetic short stories included in prayer books for women. At the end of the 16th c., Isaiah Menachem—son of Isaiah of Szczebrzeszyn—became rabbi of Cracow, the biggest Jewish community in the Republic of Poland. The importance of the Szczebrzeszyn qahal gradually deteriorated and gave way to the dynamically developing Jewish community in nearby Zamość.

 

The Oppression of the Times

In the middle of the 17th c., the town sustained damage inflicted by enemy armies. The tragic events connected with the pogrom organized by Khmelnytsky’s insurgents in 1649 were poetically described by Meir, son of Samuel of Szczebrzeszyn, in a poem titled Tsok ha’itim (Hebrew: “The Oppression of the Times”), which was printed a year later in Cracow. It is a chronicle in verse written down systematically and based on fugitives’ reports and his own experiences. Meri of Szczebrzeszyn was also the author of a poem titled Shir Mizmor le-Yom ha-Shabbat (Hebrew: “Psalm for the Sabbath,” 1639).

The economic development of the town was encouraged by the charter issued in 1673 by king Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki which allowed the Szczebrzeszyn Jews to produce and sell booze. In 1676, 216 taxed residents of the town included 61 Jews. In the 1st half of the 18th c., a session of Va'ad Arba' Aratzot (Hebrew: “the Council of Four Lands”) was held three times in Szczebrzeszyn. In 1749, the city council made an agreement with Jews and issued a decree allowing them to produce candles in exchange for the payments to the municipal budget. Interestingly enough, the document forbade Jews from preparing agreements in Hebrew—all provisions were to be stipulated in Polish. It also reminded of the obligation to pay taxes for the benefit of the Republic of Poland. In 1765, a “head tax” (2 zł per “head”) was paid by 444 people in the whole gahal (the town and nearby villages). At the time, the Szczebrzeszyn qahal was medium-sized when compared to other qahals in the Land of Chełm—it was smaller than qahals in Zamość (1905 payers), Chełm (1418), Lubomel (1226), Hrubieszów (1023) or Turobin (985). Similar-sized communes were in Kryłów (470) and Rejowiec (437); there were 11 qahals smaller than the one in Szczebrzeszyn.

 

The Synagogue

A wooden shul might have been erected in Szczebrzeszyn already in the 15th c., but the earliest mentions about the building date back to 1588. Built at the beginning of the 17th c., the masonry Renaissance synagogue with an attic and a butterfly roof was destroyed. In the 1770s, it was rebuilt in its present form—with a Polish cross gable roof. The facility is an example of a synagogue with the main prayer room in its centre. Adjacent to the main men’s room, there are one-storey women’s galleries on the northern and southern side, on the western side there is a one-storey annexe which used to house a men’s narthex, meeting room, and—added later—the third women’s gallery on the first floor with a wooden staircase. In 1940, the synagogue was burnt down by Germans. After the war, it was partially demolished and then reconstructed between 1957 and 1963 for the needs of the municipal cultural centre which is open till now. A stone Aron ha-Kodesz and Renaissance ornaments of the main room survived inside the building. The synagogue is located to the south-east of the market at Sądowa St.

The synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn, present day seat of the Municipal Cultural Centre, 2013, photo by Wioletta Wejman, the digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre—www.teatrnn.pl
The synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn, present day seat of the Municipal Cultural Centre, 2013, photo by Wioletta Wejman, the digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre—www.teatrnn.pl
The synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn, 1st half of the 20th c., the collection of the Szczebrzeszyn of Cultures Foundation
The synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn, 1st half of the 20th c., the collection of the Szczebrzeszyn of Cultures Foundation

 

The Jewish graveyard

The Jewish graveyard located at Cmentarna St. is one of the oldest and most interesting necropolises in Poland. Established in the 1st half of the 16th c., it has preserved its unique character. There are over 2,000 matzevas dated on the period between 1545 and 1939. Since 2007, the area of the graveyard has belonged to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage.

Matzevah on the Jewish graveyard in Szczebrzeszyn, 2013, photo by Wioletta Wejman, the digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre—www.teatrnn.pl
Matzevah on the Jewish graveyard in Szczebrzeszyn, 2013, photo by Wioletta Wejman, the digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre—www.teatrnn.pl

Just behind the graveyard entrance, one can see two mysterious gravestones grown in a wide-stretching elm tree. Their inscriptions are completely effaced. According to popular legends, these gravestones are associated with famous figures connected with Szczebrzeszyn in different time periods. A plaque set up here in the 1990s says that this a burial place of Issachar Ber and Simcha ha-Kohen Rapoport. Nevertheless, prof. Andrzej Trzciński, who conducts research on the necropolis in Szczebrzeszyn, discovered their matzevas in a different section of the graveyard.

Issachar Ber ben Naftali ha-kohen, who is referred to as Berman Aszkenazi by contemporaries, was the author of religious works republished many times titled Matenot kehuna (Hebrew: “Priestly gifts”), a collection of comments to the Great Midrash published for the first time in 1587 in Cracow and Mare Kohen (Hebrew: “Vision of the Priest”), which is an alphabetical index of biblical motifs and quotations appearing in cabalistic Sefer ha-Zohar (Hebrew: “The Book of Radiance”) published for the first time in 1589. The complex form and content of the gravestone inscription mentions his life’s works; it does not contain, however, the date of the scholar’s death—according to his biographers, he died between 1590 and 1608.

As for Simcha ha-Kohen Rapoport, he died at the age of 68 in Szczebrzeszyn on 4 August 1718 on a journey from Lublin to Lviv where he was to hold the position of the Head of the Rabbinical Court. The inscription on his matzevah reads: This is a grave of famous master, light of exile, teacher of sons of exile, our teacher, lord master Simcha ha-Kohen Rapoport; may the memory of the just and saint man be blessed; the head of the rabbinical court of the communities in Dubno, Grodno, Lublin, he was later appointed head of the rabbinical court of the community in Lviv where he replaced Chacham Tzvi [“chacham” means a sage in Hebrew—editorial note]. Here, he departed from this world when they were on a journey and it occurred on the 7th of Av in 478 according to short reckoning. He had sons and sons-in-law—rabbis, the pillars of science and great generations. He promised that all his descendants to the tenth generation who would come to his grave would be made happy.

The oldest gravestones can be found in the eastern section of the graveyard, near the northern wall. The inscription on the oldest preserved matzeva on the grave which belongs to Jechiel, son of Moses, (died 9 April 1545) reads: This is a grave of righteous man, our teacher Jachiel, son of Moses, of blessed memory. May his soul be bound in the bundle of life. His soul departed from this world on Tuesday, 26 Nisan 305 according to short reckoning. Other 14th-century matzevas include the gravestones of: Chana, daughter of Abraham (died 1552); Roza, daughter of Menachem (died 1572); Chana, daughter of Elijah (died 1578); Isaiah, son of Meshulam Flavius (died 1579 or 1580); Israel, son of Isaiah (died 1588); [...] daughter of Joseph, wife of Israel (died 1591); Sinai, son of Isaiah (died 1595).

 

Men of the Haskalah

Jakow Reifman, portrait reproduction from Sefer zikaron li-kehilat Szebreszin, ed. Dow Szuwal, Hajfa 1984
Jakow Reifman, portrait reproduction from Sefer zikaron li-kehilat Szebreszin, ed. Dow Szuwal, Hajfa 1984

Thanks to its location in close proximity to Zamość, Szczebrzeszyn became a place to live for a few significant representatives of the Jewish Enlightenment. Among them was Yakov Reifman (1818–1895)—teacher, polyglot, and author of numerous important publications. He settled in Szczebrzeszyn in 1834 when he was 19 after getting married to a woman who lived in Szczebrzeszyn. In his father-in-law’s house, he found a rich library which helped him broaden his horizons and transformed a yeshiva student into one of the main representatives of the Jewish Enlightenment. His works were published in Warsaw, Vilnius, Berlin, Vienna, and Saint Petersburg. They included, among others, critical Talmudic studies Takanot ha-bajt (Hebrew: “Recommendations concerning household”) and a book titled Toldot rabenu Zecharja ha-Lewi (Hebrew: “The history of our rabbi Zerachiah ha-Levi”). Even though Yakov Reifman lived in Szczebrzeszyn till the end of his life and he seemed to lead the life of a provincial Jew, his oeuvre was recognized around the world. A famous Jewish philanthropist, sir Moses Montefiore, presented him with a golden chalice with an engraved dedication and a Hebrew poet, Judah Leib Gordon, wrote a poem dedicated to him:

Even though Reifman was recognized around the world, he died in poverty. A beautiful text about Yakov Reifman was contributed to The Book of Memory to the Jewish Community of Shebreshin by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

One representative of the richest inhabitants of the town was another proponent of the Haskalah—Lejb Szper. In 1853, he established an agricultural colony called Szperówka in the area he rented near Szczebrzeszyn where he employed farm workers. Szper fought for granting him full civil rights which he should enjoy since—as he explained—he became a farmer (unlike the majority of Orthodox Jews) and led a moral life.

 

The social life of the shtetl

At the beginning of the 20th century, various social organizations began to develop in Szczebrzeszyn and other towns, e.g. the Association for Taking Care of the Sick “Bikur Cholim” and Savings and Loan Fund, which helped petty merchants and craftsmen—Jewish and Christian—by giving them low-interest loans. Political activity was undertaken by, among others, Zionists and socialists. Members of the Jewish socialist party “The Bund” in cooperation with the Polish Socialist Party actively participated in the revolution of 1905. During one of these illegal strikes, Russian soldiers shot three demonstrators.

Market in Szczebrzeszyn, before 1939, the collection of the Szczebrzeszyn of Cultures Foundation
Market in Szczebrzeszyn, before 1939, the collection of the Szczebrzeszyn of Cultures Foundation
A drama circle, under the auspices of the Jewish library in Szczebrzeszyn, is putting on a performance titled Two Worlds: a drama in four acts by Max Nordau, 1928, reproduction of Sefer zikaron li-kehilat Szebreszin, ed. Dow Szuwal, Hajfa 1984
A drama circle, under the auspices of the Jewish library in Szczebrzeszyn, is putting on a performance titled Two Worlds: a drama in four acts by Max Nordau, 1928, reproduction of Sefer zikaron li-kehilat Szebreszin, ed. Dow Szuwal, Hajfa 1984

The cultural life of Szczebrzeszyn developed. In 1917, a Jewish library, drama circle, and choir were founded in Szczebrzeszyn. In the elections to the city council in 1931, representatives of Jewish parties—mainly of Zionists and the Bund—won 11 mandates.

 

World War II and the mass murder of Jews

Germans were the first to enter Szczebrzeszyn in 1939 and they were followed by Soviets two weeks later on 27 September. After entering Szczebrzeszyn for the second time on 6 October, Germans began to persecute Jews. Since 1940, Jews were forced to carry out the construction works on the military airport in nearby Klemensów. In November 1940, Germans set fire to the synagogue and houses in its close proximity. In May 1942, mass executions on the Jewish graveyard and deportations began. In March 1943, trains crammed with Jews transported to the extermination camp in Belz started passing near Szczebrzeszyn. In August and October 1943, the camp received transports of a few hundred Jews from Szczebrzeszyn. Over 1,000 people were killed during mass executions on the local Jewish graveyard. The last transport to the extermination camp in Belz took place on 21 October 1943. After that day, many Jews who were hiding in and near Szczebrzeszyn were caught and shot on the local Jewish graveyard.

An appalling chronicle documenting the everyday life of the time of mass murder was written down by Zygmunt Klukowski, director of the hospital in Szczebrzeszyn, who gave a day-by-day description of atrocious war reality.

On the initiative of the Szczebrzeszyn Jews Landsmannschaft in Israel and Diaspora, a monument in memory of the Jews of Szczebrzeszyn and the vicinities murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War was erected on the Jewish graveyard in 1991. After 2011, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage erected another monument on the graveyard and built a stone wall from the side of Cmentarna St.

 

The last Jew of Szczebrzeszyn

After the war, there was only one Jew living in Szczebrzeszyn—Jankiel Grojser—born in 1904, a soldier of the Polish Armed Forces and participant of the September Campaign. He was sent to Siberia, which he left with Anders' Army. He took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino. After the war, he came back to his shtetl and—even though he did not find his relatives here—he decided to stay. Grojser found a job in a local agricultural cooperative, distributed lemonade around the town, and took care of graves on the Jewish graveyard. After his death in 1970, he was buried on a catholic parish graveyard but his grave carries the Star of David. Many Jews of Szczebrzeszyn who survived the mass murder emigrated to the Israeli city of Haifa, where, till this day, one can meet former inhabitants of the shtetl in Roztocze and their descendants.

Today, Szczebrzeszyn has 5,000 residents. Thanks to its attractive location near the Roztoczański Landscape Park, it has become a local tourist centre. The memory of the Jews from Szczebrzeszyn is cultivated by employees of the cultural centre located in the synagogue, some teachers and local non-governmental organizations.

Author:  Paweł Sygowski, Emil Majuk

Sites to see

  • The building of the former synagogue (17th c.), present day seat of a cultural centre, 3 Sądowa St.
  • The Church of St Nicholas the Bishop (1610–1620), 1 Wyzwolenia St.
  • The filial Orthodox Church of St. George Parish Church in Biłgoraj (end of 12th c.), 4 Sądowa St.
  • The Franciscan monastery (17th c.), present day seat of a hospital, 1 Klukowskiego St.
  • The Christian graveyard (18th c.) with the Chapel of St Leonard (1812), Cmentarna St.
  • The Jewish graveyard (XVI c.)

The vicinity

Klemensów (3 km): part of Szczebrzeszyn; the Zamoyski Palace (1744–1747)—this is where the Oscar-winning film “Ida” was shot (2012)

Zwierzyniec (11 km): a Jewish graveyard (circa 1928), 158 Monopolowa St.; the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk “on the isle” (1741–1747); buildings which belong to the managing body of the Zamoyski Family Fee Tail, 1. Browarna St.; the plenipotentiary's villa (1880–1891), 1 Plażowa St.; brewery (1806), 7 Browarna St.; the only monument in the world commemorating the successful combat against the locust plague; an estate of wooden houses “Borek” (1920s and 1930s); The Educational and Museum Centre of the Roztoczański National Park; “Echo” Ponds; the Breeding Centre of Polish Konik in Florianka

Nielisz (15 km): an artificial lake at the Wieprz River valley (1990s); the wooden church of St Wojciech (1859);
Radecznica (16 km): the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua with the Benedictine monastery (1685); the chapel “on the water”, near the spring of St Anthony (1824)

Guciów (16 km): the private “Zagroda Guciow” Ethnographic Museum

Zamość (21 km): much of the former Jewish district with buildings from the 16th and 17th c.; the former synagogue, 9 Zamenhoffa St./14 Pereca St. (17th c.), present day seat of the “Synagogue” Centre managed by the Preservation of Jewish Heritage; buildings of the former mikvah and the qahal house with a Cheder, 5 and 11 Zamenhoffa St.; the former shul at Reja St., currently a kindergarten; a new Jewish graveyard (beginning od the 20th c.) at Prosta St. with an obelisk built of preserved gravestones (1950); the Zamojskie Museum; the town hall (1591); the Grand Market; the Solny Market (former Jewish tenement house); Armenian tenement houses (the middle of the 17th c.); a complex of town walls with gates and bastions (16th c.); The Zamojski Academy (1639–1648), present day seat of the Jan Zamoyski High School No. 1 (1579–1586); the Cathedral of Lord’s Resurrection and St Thomas the Apostle (1587–1598); the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1637); The Zoological Garden of Stefan Miller in Zamość

Turobin (26 km): the Church of St Dominic (circa 1530), a bell tower-morgue (18th c.), an old presbytery (1921); graveyard chapels of St Elisabeth and St Mark

Łabunie (35 km): the Church of Our Lady Scapular and St Dominic (1605); the Zamojski palace (1735): castellan's residence—kasztelanka, pavilion, park with a monastery graveyard, present day seat of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary; the palace-park complex in Łabuńki Pierwsze (19th c.): palace, two outbuildings and park; “Ecomuseum—Christmas oil mill” of the Kostrubiec family, Ruszów

The Roztoczański Landscape Park: 9 nature paths, walking and cycling routes, canoeing on the Wieprz river