Biłgoraj - guidebook
Ukr. Білгорай, Yid. בילגארײ
We stopped at an inn to sip hot tea and to munch on the hot onion and poppyseed rolls for which the Lublin province was famous.
To people of all estates
King Stefan Báthory granted permission to Adam Gorajski, a Calvinist, to found a private town, which subsequently came to be known as Biłgoraj, and placed the town under Magdeburg law. The 1587 charter allowed people of all estates, i.e. Poles, Ruthenians, and Jews, to settle there. Gorajski founded a Calvinist church and, most likely, also an Orthodox parish (turned Uniate by the 17th century). In 1616, Jews were granted a separate privilege by Adam Gorajski’s son Zygmunt, reinforced in 1634. This privilege allowed Jews to settle in town and to establish their own synagogue, community buildings, and a cemetery, as well as to deal in real estate. Until 1694, Jews who lived in Biłgoraj reported administratively to the kahal of Szczebrzeszyn.
Biłgoraj residents worked in the profitable trade of sieve-making from at least the 18th century to the early 20th century, selling their products in the country and abroad. Jews also took up sieve-making and door-to-door selling. The opportunity to make good money significantly contributed to the town growth and the prosperity. Today, Sieve-maker’s Farmstead, a branch of the Biłgoraj Land Museum, is one of the local tourist attractions. It is housed in a preserved wooden sieve-maker’s house dating back to the early 19th century, at 32 Nadstawna St.
During the 1648–1649 Khmelnytsky’s Cossack Revolution, the Cossacks ravaged Biłgoraj and neighbouring towns such as Tarnogród and Frampol, slaughtering local population, including many Jews. In addition, Biłgoraj was not spared the onslaught of the Swedish forces and Polish and Lithuanian armies that swept through the region around the same time. Nevertheless, Biłgoraj slowly revived and in the second half of the 17th century an independent Jewish community was established locally. According to the tax records, the Biłgoraj kahal (encompassing the town of Biłgoraj and neighbouring villages) included 661 tax-paying Jews in 1765, and 508 in 1790 (351 in the town and 157 in the villages). Judging by the number of “heads” paying taxes, this was a medium-sized community compared to others in the Lublin region. In 1819, Biłgoraj was home to 1,671 Christians (Catholics and Uniates) and 616 Jews, who constituted 27 percent of the population.
The kahal was headed by its elders: Rubin Mendlowicz in 1721; Leib Herszkowicz, Rubin Zelkowicz, and David Gerszonowicz in 1728; Berek Lewkowicz, Zelik Michalewicz, and Icek Joszkowicz in 1732. In the early 19th century, the following people served as shkolniks (synagogue beadles): Hersh Boruch and Anshel (Ankiel) Amt (1810–1825); Majlech Tober and Mojżesz Tauberman (both noted in 1825); and Bendyk Wenberg (Beniamin Wamberger) and Icek Rytner – the signatures of the latter two are found under the 1818 communal budget. Avigdor Meizels served as the rabbi of Biłgoraj from around 1773 until 1819, succeeded by his son-in-law from Szczebrzeszyn – Nathan Perlmutter (1819–1864), also known as Nathan Note, son of Tzvi Hirsch from Berlin. Even before Nathan died, he was succeeded by Nachum Palast (1860–1877), who later was removed as a result of fraud accusations and replaced by Shmuel Engel. Engel, in turn, was deported to Austrian Galicia in 1884, as he was not a citizen of the Kingdom of Poland. Shmuel Engel was succeeded by Jakob Mordechai Zylberman (from 1884 to 1913), who had earlier served as a rabbi of Poryck (now Pavlivka, Ukraine) and Maciejów (now Lukiv, Ukraine).
In the early 20th century, Biłgoraj’s Jewish communal instititions included a large brick synagogue (built in 1875 on the site of an earlier wooden synagogue), three brick religious schools dating from around the early 1900s, a bathhouse with a mikveh, three cemeteries, a Talmud Torah school, and a poorhouse. In addition, there were at least four private houses of prayer. The synagogue, the religious schools, the bathhouse, the rabbi’s house, a slaughterhouse built in 1927, and the poorhouse formed a communal complex that stood southwest of the market square, between Lubelska and Nadstawna Streets. All these buildings were destroyed at the beginning of World War II and in the 1960s; residential houses now stand in their place.
The Singer family
In 1889, Rabbi Jacob Mordechai Zylberman’s daughter, Basheve ,married a young Hasidic rabbi from Tomaszów Lubelski – Pinkhos Singer. Three of their children took up writing and made Biłgoraj famous all over the world.
There was our grandmother always on the go, always busy making fruit-jam and fruit juice, and gooseberry tarts and preserves. There was that old-fashioned oven in the kitchen, in which a tremendous fire was kept going from morning to night; it was never allowed to die down for a single instant.
Of course, it was a house full of plenty, but it was more than that – it was a house full of untouchables. All the cherries, the blueberries, the black currants; all the plums, raspberries, and blackberries were put away for the winter time and were not to be touched. One might have thought that summertime was a season of slavery, and that all the delicious things that grow ripe in the sunshine were only intended to be put away and enjoyed in the winter. It was so silly!
In other respects, her grandmother was not really a bad sort. Anyway, she fed her family on the fat of the land-fish and meat and soup aplenty.
Esther Kreitman (1891–1954), the oldest of the Singers’ children and Rabbi Zylberman’s granddaughter, was born in Biłgoraj. Her childhood was not particularly happy. At the age of thirteen, she was married off to a jeweller, and together they moved to Antwerp and then to London. Although she was the first one in the family to take up writing, it was not until 1936 that her novel written in Yiddish, The Dance of Demons, was published. Other her published works were Briliantn (London, 1944) and Jiches (London, 1949). She was a noted Yiddish writer in England and also translated classical works of English literature into Yiddish.
When we came to Rejowiec, the coachmen from Biłgoraj quickly swarmed over us. A flock of them with whips in hand clutched at our bundles as they tried to draw us to their wagons. – “Well, Missus, do we go?” – “We'll just water the horses and off we go”! [...] The sandy Polish roads were scraggly and plain, but to me they seemed rife with beauty. Cows grazed along the roadsides, foals pranced over the meadows. Peasants laboured in fields and, as we passed, we exchanged the timeworn greetings: “God bless you!” – “Thanks be to God!”
Israel Joshua Singer (1893–1944), the second Singers’ child, was also born in Biłgoraj. A prose writer, playwright, and journalist who wrote in Yiddish, he received a traditional religious education but also mastered secular subjects on his own. After the Singer family moved to Warsaw in 1908, he befriended Alter Kacyzne, a photographer and Yiddish writer, and the sculptor Abraham Ostrzega, among others. He made his literary début in 1915 with stories published in Dos Yiddishe Vort (Yid.: Jewish Word). During the Russian revolution, he stayed in Kiev and Moscow. After returning to Warsaw in 1921, he began working for the newspaper Folks-Tzaytung. In 1924 and 1926, he travelled across Poland, writing for national and international newspapers. In 1926, he toured the Soviet Union; the result of his journey was a volume entitled Nay-Rusland (Yid.: The New Russia). Between 1922 and 1925, he published several plays and collections of short stories, and was a correspondent for the daily Forverts (New York) and Haynt (Warsaw), then the most idely read and popular Yiddish newspapers in the world. For some time, he was a co-publisher of Di Yiddishe Welt (Yid.: Jewish World) and then a member of the editorial board of Literarishe Bleter (Yid.: Literary Pages). His position in the Jewish literary world was established with the novel Yoshe Kalb (1932), a dramatic portrayal of human passions against the backdrop of a Galician Hasidic court. The attacks he faced after publishing another novel, the controversial Brothers Ashkenazi, made him emigrate to the United States in 1933. He settled in New York, where he published with the New York daily Forverts, which issued his childhood memoirs, Fun a welt wos iz nishto mer (Yid.: Of a World that Is No More).
I heard my mother sing the praises to Biłgoraj, but the town was even prettier than she had described. It was surrounded by dense pine forests that looked like a blue ribbon. Fields and gardens stretched between houses here and there. In front of them grew thick trees with tangled branches and leaves such as I had not seen in Warsaw, even in the Saxon Garden, which I sometimes took a peek at through the fence. The town smelled of fresh milk, of bread straight out of the oven, and of an unusual calm. It was hard to believe that there was some war going on and an epidemic sweeping the country. My grandpa’s house was not far from the synagogue, the house of learning, the mikveh, and the cemetery. It was an old wooden loghouse, whitewashed, and with a bench standing before its low-placed windows.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–1991) was the most famous of the Singers’ children – a writer, essayist, and literary critic who wrote in Yiddish. The author of many novels, collections of short stories, four volumes of memoirs, and more than a dozen books for children, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, the only writer in Yiddish to have been honoured with that award. Singer was born in Leoncin, where his father was a rabbi. From 1917 to 1923, he lived with his mother and siblings in Biłgoraj, which served as a model for many sites portrayed in his works. It was his older brother, Israel Joshua,also a writer, who inspired him with an interest in literature and creative writing. Between 1923 and 1933, I.B. Singer worked in the Warsaw editorial office of Literarishe Bleter, where in 1925 he made his début with a story in Yiddish Oyf der elter (In Old Age). Under the pen name of Yitzhok Tzvi, he published a series of interviews with well-known writers and artists and also translated works of world literature into Yiddish. In 1935, he published his first novel, Der Sotn in Goraj (Satan in Goraj). Then, he emigrated to the USA and from 1949, he regularly contributed to the New York daily Forverts. I.B. Singer wrote in the Neo-Romantic mode, but his works were often coloured with grotesque fantasy, sometimes of expressionist but more often with mythological subtexts. He drew heavily on Jewish folklore and mysticism, including Kabbalah, Midrash, and agadete (Talmudic narratives and parables). His works, set in Poland and in America, included novels such as Familie Muscat (The Family Moskat, 1950) and Der kuncn-macher fun Lublin (The Magician of Lublin, 1960), as well as collections of short stories and autobiographical works. Some of these have been adapted for the stage (e.g. The Magician of Lublin in Poland) and film (e.g. The Magician of Lublin, 1977; Yentl, 1984; Enemies, 1990).
I met a watchmaker, Todros (Lang), who had a chat with me about God, nature, the primal cause (the driving mechanism behind the creation), and also about some other secular subjects. He loaned me an old German textbook on physics. In the courtyard of my grandpa's house, there was a place sheltered on three sides. An apple tree grew there. I was sitting under this tree on a bench or stump and studying an old physics textbook. I felt like one who sees without being seen. I saw a synagogue, a bet midrash, and acres of land with fields stretching all the way to the pine forest. The owls were hovering over the synagogue roof, performing their dances, and above it all, the blue sky stretched like the parokhet [a cover for the holy ark – eds.] during the Days of Awe. The golden sun cast bright and warm shadows. It seemed to me that I was an ancient philosopher who had locked himself away from the world and become immersed in all the wisdom and divinity.
The youngest of the Singer children, Moshe (1906–1946), became a Hasid and chose the career of a town rabbi. When his father died in 1929, he succeeded him as a rabbi in Stary Dzików in Subcarpathia (40 km south of Biłgoraj). After the outbreak of World War II, he fled with his mother to the USSR, where both of them died in Dzhambul (Kazakhstan).
As elsewhere, at the beginning of the 20th century, new political parties emerged such as the Bund and the Zionist party, but also social organisations and cultural institutions (theatre, library) also appeared in Biłgoraj, as well as the scouting units. New cheders were set up to accommodate the growing religious families, and soon their number grew to a dozen. These were attended by boys, while Jewish girls went to a Polish state school. The 1905 revolution in Russia and later World War I, both of which resulted in large scale population movements, had a major impact on the development of political parties and Jewish organisations in Biłgoraj and also played a role in developing the Jewish printing and publishing industry there.
During World War I, many local people left the town: its population dropped from more than 11,000 (including 5,595 Jews) in 1913, to about 5,600 (3,700 Jews) in 1921. After the war, Biłgoraj was hit by a cholera epidemic. It was then that Rabbi Jacob Mordechai Zylberman moved to Lublin, where he died in 1916. He was replaced briefly by Rabbi Haim Hokhman, who came to Biłgoraj from Krzeszów, which had been destroyed by the war.
How did the Jewish community function?
After Poland regained independence, the synagogue-controlled districts were reclassified as Jewish religious communities. In Biłgoraj, it was not until 1921 that a fully organised Jewish community was revived. Its membership consisted of 4,835 Jews, including about 3,700 living in the town itself. Josef Zylberman, the oldest son of the former Rabbi Jacob Mordechai, was chosen as the new rabbi, with Haim Hokhman as his assistant rabbi. Josef died in 1926 and was succeeded briefly by Hokhman, and in 1927, by Mordechai Rokeach from the Belz Hasidic dynasty. Some details on how the community functioned in those years can be found in the surviving community financial records. These show that the communal funds (from slaughterhouse revenues and contributions of the wealthiest members) were used to support the chief rabbi, as well as to pay the salaries of other community officials – the assistant rabbi Haim Hokhman, secretary Aron Bergman, kosher butcher Lejzor Morensztajn, assistant butcher Wolf Wajnberg, slaughterhouse supervisor Hemia Szuldiner (who also supervised the baking of the matzah), janitor Abram Szuldiner, caretaker Zyndel Altbaum, and teachers: Kloc and Rycer. In the late 1920s, the community maintained three schools (“Talmud Torah”, “Yavneh” and “Zichron Yakov”), a poorhouse, and the Gmilut Hesed free loan society. Communal money was also used to renovate the bathhouse, the synagogue, and the prayer houses, as well as to build a poultry slaughterhouse, to purchase land to expand the cemetery, and to build a house for the rabbi (as Rabbi Jacob Zylberman’s widow lived in the old one).
In Biłgoraj, the Jews lived mainly in houses located on the market square or on nearby streets – Lubelska St., Nadstawna St., and Morowa St. They owned most of the stores, shops, and artisan workshops, including those that made sieves. In the 1920s, new political establishment and social and cultural organisations emerged alongside those that had existed in Biłgoraj before. These were the Agudas Israel and the Mizrachi as well as different factions of the Zionist party and the leftist parties. A branch of the Association of Jewish Craftsmen was opened, and a Jewish bank and free loan society were set up.
The end of World War I brought the revival of timber trade. Wealthy Jews, merchants trading in timber, purchased large tracts of forest from both the state and Count Zamoyski. They used the wood to manufacture building-blocks and railway sleepers. Peasants from the surrounding villages were employed as carpenters or carters transporting the logs. After the wood had been processed, it was sold to large corporations or to the state, which bought railway sleepers. Large quantities of wood were also exported abroad.
Although Jews constituted a majority of the town population, they representated a minority in the municipal administration and in local governmental institutions. Before World War I, not a single non-Christian was allowed to become part of in the municipal administration. This policy partly resulted from the Russian occupation and from the segregationist policy of the post-1919 Polish government that by and large barred the Jews from governmental and administrative positions. Jews were elected to the town council for the first time in the interwar period, but they never formed a majority there. Sometimes administrative procedures were used to discriminate against Jewish candidates; for example, in 1924, Jews were not allowed to run for the town council on the pretext of having insufficient command of Polish. In addition, specifically Jewish organisations were sometimes formed in direct response to the anti-Semitism found in some Polish institutions. This was the case with the Jewish library and reading room, founded in 1936 to counter the anti-Jewish attitudes that were prevalent in the public library run by the Polish Educational Society.
The first Jewish cemetery in Biłgoraj was located just at the western wall of the synagogue. You could still find two matzevot there, illegible as they were; the cemetery was overgrown with grass and goats grazed in it; off to the side there was one tree, as if it had been left there to guard the place. Children used to say that once, when one of its branches was broken off, a voice could be heard: “Do not tear off my beard” – a sign that the place once held the grave of some holy man.
The oldest Jewish cemetery was probably established in the early 17th century. Located west of the synagogue, on what is now Lubelska St., it was ravaged during World War II and then built over in the 1960s.
Around the mid-18th century, another Jewish cemetery was established south of the market square, at the intersection of Morowa St. (now 3 Maja St.) and Polna St. During World War II, it too was devastated and its fence demolished in 1941; the old oak trees were cut down, and the gravestones removed: they may have been used to pave roads. The cemetery site was built over with barracks, and in the 1980s, the UN Secondary School buildings and a sports field were constructed there.
The remains of one Jewish cemetery still survive. The most recent Jewish cemetery in Biłgoraj, known as “on the Sands”, located on today’s Konopnickiej St. It was established in the early 1800s, quite far to the south from the town centre. Before World War II, it measured 2.5hectares (around six acres), and during the war it was the site of executions. It was also devastated: its fence was pulled down, and gravestones were removed. After the war, the bodies of Jewish people exhumed from elsewhere in the town and the surrounding areas were buried there. Over time, the cemetery area was divided into parcels. The Construction Materials Production Factory was built on the largest parcel in the 1970s.
Then, in the 1980s, a small portion of the cemetery was marked off and fenced, and a number of preserved gravestones were placed there. This was an initiative carried out by the family of Art Lumerman, a Biłgoraj Jew living abroad. In addition, a monument in the form of a wall with embedded fragments of gravestones was erected to commemorate the Holocaust victims.
World War II and the Holocaust
Before the outbreak of World War II, Biłgoraj’s population grew to more than 8,000, including about 5,000 Jews (60 percent). In the first weeks of September 1939, the town was bombed twice and set on fire in several places. After an abrupt Red Army occupation, the Nazi Germans arrived in early October. They immediately began taking repressive measures against civilians, particularly against Jews: beatings, humiliations, forced payments, restrictions, and forced labour. Late in 1939, a Judenrat, headed by Szymon Bin, was founded. A few months later, the occupying forces shot its members dead for failing to carry out their commands. Biłgoraj received transports of Jews from Austria (mainly from Vienna) who were helped by a Relief Committee organised in the town. In June 1940, a ghetto was set up and all Jews were confined there. As time went on, violence against the Jews escalated – many were sent away to Tarnogród and Goraj and executed. The spring of 1942 marked the beginning of deportations to concentration camps. The first transport of Jews from Biłgoraj was sent to Majdanek, then, starting from August, all further transports were directed to the extermination camp in Bełżec, where most of Biłgoraj Jews died. The ghetto was liquidated in January 1943. Only a few Jews from Biłgoraj survived the war; one of them was Rabbi Mordechai Rokeakh, who managed to reach Israel, helped by Hungarian Jews. He died there in 1949.
Today, Biłgoraj is a county seat with a population of more than 27,000 and with a thriving timber industry. Every year it hosts cultural events that commemorate the Nobel Prize laureate I.B. Singer. These include the I.B. Singer Recitation Contest and the “Following I.B. Singer’s Traces” Festival. The sieve-making tradition is evoked in open-air performances, “The Sorrowful” and “The Joyful,” which re-enact the farewell and welcome given to the sieve-producers in the past.
A Town on the Trail of Borderland Cultures
In 2015, a life-size replica of the elaborate, destroyed wooden synagogue of Volpa (now in Belarus) was constructed in Biłgoraj. Intended as a museum and education centre, it will constitute part of a culture park called “A Town on the Trail of Borderland Cultures” that revives the architecture and culture of old shtetls and other villages. The wooden houses around the synagogue include a replica of the family home of I.B. Singer’s grandparents, which serves as a museum and exhibition venue. This unique cultural, commercial, and residential development was built at the initiative of Tadeusz Kuźmiński, a Biłgoraj businessman and president of the Biłgoraj XXI Foundation, whose head office is at 9 I.B. Singera St.
Authors: Paweł Sygowski, Emil Majuk
- Replica of the wooden synagogue of Volpa (2015), 9 I.B. Singera St., tel. +48 691 032 140, [email protected]
- I.B.Singer's bench (2009), T. Kościuszki St.
- Jewish cemetery (19th c.), M. Konopnickiej St.
- Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (18th c.), 3 Maja St.
- Church of St. George (1790–1793), formerly a Greek Catholic and Orthodox church, 3 Ogrodowa St.
- Sieve-maker’s Homestead (mid-19thc.), a branch of the Regional Museum, 32 Nadstawna St.
- Biłgoraj Land Museum, 87 T. Kościuszki St., tel. +48 84 686 27 33, [email protected]
Frampol (17 km): barn buildings at Polna, Orzechowa, Kościelna, and Ogrodowa Sts. (1st half of the 19th c.); a Jewish cemetery at the intersection of Cmentarna and Ogrodowa Sts. (18th c.); the Church of Our Lady of the Scapular and St. John of Nepomuk (19th c.).
Tarnogród (21 km): Church of St. Roch, built of larch wood (1600); a synagogue (17th c.); a Jewish cemetery on Nadstawna St. (20th c.); the Church of the Transfiguration (1750–1777); the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity (1870–1875); Kościuszko Mound (1917).
Goraj (23 km): a Jewish cemetery at Cmentarna St. (19th c.); the Church of St. Bartholomew the Apostle (2nd half of the 14th c.).
Janów Lubelski (3 km): former Jewish two-storey houses (Rynek St.); a Jewish cemetery (Wojska Polskiego St.); the Shrine of Our Gracious Lady of the Rosary; a former Dominican monastery complex (1694–1769); several houses that belonged to the Zamoyski Family estate in Zamojska St; the former prison and court buildings (mid-19th c.); the Regional Museum; the Museum of Photography and the Narrow-Gauge Railway Open-Air Museum; the “Zoom Nature” recreational and educational complex at the Janów Lake.
Krzeszów (41 km): the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1895); a wooden bell tower (1898); a Jewish cemetery in the southwestern part of the town (17th c.); a memorial to 1,500 Jews murdered in the Chojnik forest north of the town; the “Blacksmith’s Farmstead” open-air museum in Krzeszów Górny.
Ulanów (41 km): the Polish Rafting Museum; a Jewish cemetery at T. Bula St. (18th c.); the former mikveh building (currently a fire-station); the Municipal History Museum; the wooden Church of St. John the Baptist and St. Barbara (1643); Holy Trinity Church (wooden, 1660); wooden houses (19th c.).
Modliborzyce (45 km): the Church of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr (1644–1664); a synagogue (1760); a Jewish cemetery (18th c.).
The Solska Forest