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

Józefów Roztoczański - guidebook

Ukr. Юзефув, Yid. יוזעפוף

Books printed in Józefów met with resistance from the state and from the rabbinical censorship. In a letter to Zamoyski, one censor called them “highly” sensitive.

Hanna Krall, The Blue, in: There is No River There Anymore, Cracow 2001
Józefów Roztoczański - guidebook
The market square in Józefów, 1906. Reproduction from The Arcaded Buildings of the Lublin Region Towns by J. Górak, Zamość 1996

 Paper and printing

In the village of Hamernia, near Józefów, visitors can still see the ruins of an old paper mill that the nearby forest has absorbed. The mill was built in the mid-18th century on the Sopot River, next to the blacksmith shop and the copper foundry. Every year, it produced 4,000 reams of quality paper made mostly from linen rags and plant fibres in order to spare the local forest. The paper was watermarked with the Zamoyski family’s coat of arms because Józefów, founded in 1725, belonged to the Zamoyski Estate.

Jews had lived in Józefów since the beginning of its existence and constituted a majority of the town’s population. An inventory in 1789 listed 70 Jewish homes.

Around 1820, Szaja Waks, one of the leaseholders of the local paper mill, brought in typographers from the Slavuta (Volhynia) printing press and set up a printing house of his own in Józefów. The establishment, which, as did Slavuta press, relied on its own paper, soon became one of the most important printing companies in the Kingdom of Poland. Hebrew books and official forms printed there were exported to other Polish regions, as well as to Russia, Bessarabia (today Moldova), Wallachia, and even to Istanbul. Destroyed over the years by floods and fires, the paper mill and printing house were rebuilt several times and operated until the end of the 19th century. In 1865, the Zecer brothers, Barukh and Shlomo, opened another printing house and later took over the one established by Szaja Waks, while Moshe and Mendel Sznajdmesser (Sznajdermesser) from Józefów set up two printing houses in Lublin.


Life in Józefów

The Jewish quarter of Józefów extended south of the market square, and the first wooden synagogue – and a Jewish cemetery – probably date back to some time between 1734 and 1744. Decades later, the buildings that belonged to the Jewish community were listed in The Measurement Report of the Town of Józefów (1785). These were: a wooden synagogue, a steam bath, a Jewish school, and a rabbi’s house.

The wooden synagogue, located in the southwestern part of the settlement, burnt down in 1850. A stone synagogue was built on its site in the 1870s and still stands there, at the corner of Górnicza St. and Krótka St. This Baroque prayer house was built with limestone from the local quarry. It contained a two-storey prayer hall for men on its eastern side. On its western side, there was a wooden corridor with the women’s section above it: this was dismantled in 1945.

In 1941, the synagogue was devastated by the Nazis, and after the war it served as a storehouse for the local agricultural cooperative. In 1964, its roof collapsed, destroying the original ceiling. Today, after the extensive refurbishment carried out between 1985 and 1991, and then again in 2014, the former synagogue houses the Municipal Public Library and guest rooms. The former prayer hall features a partially preserved stone niche for aron ha-kodesh and a row of arcaded niches in the walls used in the past for bookcases.


Synagoga w Józefowie, obecnie Miejska Biblioteka Publiczna, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
The synagogue in Józefów, now the Municipal Public Library, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko; digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre (
Synagoga w Józefowie, 1955, zbiory Miejskiej Biblioteki Publicznej w Józefowie
Synagoga w Józefowie, 1955, zbiory Miejskiej Biblioteki Publicznej w Józefowie


Rabin Szalom Józef Hercsztark, reprodukcja z „Sefer zikaron li-kehilat Jozefof we-li-kedoszejha", red. Azriel Omer-Lemer i Dawid Sztokfisz, Tel Awiw 1974/1975
Rabbi Shalom Joseph Hertzshtark. Reproduction from Sefer Zikaron li-Kehilat Jozefof in-li-kedosheiha, ed. by Azriel Omer-Lemer and David Shtokfish, Tel Aviv 1974/1975


Gravestone for the Torah

A Jewish cemetery established in the mid-18th century is located to the south from the synagogue. It was originally surrounded by a stone wall with the gate facing the town. Today, the cemetery has about 400 stone matzevot. The oldest ones (dating back to 1762) are located to the right of the entrance. The cemetery has separate sections for the graves of men and of women, and it features a unique gravestone for aburied Torah scroll, which lost its ritual qualities, dating from 1842. The largest number of matzevot date from 1907 to 1940; remnants of polychrome decoration are still visible on the most recent ones. Traditionally facing the east, here they are oriented west. The place was devastated during World War II. Today, it is owned by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, which enclosed the cemetery with a fence in 2015.

Not far from the cemetery there is one of Józefów’s greatest attractions – the quarries, which have been in use since the 18th century, that is, at least since the town’s incorporation. Originally, this was a sizable outcrop, but by now most of the stone has been excavated, creating a picturesque rocky area.


Macewy na cmentarzu żydowskim w Józefowie, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
Matzevot at the Jewish cemetery in Józefów. 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre (
Macewa na cmentarzu żydowskim w Józefowie, 2009, fot. Piotr Sztajdel, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
A quarry in Józefów, 2009. Photo by Piotr Sztajdel; digital collection of the "Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre" Centre (



The Seer of Józefów

Józefów was the birthplace of famous Hasidic Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Horowitz (1745–1815), later known as the Seer of Lublin (the Hozeh). His father Eliezer held the position of the rabbi of Józefów. As a young boy, Yitzhak was betrothed to a daughter of the tavern-keeper in Krasnobród and forced to marry her. But soon after the wedding ceremony he set off to visit the courts of Hasidic tsaddikim. He studied under famous rabbis: Shmelke Horowitz in Sieniawa, Dov Ber in Międzyrzecz (Mezeritch), Yitzhak Meir in Berdyczów (Berdychiv), and, finally, under Elimelekh in Leżajsk.

But Yaakov Yitzhak came into conflict with Elimelech and decided to establish his own Hasidic court. At first, he taught in Łańcut, where his prayer chamber has been preserved in the vestibule of the main synagogue. In the 1790s, he moved to Lublin, and it was there that his fame flourished. First, he lived in the nearby settlement of Wieniawa, and then he moved to Szeroka St. – the main street of Lublin’s Jewish quarter. He was in constant conflict with the Chief Rabbi of Lublin, Azriel Horowitz, a fierce opponent of Hasidism who was mockingly dubbed the Iron Head.

There are many legends about the life and work of the Seer of Lublin. One of them concerns the circumstances of his mysterious death, which happened during the Napoleonic Wars. Several Hasidic tsaddikim (rare supporters but mainly the opponents of Napoleonic reforms) believed that he wars would usher in a war of Gog and Magog, predicted in the Bible, and thus hasten the Messiah’s coming. Three rabbis began to pray for that war: Yitzhak Yaakov Horowitz, Menachem Mendel of Rymanów (who supported Napoleon), and the Maggid of Kozienice (who opposed Napoleon). Shortly thereafter, however, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, all three of them died. A Hasidic legend has it that this was the punishment for the sin of pride, and that the Seer of Lublin was knocked to the pavement from a second-floor window as he was levitating in fervent prayer. His ohel is located at the old Jewish cemetery in Lublin.


Tradition and education

According to the 1921 census, 1,056 out of Józefów’s 1,344 inhabitants declared themselves as Jews. Most of them were observant and very pious. In the interwar years, the Jewish community was administered by the representatives of the Orthodox Jews, associated with the Agudas Israel party – the first political organization of Orthodox Jewry uniting Hasidim and Litvaks, their opponents. The municipality maintained a Talmud Torah school and a yeshivah with about 50 students, some of them from other towns. In 1926, the Mizrachi (religious Zionists party) set up a branch of the Yavneh network of schools, while in 1928 Agudas Israel opened a modern Orthodox-type Bet Yaakov school for girls. The influences of many of the Hasidic dynasties of Poland and Galicia competed in Józefów, and there were many Hasidic prayer houses – shtiblekh – in town. Secular organisations such as He-Halutz or the Bund were formally active until the late 1920s.


Grupa uczniów ze szkoły „Tarbut", reprodukcja z „Sefer zikaron li-kehilat Jozefof we-li-kedoszejha", red. Azriel Omer-Lemer i Dawid Sztokfisz, Tel Awiw 1974/1975
A group of Tarbut school pupils. Reproduction from Sefer Zikaron li-Kehilat Yozefov veli-kedosheha, ed. by Azriel Omer-Lemer and David Shtokfish, Tel Aviv 1974/1975


Demons in the ruins of the printing house

It happened in 1926. The municipal authorities issued a new directive aimed at improving the town's appearance. Today, we would call it urban renewal or town revitalisation. The old printing house owned by the Zecer and Rener families had become an utter ruin over the years. People believed that the place was haunted and that demons revelled there at night. And even though, thanks to education, superstitious beliefs in evil spirits had radically faded away, the authorities decided to tear down the ruins of the printing house, probably just to be on the safe side to prevent an evil spell. Or perhaps there were elections ahead? No one knows. In any case, the owner of the place did not rush to comply with the demolition order. After she ignored the official notification for the third time, the authorities decided to hire a building contractor to demolish the building, and to charge the owner for the work. Thanks to the local “female intelligence service” that had launched an active whispering campaign, it became known just how large this sum would be. And I would kindly ask you not to laugh, because the information was very detailed and true-to-fact. Some miraculous chance – not at all accidental, I believe – brought the chosen contractor to the door of a Jewish house next to the ruins that happened to be a tavern. The contractor apparently assumed that a hearty swig of ‘siwucha’ [home-made brandy – eds.] would help him see what he had to do more clearly. His vision along these lines, no doubt, was becoming sharper with every glass he drank. As he was diving deeper and deeper into the depths of the decanter, he started to boast to the tavern keeper about the money he would receive as soon as he finished his job. The sum of 500 zł was at stake! This news travelled at head-spinning speed and reached a neighbour of the printing house owner. Smart enough to recognize that the situation had become really serious, she hired a man named Ephraim, who promised to pull the building down for 200 zł, clearly a much smaller sum. So, on the night before the workers hired by the town were to come, Ephraim set to work. It was very dark in the ruined building, but he did not want to light a lantern for fear of drawing attention. By breaking a hole through the roof tiles, he made a “window” in the roof and carried on by the light of the full moon.

But all the romance of working by moonlight suddenly evaporated when a loud shriek cut through the nocturnal silence. This was another resident of Józefów, Kremer, who happened to be passing by the ruined building in a cart. Seeing tiles flying out from nowhere and falling on his head, he started to scream at the top of his voice: “Heeeelp! Heeeelp! Demons, demons!” Then, dumbfounded, Kremer witnessed what seemed to be a genuine miracle: instead of evil spirits emerging from ruins that were notorious as a devil’s nest, he saw his fellow townsman, Ephraim. It was not easy to calm the hysterical cart driver and persuade him that it really was Ephraim, a kosher Jew from Józefów – and not the demons – who was hurling the roof tiles.

This is how the story about evil spirits in the old printing house and the legend about demons ended. It should be added that other workers arrived before sunrise. They were Jews who had agreed to give Ephraim a hand. They joined forces and managed to tear the building down, and when the contractors hired by the municipality came in the morning to do the work, everything had been done and dusted. Needless to say, the Jews did it better and faster than the Gentiles. So, the municipality authorities couldn’t do any more damage. They could not even count on evil spirits.

Ed. by Yaron Becker based on Ephraim Wermstein’s text in Sefer zikaron Jozefow (Memorial Book to the Community of Józefów), Tel Aviv 1974
Dom podcieniowy w Józefowie, 1935, fot. J. Świeży, reprodukcja z J. Górak, „Podcieniowa zabudowa miasteczek Lubelszczyzny", Zamość 1996
An arcaded house in Józefów, 1935. Photo by J. Świeży; reproduction from: J. Górak, Podcieniowa zabudowa miasteczek Lubelszczyzny (The Arcaded Buildings of the Lublin Region Towns) by J. Górak, Zamość 1996


World War II and the Holocaust

In September 1939, the town was occupied for some days by the Red Army. When it retreated, several hundred Jews managed to flee eastward. In March 1941, the Nazis set up a ghetto in Józefów for the Jews from the town and neighbouring villages. Around 600 displaced people from western Poland were confined there as well. Famine and disease became rampant in the ghetto. In May 1942, more than 100 Jews were shot by a group of the Gestapo officers. The largest mass execution took place on July 13, 1942, when more than 1,500 people – mostly women, children, and the elderly – were shot on Winiarczykowa Góra (Winiarczykowa Hill); hundreds of young men were deported to labour camps in Lublin. The execution site is now fenced and marked with a memorial stone. Those few Jews in Józefów who survived the massacre were joined by residents of neighbouring towns and villages. But mass executions continued – 70 Jews were shot on October 21, 1942 – and in early November 1942, ghetto survivors were deported to the Bełżec death camp. Only a few lived through the war.

On 1 June 1943, the Nazis attempted to “pacify” Józefów. They bombed the town, but were stopped by Home Army troops. On July 24, 1944, the town was liberated from German occupation by the Red Army. The story of the Holocaust in Józefów was detailed by Christopher R. Browning in his 1992 much-acclaimed book Ordinary People. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the "Final Solution" in Poland.


Authors: Paweł Sygowski, Emil Majuk

Worth seeing

  • Jewish cemetery (18th c.), Pogodna St..
  • Former synagogue (1870), 10 Krótka St.; now a library (tel. +48 84 6878289, [email protected]).
  • Town hall (1775), Rynek St.
  • Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1886), 11 Wojska Polskiego St.
  • Quarries, south of the town centre.
Kamieniołom w Józefowie, 2008, fot. Joanna Zętar, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -
Kamieniołom w Józefowie, 2008, fot. Joanna Zętar, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN" -

Surrounding area

Górecko Kościelne (6 km): five tourist routes; Church of St. Stanislaus, built of larch wood (1768); the "Upon the Water" chapel (17th c.); 500-year-old oak trees.

Hamernia (7 km): “Czartowe Pole” nature reserve; ruins of the 18th c. paper mill that belonged to the Zamoyski family estate.

Bondyrz (13 km): two wooden water mills (19th c.); village bathhouse (1928); the wooden Church of Divine Providence (1948–1949); the Museum of the World Association of Home Army Soldiers; a manor complex and a wooden water mill (1936) in Adamów.

Osuchy (13 km): the largest partisan cemetery in Europe, set up after the battle fought by the Home Army (AK) and Peasants’ Battalions (BCh) against the Germans on 25–26 June 1944.

Krasnobród (16 km): the Dominican monastery complex (17th/18th c.); Krasnobród Calvary; the Museum of Sacred Art, formerly a granary (1795); an aviary; the “Upon the Water” wooden chapel; Chapel of St. Roch (1943); Jewish cemeteries (mid-16th and early 19th c.); the Leszczyński Palace (18th/19th c.), currently the Janusz Korczak Rehabilitation Sanatorium for Children.

Susiec (22 km): the Church of St. John of Nepomuk; a wooden watermill (1925); four hiking tourist routes.

Tomaszów Lubelski (33 km): the Baroque Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, built of larch wood (1627); “Czajnia” wooden teahouse (1895); Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (1890); the Regional Museum; the Memorial Exhibition Room devoted to the Communist Terror; a Jewish cemetery with an ohel of 3 tsaddikim from Tomaszów, a memorial to the fallen, and a “wailing wall”.

Narol (35 km): a palace with an Italian-style garden (18th c.); the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1790); a Greek Catholic church (1899) and a graveyard with stone crosses from Brusno; a Jewish cemetery (19th c.).

Bełżec (40 km): Museum and Memorial (the former Nazi death camp for Jews, operating in 1941–1943, in which approx. 600,000 people were killed), opening hours: 9am–6pm (summer), 9am–4pm (winter),; the Greek Catholic Church of St. Basil (1756); the Church of Mary Queen of Poland.

Łaszczów (55 km): ruins of a synagogue (1770); a prayer house (late 18th c., now a cinema); remains of a Jewish cemetery (mid-18th c.); a monument to the murdered Jews (1990); a former Jewish house at the market square; the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (mid-18th c.) with a bell tower, a presbytery, a crypt, and an organist’s house (19th/20th c.); remains of the Szeptycki palace complex (1736–1758) connected to a manor house in Nadolce with a system of ponds.

Hrebenne (35 km): the Greek Catholic Church of St. Nicholas (1600); a wooden bell tower (17th c.); a manor complex (mid-19th c.), currently a school.

The Krasnobród Landscape Park: nature reserves: “Saint Roch” and “Skrzypny Ostrów”; peat bog in “Nowiny” reserve.