Lesko - guidebook
Ukr. Лісько, Yid. לינסק
The gate of the Bieszczady
Lesko is situated in the Bieszczady Foothills, on a gentle slope on the left bank of the San River. Towards the end of the 14th century, Władysław Jagiełło granted estates to the Kmita family that were located in the Land of Sanok, incorporated into the Crown. The village of Lesko is mentioned as part of the Kmita family estate in 1436. About 1470, Jan Kmita established a town with a market square in the centre, a network of streets around it, a church, and a manor house near the village of Lesko and within its lands. Thanks to its location at the intersection of roads the town experienced a developmental boom, particularly due to the route running south to Hungary and the local route running from west to east from Lesser Poland to Ruthenia up to, as far as Sambor and Lwów. Initially, Lesko was inhabited by Poles and Ruthenians, who were joined by Jews by the mid-16th century. According to local tradition, Lesko’s first Jewish inhabitants were Sephardic Jews speaking Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), but this is not confirmed in documents.
Medieval and Renaissance town
The medieval town was established at the tip of a hill, south of the village of Lesko, which lies on the San River plain. Its centre is a market square – squareshaped in this case – and several streets leading away from it, as well as a church situated northeast of the market square. West of the town, the Kmitas erected a wooden manor house, in whose place the Stadnickis later built a stone castle.
The town remained in the hands of the Kmita family until the death of Piotr Kmita, Grand Crown Marshal, in 1553. During his lifetime, the town was developed, and a new large market square was established south of the old centre, with a town hall and streets. Nearby, in the northeast, a Jewish quarter was established, with a synagogue and a cemetery located outside the town’s walls, while in the southwest, in Zatylna St., a new Orthodox church was erected. The old one, probably dating back to the times before the town was chartered, had been located in the village of Lesko, which subsequently became a suburb known as Posada Leska. As was typically the case, the Orthodox church was surrounded by a graveyard, extended in Austrian times into a common Christian cemetery that functions to this day. In 1916, a military cemetery for soldiers killed during World War I was established in front of it.
In 1542, the register of Lesko’s inhabitants mentions for the first time a burgher of the Jewish faith. In subsequent years, there was a dynamic influx of Jews, probably due to the favourable legal regulations introduced by Piotr Kmita. By 1572, there were as many as 23 tax-paying heads of Jewish families in Lesko.
A qahal was established here in the third quarter of the 16th century, earlier than in the nearby older town of Sanok, which for centuries reported to the Jewish elders of Lesko. The Jews of both towns at the time belonged to the district (ziemstwo) of Przemyśl. At the end of the 16th century, Jewish taxpayers amounted to about 25 heads of families, or approximately 10 percent of the town’s population. Unlike in many other towns of Poland-Lithuania, the Jewish citizens of Lesko were subject to the same laws as all other citizens and were allowed to do business without special restrictions, on a par with the Christian townsfolk. By the mid-16th century, they already had their own cemetery and probably a synagogue, whose presence is mentioned in early 17th-century sources, and soon they also had a bath and a hospital (poorhouse). Towards the end of the 16th century, one of the community’s elders and the principal of the local yeshivah was Aron, son of Isaac (d. 1591).
Taxpayers’ registers from the 17th and 18th centuries list kahal leaders: from 1611–1615, doctor Icyk (rabbi) and Jakub (a synagogue shames); from 1656–1660, the school’s elders – Abusek and Aron Zachariaszowicz, fraternity elders – Abram Izaakowicz and Marek Moszkowicz, graveyard supervising elder – Haim Samuelowicz, Jozef Łazurkowicz (an elder of the Land of Sanok), and Zelik – a shkolnik (a synagogue beadle). The 1769 register lists houses and the Jews living in them: shkolniks – Lewko Markowicz, Zabel, living next to the bath; as well as Helik, living together with the rabbi, Icek – a wiernik (Polish for the Hebrew ne’eman, a “trustworthy” – Jewish communal trustee), and Michel – a cantor. These registers reveal that Lesko’s Jews traded in a variety of goods, including Hungarian wine and cattle, and also engaged in leasing (mainly propinacja – production and sale of alcohol), low-key usury, and various crafts and services. They also owned houses. The Jews had two synagogues at the time, as well as a beth midrash, a bath, a hospital, and a cemetery.
The wars and invasions of the mid-17th century spared the town. In the taxpayers’ register for 1655–1660, there were 182 Christians and 36 Jews (17 percent), and in 1676, the town’s 220 taxpayers already included as many as 83 Jews (38 percent). But the Swedes set fire to the town in 1704, causing many people to lose their homes and move away. Many of those who remained died during an epidemic the following year (including 303 Jews). In subsequent decades, the number of inhabitants increased again – in 1765, tax was reported to have been collected from 1,656 Jews in the entire kahal, including 587 in Lesko. According to data for 1769, the town’s population amounted to about 1,440, which means that before the partitions, Jews constituted more than 40 percent of Lesko’s inhabitants. At that time, the kahal of Lesko was the largest of the Jewish communities in the nearby towns and boroughs, and the visible sign of its importance was its stone synagogue, established at a time when most buildings of this kind were made of wood.
The first synagogue in Lesko was wooden; it was probably built in the second half of the 16th century and is mentioned in documents in 1580 as a Jewish school. The stone synagogue was built here most likely in the second half of the 17th century. It appeared in the documents in the first half of the 18th century and has survived to this day. Built on a rectangular plan, with a turret in the corner of the front elevation, it was rebuilt several times – for example, after the 1847 fire.
Near the synagogue there were Hasidic prayer houses where the followers of tsaddikim from Nowy Sącz and Sadhora would pray, but these have not survived.
During World War II, the Germans devastated the interior of the synagogue and used the building as a warehouse. After the war, the derelict building gradually became dilapidated until it was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1978, on the initiative of the then director of the Bieszczady Cultural Centre, Andrzej Potocki, it has housed an art gallery. The building is owned by the town of Lesko. In its vestibule, there is an exhibition of photographs about Jewish life. There are also memorial plaques here with names of Lesko’s Jews. The art gallery is open from May till October, tel. +48 13 469 66 49, [email protected]
War and peace
During World War I, the Jewish community, whose members owned most stores and craft workshops, suffered severely as passing soldiers looted the town. As elsewhere, Jews from Lesko served among the soldiers of the Austrian army.
After Poland regained independence in 1918, Lesko remained a county town in the Lwów Voivodeship. The number of inhabitants decreased by about 1,000 as a result of warfare, a cholera epidemic and other diseases, and the departure of many inhabitants. In 1921, the town had a population of 3,870, including 1,080 Catholics (28 percent), 451 Greek Catholics (12 percent), and 2,338 Jews (60 percent). On the initiative of the Krasicki family, who owned the Lesko estate, the town name of Lisko, which had been in use since the 19th century, was replaced with the earlier name of Lesko.
In the interwar period, old parties, associations, and cultural and youth organisations continued to function and new ones emerged; a loan fund was established. Three representatives of the Jewish community, Mendel Hager, Josef March, and Baruch Weiss, became members of the town council, and lawyer Alter Müller became deputy mayor. The health service at that time included Jewish doctors – Zelig Liebman and Lea Grossonger – as well as a dentist called Dampf. David Gottlieb owned the best hotel and restaurant in Lesko; Moshe Ber Gutwirth ran a company called “Importwin,” which also had a branch he opened in Lwów; and Rywka Schaff opened a print shop.
The town had two functioning synagogues, a bet midrash, two baths, and an old cemetery. Hasidim – followers of the Ruzhiner dynasty of Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Sadhora (Sadigura, Sadagora, near Czernowitz/Chernivtsi) and the Halberstam dynasty of Nowy Sącz – had their prayer houses here, too. The rabbi of Lesko was Mendel Horowitz. Before the outbreak of World War II, the town Jewish community numbered about 2,500 people.
The Jewish cemetery is one of the oldest and the richest in Europe. It was established before the middle of the 16th century on a hill east of the town new centre. About 2,000 gravestones survive in it, of which 29 date back to the 16th century, more than 60 to the 17th century, and 88 to the 18th century. The oldest identified matzevah is that of Eliezer, son of Meshulam, who died in 1548. Its Hebrew inscription reads:
The oldest matzevot can be found in the northern part of the cemetery, near the entrance gate. Further into the cemetery, among other tombs, there is the ohel of tsaddik Menachem Mendel, who died here in 1803.
The owner of the site is the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. The entrance fee to the cemetery is 7 PLN per person. The key to the gate is available from the family living opposite the entrance (tel. +48 13 469 81 08 or +48 695 652 364).
World War II and the extermination of the Jews
After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the town was first seized by German troops; the Germans withdrew across the San after a few days and the Soviets entered Lesko. The San River became the border between the occupation zones. This situation continued until the German attack on the USSR in June 1941. After the town was seized by the Nazis, repression began – mainly against the Jewish population. In June 1942, the Jews from the town and its vicinity were confined in a ghetto. It was liquidated three months later, in August 1942. About a hundred of the least physically fit people were shot at the Jewish cemetery, and the remaining ghetto dwellers were marched off to the labour camp in the nearby village of Zasław. Jews were also transported there from Sanok and its vicinity. That
camp was the scene of mass executions in which a large part of Lesko’s Jews were killed. The others were transported to the Bełżec death camp, where they were gassed. Few of the Jews whom the Soviets deported to Siberia survived the war; between ten and twenty survived in Lesko, harboured by Poles and Ukrainians.
After World War II, as a result of the extermination of the Jews and the displacement of Ukrainians, Lesko had only about 1,000 inhabitants left.
Today, Lesko is a county town with a population of more than 6,000 people. It is regarded as a gateway to the tourist areas of the Bieszczady Mountains. The Bieszczady Tourist Information Centre is in the town square (tel.+48 13 471 11 30, e-mail: [email protected]).
Authors: Paweł Sygowski, Emil Majuk
Sites to see
- Former synagogue, now art gallery, (16th c.)
- Jewish cemetery (16th c.)
- The urban layout, consisting of a medieval charter town (from c. 1470) and the Renaissance town adjoining it on the south (from c. 1550).
- The Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (16th c.)
- The castle of the Stadnicki family with a Romantic park (19th c.)
- Town hall (1894–1896)
- Tenement houses and suburban wooden houses (19th/20th c.)
- Christian cemetery (15th c.)
- Bunkers of the so-called Molotov Line, erected on the San during the Soviet occupation in 1940.
Sanok (15 km): a synagogue of the Hasidim of Sadogóra (1924), currently State Archives; Yad Charuzim synagogue in Franciszkańska St. (1897), currently the seat of Architects Society; a tenement in which there used to be a shtiebel (late 19th c.), the mikvah building and townhouses of the Weiner and Ramer families; the new Jewish cemetery in the Kiczury district (19th c.); the Folk Architecture Museum; Royal Castle (16th c.) with the Historical Museum and Beksiński Gallery; Franciscan church and monastery (17th c.); town hall at 1 Rynek St. (1875–1880); Mansionaries’ house (18th c.) in Św. Michała Square; Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (1784–1789)
Baligród (21 km): a Jewish cemetery (1st half of the 18th c.); Greek Catholic Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God (1835)
Ustrzyki Dolne (24 km): the shrine of Our Lady of Bieszczady (1st half of the 18th c.); the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland (1909–1911); the Greek Catholic Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God (1847); the building of the former synagogue (c. 1870), currently a library; the old Jewish cemetery (18th c.); the Museum of Milling and the Countryside; the Nature Museum of the Bieszczady National Park
Tyrawa Wołoska (26 km): a Jewish cemetery, about 400 m southeast of the church, across the Catholic cemetery; St Nicholas’ Church (1st half of the 19th c.)
Mrzygłód (31 km): original wooden buildings around the market square (19th/20th c.); a Latin church (1415–1424), currently the Sending of the Apostles Church; former wooden synagogue in the eastern side of the market square (1893), now a dwelling house; by the road there is a mass grave of Jews shot in 1942.
Bircza (42 km): the Humnicki palace (19th c.) with earth bastion fortifications of the old castle; St Stanislaus Kostka Church (1921–1930); the wooden storey house of the rabbi, a brick mikveh; Jewish cemetery in Cmentarna St. (19th c. ?); in Kamienna Górka there is an obelisk commemorating the extermination of Bircza’ Jews.
Rybotycze (52 km): a Jewish cemetery situated at the curve of the road to Makowa (); the fortified Greek Catholic Church of St Onuphrius in Posada Rybotycka (15th c.), currently a branch of the Museum in Przemyśl
Krasiczyn (61 km): a castle (late 16th c.); St Martin’s Church (17th c.); a Jewish cemetery on a hillside near the forest
Lutowiska (65 km): “Three Cultures” Ecomuseum route including Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish heritage sites; a Jewish cemetery (2nd half of the 18th c.); the wooden building of the former Jewish school, ruins of the qahal synagogue (2nd half of the 19th c.); the Church of St Stanislaus the Bishop (early 20th c.); memorial to the Jews murdered in 1943
Ustrzyki Górne (67 km): the seat of the Bieszczady National Park; Mountain Tourism Culture Centre of the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society (PTTK)
The Bieszczady National Park