“Wielun” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume I
(Poland)

51°13' / 18°33'

Translation of the “Wielun” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


In honor of the family of Reuben Rothschild

 

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Morris Wirth

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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume I, pages 94-98, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem


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(pages 94-98)

Wielun
(District of Wielun)

Translated by Corinne Appleton

Population
YearTotalJews
1777?8
1793/949074
18081,16970
18272,931335
18573,816624
18977,1982,732
192111,0324,818
1.9.1939?4,200 (approx.)

 

“Wielun Synagogue “ (Picture from the 1930's)

 

Table of Contents

 I. Jewish Settlement up to 1918
II. Between the Two World Wars
III. The Holocaust

Jewish Settlement Up To 1918

At the end of the 13th century Wielun was the administrative center of the region, and achieved town status. During the two following centuries the town enjoyed great economic development; it became the commercial center on the border between Greater Poland and Silesia. Its commercial importance increased in the 15th and 16th centuries with the additional exports of grain and wool from Poland to Silesia. Jews also took part in these export deals; they also dealt in woven cloth. This upswing in the economy prepared the ground for the establishment of a Jewish community in Wielun, the presence of which was recorded as far back as 1537. In 1566, however, the king granted the town 'privilege prohibiting the residence of Jews' in the town. In spite of this, some Jews continued living there, though pressure from the town dwellers brought about the expulsion of these, too, and in the 1720's this first Jewish community ceased to exist. Jewish merchants still frequented the town, though remained just a few days.

Because of the ravages of war - the devastation inflicted on Wielun by the wars of the mid-17th century and beginning of 18th century ---- Jewish merchants gradually discontinued visiting during that period. In the second part of the 18th century, there came about a revival of commercial dealings between Poland and Silesia that continued right up to the mid-19th century. Jewish merchants participated in the trading but did not settle in Wielun because of the 'privilege' forbidding this. In the nearby town of Byczyna, neighboring Silesia, Jewish contribution to local commerce was so outstanding, that the Prussian king issued an order in 1799 forbidding the setting up of a fair on Jewish religious festival days. In spite of the prohibition and objection of the town dwellers to Jews living in Wielun, a Polish landlord, owner of an estate on the outskirts of the town, allowed one Jewish family who had rented an inn and a brewery, to reside there. In the 1770's, a Jew, Joachim Herszlik, was living in Wielun. In 1791, a second Jewish innkeeper and his family took up residence there. During the Prussian conquest the authorities gave permission for Jews to settle in Wielun, and the first group, numbering 10 families, arrived in 1798. Previously they'd lived in a nearby village, Bugaj, and now took advantage of the opportunity offered to move to Wielun. Among them were merchants who engaged in commerce between Poland and Silesia, and craftsmen. In the first half of the 19th century, among Jewish craftsmen were specialists in tailoring and metal (sheet metal workers). A number of Jews set up a tanning factory. In the 1820's a textile plant was established in Wielun and efforts made to industrialize the town; these ended in failure. At that time the Jews supplied the plant with raw materials.

In those days Jews were not allowed to acquire real estate, consequently, up to the 1840's, only two Jews owned houses. During the years 1823-1862 another restriction was imposed on Jews residing in Wielun - the Wielun border strip. Jewish settlement was therefore much curtailed, and between 1823-1828 just 8 families came to Wielun, among them 3 'melamdim' (scholars). In 1840, the local Wielun authorities and town dwellers came to accept in principle the fact of Jews residing in Wielun, though desired to expel those Jews who'd settled there during the period of the 'privilege' of 1823. From the 1820's and nearly up to the cancellation of all residential restrictions on Jews throughout the kingdom of Poland in 1862, attempts were made to set up a Jewish quarter in Wielun. This failed, mainly because Wielun residents lobbied against it with the central authorities in Warszawa.

In the second half of the 19th century, commercial activities conducted by Jewish merchants from Wielun with nearby villages, were very successful. The Jews were the main distributors of industrial equipment and the buyers of agricultural products from the villagers. However, at the beginning of the 20th century there was an upsurge in attacks on lone Jews visiting the area, and as a result tens of families lost their source of income. Other Jews were also deprived of an income because of Polish cooperatives, now in commercial competition with Jews in the villages.

A group of Jews who settled in Wielun in 1798 set about establishing community and religious institutions. First, a place for a synagogue had to be found. At that time, their place of worship was the rented house situated in the market place, belonging to a member of the congregation. In 1799 a building was bought and converted into a synagogue. In 1841, when this building was almost collapsing, they began to construct a new synagogue, and this was completed in about 1855.

Up to 1848 the community of Wielun did not have its own cemetery - the dead were brought for burial in Dzialoszyn; with the outbreak of cholera and the resulting higher death rate a local Jewish cemetery was established. In the second half of the 19th century there were a number of charity organizations such as 'Dressing the Naked', and a 'Wood Committee' whose function was to supply the poor and needy with wood for heating. In 1870 Rabbi Szlomo Srebrnik was the rabbi in place. In 1893 Rabbi Menachem Mendel Grynberg was inducted into the office of rabbi. He established a yeshiva in Wielun. Between the two world wars Rabbi M. H. Rothenberg, and later Rabbi H. Justman, served the community of Wielun.

In the second half of the 19th century the 'Haskala' (enlightenment) movement began to infiltrate the Jewish community of Wielun. Frequent contact with the large Jewish community in nearby Kepno, in the area of the Prussian occupation, who were known for their high standard of secular learning, certainly contributed to this. The influence of the 'Haskala' was most pronounced in ensuring a group of children a secular education. Already in 1827 three students attended a school of Piarist priest teachers. In the 1860's even more Jewish children were attending other public schools. At that time, a group of secular educated Jews in Wielun tried to take over the community committee.

In the 19th century, a number of Jewish students (it is not known exactly how many) attended high school, and a few even went on to institutions of higher learning. One of these was Adolph Kantorowicz, a medical student. In 1863 he was arrested and sent to Siberia for participating in the Polish uprising. It is a fact that the Jews of Wielun did not remain indifferent to the uprising, and actively supported it: a team of Jews, members of a rebel brigade from Wielun, fought at the side of Polish artists. Two of them were taken prisoner by the Russians and executed by hanging. Their bodies were brought for burial to the Jewish cemetery. Jews also took part in activities connected to the revolution of 1905-1907. For such participation, Haim Lipman Beser was expelled to Siberia.

During the First World War (1917) branches of Agudat Yisrael and Hamizrachi were set up in Wielun. In 1915 an organization called 'Jugent Ferien' was established, together with a sports club, and also a library where lessons were conducted in secular subjects.

Between the Two World Wars

During the First World War, the Jewish community of Wielun grew in size as some hundreds of Jewish workers and their families arrived from Lodz, and settled in the town and suburbs. The commercial difficulties encountered by the Jews, difficulties that had already been in evidence some years before the war, continued for some years afterwards. Nevertheless, many Jews wandered among the villages with their wares. Most of the Jews were craftsmen in fact they made up 65% of all the craftsmen in the town. After much effort the Union of Jewish Craftsmen was established in 1919, the members belonging to various professions. Outside of the frameworks of the union, in 1929 a hairdresser's corporation, consisting of both Jews and Poles, was set up. In the 1920's a Jewish cooperative bank was founded where small-scale businesses and craftsmen could receive low interest loans. A group of Jews set up a successful business in transport, which, because of Wielun being far from the main railway lines, became an integral part of life in the town. A bus now traveled the route between Wielun and Lodz, picking up passengers from the towns in between. In the 1930's 12 private buses, most of them belonging to Jews, were in use. In 1935, bus owners set up a limited transport company.

In the period between the two world wars, apart from the Mizrachi branch, which had been introduced during the war, the following Zionist organizations were established in Wielun: General Zionists, Hitachdut (from 1929), Poalei Zion (left wing) and the Revisionists. At the same time a number of Zionist youth organizations were set up: Gordoniah (in 1930 a training farm was organized in the border area near Wielun).

The election results to the Zionist Congresses during the years 1929-1937 indicate the influence the different parties exerted on the voters within the Wielun Zionist camp.

Election Results - Zionist Congresses -1929-1937
Votes
Lists
1929 19351937 
57 228216General Zionists 'a'
9817122General Zionists 'b'
161131110Hamizrachi
28 3The Revisionists
36 600596The League of Eretz Yisrael Workers

Agudat Yisrael, whose party was already active in Wielun before the war, was the most influential of all the parties up to 1931. In the congregation committee elections in 1924 and 1929 half of the elected representatives were from Agudat Yisrael. However, in the elections of 1931, they were in the minority. At that time, the General Zionists organized a united block with Mizrachi, and this got the majority vote.

Congregation election results of 1924-1931
Number of RepresentativesLists
192419291931 
1-1Poalei Zion
3--Hamizrachi
29The Zionists
--1Hasidei Alexander
646Agudat Yisrael
-4-The Jewish National Bloc (Zionists)

During the First World War (in 1915), the town council consisted of four representatives from every nationality: Jewish, Polish and German. The Jewish members of the council, on more than one occasion, played a decisive role in council political arguments. Their representatives stood united in an effort to obtain financial support from the council for Jewish public institutions. This endeavor was rewarded in the budget year 1927/8 with funds for this purpose, for the very first time. From the Wielun town council budget amounting to 365,000 zloty in 1929/30, a mere 6,000 zloty were allotted to Jewish institutions. However, in the budget of 1930/1 the sum allotted to Jewish institutions was raised by another 1,500 zloty, even though the council budget had that year been reduced by 5,000 zloty.

A short time after the First World War, the charity organizations 'Dressing the Naked' and 'Haltz Hevra' were disbanded. The increase in the Jewish population and the changes in the economic situation called for a different approach to mutual aid. Among the new public aid institutions were Kupat Gemel Hassidim, which was set up by the Mizrachi Movement, and other Zionist organizations granted support and small loans; their funds were subsidized to a small degree by the local council. The organization 'Bikur Holim' (visiting the sick) – which changed its name in 1925 to 'Lenat Hazedek' (overnight charity), supplied medical help and food. It received financial support from both the community and local councils; part of the budget was covered by donations collected from the congregation. 'Lenat Hazedek' owned a pharmacy and a laboratory with up-to-date equipment. A group of women was active in a women's organization 'Kranken Frauen Hevra' (women's help for the sick). They cared for the indigent sick, and for those who lived alone. They were a great help to 'Lenat Hazedek'.

Jewish educational institutions in Wielun consisted of chaderim: Yesodi (primary) Torah and Talmud Torah, and in 1919 'Beit Ulpana' was set up under the direction of the Mizrachi, and in 1930 was integrated into the network of Yavneh schools. In the 1920's a school for girls, Beit Yaakov, was established; only a very small number of girls actually went there. About 500 pupils attended the Jewish schools: 30% of children of school age, the rest studied at the government elementary schools, some of them eventually going on to the government high school of science for boys. The Jewish library, established in 1915 next to the 'Jugent Ferien', continued its activities right up to the Second World War, and became an important cultural center in the town. A drama group was formed, nearby. In 1924 a new sports club was set up in a similar place to the one that existed during the First World War.

In the 1930's anti-Semitism intensified in Wileun, and the economic boycott gradually brought about the impoverishment of those Jews who owned shops and market stalls. At the beginning of 1937 the act of throwing stones at the synagogue was renewed: on one occasion 100 windows were smashed, and parts of the interior destroyed. Attempts were also made to create an atmosphere for pogrom by provocation: in 1937 two young Poles desecrated a grave in a Catholic cemetery and left in place a couple of Jewish hats wrapped in a Jewish newspaper. These young men then tried to sell a Jewish shopkeeper a cross from the grave, however the shopkeeper was suspicious of them and alerted the police. Thus the provocation plot was uncovered and disaster to the Jewish congregation averted.

One unforgettable event in the darkening atmosphere of anti-Semitism was the remembrance ceremony for two Jews who took part in the Polish uprising of 1863. This took place in 1935 in the Jewish cemetery, and in attendance at the side of the Jewish delegation, were Polish army and civil representatives.

The Holocaust

Wielun was completely destroyed in the first two days of the outbreak of the Second World War by air bomb attacks and artillery shelling. There were thousands of injured and dead bodies covered the streets. Most of the houses burnt down. Masses of the population fled the town, including most of the Jews. Among the Jews who arrived in Piotrkow Trybunalski and Zelow were many injured; some of the escapees reached Warszawa. Following the German army occupation of Wielun, most of the Jewish refugees returned and settled in the rubble of their former homes, or in sheds.

Within the framework of the Germanization of the town, up to 1941 all the Poles had been expelled and replaced with Germans from the Baltic countries, from Wolyn and Bessarabia. In 1940, a pamphlet published by the local authorities called 'Wielun', made an appearance, its aim being to prove the German character of the town. It had a distinct anti-Semitic tone showing pictures of Jews being humiliated, or others behaving in a vile manner.

During the first months of the occupation, particularly in November 1939, many Jews and Poles were arrested, most of them from intellectual circles. After ten days in the local prison, they were sent – including the Jews among them – to the camp in Radogoszcz near Lodz. In November 24 Poles were shot to death; in December 22 - both Poles and Jews – were shot; in February 1940, 25 (or possibly 27) were shot, and in March 15 - including both Jews and Poles. All these executions took place in the Jewish cemetery.

In December 1940 there were 4,053 Jews in Wielun (450 of them refugees). Most of them were concentrated, from 1940, in a quarter of the town referred to by all as ghetto; the place was not fenced off. Actually, some of the Jews remained, at least during the period of 1940-41, in their previous homes, that is, outside of the ghetto area. During this time they were allowed access to every part of the town, except for on certain days: at first it was market days: Tuesdays and Fridays, and in 1941, Sundays. On these days Jews were not permitted to be outside of the ghetto.

During the whole period of the occupation, the Germans used the Jews as forced laborers. The kidnapping of Jewish men began in the first days of the occupation. Their labor was put to use clearing up the rubble, dismantling the remains of the bombed houses, rebuilding, and so on. After the establishment of the ghetto, nearly all the able men were taken to work - for army institutions, offices and for private Germans in Wielun and the vicinity. The daily pay for these laborers was very low and added up to an average sum of 150 marks. However, basic foodstuffs were cheap, and these they bought, illegally, and easily, from the local farmers (a 2 kilos loaf of bread – 0.70 marks; a bushel of potatoes – 4 marks; a dozen eggs – 0.70 marks) so did not suffer starvation, especially since they also received a small ration supplied according to a ration card. A number of Jews earned money from illegal commercial activities, and craftsmen produced goods for private orders.

The Jewish population of Wielun was subjected to continuous kidnappings of men who were transported to labor camps in the region of Poznan, and to the area of the Reich itself. Well-to-do members of the population managed to free themselves from transportation through payment of a large bribe to the German police.

All community religious activities ceased. The synagogue had already burnt when the town was bombed, its walls dismantled by the Jews themselves, as ordered by the authorities. The wooden Beth Midrash (study house) had become a refuge for Jewish refugees; the Germans had already robbed the place of its valuable book collection. During the early days of fighting the Jews made great efforts to save ritual and prayer articles from the synagogue and Beth Midrash. The beadle managed to hide two scrolls of the law, which however did not survive the bombardment of the town. He also hid some holy relics in the cellar of the head of the community. Following the conquest of the town, the Germans learnt of this, and a Jew, who knew the whereabouts of these articles, was tortured until he revealed the hidden place, which the Germans then plundered. They also demolished the Jewish cemetery and ordered the Jews to use the headstones to build a swimming pool for the Germans.

The wave of terror that began in the first months of 1942 was a kind of introduction to the mass exterminations that came later. In the first quarter of that year, (sources indicate various dates: January 10, 1942, February, during the festival of Pesach), ten Jews were publicly hanged. Sources give different versions of the identity of these Jews, and how they came to be arrested, what is certain is that the pretext used by the Germans concerned the illegal slaughter of cattle. It seems that the perpetrator of the crime went into hiding, and in his place the Germans arrested, with help of the Jewish police, some tens of Jews from whom they selected ten, by drawing lots. From one source we are told that together with these victims, the head of the Judenrat and his deputy were also hanged, this because they dared to express their objection to the German authorities' demands to choose ten men. There is however no confirmation of this from other sources. The job of hangmen was forced on the Jews themselves, and the hangings took place in the square of the old market (outside of the ghetto) to the sound of music, and in the presence of crowds, including Jews, compelled to attend.
In April 1942 2,000 Jews were expelled from Wielun. It seems the expulsion began on April 12. It is not known whether those expelled were sent to extermination or to forced labor in the burgeoning work camps. According to one source, victims of the manhunt conducted by the Germans were mainly the elderly, physically weak or children. German police surrounded the ghetto, others entered, and in an action that lasted a number of days, grabbed the Jews and forced them on to trucks that carried them away in an unknown direction. The Jews who remained sent some Poles, whom they paid, to try and find out which direction the truck had taken, but this was never discovered.

In June 1942, the chairman of the Judenrat, Lipszyc, was called to the Gestapo office and there murdered. His body was found a few days later in a nearby forest.

The second mass expulsion effected the elimination not only of the Jewish settlement in Wielun, but included all the Jews in the whole region. It began on August 22,.1942. Some 10,000 Jews from Wielun and adjoining towns, were jammed inside one of the churches, and held there in appalling conditions for some days. A selection was organized inside the church and the courtyard, during which a group of 922 people, 250 of them from Wielun, were separated from the rest as being fit for physical labor (probably among them were craftsmen) and sent to Ghetto of Lodz. The remaining Jews were transported to the extermination camp in Chelmno. The selection was conducted by members of the Gestapo from Lodz, and also by the German administration of the Lodz ghetto. During this selection process hundreds of Jews died from exhaustion and physical and mental agony, or were murdered on the way to the church or within the concentration area.

At the end of the war, the first Jewish survivors of Wielun returned to their town from the labor camp at 'Hasag' in Czestochowa. They set up a committee whose task was to organize temporary living conditions for the returnees, and to restore the cemetery. The committee also replied to those from abroad who were seeking news of the fate of relatives, and took charge of distributing the aid provided by Jewish organizations, among the survivors now returning from liberated areas, and from the Soviet Union.

The Poles greeted the survivors with extreme hostility, and there were even instances of murder. The son of a landowner in the village of Wolkow, near Wielun, was shot when he came to take back his land. This is how the new owners decided to rid themselves of an unwanted inheritor.


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