Bełżyce – the shtetl
The earliest mention of the settlement of Bełżyce is found in a document from 1349, in which King Casimir III the Great, at the request of the then owner Rafał of Tarnów of the Leliwa coat of arms, subjected the village to the Magdeburg law (previously it had been governed according to the local Polish law). The town of Bełżyce was incorporated pursuant to the Magdeburg Law in 1417 by Jan Tarnowski. Initially, the town’s government and judiciary were to be modelled on those in Lublin.
Almost from the very beginning, the town was multi-ethnic and multi-denominational. Perhaps as early as in the 1420s, and certainly since the first half of the 16th century, Jews began to settle in Bełżyce alongside the Catholic and Christian Orthodox population.
Jewish community in Bełżyce
Almost since the inception of the town, the Jews were the most important ethnic, religious and national minority. The first Jewish settlers might have arrived here as early as in the 1420s, and they certainly came in the first half of the 16th century. At that time, a significant number of Jews settled in Bełżyce, creating a tight cluster within Żydowska Street (currently: 1000-lecia), Zatylna Street (currently: Jakuba Nachmana) and Południowa Street (currently: Bednarska). They were mainly involved in trade and crafts, as well as in running inns and taverns. An organized Jewish kahal was probably established in the 1570s. In the same period, the community obtained the right to build the first synagogue. In the vicinity of the synagogue a cemetery was marked out, later known as the old cemetery, in use until the first quarter of the 19th century. Contemporary documents also mention a Jewish school in Bełżyce, whose teaching staff included a famous scholar, preacher and physician, Jakub Nachman (Yiddish: Yaakov Nahman), also known as Jakub (Jacob) of Bełżyce.
Having a strong position in Bełżyce, the Jews often came into conflicts with the impoverished Christian burghers. During the reign of Sigismund III Vasa, the townspeople of Bełżyce lodged a complaint to the king about the synagogue towering over the local church. The complaint was upheld, and the Jewish community had to reduce the synagogue’s height. The significance of Bełżyce as a Jewish center in the 17th century is proved, among others, by the fact that it hosted several sessions of the main body of Jewish self-government, the Council of Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot).
In 1648, during the invasion of Cossack troops under the command of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Jewish population probably suffered a pogrom. The Cossacks also destroyed the synagogue and the school. Nevertheless, the Jewish community in Bełżyce revived fairly quickly as already in the late 1600s, Jews accounted for about 23 per cent of the town population. Demographic trends in the Bełżyce community benefited considerably from the good economic situation of the town. In 1820, Jews accounted for approximately 50 per cent of the population in Bełżyce. They were mainly involved in trade, service activities and crafts (tailors, shoemakers, bakers, furriers, tanners, tavern keepers and a distiller), they also ran numerous inns and taverns.
In a fire in 1822, the synagogue and numerous Jewish-owned residential buildings around the market square in Bełżyce were destroyed. In the interwar period, Bełżyce was a typical shtetl, where Jewish merchants and artisans co-existed side by side with the Christian community of mainly farmers and craftsmen. The kahal managed the great synagogue, a house of study (beth midrash), a ritual bath (mikveh), a ritual slaughterhouse and two cemeteries. The town also had six private houses of prayer and eight cheders.
During the German occupation, in December 1940, a ghetto was established in Bełżyce, to which Jews from Bełżyce and the southern part of the Lublin county (powiat) were deported. Later on, the ghetto received transports of Jews from the cities of Szczecin, Kraków and Lublin, as well as one from Germany. In 1940 and 1941, the Nazis destroyed both synagogues in Bełżyce. The ghetto was closed in January 1942, and in the fall of the same year, its liquidation began. Some people were shot on the spot, and the majority went to the death camp in Sobibór. The final liquidation of the ghetto in Bełżyce took place on 8 May 1943, when the Germans shot some of the Jews working in a forced labour camp within the ghetto. The remaining Jewish workers were deported to the labour camp in Kraśnik-Budzyń, while others were sent to the ghetto in Piaski.
Until the Second World War, there were two active synagogues in Bełżyce. The first one (known as the "old" synagogue) was an imposing edifice towering over other buildings in the town. It was erected in the second half of the 16th century, on a plot near the market square, in the southern part of the town. The synagogue building was destroyed and rebuilt several times due to wars and fires, e.g. in 1648 and 1822. The synagogue in Bełżyce burned down again in 1913 and was not rebuilt until 1930 due to financial difficulties. The old synagogue was eventually destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. The new synagogue, standing near the old one, was built in 1740. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, Torah scrolls dating back to 1730 were kept there. The new synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941.
Until the Second World War, there were also other facilities next to the old and the new synagogue in Bełżyce: a house of study (beth midrash), a ritual bath (mikveh), butchers’ stalls and two cemeteries. The old cemetery, founded in the late 1500s next to the road to Wierzchowiska, was used for burials until the early 1800s. In 1810, when the old cemetery was closed for sanitary reasons, the area for the new cemetery was marked out beyond the town limits, next to the road to Urzędów. The old cemetery was eventually destroyed by the Germans in 1940. Not a trace of the cemetery has survived down to our time. The new cemetery, used for burials until 1943, survived until the end of the German occupation but was devastated by local people after the liberation.
The cemetery located by the road to Urzędów (currently: Przemysłowa Street) was established in the 1830s and used for burials until May 1943, i.e. until the liquidation of the ghetto in Bełżyce by the Nazis. It survived until the end of the Second World War, when it was destroyed by local people who used the gravestones for building purposes. In the 1960s, the cemetery area was fenced and trees were planted.
In the late 1980s, at the initiative of Nimrod Ariav, a Jew from Lublin who survived the ghetto in Bełżyce, the cemetery was tidied up and restored according to a design by Zbigniew Gąsior. It was surrounded by a high wall of white stone, topped with a small roof of red tiles. On the dome-shaped gate, a tree of life pattern was assembled, along with an inscription in Polish and Yiddish reading: Jewish cemetery. Inside the cemetery, there are a few gravestones (matzevot) that had survived and were returned by the inhabitants of the town. There is also a matzevah-shaped monument of black marble with the inscription: In memory of all those who were buried in this place. Another memorial at the cemetery is a plaque founded by Nimrod Ariav in memory of his father: In this Jewish cemetery, together with my brother Abraham, who was later murdered by the Germans, and with other Jews, who at that time had survived the ravages of war, I buried my father Arie-Lejb Cygielman, who had been shot by the Nazis in the square before the synagogue in Bełżyce together with 149 other Jews, on October 2, 1942.
Social and cultural life
In the second half of the 16th century, there was a Jewish school in Bełżyce whose teaching staff included a famous scholar and preacher, Jakub Nachman, also known as Jakub (Jacob) of Bełżyce. In the interwar period, there were eight private cheders in Bełżyce.
Other Jewish organizations in Bełżyce between the world wars included the people’s savings and loan association (Kasa Ludowa) founded in the 1920s, and the "Ziarno" ("seed") agricultural and trading cooperative (Spółdzielnia Rolniczo-Handlowa) founded in 1933 and dealing with the marketing of agricultural products. The town also had numerous Jewish political parties and organizations. The greatest support was enjoyed by the General Jewish Labour Party "Bund". In the late 1920s, a clandestine cell of the Jewish communist party was also operating in the town; it was probably broken up by the police in 1931 or 1932.
Text by Joanna Zętar
Translation revised by Jarosław Kobyłko