The “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre is a local government cultural institution based in Lublin. It works towards the preservation of cultural heritage and education. Its function is tied to the symbolic and historical meaning of the Centre’s location in the Grodzka Gate, which used to divide Lublin into its respective Christian and Jewish quarters, as well as to Lublin as a meeting place of cultures, traditions and religions.

Part of the Centre are the House of Words and the Lublin Underground Trail.

The “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre is a local government cultural institution based in Lublin. It works towards the preservation of cultural heritage and education. Its function is tied to the symbolic and historical meaning of the Centre’s location in the Grodzka Gate, which used to divide Lublin into its respective Christian and Jewish quarters, as well as to Lublin as a meeting place of cultures, traditions and religions.

Part of the Centre are the House of Words and the Lublin Underground Trail.

Biłgoraj – the shtetl

The beginnings of Jewish settlement in the Biłgoraj region date back to the 16th century. The Ashkenazi Jews who settled here at that time were primarily engaged in trade and crafts.

 

Beginnings of Jewish settlement

The beginnings of Jewish settlement in the Biłgoraj region date back to the 16th century. The Ashkenazi Jews who settled here at that time were primarily engaged in trade and crafts. Gradually, the Jewish population grew in number and began to dominate the local economic life, so it was decided to regulate the legal status of the community.

In 1616, Zbigniew Gorajski granted Jews full freedom of settlement in Biłgoraj, and permitted them to build houses and acquire and resell plots, fields and gardens. He also gave his approval for the construction of a synagogue, a house for the rabbi, the cantor and the religious teacher (melamed), and for the establishment of a hospital in two houses in Krzeszowska Street. Outside the town, a Jewish cemetery was established. The Jews were obligated to pay all municipal fees but in the future those places were to be exempt from all taxes and rent fees.
The Jews of Biłgoraj could also engage in any business activity on an equal footing with the Christian population. Zbigniew Gorajski set up a separate court with jurisdiction over the cases pertaining to the Jews. This privilege was confirmed in 1634. Zbigniew Gorajski treated all citizens equally – the Christian population and the Jews had the same rights and obligations.

Demographics

In the aftermath of the 17th-century wars, only 12 Jews remained in the town. In subsequent years, the Jewish population increased, and in 1674 there were 40 Jews out of a total of 183 residents in Biłgoraj.

The 18th century brought a rapid increase in the Jewish population – in 1765, it accounted for 19.2 per cent of the total population.
Demographic data from the 19th century show a further increase in the number of Jews in Biłgoraj. The statistics for 1819 mention 1671 Christians and 616 Jews (26.7 per cent). In 1827, the total population was 3050 residents, including 1019 Jews (33.4 per cent); in 1836, there were 1204 Jews; in 1860 – 2070 Jews (38.2 per cent); in 1865, the total population was 6136 residents, including 3675 Christians and 2221 Jews (37.8 per cent).

The years 1859–1913 saw an over 170 per cent increase in the size of the Jewish population. The Jewish population of Biłgoraj was characterized by a considerably higher number of women than men. According to the data from 1897, there were 112 women per 100 men among the Jewish residents.
During the First World War, the Jewish population decreased significantly. In the interwar period, Jews accounted for about 10 percent of the population of the county.

Topography

In Biłgoraj, Jews lived mainly around the market square and in the adjacent streets. Exact figures come from 1760, when a thorough census of the inhabitants of Biłgoraj was taken. It is known that out of 45 houses surrounding the market square, 36 belonged to Jews. Jews also lived in Zatylna Rynkowa Street (14 houses) and Tarnogrodzka Street (10 houses); single houses were also found in Morowa and Nadstawna streets. Most of these streets, however, were inhabited by Christians.

In 1728, Jews were granted permission to build a synagogue and establish a cemetery. There were three Jewish cemeteries in Biłgoraj. Only the remnants of the last cemetery, founded probably in the late 18th century or early 19th century, have survived till today. The cemetery was located more than 1.5 km south of the market square, in the suburb known as Piaski.

The synagogue square with a wooden synagogue, a house of study (beth midrash) and a ritual bath (mikveh) was located at the junction of two present-day streets: Lubelska and Krasińskiego. The cemetery, on the other hand, was located on the outskirts (southern part of the present-day 3 Maja Street). In 1857, the wooden synagogue was inspected by the chief architect of the Zamość County H. Dąbrowski whose report describes the building as wooden, shingled, laid out on a square plan, with each side about 16.60 meters long and 6.70 meters high. It consisted of a prayer hall, abvestibule and a women’s section upstairs. The synagogue’s capacity was determined at 400 people, and the average attendance was 150 men and 70 women.
After a fire of the old synagogue in 1867, a new, brick one was built in 1875, in the central part of the western frontage of the square.
In Biłgoraj there were two Jewish printing houses, ran by Maks Kaminer and Mordka Werner. The former printed anti-government appeals to the public as well as Bund party leaflets between 1905 and 1907. The latter had been in existence since 1881 and did not survive until the First World War.
In the second half of the 19th century, the properties of the kahal included: a brick synagogue, two houses of study (batei midrash), a  ritual bath (mikveh), two cemeteries (from the 18th century and from the first half of the 19th century), four prayer houses, a Talmud Torah school and a shelter for the poor and disabled Jews.
 

Religious organizations – the kahal

The Jewish community in Biłgoraj enjoyed a certain level of autonomy as it had its autonomous religious and ethnic government called the kahal. At first, the local community was subordinated to the superior kahal in Szczebrzeszyn. In 1741, Józef Butler, the then heir of Frampol and Radzięcin, subjected Jews from Frampol and the vicinity of Radzięcin to the jurisdiction of the elders of the Biłgoraj community. By the same token, the kahal of Biłgoraj was vested with the right to "reckon taxes", adjudicate all cases and marry, which resulted in an increased membership of the Biłgoraj community and thereby its greater importance.

During the times of the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland, the kahal organization was abolished and replaced with synagogal supervision boards (dozór bóżniczy) . They were composed of three members, elected for three-year terms. Their responsibilities included, among others, budget planning, overseeing matters related to administration and assisting the poor. In 1871, the synagogal supervision boards were replaced with local community councils. An equally important event in the period took place in 1862, when Jews were granted the status of partial equality. At the same time, Hasidism was becoming increasingly popular.
In the interwar period, local community councils were supervised by the state authorities. The income of the community councils consisted of fees for: ritual slaughter, "privileged seats" in the synagogue, allocation of cemetery plots, lease of the bath, baking of the matzo bread and obligatory contributions.
A kahal (Jewish community) was headed by a rabbi. According to the vital records of 1811, the post was held by Wigdor Majzels (until his death in 1819). The next rabbi was Icchak Natan Note, Wigdor Majzels’s son-in-law (1815–1864). After Icchak’s death, the post of rabbi was taken by his son-in-law, Nachum Palast.

The records also mention other officials of the community: religious teachers (Hersz Boruch, Ankiel Ant, Szmul Moszkowicz, Majlech Tober and Mojżesz Tauberman), kahal preachers (Chaim Irbach, Beniamin Wambergier, Lejba Lichsztral, Beniamin Szlajen and Szaja Kasner), cantors (Leyba Kurc, Herszek Sztrecher, Berko Sztruzer, Berek Wajsman, Mendel Kamel and Szloma Kamel), "trustees": treasurers and scribes (Lejba Frenkiel, Chaim Kalksztajn, Abraham Lejbowicz, Lejba Lippe, Lejba Rotenberg and Szlomo Kamel), teachers (Icyk Auchel, Wolf Herszkowicz, Leyba Ryngier, Josef Szarfman and Mojżesz Wanc); there was also a ritual slaughterer, Berek Wajsman.

Everyday life and Polish-Jewish relations

In daily life, the Jews of Biłgoraj were primarily engaged in business activity. They were active in both local and long-distance trade. They also made their living from leases as well as beer brewing and distilling alcoholic liquors. In the late 18th century, among the Jews in Biłgoraj there were three goldsmiths, two tailors, cap-makers, tanners, bakers and butchers, as well as one glazier and one shoemaker.

At that time, the Jews and the Christians usually got on fairly well, although there were some incidents between Jews and  the men of the Church. In 1686, Bernard Gołecki from the Franciscan convent accused over a dozen Jews of provoking various excesses in the town on market days, keeping Christian servants at home and causing nuisance to Christians during their holidays.
 

Cultural life

Active cultural life among the Jews of Biłgoraj did not begin until the years of the First World War, when the first newspapers in Yiddish and Hebrew were published, and the first theatre groups were formed. An amateur theatre club was also founded and existed until the end of the First World War. Another amateur ensemble would be established only in 1922. Jews also had their own library at the "Tarbut" association (since 1924) as well as the Jewish people’s municipal library established in 1936.

Biłgoraj features in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, including The Squire, The Extinguished Lights and The Old Man.

Economic life

In the 19th century, Jews dominated the commercial activity in the town. Most shops located in the vicinity of the market square belonged to Jews. They were also involved in financial operations,  leasing of revenue sources and public offices, which brought considerable profits. In the second half of the 19th century, major Jewish entrepreneurs in Biłgoraj included: Szmul Ela Szwerdszarf (timber merchant), Dawid Lubliner (building contractor), Josef Goldman (merchant and financier from Tarnogród), Abuś Pelc (merchant and collector of revenue for the kahal) and Herszel Szajnwajd (grain merchant and, subsequently, owner of the mill in Rożnówka).

Shortly before the First World War, several large Jewish shops and wholesale warehouses could be found in Biłgoraj, including Lipa Wakszul’sstore and wholesale warehouse with imported foodstuffs and spices; grocery stores ran by Szloma Sztul, Chaskiel Kandel and Berek Klajnminc. Following the January Uprising of 1863, Biłgoraj lost its privileged position as one of the most thriving commercial centres due to its peripheral location and reduced number of fairs (from 11 to 6).

In the second half of the 19th century, the local Jews also had a significant share in crafts. In addition to tailoring or shoemaking, they also took up sieve-making, which quickly assumed the form of workshop production. A relatively large proportion of Jews worked as barbers, bakers, butchers and carpenters.
The economic situation of the Jews deteriorated considerably in the interwar period. Poorer Jewish craftsmen and merchants began to suffer from hunger, which contributed to the growth of small Jewish shops and craftsman’s workshops ensuring their owners’ subsistence. It was then that the Polish-Jewish relations started to get worse, mostly because of their competition in trade and crafts. Some Jews wanted to go to Palestine while others became assimilated with the non-Jewish part of the society.

Political life

Although they dominated the economic life of the town until the First World War, Jews did not participate in its institutional life. Consequently, they developed their autonomous and independent forms of social and political activity. During the Russian revolution in 1905–1907, the first structures of the Bund party were formed in Biłgoraj. At that time, the Workers’ Committee campaigned on economic issues, trying to persuade sieve-makers to go on strike. The Zionist movement did not emerge until the period of the First World War. At the initiative of young Jewish officers in the Austro-Hungarian army, the first Zionist organization was set up in 1916. It attracted primarily young people, but was also supported by the Jews of Biłgoraj who fled the town in 1915, together with the retreating Russians. The youth of Biłgoraj founded the Zionist Association, led by Motel Szur, Meir Hazaz and Nute Szwerdszarf.

In the interwar period, Jews ran in the elections to the Town Council, but Jewish candidates become members of the Council only in 1927. A considerable role was played by the General Jewish Labor Party (Ogólnożydowska Partia Pracy, 1931) and the right-wing conservative party, Agudat Yisrael.

The Holocaust

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jewish community in Biłgoraj numbered over 5000 residents, accounting for slightly more than 60 percent of the total population in the town.
In June 1940, the Germans organized a ghetto where they gathered Jews from Biłgoraj and neighboring localities. Since the very beginning of the German occupation of the town, their persecution of the Jewish population increased steadily: "In 1940 a contribution was imposed on Jews, it was very high. I cannot remember whether it was in gold or in cash. In the spring of 1940, the Germans from the Wehrmacht killed my father for no reason. They descended on our apartment, battered us all, demolished the place and shot my father with a revolver. In 1941, the obligation to wear armbands with the Star of David was imposed on Jews".

Jews from other German-occupied countries in Europe were also confined in the Biłgoraj ghetto alongside the local Jews: "Throughout 1942 the Germans brought in Czech and German Jews. The Czech Jews wore yellow stars on their breasts and backs while the French, Belgian, Dutch and German Jews had the stars with the inscription 'Jude' (German for 'Jew')".
The ghetto was liquidated in November 1942. Almost the entire Jewish population was murdered at the Bełżec death camp: "The first 'action' took place at Easter of 1942. A long train went to Bełżec, the carriages were sealed and crammed full with people. In this 'action', they took away my sister. Many Jews were killed upon being loaded onto the train. They [the Nazis] deported whoever they encountered".
Today the only memento of the Jewish community of Biłgoraj are the remnants of the local cemetery, totally vandalized during the German occupation, and completely forgotten for a long time after the war. The renovation of the 50 surviving gravestones was carried out in 1986. A monument was erected at the cemetery to commemorate the Jews of Biłgoraj and its environs murdered here by the Nazis.

 

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jewish community in Biłgoraj numbered over 5000 residents, accounting for slightly more than 60 percent of the total population of the town.
In June 1940, the Germans organized a ghetto where they gathered Jews from Biłgoraj and neighbouring localities. Since the very beginning of the German occupation of the town, their persecution of the Jewish population increased steadily: "In 1940 a contribution was imposed on Jews, it was very high. I cannot remember whether it was in gold or in cash. In the spring of 1940, the Germans from the Wehrmacht killed my father for no reason. They raided our apartment, battered us all, devastated the place and shot my father with a revolver. In 1941, the obligation to wear armbands with the Star of David was imposed on Jews".

Jews from other German-occupied countries in Europe were also confined in the Biłgoraj ghetto alongside the local Jews: "Throughout 1942, the Germans brought in Czech and German Jews. The Czech Jews wore yellow stars on their breasts and backs while the French, Belgian, Dutch and German Jews had the stars with the inscription 'Jude' (German for 'Jew')".
The ghetto was liquidated in November 1942. Almost the entire Jewish population was murdered at the Bełżec death camp: "The first 'action' took place at Easter of 1942. A long train went to Bełżec, the carriages were sealed and crammed full with people. In this 'action', they took away my sister. Many Jews were killed upon being loaded onto the train. They [the Nazis] deported whoever they encountered".
Today the only memento of the Jewish community of Biłgoraj are the remnants of the local cemetery, totally vandalized during the German occupation, and completely forgotten for a long time after the war. The renovation of the 50 surviving gravestones was carried out in 1986. A monument was erected at the cemetery to commemorate the Jews of Biłgoraj and its environs murdered here by the Nazis.
 

 

Text by Aleksandra Duź
Edited by Monika Śliwińska

Translation revised by Jarosław Kobyłko