Bychawa – the shtetl
In the second half of the 19th century Jews accounted for 70 percent of the total population of Bychawa.
Beginnings of Jewish settlement
The beginning of the Jewish settlement in Bychawa dates back to the 17th century. The owners of the town wanted it to become more populous, therefore Jews could settle here without restrictions.
Religious organizations – the kahal
A synagogue was built in Bychawa in 1810. It burned down in a great fire of the town in 1876, and was not rebuilt until 1899. Next to the synagogue there was a mikveh (a ritual bath) and a prayer house, which was also destroyed in the fire of 1876.
East of the market square, there was a Jewish cemetery. In 1911, the Jewish community was allowed to establish a new cemetery.
In the interwar period, the property of the Jewish community council comprised: a synagogue, a house of prayer, a poorhouse, ritual baths, the synagogue janitor’s house, the cemetery caretaker’s house, and plots adjoining the synagogue.
The kahal obtained its revenue from contributions paid by members of the Jewish community, depending on their individual financial circumstances. The kahal also collected fees for using the mikveh. The community was led by the rabbi, assisted by the synagogal supervision board (dozór bóżniczy). The board was primarily concerned with administrative and financial affairs as well as judicial matters.
Jewish charity organizations
Since most Jews in Bychawa were poor, they needed assistance from the kahal and the local authorities, supplemented by various public initiatives.
In June 1921, the Bikur Cajlim Chajlim Jewish Charitable Society of Bychawa was established. Its mission was to train volunteers who would take care of the sick, and to provide financial assistance to the poor. In reality, however, the society failed to meet its goals. The activities of another charitable society, Linkas Chacedek, quickly ended in a fiasco as well.
The Charitable Society Gemiłas Chased, established on 21 July 1931, was more successful. It provided relief to poor Jews and supported the needy citizens of Bychawa by giving interest-free loans. The leading members of the society included Aron Brawer (its founder and president), Szol Tober (a cap maker), Abram Rozenfarb (a baker) and Szyja Lubelski. In January 1932, the Bezprocentowa Kasa Zapomogowa (interest-free credit union) was established in order to provide assistance "to poor Jews, residents of Bychawa, by granting interest-free loans so as to improve their financial circumstances".
The parties active in Bychawa represented the full spectrum of political ideas. The local branch of Agudat Yisrael was established in 1919, and re-established in 1935 (in both cases by Szyja Cukierman). Other parties included the Zionist Organization founded in 1917 and 1927 by Medel Rajs and Szmul Szechter, as well as the socialist Bund (labourers union).
Bychawa features in a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer titled Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.
Text by Aleksandra Duź
Translation revised by Jarosław Kobyłko