Józefów Biłgorajski – the shtetl
Jews began to settle in Józefów soon after the town’s incorporation. The full name, Józefów Biłgorajski, serves to distinguish it from other localities called Józefów. In this article, however, it is often referred to as Józefów. The Jewish community was established after 1725.
The beginnings of Jewish settlement
Jews began to settle in Józefów soon after the town’s incorporation in 1725. They lived mostly in the southern part of the market square. In the time of Austrian rule (late 18th and early 19th c.), the sizeable Jewish population was thus described by Austrian officials in their reports: "They [the Jews] are experts in trade and you cannot obtain anything without them, the only businesses belong to them; as craftsmen, they are better, cheaper and more punctual than the Christians" (as quoted by W. Ćwik in Dzieje Józefowa (History of Józefów), Rzeszów 1992, p. 29).
The Jewish community
The Jewish community, the kahal, was established after 1725. The Jewish cemetery and the first synagogue were completed probably in 1774. The wooden synagogue, which often fell victim to fires, is mentioned in records concerning the town dating back to 1824. After a fire in 1850, a new brick synagogue was built.
The Measurement Report of the Town of Józefów from 1785 lists properties belonging to the kahal, namely a synagogue, mikveh (ritual bath), Jewish school and rabbi’s house. The 1789 inventory lists 70 Jewish houses in Józefów.
The Jewish community of Józefów was under the care of the Zamoyski Estate, as manifested by the visit of Count Stanisław Zamoyski to the local synagogue in 1824. The Estate helped with the repair of the synagogue roof damaged in a storm in August 1827, and provided support after the fire of the synagogue in 1850.
A strong Hasidic influence came to the fore in Józefów in the second half of the 19th century. The Hasidim had their own synagogue, but its location is unfortunately unknown.
Jews accounted for 73 percent of the population in 1830, 63 percent in 1840, 66 percent in 1850, 70 percent in 1860 and 72 percent in 1905. Most of them worked as craftsmen or tradesmen.
Until the outbreak of the First World War, the kahal gained its income from quarries and the ritual bath. Out of their number, members of the kahal selected a council of curators whose tasks included the management of charitable activities. Sometimes the function of the Józefów rabbi was entrusted to a rabbi from another town, e.g. Awraam Bronsztejn from Szczebrzeszyn in 1904. Other Józefów rabbis known by name include B. Hercensztok and S. Parzęczewski.
In the early 1920s Józefów was one of six Jewish communities within Biłgoraj County. The community also comprised residents of the neighboring villages, including Majdan Sopocki, Susiec, Aleksandrów, and Długi Kąt. The local Jewish community council maintained the synagogue, cemetery, ritual bath, and kosher slaughterhouse, and paid the rabbi, secretary of the Community, and the ritual slaughterers (schochetim). The Jewish council’s office was located near the synagogue, in a room rented from a private individual. Two major investment projects were completed by the community before the Second World War: a new steam bath and a poultry slaughterhouse.
Of all buildings belonging to the Jewish community, only the synagogue and cemetery have survived until today.
>>> see the virtual model of Józefów Biłgorajski who shows the town space in the period between the world wars
The present-day building of the former synagogue was built in the south-western part of Józefów, at the junction of Górnicza and Krótka streets. The Baroque synagogue was built of limestone from the local quarry in the 1870s. It stands on the site of an earlier wooden synagogue that burned down in 1850. Built on a rectangular plan, it measures 13.8 by 20.6 meters. The unadorned walls are split up with pilaster strips. The entrance is more decorative, flanked by fluted pilasters topped with a cornice and vases. The elongated, single-space interior is divided by a wall and consists of a vestibule and prayer hall. The latter features a simple, partially preserved Aron ha-Kodesh (the Torah ark) made of stone, and arcaded niches in the walls. The western side of the prayer house was originally adjoined by a wooden vestibule with the women’s section above, dismantled in 1945. The synagogue was used as a place of worship until its devastation by the Nazis in 1941. After the war, from 1950, the building was used by the local cooperative as a storehouse. The original ceiling was destroyed when the roof collapsed in 1964. Following a thorough refurbishment, the synagogue now houses the Town and Country Public Library, as well as guest rooms.
The Jewish cemetery
The Jewish cemetery is located amidst the fields south of the synagogue. Established around the middle of the 18th century, its eastern section was expanded in 1848. The cemetery was surrounded by a stone wall with a gate facing the town. The gravestones (matzevot) were made of stone from the nearby quarry. The cemetery was devastated during the Second World War. At present, there are approximately 400 gravestones, the oldest one dating back to 1762. The oldest matzevot, located to the right of the entrance, are interesting due to the archaic character of the relief. The largest number of gravestones date back to the years 1907 to 1940, and remnants of polychrome decoration can be seen on the youngest ones. The matzevot in this cemetery face the west, contrary to the traditional orientation towards the east. Men’s graves are separated from women’s graves.
Two cheders run by Józef Majmon and Sztern were the cornerstones of Jewish education in Józefów. Other cheders in the town were illegal because they refused to teach the Russian language. In 1889 two Jewish teachers were fined 45 rubles for teaching 40 pupils in the corridor of the synagogue. Jews could also send their children to the common elementary school.
Jews were involved in trade, crafts, and the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. The latter trade often led to conflicts with the Christian inhabitants who accused Jews of plying peasants with alcohol and selling it at excessively low prices.
Due to Józefów’s location in the border zone, Jews from other towns were not permitted to settle here until 1862.
Around 1820, Szaja Waks set up a printing house that became well-known throughout the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland. It printed Hebrew books, official forms and circulars. Equipped with four printing presses in 1826, with another one added in 1837, the establishment flourished in the years 1824 to 1841. Books printed in Józefów were not only distributed in the Kingdom of Poland, but also exported to Russia, Wallachia (present-day Romania and Moldova), even Turkey where the local Jewish community placed a special order for the Sefer le-Abraham (Book of Abraham). Many Jews in Józefów were employed in the printing and selling of books. Waks’s printing house was forced to close due to the competition of printing houses from Warsaw. One of the largest businesses in the region, it brought Józefów national renown.
The Józefów branch of the Association of Jewish Merchants and Association of Jewish Craftsmen were also part of the town’s economic life in the two decades between the world wars.
The interwar period saw the development of political parties and organizations in Józefów, including Branches of Agudat Yisrael, Brith Trumpeldor, the Zionist Organization in Poland, the General Labor Party "Bund", the General Jewish Labor Party, the Cultural Association Tarbut, and the Central Association of Jewish Craftsmen. The Zionists were particularly active. Those parties and organizations held meetings and rallies, mainly at Dom Ludowy, the People’s House.
During the Second World War, the Jews of Józefów and the neighboring towns and villages were confined to the ghetto established by the Nazis. In 1941 famine and disease became rampant in the Józefów ghetto. The first executions took place in May 1942 (more than one hundred Jews were shot by three Gestapo men on May 11). The largest execution took place on July 13, 1942 when more than 1500 Jews were shot at Winiarczykowa Góra. The site is marked with a memorial stone today. Only a few Jews of Józefów managed to survive the war. Some of them had fled with the withdrawing Red Army to the Soviet Union in September 1939, while a few people survived in hiding, saved by the Poles.
Józefów in the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Józefów as a shtetl features in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story entitled The Old Man.
Prepared by: Agata Radkowska, Aleksandra Duź
Supplemented by: Joanna Zętar