JEWISH CEMETERY RESTORATION PROJECT
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60th ANNIVERSARY OF EXTERMINATION OF JEWS OF SZCZEBRZESZYN
First Historical Dates
Szczebrzeszyn is a very old city. Its first historical date is traced to the year 1352. In that year, the King, Casimir the Great ruled. However, the settlement of Szczebrzeszyn had already existed for several centuries before this.
The so-called "zamczysko" was once a fortified city, to which the construction of the fort walls and dug out defenses, bear witness, in the first row shards of loamy building material. Names from neighboring villages, from the eleventh century onwards, we already encounter in Nestor's chronicle of Rus. One can infer from this, that at that point in time, Szczebrzeszyn already existed, which lay beside a great commercial thoroughfare, that stretched from the south to the north.
Industry and trade developed to such a degree in his time, that in the year 1492, the king, Jan Olbracht specified in a special act, what roads in Greater Poland the merchants of Szczebrzeszyn had to travel with their wares. Many merchants traveled through Szczebrzeszyn from south to north, paying the set tax, for example, for a wagon with merchandise 2 groschen, for an ox 1 groschen, for a wagon with salt from Drohobycz a measure of salt, and similarly in other cases. This brought in a large income to the city.
After the death of Jan Amor of Tarnow in the year 1500, Szczebrzeszyn belonged to the Tarnowskis for an additional 20 years. Later, it passed over as a dowry to the Kmitas. At that time, long-running feuds broke out among the family members over the Szczebrzeszyn inheritance, when also, in other families of magnates, there were pretensions to it as well. King Zygmunt August issued a binding decree, regarding this dispute, in the year 1555, allocating the right over Szczebrzeszyn to the Gorka family, from Great Poland.
The names of the Gorka brothers, Andrzej and Stanislaw are preserved in legends to this day, which the oldest of the Szczebrzeszyn residents tell. The Gorkas confirmed the many privileges that had been given to the city even years earlier. They renewed the 'Defense Keep' of which traces remained on the 'zamczysko.' Their stable residence was in Great Poland, and during the time that they would spend in Szczebrzeszyn, the keep would be turbulent and merry, as was the custom among the magnates. An extraordinary movement reigned here, because the Gorkas were community-minded people.
The Gorkas took a strong interest in religious matters. They granted freedom to all religious sects. They built a Greek Orthodox church, and they transformed the parish Roman-Catholic Cloister into a Calvinist one, and opened a synagogue near it. The well-known fighters for the Reformation, Stankar and Felix Kreutziger, whose origins were in Szczebrzeszyn, sought the protection and oversight of these local magnates. During this time, Szczebrzeszyn reached the highest levels of development.
Rise and Fall
Many reasons quickly caused the cessation of development and later the steep decline. A great loss to the city was brought about by the terrifying fire that broke out in the castle keep at the beginning of September 1583. The keep was incinerated, and all of the documents relating to the privileges from the king were lost. The fire broke out so suddenly, that the residents of the keep barely got out with their lives.
In that same year, the king, [Stefan] Batory, as a result of the efforts of Andrzej Gorka , renewed all the privileges. For the benefit of Szczebrzeszyn, the Gorkas confirmed and even expanded the Magdeburg Laws, which were in force for a long time in Szczebrzeszyn, instituting thereby, specific changes for the benefit of the citizens.
The Gorkas did not rule here for very long. Already in the year 1592, the last of the Gorkas, Stanislaw, dies, after which, the Szczebrzeszyn estates are taken over by the Czarnkowski family. In the year 1593, Jan Zamoyski bought Szczebrzeszyn from them, along with the surrounding 35 villages, and integrated them into his Ordinat, which was created in 1589. In this exact time, Zamoyski founded a new capital city on the territory of his estates Zamosc, and he was most concerned with the development of that city. From that time on, Szczebrzeszyn lost its significance, its specific character, and its decline began.
Szczebrzeszyn began to assume a place like all the other towns of the Ordinat, which Zamoyski cared about to a lesser extent than his beloved Zamosc. Despite this, he funded the Monastery of the Holy Franciscans and next to it, the Cloister of the Holy Trinity, the modern day Cloister of Saint Katarzyna near the hospital. Apart from this, he liquidated the Catholic Temple and returned the one-time parish Cloister to the Catholics.
In the 17th century, the people were greatly occupied with religious wars. The attitude towards the Arians was one of great animosity, and it led to excesses, for example, as was the case during funerals of the Arians. This compelled Tomasz Zamoyski to issue a decree in 1637 that the Arians must leave Szczebrzeszyn, 'Where Arians has arrived, as well as adherents of new Christian sects.'
The city suffered greatly from the wars, and assaults by the Tatars, Turks, and Cossacks. The city suffered especially greatly in 1672, when Tatars torched and plundered it. Masses of people would die from a variety of epidemics. The victims of the Plague were taken to a separate cemetery outside of the city.
Periodically, Szczebrzeszyn was the site of historical occurrences. In the year 1672, the so-called Szczebrzeszyn Confederation was organized with the objective of blunting the power of the Hetmen. The conferences would take place in the Cloister of Saint Katarzyna and Jan Zamoyski would take part in them, when he was 'Hetman Wielki Koronny.'
Despite everyone, many new guilds arose in the 17th century, which achieved the highest level of development: bakers, coopers, shoemakers, hat makers, felt workers, linen workers, smiths, shtelmakher, locksmiths, sword makers, harness makers, metal workers, goldsmiths, comb makers, rope turners, weavers, and butchers just the names and the number of the guilds bear witness to how vigorous the manual trades and industry developed here.
The 18th century was not distinguished by any sort of special thing. The shtetl declined a bit at a time. At the time of the partition of Poland, Szczebrzeszyn fell into the hands of Austria. To this day, Austrian coins are unearthed from that period.
Szczebrzeszyn began to develop anew, beginning at the onset of the 19th century. We can ascribe this to the fact that Zamo had ceased to be the seat of the Zamoyskis, and they turned their attention to Szczebrzeszyn, which was closest to their residence. In the year 1811, they transferred the provincial school here from Zamosc, which was closed there in 1809. In 1812, the Holy Mercy Hospital was transferred here from Zamosc,which was set up in the building of the former monastery.
The town came alive. New people appeared: teachers, students, guests. New school buildings were constructed, and smaller private houses.
The public health office of the Ordinat decided that it would locate its Chief Physician here. An Ordinat Hospital was created for peasants with venereal diseases, which the general hospitals did not want to take in because of the monks. The Lady, Teofilia Reder opened a higher private school of 3 classes, for well-to-do girls. A Sunday trade school was organized, etc. Commerce revived. Even more people would come to visit here. However, the principal role was played by the district school, which drew many enlightened teachers to it, and [like] tempered young people.
The district school found itself under the oversight of the protector, Stanislaw Zamoyski who was rich in his influence, a Senator and Voievode, to whom the school is thankful for its existence, along with the Holy Mercy Hospital. The extremely wealth family of the Zamoyskis, who lived for the most part in Klemensow, apart from the Ordinat itself, which resided in Warsaw, had a good impact on the entire area. It is sufficient to recall the meeting of the distant, but familiar landholders, organized by Andrzej Zamoyski. For this January event, the most important landholders would travel to come together here, from almost the entirety of Poland, which certainly had a significance and an influence on the nearby shtetl.
The influence of Stanislaw Zamoyski was so great, that Szczebrzeszyn, together with its district school, suffered less from the politics of Russification than other settlements, after the November [sic: 1830] Uprising. Despite this, the school was liquidated in 1852, as a position that it was an obstacle to carrying out the policies of the Russian authorities. This was a hard blow for Szczebrzeszyn, and an incalculable loss.
The significant decline of the city was immediately noticeable. The city was unable to rebound from this plight, even after the liberation, when a Teacher's Seminary existed here, and later a Gymnasium. Szczebrzeszyn never again reclaimed its former significance.
During the Time of the Uprising
The peaceful way of life was disrupted by the November Uprising in 1831. I found a short writeup, of the events in Szczebrzeszyn at that time, in the memoirs of the well-known pedagogue Wincenty Dawid. I reproduce here excerpts from his recollections, written in the year 1887.
"In the end, our tranquility and working lives were disrupted and the model order of the Szczebrzeszyn schools was wrecked. The news, that an uprising had broken out in Warsaw, and that the Russians had abandoned the capitol city, and also the borders of the kingdom, elicited an unheard of exhilaration among everyone. The quiet shtetl, which knew of no other politics other than making appeals to the nobility, immediately felt demands to step out into the political arena together with the entire land.
In the course of one hour, the black eagles on top of the Magistrate Building were torn down and smashed, as well as from other institutions. The old swords were unearthed, and pistols, they were cleaned off, and made ready. In the smithies, the blacksmiths worked even on holidays. Agricultural implements were beaten into pikes. Scythes were mounted on long poles.
The intelligentsia, the professors and the Rector himself, call the youth to arm themselves. A rededication of the flag was celebrated, praying in the courtyard of the school. The Rector, Zenkowski gave a speech to the lined up rows of citizens and students, armed with all sorts of ammunition, that each individual was able to make for himself. At the end of the ceremonies, 'Jeszcze Polska nie zginela' was sung. This took place in the middle of December, and immediately, Prof. Kowalski, and many older students, went off with Zenkowski to the Polish military. Only a small number of students remained in the school, only children.
After Christmas, a movement of the Russian military began. The first to enter Szczebrzeszyn were the Dragoons, whose wild, beard-covered physiognomies made a frightful impression on us. We looked with fear upon these huge men, who camped out on the same place where the battle-ready youth had stood.
Immediately, news reached us about the decisive battles between the Polish military and its heroic leaders in the field, from Grochow, behind Wawer. Every bit of news was transmitted with great fervor from hand-to-hand, comments were made, and plans were made for the future, as is usual in a small shtetl. The joy became even greater in the spring, when our military [forces] entered Lithuania with Dembinski and Gieldung at their head, when [Wojciech] Chrzanowski and [Jozef] Dwernicki entered the Lublin region, marching on Wolhyn, on the second side of the Bug [River], stopping along the way to conduct general battles outside of Czaczki, and Old-Zamosc.
On the same Schulhof, on that great Thursday, Dwernicki's Uhlans and the Krakusi billeted themselves, placing several cannons around the place, which it seems to me had been plundered from Czaczki. We spiritedly approached our riders, and played with their weaponry. For several days, food and drink was carried to them from the city. They were accepted as brothers.
When the spring and summer heat set in, a cholera epidemic spread through the city here for the first time. Horse manure was burned in the marketplace and in the streets as a remedy against the cholera, but it didn't help. Many families left the city for the surrounding forests. Prayers were offered in the cloisters to end the epidemic, or prayers of thanksgiving for those victories from the arresting of the disease. The young priest Nowakowski, a fiery orator, would tell the worshipers after prayers about the heroic deeds of our leaders. He punished and accused those young people, who withheld themselves from the military, calling each of them by their name...
Zamosc, the nearby fortress, and other points, were threatened with encirclement. Many clashes took place in Szczebrzeszyn. The Cossacks would fall upon the city, plundered, beat the Jews, and the townsfolk. A minute later, the Uhlans or the Krakusi would arrive from the direction of Zamo . Once, the Cossacks, as a response to such an attack, decided to take revenge on the city, while the youth of the city took part in these clashed between the Polish military and the Cossacks. At night, the Cossacks drew near in order to torch the city and carry out a slaughter among its residents. A tumult arose in the city, and half the city's residents fled to the nearby forests. One could already hear the shooting from the direction of Janow.
However confusion elicits wonder. The aggressive people armed themselves. The municipal policeman, an older military man, together with the sexton of the cloister, raised an alarm. Banging on the cloister drum, they gave orders in a loud voice, and in doing so, gave the impression that there was a large military detachment present. The Cossacks and Dragoons, which were already positioned outside the city, decided to pull back. Later orders restrained them from acts of vengeance."
When a national liberation movement developed a couple of years before the January Uprising in 1863, the greatest reaction in the entire Zamo Powiat (which today encompasses 4 Powiats) was in Szczebrzeszyn. Here, Szczebrzeszyn played a special role.
We have very limited details about the uprising itself. Many people joined the party. A civil organization existed here. As late as 1865, the owner of the local pharmacy, Antoni Topolski was arrested under suspicion that he stood at the head of the people in the city who rose up.
The first clash during the planned assault on the Cossack barracks on January 30, 1863, which was organized by the party by Leszczynski, from the Ordinat, Henryk Granowski, ended in failure. Many wounded revolutionists lay in the local hospital for treatment. Part of them were buried in the Szczebrzeszyn parish [cemetery].
After the failure of the Uprising, the Russian authorities began to implement a severe policy of Russification, making the effort to artfully implant everything that was Russian.
I have asked elderly people to write down their recollections of that time, but they were, for the most part, illiterate. Part of related what happened to their children, who benefitting from my directions wrote down precise facts with dates and names. I had hoped that in this manner, it would be possible for me to gather important material, but the war interrupted this work.
That difficult time, is being forgotten, a little at a time, when the weak would eventually succumb, and the strong would resist the priests, gendarmes government officials, etc. In this respect, the women were stronger than the men.
The persecutions of the Uniates took on dramatic forms. I will never forget the conversations with an elderly peasant from Zurawnica, who told me of a frightful scene, when one of his neighbors, a Uniate, agreed to accept the Russian Orthodox faith. The protests of his wife had no effect. When all of the formalities were already ready, and the peasant was required to approach the communion ceremony, his wife went mad from mental confusion, and attacked the priest. This had a fearful effect on her husband, who the refused to carry out the forthcoming ceremony. Being much taken by these tales, I made the effort to assemble details about the Uniates in Szczebrzeszyn. A notice from the year 1843 announces that the parish of the Uniates was very poor, because it had 'a small number of adherents to the Szczebrzeszyn church (tzerkva).' In December 1877, the priest, Aleksander G?rski, who, it appears, did not belong to the unyielding fighters, signed his letter as the 'Rector of the Szczebrzeszyn Orthodox Parish.' It was at that time that the Uniates and the Greek-Catholic church were liquidated, and was transformed into a Russian Orthodox church.
Later on, the priest Timofei Tracz came as Rector, and a sorrowful era was initiated for the Polish Catholics and especially for the Uniates. The Rector himself was once a Uniate priest, and voluntarily converted to the Russian Orthodox system of belief and became an ideological Russifier and disseminator of his new faith. He led an ascetic existence, and his activities had an ideological-fanatical character. With time, he worked himself into becoming visible to the highest institutional authorities, and became extremely influential.
Everyone in the Zamoscregion feared him. No one here stood up to him. It is necessary to say that he had considerable success in spreading the Russian Orthodox faith. He carried out this mission without being selective with regard to methods: with promises, chicanery, threats and violence.
Proceedings from the archive at Zwierzyniec confirm that there never were any Russian Orthodox faithful in Szczebrzeszyn, with the exception of officials, who would sometime spend time here. Apart from the Russian Orthodox church, which had been transformed, as previously mentioned, from a Greek-Catholic church, the Catholic Church near the hospital was remade asa Russian Orthodox church in 1883. The number of adherents to the Russian Orthodox parish grew quickly in proportion, and in that time totaled 486 individuals.
In the year 1905, in the first two months after the publication of the Tolerance Manifesto, 4,195 people in the Szczebrzeszyn parish went over from Russian Orthodoxy to the Roman Catholic faith, that is to say from Szczebrzeszyn itself, and 402 people from the outskirts of Zamsc . Because of this, the Tolerance Declaration was a severe blow to the priest Tracz. All at once, his entire work was for naught. He could not stand this, and with his entire might attempted to resist the desertion, but without result. All these events had a strong impact on his health, and sped his death. He died in 1909.
In the time of The First World War, when the Muscovites left Szczebrzeszyn, both Orthodox churches were locked down. The entire Russian Orthodox parish vanished immediately. In order to erase any traces of their prior belief, part of the populace changed the spelling on the grave stones of their kin, from Russian to Polish. No trace remained even of the Tracz memorial on his grave stone. In accordance with an order from the bailiff, someone, during the night, broke down the monument. The coffin with the body of Tracz was transferred from the area near the church to the public cemetery.
The Rector of the Roman Catholic parish was at that time the priest Grabarski. He was very popular, and known for his philanthropic activities, even for the benefit of Jews. He was very much beloved by the Jews. Elderly Jews have told me that for many years, prayers were offered in synagogues on his behalf.
Life in Szczebrzeszyn during the time of the Russian rule was gray and sorrowful. The pressure of rule was felt heavily from the side of the Russian authorities. Community activity was minimal; there was no manner of spiritual movement. Despite this, a certain amount, a conspiratorial activity, was carried on, such as illegal study. Certain organizations did exist: Mlodziez Szkolna, N.D., P.P.S.
The external character of Szczebrzeszyn was set down by the military, a Cossack battalion, which was stationed here. The World War broke out, and masses of military marched through the shtetl: Russian, Austrian, afterwards, more Russian and later a long time of Austrian occupation. Many forms of orientation manifested themselves: pro-Moscow, pro-Austrian, initiatives for independence. Part of the young people went off to [military] legions.
I have heard many tales about living conditions at that time, about the cholera epidemic, about the quick organization of the Polish school system, about the first months of the existence of the Polish State. I have asked many people to write down their memories of the pre-War years and of the occupation period. I have, however, not met anyone that was able to do this. I have received only a few fragments, which contain an autobiographical character.