A Report by Andrzej Selerowicz, February 2004

The beginning of the city was a settlement from the 13th century. Its original name was Szeylow, then Zeliow. The first historical reference is dated 1402 and can be found in a volume “Liber Beneficiorum” of Jan Laski. Until the 18th century, Zelów was a typical nobleman’s village, located a distance from important roads and lost among woods and meager fields. The inhabitants worked in agriculture and animal husbandry. The property of Zelów, which at that time belonged to Jozef Swidzinski, was bought by Czech immigrants in 1802 who arrived there escaping religious oppressions in their country. They founded a textile industry which is functioning well even today. The Zelów craftsmen specialized in the production of satin, cretonne and decorative plush. At the beginning of the 19th century, a large migration of Czech people was noticed, and new settlers, Poles, Germans, and Jews, appeared in Zelów. The small city became quite unique in Poland, having a lively religious life among the four national groups.

The oldest trace of a Jewish presence in Zelów are notes by a priest, Aleksander Glowacki, in the congregation’s books of the reformed protestant parish: “1817, on May 13th David son of Abraham Majer, a Jew and publican in Zelów, died of consumption at the age of not even one year.”

“On June 3rd, 1818, son of Szalamon Storm, a butcher in Zelów, was born and was circumstanced on the tenth day getting the name of Ozak during this ceremony.”

Still during Mr. Glowacki´s time as pastor, a first attempt in getting rid of Jewish settlers was made. He ordered all Czech families not to rent rooms to Jews. The reason for that was rather economic than a religious one: there was the threat that Jews could accept less-paying jobs. Another attempt was made in 1831 after a Jewish trader, Hersz Kupferwasser, brought to Zelów a delivery of cotton which was infected with cholera bacillus, and many inhabitants died. Quite many Jewish families had to leave the city. We know their names: the family of Jozef Wolf, Chaskl Bialek, Hersz Kupferwasser, Anszel Kohn, Abram Sadowski, Szlama Grebek, Icek Wieruszowski, Szabsza Jakubowicz, Josek Sromotka, Jankiel Rogala, Chyl Markowski, Szlama Sztorm, Berek Bronsztayn, Szmul Birnbaum and old Bialek. In 1833 the rest of Jews left Zelów, moving to Lask. Twenty years later a new wave of Jews came to Zelów, this time Jewish peddlers. They were first allowed to stay for a winter, finally they settled down. In a report of a pastor Mozes, in 1867, there is a note about 40 Jewish families, counting more than 100 persons. Boruch Rosenblum, Majer Rosenblum and Majer Tanski (or Tausk) bought land from Czechs becoming co-owners of the city. This was possible due to reforms in the Polish Kingdom which gave equal rights to Jews, allowing them to buy land.

An important decision was the establishment in 1869 of market every Wednesday which still takes place today. A town plan was created, but pieces of land could not be bought by Jews.

About 1880, however, almost 100 Jewish families lived in Zelów, although some other sources gave the total number of 250 persons, which seams to be too small. The “Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and other Slavic Countries” quotes 488 Jews living in Zelów at the end of 19th century, and their number grew constantly. In 1878 a Jewish cemetery in Zelów was established; in 1906—according to Wojciech Kriegsaisen, it was 1909—a religious community was founded. Soon a wooden synagogue was erected (before that a facility had been rented in a house belonging to Pawel Jelinek). In 1910 in the first election—with 110 of 133 persons voting—an body of authority was chosen: Icek Fraid, Chaim Liberman, and Haszman Sztarch. At that time 1,573 Jews lived in Zelów which was six times more compared to 1878.

After Poland became independent in 1918, in the first parliamentary election on 26 January 1919, 2,068 inhabitants of Zelów cast their vote. Among 12 political parties, there were three Jewish organizations, and they received 187 votes (Rada Narodowa 48, Poalei Syjon 37, and the Orthodox 102). During the general census in Poland in 1921, the total number of Jewish inhabitants of the Zelów region was 1,859, but the same document specified only 552 persons of Jewish nationality. As you can see, the criteria of nationality and the belonging to a religious group were not the same. According to Tadeusz Czajkowski, there were a total 2,046 Jews in the Zelów region (2,000 in the city alone).

Such a large proportion of Jews in Zelów is reflected in the makeup of the local assembly: of the body of 17 persons of Polish and German origin, there were 2 Jews. The hegemony of Czechs in the local authorities was broken for the first time.

Three years later, at the parliamentary election on 5 and 12 November 1922, 3,486 inhabitants of the Zelów district (from the total of 7,608) were allowed to vote.

Unfortunately, all documents from the Jewish community in Zelów were destroyed by the Nazis during WWII. However in a register of inhabitants “Village of Zelów 1931-1939” there is much evidence of Jewish families. The majority of them lived in the center of the town, like Rynek (Town Square) and streets like Sw. Anna, Kilinskiego, Sienkiewicza, and Waska. Some families lived in Pilsudskiego Street, Piotrkowska and Zeromskiego. Only a few lived in Nowy Rynek (New Square), Plocka, Poznanska, or Zlota. In the 1930s one room apartments were often rented to big families (up to six children), and sometimes a weaving loom was also placed in the room.

Extermination of the Jews

The Nazis started to repress the Jewish population in Zelów from the first days of their occupation. They used the same methods as in all other Polish towns: Jews were stripped of all their rights, obliged to wear armbands, expelled from their apartments, shops, and working places.

This was not all, unfortunately. The next step was to create a ghetto, situated in the center of the town and surrounded by the streets Rynek, Sw. Anna, Zeromskiego and Kilinskiego. There are different dates quoted as an establishment of the ghetto, sometimes 1940, sometimes 1941. There is only no confusion concerning the date of the ghetto liquidation; between June and September 1942. According to the German census from December 1939, 3,714 Jews lived in the ghetto, mainly from Zelów, but also from the surrounding villages or towns like Dabrowa Rusiecka, Dzialoszyn, Szczercow, Warta, Widawa, and Wielun. There is no agreement whether the accumulation in the form of a voluntary migration or whether there were organized German transports. Jews who first came to Zelów from Szczercow or Widawa, were fleeing from the shifting front in September 1939. Probably people wanted to join larger Jewish communities or simply to find shelter with their relatives who lived in towns considered safer.

The Jewish population grew up from 3,700 in 1939 to 4,500 only one year later, and nearly six thousand in 1941. Considering how small the ghetto was, it is hard to imagine how so many people could live on such a small space. Despite much oppression, it was not a typical closed ghetto like in Lodz or Warsaw. It was more like the ghetto in Bełchatów where Jews were allowed to live in chosen streets. Besides that, Jews had their own authority called the Judenrat, their own law enforcement (ruled by Josel Frenkel), a doctor, and the soup kitchen.

As in Bełchatów, there was a public execution of ten male Jews, hanged publicly in winter 1942 (probably on 19th or 20th March). The reason for this step was probably Nazi revenge for their losses on the Eastern front. The victims were chosen by the Judenrat, probably by lot. The gallows were brought from Bełchatów. The whole Jewish population had to watch the execution, even the children of the victims. The noose was put on by other Jews, among them Abram Siwek (according to the report of the priest Ciosek), probably the only one who managed to survive the war. After the execution, a dinner for invited Nazi officers from Zelów and Bełchatów took place for which the Judenrat was obliged to deliver food and drinks.

The full extermination began in summer 1942. Between June and September the first groups of 286 Jews from Zelów (mostly handworkers and other specialists) were transported to the ghetto in Lodz. The rest, “useless” for the Nazis, were transported to the concentration camp in Chelmno upon Ner and murdered. About 30 Jews fled and rescued themselves. The German statistics from November 1942 did not mention any Jews in Zelów.

Not only the whole population, but also other traces of Jewish life were eradicated by the Nazis. The old wooden synagogue and mikhve (Kosciuszki Street 9, behind the new brick synagogue), as well as the cheder (Sw. Anna Street) were destroyed. The new synagogue was saved only because it was used by the Nazis as a storage place. It was a building consisting of four rooms, two bigger and two smaller ones. Each of the bigger rooms could accommodate 500 people. The German occupants destroyed also all documents of the Jewish Community in Zelów.

Today nothing reminds us of the Jewish Community in Zelów, not even a remembrance plaque.

Reference work:

Slawomir Papuga, Andrzej Gramsz: Zelów, wspolnota nacji, wyznan, kultur (Zelów, a Union of Nations, Beliefs, and Cultures). Published by: Grako, Lodz, 2003


Copyright İ 2004 Andrzej Selerowicz

Back to Zelów Main Page