... Jewish Ancestors in Poland  

grajewo shtetl
lodz ghetto


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 The first historical reference is dated 1402 and can be found in a volume "Liber Beneficiorum“ by Jan Laski. Until the 18th century Zelow was a typical nobleman's village, located quite a distance from major roads and lost among the woods and poor fields. The inhabitants worked in agriculture and animal husbandry. The settlement, which at that time belonged to Mr. Jozef Swidzinski, was bought in 1802 by Czech immigrants who went there to escape religious persecution in their country. They founded a textile industry which is still functioning well even today. The Zelow craftsmen specialized in the production of satin, cretonne, and decorative plush. At the beginning of the 19th century, a large emigration of Czech people took place, and new settlers, Poles, Germans, and Jews, appeared in their place. The small city became quite unique in Poland, having a fulminate religious life of the four national groups.

The oldest trace of a Jewish presence in Zelow are notes taken by a priest, Aleksander Glowacki, in congregational registry of the reformed protestant parish: "1817, on May 13th David son of Abraham Majer, a Jew and publican in Zelow, died of consumption at the age of not even a year“ and "On June 3rd, 1818, son of Szalamon Storm, a butcher in Zelow, was born and was circumcised on the tenth day, getting the name of Ozak during this ceremony“.

During Mr. Glowacki´s term in the parish, a first attempt was made to drive out newly arriving Jewish settlers. He ordered all Czech families not to rent rooms to Jews. The reason for that was rather an economic than a religious one: the threat that Jews could accept cheap jobs. Another attempt was made in 1831 after a Jewish trader, Hersz Kupferwasser, brought to Zelow a delivery of cotton which was infected with cholera bacillus and many inhabitants died. Quite a few Jewish families had to leave the city. We know their names: the families 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 last Jews left Zelow going to Lask. Twenty years later a new wave of Jews came to Zelow, this time they were Jewish peddlers. They were first allowed to stay for a winter, and finally they settled down. In a report dated 1867 by a priest named Mozes, there is a note about 40 Jewish families, counting more than 100 persons. Boruch Rosenblum, Majer Rosenblum, and Majer Tanski (or Tauski) bought land from Czechs becoming co-owners of the city. This was possible due to reforms in the Polish Kingdom which gave Jews the same rights and allowed them to buy land.

In about 1880 almost 100 Jewish families lived in Zelow, although some other sources gave the total number at 250. The "Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and other Slavic countries" quotes 488 Jews living in Zelow at the end of the 19th century and their number grew constantly. In 1878 a Jewish cemetery in Zelow was founded, In 1906 – according to Wojciech Kriegsaisen it was 1909 – a religious community was founded. Soon a wooden shul was erected (before this, a facility had been rented in a house belonging to Pawel Jelinek). In 1910, in the first election – with votes of 110 persons from 133 – a board was selected: Icek Fraid, Chaim Liberman, and Haszman Sztarch. At that time 1,573 Jews lived in Zelow which was six times more compared to 1878.

After Poland became independent in 1918, the first Parliamentary election was held on 26 January 1919, gathering altogether the 2,068 inhabitants of Zelow. Among 12 political parties there were three Jewish organizations, and they received 187 votes (Rada Narodowa 48, Poalei Syjon 37, and Orthodox 102). During the census in Poland in 1921, the total number of Jewish inhabitants of Zelow district was 1,859, but the same document specified only 552 person 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 In Zelow and surroundings villages 2,046 Jews (2,000 in the city of Zelow).

Such a large percentage of Jewish people in Zelow is reflected in the local administrative authority. Among the 17 persons on this body of mostly Polish and German origin, there were two Jews.

Three years later, at the Parliamentary election on 5 and 12 November 1922, 3,486 inhabitants of Zelow district (from the total of 7,608) could vote.

Unfortunately, all documents from the Jewish Community in Zelow were destroyed by the Nazis during WWII. However in a register of inhabitants of Zelow 1931-1939, there is much evidence of Jewish families. According to this information, the majority of them lived in the center of the city, such as in the Rynek (Main Square) and the streets Kosciuszki, Sw. Anna, Kilinskiego, Sienkiewicza, and Waska. Some families lived in Pilsudkiesgo street, Piotrkowska and Zeromskiego. Only e few lived in Nowy Rynek (New Square), Plocka, Poznanska and Zlota. The Jewish population of Zelow remained together in houses located in neighboring streets. In the 1930s one room apartments were also rented out to big families with up to six children, and often a weaving machine was also located in the one room as well.

Extermination of Jews

The Nazi authorities started to repress the Jewish population from the first days of the occupation of the city. They used the same methods as in all other Polish towns: Jews were robbed of all rights, had to wear armbands, were expelled from their apartments and their shops, and their working place taken away.

This was not all, unfortunately. The next step was to create a ghetto, situated in the center of the town and bordered by the streets Rynek, Sw. Anna, Zeromskiego and Kilinskiego. There are different dates quoted as to the establishment of the ghetto, sometimes 1940, sometimes 1941. There was no confusion concerning the date of the ghetto liquidation: from June to September 1942. According to the German census of December 1939, 3,714 Jews lived in the ghetto, mainly from Zelow, but also from the surrounding villages or towns such as Dabrowa Rusiecka, Dzialoszyn, Szczercow, Warta, Widawa, and Wielun. There is no agreement whether it came to such a accumulation in form of a volunteer migration or whether there were organized German transports. Jews who first came to Zelow from Szczercow or Widawa were escaping from the approaching front in September 1939. Probably people wanted to join larger Jewish centers or simply to find lodging with their relatives.

The Jewish population grew from 3,700 in 1939 to 4,500 only one year later and nearly 6,000 in 1941. Considering how small the ghetto was it is hard to imagine how so many people could live in 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 Belchatow where Jews were allowed to live in chosen streets. Besides that, Jews had their own authoritative body called the Judenrat, their own police (presided over by Josel Frenkel), medical personnel, and a soup kitchen.

As in Belchatow, there was a public execution of male Jews, hanged publicly in winter 1942  (probably on the 19th or 2oth of March). The victims were chosen by Judenrat, probably by lot. The gallows had been brought from Belchatow. 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 Zelow and Belchatow took place and the Judenrat was obliged to deliver food and drink.

The total extermination began in summer 1942. Between June and September first 286 Jews from Zelow (mostly handworkers and other specialists) were transported to the ghetto in Lodz. The rest, "useless" for the Nazi, were transported to the concentration camp in Chelmno upon Ner and murdered. About 30 Jews fled and saved their lives. The German statistics from November 1942 did not mention any Jews in Zelow.

Not only the population, but also other Jewish traces were wiped away by the Nazis. The old wooden synagogue and mikva (Kosciuszki Street 9, behind the new synagogue made of stone) as well as the cheder (Sw. Anna Street) were destroyed. The new synagogue was saved because it was used by the Nazis as a storage place. It was a building consisting of four rooms, two larger and two smaller ones. In each of the bigger rooms there was room for 500 people. The German occupiers destroyed also all documents, also vital records, of the Jewish Community in Zelow.

written by Andrzej Selerowicz
Based on the book "Zelow, wspolnota nacji, wyznan, kultur" by Slawomir Papuga and Andrzej Gramsz; published by Grako, Lodz, 2003.

Zelow - town in central Poland, 10 miles from Belchatow, Voivodschaft of Lodz, current population:


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