By Boguslaw Dziedzic
(From the column "Historical Sights of the Belchatow Area"
Translated from the Polish by Andrzej Selerowicz
When I go back in my memory towards my childhood, I remember the big impression the Belchatow synagogue made on me, which was already in ruins by that time.
This building was commonly called "boznica" [Polish for synagogue or house of prayer]. Always when I passed by its devastated walls with the remaining broken and glassless windows through which you were able to see the falling ceiling, I got a feeling full of mystery and apprehension. This feeling increased even more after darkness fell, when the contrast of the black and deformed window openings and crumbling gray plaster intensified.
Probably the feeling of mystery or even of dread was created by stories, which I often heard, stories that were connected to the not so distant circumstances of the Second World War. As a young boy, I listened in the evening to discussions, the sense of which I did not fully understand at the time. The stories about events, which took place in Belchatow, and about people engaged in them, frightened me and gave me nightmares.
I remember a sunny day in the spring, in April or May 1956, when my school class went to the movie theater. Leaving the building of the fire brigade, where the theater was located at that time, I noticed quite a big group of people watching the synagogue walls being torn down. Thick ropes were fixed to the walls that were up to a dozen meters high. People tugged at the ropes, pulling down one fragment after another of the brick wall. In its place, a two-story building of apartments was erected a couple of years later.
The period of the Second World War meant a turning point in the history of Belchatow, an important textile center in the Lodz area, which was until then a multicultural one.
Although the documented traces of the Jewish population living in Belchatow go back to the 16-17th century, the strong influence of this ethnic group on the development of the city did not take place until the 19th century. Due to positive circumstances, Belchatow became an urban center, offering big chances to venturesome Jews.
Many brick buildings were built then. Aside from the developing textile factories of Mendel Tusk, Lejzor Warszawski, and Jankiel Guderman [sic*], two-story brick buildings were erected and gave the central streets an urban character.
Thanks to substantial financial support from the factory owners, the Jewish community erected a brick synagogue in 1893 [**]. The building was situated at the corner of Fabryczna Street and 19th January Street (formerly named Ewangelicka Street). It was a brick building in the form of a square and covered by a gable roof out of which rose six pilasters topped with concrete pinnacles. It was a hall construction with an east–west aisle running parallel to 19th January Street from which there were two stair entrances. On the east gable side (mizrach), a plaque was placed which according to tradition pointed towards Jerusalem.
The interior of the synagogue was divided into two parts. In a bigger room, lit by 14 longish, arched windows, the Torah shrine, or Ark, was situated in a niche in the east wall. Torah scrolls, handwritten Pentateuch on parchment, were stored there. During the service, parts of the Torah were read from the podium in the middle of the room. This place was called the bima and was also used for preaching and from where the Cantor sang. The podium was separated from the rest of the room by four decorated pillars.
The community prayers took place when at least ten male Jews older than 13 years had gathered in the synagogue. For women there was a room on the first floor on the Fabryczna Street side. It was somehow a kind of gallery called "babiniec" from which women watched and listened to services and sermon.
Living for many centuries in the Diaspora (without their own country), Jews attached big importance to houses of prayer. Synagogues, "boznice" or "sztybuly" were not temples in a sacral sense. Since the Big Temple on Mount Zion (Moriah) in Jerusalem was destroyed, houses of prayer have not only been places to pray and hold services, but also the place to spread knowledge and store books, functioning as libraries and reading rooms. It was the same in Belchatow. Religious Jews going to work in the morning, sometimes very early at 4 or 5 a.m., made a quick visit to the synagogue to read one or two pages of Mishna, a kind of Jewish law codex.
During the Nazi occupation, the Jewish population of Belchatow experienced irreversible loss. Just after conquering Belchatow, the Germans closed the synagogue. Everything concerned with Jewish religion and culture was systematically destroyed.
Precious book collections were burned on Wolnosci Square. The Jewish population had to leave their houses and were moved to the ghetto in the area of Fabryczna, Pabianicka, and Sienkiewicz Streets. The real tragedy occurred in August 1942 when all of a sudden almost everyone was transported to the Lodz ghetto, to the Chelmno-on-Ner camp, or to other places of extermination. The Jewish cemetery on Lipowa Street was destroyed. "Matzevot" (gravestones) were later used as material to pave new roads and build bridges. The synagogue was plundered, and similar to the Catholic Church, turned into a warehouse. The Holocaust machinery of the Nazis wanted to destroy the material presence of Jewish culture. Its most precious relics, holy books, liturgical utensils, cemeteries, synagogues, everything... everything....
This mournful enterprise was not completely successful however. It seemed that also in our city nothing had survived that could be considered evidence of the common past and mostly peaceful coexistence of the Jewish and Polish populations. However...
In the last dozen years, an increasing interest for the old Jewish culture can be noticed. In Belchatow two plaques commemorate the fate of its Jewish population: one on Narutowicza Square, placed in 1989 just opposite the former synagogue, and the second in the old Jewish cemetery where a monument [obelisk] was placed in 1992. The few former citizens of Belchatow, who survived the Holocaust and now live in a number of countries, visit the city of their childhood more and more often. Also their children and grandchildren want to see the city of their ancestors. Some -- but not many -- remembrances in the form of old photographs, books, and documents survived and now are being diligently collected to be included in the permanent exhibition "The History of Belchatow" in the newly opened Muzeum Regionalne (Regional Museum) in Belchatow.
(This article was provided, and permission to print granted, by Boguslaw Dziedzic, the late President of the Association of Friends of Belchatow and Director of the Regional Museum, who sadly passed away suddenly in July 2003.)
Roni Seibel Liebowitz, during her trip to Belchatow in July 2002,
Click here for a list from the Polish State Archives of 177 families who paid their contribution for the new synagogue in 1891.
And click here to see the synagogue blueprints drawn up by the architect in 1889.
Copyright © 2001-2013 Roni Seibel Liebowitz. All rights reserved.