Early Communal History
City S.E. of Lublin, Poland. The community is considered one of the oldest in Poland, possibly dating from the 12th century, although the first recorded evidence of its existence is a tombstone dating from 1442. Jews of Chelm are mentioned as royal tax farmers from the end of the 15th century. R. Judah Aaron of Chelm, appointed tax farmer in 1520, was apparently also rabbi of the community. In 1522 he headed the communities in the districts of Lublin, Chelm, and Belz. In 1550, the community numbered 371 persons living in 40 houses. The tax records for 1564 indicate that the Jews shouldered the major share of the town taxes. Frequent disputes between Jews and Christians in Chelm on money matters were litigated in court. In 1580 and 1582 there were anti - Jewish outbreaks following incitement by the clergy. Samuel Eliezer b. Judah Edels (Maharha) was rabbi of Chelm from 1606 to 1615. During the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648, 400 Jews perished in Chelm, probably including refugees from the surrounding areas. The few survivors were persecuted by the local populace and clergy, who attempted to dispossess the Jews of their property and abolish their legal rights.
The community had revived by the beginning of the 18th century, when Jews of Chelm took an important part in the export trade. The community numbered 1,500 in 1765, 1,902 in 1827, 2,493 in 1857, 7,226 in 1897, 13,537 in 1931, and approximately 15,000 in 1939. In addition to religious institutions it maintained an orphanage, an old - age home, a yeshivah, and a secondary school. Two Jewish weeklies were published in Chelm during the 1920s and '30s.
On Sept. 14, 1939 the Soviet Army occupied Chelm but withdrew two weeks later in accordance with the Soviet - German agreement. At least several hundred young Jews also left the town during the Soviet army's withdrawal. The German army took over the city on Oct. 7, 1939, and immediately initiated a series of pogroms in which scores of Jews lost their lives. On December I, 1,800 Jewish men between the ages of 15 and 60 were driven in a death march to the Soviet - held town of Sokal. En route 1,400 of the men were shot, and the 400 survivors were allowed to enter Sokal. The Jews in Chelm were forced to live in restricted quarters, but a closed ghetto was not established there. In May 1941 about 2,000 Jews from Slovakia were deported to Chelm. The first mass deportation from Chelm took place on May 21 - 23, 1942, at which time 4,300 Jews (including all the deportees from Slovakia) were sent to the Sobibor death camp. On November 6, the entire Jewish population was dispatched in a final Aktion to Sobibor for extermination. Only a handful of workers were left in the town's prison; of these 15 survived and were liberated with the town on July 22, 1944. The Germans had destroyed all Jewish public buildings, among them the 700 - year - old synagogue. Most Jews who left for the Soviet Union in 1939 joined the Soviet or Polish armies.
©1972, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd