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Poland Chelm

CHELM (Heb. חלם, חלמא), city in Lublin district, 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. The ancient synagogue of Chelm was built in the characteristic style of the early synagogues of Poland (see *Synagogues , Architecture of). 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 documents he is mentioned by the title Doctor Legis Mosaicae). In 1522 he headed the communities in the districts of Lublin, Chelm, and Belz. His son was the kabbalist Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm (d. 1583), associated with stories of a Golem. There is also information from this period about the yeshivah in Chelm: its principals, Simeon Auerbach and Solomon Zalman, are mentioned by David Gans in his Ẓemaḥ David (1592/93). 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. From 1726 to 1739, the representative of Chelm in the *Councils of the Lands, Heshel b. Meir, served as parnas and ne'eman of the council. Prominent figures in Chelm in this period were Solomon b. Moses *Chelm and Ẓevi b. Joseph, who in 1789 published a pamphlet in Polish on the "Jewish problem." At the beginning of the 19th century the ẓaddik R. Nata (d. 1812) lived in Chelm and founded a local ḥasidic dynasty there. Subsequently the rabbis of the community were Hasidim. The community numbered 1,500 in 1765, 1,902 in 1827 (68% of the total population), 2,493 in 1857 (68%), 7,226 in 1897 (56%), 13,537 in 1931 (46.5%), and approximately 15,000 (almost 50% of the town's population) 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 1930s.

[Aryeh-Leib Kalish]

Holocaust Period

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. 9, 1939, and immediately initiated a series of pogroms in which scores of Jews lost their lives. On December 1, 2,000 Jewish men between the ages of 15 and 60 were driven in a death march to the Bug River. Only 150 survived. The Jews in Chelm were forced to live in restricted quarters, but a closed ghetto was not established there until late 1941. The first mass deportation from Chelm took place on May 21–23, 1942, at which time 5,000 Jews (including 2,000 deportees from Slovakia) were sent to the *Sobibor death camp. Another 600 were sent there in June. On October 27–28, 3,000 were sent on a forced march to Wlodawa. Few survived. On November 6, the last Jews were 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.

Until the 1950s, several Jewish families lived in postwar Chelm. Organizations of Jews from Chelm are active in Israel, South Africa, the United States, France, Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Brazil.

[Stefan Krakowski]

Chelm in Folklore

Chelm has a niche of its own in Jewish folklore and humor because of the reputed naiveté of its inhabitants. Numerous stories circulated about the doings of the Chelm community. The council is traditionally depicted as sitting "seven days and seven nights" to solve the problems brought before it. Hence "Chelm" has become a byword for an assembly of simpletons, and the "Chelmer" (person from Chelm) for the simpleton. The dilemmas which arise and solutions arrived at are both comic and unrealistic, generally involving questions of practical and theoretical wisdom in which the Chelmer is invariably expected to be out of his depth. The tales and their variants are similar to the stories related about "noodles" in towns of "wise men" in other cultural environments, told of Abdera in Greece and Gotham in England, for instance. The Chelm stories depict a community baffled by its surroundings and constantly faced with the predicament of applying "theory" to practice. The leaders of Chelm, and frequently the whole community, have been given by Jewish folklore the nickname Chelmer Khakhomim ("Wise Men of Chelm") while an inhabitant of Chelm is referred to as a Chelmer Khokhem ("Sage of Chelm").

[Aryeh-Leib Kalish]


Halpern, Pinkas, index; D. Dawidowicz, Battei-Keneset be-Polin ve-Hurbanam (1960), index; Yisker-Bukh "Chelm" (1954); F. Heilprin, Khakhmei Chelm (1948); idem, Chelm ve-Khakhameha (1952); S. Tenenbaum, The Wise Men of Chelm (1965); S. Simon, The Wise Men of Helm (1945); idem, Di Helden fun Khelem (1942); Berenstein, in: Bleter far Geshikhte, 3 nos. 1–2 (1950), 65–77, table no. 4. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: PK.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.