Lower Market, Rynek Dolny (Plac Żwirki) in Bodzentyn, with the well in the foreground, 1934. Find the location on Google Maps
A shtetl in every sense
Bodzentyn is a small town to the northeast of Kielce, the provincial capital, in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship of Poland. More than 50 per cent of all Polish Jews lived in Congress Poland, the central part of the country where the cities Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin and Kielce were situated. Krakow belonged to Galicia, the southern Poland that was home to one-fourth of Polish Jewry.
"Bodzentyn"—Baizetshin, Bodjentin or Bodzentin in Yiddish—derives from its founder's name, bishop Bodzanta. The town belonged to successive Bishops of Kraków up to 1797. As a clerical possession, Bodzentyn had the privilegium de non tolerandis Judaeis, meaning that Jews could not live in the city or own real estate there. Most often, it also meant that Jews were prohibited from entering the city without a special permit.
At the turn of the century, as the situation changed, Jews began to move into Bodzentyn. In the beginning, they came mainly from the surrounding villages. In 1820, 47 Jews were registered as tenants; Jews were not permitted to own property in Bodzentyn. At that time, there were 1,053 Catholic residents.
As the Jewish population began to grow in the early nineteenth century, some of the Polish Christian residents would protest and remind the mayor of the former non-tolerance of Jews as part of the episcopal privilege of Bodzentyn. The Mayor was also reminded of the ban on the acquisition of property by or for Jews.
Many of the Poles who protested against Jewish settlement feared economic competition. It was generally thought that the number of Jews would increase so much that the Polish residents would be outnumbered and ousted. This was not altogether unrealistic.
The numbers of Jews increased, and few prospered while many of the remainders survived in slightly better circumstances than in other places.
In the early nineteenth century, the Jews were accused of trading without permission and threatened by eviction. Even the field police were called in on at least one occasion. However, several Polish residents were beginning to appreciate the Jewish settlers' skills and found that the general economy had improved. Some of the Poles even protested against eviction orders.
In 1862 the Jews received civil rights, and in 1876 the local authorities recognized the Jewish community in Bodzentyn. Some decades later, the Jews in Bodzentyn were nearly 50 per cent of the total population. In early 1917 there were 2,027 Catholic residents and 1,918 Jews.
The deadly typhus epidemic swept the area in the fall of 1917 and affected the Jews of Bodzentyn more heavily due to cramped housing following the "Great Fire" set by retreating Austrian troops in June that year. Due to this, and the hardships between the wars and the trickling emigration that became a flood in 1921, the growth of the Jewish community stopped and remained at close to one thousand Jewish souls, about 30 per cent of the population with little change until 1939. Three years later, the Nazi German occupants wiped out the community. Only a few survived.
This map of the city centre of Bodzentyn was worked out in 1931. Jewish households were concentrated in the centre of the town, especially on Langiewicza Street, Wesoła Street, Kielce Street, Opatowska Street, to name a few, as well as around the Lower Market Square, Plac Żwirki, (Rynek Dolny) and Upper Market Square (Rynek Górny).
This modern map of the city centre of Bodzentyn is interactive. You can zoom in and out. It shows the same overview of the two Market Squares (Rynek and Plac Żwirk) and the layout of streets as the old map from 1931.
The majority of the Jews were poor. The unpaved streets were often muddy and dusty. Most dwellings were single-story houses. Fires frequently erupted—sometimes disastrously. Commonly there was a dwelling at the rear of a shop, which faced the street.
In addition to shopkeeping, Jews also earned their living as artisans of every sort, coppersmiths, carpenters, leather workers, butchers, tailors and cobblers, to name a few. They also participated in regularly held trade in horses, cattle, grain and many craft products.
To its Jews, Bodzentyn, as a small market town, was Baizetshin in Yiddish—a shtetl in every sense, a community within a community organized to maintain the synagogue, the ritual bathhouse (Mikveh), the cemetery and religious school (cheder).
Typical as Baizetshin may have been for shtetls in Eastern Europe, factors in its history are unusual, perhaps even unique. Please read on.
- Between the years 1869 and 1994 Bodzentyn had the official status of a village. An unsuccessful attempt of a restoration of the town status was made in 1925. However, in 1995 Bodzentyn regained its status as a small town.
- Article in Polish: The local history of Bodzentyn at Polin Wirtualny Shtetl: Historia miejscowości
- Article in Polish: Gminy Żydowskie 1918-1939 Bodzentyn
- Kalib Szachter, G., Wachsberger, K., & Kalib S. (1991). The Last Selection: a Child's Journey Through the Holocaust. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.
- Szuchta, R. (2015). 1000 lat historii. Żydów polskich. Podróż przez wieki. (1000-Year History of Polish Jews.) Warszawa: POLIN Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich.
- Wołczyk, A. Postoła E., & Mróz J. (1983). Cmentarze Bodzentyna: 1801–1980. Kielce: Biuro Dokumentacji Zabytków.
- Wołczyk, A. (1987). Pozostał po nich tylko kirkut ... (6th edition), Bodzentyn.
Wołczyk A. (2007). Bodzentyn jako miasto i osada. Bodzentyn.