Former Polish royal town, now in the province of Lublin. According to local tradition, the Jews of Chełm (Yid., Khelem) were granted their first privilege by King Władisław Jagiełło, though tombstones once thought to be from the fifteenth century are now considered of a later date. Hence, while earlier settlement is very probable, a Jewish community is known to have been in Chełm from the beginning of the sixteenth century; a synagogue functioned in 1580.
In 1550, Jewish residents officially numbered 371, living in 40 houses. The community was granted a privilege by King Sigismund Augustus in 1566 and played a dominant role in urban trade. At that time, the kabbalist Eliyahu Ba‘al Shem, the supposed creator of a golem, lived there. After suffering during the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising of 1648, the community recovered and became an important center for trade with Wrocław and Gdańsk.
A major point of contention between Jewish and Christian townspeople concerned permission to sell alcohol. In 1558 a royal privilege forbade Jews to sell alcohol but the practice continued illegally. In 1677 the Sejm gave Jews the unlimited right to build houses and sell liquor in Chełm, but the conflict was not resolved. In 1783, the Jews of Chełm agreed to pay, among other things, an annual fee of 200 zlotys for the latter right. The community gained new status in the eighteenth century when its rabbi, Shelomoh ben Mosheh, was praised as author of Mirkevet ha-mishneh, and when Rabbi Hershel Jozefowicz participated in debates over Jewish status at the time of the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792).
Unidentified man standing next to an ark in a synagogue built in 1910 by a well-known bricklayer, Nisn Trager, Chełm, Poland, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
The Jewish community had been home to 1,418 Jews in 1764; the numbers had increased to 1,571 in 1790. The town itself suffered substantial losses during the Kościuszko insurrection of 1794 and fires of 1788, 1803, 1810, and 1848. From 1828, the Jewish community was torn by a series of conflicts that probably resulted from the growing influence of Hasidism. The Jewish population was 1,902 in 1827 (representing 68.1% of the total population), 2,493 (68.1%) in 1857, and 7,226 (56.3%) in 1897.
Administrative reorganization under Russian rule led to changes in the ethnic and religious makeup of the town. During World War I, the Jewish proportion of the population rose temporarily to 72 percent in 1916, mainly due to the exodus of Christians. In the 1920s and 1930s, the growth of the Jewish community was considerably less intensive than that of the Christian population. In 1921, there were 12,064 Jews (52%); in 1931 this number had risen to 13,537 (46.6%); and in 1939 it was 15,000 (44.6%).
Both the Zionist movement and the Bund were active in Chełm from the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite the town’s difficult financial situation during the interwar period, it was able to support a yeshiva, Jewish primary and secondary schools (Polish and Hebrew gymnasiums), and numerous charity organizations. The town also boasted a Yiddish press. Ignacy (Yitsḥak) Schiper represented Chełm in the Sejm from 1922 to 1927.
On 25 September 1939, Chełm was occupied by the Soviet army, which left the area on 7 October when the town was to be annexed to the German-occupied zone. Many Jews left with the retreating Soviet army. In October 1940, a ghetto was established in Chełm, and it closed in late 1941. As a result of four Aktions between 21 May and 7 November of that year, Jewish inhabitants of the Chełm area as well as approximately 2,000 temporarily resettled Slovakian Jews were transported to Sobibór and murdered. The last transport of approximately 50 Jewish forced laborers was dispatched in January 1943. Several Jewish families settled in Chełm after the war but emigrated in the late 1940s. In 2000 there were no Jews remaining in Chełm.
The town of Chełm acquired a special status in East European folk tradition. Characters known as the “wise men of Chełm” (Khelemer khakhomim) became synonymous with gullibility and ingenuous stupidity. These stories also became a literary inspiration, particularly for The Fools of Chełm and Their History by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1973).
Raḥel Grosbaum-Pasternak, “Ḥelm/Chełm,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 7, Meḥozot Lublin/Kyeltseh, pp. 221–227 (Jerusalem, 1999); Maurycy Horn, Żydzi na Rusi Czerwonej w XVI i pierwszej połowie XVII w. (Warsaw, 1975); Shimon Kanc, ed., Sefer ha-zikaron li-kehilat Ḥelem: 40 shanah le-ḥurbanah (Tel Aviv, 1980/81); Solomon Simon, The Wise Men of Helm and Their Merry Tales (New York, 1945); Andrzej Trzciński, “O ‘piętnastowiecznych’ macewach z Chełma,” Rocznik Chełmski 5 (1999): 283–295.
Translated from Polish by Bartek Madejski