Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
The mythical comic town of Chelm was a beloved staple of Yiddish literature.
Once upon a time, an angel, carrying a sackful of foolish souls back to heaven for repair, snagged his sack on a tree growing on top of a tall mountain top. The sack tore and alas, all the poor, foolish souls spilled out of the ripped sack, rolled down the mountain side into the town of Chelm where they stayed from that day on.(1)
For generations, Jewish readers have enjoyed tales of the town of Chelm – a world where the wise are foolish and townspeople believe in their outlandish schemes. The “Wise Men” of Chelm may be fools, but they’re fools of the sweetest nature who manage to convey profound wisdom even with their silly antics.
Take the time that one of their schemes went wrong and everyone in Chelm was downcast. Mottel the Mayor came up with a plan to cheer them up: getting down on his hands and knees, he crawled all around the floor, searching in every nook and cranny. “Mottel, what are you looking for?” the Chelmites cried in astonishment. Replied Mottel: “I see that everyone lost heart, so I’m trying to find it.” (2)
In real life, Chelm is a sizable town in eastern Poland on the banks of the Ochrza River, near the Ukranian border. It’s not far from the city of Lublin. Jews have lived in Chelm since the Middle Ages. The city prospered significantly in the 1500s, when it became a center of trade and commerce. Jews were key players in Chelm’s industry, and the Jewish community in Chelm was one of the largest and most influential in all of Poland during the Renaissance.
A melamed (Jewish teacher) in Chelm once told his wife that if he was Rothschild, he’d be richer than him. “How can that be?” asked his wife; “If you were Rothschild, you’d both have the same fortune.” “Yes,” said the melamed – “but I’d do a little teaching on the side”. (3)
Later years saw political upheaval in Chelm and its environs, as the city became first part of Austria, then Russia, then was subject to rebellions from local Poles who agitated for independence. Anti-Semitism increased, and there were waves of pogroms in Chelm and the region. In 1648 and 1649 Chelm Jews were among the victims of the vicious Chmielnicki Pogroms, led by the Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki, who agitated for independant rule. The pogroms led to the deaths of at least 100,000 Jews and the destruction of about 300 Jewish communities in the region.
Illustration from F. Halperin’s ‘Khakhme Khelm,’ Warsaw 1926.
Chelm reverted to Polish rule with the establishment of an independent Polish state in 1918. The city grew rapidly, and once again Chelm’s Jews were a key part of the town’s economic development, where they often worked as merchants, buying and selling livestock. Chelm also developed a large Jewish printing industry and a thriving Jewish cultural and religious life.
“Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” a citizen of Chelm asked the rabbi. “What a silly question!” replied the rabbi. “The moon, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. But who needs the sun to shine when it’s already broad daylight outside?” (4)
Hersh Sziszler grew up in Chelm before World War II and remembers Chelm’s rich Jewish life. “The Jewish population was approximately 60% of the general population” he recalled. “There were many Jewish artisans, merchants and shopkeepers. There were sawmills, alcohol trade, mills and various industrial undertakings that belonged to Jews… Jewish banks, such as the Merchants and Artisans Bank, charitable societies and institutions, a Talmud Torah (religious school)…. There was an intensive communal Jewish life: various unions, clubs, dramatic circles, libraries and Jewish newspapers….” By 1930, over 13,000 Jews called Chelm home.
Berel was the Gabbai, caretaker, of the synagogue in Chelm. Each morning he would walk through the streets of Chelm, rapping on the shutters of the Jewish homes, waking people for morning prayers. As Berel got older, it became more and more difficult to make his rounds through the town. At last, the citizens of Chelm came up with a brilliant solution: they took the shutters down from all the townspeople’s homes and filled Berel’s bedroom with them. This way, without even leaving his house, he could knock on every shutter in town. (5)
Given the vibrancy of Chelm’s Jewish life, it might seem surprising that the town became associated with tales of foolishness. Indeed, for generations, Jews enjoyed many of the comic tales of without identifying Chelm as their setting.
art. recommended Leon Rozenbaum
Some of the Chelm tales seem to have their origin in a collection of German comic stories published in 1597 called the Schildburg Tales, named after a fictional village inhabited by fools. A few of these stories are immediately identifiable as tales that are today commonly included in books of tales about Chelm. One example concerns the village leaders who built a new synagogue (the town hall in the original German version) but forget to put windows in the building. To solve the problem of it being dark inside, they decided to fill sacks with sunlight to illuminate the windowless building.
Lublin Street in Chelm
For generations the Schidburg Tales were enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike in their original German. In 1700, they were translated into Yiddish. Prof. Ruth von Bermuth is a professor at Duke University and author of How the Wise Men Got to Helm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition (NYU Press, New York: 2016). She notes that at the time, Yiddish and German were so similar that if someone read the tales aloud, both Yiddish speaking Jews and German speaking Christians could understand them.
For years, Yiddish versions of these comic tales continued to identify the protagonists as Christians living in the imaginary town of Schildburg, not Chelm. It was only in 1887 that an edition printed in the nearby city of Lvov identified the characters as Jews living in Chelm. Dr. von Bermuth isn’t entirely sure what motivated the authors of that particular volume to shift the stories to Chelm, but she suggests that if they were looking for a typical eastern European Jewish community, Chelm might have seemed representative. The book was called Der Khelmer Khokhem (The Wise People of Chelm), and the only surviving copy is currently housed in the National Library in Jerusalem. It includes many classic tales we today associate with Chelm, including this one
A rabbi from Chelm decided to visit a nearby town, and set out with a wagon driver who hid the rabbi under a blanket to deter anti-Semites from attacking them. After driving around for a while, the unscrupulous wagon driver deposited the rabbi back in the same spot in Chelm where they’d set off. As he walked around, the rabbi was shocked to find that the big city he’d heard so much about was just like Chelm! No matter how far he traveled, everything seemed like Chelm. Perhaps the entire world is just like Chelm, the rabbi concludes.
Stories about the Wise Men of Chelm continued to be published in Yiddish and became a key component of Jewish culture. Menachem Kipnis was a famed chazzan (cantor). Born in Volhynia, Ukraine, a major center of Jewish learning, in 1878, Kipnis wrote extensively about music for Yiddish newspapers. He also wrote a series of comic articles for the Warsaw-based Yiddish newspaper Haynt (“Today”), in which he claimed he was reporting ridiculous events live from Chelm. His column became so popular that it’s said a Jewish woman actually living in Chelm wrote to him begging him to stop: she feared his comic dispatches would prevent her daughter from ever finding a husband, once potential young men learned she was from Chelm.
Residents of Jewish old age Home in Chelm, 1918
Although he didn’t actually live there, Kipnis became one of Chelm’s most famous sons. He perished in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his death mirrored that of other Jews from across Europe, including Chelm. The murder of Chelm’s Jews began on December 1, 1939, when German forces forced 2,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 into the central market square. Some were murdered and the rest were forced to walk to the city of Hrubieszow, over 50 km away. On the way, a further thousand Jews were shot. German troops forced 400 of the men to swim across the Bug River, partially frozen in January. Most of them drowned. Almost all of Chelm’s other Jewish residents were deported to the Sobibor Concentration Camp. When the town was liberated on July 22, 1944, only 15 Jews remained alive.
The beautiful Jewish life that existed in Chelm and across all of Yiddish speaking Europe today lives on in the many stories that are told about Chelm. The comic antics of Chelm’s imaginary fools have entertained generations of Jewish readers and continue to do so today.
In some versions of The Wise Men of Chelm, these beloved stories conclude with the destruction of the town by fire and its residents scattering across the face of the earth.
“But surely it cannot be for nothing that not even a lonely feather is left in Helm,” the town rabbi proclaims after a fire destroyed the town. “My people, the Lord works in mysterious ways… This is a sign from on high. Like the destruction of Jerusalem in ancient times, the destruction of Helm is a sign that we must go out into the world and spread the wisdom that is our heritage and tradition. Like our forefathers of old, let us go forth with courage in our hearts to fulfill our destiny!”
“And that is what the Chelmites did. Not with sorrow and not with tears, but proudly, they went forth from Helm and dispersed over the face of the earth. They mingled with all the peoples of the world and dutifully spread the wisdom that was once the pride of Chelm alone. And so, dear reader, if you discover a bit of the Chelmite in yourself, you’ll know the reason why.” (5)
(1,2,5) Adapted from The Wise Men of Helm and their Merry Tales by Solomon Simon, Behrman House, New York: 1952.
(3,4) Adapted from Edward Portnoy https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Wise_Men_of_Chelm