The first Jews settled in Góra Kalwaria in 1802. Initially, Jews rented rooms and houses in which they established a house of prayer and a cheder. Subsequently, they began to construct their own buildings for religious purposes. In 1820, a bet ha-midrash was established at 39 Pijarska street. Shortly thereafter, the Jewish community was officially established in 1821. In 1849, a wooden synagogue was erected in Pijarska street. After it burnt down, a new brick synagogue was built in the same location in 1901–1902.
As the Jewish community grew, Jewish merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen brought economic competition to the town, a phenomenon that bred resentment among the Christian petite bourgeoisie. Rising Jewish incomes in the manufacturing and alcohol economies became a particularly contentious issue eventually causing the townspeople to demand that all Jews be banned from taking up such occupations.
Góra Kalwaria became the site of the Alter dynasty of tzadiks, which was a new stimulant for development of the local community. Icchak Meir Rothenberg Alter, called Gerer Rebe in Yiddish, came to that town from Warsaw in 1859. The tzadik's knowledge, authority and charisma attracted thousands of Hasids from various parts of Poland and Central and Eastern Europe. Juda Arie Lejb (1847-1905) -- or Sfas Emes (Language of Truth) in Yiddish -- succeeded his grandfather Gerer Rebe and subsequently constructed a new Hasidic synagogue. When Juda Arie Lejba died, his son, Abraham Mordechaj Alter assumed leadership over the Hasidic court in Ger. He was a well-known bibliophile. Unfortunately, his collection of books was likely stolen or destroyed by Germans.
After WWI, the tzadik's court became a significant cultural and political centre. Polish and international Hasids made pilgrimages to Góra Kalwaria. As one of the most important centers of religious life, Góra Kalwaria was made the unofficial headquarters of the Aguda political party. Part of the growth of Góra Kalwaria's religious community was undoubtedly due to the construction of the Warsaw-Góra Kalwaria narrow-gauge rail line, which made Hassidic pilgrimages far easier; perhaps unsurprisingly, the tzadik Alter himself was an unofficial shareholder of this transport operation. Eventually, it was simply referred to as “the rebes railway."
In his book Reise in Polen (Journey to Poland), German writer Alfred Döblin described a visit to tzadik Alter's court:
In the afternoon, pilgrims flock around the tzadik's large table. The crowd is as big as at the morning audience, or even bigger. The large table is carried into the hall. Some crawl under the table much earlier to stand close to the holy one. The tzadik sits down with his sons and honourable guests. The rest of them stand around. During the meal, the tzadik explains the Talmud commentaries and the Torah, presents new interpretations. The believers observe him and his guests, follow his moves, catch and explain his every word to one another. The shiraim, or the leftovers from his bowl, are most desired. They fight for them. Occasionally, the tzadik himself offers someone a bite from his bowl. .
After the outbreak of the war, tzadik Alter and his two sons went to Warsaw, where they were in hiding for some time. He subsequently managed to reach Palestine with the help of an Italian embassy official and Jewish activists. Abram’s youngest son, Pinchas Menachem, visited Góra Kalwaria in the early 1970s.
When Germans invaded Góra Kalwaria in 1939, they immediately targetted the Jewish population. German mayor Ewald Jauke banned Jews from engaging in trade, crafts, and pigeon breeding. Jews were also forbidden from interacting with the local population or even listening the radio. A contingent of 100 men were gathered in front of the town hall every day to serve as forced labour. Many of them, mostly young, fleed to the surrounding villages or were in hiding in fallow lands near the Vistula river.
In the spring of 1940, some 400 Jews from Lodz, Pabianice, Aleksandrów, Sierpc, Włocławek and Kalisz were transported to Góra Kalwaria. In June 1940, a ghetto was established in the area of the former Jewish quarter. It was enclosed by Pijarska St, Piłsudskiego St, Senatorska St and Strażacka St. In total, some 3,500 people lived in the ghetto, which had its own Jewish police.
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