Friday, April 1, 2016
Memorial marker at Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, NY. [Photograph by The Other Elisson.]
Chelm is a small city - with about 67,000 inhabitants, you could really call it a good-sized village - in eastern Poland. Back in the early 1920’s it really was more of a village, its population at the time not much more than 23,000... more than half of them Jews, the remainder Christians consisting of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a sprinkling of Lutherans.
Occupying a unique place in Jewish folklore, this small, otherwise unremarkable city is the legendary home of the Wise Men of Chelm, an ironic compliment typical of Yiddish. You could say that Chelm was celebrated for being an entire village of Village Idiots... the kind of people that, when asked why the sea was salty, attributed its salinity to the large number of herring living in it. You’d have to go to Washington, D.C. to find a more concentrated source of High Doltage.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the noted Yiddish author, wrote about the well-meaning fools of Chelm (The Fools of Chelm and Their History), and it’s easy enough to find similar collections of tales by others. A quick search on Amazon.com will suffice.
Were the Jewish residents of Chelm really fools? It’s hard to say, because they’ve vanished. Most were exterminated by the Nazis in a single, brutal operation in early December, 1939, and the remaining stragglers were picked off as the war ground on.
But at least one escaped, back in 1922 when escape was possible. That would be my grandfather Jacob of blessèd memory, father of Eli (hizzownself)... a Chelmite who was smart enough to get out while the getting was good.
What better day to remember the Wise Men of Chelm - and the real-life victims of the Holocaust who lived there - than on April Fools’ Day?