Homage to Leizer Melamed, 1871-1942
Leizer Melamed (Melammet in Dutch civil records) was thirty-two years of age when in 1903 the Jewish community (Kehile) of Oldenzaal appointed him shames and shoykhet (see glossary below). For almost forty years preceding the Holocaust he was one of the most visible representatives of the declining number of Jews of the old city of Oldenzaal and in towns and villages in the vicinity. He toured the countryside on his noisy motorcycle, a holdall attached to it carrying the halaf.
Leizer was born on 12 June 1871 and arrived in Oldenzaal probably in the mid-1890s. On 22 July 1896 he married a local Jewish girl, Hendrika Gobas. He had been trained as a cooper but in Oldenzaal his main trade and source of income was that of painter-decorator. He kept the shul in tip-top condition and facilitated the religious services on shabes and the High Holidays.
A journey from Ponevez to Oldenzaal
Leizer Melamed hailed from the city now named Panevėžys in Lithuania, Ponevez in Yiddish. Over the years and over different languages the orthography of this city has changed to such an extent that it was not at all surprising that from the mouth of Leizer in late-nineteenth century Oldenzaal it was written down in Dutch civil records as ‘Poniwitz, Russia’. 1 During the nineteenth century it was part of the Russian Empire.
In 1884 when Leizer did his bar mitzvah, the city housed over fifteen thousand people, more than half of them Jews. It had a rich Jewish social and cultural life, including a famous yeshiva (now the Ponevez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel) and an elementary school for Jewish boys funded by the Russian authorities. The Jews prayed in numerous synagogues, including small minyanim and shtiblakh for different crafts- and tradesmen. A Jewish hospital was founded in 1886, funded by wealthy Jews, followed one year later by a Ma’akhal Kasher, a kosher soup kitchen catering to the Jewish soldiers in the local Russian garrison.
During these years the town repeatedly suffered devastating city fires. More than half of its Jews lived in poverty. All of this contributed to a wave of emigrants leaving for South Africa, the Americas and Palestine. The old cemetery of Jerusalem has at least fifteen graves of Jews from Panevėžys, buried between 1866 and 1902. It is conceivable that Leizer left his hometown as one of these emigrants, aiming for South Africa or another country. According to reports, many travelled first to the United Kingdom where they embarked for Africa or America.
We do not know where Leizer meant to go and we do not know how he travelled. But if he traversed Germany by train on his way to Hook of Holland, the German-Dutch border town of Oldenzaal would have been a ‘logical’ place to get stranded. This was and still is the town where trains from Berlin bound for the London ferryboat in Hook of Holland cross the border. Perhaps there was an issue concerning his documents. Perhaps he fell ill? Whatever happened, once in Oldenzaal Leizer had found his Hendrika he never left until in Summer 1942 the Germans forced him on a deportation train to Auschwitz.
Shames & shoykhet
As beadle of the Oldenzaal synagogue, Leizer received an annual salary of eighty guilders, paid in four quarterly instalments. This was one tenth the salary of rabbi Marcus Klein, but he, of course, had no other income. For paint jobs, Leizer was paid separately. One night during the winter of 1921-1922, an explosion occurred in the mikve probably as a result of frozen pipes. Part of the building was destroyed. After reconstruction by a building company from Enschede, Leizer was hired for the paint job. In April 1922, the treasurer of the Kehile paid him 147,50 guilders for this work. The financial damage of the explosion, including 575 guilders for the construction company, amounted to almost thirteen percent of the 1922 annual budget.
As painter-decorator Melamed will have had other clients as well. But he had to make time for what was without doubt his main and most prestigious job, a job that gave him power and respect – that of ritual slaughterer, shoykhet. The picture shows his colleague from the small town of Stedum-Loppersum in the far North of the Netherlands. His name was Joseph Bamberger and in this picture he proudly poses for his fifty-third jubilee in this profession. As shokhtim both Bamberger and Melamed provided additional income to their local Jewish communities. A ‘small economy of the shoykhet’ tells us how.
For each cow slaughtered by Melamed, in 1911 its owner paid the Kehile ‘slaughter dues’ to the amount of 45 cent. The rate for calves was 25 cent and for sheep 15 cent. In later years, Melamed the slaughterer received a flat monthly salary from the Kehile. But in 1911 he was still paid for each animal killed: 35 cent for a cow, 20 for one calf and 15 for a sheep. Thus the Kehile netted ten cent for each cow and five cent for each calf. Melemed’s professional expenses were paid by the Kehile. On 29 June 1911, for example, the treasurer paid him 15 cent for the purchase of stamp ink necessary for authenticating kosher meat.
The numbers were amazing, considering the small size of the Jewish communities concerned. Leizer slaughtered in Oldenzaal itself, but also in nearby Losser, Denekamp and Ootmarsum. The combined Jewish population in this corner of the Twente region was some three hundred in the early twentieth century. During the first six months of 1911 the Oldenzaal Kehile received a total in slaughter dues of 96.80 guilders for 165 cows, 83 calves, 11 sheep and one goat. This amounts to a weekly average of six cows, three calves and half a sheep. The three hundred Jews did not eat all of this kosher meat – quite a few gentile families preferred to ‘buy kosher’ as well, because of its quality and, as we would say today, food safety. Amsterdam provides an indication. In this city ten percent of the population was Jewish. By the time when de German rulers over the Netherlands outlawed shekhita, 31 July 1940, about fifty percent of all meat sold in Amsterdam was kosher slaughtered.
Could he manage, Leizer, this combination of three different jobs? There are indications that as shoykhet he had help. On 10 July 1911 the Kehile treasurer paid an anonymous ‘assistant shoykhet’ the sum of 12.50 guilders for the first half year, just over two guilders per month. Melamed’s average monthly shoykhet income during this period had been thirteen guilders. Adding his shames salary, the Kehile paid him on average around twenty guilders per month, less than one third of the rabbi’s salary. The Kehile’s net income from slaughter dues was a meagre three guilders.
Postscript I, May 2013
A short version of the Leizer Melamed story was posted on this website on 24 May 2013. On the basis of his Netherlands marriage certificate, it stated that Leizer Melamed’s parents were Sholem Melamed and Sheine Lewin. Within hours, the publication drew excited responses from members of the worldwide Melmed family originating in Lithuania. The author was happily surprised to receive emails in which he was told that he had found a missing son of the family. According to John and Mark Melmed in the USA, direct descendants from a brother (Solomon Melamed) of Leizer’s grandfather Izrael, Leizer had seven siblings. They carried the wonderful names of Liba; Lipe Rivke; Tone; Tsesne Leia; Khaia Rokha; Iankel Meir; and Zorukh Melamed. After his departure, Leizer probably never saw them again. During his life in Oldenzaal he will have missed them.
Postscript II, November 2013
Ben van Benthem was nine years old when in about 1939 he met Leizer Melamed. Ben grew up in Oldenzaal, now he lives with his wife Marie in Hengelo. I went to see him to hear what he remembers…
“I was a nine years old boy when the painter Melamed came to paint our house at Hyacinth street. I remember him vividly and when much later I saw a picture of him, I recognized him immediately. What I saw? A man of about my current length, say five and a half feet (1,70 m.). I was young. I can still picture his painter’s outfit, a long white shirt, a coat maybe, reaching down over his knees. That was the painter’s uniform in those days. I have a picture, not of Melamed but of my uncle Gait who was a painter as well. It shows him with three men in the same long white painter’s outfit. It tells you what Melamed looked like.
“And when in the afternoon work was done for the day, he started rolling the shirt from below his knees up to his waist, his jacket went over it, he buttoned it, mounted his bike and rode home. End of the working day.
Bar mitzvah – boy’s entrance to the Jewish community
Halaf – long slaughter knife, sakin in Hebrew
Kehile – local Jewish community
Mikve – ritual bath
Minyanim (pl.) – small synagogues
Shabes – sabbath, saturday
Shames – beadle of a synagogue
Shekhita – ritual slaughter
Shoykhet – ritual slaughterer, pl. shokhtim
Shtiblakh (pl.) – small synagogues
Shul – synagogue
Yeshiva – religious academy
H. Beem, De verdwenen mediene. Kol Hakohol Hakodousj Hazee. Amsterdam, Joachimsthal 1950 (picture Joseph Bamberger)
Cash book, Jewish Community of Oldenzaal, 1911-1932
Jozeph Michman, Hartog Beem, Dan Michman, Pinkas. Geschiedenis van de joodse gemeenschap in Nederland. Translated from Hebrew Ruben Verhasselt. Ede/Antwerpen/Amsterdam, Kluwer & NIK 1992
Orde van den buitengewonen dienst ter gelegenheid der viering van het 50-jarig bestaan der Synagoge te OLDENZAAL op Zaterdagmiddag 26 Tisjrie (18 October) 5691. [NIK Oldenzaal], Drukkerij N.V. v.h. Van Creveld & Co., 1930
Joseph Rosin, “Panevezys, Lithuania” at kehilalinks.jewishgen.org
Oldenzaal city archives
Bart Wallet, 13 December 2011 on the history of shekhita in The Netherlands
G.J.J.W. Weustink, Uit de geschiedenis der joden van Oldenzaal. Uitg. Noreg, z.pl., 1990
© John Löwenhardt
The Hague, 3 June 2013
- The city is also known under the names of Ponevezh [Russian], Ponevez [Yiddish], Poniewież [Polish], Ponewiesch [German], Panevēža [Latvian], Panevezhis, Panevezio Velzis, Ponavezh, Ponevetz, Ponivez, Ponowitcz, Ponyevez, Pounivez, Punaviz. [JewishGen Communities Database]