Day 16: Chelm – Wise Men

by Zack on August 19, 2010

The town of Chelm decided to build a new synagogue. So, some strong, able-bodied men were sent to a mountaintop to gather heavy stones for the foundation. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain to the town below. When they arrived, the town constable yelled, “Foolish men! You should have rolled the stones down the mountain!” The men agreed this was an excellent idea. So they turned around, and with the stones still on their shoulders, trudged back up the mountain, and rolled the stones back down again.

Chelm is a town of almost 70,000 in the east of Poland, less than 30 Kilometers from the Ukraine border.  It has a a storied role in Jewish folklore as a town of simpletons – as the joke above should illustrate.

Jewish authors as Fiddler on the Roof’s Sholom Aleichem popularized the humor of the town through there writings. This humor – which offered absurd solutions to very easy problems like rolling a stone down a hill – earned the inhabitants the nickname “The Wise Jewish Men of Chelm.”

While the city once had a thriving Jewish life, today that life has been all but wiped off the map by World War II and its legacy. We spent about 20 hours in Chelm, filming the old Synagogue, the old cemetery and some scenes from life today.

The trip may seem an odd excursion – indeed someone in Krakow asked why we were even going – but it was a town Joseph passed through with the group on their way to Warsaw in September of 1920. And therefore, was worth visiting. It also, I should note, plays a significant role in the screenplay version of this story.

Tonight we set off for Ukraine. What will await us? Stay tuned!

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