The Real Chelm

August 2, 2011 | By

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The town of Chelm has long existed in the Jewish imagination as a popular destination–the “city of fools” immortalized in folktales, mostly for the ridiculous behavior of its fictional inhabitants.

Many Chelm stories were written by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Others have been told and retold so often that their authors have been forgotten (to check out some of those stories, go here). In sad homage to the Chelm tradition, Nathan Englander’s story “The Tumblers” tells of the villagers, including some of Singer’s characters, being sent off to Nazi concentration camps.

Most people think Chelm only exists in our heads. But Chelm is a real place–a small city in Poland (pop. 67,702), founded in the year 981. In the 18th century Chelm experienced a brief renaissance, and many Jews moved to the area. During World War II, most of Chelm’s Jewish population was murdered at the Sobibor concentration camp. Today, the city is an industrial center, and its Jewish population is almost nonexistent. But the stories of Chelm keep alive a place that has played a noteworthy role in the Jewish imagination; a wacky, wild, and–yes–wise place where nothing is as it seems.

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