Each synagogue employed a Shammes (sexton) to manage the building’s facilities. His job included looking after the prayer books, preparing the Torah scrolls for use, lighting candles before the Sabbath, helping the rabbi, and waking men for morning prayers. The matzevas of two people who held this position, Abraham Eliezer Templer and Joseph Schmalzer, have survived in this cemetery.
In addition to being a Shammes, Josef Schmalzer had another important function. He publicly announced the Hebrew names of newborn girls during a service in synagogue several days after their birth – whereas the Hebrew names of boys were publicly announced at their circumcision, which would normally take place at home on the eighth day following their birth.
Jews believe that Hebrew names are not a random set of letters; they reflect the essence of one’s soul and the parents’ spiritual aspirations for the child – the child’s bond with previous generations of the family and hopes for the future. Naming a child is thus a profoundly religious act.
Ashkenazi Jews (including those from pre-war Galicia) have a custom of naming a child after a deceased relative. As a result, the name and memory remain alive and, metaphysically, create a bond between the child’s soul and the deceased relative. It is a great honour for the deceased because his soul can rise up based on the good deeds of the namesake. At the same time, the child can draw inspiration from the good qualities of the deceased and develop a deep connection with the past.
In Jewish tradition, it is the parents who choose the Hebrew names for their children. However, during the ceremony in the synagogue it is the Shammes who pronounces the blessing over the newborn baby-girl and announces her name to the congregation. This was the role of Josef Schmalzer.
Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that Josef Schmalzer was the grandfather of Mala Zimetbaum, a brave young woman who was murdered in Auschwitz. You can read about Mala in a separate article on our website.
Josef Schmalzer died in Brzesko on May 25, 1925 at the age of 84. He served his community as a Shammes for over 30 years. He and his wife, Gittel née Neumewirth, had 11 children, four of whom died in infancy. Most of the remaining children and grandchildren of Josef Schmalzer were murdered in the Holocaust.
The epitaph on the tombstone of Josef Schmalzer was deciphered and translated into English by his great-grandson Moses Englander:
An honest and innocent man, old and esteemed,
Loved Torah scholars
And huddled in their shadow,
Sat in the tent of the Torah
and pursued the commandments of God,
His soul rose to Heaven,
The exalted, our teacher Rabbi
Son of our teacher Yaakov
Deceased Rosh Chodesh Sivan 685,
May his soul be bound in the bundle of life
© Anna Brzyska, 2022